|Synopsis||In this radical new translation of Beowulf, author Maria Dahvana Headley takes up the task of trying to modernize one of the oldest English poems for a modern audience.|
|Author||Maria Dahvana Headley|
|Release Date||August 25th, 2020|
In April, I did my monthly classic review on the Anglo-Saxon epic poem Beowulf. In order to do the review, I had to do a ton of research on the original poem. I read multiple translations of the poem, as well as lectures and commentaries such as Tolkien’s Monsters and the Critics.
During my research, I stumbled upon numerous oddities and curiosities regarding the subject of the poem. Among them was a brand new translation that was released last year just as I started delving into my research.
Spiritual Content: Themes of faith and the fallen nature of men
Violence: Significant violence described; humans are eaten and killed by monsters, and monsters are brutally and bloodily slain by men
Sexual Content: None
Other Negative Themes: Themes of violence, toxic masculinity, power dynamics, and evil
Disclaimer: Geeks Under Grace received a review copy of this book from its publisher to review
I didn’t talk about translation much in my last article on Beowulf, but now a good time to focus on it. The art of translation is one of the most difficult jobs in the field of literature. More often than not, most writers are fundamentally incapable of doing it. Even great poets frequently fail when they try to translate another poet’s work.
The problem is twofold: The artist must find a way to convey the original tone, structure, social context, and emotional weight of the language and themes in the same verse and flow as the original poem AND the new poem itself effectively becomes an expression of the poet himself/herself, as there’s no way to merely translate an author’s words without adding new content and context into the mix. Translation can be quite a tricky field of study, and how works are translated and by whom can also be a point of controversy. We saw this just recently when it became an international scandal as to how the poem The Hill We Climb On, read at President Biden’s inauguration, was being handled by its foreign language translators.
It’s for this reason that classics nerds can sit back for hours and discuss which of the famous translations of foreign language books is actually worthy of being read. More often than not, certain translations will be impressed upon you if you’re recommended to read a classic like The Illiad or Dante’s Inferno (I personally recommend the Fagles and Musa translations respectively). If you’ve ever pulled a random translation off the shelf at a Barnes and Noble, there’s a chance you picked up a public domain translation, and those are usually considered to be the weakest available versions of that material (often they’re VERY early and primitive translations that lose a lot of the language nuance).
The same is true of Beowulf. The famous Old English poem has had to be translated into modern English dozens of times since its rediscovery and publication in the 19th century. Since then, many writers have made the effort to rework the language into something contemporary. Many have tried, but many have failed. Some create works that satisfy their age but become forgotten relics in the next generation. In my review, I specifically quoted three prominent translations which I’ve read and personally recommend, including Harney, Tolkien, and Riuzzoa. I’m also quite fond of the Gareth Hinds graphic novel.
Of late, I’ve been reading a fourth translation that just released last year to overwhelming critical acclaim. This new translation comes from Maria Dahvana Headley, a feminist activist, fantasy writer, and contemporary of Nail Gaiman, whose new translation of Beowulf dropped in August of last year.
The book certainly doesn’t need my help to gain more attention. Every bookstore in the country has at least one copy of this book in the poetry section alongside the Harney and Tolkien translations. It’s evidently sold pretty well. It has 4.5 stars on Amazon’s user reviews, and 4.5 stars on Goodreads, so average readers seem to be engaging with it.
NPR’s book review describes it as a must-read, as “ridiculous. And brilliant. And genius-level washed-up barstool-hero trolling all at the same time” and “a psychotic song of gold and blood, stylish as h*ll, nasty and brutish and funny all at once, mad and bad and sad and alive now in a way that these words simply haven’t been for more than a thousand years.” Vox’s review similarly writes, “I’ve never read a Beowulf that felt so immediate and so alive” and that “Headley brings it to vivid, visceral life.”
I considered delaying my April Classic review to add this book to the pile of translations and commentaries I researched for it, but just reading it though I knew that wouldn’t work. I knew I would need to make it a separate article. I don’t do so because of its quality (necessarily), but because the context of what it is makes it a completely different artistic creation than the other three I’ve read. In fact, it crossed the border multiple times from being a translation of Beowulf to becoming an adaptation or reinterpretation of Beowulf.
My Kingdom for a BRO
Let’s start with a quick discussion of the poetry. The famous opening word of Beowulf, in its original Old English, is the word “hwæt.” It’s a word that we, in modern terms, would call onomatopoeia. It’s not so much a word as it is an expression. It’s designed to get the audience’s attention. If you’re performing a poem to a hall of drunken Vikings, you need something that immediately catches their attention.
Naturally, no such word clearly translates into the English language. Doing so would be like trying to translate the punching sounds from the Adam West Batman show into foreign languages. At the end of the day, you’re just going to have to find an approximation for all those POWS and BAMS. What monosyllabic words in any language are designed to quickly grab an audience’s attention? Many poets have found different words to do so from “lo” to “hark” to something as subtle as “so.”
It was for that reason I knew I was in trouble when the poem started like this:
Bro! Tell me we still know how to speak of kings! In the old days, everyone knew what men were: brave, bold, glory-bound (3).
Clumsy word choice aside, I knew I was in for a modernization of Beowulf. Certainly, that’s not the worst thing in the world. Headley herself rose to prominence for her radical retelling of Beowulf in 2018 called Mere Wife, where the story reimagines Grendel’s mother as, and I quote, “a PTSD-stricken veteran of the United States wars in the Middle East.”
Okay, maybe I’ve given her too much benefit of the doubt…conceptually, I’m not against radical retellings. In some regards, this isn’t even the most radical retelling of Beowulf. I just reviewed John Gardner’s Grendel which reimagined the original story entirely from Grendel’s perspective and used it as a story to explore existentialist themes about the meaninglessness of life.
The problem for me comes in the book’s subtitle. This is tacitly supposed to be a “translation” of Beowulf. This is a book students in their high school English classes might randomly pull off the shelf at Barnes and Noble to use as a textbook. Its language differences, though, make it useless as a translation. The original story is an epic tragedy about the nature of death and damnation. The back cover of the book describes Headley’s version as “a tale of entitlement and encroachment – powerful men seeking to become more powerful and one woman seeking justice for her child.”
In effect, Headley’s translation ends up being a complete inverse of the themes of the original poem. Her translation is more of an autobiography of her prejudices and the baggage she carries into the material than a proper poem.
The Subtext of Heroic Antiheros and Toxic Heroes
You can see that in the book’s implicit subtext. The poetry recontextualizes the moral framework of the characters. The monsters are all coded as oppressed outsiders lashing out against cruel beings who seek to trample on them.
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 countr, her line linked to extinction since Cain crossed swords with Abel and fled… (56).
He spent his youth fists up, browbeating every barstool-brother, bonfiring his enemies. That man began in the waves, a baby in a basket, but he boostrapped his way into a kingdom, trading lonelineness for luxury (3).
Hygd, his queen, was young but shrewd. Though she’d only overwintered recently in the realm, Haereth’s daughter knew her duty: open heart met open hands when it came to Geats. She paid attention, made trenchant thrift feel more generous than lessors over-gifts. Bro if anyone even looked at her in daylight, save her own overlord, she’d deal that man death… (84)
Such a perspective reflects a very common prejudice in progressive literature that you see in everything from Prometheus Bound to The Mists of Avalon; the romanticization of villainous characters as misunderstood antiheroes.
This trope is very common in feminist retellings of classical mythology. Famously evil characters such as Lilith, Circe, Morgan Le Faye, or Medusa are reimagined as the true heroes of their narratives fighting against the brutality of male violence or the oppression of Christian theocracy. We even see this in recent Disney remakes like Maleficent and Cruella or through the romanticization of villain characters like Loki and Kylo Ren. Their violent retribution merely becomes the metaphorical stand-in for modern anxieties and issues. It speaks to a status quo of injustice and inequity that the least among us would desire so deeply to lash out at society.
In the case of Headley’s Beowulf, these themes are completely absent in the original poem. There is no misunderstood subtext. Grendel and Grendel’s mother are literally demons. There is no hidden sympathy for their plights. Her so-called “lost nuances” are literal sympathy for the devil.
Her entire admiration for the character of Grendel’s mother is something she discusses as having come from material external to the poem itself. She actively admits in the book’s introduction that she fell in love with a drawing of Grendel’s mother long before she ever read the poem and found out she was the villain.
My love affair with Beowulf began with Grendel’s mother, the moment I encountered her in an illustrated compendium of monsters, a slithery greenish entity standing naked in a swamp, knife in hand. I was about eight, and on the hunt for any sort of woman-warrior. She had a ferocious look and seemed to actively give precisely zero f***s, not that I had that language to describe her at that point in my life. In the book I first saw her in, there was no Grendel, no Beowulf, no fifty years a queen. She was just a woman with a weapon, all by herself in the center of the page (vii).
If that doesn’t tell you everything you need to know right there I don’t know what will. Where the translation isn’t merely ignoring the original subtexts, it’s finding new ones. Some of the ideas of the original text still arrive intact, such as Grendel’s Biblical lineage and the dark prophesized fate of the Geats, but they’re secondary to the tensions Headley is actively reinforcing.
In the United States in 2020, everyone, including small children, has the capacity to be as deadly as the spectacular warriors of the poem. The teeth, swords and claws of the Old English epic have been converted into automatic possibilities, the power to slay thirty men in a minute no longer the genius of a few but a purchasable perk of weapon ownership. The kings and dragons of the poem possess hoards akin to those of basic American households… bought and shipped overnight by Amazon Prime – itself a corporation named for a legendary tribe of female warriors… And yet, possessions bring no peace. So many wars, so many kingdoms, so much calamity… (xxxii and xxxiii).
I’ll admit I’m definitely not the audience for postmodern retellings of classical poems. That said, I’m always willing to put my own antipathy aside if the final product is good. If she wanted to write Beowulf again as told through the lens of feminist power dynamics, anti-toxic masculinity, and sympathy for underrepresented female characters, she’s more than at liberty to do so. The Song of Achilles recently retold The Illiad in a similar way and used it to highlight the homoerotic subtext of the book. I have no problem with trying to tell your own version of a classic story. Grendel, Mists of Avalan, Maleficient, and The Mere Wife can all be their own thing without damaging the integrity of the originals.
Selling the book as a translation means she’s taking on the burden I mentioned at the start of this essay. The English reader needs to be able to rely on the fact Headley is accurately recreating the rhyme and verse of the original work. As far as I’m concerned, the work is a lie at its face.
Headley’s Use of Poetry and Language
It also doesn’t help that the poetry of the book itself is crass, wordy, and indulgent. The text is lined with heavy swear words like f**k and s**t, and turns a book that would otherwise be appropriate to read to adolescents into a foul joke to be read at hipster bars.
Take this segment. It’s a segment from the scene where Beowulf’s ship docks in Denmark and a lone Sword-Dane soldier approaches them to ask who they are and if they’ve come to attack them:
How dare you come to Denmark costumed for war? Chain mail and swords?! There’s a dress code! You’re denied. I’m the Dane’s doorman; this is my lord’s door. Who are you that dare steer your ship for our shore? I’m the watcher of these waters, have been for years, and it’s my duty to scan the sea for shield bearing dangers to the Danes. I’ve never seen any force for years, and it’s my duty to scan the sea for shield-bearing dangers to Danes (13).
The poem goes on like this for nearly two pages of one man nervously asking the same question over and over and over again. It works in other translations where characters are allowed to soliloquy while they speak but here it comes off as pathetic and jittery. Using modern lingo like “dress code” in an ancient poem throws the reader off base.
Maybe this would all be acceptable if this was supposed to be a My First Beowulf or Beowulf for Dummies that just made the poem readable for people who are disinterested in poetry, but it barely functions like that. The language is too coarse, the story is too opaque, and the swearing is too intense to give to younger readers. Just buy the Sparknotes version of the book if you’re looking for something like that.
That’s not to say there are no redeeming elements of the work. As Steve Donoghue rightly points out in his review for Open Letters Review, there is much good wordplay and language in the work.
The phrasing and imagery consistently amaze, as often disconcerting as pleasing. Headley has saturated herself in the various rhymes and rhythms of the original, and although she often disregards those conventions when they get in the way of her agenda, she plays her own games with all such elements, and the results are always interesting…
I would agree! There are moments of sublime poetry and beauty peppered throughout the book. Here is one of my favorite passages:
The curse on that stony womb was set by men who’d impregnated it with treasure, claiming the confines theirs until doomsday; if they couldn’t possess them, no one could. Any man who thieved was fated to perish, pushed into pagan places, punished forever. Beowulf never imagined gold could bring grief. He forgot: not all gifts are for getting (132).
The alliteration in that particular passage is evocative and haunting. It actually maintains the somber tone of the original poem’s conclusion, wherein the conquest of gold leads to the hero’s death and the death of everything of value in his world.
I’ve always conceptualized classics not as books that you read, but as books that read you. They’re trailers you hitch yourself to to be dragged along with and taken to uncomfortable places. At the end of the journey, you may be tired and not understand where you’ve been taken, but you’re wiser for it.
That’s of course something of an anachronism to our modern solipsistic age. Ours is an age of escapism and affirmation. People largely don’t like to be challenged by art. So when we stumble upon something obtuse that doesn’t fit into our preconceptions, our first instinct is to change it when changing it actually breaks the mechanism that allows it to work.
Much is the same for Maria Dahvana Headley’s translation of Beowulf. It’s hardly a translation and it’s hardly Beowulf. It’s ALL Headley.
I can’t in good conscience describe this new translation as a translation. It’s too transformative to be described as anything but an adaptation. It shares more of its genetic material with Neil Gaiman’s/Robert Zemekis’s awkward 2007 film adaptation of Beowulf than it does with the original poem. Both Headley and Gaiman approach the material reverently but carry their own prejudices into the material. As a result, both versions end up being a strange Frankenstein-like approximation of the original poem instead of an earnest retelling of it.
So far as Headley’s Beowulf is a novelty and an amusing distraction, I would say it’s well worth the read if you’re already a fan of the original poem. I’ve certainly gotten use out of it this month as a discussion topic among my more literate friends. However, as a translation capable of edifying the reader and helping them understand a long-lost pre-Christian story set in the heart of old Europe, it’s useless.
+ Some Lovely Alliteration
- Strange Creative Choices
- Poor Translation
- Extreme Editorializing on the Part of the Author
The Bottom Line
Maria Dahvana Headley has fallen head over heals with the original poem Beowulf, as many who read it do. Unfortunately, she seems to mostly see her own life in the book rather than others. As a result, her translation reflects her prejudices more than the original poet's...