Maria Dahvana Headley
Beowulf: A New Translation
(FSG, August 25, 2020, 175 pp., $16)
Long ago, when I was in graduate school and deep in Old English poetry, some wag of a friend gave me a DC Comics issue entitled “Beowulf, Dragon Slayer.” It depicted our hero in full superhero kit, leaping to plunge his sword into the beast, young and muscular and not at all like the graying king who fought the dragon and lost his life doing it. I remember showing the comic to my teacher, Calvin Kendall. I remember that he grimaced.
All this came back to me when my son, an avid reader of science fiction, mentioned noticing among the winners of the Hugo Awards a new translation of Beowulf. I knew only a bit about Maria Dahvana Headley’s book, having heard on social media various comments about its opening Bro! and up-to-the-minute vocabulary. I hunted up the New Yorker’s review.
“Revisionist,” “feminism,” and “social-media slang” are the phrases that stand out in the review’s subhead. Reviewer Ruth Franklin gives readers the basics about the poem, its language, and the hero-versus-monsters story (basics that readers of this journal probably know), then expresses wowed approval of the book. But she never holds that Headley’s work is a translation in the strict sense. Franklin doesn’t say this, but “version,” “adaptation,” and “retelling” would be better terms, since they announce at the outset that we’re seeing the poem through a lens that colors it in a particular way. Still, she marshals several points in defense of Headley’s approach. The points that interest me are, first, that translators have always taken liberties because the manuscript is faulty in many places, and second, that we aren’t always sure what the Old English words mean. The words that describe the monsters—particularly Grendel and his mother—are an important case in point.
I am, I confess, used to the old school of Beowulf translators, of whom Franklin says, “[T]hat crunching noise in the background is the sound of [Headley’s] predecessors rolling in their burial ships.” But I hadn’t been back to the original poem in a long time, though I’d translated shorter Old English works. I wanted to test Headley’s claims about the language she manipulates. And I wanted to test whether her approach leaves Beowulf the poem I think it is. I decided it was time to go head-to-head again with the great beast.
While I waited for Headley’s book, I raided my bookshelves and was taken aback by certain copyright dates. Frederick Klaeber’s third edition of the text—the basis of my Beowulf education—is dated 1950. Bad enough, but the first edition it was built on is from 1922, a rather alarming hundred years ago. Supplements at the back of the book tack on updated critical and textual notes that are too brief and too easy to miss; they barely mention, for example, the discovery in 1939 of the Sutton Hoo ship burial, and they say too little about the way it corroborates the funeral stories in the poem. There must be better tools for the modern student.
There are. The most impressive is the Electronic Beowulf, a collaboration of the British Library and the University of Kentucky. Edited by Kevin Kiernan and programmed by Ionut Emil Iacob, it has a dazzling assortment of lookup tools. These tools let students and scholars see every page of the manuscript called the Nowell Codex, the sole surviving manuscript of Beowulf (which is part of the larger book called Cotton Vitellius A. xv), and they let us see it in bright light or ultraviolet, next to its edited version. They also let us zero in on each individual problem-spot with enlarged images of the unclear words, and they let us open with a click windows of commentary about those words so that we can dig into the layers of past scholarly emendations and conjectures.
Even at a glance, the Electronic Beowulf (which I’ll call EB from here on) is a striking visual lesson. It shows the manuscript facing the edited text, so it lets us see how much the student owes to the work of editors. People doing graduate work in literature are supposed to grasp this—to understand critical editions and textual notes—but only recently have internet manuscript images made it this clear. We see immediately that the manuscript text has almost no punctuation—certainly none of the quotation marks that clarify who is speaking, none of the marks of vowel length that help sort out which word is which, and not even the line breaks and caesuras that clarify the four-stress meter and patterned alliteration that are the distinguishing features of Old English poetry.
Most unsettlingly, EB shows how badly damaged the manuscript is. It’s well known that the book was injured in the 1731 fire in the library of Sir Robert Cotton, saved from destruction only because whole case-fulls of books were at last thrown out the windows. Klaeber’s textual notes give specific information about the damage—for example, that some words are pure conjecture because those bits of vellum are missing. But it’s one thing to read in a footnote in six-point type that certain lines are miserrime lacerati (very sadly torn). It’s altogether more shocking to see folio 198, with its mangled top, bottom, and right side, and hole in the middle, and so to understand that some information is gone forever.
That same folio 198 (at the end of the poem) demonstrates how much guesswork and imagination can be involved in translating Beowulf, even conservatively. On the verso of that page—just to the right of a gaping hole shaped a bit like Lake Superior—it is possible to read the partial word unden. What follows unden is heorde or hiorde, taken to mean ‘-haired’. So what is that compound modifier? How should we picture that hair?
Kiernan, the EB editor, reports confidently that the missing letter is presumably b. The other commonly guessed letter is wyn, the Old English version of w (and I will use w in this essay). But Kiernan doesn’t see any sign of the descender that would have signaled the presence of a wyn—so he’s certain the word is bunden (bound), and not wunden (wound or twisted).
Does that settle the matter? Editors by the score and translators in the hundreds, with and without online images, have differed. Klaeber, in my old Third Edition, glosses the word as if there were no question: “with hair bound up (ref. to an old woman, in contrast with the flowing hair of young women).” Tolkien’s picture (in his posthumously published prose translation) is different: “a Geatish maiden with braided tresses.” Seamus Heaney leaves the question of age alone but uses “bound up.” Timothy Murphy and Alan Sullivan say the hair is “wound up,” which for me conjures the image of a gathered or twisted hairstyle—except that they add a careful note, quoting Carol Clover, who argues that the word has to be “wound” or wavy, and not bound, because “mourning women, married or otherwise. . . .are widely described, even emblematized, as having unbound or disheveled hair.” So not only letterforms on the page but assumptions about the culture shape translations, producing different mental images. It’s not a subtle effect.
Headley’s effects are not subtle at all, as I could see once I got the book in my hands. To the scholarly, it seems that she makes an end-run around paleography, syntax, etymology, and editorial habit when she says that the woman of folio 198 “tore her hair and screamed her horror.” Where most translators say that the woman sang—noting that the pyre and smoke and song re-echo a funeral description earlier in the poem—Headley runs with the knowledge that sang, too, is only a conjecture for a word that has completely disappeared. Once we dispense with sang and its connotations of artistic control, this much grittier picture of mourning comes into focus, tinted with fear of the violence and chaos that will follow the death of a king.
What Headley does—ramping up intensity, adding detail and color, making motivations clear for us moderns—is not as off-the-wall as reviewers suggest when they hype her use of slang and vulgarity. Thwacking the reader with constant surprise—abrupt shifts from coarseness to lyricism, alliteration and rhyme used in unpredictable ways not at all like the original’s four-stress pattern, poetic tropes thrown together with stock phrases and cliches—these are her ways of “charging her language” or “load[ing] every rift with ore.” The whole has a slam or performance-poetry feel; it’s consistent with the demands of pop culture. On the page, to the individual reader, the approach can seem clunky in some of Beowulf’s speeches, edging him closer to braggart than hero, almost recalling my old comic book:
So, we’re back from the brink, Halfdane’s son, Scyldings’ savior, bringing you this token of our esteem, sea-booty, gore-loot, no big whoop. Here’s to glory! And now my story. I don’t mean to say this shit was no thing. I lived through your basic fistfight underwater, a tryst with destruction. I did the deed you deemed necessary, but I’d be bluffing if I didn’t say I would’ve died had God not kept me close. (1652–1659)
It works much more effectively in the third person, in vivid descriptive passages:
They shoved the ship from the spit, keel splashing into salt, Denmark soon distant. Sails whipped about her mast, a veil for her sea-gaze. Ropes tautened and timbers moaned. Winds surged to skip the vessel like a smooth stone across the ocean, white with foam, the cliffs of Geatland grown visible, counted, claimed, and the ship sang out for the final push, thrusting herself at the shore, shoving keel at country. (1903–1913)
No accentual meter, no patterned alliteration, no foreign flavor or old-timey anything, but plenty of satisfying mouth-feel. Readers who love Tolkien’s translation will miss in Headley his elevated diction and clear adherence to the original grammar, but readers who can’t stomach Tolkien’s archaisms will like Headley’s zip. Readers who prefer Heaney’s freer treatment might be jolted by Headley’s mix of high and low registers. The jolt seems to be essential to her technique.
Of the several approaches to translation laid out on Wikipedia’s “Translating Beowulf,” page, Headley uses the “modernizing” and “domesticating” methods: she “brings the poem to the audience rather than bringing the audience to the poem.” It’s a valid approach (and for a whole anthology of such valid approaches to Old English, take a look at the 2011 collection called The Word Exchange). But it sidesteps much of the work of showing what the original poem was trying to do on its own terms, as usually happens when a formal poem is translated as free verse. That translators sidestep is no wonder: the careful method doesn’t sell many new books, is unlikely to be noticed or win prizes, and is laborious. And because the Beowulf poet really did have ideas that are not like ours, presenting the poem fully involves introductions, notes, commentary, samples of other translations, and supplementary readings from Old English and the Old Norse sagas. The Murphy and Sullivan book has generous helpings of all those types of context.
Headley spends many pages offering a rationale for her method. The unexpected benefit of those pages is that they make certain arguments based on textual criticism—the real condition of the manuscript—so that they often send me back to it, in its new electronic form.
Here’s an especially complicated example of such a manuscript crux, and one that leads us to the question of who or what exactly the monsters are. The problem spot is a statement about Grendel’s biblical ancestor. Editions and translations name this person as Cain, son of Adam, cursed for murdering his brother Abel. In the manuscript, however, on folio 132r, what the scribe initially wrote was cames, later corrected to caines, “of Cain.” (Headley’s note reports the first attempt as chames, but I disagree.) Mistakes of this kind, confusing the lowercase letters m, n, i, and u, are extremely common in medieval books. So it isn’t difficult to believe that here an error was made and fixed. But sometimes even correctors are wrong, especially when they think they know better than what they see in front of them. And on folio 157v, the word taken as “Cain” is even more wrong-looking: written as camp and never altered.
Headley makes heavy weather of these errors, arguing that the original cames should have been read, not as “of Cain,” but as “of Ham,” son of Noah and another subject of a curse. And it’s true that the name of Ham is spelled cam or cames or cham elsewhere in Old English poetry: for example, in lines 1550 to 1600 of the poem known as Genesis B, a retelling of Genesis 8:20-27, found in the book commonly called the Junius Manuscript.
How important is this? Not important enough for Headley to discard “Cain” in telling the story, or to make the discussion more than a learned footnote in her introduction. The curse of Cain would make Grendel a wanderer; the curse of Ham would make him a slave; neither seems to fit the poem exactly. But this leads back to the question: what sort of being is Grendel, and what sort of being is his mother, and are they the same sort?
Headley’s point is that Grendel has reason to be aggrieved because he has been cursed and cast out. She describes Grendel’s outrage against the rejoicing in Heorot and the song of creation (lines 90 and following) not as an evil being’s hatred of human joy, but as a reaction to pain: “Grendel hurt, and so he hunted.” Making Grendel a figure of sympathy is not a new idea; John Gardner’s Grendel began the trend in 1971. Whether that sympathy actually exists in Beowulf is not at all clear. For better or worse, the poem takes sides, and it places on the Wrong Side the kinds of beings feared by the pagan culture that underlies the story, a culture described well for non-specialists in Neil Price’s Children of Ash and Elm.
Consider eoten, one of the words used to refer to Grendel. Tolkien, in an appendix to “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics”—the famous 1936 lecture that has shaped Beowulf criticism ever after—claims that Grendel is “the eoten”: he is the only being of whom the word is used in Old English poetry. The online version of the Old English dictionary familiarly known as “Bosworth-Toller” (another tool I wish I’d had decades ago) shows no example of the word from other works. Klaeber in his glossary marks the word as not used elsewhere except in prose, and only quite exceptionally. How then do we know what it means? Hints come from cognates in related medieval languages, like jötunn in Old Norse, and forms in modern dialects (modern a hundred years ago, when the Oxford English Dictionary was new), like eten. Both suggest the meaning giant, which agrees with other elements of the poem, like the size of Grendel’s wrenched-off arm. His size (mæra þonne ænig man oðer), his shape, human but misshapen (earmsceapen / on weres wæstmum), and his tendency to kill and eat people move him into the class of “ogre.” And in the overall workings of the poem, he and all the monsters stand for the doom that comes eventually for all human beings. Sympathy for eotenas is out of order for our poet.
Concerning Grendel’s mother, Headley explains in detail her nonstandard take. My first teachers of the poem presumed that the mother was beastly, to the extent of calling her “Grendel’s dam,” making her more animal than human being. But for Headley, Grendel’s mother is not a monstrous being but a human woman. The son, says Headley, is a descendant of someone God-cursed, but by his unknown father; the mother is not.
That argument owes more to Headley’s childhood fascination with pop-culture images of Grendel’s mother—and to research for her novel The Mere Wife—than to the words of the poem. In the poem, they’re alike: At line 1282, for instance, we read that the ferocity of Grendel’s mother’s attack was less than Grendel’s only to the extent that woman’s strength is less than man’s—different only in degree, not in kind. And at lines 1347-48, Hrothgar says that the country people have seen “two such great borderland wanderers”, (my translation) which suggests that the two are more similar than different, apart from size.
Still, Headley makes some valid scholarly points about the words that describe the mother. One is that aglæc-wif, usually taken to mean “wretched or monstrous woman,” has as one of its elements aglæc-, a word that Klaeber glosses as “wretch, monster, demon, fiend” when it’s used of Grendel or his mother, but “warrior, hero” when it’s used of Beowulf. Is this merely bias? If Klaeber is biased, so is Bosworth-Toller. For aglæca, I find, it offers the Latin glosses miser, perditus, monstrum, bellator immanis. The first three—“sad,” “lost,” “monster”—are certainly negative. But bellator is simply “fighter, warrior” and immanis can mean both “really big” and “inhuman, savage, brutal, frightful.” It’s as though English lacks a word for the overlap of these meanings. Clearly, words that are present and legible in the text can be just as shape-shifty for the translator as those that are missing or mistaken.
Despite her explanations, Headley’s poetry treats Grendel’s mother as a properly terrifying enemy and an appropriate figure of wyrd. What about the other women in the poem? In this very masculine story, women are mostly subordinate, and Headley claims to be trying to make them—and their mistreatment—more visible. Hunting for those women in her retelling, I found that they’re often played up by clever handling of various manuscript puzzles.
One such puzzle is in line 63 (folio 130r). The manuscript reading hyrde ic þæt elan cwen is, as Tolkien explains in his commentary, obviously corrupt: it leaves a line with too few stresses and a clause without a verb. Editors have made various repairs. Klaeber puts an ellipsis in the line and makes-elan the end of the correct case of Onela, a known name from the old stories and one that appears later in the poem. Guided by Klaeber, any number of translators say simply that “a daughter” of Hrothgar “was Onela’s queen.” But Headley writes cheekily of that nameless daughter “her name’s a blur.”
Another sly dig is at lines 942 to 946. At that spot Hrothgar, who knows Beowulf’s parentage perfectly well early in the poem, seems suddenly confused about it in a way commentators labor to explain. Headley simply has the king exclaim about Beowulf’s mother “I forget who she is—is she still alive?”—like the sort of witless modern guy who calls all women “honey.” Nor does Headley ignore the little frisson of kingly machismo at line 664-5, when the narrator announces that Hrothgar is leaving the hall to seek the queen’s bed (wolde wigfruma Wealhtheow secgan / cwen to gebeddan).
These brief touches are worth pointing out because they’re easy to miss in the great sweep of the story. That sweep is all there in Headley’s telling: the flashbacks and flash-forwards to history before Beowulf and after him, the press of human mortality and the working of wyrd, particularly at the poem’s end after the fight with the dragon. The whole is well done.
Headley does make one “domesticating” decision that jars me, stepping too far outside the limits I would place even on “retelling.” She makes her narrator a character, “an old-timer at the end of the bar,” as she puts it, a man who keeps addressing his listener as “bro,” that much-discussed first word of her book. (And although Headley has Wiglaf use “bro” to address a group, the word sounds to many readers as though the narrator has only a single listener.) Her narrator has a personal take on all the stories he tells, and he shares them like gossip; he can say of a queen that she was “[n]othing like Modthryth, oh shit, remember her?”
There is no such colorful personage in the original. The omniscient teller of the poem we have transmits ancient opinions—he repeatedly tells us who was a good king—but apart from a few instances of ic hyrde (I heard), his self is veiled behind centuries-old stories and formal structures. We may like to imagine the poem’s speaker as intensely present, a scop like the ones described in the poem, reciting the old stories in Scandinavian halls. Our mental images may be shaped by ideas about oral-formulaic epic, the bard concocting the tale out of memory and formula as described in Albert Lord’s The Singer of Tales. But by the time of this poem’s written composition, what we have is literate and literary creation, as Tolkien stresses in “The Monsters and the Critics.” The book of Beowulf’s deeds existed, which means it was read from, almost certainly aloud and to an audience because books were so rare. The speaker of this poem, as experienced by those who lived after it was written down, was someone reading out loud. Who was his audience? I favor Craig Davis’s thesis that connects the poem’s creation with the court of Alfred the Great, a better-behaved crew than Headley seems to envision.
That narrator of Headley’s, along with a few other elements of her retelling, can make me grimace the way Professor Kendall did at my old comic book. But Headley’s book is not the comic I feared it would be after reading reviews that emphasize bro and dude; it’s an effective and enjoyable poem. I debate with myself: are my reservations fair, or are they biases built on too much early exposure to Old Stuff? I’m pleased to have read Headley. I’m more pleased to have been invited back to old books and notes and blasted forward to marvelous new ways of learning.
Bosworth Toller’s Anglo-Saxon Dictionary Online. Online at https://bosworthtoller.com.
Davis, Craig R. “An Ethnic Dating of ‘Beowulf,’” Anglo-Saxon England (Vol. 35 (2006), pp. 111-129.
The Electronic Beowulf, 4th edition. Ed. Kevin Kiernan. Online at http://ebeowulf.uky.edu/ebeo4.0. University of Kentucky / The British Library, 2015.
Franklin, Ruth, “A Beowulf for Our Moment,” New Yorker, August 31, 2020. Online at https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/08/31/a-beowulf-for-our-moment
Headley, Maria Dahvana, trans. Beowulf: A New Translation. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020.
Heaney, Seamus, trans. Beowulf: A New Verse Translation. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000.
Hieatt, Constance B., trans. Beowulf and Other Old English Poems. New York: The Odyssey Press, 1967.
Klaeber, Frederick, ed. Beowulf and The Fight at Finnsburg, third edition. Lexington, Massachusetts: D.C. Health and Company, 1950.
Krapp, George Philip, ed. The Junius Manuscript. New York: Columbia University Press, 1931.
Murphy, Timothy, and Alan Sullivan, trans. Beowulf. Ed. Sarah Anderson. New York: Pearson Education, Inc., 2004
Price, Neil. Children of Ash and Elm: A History of the Vikings. New York: Basic Books, 2020.
Tolkien, J.R.R. Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary, together with Sellic Spell. Ed. Christopher Tolkien. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014.
. “The Monsters and the Critics.” Online at https://jenniferjsnow.files.wordpress.com/2011/01/11790039-jrr-tolkien-beowulf-the-monsters-and-the-critics.pdf
The Word Exchange: Anglo-Saxon Poems in Translation. Greg Delanty and Michael Matto, eds. Foreword by Seamus Heaney. New York: W.W. Norton, 2011.