‘Beowulf’ Translated by Maria Dahvana Headley Review: Radical and Refreshing

Beowulf is back, but not as you know it. Headley’s translation is modern, fresh and radical yet captures the battle-cry of the traditional tale.

“I’m the strongest and the boldest, and the bravest and the best. Yes: I mean – I may have bathed in the blood of beasts, netted five foul ogres at once, smashed my way into a troll den and come out swinging, gone skinny-dipping in a sleeping sea and made sashimi of some sea monsters.”

For those unfamiliar with this Old English epic poem, it follows protagonist Beowulf and his mission to rid Hrothgar’s Hall of attacks from the monster Grendel. Once Grendel is defeated, Beowulf defeats Grendel’s mother who is hot with vengeance. With his pledge to the Geats fulfilled, Beowulf returns home a hero and lives to old age before being slain by a dragon. It is one of the oldest examples of English Literature and previous translators include Tolkien and Heaney. 

Headley’s translation has been dubbed a ‘feminist’ Beowulf. Headley writes that she first became enchanted by the epic poem at a young age when she saw an illustration of Grendel’s mother: a fierce, accomplished worrier bent on avenging her son. Headley was later shocked to discover that this trail-blazing character was not the protagonist and that Grendel’s mother is frequently depicted as a mere monster rather than Beowulf’s equal opponent. She states that there is no evidence Grendel’s mother was ever a beast in original versions of the text, and that this is an embellishment bestowed by later translators. Gendel’s father is ‘unknown’ and she speculates that abused women and their children were synonymous with ‘troll-transformations’ in literature. This is perhaps one reason that Grendel and his mother are depicted as inhuman by writers. However, Headley argues that Grendel’s mother is a ‘bereaved mother with a warrior’s skill’ rather than a literal monster. 

‘The sea-wolf had savaged him, everyone agreed, and it was lunchtime’

Early versions of the poem, including one penned by the Venerable Bede, describe Grendel’s mother as ‘ides, aglaec-wif’ or ‘wretch, or monster, of a woman’ or ‘formidable noblewoman’. She is not described physically except to say that she is tall. The Old English for ‘fingers’ (‘fingrum’) is frequently translated as ‘claws’. However, she fights with a knife which would suggest that she does have ‘fingrum’ rather than claws. Rather than describe her as a monster, Headley describes her as an ‘outlaw’, ‘warrior-woman’ and ‘reclusive night-Queen’. Contrary to the perception that this is a ‘feminist’ translation, I wonder if this adaptation takes depictions of women back to the roots of the epic poem and portrays them without the stereotypes and deep-set cultural values of later male writers. Arguably, it is these translations that have an agenda through choosing to embellish Grendel’s mother as a monster. Perhaps Headley has simply removed some of the misconceptions that have accumulated around the language used to describe this formidable woman.

‘Death, no matter our desires, Can’t be distracted. We know this much is true, and it’s true for all souls: each of us will one day find the feast unfinished and, fattened or famished, step slowly backward into their own dark hall for that final night of sleep.’

Headley’s choice of language is also what makes this adaptation feel so vibrant, accessible and original. She repeatedly uses modern colloquialisms such as ‘bro’. Tolkein wrote that translations of Beowulf must be ‘literary’ and ‘traditional’, a point of view that Headley does ‘not agree’ on. She does address the dense, archaic language and the use of metre but also ‘employs the modern sensibilities of a modern poet’. In place of the original ‘hwoet’, which is often translated as ‘hark’, ‘listen’ ‘lo’ or ‘so’, Headley opts for ‘bro’ to saterise the over-confident, aggressive male behaviour detailed in the poem, to command attention and shift narrative perspectives. Beowulf is, after all, ‘a manual for how to live as a man, if you are, in fact, more like the monsters’. 

Headley’s adaptation of the poem is very enjoyable, and I’d recommend it as an introduction to the story in addition to those who wish to continue broadening their understanding of it and are looking for something very refreshing and original. What really strikes me is that the words to communicate stories have changed so much but that story content in general has changed so little since the Anglo Saxon’s first sang of Beowulf in their mead halls. As readers we are still drawn to tales of monsters and men, therefore it’s only fitting that they are also rendered in a language that matches audiences here and now. Original copies of the text are available online at the click of a button – it’s so refreshing to see writers add new twists to old tales.

‘They did all this grieving the way men do, But, bro, no man knows, not me, not you, How to get to goodbye.’

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