Beowulf Retold

WolfeDonald Mace Williams’ “Wolf” sees the ancient epic hero Beowulf don a Stetson and trade his broadsword for a Colt revolver. Ranch hands are a fitting analogue for the warrior-bands of Dark Ages Northern Europe and, though colloquialisms and rhyming couplets give this work a distinctly “cowboy” feel, the poem goes far beyond the novelty of its theme. Amidst the heroism and monster-fights, there is a deep sadness in “Beowulf” — of a people whose fate is uncertain, at the end of an age. In the introduction to his translation of “Beowulf,” Seamus Heaney says of the poem’s ending:

The Geat woman who cries out in dread as the flames consume the body of her dead lord could come straight from a late-twentieth-century news report, from Rwanda or Kosovo; her keen is a nightmare glimpse into the minds of people who have survived traumatic, even monstrous events and who are now being exposed to a comfortless future. We immediately recognize her predicament and the pitch of her grief and find ourselves the better for having them expressed with such adequacy and dignity and unforgiving truth…

Even as the original epic grapples with its monstrous past, so, too does “Wolfe” take up the difficult subject of the settlement of the American West. In one passage, a ranch hand recalls his Colonel ordering them to kill one thousand Indian horses, telling us, “They say / The white bones made, in later years, / A heap like bent and bleaching spears.” From this dark past, the rage of the ancient wolf-like creature standing in for Grendel seems an embodiment of the wild land itself. This sense of weary sadness and regret carries through the heroic deeds and distinctly western theme to elevate “Wolfe” from simple legend into a more complex, human sphere. Musical, compelling, and timeless, Williams has given us an insightful new take on one of the oldest stories in English, fusing it with an honest look at American history.

Why Heaney?

I first encountered Seamus Heaney in person during my undergraduate studies at UC Berkeley. I had originally been admitted to the Electrical Engineering and Computer Science double-major program, having won two of the university’s most prestigious scholarships, been introduced to the Chancellor, assigned a high-ranking advisor from the Engineering faculty, and generally been welcomed to campus as a potential next Bill Gates. This was during the height of the dot-com era, when venture capitalists wooed by the poetic visions of high-tech courtiers flung open (seemingly) bottomless coffers.

Imagine the look on my guidance counselor’s face when I told her that I wanted to transfer into the English department. My grades were good; what was wrong? I told her that I simply wanted to pursue something more — how could I say it? — human. She suggested that I consider a career in the exciting new field of Industrial Engineering and Operations Research.

After signing a legal contract wherein I promised that I would not, under any circumstance, try to beg my way back into the Engineering department, I found myself sitting auditorium-style with three hundred other students, eagerly attending a lecture by Robert Hass. Within minutes, I felt all three hundred students disappear, and I seemed to be sitting fireside with my favorite poetry-loving uncle. Professor Hass mentioned that Seamus Heaney was returning to Berkeley to discuss his new translation of Beowulf, and to read some poems. He encouraged us all to attend.
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