Beowulf, Folio Society, Seamus Heaney’s Translation

{Ed Note:  I asked LibraryThing user ParadigmTree (Thayer) if she would mind writing a review or two for some various Folio Society books, among others. Below is her first, a look at the beautiful Folio Society edition of Beowulf, one of the earliest and most important works in Anglo-Saxon literature.}

In early 2010, the Folio Society (FS) published a fine edition of Beowulf, with Seamus Heaney’s renowned translation.  Beowulf sits somewhere in between the “regular” fine edition titles published by FS and their exquisitely produced limited editions.  To put it simply, this book is stunning.  While not at the same level as the limited editions, it is a finely designed and crafted book that, although not inexpensive, is still far more affordable than many fine press books of this quality.

Beowulf is the oldest surviving Anglo-Saxon epic poem, likely composed sometime between the mid 7th to late 10th century, with the only existing original manuscript dating from around 1000 AD.  Beowulf is the “Hero of the Geats”, and comes to the aid of Hrothgar, the “King of the Danes”, whose hall is under attack by the monster, Grendel.  The poem is a heroic epic that tells of Beowulf’s battles against three monsters: Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and a dragon.

While the story deals with legends and includes many elements of fantasy, scholarship has shown that many of the characters were real people and that the poem includes real historical events that occurred in Scandinavia and the Germanic kingdoms from the 5th to 7th centuries.  Around this time, the Anglo-Saxons were migrating to England from the Germanic kingdoms and brought their legends along with them.  Scholarly opinion differs as to whether or not Beowulf was composed around the same time that it was transcribed, or if it was composed at an earlier time and passed along in the oral tradition, and then transcribed.

Beowulf has been translated from Anglo-Saxon (Old English) to modern English by a number of translators (Wikipedia mentions at least 10 translations).  This Folio Society edition uses the much praised and award winning Seamus Heaney translation.  It includes an introduction by Heaney in which he describes how he became involved with Beowulf and gives background on the translation process.  This edition is done with the original Old English poem on facing pages with Heaney’s translation.

Each page contains decorative borders by illustrator Becca Thorne, which follow traditional Celtic/Anglo-Saxon designs.  Some pages contain larger pictorial borders that emphasize key parts of the poem, such as battles and funerals.  The borders and pictorials are woodcuts (or linocuts – I’m not sure which technique was used), printed in a rich burgundy color which matches the book’s cover.  Thorne’s work employs elegant and organic linework and patterns, which enhances the mythic atmosphere evoked while reading Beowulf.  The paper is nice with a thick feel.  The cover is stunning, quarter-bound in burgundy leather, with burgundy cloth sides, featuring a gold blocked design by Thorne.  Beowulf is set in gold lettering on the spine.  Thorne has designed a stylized FS logo, which is also on the spine.  A slipcase houses the book and features another design by Thorne (what also appears in the book’s frontispiece).

Do I recommend this edition?  Unreservedly!  This is one of my favourite acquisitions from Folio.  It is, in my opinion, a good value in terms of the quality relative to the price. It is an edition truly worthy of showcasing the oldest surviving work in the English language.

About this Edition

  • Text is bilingual on facing pages; Old English (left side) and Seamus Heaney’s translation (right side).
  • Introduction by Nobel Prize winner Seamus Heaney.
  • Binding: Quarter-bound in leather with cloth sides by Lacenmaier, Reutlingen, Germany.
  • The Cover is blocked with a design by Becca Thorne.
  • Gilded top edge.
  • Printed on Schleipen paper at Memminger MedienCentrum AG, Memmingen, Germany.  Set in Imprint.
  • Borders throughout the book and 14 integrated footer illustrations by Becca Thorne.
  • Decorated title page.
  • Size: 11″ × 7¼”, 248 pages
  • Presented in a slipcase with a design from the book’s frontispiece
Beowulf, Folio Society, Slipcase
Beowulf, Folio Society, Book in Slipcase
Beowulf, Folio Society, Slipcase and Book
Beowulf, Folio Society, Cover and Spine
Beowulf, Folio Society, Front Cover
Beowulf, Folio Society, Title Page
Beowulf, Folio Society, Copyright, Colophon and Contents
Beowulf, Folio Society, Copyright, Sample Page with Text and Illustration
Beowulf, Folio Society, Copyright, Second Sample Page with Text and Illustration
Beowulf, Folio Society, Copyright, Third Sample Page with Text and Illustration
Beowulf, Folio Society, Copyright, Fourth Sample Page with Text and Illustration

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