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Book Review: Beowulf: A New Translation, by Maria Dahvana Headley

Beowulf: A New Translation
By Maria Dahvana Headley
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020
ISBN: 9780374110031

Reviewed by Thelma Trujillo

We have all been dazzled, tormented, or utterly unmoved by the Old English epic poem, Beowulf. Composed between the seventh and tenth century CE, the poem was transcribed in a single manuscript, now known as “The Nowell Codex,” and bound to other tales of distant monsters and marvels such as the Wonders of the East and Alexander’s Letter to Aristotle. The origin of the poem is unknown, and the lines between history-legend, pagan-Christian, and past-present are blurred. This ambivalent geardagum (by-gone days) setting, where the Old English poet recreates a past in a different context, poses a temporally complex, transhistorical and transcultural reimagining (whew!) that is hard to recover by any modern scholar or reader. Therefore, each translation of Beowulf (and there are many) adds its own anachronistic filter—either through language, scholarly and personal experience(s), or the politics of our time. Moreover, the translator plays another role: that of the poet or scop. Derived from the Old English verb scieppan, to shape, Maria Dahvana Headley as both scop and translator shapes this imaginary kingdom into a familiar landscape where “monster killing, border closing, and hoard clinging” still exists (xxxiv).

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Headley is an American novelist and editor best known for her novel, The Mere Wife, a modern-retelling of the Beowulf legend that centers the perspective of Grendel’s mother, Dana, an American veteran soldier living on the outskirts of a posh, suburb called “Heorot Hall.” She appropriates the legend of Beowulf once again in her translation of the poem; however, unlike her novel, there are only a few nuances between the Old English poem and Headley’s new translation. Most notably, Headley fuses Old English language and poetry devices with contemporary idiom and slang, noting that “Language is a living thing and when it dies, it leaves bones. I dropped some fossils here, next to some newborns” (xx). One example of this fusion between dead and “newborn” language occurs when Unferth challenges Beowulf’s honor and scolds him for his swimming match with Breca:

Bro, do you happen to be the Beowulf
who challenged Breca in the open ocean,
insisting you should swim in shark-seas
for no reason but to prove your petty prowess? . . .

I heard that no one could convince you two of clarity,
swearing you knew the currents better than any other,
and that you, swole as a troll fed on travelers,
were superior to any swell.
(lines 504-7, 509-13)

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Here, Headley maintains the alliteration, rhyme, and kennings distinguished by Old English poetry. The combination of contemporary terms such as “Bro,” “petty,” and “swole” can be jarring at times, but for a poem centered on masculinity and the homosocial, comitatus bond—this translation makes sense. Headley asserts that this use of the word Bro “keeps us thinking of the ways that family can be sealed by formulation, the ways that men can afford (or deny) one another power and safety by using coded language, and erase women from power structures by speaking collegially only to other men” (xxi). The bros in the mead hall, their boasts and competitive conversations, are not much different from the bar-hopping bros we encounter in any college town. This connection between the archaic and contemporary language used by men/bros of the past and present further ridicules the unsatiable thirst for glory in this heroic poem.

Despite the gendered language and hierarchy in Beowulf, Headley attempts to center female power by characterizing Grendel’s mother as human rather than monstrous. Previous translations of this character have emphasized her monstrosity, for example, Grendel’s mother has been described as an “ogress/inhuman troll wife” (Tolkien 1926), “that female horror/hungry fiend” (Raffel 1963), “ugly troll lady” (Trask 1997), and “monstrous hell-bride/swamp-thing from hell” (Heaney 1999). Headley asserts that these translations downplay the fact that like the men of Heorot Hall, she too lives in a hall, owns weapons, and can fight and follow blood-feud rules (xxiii). When she first appears in the Old English poem, Grendel’s mother is characterized as ides (woman), aglæcwif (ferocious fighter), and yrmþ (wretched, distressed). The Old English word aglæcwif has been debated by many scholars, like Frederick Klaber and Angus Cameron, who have noted that aglæcwif is the feminine form of aglæca, a masculine noun meaning formidable opponent or fighter.

Although this Old English word has often appeared in texts concerning monsters and devils, it has also been used to reference Sigemund and Bede (humans!). Other terms used to describe Grendel’s mother are brimwylf (seawolf), fingrum (often translated as “claws” although “finger” is also an option), and merewif (ocean-woman). These latter descriptors have been used to assert the monstrosity of Grendel’s mother. In Headley’s translation, though, the human qualities of this female figure are not denied:

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Grendel’s mother,
warrior-woman, outlaw, meditated on misery.
She lived, ill-fated, sinking beneath the 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
(lines 1257-64).

In this passage, she combines the Old English words ides and aglæcwif and retains much of the poem’s original content; however, she adds a new descriptor to the Grendel family’s underwater abode. Headley also refers to their home as a “kingdom.” Considering that blood-feuds and lineage-anxiety are salient themes in this heroic poem, it makes sense that Grendel’s mother is a participant within this same system—she avenges the death of her only offspring and attempts to kill the man who intrudes upon her kingdom. In this context, there is nothing monstrous about this, except that in relation to the other women in the poem, none of them use their grief as a catalyst for retribution.

There is also nothing gendered about the fight scene between Grendel’s mother and Beowulf (other translators have emphasized that Beowulf’s sword penetrates its victim), but in this translation, we have “a horror [not] muted by the measure of women’s strength against man’s brawn. Both can hold slaying swords, glazed with gore, and score the boar-crests from war-helmets, warming them with blood” (line 1284-88). All translations have suggested that Beowulf wins by divine sanction.

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On the other hand, Headley also complicates Beowulf’s depiction as a divinely sanctioned hero by emphasizing the Old English poet’s appropriation of this legend as Early English Christian propaganda. Grendel, upset that his neighbors are being too loud, marches over to Heorot Hall and contemplates the following:

Now he heard and endured
The din of drinkers. Their poetry poisoned his peace.
Every night, turmoil: raucous laughter from Heorot,
Howling of harps, squawking of scops.
Men recounting the history of men like them. 
(lines 88-92)

It is the last line of this passage that I find compelling: Headley acknowledges the irony of the scops (poets) using the biblical, dominant history to revise the past and interpret the origin of Grendel’s kin, as well as the marvelousness of the hero who defeats them. It is unclear whether the Grendel family is tied to Cain and his fratricide, but the Old English poet parses it as such, while Headley parses it as Grendel’s kin being “fucked by Fate” (line 102). These conflicting interpretations of Grendel’s origin reinforce the complexity of the poem’s temporality: the Old English reimagining a pagan past through a Christian framework AND the contemporary, feminist novelist looking back at this Early English past and its reconstruction of the pagan past. You get the point.

It is clear to me that Headley had fun with this translation (as one should) but many medievalists might argue that this is an inaccurate translation of the thousand-yearish epic poem. Headley does not mention where, how, or when she studied Old English although she does cite various existing translations and acknowledges medievalists who influenced her work, such as Clare A. Lees, Adam Miyashiro, and Gillian R. Overing. As a junior medievalist of color, I know how exclusionary, expensive, and emotionally exhausting language study (and medieval studies per se) can be, so I understand if Headley did not pursue Old English language and paleography. Nonetheless, her translation cannot be separated from its medieval past—the language, violence, and hierarchies are all still there—except that they are placed in conversation with our own language, violence, and hierarchies. I think students and scholars, both medieval or non-medieval, can still find value in a translation that speaks so closely with our present.

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Beowulf: A New Translation, by Maria Dahvana Headley is published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Click here to visit the publisher’s website or buy the book on Amazon.com

Thelma Trujillo is an English PhD student at the University of Iowa. Her research interests include Old English literature, the cult of saints, and the intersection between performing female gender and sanctity in early medieval England. 

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