Author / Translator: Maria Dahvana Headley
Publisher: Scribe UK
This isn’t going to be like my typical reviews or mini-reviews! I am going to give my reaction to the book, what I loved and what I didn’t love, but the majority of this post is going to be a discussion about modern translations of texts like Beowulf, the choices that Maria Dahvana Headley made when translating the book, why she may have made those choices, and how those choices change our reading of the story.
Beowulf is an Old English epic poem and it’s one of the most translated works of Old English literature. It’s a very important piece of literature but we actually know very little about its origins. The manuscript dates to sometime between 975 and 1025 but scholars often debate whether the poem was part of an older oral tradition and written down much later. We’ll never know how old the poem actually is but it’s old. Scholars call the anonymous author of the manuscript the “Beowulf poet” and Beowulf is mostly written in the West Saxon dialect of Old English. Other dialects are present too and, again, this suggests that the poem had a long and complex history before the manuscript was produced.
Beowulf is in the tradition of Germanic heroic legends and the poem consists of 3,182 alliterative lines. Alliterative verse uses alliteration, rather than rhyme, as the principal literary device that drives the meter. In Old English alliterative verse, each line of poetry in Old English consists of two half-lines or verses with a pause or caesura in the middle of the line. Here’s an example from Beowulf:
monegum maégþum | meodosetla oftéah1
You can clearly see the alliteration and the pause between each half of the line. Many translations do not retain the alliterative verse (and some don’t render it as a poem at all) and Maria Dahvana Headley’s Beowulf is one of those translations.
I’m going to quickly summarise the plot of Beowulf before moving on to the review portion of this post. It’s a poem about three battles. Beowulf, a hero of the Geats, comes to the aid of Hrothgar, the king of the Danes, whose mead hall in Heorot has been under attack by the monster Grendel. Grendel is a descendent of Cain which makes him evil. Beowulf slays him and everyone rejoices. That’s the first battle. Grendel’s mother, who is never given a name, attacks the hall in revenge and Beowulf also defeats her in the second battle of the poem. Beowulf goes home to Geatland (Götaland in modern Sweden) and becomes king of the Geats. The poem skips fifty years to Beowulf’s final battle against a dragon in his homeland. He defeats the dragon but is mortally wounded in the battle and he dies. After his death, his attendants cremate his body and erect a tower on a headland in his memory.
This edition is like no other translation of Beowulf that I have ever read. Headley was trying to do something new with the poem, something transformative, and she definitely achieved that. Headley’s Beowulf is a vibrant and dynamic poem and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.
Headley mixes modern slang with rather archaic terms which should make the poem disjointed but it doesn’t. It works for some reason. In some ways, this also makes the poem more accessible as Headley uses slang and swearing to emphasise the tone and the mood of the poem in certain areas. Some of my favourite lines were:
Even ghosts must be fitted to fight.2
War was the wife Hrothgar first wed. Battles won, / treasures taken.3
Anyone who fucks with the Geats? Bro, they have to fuck with me. / They’re asking for it, and I deal them death.4
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.5
I also liked the way Headley reimagines Grendel and Grendel’s mother. Sometimes, these characters are portrayed as ‘monsters’ or supernatural beings (like werewolves) but Headley humanises them. Literally. They’re just people in Headley’s Beowulf. Grendel is just a man and his mother is both a fierce woman and a grieving mother. Headley’s version of Grendel’s mother as a badass warrior woman has seen this translation labelled as a feminist translation – which is cool – but what Headley really does is humanises those who have been outcast from society and that is what makes this a feminist translation of Beowulf as feminist literature often seeks to give a voice to those who have been denied one.
I really loved Headley’s introduction to Grendel’s mother:
There was another chapter. An avenger lay in wait,
counting sworded seconds until the latest hour,
her heart full of hatred. Grendel’s mother,
warrior-woman, outlaw, meditated on misery.
She lived, ill-fated, sinking beneath cold currents
to her kingdom under-country, her line linked
to extinction since Cain crossed swords with Abel
and fled, murder-marked, to make his home
in wastelands, solitary and silent.6
It’s a terrific introduction for a formidable character but it’s also trying to instil a sense of sympathy within the reader. ‘Mediated on misery’ is a fantastic line and ‘ill-fated’ makes us think that she doesn’t deserve the monstrous treatment that she’s about to receive. I mean, she does murder several men in the upcoming lines but hey, she’s grieving.
I always find the final part of Beowulf rather boring and Headley’s version didn’t change that. I don’t know why I feel like this about the final section. I mean, it’s Beowulf’s dramatic final battle and his honourable death scene so it should be somewhat exciting. I’ve just never been enthralled by it.
After reading Headley’s Beowulf, I found myself asking a few questions. I want to use those questions to discuss my reaction to Beowulf, both as a reader and as a scholar.
- Is this a translation or a version of Beowulf? What’s the difference?
- Does my academic opinion differ from my general opinion? If it does, why?
- Who would I recommend this to?
Headley’s choice of language immediately told me that this wasn’t going to be a ‘critical’ edition of the text. There are also no footnotes, the introduction is about Headley’s experience as a translator rather than the historical context of Beowulf or an explanation of the themes, and there are no appendices but the language is the main focal point of this edition and the mixture of modern and archaic language really sets this apart from other editions of the text. There is nothing wrong with that. At all. In fact, I’d like to see more critical editions start with ‘Bro’ and include a liberal use of ‘fuck’ and it’s many derivatives. Headley gave us a translation of Beowulf based upon her own research and her own reading of the text and it’s still an academic venture. However, Headley’s translation feels new and revitalised. The choices that Headley made when it comes to the language she used indicate, to me, that she was trying to convey the vibe – the emotion, the mood, the atmosphere – of the poem.
It is definitely a translation but sometimes it also felt like a new version of Beowulf. A retelling, an adaptation. I think this is mainly because of the way that Headley reimagines Grendel and his mother because that was the most transformative aspect of Headley’s Beowulf. It makes sense that Grendel’s mother plays such a huge role in this specific translation because Headley states in the introduction that her ‘love affair’ with Beowulf began when she encountered an illustration of Grendel’s mother.7 She goes on to say:
She had a ferocious look and seemed to give precisely zero fucks, not that I had that language to describe her at that point in my life. […] She was just a woman with a weapon, all by herself in the center of the page. I imagined she was the point of whatever story she came from. When I finally encountered the actual poem, years later, I was appalled to discover that Grendel’s mother was not only not the main event but also, to many people, an extension of Grendel rather than a character unto herself, despite the significant ink devoted to her fighting capabilities.8
Headley’s reimagining of Grendel’s mother is a very personal endeavour as she set out to give the character that sparked her love of this old epic poem more of a story and more of a presence. In a way, it’s an ode to Grendel’s mother, the sword-wielding water witch that dares to take on the hero.
From an academic standpoint, Headley’s Beowulf actually left me really conflicted. I think it’s an excellent addition to the collection of Beowulf translations that are out there and I’d definitely recommend reading it because it is a fantastic poem but I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it to someone who is reading Beowulf for the first time. I feel like this translation should be read alongside others (as all translations should be) and it’d be useful as a comparison to more conventional translations — like Michael Alexander’s verse translation* — or even popular translations, like Seamus Heaney’s*.
Saying that, I find it very difficult to compare this to other translations because I don’t think Headley was trying to do the same thing as some other translations. It’d just be an interesting exercise to look at this translation alongside others and examine the differences and how those differences change your reading of the poem. I might do that one day with the editions I own.
Reading Headley’s translation of Beowulf was a fantastic experience because it’s clearly the translation of a twenty-first-century woman who is interpreting this ancient tale in her own way. She hasn’t rewritten this poem but she has reimagined it for herself and for a new generation of readers.
If you enjoyed this post or found it interesting then please consider supporting me on ko-fi or, if you’re interested in the other books I’ve been talking about this month, check out my bookshop.org* list which features all of the books I’ve mentioned during my Women’s History Month 2021 posts.
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1. Beowulf via heorot.dk/beowulf-rede-text.html
2. Maria Dahvana Headley, Beowulf: A New Translation (London: Scribe UK, 2020), p.24
3. Headley, p.24
4. Headley, p.35
5. Headley, p.116
6. Headley, p.60
7. Headley, p.7
8. Headley, p.7
1. The first folio of the heroic epic poem Beowulf (c.975 – 1025) – British Library, Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, ff 94r–209v
2. An illustration of Grendel’s mother trying to stab Beowulf from Stories of Beowulf by J.R. Skelton (1908)
3. Death of Beowulf by J.R. Skelton (1908)