Beowulf: A New Translation by Maria Dahvana Headley

Information

Goodreads: Beowulf: A New Translation
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: August 25, 2020

Official Summary

A new, feminist translation of Beowulf by the author of The Mere Wife.

Nearly twenty years after Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf — and fifty years after the translation that continues to torment high-school students around the world — there is a radical new verse translation of the epic poem by Maria Dahvana Headley, which brings to light elements never before translated into English.

A man seeks to prove himself as a hero. A monster seeks silence in his territory. A warrior seeks to avenge her murdered son. A dragon ends it all. These familiar components of the epic poem are seen with a novelist’s eye toward gender, genre, and history. Beowulf has always been a tale of entitlement and encroachment — of powerful men seeking to become more powerful and one woman seeking justice for her child — but this version brings new context to an old story. While crafting her contemporary adaptation, Headley unearthed significant shifts lost over centuries of translation; her Beowulf is one for the twenty-first century.

Star Divider

Review

This is a difficult review for me to write because, on one hand, I understand what Maria Dahvana Headley is doing with this translation. She’s making Beowulf more modern and accessible, and she’s using her translation to draw out a new interpretation of the story, one where Grendel’s mother is a grief-stricken mom before than a monster and where Beowulf and company are still impressive warriors but also kind of bragging dude bros who don’t know everything. I see her vision, and I get where she’s coming from. On the other hand: it just isn’t my thing.

I’ve read a number of translations of Beowulf (such as Heaney’s and Tolkien’s), and I’ve written a post for the blog about whether the story is one of adventure or one of loss. I LIKE the old feel of the story and I like the translator interpretation that Beowulf used antiquated language when it was written; it sounded old to its first Anglo-Saxon listeners. I like feeling that I’m in a far-off time and place where the things that mattered to people are sometimes strikingly familiar and sometimes completely foreign. I’m not really into a version of Beowulf where Beowulf calls everyone, including kings, “bro” and the narrator calls Beowulf Hrothgar’s “new best boy.”

I also didn’t think the combo old/new language meshed. Maria Dahvana Headley talks in the introduction about how she wants the story to be approachable and how she wants it to sound like someone telling a story, like something someone would say. Except, well, none of it sounds like something anyone would say. I cannot imagine someone standing somewhere and saying these lines:

I’ve racked my brain, bro, but, Unferth,
I can’t unpack any similar stories of
heroics from you. Let me say it straight:
You don’t rate and neither did Breca
when it came to battle. The gulf? You’re cattle,
and I’m a wolf . . . (581-586)

There’s something about the way that the translation sometimes uses the Anglo-Saxon language (ex. kennings like “whale-road”) and sometimes uses modern language (ex. “daddy” or “bullshit”) and fits into some poetic meter that isn’t quite Anglo-Saxon but clearly based around it that all comes across as awkward to me. And who would really brag to someone by saying, “The gulf?” and then calling the other person cattle? I get that all this is actually the appeal of this translation to many people, but I didn’t like it.

The one part I did like is that Grendel’s mother truly gets a better light here. She’s still metaphorically a monster and she still has to die, but Headley translates her as just a woman who is (reasonably) upset her son has been killed. Headley makes the point that the Old English wording doesn’t mean she actually has to be labelled a hag or monster or swamp thing or whatever else translators have come up with. She can just be a woman who lives in the mere, who has an impressive hoard of weapons and a lot of strength.

So, if you like Beowulf, this is definitely worth looking into just as a new perspective on the story. If you don’t like Beowulf or you’ve always been intimidated by old-timey language translations, this could also be of interest to you. Again, it’s just not for me. I’m glad I read it once, but I don’t think I’ll be rereading it for any reason.

Briana

Beowulf: A Classic I Read in School and Ended Up Loving (Classic Remarks)

Classic Remarks

What Is Classic Remarks?

Classic Remarks is a meme hosted here at Pages Unbound that poses questions each Friday about classic literature and asks participants to engage in ongoing discussions surrounding not only themes in the novels but also questions about canon formation, the “timelessness” of literature, and modes of interpretation.

How Can I Participate?

Leave your link to your post on your own blog in the comments below. And feel free to comment with your thoughts even if you are not officially participating with a full post!

You can find more information and the list of weekly prompts here.

(Readers who like past prompts but missed them have also answered them on their blog later and linked back to us at Pages Unbound, so feel free to do that, too!)

This Week’s Prompt:

What classic did you read in school and end up loving?

Medieval literature is not exactly widely read by the general public. Perhaps it is too far removed from the everyday to seem relevant. Perhaps people fear it will be difficult to read or understand because it is so old. However, I have a special fondness for medieval literature–and it began in high school.

While medieval literature is not, as a rule, widely taught in U. S. high schools, Beowulf usually is. An anonymous alliterative poem written in Old English, Beowulf does not seem like the type of literary work poised to become widely beloved. And yet, the tale immediately captured me with its mystery, its sense of magic, its wonder. In many ways, if you think about it, Beowulf, the story of a hero who fights monsters with his bare hands and slays dragons in his old age, is simply one of the earliest extant example of fantasy we have in English. I love dragons! So, of course, I love Beowulf.

Beowulf, however, enchants me with more than its monsters. I am also fascinated by the interplay between Beowulf’s pagan beliefs and the writer’s Christian beliefs. There is something bittersweet about the story, with Beowulf desperately trying to live on in the only way he believes he can–through achieving lasting fame–especially when it combines with the reader’s knowledge that Christianity will come and Beowulf’s time, with all its glory and honor and dragons will fade away. Beowulf is not a typical fantasy because it ends sadly, with a sense of foreboding doom. It is, however, the type of story that stays with you.

Required reading in schools can often get a bad reputation, with opponents arguing that old books do not speak to today’s youth and should be replaced with contemporary titles. However, required reading in schools introduced me to many works I may not have picked up by myself–and it taught me to love them. Beowulf remains a favorite story of mine to this day. I don’t need to be a 6th-century Scandinavian warrior to appreciate it.

What about you? Have you read Beowulf? And what books did you learn to love in school?

Beowulf: Epic Adventure or Tale of Loss?

Boys of Blue and Beowulf

Beowulf is one of my favorite stories, and I’ve reread it again and again in different translations, trying to see it through different eyes and interpretations.  Translating Old English is not necessarily the simple task that non-experts might assume it to be; some words might appear in only a few or even one text, making their meanings unclear.  Readers can see this just from the poem’s famous opening word Hwæt, which has been variously translated as “Lo!,” “Listen!,” “Hark!,” “So!,” etc.  Yet despite the different versions of the text I have encountered, trends of interpretation seem clear; readers frequently seem to believe that the most interesting aspects of the text are either the historical context or the fights with the monsters.  This is not true for me.

Though Beowulf is, of course, an epic with swords and battles and boasting and great feats of arms, I’m attracted to the sense of sadness and loss in the poem, the sense that all these great things are passing away.  It is not the defeating of Grendel, his mother, and the dragon that move me, but rather the passing of Beowulf himself at the end of the poem.

There is a sense of glory in the story, of course.  It is inspiring to hear Beowulf boast, exhilarating to watch him live up to his words and do deeds that no one else can do.  Beowulf is the exemplary warrior—skilled, but also honorable, interested in fairness and protecting others.  He appreciates rewards of treasure, of course, but such was Old English culture; he is equally as free with giving his wealth away to those who deserve it.

This is fun, and I appreciate that J.R.R. Tolkien was instrumental in helping Beowulf to become appreciated as a story, one that features exciting fantasy monsters who epically meet their demise.  But Beowulf isn’t interesting because it features a lot of wrestling and sword-waving (really, no story is interesting solely because of that).  I love it because it ends with the sense that these times are passing away, that all of this is being lost.  The heroes are dying, and the world is moving on.  It’s less safe and less certain, and things will never be the same.

The end of the poem reminds me of other Old English works like The Wanderer, which includes the lines:

Where is the horse gone? Where the rider?
Where the giver of treasure?
Where are the seats at the feast?
Where are the revels in the hall?
Alas for the bright cup!
Alas for the mailed warrior!
Alas for the splendour of the prince!
How that 
time has passed away,
dark under the cover of night,
as if it had never been!

(Translation by Michael Alexander)

These are exactly the types of questions one expects Beowulf’s people to be asking once he is gone, and it’s tragic.  There is some hope in Wiglaf, the one warrior who stood by Beowulf’s side and did not flee while he fought the dragon, but it’s not enough.  Beowulf’s time is ending, and a new age is beginning.

I don’t think I’m the only person who thinks Beowulf is a sad poem, but it’s a point I rarely see emphasized.  The story is moving and memorable not simply because Beowulf is great but because no one else will ever be great in quite the way he was.

Briana

Beowulf: A New Verse Translation by Seamus Heaney

BeowulfINFORMATION

Goodreads: Beowulf
Series: None
Source: Purchased
Published: 2000

SUMMARY

Seamus Heaney offers a new translation of the classic Anglo-Saxon alliterative poems, which tells the tale of the hero Beowulf as he fights monsters from the murderous Grendel to the greedy dragon.

REVIEW

I’m no scholar of Old English, but perhaps this qualifies me to review this book as one of the general populace to whom it seems to be marketed.  Seamus Heaney here translates the famous Anglo-Saxon epic alliterative poem–famous now, that is, in large part thanks to Professor J. R. R. Tolkien, who argued we should view it as a work of art and not merely a text to be mined for historical details.  This translation became both a New York Times bestseller and the standard text offered in many an American classroom. So how good is the story really?  And the translation?

I have not tried to compare Heaney’s translation with the original Anglo-Saxon text, so I do not know myself how faithfully he translates or what kinds of changes he may have made and how they affect how we understand the text.  I do know, however, that his text is lively and vivid.  It invites the reader in to this epic journey and says, “Shh, listen.  A great tale is about to unfold.”

And a great tale it is.  “Anglo-Saxon epic poetry” may not immediately seem appealing to the average reader, but Beowulf is, in fact, an engrossing fantasy adventure.  It begins with the titular hero facing the monster Grendel, who creeps in a famed hall at night to kill the warriors sleeping there, then ends with a spectacular and doomed fight against a dragon.  Beowulf is, by the way, a super brave and strong and all-around amazing hero–and he is never going to let you forget it.  So intertwined with his epic fight are details both of all the other amazing feats he has performed, as well as tales of the feats other historical figures have performed.

These historical asides may sometimes lose the average reader.  Who are these Scandinavian figures and what are they doing in this story?  (And why is the great British poem about Scandinavian heroes, anyway?)  But they do ground the story in a larger narrative that makes the audience reflect on Beowulf and his place in society.  Though Beowulf triumphs against his first monsters, the specters of history and death are always behind him.  By the time the dragon comes, you know he is lost.

But losing cannot deter a great hero.  Beowulf will seek fame and glory wherever it may be since only fame keeps a pagan hero alive after death.  His final battle, abandoned by all but one faithful follower, is, for me, the emotional heart of this tale.  Doom comes to us all.  Beowulf perhaps faces it more boldly than most.

Though I’ve read Beowulf several times, it remains a powerful and moving story.  And the people who helped it make the New York Times bestseller list seem to agree.

5 starsKrysta 64

Beowulf trans. by J.R.R. Tolkien (Book Review)

Tolkien Event 2016

Every year on March 25, the anniversary of the Downfall of Sauron, the Tolkien Society hosts Tolkien Reading Day. This year’s theme is life, death, and immortality. The primary goal is to promote the reading of the works of J. R. R. Tolkien! To celebrate, Pages Unbound is hosting two weeks of Tolkien-related posts. In addition to our own thoughts, we will be featuring guest posts and interviews!


Information

Goodreads: Beowulf
Series: None
Source: Purchased
Published: May 22, 2014

Review

Note: I love Beowulf as a poem, but my review focuses more on the translation and this book as a whole.  The short version about Beowulf itself is that it is wondrous and everyone should read it.

I was initially skeptical about a prose translation of Beowulf–I hate when translators turn poetry into prose–but J.R.R. Tolkien does a fantastic job of conveying the meaning of the text while preserving its rhythm and feel.  Though Seamus Heaney’s translation is the default in schools, especially since it contains the original Anglo-Saxon on facing pages, Tolkien’s version retains more of the Old English tone and should be equally accessible to students and other general readers.  Even readers who feel themselves familiar with Beowulf will find something fresh and exciting about this translation, something new to marvel at.  Though Tolkien did not complete the translation to a point he would be satisfied publishing it, the care he takes choosing his words is evident.  This is definitely an edition that should be added to every reader’s collection.

Unfortunately, Christopher Tolkien struggles, as with The Fall of Arthur, to create a volume that can appeal to both a general readership and an academic one, though he is more upfront in acknowledging the dilemma this time around.  His conclusion is that we should simply consider this a “memorial edition,” which is something I have seen J.R.R. Tolkien himself refer to in discussing academic friends but not something I have ever experienced.  Ultimately, I dislike this categorization.  It makes this Beowulf sound exclusive, as if only people who knew Tolkien or are associated with Oxford have any right to be reading it.  And it still sounds academic.  The general public is not in the habit of reading memorial books even for well-known and loved professors.

In actual reading practice, the volume falls awkwardly between accessible and academic.  Christopher’s tactic to make it “less academic” is to put first the translation of Beowulf, then the notes he has pulled from his father’s lectures.  There is no indication within the poem itself about which scenes or lines have notes about them.  This means that a reader interested in the commentary has to work backwards, reading the notes and then looking up the section of the narrative they talk about.  Since this is frustratingly awkward, I gave up.  I read Beowulf in one big chunk.  Then I read the commentary in one big chunk, never turning back to look at the text and trying to trust the fact that I’ve read Beowulf enough times to generally know what scenes the notes were referring to.  It worked well enough for me, but this isn’t exactly the most effective way to read.

Structure of the book aside, the commentary itself is fascinating.  Though I’ve read Beowulf a few times in high school and college and was a TA for a class where the professor taught it, I’ve never seen the text treated in such detail.  It seems that, today, the text is so well-known that professors are afraid to really touch it.  They go over the main points, assuming either they have nothing to add about to the conversation or that the conversation is so vast they shouldn’t bother to cover it all.  Consequently, most of my academic knowledge of Beowulf has been reduced to debates over things like “how evil” exactly Grendel is or “how monstrous” Beowulf himself is.  It was really enlightening to read Tolkien’s detailed treatment of the poem, focusing both on the Old English language (what is the poem really trying to say by a word choice? how should we translate it?) and the history of the poem.  There are even enough references for readers to get the general debates that scholars were having about the poem, even if Tolkien himself never goes into it.  Anyone really interested in Beowulf should definitely look into this book and take the time to go through the commentary.

Tolkien’s Sellic Spell, an attempt to tell a folklore version of Beowulf that keeps the great feats but cuts out all the historical situating and commentary, is interesting both as a story and as a look into Tolkien’s thoughts on the poem.  Though much of it is of Tolkien’s own invention, it could almost serve as a SparkNotes edition of the first two monster scenes for those readers who just want the action.  However, it is also worth reading the commentary before reading the tale because Tolkien implements many of his own thoughts about the history and production of the Beowulf text.  For example, he posits that some other men who traveled with Beowulf to Heorot also wanted to try their strength against Grendel, which is why Beowulf just sits around while a guy gets hacked to death.  This theory is incorporated into Sellic Spell.

The Lay of Beowulf at the end is just a beautiful poem in Tolkien’s usual style, capturing both the grandeur of Beowulf’s deeds and the air of sadness that surrounds Heorot, as its end in fire is so well-known.  Christopher supplies a couple versions and details some of the manuscript history, which will be interesting to readers serious about Tolkien scholarship.  Personally I just wanted to read and enjoy the poem.

5 StarsBriana

N. D. Wilson’s Boys of Blur, Beowulf, and Adaptation Theory

Boys of Bur Collage

Krysta has already reviewed Boys of Blur, and I’ll agree with her that it’s a superbly written novel, with a compelling story and a great cast of characters.  Set in the Florida Everglades, it builds a strong sense of place, which, while modern, also manages to stretch back deep in time to an era of magic.  Today, however, I don’t want to review the book so much as think about how it functions as an adaptation.  Children’s versions of Beowulf were fairly popular in the late Victorian era, but we see fewer of them today (Rebecca Barnhouse also has one), so I wanted to take a closer work at how Wilson presents the story and themes to a contemporary youth audience.

Wilson does not seem to have written Boys of Blur with an educational market in mind.  Nowhere on the book jacket or on Wilson’s author website is there a clear indication that this is, in fact, a retelling of Beowulf.  Although I don’t wish to imply that it is impossible to write a story that is both educational and, well, a good story, I do think there’s something to be said for not feeling pressure to tell the story a particular way (example: when youth Shakespeare adaptations feel the need to maintain something of the Elizabethan language, so educators will feel good about placing the adaptation in their classrooms).

The book does signal its connection to Beowulf to those in the know.  There are swamp monsters that the locals call “Stanks” but which readers later learn are more properly called “Grens.”  There are brief allusions to Cain, and the Grens’ mother has an underwater cave appropriately stocked with an assortment of weapons. And in case readers don’t see the plot parallels, one of the boys brings up the book Beowulf itself near the end of the story.  This is a bit meta—the text Beowulf inside of a Beowulf adaptation.  It clearly is intended as a helpful marker to the audience, to signal the connection between Boys of Blur and the Anglo-Saxon poem, but, personally, I’m just stuck wondering how a kid can claim to love Beowulf so much he’s read three different translations and yet not have commented on how his own life was beginning to mirror the tale.

Luckily for him, however, Boys of Blur is dark—people are in serious danger of dying—but the story isn’t quite as violent, or graphically violent, as its source.  Wilson has found a nice balance of making the stakes high enough for young readers to experience the fear and concern that his characters do while fighting the monsters, without making the book overly gory.

The book is also updated a bit to suit a contemporary audience.  “Beowulf” is an actual character in the story (though not actually named “Beowulf”), but he is also a role.  Many, or any, can be Beowulf.  Anyone, including kids, can be a hero.  Additionally, football seems to fulfilling the role of “masculine rite of passage” rather than soldiery or war-making.  Though not all the football player characters are portrayed as thugs, it is still possible to draw a football/violence parallel and to see football as the activity in which all “proper” boy are expected to engage in this small Florida town.

Nonetheless, there is still a sense in Boys of Blur that Beowulf needs to be a tale with roots, with a history deep in the past.  The Beowulf figure speaks an unfamiliar language, though not Anglo-Saxon, and he and the Grens have a history that goes back farther than the existence of the town in which the story takes place.  While this particular adaptation is not as self-conscious about signalling its connection to the medieval or the Anglo-Saxon as others, it seems clear that Beowulf cannot be imagined, at least here, as a completely modern tale.  It may be a long while before we see someone follow attempt to write a sci-fi or futuristic take on Beowulf.

The Boys of Blur by N. D. Wilson

Boys of BlurInformation

Goodreads: The Boys of Blur
Source: Received from publisher
Published: April 8, 2014

Summary

Charlie has never known where he belonged, not with a father who left him and a new stepfather who brought his family to live in a big house that never felt like home.  But now his stepfather has returned to the place where he grew up–Taper, Florida, where football is what matters and the boys learn speed by chasing rabbits through the burning sugarcane.  Charlie wants to belong here, too, but an ancient evil lurks in the swamps and the only way for him to save the lives of those he loves may be for him to sacrifice his own.

Review

N. D. Wilson consistently defies the expectations associated with middle-grade fantasy.  In his latest book, The Boys of Blur, he immediately subverts the genre by introducing not just a main character with a stable, loving family but one who forms part of a racially mixed family.  Moments like those, moments when you know the author cares about reaching his or her audience and meeting them wherever they are at, whatever walks of life they are are travelling, are what makes stories special.  That was the moment when I knew I was going to love this book.

Wilson actually has a strong track record of avoiding the infamous middle-grade orphan as well as those annoying prevalent “missing” parents.  Reading a bunch of books about children with no one to look after them or care for them is rather depressing, not only because I feel terrible for all those unloved children, but also because it suggests in a way that children with parents cannot have adventures.  Throw any sort of competent authority figure in the picture and evidently you’re destined for boredom.  Wilson’s stories, however, show just the opposite.  In his worlds, magic waits around every corner and is free for anyone who comes.

Transporting elements of Beowulf to Florida is, in that sense, a rather genius move.  As a young nation, the United States lacks that great sense of depth that makes the magical seem plausible in other settings such as England.  However,with a flick of his pen, Wilson creates that magical mythical background for America.  Wilson’s may not really reach back to the times of the Anglo-Saxons (though it’s hard to know) but it feels ageless enough to satisfy any young readers who mourned a distinct lack of King Arthurs or Robin Hoods in their own backyards.

And this really is a story for young readers, one of those classic coming-of-age tales where the hero digs deep inside himself to discover what really matters and what it will take for him to be the kind of person he wants to be.  As always, Wilson pulls no punches and the truth may be bigger than expected–in this world, love is what matters and the greatest way to show one’s love is to give one’s life.  There is a certain amount of respect from Wilson in laying this down that I think his readers will not fail to appreciate.  The young, like the old, are called to give of themselves, and Wilson believes they can do it.  That they should do it.  Perhaps there is nothing so terrible for children as wanting to be needed, wanting to do good and being told they cannot.

These are the types of themes commonly called “universal”, but The Boys of Blur is deliberately set in a very particular place with a very particular cast of characters.  This is a story that seems as if it could never be set elsewhere besides the swamps of Florida and the burning sugarcane.  There is that much love poured into the setting.  You can identify with a character, the story seems to say, but identification has to go beyond noting the similarities into realizing–and celebrating–the differences.  Welcome to Taper, Florida.  You’ll learn to love it, too.

The Boys of Blur is admittedly rather different from what I have come to expect from Wilson after reading the 100 Cupboards trilogy and the first three books in the Ashtown Burials series.  The magic is a little more subtle.  The evil somehow darker, more sinister.  But the Wilson trademarks–the magical interspersed with the everyday, the heroes learning what “heroic” really means, the strong bonds among family–are all there.  And like every Wilson book, this is a journey you want to take.

The Coming of the Dragon by Rebecca Barnhouse

Summary: Rune washed up on the shores of the Geats as a baby and many have hated him ever since. They believe he was an offering to the gods and that, by saving his life, King Beowulf placed the kingdom in jeopardy. Now a young man, Rune struggles to fit into his society and to prove himself worthy to be a warrior. The awakening of a dragon gives him the perfect opportunity to show his mettle, but Rune fears he may fail his king in the hour of his need.

Review: The Coming of the Dragon intrigued me with its promise to elaborate on the story of Wiglaf, that enigmatical kinsman of Beowulf who shows up at the very end of the poem to play a pivotal role in the history of the Geats. The book sought to give a more human face to the events described by focusing on the people under Beowulf’s rule and by describing their everyday lives. I relished the opportunity to immerse myself more fully in the time period of the poem and to experience what it might have been like to live as a Geat, but, in the end, I think it may have been a mistake to write this book.

My first problem lies with the intended audience of the book. It is classified as middle grade and the age of the protagonist (Wiglaf here is only a boy on the cusp of manhood) as well as the language and writing style all bear this out. However, most people read Beowulf in high school. The intended audience is thus reading a book based on a poem they may know nothing about. Retellings should add a new dimension to a well-known tale, helping readers see the story in a new light or consider aspects they may have missed. The new dimensions give them their value. If readers have no familiarity with the original story, they may enjoy The Coming of the Dragon as a good adventure, but they are arguably missing out on the entire point of the book. Continue reading