A review of Beowulf, a New Translation by Maria Dahvana Headley

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

a new translation
by Maria Dahvana Headley
Paperback, 5 Jan 2021, 176pp, ISBN(13):9781925713886, RRP:$27.99aud

I don’t recall finding Beowulf fun when I read it in an undergraduate English Lit class. The version I read, in sombre sessions of serious scrutiny, was translated by David Wright, a yellowing Penguin Classic I still own. While there’s nothing wrong with Wright’s translation, one of 688 different versions according to Wikipedia (not counting adaptations into film, theatre, animation, songs, and other multi-media reworks), Maria Dahvana Headley’s version is a whole different creature. I’m sure it’s challenging for translators to manage the line between the local vernacular, with its glory boasting and chest beating, and to make the work palatable to an ever-changing modern audience, but Headley does this perfectly in a way that feels oddly natural, and still true to its origins. The gorgeous kennings (poetically-compressed compound words) are retained throughout the book with such beauties as “Spear-Danes”, “whale-road”, “Life-lord”, “fight-family”, and “sludge-stranded”, to name just a few that appear in the first seven pages. Headley writes about this in her introduction, but her translation of the opening intonation “hwæt” into “Bro”, instead of, for example, Wright’s oracular “Hear!” (or the many other versions that include “So”, “Lo”, “Hark,” and so on), sets a tone for the story that is more casual and inclusive. The reader is drawn in as a conspirator to what feels like an oral rendering rather than a formal pronouncement. Because this comes across as a “telling” rather than a “reading”, the bombast seems funnier and more appropriate. This tone continues through the book, with many asides from the narrator, who says things like “from what I’ve heard”, “I mean, personally?”, and “yes, yes, bro! The man was more than just talk”.  There are a lot of exclamation marks, winks, personal reflections and a relaxed patter that is both ancient and modern simultaneously: “Listen to me, boy. Keep your shit straight. I’ve been fostered by frost-seasons, fathered by time, and I’m dropping knowledge now.” (75)

Nearly all translations of Beowulf pick up on the alliterative rhythms—it’s an inherent part of the work—but Headley’s version combines a unique rap-like rhythm with a baroque richness that that is pure pleasure to read aloud (something I found myself doing just for fun):

I would not be eaten, nor beaten, no skewered swimmer I,
No drowned dinner for a circle of cold companions,
Gobbling my guts, glutted on my gold.
At dawn, I surfaced in a slurry of scales,
Floating flotsam where formerly there’d been fangs. (27)

Headley doesn’t change the overall morality of the work, which is clearly Christian and one that celebrates strength, honour, wealth and the notion that good and evil, like fate, are ordained and outside of man’s control. However, there’s a modern wryness that underpins the work, which never takes itself too seriously. For example, this description of Grendel’s severed hand: “The nails were notorious” (44), or when Beowulf sinks beneath the mere while fighting Grendel’s mother, the men slink off with: “The sea-wolf had savaged him, everyone agreed, and it was lunchtime.” (70)

Headley’s Beowulf is a balanced bar-room bards tale that clearly conveys a sense that Grendel and his mother’s lot is unfair. Grendel is no less a monster given his size, scaly skin, notorious fingernails, and his taste for eating men, but there is also a strong sense of his pain, and the way in which he has been cast out for an accident of birth, being part of ‘Cain’s line’: cursed descendants of a fratricide. Fratricide, however, is not limited to Grendel. There are others in more privileged positions who are also denoted as brother-killers, notably Unferth, who challenges Beowulf’s boasts, and receives a hysterical tongue-lashing from Beowulf in response: “But hold up: I forgot, you’ve got no brothers left.”: 

I’m not even mentioning your sins,
Your kin-killing, your brother-beating:
I’m not the man to damn you.(28)

Unferth doesn’t have much to say in his own defence. But Wealhtheow, Hrothgar’s “Hashtag: blessed” queen whoappears directly afterwards, charms and placates Beowulf in order to ensure her sons and Hrothgar’s nephew are taken care of: “The sole desire of those drinking here,/is to do my bidding when it comes to you.” (54)

Wealhtheow wields a kind of power with her golden goblets which mirrors the rougher strength of Grendel’s mother, who:

ruled these flood lands proudly for
a hundred seasons, ferocious, tenacious, rapacious,
yes she felt his presence in her realm, and knew
a man from above was invading the below. (66)

Grendel’s mother is more than a match for Beowulf, except that he is helped out by a god who “has no trouble levelling the playing field”. She has been portrayed in many different, generally unflattering ways over the years, from troll-like monster, siren, seductress, and Amazonian warrior. Headley’s version is neither sweet nor monstrous, focusing more on the nexus between power and trauma. Grendel’s mother feels an all-too-human pain, and her fight with Beowulf is courageous. She dies “bent as though/praying”. Grendel and his mother are solitary comrades and outsiders to Hrothgar’s mead-soaked gold palace.

Though Grendel is most certainly a villain, the final death of both characters is not without pathos. Thanks to divine intervention, Beowulf wins his battle, but he can’t win everything. Ensuring the peace, keeping the wilderness at bay, and conformance to male-dominated chivalry is an ongoing job in this world where “every castle wants invading”. The wilderness, and pagan mythology (a female force in Headley’s translation) is always ready to burn off the veneer of civilisation, undermining Christian values and masculine pride. The dragon may be vanquished but in this version, we get the sense that it’s only a matter of time before the next monster will rear its gorgeous head and put these posturing princes in their place. Headley’s Beowulf allows the complexity of the original tale to shine through, and doesn’t alter the themes, the rhythm, or the overall atmosphere of the original, even as it creates an entirely novel and juicy version.  What the book shows clearly is that human nature and its relationship to the world is timeless, and Beowulf is also a story about modern life. We may not have literal dragons, but we have plenty of bar-room bombast, metaphorical monsters, and enough inequality to make Beowulf as relevant a tale as it ever was.  This is a version that is highly recommended, not so much to ensure you’re up with your classic education, but rather, for the sheer pleasure of the story and its execution.

There’s nothing quite like reading the book, but for an experience that is almost as pleasurable, you can listen to a ‘marathon’ reading by various celebrities (including the likes of Laurie Anderson, Neil Gaiman, Alan Cumming, and Anika Noni Rose) here: