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Do we need another Beowulf? Hasn’t our culture had enough of muscular Nordic warriors flinging themselves into battle and generously dispensing loot to their fighting buddies? Judging by this century’s steady stream of new Beowulfs — at least five new translations, five films, and a couple of TV series (including a ongoing Amazon Prime vehicle) — demand for gritty monster-killing remains high. But, while it seems you can’t swing a severed ogre’s arm without hitting a new Beowulf, Maria Dahvana Headley’s breathtakingly audacious and idiomatically rich Beowulf: A New Translation is a breath of iconoclastically fresh air blowing through the old tale’s stuffy mead-hall atmosphere.
It’s a familiar story: Hrothgar, lord of the Spear-Danes, finds his newly built royal residence terrorized by the monstrous Grendel (descendent of Cain, the first murderer). His stalwart warriors are but hors-d’oeuvres to Grendel, until the Geatish hero Beowulf arrives and wrestles the monster barehanded, tearing off his arm. When Grendel’s mother, a kind of aquatic ogress, returns for revenge, Beowulf tracks her to her underwater lair and kills her. Fifty years later Beowulf, now the aged king of the Geats, faces a dragon ravaging his land. Aided by the young Wiglaf, he kills the dragon, but dies of the wounds it has inflicted.
The unknown poet who wrote Beowulf sometime between the 8th and 10th centuries weaves a remarkable tapestry around these events: the mythical origins of the Spear-Danes, interpolated episodes and epic songs describing various battles, foreshadowings of the fates of Hrothgar’s and Beowulf’s kingdoms, and philosophical reflections on the brevity of life and the longevity of fame. Underlying it all is the stark tension between the warrior ethos of these old northern swordsmen and the tenets of the poet’s relatively novel Christianity — and, as importantly, the tension between the warrior-king’s desire for individual glory and his role as the guardian of his people, the latter his social responsibility.
For all of these intricacies, Beowulf is at heart an adventure story, and Headley’s is a decidedly feminist interpretation of this most testosterone-drenched narrative. This is evident at the poem’s iconic first word. “Hwæt!” is usually taken as an interjection, and rendered with an anodyne “Lo!,” “Hark!,” or “Listen!” Seamus Heaney, connecting the word to the speech habits of his own Irish relations, translates it as “So.” An out-of-date hipster might have it as “Yo!” For Headley, “Hwæt!” is “Bro!,” both a call to attention and a signal that these verses are a man speaking to other men.
Headley’s Dark Age society is structured on male power, male violence, and male privilege. The songs of the poets — “howling of harps, squawking of scops” — are, in her words, really just “Men recounting the history of men like them.” Commenting on how Scyld Scefing’s heir secures his succession, Headley writes:
A smart son gives
gifts to his father’s friends in peacetime.
When war woos him, as war will,
he’ll need those troops to follow the leader.
Privilege is the way men prime power,
the world over.
Headley pays especial attention to the poem’s female characters: the queens giving brief speeches, the women bartered off into dynastic marriages in the subsidiary stories. Grendel’s mother, in most translations a monster little different from Grendel himself, here becomes a female warrior fighting a legally sanctioned “blood feud” — as Hrothgar says, “a woman / seeking vengeance for her son.”
Most strikingly, Headley has decided to make the dragon — “he” or “it” for most translators — female, so that Beowulf’s final battle becomes not merely a test of human bravery against chthonic forces, but the elimination of an unpredictable and awesome feminine force, one described in terms of striking grace: “Never again / would she soar through a starry / sky, revel in rising rhapsody, rolling in and out / of clouds and mist, a raging rainbow, glinting golden.”
If the poem ends in an apotheosis of masculine grief and display — the firing of Beowulf’s treasure-piled burial pyre and the building of his enormous memorial cairn — Headley is careful to set apart a Geatish woman’s “uninvited” lament, her recognition that with the king’s death his country lies open to invasion and despoliation, hardships that will, as always, fall hardest on women:
She tore her hair and screamed her horror
at the hell that was to come: more of the same.
Reaping, raping, feasts of blood, iron fortunes
marching across her country, claiming her body.
The sky sipped the smoke and smiled.
The Old English verse of Beowulf is highly formalized: a four-stress line, a central caesura, stressed alliterations. Headley doesn’t attempt to reproduce the verse form. She makes ample use of alliteration (without necessarily tying it to stressed syllables, as the original does), and she sprinkles her verses with rhyme, knitting them together like a freestyle rapper. For instance, Beowulf prepares to fight the dragon:
The ring-collector was too proud to bring a war-band,
to march an army against the firmament flier.
His plan would be his pyre — he imagined the dragon
a dimwit, clocking neither her courage nor her grit.
Ring/bring, flier/pyre, dimwit/grit: Headley is as much in love with language as was the poet she translates — or “adapts,” some would say, though aside from matters of diction (and occasional judgmental interpolations) her version stays remarkably close to the details of the original text.
But that diction! From the very first “Bro!” Headley studs her version with slang, with obscenities, with the most up-to-date argot. “Anyone who fucks with the Geats? Bro, they have to fuck with me,” says her Beowulf. “They’re asking for it, and I deal them death.” “I have suffered extremes / and avenged the Geats (their enemies brought it / on themselves, I devastated them),” says Seamus Heaney’s translation, rather more decorously. Some of Headley’s innovations might not outlast the decade, as when she describes Hrothgar’s queen Wealhtheow as “Hashtag: blessed.” But most of them succeed brilliantly (“Meanwhile, Beowulf gave zero shits”).
Part of the freshness of Headley’s Beowulf involves the poem’s very distance from us — and not just the 12 or 13 centuries since its composition. For one thing, it’s in a foreign language: with a little determination a modern reader can make out Chaucer’s Middle English, but Old English is every bit as alien as Dutch or Norwegian. In addition, there’s the poem’s curiously “belated” status. Heaney, in the introduction to his 1999 translation, calls Beowulf “one of the foundation works of poetry in English.” That’s not quite right, certainly not in the sense that Homer or Virgil are “foundation works” of European literature, continuously studied, translated, and adapted. Beowulf exists in a single manuscript (ca. 1,000 CE), known mostly to antiquarians before the beginning of the 19th century. The intense interest in Beowulf since then reflects the English desire to find a foundational epic for England’s literary tradition — even if it had been unknown, and of no influence at all, for some 800 years.
Headley has quite deliberately recast her distant and alien original to reflect contemporary concerns, taking license in the fact that she is neither an academic medievalist nor an “accredited” poet; she’s an author of fantasy fiction. (Her most recent novel, The Mere Wife, is itself an adaptation of Beowulf.) And Beowulf is certainly a “foundation work” of contemporary fantasy fiction. J. R. R. Tolkien was probably the greatest Beowulf scholar of his time; one can read The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings — both shot through with plot motifs and details from the poem — as extended fantasias on Beowulf, and the worldwide popularity of those novels spurred the development of the fantasy fiction genre. (Alas, Tolkien’s own 1926 prose translation of Beowulf, finally published in 2014, is pretty much unreadable: an endless, dreary slog of just the sort of archaic diction that Headley decisively rejects.)
Headley comes to Beowulf with a fantasist’s enthusiasm for the distant and ancient — for shining dragons, life-and-death struggles in underwater grottoes glittering with hoarded plunder. She has a deep affection for the poem’s verbal delights, and the sensibilities of a 21st-century woman, who sees in this classic work “a poem about willfully blinkered privilege, about the shock and horror of experiencing discomfort when one feels entitled to luxury.” “Beowulf,” she writes, “is a manual for how to live as a man, if you are, in fact, more like the monsters than the men.” It’s a mark of the success of her rambunctious, irreverent, and deeply loving Beowulf that each of the poem’s repetitions of the formulaic “That was a good king” evokes more irony, and that beneath the final encomium to the hero —
He was our man, but every man dies.
Here he is now! Here our best boy lies!
He rode hard! He stayed thirsty! He was the man!
He was the man.
— we hear the lament of the Geatish woman from 30 lines before: “She tore her hair and screamed her horror / at the hell that was to come: more of the same.”