Beowulf: A new translation by Seamus Heaney
 
Again this week, from 9:45am – 10:00am daily, BBC Radio 4 is paying tribute to Seamus Heaney, “Nobel Prize-winning poet, internationally recognised as one of the greatest contemporary voices who passed away [last] month at the age of 74.” by broadcasting a recording of the poet reading from his translation of Beowulf. More here and in our Sixth century Anglo-Saxon warrior and horse skeletons to go on display feature here. While listening to the programme last week one word caught our attention – torque.
 
After Grendel’s defeat, Beowulf is showered with gifts – among them, “…hrægl ond hringas, healsbeaga…” Michael Alexander, in his rendering of Beowulf, translates the passage as “…robes and rings, and the richest collar…” while Seamus Heaney in his rendering translates the passage as, “…a mail-shirt of rings, and the most resplendent torque of gold…”
 
Sweet’s Student’s Dictionary of Anglo-Saxon defines healsbeaga as a necklace; torque, (‘heals’ being ‘neck’ and ‘beaga’ a ‘ring’ – in other words a neck-ring). We can’t recall ever seeing a torque associated with any Anglo-Saxon hoard or burial (though there might be) and wonder if the idea of a torque in Beowulf harks back to an earlier time when there was more interaction between the Germanic tribes and the ‘Celts’. Beowulf, though written down in the eighth century, dates to an earlier oral version from the fifth century at least.
 
There’s something else that’s interesting about the neck-ring (torque) in Beowulf. The poet goes out of the way to emphasise that it was, “…the most resplendent torque of gold I ever heard tell of anywhere on earth or under heaven. (Heaney). Michael Alexander continues with, “Never under heaven have I heard of a finer prize among heroes – since Hama carried off the Brisling necklace to his bright city, that gold-cased jewel…”* Furthermore, the Beowulf poet goes into a sub-plot at this stage, summed up by Heaney when he says, “Gifts presented, including the torque: Beowulf will present in due course to King Hygelac, who will die wearing it.”
 
So there seems to be a bit of specialness associated with this gold gift to the Geats, which perhaps isn’t all that surprising when we remember that there were pieces of Roman glass and two, 1st century pierced (possibly Corieltavi) gold staters which were used as pendants and which were found in the 7th century Saxon Princess’ burial at Street House in North Yorkshire. The question is, was this a torque or a necklace? A torque does seem the more likely for a warrior to wear…
 
* The Brisling, or Brisingamen, necklace belonged to Freya, “…a magical necklace reputedly made of amber and rubies…”