In 2007 I was invited to the critics’ preview of Robert Zemeckis’s motion-capture Beowulf movie at the IMAX, Waterloo. I read the press pack’s inaccurate, ahistorical notes on the poem with such horror that the film critic Mark Kermode enquired why I was whimpering. I outlined the more egregious errors. ‘Look,’ he said, ‘either you can spend the whole film moaning, “What have they done to my lovely poem?” or you can take it for what it is.’ And though I flinched as the first 3-D bone flung across the mead benches of Heorot seemed likely to hit me square in the face, the good doctor had dispensed excellent advice, for there turned out to be much of interest in the film, which was partly scripted by Neil Gaiman.
Whether Old English experts or not, some readers may well whimper and flinch at this new translation – really more a version – of Beowulf by the noted American fantasy author Maria Dahvana Headley. The original epic poem is preserved in a single manuscript, dating from 1020 or so, held in the British Library. When it was composed, by whom and for whom are questions that cannot definitively be answered, but it has intrigued and absorbed scholars and students ever since it was first published in the original Old English in 1815. Many retellers and translators have turned their hands to it: parts of a translation done by Tolkien in the 1920s were published in 2014, but it is Seamus Heaney’s 1999 version that has had the most impact. Famously, Heaney translated the first word, ‘Hwæt!’ – a storyteller’s demand for attention – as ‘So’, in the leisurely but emphatic style of an Irishman with a good tale to recount. Headley recasts this as ‘Bro!’, for she imagines ‘the narrator as an old-timer at the end of the bar’, a man who’s seen much and knows what he’s talking about. That conversational, insistently male and decidedly American voice frames and comments on the poem throughout.
Headley discusses the language of the poem in her insightful introduction, noting that ‘there is elevated language in Beowulf, but the poem feels populist’, and that it tells ‘a communal, colloquial history’. Early translations of Beowulf often used specialised poetic terminology, words not found in contemporary prose. Headley wisely steers away from archaisms: no one would fain do anything and there are no maidens or swains tripping through the text. Rather, it’s peppered with contemporary terms: that opening ‘Bro!’ recurs a few times; Beowulf chops sea monsters into ‘sashimi’; the previously hostile Unferth, impressed by Beowulf’s killing of Grendel, ‘stans’ the hero enough to lend him a prized sword; there’s plenty of ‘shit’ and ‘fucking’, in exclamations and metaphors, as well as literally. In the first half of the translation, the overall narrative is couched in fighting man’s argot. Beowulf needs but never calls for backup, yet he goes to the floor. He and his companions are boys or lads who give zero fucks about danger. Headley reads the poem as ‘an intricate treatise on morality, masculinity, flexibility, and failure’; it’s an in-yer-face masculinity of men talking to men.
Despite all this testosterone, Headley’s version allows space for the poem’s women to stretch and breathe with a different kind of life. Grendel’s mother, the inspiration for Headley’s brilliant 2018 novel The Mere Wife, is much less monstrous and hideous than usual. She is characterised (on a sound philological basis) as an older woman and mother, one who has ruled her domain for fifty years and is now driven to seek vengeance for her son’s death; she is ‘the reclusive night-queen,/the mighty mere-wife’ or ‘the sea-wolf’. Her battle with Beowulf is swiftly related: the warrior is alarmed to find his sword does not bite and so he wrestles her, but ‘she rose again, relentless, and turned on him, gripping/and flipping him.’ Had God not intervened, ‘leveling the playing field’, and had it not been for his mail shirt, Beowulf would have been ‘filleted, recategorized/as MIA and left to rot’.
Then there is the lady Modthryth, savage and dangerous as an unmarried woman determined to resist and punish the male gaze. Young Modthryth is credited here with more baroque viciousness than the Old English suggests. In the original, men would be killed merely for looking at Modthryth, ‘hand-devised slaughter bonds prepared’ (my translation). Headley’s fierce girl sounds much more hands-on, employing shackles ‘tightened to torture’ and adding a public flaying for good measure. Yet she is gentled by marriage to the Danish king Offa: ‘She became queenly; before she’d been the worst./She sat on her new throne, famed for kindness,/loyalty, devotion to her king.’
The poem’s other women find no pleasure in violence: ‘Hoc’s daughter was savaged/by sorrow, grief-gutted.’ The failure of Freawaru’s peace-weaving marriage is signalled by her appearance at the wedding feast: ‘her body dripping/in a dark dowry, ancient garnets bought in blood/from the Heotho-Bards themselves’. The original tells us nothing of Freawaru’s jewellery, in fact, but in Headley’s version these blood-red stones, much used in early English metalwork, offer a feminine parallel to the sword, flaunted by one of her followers, that provokes a Heotho-Bard young man to attack and seek to recover the treasure taken from his father’s corpse on the battlefield by his Danish enemies. As an addition, it’s deftly done.
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What about the poetry itself? It’s jagged sometimes, exulting in its idiomatic swagger. The narrator shows a kind of shrugging irony towards the pretensions of kings, but this is tempered by pity for the poem’s old men. Hrothgar swings from stoical despondency to unlooked-for joy at Grendel’s death to near-despair at Grendel’s mother’s attack. Beowulf find him ‘grim and gloomy/wondering if his fate was fucked forever’ and reassures him with level-headed pragmatism: ‘No worries, wise one. I’ve got this. When a friend/needs to be avenged, it’s better to fight than cry.’ Headley’s Beowulf is permeated with this kind of practical wisdom – consoling maxims uttered by characters and narrator with a calm thoughtfulness that contrasts with the brisk action. Later, the poem’s hero, now an old king himself, on the cliff outside the dragon’s den, weighing the odds, feels self-doubt for the first time: ‘Stricken, suddenly unsteady, he foresaw his fate/in the fog, shrouded but certain.’
Headley excels at the fights, which are pacey and uncompromising: there’s rending, screaming, blood, sinews and bones. But she does not duck the duller bits, neither Hrothgar’s so-called sermon to Beowulf, warning him against complacency, nor the much-skipped-over recapitulation of the Swedish wars. These stretches are enlivened with vivid images, sometimes there in the original, sometimes not. ‘Every guard goes down eventually,’ Hrothgar counsels Beowulf, ‘sagging on the stone wall surrounding the soul.’ The Swedish king Ongentheow falls at Hygelac’s hand, ‘drained, the dirt drinking his blood’. Many different voices swirl through the poetry: of the battle-scarred veteran, of the anxious old politician Wiglaf, addressing his cowardly comrades with biting scorn, and of Beowulf – no mere meathead – offering his own smart take on local politics.
Beauty and horror abound; the pulsating rhythm of Headley’s translation is (as it should be) much more like performance poetry than the rich, gliding cadences of Heaney’s version. A few of the author’s expansions don’t quite work for me: the comparison of Grendel viewing the sleeping Geats in Heorot as the makings of a substantial dinner to a fox in a chicken coop domesticates the horror too much, detracting from our uncanny apprehension that Grendel is a rational, intelligent creature who retains more of the human than is entirely comfortable. The ending, in the Old English a rising climax of superlatives eulogising the king of this world ‘who was gentlest to men, kindest, most beloved of his people and most eager for fame’, turns Beowulf into a cowboy hero: ‘He rode hard! He stayed thirsty! He was the man!/He was the man!’ This paean to a stereotypical and still-potent masculinity is effective and entirely consistent with Headley’s poetic sense of the power of the US masculine archetype, confirming the Americanness of the narrative voice. Yet I miss the sense that Beowulf in his kingship found a way of ruling that promoted peace and prosperity, in contrast with the Danish kings, whose glorious smashing of and grabbing from their neighbours open the poem.
Headley’s Beowulf demands to be read in one sitting, gulped down as Grendel consumes the Geatish warrior Hondscioh, ‘gobbling/gnawing him limb from limb’. Barrelling along at breakneck speed, pulsing and breathless with excitement, it’s an outstanding poetic feat. Yet it also repays a quieter rereading, with time to savour this extraordinary, alien world. Amid the jewelled surfaces and golden gleaming treasures, the blood and guts, there are wonderful, lyrical descriptions: of the utter glorious strangeness of the dragon (‘a whipping wraith,/a coil convulsing overhead, fangs, claws and scales’), of the mere of frost and fire, and of slender, birdlike ships gliding across the ocean. It’s an astonishing world, and Headley offers us a uniquely powerful way into it.