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.