...electrifying. The lack of scholarly apparatus is deceptive: Headley has studied the poem deeply and is conversant with some of the text’s most obscure details. Though she comes to Beowulf from a feminist perspective, her primary purpose is not polemical or political but, as she writes, to render the story 'continuously and cleanly, while also creating a text that felt as bloody and juicy as I think it ought to feel.' ... Headley’s version is more of a rewriting than a true translation, reënvisaging the poem for the modern reader rather than transmitting it line for line. It is brash and belligerent, lunatic and invigorating, with passages of sublime poetry punctuated by obscenities and social-media shorthand ... the over-all effect is as if Headley, like the warrior queen she admired as a child, were storming the dusty halls of the library, upending the crowded shelf of Beowulf translations to make room for something completely new ... Headley is obviously enjoying herself, and never more than when she’s speaking in the voice of her hero ... (Heaney’s Beowulf, suiting up for battle, is 'indifferent to death'; Headley’s 'gave zero shits.') ... With a Beowulf defiantly of and for this historical moment, Headley reclaims the poem for her audience as well as for herself.
The first thing I need to tell you is that you have to read it now. No, I don't care if you've read Beowulf (the original) before ... Headley's version is an entirely different thing. It is its own thing. A remarkable thing that probably shouldn't even exist, except that it does ... Headley has made it modern, not in form or style or content, but in temperament. In language ... Headley's Beowulf is a big release — discussed, debated, talked about (as it should be) because it has everything: Love, sex, murder, magic, dungeons, dragons, giants, monsters ... she starts it all with 'Bro.' Bro. Bro! I mean, that's ridiculous. And brilliant. And genius-level washed-up barstool-hero trolling all at the same time ... It sings straight through, the alliteration and temper of it invigorating (as it should be) and roaring (as it should be) ... But Maria Headley's Beowulf I love for exactly what it is: a psychotic song of gold and blood, stylish as hell, nasty and brutish and funny all at once.
Of the four translations I’ve read, Headley’s is the most readable and engaging. She combines a modern poetry style with some of the hallmarks of Old English poetry, and the words practically sing off the page. Her impetus for translating the text was specifically the depiction of Grendel’s mother as monstrous in previous translations, despite her not being characterized as such in the original. In fact, Headley argues that the closest translation for how Grendel’s mother is described in Old English is 'formidable noblewoman.' ... Headley’s translation shows why it’s vital to have women and people from diverse backgrounds translate texts. If you haven’t read Beowulf before, start with Headley’s version, and if you have read Beowulf before, then it’s time to read it again.
I am delighted. I’ve never read a Beowulf that felt so immediate and so alive ... Beowulf forces its translators to show their cards from the first word, and Headley’s priority is storytelling and a sense of linguistic play ... a rambling, boastful, word-drunk poem ... It’s profane and funny and modern and archaic all at once, and its loose and unstructured verses are full of twisting, surprising kennings ... Headley brings it to vivid, visceral life.
The very definition of monstrosity — who is monstrous and who is not — underlies Maria Dahvana Headley’s brilliant feminist translation of the Old English epic Beowulf ... Beowulf is an ancient tale of men battling monsters, but Headley (whose love affair with the text began with her contemporary adaptation, the 2018 novel The Mere Wife) has made it wholly modern, with language as piercing and relevant as Kendrick Lamar’s Pulitzer Prize-winning album DAMN. With scintillating inversions and her use of contemporary idiom — the poem begins with the word 'Bro!' and Queen Wealhtheow is 'hashtag: blessed' — Headley asks one to consider not only present conflicts in light of those of the past, but also the line between human and inhuman, power and powerlessness, and the very nature of moral transformation, the 'suspicion that at any moment a person might shift from hero into howling wretch.'
Headley flattens Beowulf into the mold of twenty-first-century American masculinity in one of its crudest forms. He swaggers into the poem sporting his burnished helmet like a backward baseball hat, and leaves it in a blazing trail of clichés ... Headley pursues a similar line of thought in her Beowulf translation, elevating Grendel’s nameless mother from the aberrant creature of disgust that many other translations make her out to be ... She turns the much-maligned revenger into a 'warrior woman' and 'reclusive night-queen' who rules over an otherworldly kingdom ... Surprisingly, Headley is restrained with the poem’s other women, mostly queens and princesses struggling to save themselves and their children as their clans wage war. Subtle choices of diction tease out their powerlessness in a culture shaped by men’s feuds, but beyond this they resemble their Old English counterparts closely. Headley allows herself greater liberty with Beowulf’s beasts and inanimate objects, turning them into an unexpected female supporting cast ... In transforming Beowulf into an allegory of twenty-first-century American toxic masculinity, Headley suppresses some of the complexity of early medieval manhood ... Headley falters when she tries too hard to make Beowulf modern, whether it’s by turning it into an allegory of class struggle or by figuratively putting its hero in a polo shirt. She is astute, however, in recognizing that the medieval epic tells a story about men’s violence that never really ended.
It’s worth asking: what does it mean to call a version of Beowulf feminist? It’s a difficult question because the poem is arguably feminist all on its own—no assistance needed ... Headley certainly deserves credit for bringing those gender-conscious analyses to the mainstream ... Headley’s Beowulf is kindred in spirit to The Mere Wife—highly conscious of gender and modernized to the hilt—but totally different in form. Instead of changing names or places, Headley sticks closely to the original Old English text while updating the vocabulary with flourishes of internet humor ... The feminism in Headley’s translation is embedded in the texture and language of the poem itself rather than in its individual events or characters ... Her Beowulf is a tragicomic epic about the things men do to impress one another. It’s as fierce an examination of masculine weakness as The Mere Wife was of feminine strength.
Headley apparently knows little Old English, and it shows ... here and there she forces in the feminine, not always persuasively, she does make a case for reconsidering Grendel’s mother—perhaps she was not a monster at all, just a fierce woman warrior ... The classics deserve a good shaking up once in a while, so those who love a short sharp shock should turn to her battling, ball-busting Dark-Agers ... Her steampunk translation of Beowulf, an in-your-face, fists-cocked performance preposterous and irritating by turns, should not be trusted as an accurate rendering of what scops sang in mead halls. Headley’s loosey-goosey style, slightly rattletrap in the expression, never quite rivals Heaney in richness or effect ... Headley’s 'wine-drunk, mead-met men,' like many another phrase, is a clumsy invention not in the original ... her version still bears some of the gloaming spirit of the ancient text. What cripples the reinvigoration of this hoary ancestor of English verse is her frantic voguishness. The translation is so stuffed with market-fresh slang ... in about five years these gobbets of slang, most of them, will be...stone cold ... There are so many silly lines in Headley’s Beowulf, I’d have trouble choosing the worst[.]
Headley...is the first person to begin the poem with 'Bro!' This sets the tone for the whole translation—bold, current and committed to exposing the toxic masculinity not only of Beowulf’s society, but also of our own. It might seem like a daring decision but to my mind it makes perfect sense. Beowulf is a poem about macho culture ... It evokes the more positive elements of the poem’s masculinity, such as loyalty and comradeship (bromance). It helps us to hear the verbal nature of the poem, with its stories within stories, its meanderings and digressions—you can imagine one man nudging another at a pub bar to interrupt his conversation in just this way. But most importantly it gets to the heart of the poem’s concern with the performance of masculinity—of what it means to be part of the 'real man' club ... There is a glory and a thrill to her verse, which brings the blood, fire and youthful energy of the original to the surface ... Refreshingly, in Headley’s translation Grendel’s mother is certainly dangerous ... Translating Beowulf is a significant challenge and fresh offerings do not come around too often ... accomplished ... a gift—one that will help to make this important poem accessible to a new generation of readers.
[I]f brainy college students were still allowed to congregate in dormitory lounges, Headley’s Beowulf would certainly start some heated arguments. There are two reasons for this, one good and one bad ... The bad reason is simple: this is very often and at almost all key points a noticeably inaccurate translation of what the surviving manuscript of Beowulf actually says, and the inaccuracies are all intentional and all tending toward the author’s preferred interpretation of the poem ... But the fact that Headley’s book is useless as a translation of Beowulf (once you whole-cloth make things up, you guarantee that) doesn’t in any way undercut the main reason for reading it: as a poetic meditation on the poem, it’s full of startlingly powerful and often raucously lovely language.
Maria Dahvana Headley’s breathtakingly audacious and idiomatically rich Beowulf: A New Translation is a breath of iconoclastically fresh air blowing through the old tale’s stuffy mead-hall atmosphere ... Headley doesn’t attempt to reproduce the verse form. She makes ample use of alliteration (without necessarily tying it to stressed syllables, as the original does), and she sprinkles her verses with rhyme, knitting them together like a freestyle rapper ... Headley is as much in love with language as was the poet she translates — or 'adapts,' some would say, though aside from matters of diction (and occasional judgmental interpolations) her version stays remarkably close to the details of the original text ... Headley studs her version with slang, with obscenities, with the most up-to-date argot ... Headley has quite deliberately recast her distant and alien original to reflect contemporary concerns, taking license in the fact that she is neither an academic medievalist nor an 'accredited' poet; she’s an author of fantasy fiction.
[Maria Dahvana Headley] renders the epic into a readable, relevant, and vibrant text for the 21st century. She immediately signals her approach by her translation of hwaet, the poem’s famous opening word. Hwaet has been deciphered in numerous ways, and Headley used many of them (listen, hark, behold, lo, sing, etc.) as section headings in her novel. For Beowulf: A New Translation , she selects “Bro!” to get things going. And go they do ... She’s made an ancient tale fresh, fun, and even more meaningful with this magnificent translation.
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 ... 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.
The language may keep Headley’s version from high school curricula, but the sentiment is exactly right: Grendel is an outcast and monster through no fault of his own while the men who array themselves against him are concerned with attaining fame and keeping the reputation of being good for eternity while having a nice flagon of mead at the end of a day of hacking away. Headley’s language and pacing keep perfect track with the events she describes ... and if phrases like 'Everybody’s gotta learn sometime' and 'His guys tried' seem a touch too contemporary, they give the 3,182-line text immediacy without surrendering a bit of its grand poetry ... Some purists may object to the small liberties Headley has taken with the text, but her version is altogether brilliant.