My love affair with Beowulf began with Grendel’s mother, the moment I encountered her in an illustrated compendium of monsters,1 a slithery greenish entity standing naked in a swamp, knife in hand. I was about eight, and on the hunt for any sort of woman-warrior. Wonder Woman and She-Ra were fine, but Grendel’s mother was better. She had a ferocious look and seemed to give precisely zero fucks, not that I had that language to describe her at that point in my life. In the book I first saw her in, there was no Grendel, no Beowulf, no fifty years a queen. She was just a woman with a weapon, all by herself in the center of the page. I imagined she was the point of whatever story she came from. When I finally encountered the actual poem, years later, I was appalled to discover that Grendel’s mother was not only not the main event but also, to many people, an extension of Grendel rather than a character unto herself, despite the significant ink devoted to her fighting capabilities. It aggravated me enough that I eventually wrote a contemporary adaptation of Beowulf—The Mere Wife, a novel in which the Grendel’s mother character is a protagonist, a PTSD-stricken veteran of the United States’ wars in the Middle East. That might have been the end of it, but by that point I’d tumbled head over heels into Beowulf itself, and was, like everyone who ever translates it, obsessed.
It’s a somewhat unlikely object of obsession, this thousand-ish-year-old epic. Beowulf bears the distinction of appearing to be basic—one man, three battles, lots of gold—while actually being an intricate treatise on morality, masculinity, flexibility, and failure. It’s 3,182 lines of alliterative wildness, a sequence of monsters and would-be heroes. In it, multiple old men try to plot out how to retire in a world that offers no retirement. Hoarders of all kinds attempt to maintain control of people, halls, piles of gold, and even the volume of the natural world. Queens negotiate for the survival of their sons, attempt to save their children by marrying themselves to warriors, and, in one case, battle for vengeance on their son’s murderers. Graying old men long for one last exam to render them heroes once and for all. The phrase “That was a good king” recurs throughout the poem, because the poem is fundamentally concerned with how to get and keep the title “Good.” The suspicion that at any moment a person might shift from hero into howling wretch, teeth bared, causes characters ranging from scops to ring-lords to drop cautionary anecdotes. Does fame keep you good? No. Does gold keep you good? No. Does your good wife keep you good? No. What keeps you good? Vigilance. That’s it. And even with vigilance, even with courage, you still might go forth to slay a dragon (or, if you’re Grendel, slay a Dane), die in the slaying, and leave everyone and everything you love vulnerable. The world of the poem—a fantastical version of Denmark in the fifth to early sixth century and the land of the Geats, in present-day Sweden—is distant, but the actions of the poem’s characters are familiar.
As much as Beowulf is a poem about Then, it’s also (and always has been) a poem about Now, and how we got here. The poem is, after all, a poem about willfully blinkered privilege, about the shock and horror of experiencing discomfort when one feels entitled to luxury.
There are many translations out there, enough that you could read one a day for months and not repeat. They make up a startlingly diverse corpus of interpretations and styles, with the occasional screeching veer into new plot points. (How about the transgressive and fairly persuasive notion that the last survivor of a forgotten tribe, in burying his people’s gold, transforms by curse into the dragon?)2 Every English-language translator’s take on how to translate this text is motivated by different ideas of how to use modern English to convey things inexpressible in it.
This translation, for example, was completed during the first months of my son’s life. Parenting a baby is listening to someone use a language in which certain sounds mean a slew of things, and one must rely heavily on context to gain clarity; a language in which there is no way to translate accurately the ancient sound that means “hungry,” because, to the preverbal speaker, the sound means and is used to signal a compendium of things, something more like “belly hurt—longing—breast—empty mouth—bottle—swallow—milk—help.”
While this gloss is somewhat tongue-in-cheek, it’s not far from the actuality of Old English translation. It’s possible to make a case for more than one definition of many words, and the challenge is to land on an interpretation that braids rationally into the narrative, without translating a male warrior into a bear, or a woman warrior into a literal sea wolf rather than a metaphoric one.3 You must choose wisely, and then, somehow, structure those wise (or frustrated) choices into poetry.
With this text, perfection is impossible. The poem was written in the language we now call Old English, sometime between the mid-seventh and the end of the tenth centuries, and exists in a lone manuscript copy, the Nowell Codex. The version contained therein was written down sometime between AD 975 and 1025, by two scribes, A and B, with different handwriting and different tendencies toward error. Add to this the fact that the manuscript isn’t intact: bits of poem were lost over the centuries—first in the gestation of the written version itself, which was at the mercy of memory and (presumably) mead, and later, in a library fire in 1731, which badly singed the edges of the manuscript. It was rebound in the late nineteenth century, and in the interim, its edges crumbled beyond resurrection. Worms feasted. Least visibly and most significantly, scribal emendations changed the nature of the story in both subtle and unsubtle ways.4 Gaps were plugged with metric maybes, and lacunae inserted into lines that appear whole, to make sense of shifts in tone. All this is to say that Beowulf has been wrangled with, wrung out, and reworked for centuries. It’s been written upon almost as much by translators and librarians as it was by the original poet(s) and scribes.
The original Beowulf was composed by an author who imagined a world in which a monster is infuriated by loud music, a dragon ripples luxuriously about beloved gold, an elderly woman is able to make viable physical war against all the king’s men, and a young warrior can hold his breath for a full day while fighting sea monsters, winning his battle only because God shines a spotlight on a slaying sword. A “perfect” translation would require the translator to time travel fantastically rather than historically—more Narnia than Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. As if this weren’t enough, the language of the poem is as much a world-building tool as the plot is, engineered with the poet’s own anachronistic filter, an archaic, lyric lexicography.5
“If you wish to translate, not re-write, Beowulf,” J.R.R. Tolkien wrote in 1940, “your language must be literary and traditional: not because it is now a long while since the poem was made, or because it speaks of things that have since become ancient; but because the diction of Beowulf was poetical, archaic, artificial (if you will), in the day the poem was made.”6
Tolkien and I wouldn’t have agreed when it comes to the sort of language required for a translation of Beowulf—perceptions of “literary” and “traditional” language vary widely depending on who’s doing the perceiving, and Tolkien had a liking for the courtly that I do not share—but we agree that the original’s dense wordplay must be reckoned with.
Amid a slew of regressions in the past half decade, I must cite a win—the democratization of information. Access to formerly gate-kept texts has been radically broadened. Until recently, it was a cotton-gloved privilege to view the original manuscript of Beowulf. Now a click, and there you are, looking at handwriting a thousand years old: “Hwæt. We Gardena in geardagum, þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon…” Not only is the original accessible to anyone with an internet connection, so are a huge number of translations and volumes of evolving scholarship, many long out of print. This translation exists because of that access.
It is both pleasurable and desirable to read more than one translation of this poem, because when it comes to translating Beowulf, there is no sacred clarity. What the translated text says is a matter of study, interpretation, and poetic leaps of faith. Every translator translates this poem differently. That’s part of its glory.
And so, I offer to the banquet table this translation, done by an American woman born in the year 1977, a person who grew up surrounded by sled dogs, coyotes, rattlesnakes, and bubbling natural hot springs nestled in the wild high desert of Idaho, a person who, if we were looking at the poem’s categories, would fall much closer in original habitat to Grendel and his mother than to Beowulf or even the lesser denizens of Hrothgar’s court.
I came to this project as a novelist, interested specifically in rendering the story continuously and clearly, while also creating a text that feels as bloody and juicy as I think it ought to feel. Despite its reputation to generations of unwilling students, forced as freshmen into arduous translations, Beowulf is a living text in a dead language, the kind of thing meant to be shouted over a crowd of drunk celebrants. Even though it was probably written down in the quiet confines of a scriptorium, Beowulf is not a quiet poem. It’s a dazzling, furious, funny, vicious, desperate, hungry, beautiful, mutinous, maudlin, supernatural, rapturous shout.
In contrast to the methods of some previous translators, I let the poem’s story lead me to its style. The lines in this translation were structured for speaking, and for speaking in contemporary rhythms. The poets I’m most interested in are those who use language as instrument, inventing words and creating forms as necessary, in the service of voice. I come from the land of cowboy poets, and while theirs is not the style I used for this translation, I did spend a lot of time imagining the narrator as an old-timer at the end of the bar, periodically pounding his glass and demanding another. I saw it with my own eyes.
A brief and general word about meter and style tropes: early English verse is distinguished by both alliteration and stress patterns over a caesura (in oral versions, the caesura is a pause—on the page, a gap between the two halves of a line). Each half line contains two stressed syllables; the two stressed syllables in the first half line alliterate with the first stressed syllable in the second. Rhyme is used in Beowulf, but less predictably. It’s typically used to emphasize sequences—waves crashing against a shore, for example. And stylistically, Beowulf employs a variety of compound words, or kennings, to poetically describe both the commonplace and the astounding. Hence, we’ve got some wonderful and distinctive things: “whale-road” for sea; “battle-sweat” for blood; “sky-candle” for sun.
Like everyone who’s ever translated this text, I had some fun. After reading a variety of translations mimicking early English meter, and attempting a version myself, I decided that corpse-littered hill wasn’t one I wished to die on. Likewise, attempts to translate this text into other meters, which have typically yielded inadvertent hilarity. At some point, I encountered A. Diedrich Wackerbarth’s 1849 ballad translation,7 here quoted in the introduction of Grendel’s mother:
The mother Fiend, a Soul had she
Blood-greedy like the Gallows-tree,
And she for deadly Vengeance’ Sake
Will now the Battle undertake.
I didn’t desire to graft peach branches to a cactus, or vice versa, and so I gave myself leave to play with all the traditional aspects, preserving many kennings and inventing some of my own, while also employing the sensibilities of a modern poet rather than an ancient one. This translation rhymes in a variety of ways, including the occasional heroic couplet. I love raucous rhyme schemes and rampant alliteration, and the near universally derided line from John Richard Clark Hall’s 1901 translation, “ten timorous troth-breakers,” delights me. Sure, it’s undignified; sure, it’s nasty—but so are the runaway warriors it references. My alliteration (and embedded rhyme) often rolls over line breaks, which would be forbidden in early English metric rules. In this translation, though, I wanted the feeling of linguistic links throughout. The poem employs time passing and regressing, future predictions, quick History 101s, neglected bits of necessary information flung, as needed, into the tale. The original reads, at least in some places, like Old English freestyle, and in others like the wedding toast of a drunk uncle who’s suddenly remembered a poem he memorized at boarding school.
There are noble characters in Beowulf, but the poem itself is not noble. There is elevated language in Beowulf, but the poem feels populist. It’s entertaining, episodic, and full of wonders. As I constructed the persona of the narrator, other things about the poem fell into place—the insistent periodic recaps for a distracted multinight audience, the epithets and adamant character calibrations interspersed throughout (“That was a good king”). I emphasized those things where I found them, both for the mnemonic aid factor and for the feeling of a communal, colloquial history.
There has been much debate about the level to which the translated text should be archaized to emphasize for modern readers the alien landscape of early English verse, and specifically to what degree translators should mimic the poet’s own choice to use words already archaic and poetic at the time of the poem’s composition. In some cases, the urge to archaize won soundly over the urge to make sense. Thus, there are plenty of crinolined “forsooth” and “ween” ridden translations to choose from, should the reader be so inclined, as well as a series of Scots-tinged selections: “mickle” has tempted many, as has a hunger for “twixt,” and though much of this is attested in the Old English, in translation one can easily devolve into a peculiar Elizabethan pastiche.
Given that both poetic voice and communicative clarity are my interests here, my diction reflects access to the entirety of the English word-hoard—some of these words legitimately archaic or underknown (“corse,” “sere,” “sclerite”), others recently written into lexicons of slang or thrown up by new cultural contexts (“swole,” “stan,” “hashtag: blessed”), and already fading into, if not obscurity, uncertain status. Language is a living thing, and when it dies, it leaves bones. I dropped some fossils here, next to some newborns. I’m as interested in contemporary idiom and slang as I am in the archaic. There are other translations if you’re looking for the language of courtly romance and knights. This one has “life-tilt” and “rode hard … stayed thirsty” in it.
Back I come, for that reason, to hwæt. It’s been translated many ways. “Listen.” “Hark.” “Lo.” Seamus Heaney translated it as “So,” an attention-getting intonation, taken from the memory of his Irish uncle telling tales at the table.8
I come equipped with my own memories of sitting at the bar’s end listening to men navigate darts, trivia, and women, and so, in this book, I translate it as “Bro.” The entire poem, and especially the monologues of the men in it, feels to me like the sort of competitive conversations I’ve often heard between men, one insisting on his right to the floor while simultaneously insisting that he’s friendly. “Bro” is, to my ear, a means of commanding attention while shuffling focus calculatedly away from hierarchy.
Depending on tone, “bro” can render you family or foe. The poem is about that notion, too. Marital pacts are made and catastrophes ensue, kingdoms are offered and rejected, familial bonds are ensured not with blood, but with gold. When I use “bro” elsewhere in the poem, whether in the voice of Beowulf, Hrothgar, or the narrator, it’s to keep us thinking of the ways that family can be sealed by formulation, the ways that men can afford (or deny) one another power and safety by using coded language, and erase women from power structures by speaking collegially only to other men.
There’s another way of using “bro,” of course, and that is as a means of satirizing a certain form of inflated, overconfident, aggressive male behavior. I think the poet’s own language sometimes does that, periodically weighing in with commentary about how the men in the poem think all is well, but have discerned nothing about blood relatives’ treachery and their own heathen helplessness. Is this text attempting to be a manual for successful masculinity? No, although at a glance it appears to be a hero story. Beowulf is a manual for how to live as a man, if you are, in fact, more like the monsters than the men. It’s about taming wild, solitary appetites, and about the failure to tame them. It is not, in the poet’s opinion, entirely to Beowulf’s credit that he continues wild and solitary into old age. Compare him with another old man, Ongentheow, whose long-form story is told by the messenger bringing ill tidings to Beowulf’s people after Beowulf’s death. That old man, though an enemy to the Geats, is depicted as responsible to his wife, children, and people, battling strategically on their behalf, thinking of their safety even as he is cornered and killed. The humans in Beowulf are communal, battling together, leaders alongside lesser-ranked warriors. Those who are superhuman (or supernatural)—Grendel, his mother, the dragon, and Beowulf—battle solo and are ultimately weakened by their wild solitude.
There’s a geomythological theory that the larger-than-life men in this poem—Hygelac, mentioned in other texts as a giant; Beowulf; Grendel—came into the poetic imagination due to medieval discoveries of fossilized mammoth bones, which, when incorrectly reassembled, look like nothing so much as tremendous human skeletons.9 The theory is tempting in a variety of ways, among them the notion that these giant men were literally made of monsters. These physical “mistranslations” bear some similarity to the poem’s construct (and interrogation) of impervious masculinity. An emotional wound can send a previously powerful man into a swift, suicidal tailspin. See Hrethel and Hrothgar, and even Beowulf, rushing solo at a dragon, attempting to prove himself to an audience of young men who turn out to be mostly cowards.
Beowulf is usually seen as a masculine text, but I think that’s somewhat unfair. The poem, while (with one exception) not structured around the actions of women, does contain extensive portrayals of motherhood and peace-weaving marital compromise, female warriors, and speculation on what it means to lose a son. In this translation, I worked to shine a light on the motivations, actions, and desires of the poem’s female characters, as well as to clarify their identities. While there are many examples of gendered inequality in the poem, there is no shortage of female power.
Grendel’s mother, my original impetus for involvement with this text, is almost always depicted in translation as an obvious monster rather than as a human woman—and her monstrosity doesn’t typically allow even for partial humanity, though the poem itself shows us that she lives in a hall, uses weapons, is trained in combat, and follows blood-feud rules.
“Ogress … inhuman troll-wife” —Tolkien, 1926, published 2014
“That female horror … hungry fiend” —Raffel, 1963
“Ugly troll-lady” —Trask, 1997
“Monstrous hell-bride … swamp-thing from hell” —Heaney, 1999
It makes some sense that she’d be translated that way. Her son, Grendel, eats people and can carry home a doggie bag full of warriors. It’s just the two of them living in their under-mere hall, and for many late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century translators of this text, it would only have followed for the monstrous portion of Grendel’s parentage to be his mother rather than his absentee father. For most of those translators, the difficulty of imagining a human woman fully armed, fully elderly (she’s been ruler of her kingdom as long as Hrothgar’s been ruler of his), would have been insurmountable. There are other explanations for monsterhood in Grendel’s mother, of course—some interesting ones. I’m somewhat persuaded by adjacent lore surrounding troll-transformation due to rape,10 if only because the poisonous myth that a raped woman is a ruined woman, thus an abomination and thus, all too possibly, evil, has persisted as long as women have. Grendel’s father is an unknown. That said, though, Grendel’s mother doesn’t behave like a monster. She behaves like a bereaved mother who happens to have a warrior’s skill.
The tradition of monstrous depiction assisted by monstrous physical descriptors persevered in translation (though not necessarily in scholarship) into the later years of the twentieth century and beyond, particularly after Frederick Klaeber’s 1922 glossary defined the word used to reference Grendel’s mother, aglaec-wif, as “wretch, or monster, of a woman.” Never mind that aglaec-wif is merely the feminine form of aglaeca, which Klaeber defines as “hero” when applied to Beowulf, and “monster, demon, fiend” when referencing Grendel, his mother, and the dragon. Aglaeca is used elsewhere in early English to refer both to Sigemund and to the Venerable Bede, and in those contexts, it’s likelier to mean something akin to “formidable.” Fair enough. Multiple meanings to Old English words, after all.
Grendel’s mother is referred to in the poem as “ides, aglaec-wif,” which means, given this logic, “formidable noblewoman.” She isn’t physically described, beyond that she looks like a woman, and is tall. The Old English word for fingers, fingrum, has frequently been translated as “claws,” but Grendel’s mother fights effectively with a knife, and wielding a knife while also possessing long nails is—as anyone who’s ever had a manicure knows—a near impossibility. The word brimwylf, or “sea-wolf,” is also used as a supporting argument for monstrosity, but it’s a guess. The manuscript itself reads brimwyl, which may have been meant to be brimwif. Elsewhere, Grendel’s mother is referred to as a merewif, or “ocean-woman,” so it’s very possible that scribal error introduced a wolf where a wife should be, and that traditions of gendered hierarchy made a monster of a mother. In any case, “sea-wolf” is a poetic term, and might be as easily applied to Beowulf as it is to Grendel’s mother. In Beowulf, it seems likely to me that some translators, seeking to make their own sense of this story, have gone out of their way to bolster Beowulf’s human credentials by amplifying the monstrosity of Grendel’s mother, when in truth, the combatants are similar. They’re both extraordinary fighters, and the battle between Beowulf and Grendel’s mother is, unlike other battles in the poem, a battle of equally matched warriors. God’s established soft spot for Beowulf is the deciding factor, not physical strength.
Ecgtheow’s heir would’ve been filleted, recategorized
as MIA, and left to rot in her cavern, had not his suit
saved him. That, too, was God’s work.
The Lord, maker of miracles, sky-designer,
had no trouble leveling the playing field
when Beowulf beat the count and stood.
He glimpsed it hanging in her hoard, that armory
of heirlooms, somebody’s birthright. A sword,
blessed by blood and flood …
The poet’s depiction of Grendel’s mother is complex: as admiring as it is critical. The proximity in the text of the heroic Hildeburh, whose narrative of loss and vengeance is only a step and a knife removed from Grendel’s mother’s story, isn’t accidental. In terms of narrative balance, I’m interested in versions of the Beowulf story that emphasize Grendel’s mother’s right to recompense for the death of her son—early English feud rules allow blood for blood, and, in killing one of Hrothgar’s advisers, Grendel’s mother exacts a legal revenge. Later in the story, Beowulf himself takes feud-rule vengeance for the death of his young king Heardred, arming rebels to eliminate Heardred’s killer, Onela.
I don’t know that Grendel’s mother should be perceived in binary terms—monster versus human. 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. Whether one’s solitary status is a result of abandonment by a man or because of a choice, the reams of lore about single, self-sustaining women, and particularly about solitary elderly women, suggest that many human women have been, over the centuries, mistaken for supernatural creatures simply because they were alone and capable. For all these reasons, I’ve translated Grendel’s mother here as “warrior-woman,” “outlaw,” and “reclusive night-queen.”
Throughout the poem, I’ve also encouraged moments in which the feminine might already be poetically suggested. Thus, lines 1431–1439, wherein Hrothgar and Beowulf’s men arrive at the mere and kill a sea monster, become:
A Geat drew his bow and struck
a slithering one. An arrow piercing its scales, it struggled
and thrashed in the water. The other men, invigorated,
sought to join the killing; a second shot, a third,
then they slung themselves into the shallows
and speared it. This monster they could control.
They cornered it, clubbed it, tugged it onto the rocks,
stillbirthed it from its mere-mother, deemed it damned,
and made of it a miscarriage …
Similarly, in lines 1605–1610, as Beowulf discovers that the sword he’s used to kill Grendel’s mother is melting, I used the existing lines, which could suggest a literal defrosting of springs, to suggest a situation in which Spring is a captive, chained and released by God. There is plenty in the world history of pagan seasonal myth to support such a reading, and similar references to captivity and power abound in the poem, including in the scene these lines are from:
Below, in Beowulf’s hands, the slaying-sword
began to melt like ice, just as the world thaws
in May when the Father unlocks the shackles
that’ve chained frost to the climate, and releases
hostage heat, uses sway over seasons to uncage
His prisoner, Spring, and let her stumble into the sun.
I see the women in this story as part of a continuum of experience, just as the men are. Freawaru, the Bartered Beautiful Bride, who takes the first steps into a blood-wedding. Modthryth, the Bartered Bad Bride, who seeks preemptive vengeance on the world of men before entering an unexpectedly happy marriage. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, Modthryth is often the only character cut from children’s versions of Beowulf.) Hygd, the Self-Bartering Bride, who attempts (and fails) to negotiate her son’s survival by persuading Beowulf to ascend to kingship over him. Hildeburh, the Failed Peaceweaver, who incubates overwinter a yearning for vengeance, after her son, brother, and ultimately her husband are killed. Wealhtheow, the Canny Queen, who is often depicted as acquiescent. In fact, her speech to the hall during the post-Grendel celebration is a masterpiece of negotiation. Within her role as an obedient wife, she works the room to her own advantage, attempting to gain security for her sons from the hero her husband has become smitten with. I translated Wealhtheow’s speech to clarify the threats I think have always been part of it. Grendel’s Mother, the Un-Husbanded Warrior, who rules her own kingdom until she is elderly, losing her son, but succeeding in exacting bloody vengeance. To that coven, I’ve added the dragon,11 curled about her hoard, her bedchamber invaded by someone seeking to burgle. Her vengeance for that theft lights the sky and land on fire. After vengeance comes grief. The last woman in the story is the Geatish woman, the Mourner, not mourning Beowulf so much as her own future without a king, new versions of old horrors—blood, swords, and men. That this occurs just prior to Beowulf’s funerary tribute, his men repeating variations on “That was a good king,” is no accident. Her agonized inclusion here renders that final round of tributes ironic.
In the end, Beowulf depicts edge-times and border wars, and we’re in them still. As I write this introduction, and as I worked on this translation over the past few years, the world of the poem felt increasingly relevant. I regularly found myself muttering speeches written a thousand years ago as I watched their contemporary equivalents unfold on the news. This moment, and the moments before it, the centuries of colonialist impulse and kingdom-building, the peoples being built upon, are things that concerned the Beowulf poet and concern this translator, too.
The news cycle is filled with men Hrothgar’s age failing utterly at self-awareness, and even going full Heremod. Politics twist paradoxically into ever more isolationist and interventionist corners, increasingly based in hoarding and horde-panic. The world, as ever, is filled with desolate places and glittering ones, sharing armed borders. Children are confiscated. Refugees are imprisoned. The people doing the imprisoning claim they’re persecuting criminals, monsters, but some of those are infants, and most of those are running from worse wars in their own homelands. We are, some of us anyway, living the Geatish woman’s lament, writ large.
In the United States of 2020, everyone, including small children, has the capacity to be as deadly as the spectacular warriors of this poem. The teeth, swords, and claws of the Old English epic have been converted into automatic possibilities, the power to slay thirty men in a minute no longer the genius of a select few but a purchasable perk of weapon ownership. The kings and dragons of the poem possess hoards akin to those of basic American households: iPhone idols, nonstick cookware, unused goblets counted by the dozen. Queen- and king-size beds for the queens and kings of small halls in the suburbs, fake feathers and swansdown like the reclaimed wings of minor monsters, bought and shipped overnight by Amazon Prime—itself a corporation named for a legendary tribe of female warriors, though in this case the title of warrior stands in for consumer convenience, sorcerous shipping speeds, access to the great, luxuriant, on-sale everything.
Possessions bring no peace. So many wars, so many kingdoms, so much calamity. As I write this, the noncorporate Amazon is burning, and Australia is burning, too. In the north, closer to the places of this poem, icebergs calve into already-brimming seas, and formerly frozen lands reveal the bones and treasures of the dead, melting into mud. COVID-19, a coronavirus, sweeps across the world’s population, shifting our understanding of normalcy daily, if not hourly. Rulers stand shaking their fists and shouting, and though the shouting is done these days on Twitter, the content is the same as it ever was. We will come for you. You don’t know who God is. You can’t have the riches of the world. Everything is ours.
Though Beowulf is written from the corner of the people in power, we can see the impoverished and imperiled in the exposition. The farmers looking up, fearing the blast, as a dragon scars their fields. The commoners who live abutting the mere, who watch Grendel and his mother and report to their king. The slave who steals a goblet from a dragon, hoping to use it to pay off some unwritten debt to his master. Those who report in this poem often report because they’re hoping desperately to change their status, to come in from the cold to a position nearer the fire. And on the other side of it? Kings froth at the mouth and care nothing for their citizens. A hero dies by dragon, and leaves his kingdom to invaders. The home that a soldier or a bride dreams of returning to, when the war is finally over, may be a scorch mark on the earth when they finally make it back.
Storytellers spit a lot of truth in Beowulf. They bear dire reports, recaps, and comparisons, or as the Geatish woman does, lament horrors to come. They’re also the ones doing the burying, the last survivors. I can only imagine the living role of the Beowulf poet—but the poem itself gives us some intriguing examples of scops declaiming material at odds with celebrations. In an oral tradition, even a king’s poet would’ve needed to flex to get the floor. Beowulf itself is a flex by the poet, dazzle-camouflaging early English actuality in an imagined elsewhere of monsters and boar-helms. If nothing else, the history of stories is a history of fantastical versions of what we might be and become.
When I think about Beowulf these days, some thirty-five years after I first saw Grendel’s mother standing alone with her knife and her rage, I often find myself thinking about Beowulf’s barrow. Some think it’s just meant to be a monument. Others think the barrow is intended to be a beacon, meant to warn ships of jutting land. My interpretation varies depending on the day, but I tend to think that the stories themselves are the lighthouses.
Sometimes, I picture a map of the world, the kind of map I used to pore over as a child, obsessing over the now-familiar warning: HIC SUNT DRACONES. On that imaginary map, I’ve added story-lighthouses. They’re all over the place. Look here, their light tells us. Here’s a safe spot to tie up your boat and disembark. Here’s a spot to watch out for. Out here are dragons. Out here are the stories of those dragons, and of those heroes—and more.
There are also stories that haven’t yet been reckoned with, stories hidden within the stories we think we know. It takes new readers, writers, and scholars to find them, people whose experiences, identities, and intellects span the full spectrum of humanity, not just a slice of it. That is, in my opinion, the reason to keep analyzing texts like Beowulf. We might, if we analyzed our own long-standing stories, use them to translate ourselves into a society in which hero making doesn’t require monster killing, border closing, and hoard clinging, but instead requires a more challenging task: taking responsibility for one another.
New York City
March 3, 2020
Copyright © 2020 by Maria Dahvana Headley