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10 November 2021

Reimagining Beowulf as a story of female rage

Maria Dahvana Headley’s thrilling feminist translation brings the epic Anglo-Saxon poem into the present political moment.

By Erica Wagner

The question is always: who gets to tell the story? In most Western cultures, the answer is simple: men. Men tell stories of violence, and these stories are perceived and accepted as heroic, as epic. Male violence is at the root of “civilisation”, at the root of colonialism, of industry, of the relentless economic growth that is destroying our habitat. Some of our most powerful stories have emerged from that tradition of narrative pillage. Without male violence, there would be no Gilgamesh, no Iliad, no Odyssey. And so we come to Beowulf, the thousand-year-old epic of male violence, and one with a woman at its heart.

In introducing her thrilling new translation, the American writer Maria Dahvana Headley attributes her long-standing fascination with the story not to its eponymous hero – though it’s worth noting that the Old English manuscript, the single source of this story, is untitled, and the poem was only known as Beowulf much later in its history – but elsewhere. At eight years old, “on the hunt for any sort of woman warrior”, Headley found an illustrated book of monsters. One of them was a green woman standing in a swamp, holding a knife: “She had a ferocious look and seemed to give precisely zero fucks,” Headley writes. “She was just a woman with a weapon, all by herself in the centre of the page.”

It would be many years before Headley discovered this warrior was not, in fact, at the centre of the story. What had so resonated with Headley as a little girl in search of heroines was a picture of a mother. The green woman was the mother of Grendel, the first monster to scatter terror through this extraordinary tale, which, at 3,000-plus lines, is the longest epic poem in Old English, the language of Anglo-Saxon England before the 1066 Norman Conquest. The manuscript, which now resides in the British Library, was written down in the late tenth or early 11th century, and the tale is set hundreds of years before – not in England, but in Denmark and what is now Sweden, the land of the Geats. Perhaps it is possible to think of this Anglo-Saxon epic as a majestic prefiguring of our fascination with Scandi noir.

The briefest possible sketch: the Danes are menaced by the monster Grendel, who slays and devours King Hrothgar’s warriors. Beowulf, prince of the Geats, rocks up to save the day, not counting on the fact that after he deals with Grendel, the beast’s mother will show up to avenge him. Beowulf chases her to her lair at the bottom of a mere and, thanks to God’s grace, does for her too. In the poem’s second half, Beowulf has gone home to be king of the Geats; at the end of his long reign he slays the dragon menacing his people but is mortally wounded in the fight and receives a hero’s burial.

Beowulf survives in our collective imagination because it is the monster-movie ur-text, in which societies are haunted by demons that might well be of their own making. As Seamus Heaney wrote in his landmark translation, first published in 1999, the story possesses “a mythic potency… it arrives from somewhere beyond the known bourne of our experience, and having fulfilled its purpose… it passes once more into the beyond”.

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Heaney uses “mythic” in its most useful sense: to describe stories that retain a quality of truth, regardless of where or when they are encountered. As the Canadian poet and polymath Robert Bringhurst has said: “In most oral societies, literature is the major art form, and the main genre in oral literature isn’t the novel, it’s myth-telling. Myths are conveyed through narrative poetry. So in oral cultures, by and large, poetry is the main way of trying to tell the truth.”

What Headley saw lurking in this complex, interwoven narrative was a woman’s rage. Her first swing at Beowulf was her terrific 2018 novel, The Mere Wife, a modern riff on the poem. That book’s protagonist was a mother, a damaged war veteran fighting in defence of her persecuted son. Now, in her translation of the epic, she has done the source material vivid and original justice. Her verse is bold, faithful to the spirit and rhythm of the manuscript but, in its use of modern slang and plenty of swearing, deeply aligned to the present day – a time when the Anglo-Saxon fear of the Other finds renewed expression. The poem’s famous opening word, “Hwaet”, an exclamation which exhorts us to listen – and which Heaney translates as a pragmatic Ulster “So” – Headley renders: “Bro!”

Bro! Tell me we still know how to speak of kings! In the old days,/everyone knew what men were: brave, bold, glory-bound. Only/stories now, but I’ll sound the Spear-Danes’ song, hoarded for/hungry times.

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With this choice she engages right away with the poem’s masculine swagger while also raising a question: “everyone knew what men were” is not a literal translation, and whether this knowledge of men is positive or negative, true or false, is left up to the reader to decide. But purists need not fear: she keeps a powerful sense of the alliterative rhythm of the original, crafting energetic verbs to suit her purpose: “bonfiring” and “bootstrapped” follow on closely from each other in her vigorous opening.

[See also: Claire-Louise Bennett: “The brink of adulthood is a very uncomfortable time”]

Yet she interrogates the text to great effect. In her introduction Headley delves into her translation of the descriptor for Grendel’s mother, which is “aglæcwif”. Heaney gives us “monstrous hell-bride”; Headley points out that this word is the feminine form of “aglaeca”, which can mean a hero. “Warrior woman” is her translation for the figure Headley sought as a girl. She remarks that Grendel’s monstrous qualities might have come not from his mother, but from his father. In this version, the dragon at the poem’s close becomes female, guarding her hoard against intruders, singing “her own unearthly serpent song”. As Headley dryly observes: “My own experiences as a woman tell me it’s very possible to be mistaken for monstrous when one is only doing as men do: providing for and defending oneself.”

These are subtle shifts, yet they affect the tenor of the whole poem, and in doing so point to a notion I used in passing a little earlier in this piece: that of the collective imagination. This year’s Booker Prize was justly awarded to Damon Galgut (interviewed on page 48) for his novel The Promise, a family story which acts as a lens through which to view South Africa’s recent past. A literary prize awards a solitary talent, but Galgut’s work is deeply embedded not only in his native country’s history but in a deep understanding of literary form. It, like Headley’s book, plays with realism and modernism, creating something which is both new and in conversation with what has come before. It is this conversation that enables human beings to communicate across individual cultures. A text is only one half of a dialogue: the reader brings herself to it, and the song is sung in common.

I use “text” advisedly. For if a reader asks what right Headley has to play fast and loose with a canonical work of literature, better to recall Bringhurst, and be reminded that there is no need to consider it a “text” at all. It is a record of what was, once, an oral performance, a mutable composition, altering at every telling, its storyteller adapting himself – perhaps herself – to audience, circumstance and mood. To politics, to the arguments of each new day. Who gets to tell the story? We must never stop asking ourselves this question; it is an especially urgent one now.

Beowulf: A New Translation
Maria Dahvana Headley
Scribe, 176pp, £9.99

[See also: Natasha Brown: “It’s important to celebrate difficult novels”]

This article appears in the 10 Nov 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Behind the Masks