British Studies Web Pages



Beowulf triumphs over Harry Potter

But did Seamus Heaney's translation deserve to win the Whitbread prize?

Quite right too, said Robert McCrum in The Observer. It is simply incredible that nine "intelligent, educated people should have any trouble at all in deciding between a critically acclaimed version of a 3,000-line Old English masterpiece and a popularly venerated contemporary fairy tale for articulate ten-year-olds". No one would deny that J.K. Rowling is a "gifted storyteller", but she isn't in the same league as Heaney. The Nobel prize-winner is "a towering figure in the English-speaking world, an incomparable poet and ambassador for our globalised Anglo-Celtic literary culture... He is our Yeats, our Raleigh, our Spenser, a majestic, gracious lyric voyager." Of course his poem is superior to Harry Potter - just as Shakespeare is better than Friends and Beethoven more important than The Beatles. To suggest otherwise is relativism gone mad: a rejection of "memory, history, the Western intellectual tradition and creative continuity".

It was all done "in the great tradition of literary prize givings", said Valentine Low in the Evening Standard. There were smiles and "gracious speeches" for the cameras, but behind the scenes all hell had broken loose. Last week Seamus Heaney was awarded the Whitbread Book of the Year prize for his translation of Beowulf. But the decision was far from unanimous. The judges had been split down the middle, with half preferring J.K. Rowling's hugely successful Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Anthony Holden, leading the anti-Potter camp, threatened to resign from the panel if Rowling won, declaring that it would be a "national disgrace". Novelist Robert Harris retorted that Holden's remark was the most pompous he had ever heard. The argument raged on, and "the air became thick with smoke" as the judges plundered Holden's supply of Benson and Hedges. Dr Eric Anderson, rector of Balliol College, was sent out for extra supplies. Finally, it was Jerry Hall who clinched it. The Texan supermodel plumped for the highbrow option, and Heaney got the prize for the second time.

On the contrary, said Martin Samuel in The Express - it is common sense

Harry Potter at least has the distinction of being readable. Beowulf, by contrast, will bore you rigid. I read it as a teenager "and it is a wonder I reached for a book again". The Viking saga is "responsible for turning more children away from literature than any other writing". I can vouch for that, said A.N. Wilson in The Sunday Telegraph. For "I spent seven years of my life teaching it at Oxford" -seven years "largely wasted". Despite the extravagant claims made on its behalf, Beowulf is just a "rather dull folk tale, set to repetitive verse forms, about a Dark Age Desperate Dan killing fictitious monsters". Its only value is as an antiquarian relic. As for Heaney - he is a "minor talent", fawned over because of his Ulster Catholic roots. His translation is "very poor", filled with "laughable mistakes" and Irish dialect. It won because four or five judges wanted to be thought "highbrow" and instead proved themselves fools. Rowling has at least brought literature alive for a new generation. Beowulf is just a dreary poem by "an Anglo-Saxon dunderhead rendered into Irish blarney".

It's the first European epic - but has anyone actually read it?

Written in Old English around AD 900, Beowulf is the story of a Scandinavian hero who saves the Geats (Danes) from the man-eating monster Grendel and its vicious mother. He brings a 50-year peace to the land and is made king, but later dies while slaying another dragon. Hailed as the first European epic, Beowulf is a set text in many schools and universities. But has anyone actually read it? The Daily Mail asked some well-known writers...

Lord Blake "Never read it. Is it likely that I should have done? Is it likely that I would have read a book that has just been given an award? How would I have had the time to do so? If it was written a long time ago I suppose I could have read it, but I didn't - so what?"

Roy Hattersley "I am pro-Beowulf, it's the origin of the English language. I did read it ages ago but haven't tried Heaney's version. I'm afraid I don't remember the ending -there you go, my ignorance is exposed."

J.G. Ballard "Of course I haven't read it. It is only read by specialists in ancient English, or rather pre-English. It is not something that the average reader would come across. Beowulf doesn't really mean a thing, it's a non-starter. I know about as much about it as I imagine you do."

Alain de Botton "I have never read it and know nothing about it. It always seemed very boring and not the sort of book I've ever had the desire to pull off the shelf. Isn't it about hunting? I hate that sort of stuff."

SOURCE: "The Week"

Produced in Poland by British Council 2003. The United Kingdom's international organisation for educational opportunities and cultural relations. We are registered in England as a charity.