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 that have never before been translated into English, re-contextualizing 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.
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. The familiar elements 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, 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 of Beowulf, Headley unearthed significant shifts lost over centuries of translation.
"Headley’s version is more of a rewriting than a true translation, re-envisaging 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 . . . Not everyone will admire all the linguistic and stylistic choices she has made; that crunching noise in the background is the sound of her predecessors rolling in their burial ships . . . But 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."—Ruth Franklin, The New Yorker
"Maria Dahvana Headley's decision to make Beowulf a bro puts his macho bluster in a whole new light."—Andrea Kannapell, The New York Times
"Beowulf is an ancient tale of men battling monsters, but Headley 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 au courant 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.' The women of Beowulf have often been sidelined. Not so here."—Danielle Tussoni, The New York Times Book Review
"[Headley's] narrator's tone is light and suspenseful, resembling nothing so much as a man telling a long but compelling story in a bar. That comparison isn't accidental . . . [Headley's] 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."—Jo Livingstone, The Poetry Foundation
"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 . . . 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."—Margaret Kingsbury, Buzzfeed
"Joy. That is the primary emotion I felt as I was reading Maria Dahvana Headley’s new translation of Beowulf. That’s not an emotion I normally associate with Beowulf, a 1,000+year-old, brooding, elegiac poem, written in a language that can barely be recognized as English, about men and monsters that is obsessed with how one should be remembered after one’s death. Don’t get me wrong. I love Beowulf. It is perhaps my favorite work of literature, but it is not a poem that tends to bring a smile to one’s face. Yet, Headley’s translation did that all the while I was reading it . . . I cannot recommend this translation more highly. It is accessible to the reader who has never encountered Beowulf before, yet it intrigues and challenges those who study the poem professionally. Nothing in it lessens the beauty or power of the original Old English, which is still there, along with the other more 'faithful' translations, for those who want to tackle it. I can only hope that this translation not only attracts a new cohort of readers to one of the gems of English literature, but allows those already familiar with the poem to see new ways that it connects to the twenty-first century."—Dave Wilton, author of Word Myths: Debunking Linguistic Urban Legends
"An iconic work of early English literature comes in for up-to-the-minute treatment . . . From the very opening of the poem—'Bro!' in the place of the sturdy Saxon exhortation 'Hwaet'—you know this isn't your grandpappy's version of Beowulf . . . Headley's language and pacing keep perfect track with the events she describes . . . [giving] the 3,182-line text immediacy without surrendering a bit of its grand poetry . . . Her version is altogether brilliant."—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
Reviews from Goodreads
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...