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Beowulf: a New Verse Translation
by Seamus Heaney

Field-Tested by Alice Maggio

in Washington Island, Wisconsin

That August I traded the sticky humidity of Chicago for the chill of Northern Wisconsin, visiting relatives on Washington Island. I was reading Beowulf, and not for the first time. But, reading an Old English poem set in Scandinavia while on a wooded island home to the oldest Icelandic settlement in the United States became something transformative.

Like the Geats, over the waves, with the wind swirling around me, and the spray of Lake Michigan at my neck, I crossed Death's Door from Gills Rock to the island. No guard greeted my family and me on shore, but we unloaded our gear from the ferry and hurried on to the wooden cabin where we were expected.

As I read the poem in our own timbered hall that night, the monstrous hell-bride, Grendel's mother, came to Heorot, and the blood of Hrothgar's men filled my thoughts. Then someone suggested going down to the lake. So I followed the ancient hero, Beowulf, into the dark, and made my slow way down the path through the tangle of tree-roots to the edge of the water.

A full moon hung heavy in the sky, and I sensed the shapes of my uncles, brother, and sister joining me on the rocks. We talked little and only in the hushed tones reserved for the dark, because, in that place, we well could believe in the fatherless creatures, the ones that “dwell apart among wolves on the hills, on windswept crags and treacherous kreshes.” We heeded the measureless blackness of true night, and one by one, in unspoken agreement, we howled at the moon.

Alice Maggio is a Chicago librarian and writer for Gapers Block, a Chicago-based web publication.

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