I read Beowulf for the first time when I was in the seventh grade. My strongest, most visceral memory is of the books themselves. The pages were old and yellowed, and each and every copy smelled like they were stored in a box filled with vomit. At the time I found the actual contents of the epic poem considerably less memorable. But as soon as I read the opening to Maria Dahvana Headley’s translation, I knew it was time to reconsider the story with fresh eyes.
Bro! Tell me we still know how to speak of kings!
The book begins with with a 27 pages introduction that gives context to the story of Beowulf and the reasons this translation exists. I really appreciated this, since I did not retain any of what I was taught about the poem in middle school.
We don’t know who wrote Beowulf or exactly when it was written. We don’t know if it was part of an oral tradition that changed over time. Due to a fire in the early 1700s, we don’t actually know the entire story since part of the only manuscript was destroyed.
What we do know is that Beowulf is a story of monsters and men, good and evil. As Headley puts it in the introduction “… the poem is fundamentally concerned with how to get and keep the title ‘Good’.”
I’m of the opinion that a book written in the 7th century can’t be spoiled, but if you are worried about Beowulf spoilers, skip the next three paragraphs. Beowulf is full of tangents, but the main plot consists of three parts. The young hero Beowulf shows up in Denmark to battle Grendel, a monster who is terrorizing Heorot. Beowulf defeats Grendel in hand to hand combat, but— surprise—the next night Grendel’s mother shows up and kills one of the men in Heorot to avenge her son.
Beowulf and company travel to the swamp (or mere) where Grendel’s mother rules over monsters. Grendel’s mother and Beowulf engage in a difficult fight, but with divine intervention Beowulf defeats her and rids the mere of monsters.
IF 👏 YOU 👏 SLAY 👏 A 👏 MONSTER 👏 IT’S 👏 ONLY 👏 FAIR 👏 THAT 👏 HIS 👏 MOM 👏 GETS 👏 TO 👏 TAKE 👏 HIS 👏 SEVERED 👏 ARM 👏 BACK 👏 TO 👏 HER 👏 SWAMP 👏— SparkNotes (@SparkNotes) May 9, 2019
Now things get a little weird with a 50 year time jump. Beowulf is now king of his homeland, but there’s a problem: a dragon is terrorizing the area. Beowulf goes to fight the dragon, with a group of young warriors. He instructs the soldiers to wait behind as he battles the dragon solo, but while Beowulf defeats the dragon, the dragon kills him in the process.
One of the things Headley’s translation does incredibly well, is make the text accessible. Do I understand what Leslie Hall means in his 1892 translation?
“For no cause whatever would the earlmen’s defender
Leave in life-joys the loathsome newcomer,
He deemed his existence utterly useless
To men under heaven. “Beowulf: An Anglo-Saxon Epic Poem by J. Lesslie Hall
No I don’t. But in Headley’s translation the meaning is easily understandable.
The stalwartest of soldiers had no wish
to imprison the invader, only to slay him.
Grendel’s life wasn’t worth living, and Beowulf
had decided to end it.Beowulf: A New Translation by Maria Dahvana Headley
This isn’t to say one translation is better than the other, but having a translation that is more accessible allows so many more people to enjoy the poem outside of the classroom.
I think Headley’s translation forces the reader to grapple with the fact that there is no such thing as a perfect translation, and certainly not a translation of a poem written a thousand years ago. The first word of Beowulf, “hwaet” is a perfect example. Hwaet doesn’t have a counter part in modern English, and was most likely a word that indicated the beginning of a story. Many translations have used “Lo”, but Headley went with the more modern story opener: “Bro!” Language is a constantly changing thing so no translation is perfect. You can learn the most by engaging with how different translators have decided to transform Old English poetic structure into something a modern English reader can understand.
After reading Beowulf: A New Translation, I understand the passion Headley has for the story. I desperately want to read her novel inspired by Grendel’s mother, The Mere Wife to see what else she can do with this story.
Have I convinced you to give Beowulf a second chance? Leave a comment below.