Beowulf, from Maria Dahvana Headley
I read a very abridged version of Beowulf ages ago. I’ve watched that appalling Christoper Lambert film, because Christoper Lambert, but I haven’t seen the Angelina Jolie one. And most recently I read The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley and fell madly in love with it (it’s roughly a modern imagining of the poem).
Then I heard Headley had done a translation of Beowulf. And then I listened to The Writer and the Critic talk about both Headley books, and they reminded me to buy the translation. Of course, after watching The Dig, it was finally time to read it.
What an absolute joy.
The best way to give you a sense of how Headley has approached the translation is to use the example that a lot of people have pointed to, and with good reason: her translation of Hwaet. This word has been translated several dozen different ways over the years. It’s kind of a placeholder “pay attention!” word; I use ‘so’ and ‘all right’. You might use ‘look’, or archaically ‘lo’, or ‘behold’. Headley? Oh, she uses “Bro”.
Translation is always of its time, even if you’re trying to be anachronistically archaic. Headley has fully embraced the fact that this was published just into the 21st century, so there’s supermodern language – stan and swole and hashtag: blessed – that sometimes feels startling but always appropriate. Simultaneously, she has totally gone in for the ideas of rhythm and rhyme and alliteration found in the original:
The nails were notorious, hard as though
smith-forged, and the heathen’s hand
was callused as a carpenter’s, weathered
by work and warring (lines 985-88).
The above paragraph, by the way, is indicative of the fact that reading the Introduction to this book is highly recommended. You could, of course, go straight into the poem – of course you could. For me, though, knowing about Headley’s approach to the whole concept of translating this thousand-year-old poem, how she considered language and the gendered problems with considering Grendel’s mother, deepened my appreciation for her word choices and the entire enterprise.
The poem Beowulf centres, mostly, on the hero Beowulf, who slays the “monster” Grendel, and Grendel’s mother when she seeks vengeance… and he then goes on to be king for decades (that bit’s largely skipped over in the poem), before battling a dragon when he’s too old for that kind of shit. So in a sense it’s a heroic poem. On the podcast Backlist, though, the claim was made that it’s the original horror story too – Grendel coming in the night to kill men in their sleep, and no one can stop him. There’s also the aspect that it’s a meditation on the notion of kingship, and heroism, and masculinity… honestly there’s a reason that there are many dozens of translations and endless journal articles. There’s a lot to talk about.
I’m not a massive reader of poetry, so if you’re put off by the poetry I would say this one is worth a go. The ideas, the language – it’s just enchanting. And I would also recommend doing it the way I did: give yourself a couple of hours and read the whole thing straight through. You get into a rhythm with the language, you get into the zone of the Danes and Geats being all macho, and you follow the thread of Beowulf from hero to death.
I’m so glad Headley was convinced to do this.
I have been a very cultural girl the last two days.
Last night I went to see David Malikoff’s one-man performance of the poem, mostly using Raffell’s (I think that’s right) translation. It was very impressive; he was exceptioanlly good at changing voices and stances to indicate different characters. I have only ever read an abridged version of the poem, and it probably wasn’t a very good translation; I think I will have to remedy the situation. He really made it come alive.
I didn’t really know what this was going to be like, but I should have paid more attention to the subtitle and got an idea: “A Masterclass in Evil”. That’s what it was; rather simply doing various soliloquys, which I was worried would be boring, he also commentated on the villains and the plays and the nature of evil and villainy themselves. Stephen Berkoff was amazing. David M was good; he was brilliant. He did Iago (mediocre); Richard III (genius); Macbeth (wannabe) and his Lady; Shylock; Hamlet; Coriolanus; and finally Oberon. I think the highlight probably was the scene between Macbeth and Lady M plotting Duncan’s death (drifting in and out of a ridiculously strong Scottish accent), although Hamlet and Gertrude in the bedchamber came a close second. I will never look the same on some of these characters again.
And in between, I saw my Nana and two of her brothers, which was a very pleasant interlude indeed.