Books

Maria Dahvana Headley
Beowulf: A New Translation

Maria Dahvana Headley had her first introduction to Beowulf at the age of eight. Flicking through an illustrated compendium of monsters, she found a drawing of Grendel’s mother, who, in the poem, seeks bloody revenge for the execution of her son. “She had a ferocious look and seemed to give precisely zero fucks,” writes the author in her introduction to Beowulf: A New Translation.

Yet as Headley grew older, she was horrified to learn that Grendel’s mother was treated as a side character – one who, despite her abilities, was viewed as a freak. As Headley notes: “My own experiences as a woman tell me it’s very possible to be mistaken for monstrous when one is only doing as men do: providing for and defending oneself.”

In order to rectify this, Headley released her critically acclaimed novel The Mere Wife in 2018, which, in a modern reimagining, put Beowulf’s female characters front and centre. Now she has gone one step further: publishing her own bold and fabulous feminist translation of the Old English epic, imbuing it with self-assured pluckiness and flair.

This Beowulf is a joy to read: Headley has loosened herself from the shackles of stuffy scholarship and archaic language (although do not be fooled – she is adept at understanding her source material) to provide a rollicking good yarn.

Part of what makes the translation so compelling is clear, contemporary vocabulary and salty slang. At times this can be jarring: I cringed at a character being described as “hashtag: blessed”. Mostly, however, Headley’s nod to oral traditions not only works but sings; “bro” and “dude” are used to call the reader to attention, as if the poet were standing, drunk, in an American bar.

It helps, too, that Headley has a natural knack for ballads and a poet’s heart. Wind sends a boat of warriors surging “with a foam-feathered throat”; Beowulf himself boasts of going skinny-dipping in a sleeping sea and making “sashimi of some sea monsters”.

This Beowulf reminded me of the TV show Game of Thrones: full of tall tales and grotesque ogres, boasting and just deserts, gore and camaraderie. But there is also pathos. The portrayal of death, in particular – “Each of us will one day / find the feast finished and, fattened or famished, / step slowly backward into their own dark hall / for that final night of sleep” – has stayed with me, long after the monsters have faded away.

Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore

Scribe, 176pp, $27.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jan 23, 2021 as "Maria Dahvana Headley, Beowulf: A New Translation".

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Reviewer: Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore