Beowulf is one of the oldest pieces of English literature, an epic story of a great warrior and three of his battles (two as a young man and the final one 50 years later). The original manuscript, written by two poets who seemed to be arguing with each other, was burnt, so there are fragments missing. Yet still the tale persists, having been translated and reinterpreted many many times over its thousand-year history. Into this milieu steps fantasy author Maria Dahvana Headley, whose fascination with Grendel’s mother, featured in the second of Beowulf’s battles, goes back to childhood. Headley has already reinvented Grendel’s mother for the modern age in her award-winning novel The Mere Wife, a book that only increased her obsession with the original text.
In a lengthy introduction, Headley describes how her obsession with Beowulf grew. Also, importantly, she explains many of the choices she made in her translation and interpretation of the text. In doing so, she tries to put to rest the idea that there is a definitive version of this story, explaining how the text itself is full of translational ambiguities that in some cases have become accepted as definitive over time. Nowhere is this more evident than in the description of Grendel’s mother.
Grendel, the giant cannibal manslayer who has terrorised the kingdom for years, is the monster that Beowulf and his band originally come to deal with. Once Grendel is dispatched, his mother seeks revenge. In traditional versions of the tale, Grendel’s mother has become a monster herself, an ogress with long claws. Headley puts these interpretations aside and reinterprets Grendel’s mother not as a monster but as a formidable warrior woman, seeking revenge for the loss of her son:
warrior woman, outlaw, meditated on misery.
When it comes, Beowulf’s battle with her is evenly matched. There is even a hint that Beowulf might lose, fighting as he is on her home ground. Except that Beowulf is a ‘chosen one’ and has God’s help:
meant to avenge her son, her sole heir, but Beowulf’s mail
shielded him, his shoulder safe in the sclerite of some
smith’s genius, links staying locked to bend her blade.
Ecgtheow’s heir would’ve been filleted, recategorized
as MIA, and left to rot in her cavern, had not his suit
saved him. That, too, was God’s work.
The Lord, maker of miracles, sky-designer,
had no trouble levelling the playing field
when Beowulf beat the count and stood.
While female characters often take a back seat in this narrative, serving mead and listening intently, Headley manages to make the most of their appearances. The story of Hildeburh, for example, told during a drinking session, is about a woman who loses her son and brother to war:
They’d been her heart, her happiness, her hopes.
War had wrung them ragged, dragged them to death
across a court of sword-crossed kin.
But it is not just in this respect that Headley approaches the text. As can be seen from the quotes above, she has attempted to deliver a Beowulf for the current age, unfettered by pseudo Old English. To do so she imagines the whole poem recited by an old man in a bar, a lengthy brag about heroic deeds of long ago. A good example of this is her translation of the opening, and often recurring, word hwǣt. This word has been variously translated in the past as ‘Listen’, ‘Hark’ and ‘Lo’. Headley translates the word as ‘Bro’, using the word in various meanings including ‘a means of commanding attention’ while also subtly ‘satirizing [sic] a certain form of inflated, overconfident, aggressive male behaviour’.
And this behaviour is reflected in the poem itself. Beowulf, on arriving to lend his aid to King Hrothgar, describes himself as ‘the strongest and the boldest, the bravest and the best’. Later in the mead hall he gets into a verbal sparring match with Unferth, who does not believe his boasting. Of course Beowulf proves himself to Unferth, who later ‘unexpectedly stanned for Beowulf’ and gives him an heirloom sword when he goes to take on Grendel’s mother.
The critical aspect of this translation is that Headley uses language to bring the story vividly to life. Reinterpreting the text enables it to sing off the page, deploying verse and modern interpretations when necessary to recreate Beowulf as a flowing, visceral tale. This from a section where Grendel is on the prowl:
… At last the enemy struck,
snatching a sleeper, sucking him bone dry,
staining the pale planks red, grunting, gobbling,
gnawing him limb from limb, here a throat,
here a head, fingers, feet – dead.
In the final part of the book, Beowulf’s kingdom is threatened by a dragon. Again, the language brings this confrontation to life:
Soon Beowulf received a blistering missive.
His own hall, his heart-home had combusted.
He’d been ghost-throned by the sky-borne gold holder.
It was no surprise, after reading this final section, that Tolkien not only had an interest in Beowulf but had also penned his own translation. The dragon guards a horde of gold and goes on a rampage after a thief breaks in and steals a goblet from under its sleeping form. Beowulf, now 50 years on from his prime, rides out with his men to confront the creature. This set-up alone gives off significant Hobbit vibes. It reflects one of the myriad ways that the story of Beowulf has provided inspiration for modern heroic storytelling. The character of Beowulf and his exploits is a template that can as easily be read into the characters and plots of Marvel superhero films as it can into a large subset of twentieth-century fantasy (to some extent through Tolkien).
But all of this aside, Beowulf is a classic, almost foundational, story well told. Headley has taken an ancient tale written be sung in a mead hall around an open fire and brought it, complete with all of its braggadocio, swordplay, feats of daring and occasional ultra-violence, into the twenty-first century. It is, even more than that, a joy to read and highly recommended.
This review first appeared in Newtown Review of Books.