05 January 2021

Guest Review: Beowulf - A New Translation by Maria Dahvana Headley

Beowulf - A New Translation by Maria Dahvana Headley book cover
* Copy courtesy of Scribe Publications *


Beowulf is an epic poem that is approximately 1,000 years old. Written in Old English, it has been translated many times, with varying interpretations of the text a result of the condition and notations that have been made to this medieval manuscript across the centuries.

Scholars don't know the original title of the poem or the identity of the author, but the story is set in Scandinavia and there is only one copy, which is housed in the British Library.

Hundreds of translations of Beowulf have been made over the years, and today Scribe Publications is publishing a new feminist translation by Maria Dahvana Headley. Retired academic and Carpe Librum guest reviewer Neil Béchervaise decided to take on this classic, and shares his thoughts on the translation below.

Neil's Review

…a radical new verse interpretation … which brings to light elements never before translated into English”. So reads the cover blurb. But wait, there’s more. In the publisher’s words, Headley presents “A new, feminist translation”.

As you can see, before I have even cracked the covers, I am troubled. Deeply troubled. Having suffered the torment of a high school initiation into the wonders of this oldest surviving example of Olde English, I am suspicious. Am I embarking on a radical interpretation or a feminist translation? So, what is the difference between an interpretation and a translation? And “… elements never before translated into English”? Well! Really? This is surely a challenge enough for any reader.

So the radical interpretation begins:
“Bro! Tell me we still know how to speak of Kings? In the old days everyone knew what men were”. 
What?? A feminist translation begins with an address to “Bro”? About “what men were”? Now I will have to keep reading.

Headley’s new translation/interpretation of Beowulf does present some significant challenges. It’s address to “Bro” certainly flags the beginning of a story but it also screams that the audience is male – and all thoughts of what feminism has come to mean fly out the window. Nevertheless, as the story progresses, the author’s style begins to imprint itself on the narrative. The sheer poetry lifts the reader into a realm that is both familiar and even enlivening. The alliterations, some familiar, some strikingly original and some effectively translated help draw out the ironies, help intensify the agonies and underscore the ecstasies. Occasional couplets challenge the reader to remain conscious of the poetic rendering of the tale and amplify Headley’s pursuit of a style which was “meant to be shouted over a crowd of drunken celebrants” (p. xvi) because Beowulf is “not a quiet poem”. Rather, it is “a living text in a dead language”.

All of which would seem to suggest that the radical new, feminist Beowulf is a predictable successor to all of those which have come before. Not so, however. Headley has resurrected that ‘living text’ from its dead language to create an essentially gripping new tale. 

The rise of young Beowulf is an epic and familiar story. It is the story of many famous leaders who performed amazing feats in their earlier years, rose through rank and fortune to lead their nations and died in one last fight too far for the very same challenge that won their reputation in the first place.

Beowulf reports the killing of monsters, wanton, wicked creatures who destroy the fabric of peaceful society. Beowulf earns the mortal enmity of Grendel’s mother, a warrior woman as capable as Beowulf himself, by killing the young man. That he defeats her in her attempt to obtain revenge is a matter of good luck rather than good management. God is with him on the day.

The role of God in Beowulf offers evidence of the impact of Christianity in Norse/English lore, legend and mythology; as the role of fire-breathing dragons in starting life-destroying fires may remind us of how bushfires are started by lightning strikes (from evil spirits in the sky?). Managing fires, managing desperate politically and religiously inspired terrorism like 9/11 are not new stories, from the Sicarii Zealots of the first century AD to the Fenians then bin Laden and beyond, we are familiar with the fight to keep society safe. 

Headley has updated Beowulf, made the language accessible and, for this reader at least, revived an interest in the origins of mythological beasties. She may also have finally produced a version of Beowulf that is accessible to school students.

You can seize this book at Booktopia.

Neil's Rating:

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