Monsters and heroes: Beowulf

Dragons, magic, heaps of gold and jewels, superhuman strength, slaying monsters – both monsters who are slain and monsters who slay. In the ancient and modern senses of the word. It’s fun. It’s fantasy. It’s the perfect read for a cabin in the woods on a winter holiday. It can’t be “high art” then, can it?

Except it’s that text. The one that every English literature student used to have to battle through, because they had to start at the beginning. One of the ones full of very dead bearded white men giving long speeches. You can easily see how Tolkien got from here to the Lord of the Rings, especially the halls and swords and lords of Rohan, but these days, that just isn’t enough.

Maria Dahvana Headley has done for Beowulf what Emily Wilson did for the Odyssey; centred the story on the women. She saw a picture of Grendel’s mother long before she read the story, and assumed she was the protagonist. So she wrote Grendel’s mother back in to the middle (and moved some of the men to the margins), first in a novel, The Mere Wife, and then in her new translation of the whole poem.

Do you think we need yet another translation of this eleventh-century poem? When Heaney’s (hear him read it!) 1999 translation came out, comparisons with Tolkien’s 1926 one did the rounds. So I added Headley’s version of the same lines 210-216, when Beowulf and his warriors set sail: 

The one on the right is the one for me. You can see that Headley has kept to the kennings, and made new ones: some of my favourites were word-hoard, soul-vessel, day-candle, swan-road and yes, ring-giver.

And if nothing else, her introduction is an utter delight, studded with superb stories and storytellers, unpicking the Old English words to turn a monster into a hero, intersectional reading of all sorts of versions of and commentaries on the poem from the Nowell Codex to Toni Morrison’s essay on how the story of Grendel and his mother is shaped by the biblical images of fugitive and slave. As Headley concludes, “We might, if we analyzed our own long-standing stories, use them to translate ourselves into a society in which hero making does not require monster making, border closing and hoard clinging, but instead requires a more challenging task: taking responsibility for one another.”

She wrote that on 3 March 2020. How much we still need to hear those words in the days, months, and years to come.

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Posted in books, poetry, translation
3 comments on “Monsters and heroes: Beowulf
  1. Interesting.
    I’m still waiting for the Emily Watson to become more affordable unf.

    I’d made the argument elsewhere that Grendel’s mother was the centre of the story.
    It’s where the whole plot is structured on family-clan, survival and loss. The centre of the piece is the fight between Hrothgar’s family-clan and that of Grendel’s. The demise of Grendel’s leads structurally to the demise of Beowulf’s Geats.

    There is also a much older argument where Weltheow has a major role in the story, as Norn, fate-decider, as she passes the drinks – it is either the victor or loser is decided there.

    The Frisian tale told in Hrothgar highlights the women’s role as memory of the family-clan. And without that the whole social fabric disintegrates.
    We see this is in the relating of the Last Survivor’s Tale: the one who stowed the family-clan goods beneath the grave mound that the dragon eventually found.
    An unremembered history represents destruction and loss, and is potentially lethal to the living.

    Women are tightly woven into that world, their roles different from the men, but are generally more important, essential.

  2. […] reading the book for me. Of course the Welsh here is about as different from the modern language as Beowulf’s English from the one I speak, but it’s still from where I grew up, rooted extremely deep in […]

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