A radical new verse translation of the epic poem by Maria Dahvana Headley, which brings to light elements that have never before been translated into English, recontextualizing the binary narrative of monsters and heroes into a tale in which the two categories often entwine, justice is rarely served, and dragons live among us.
...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.