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.
Space unicorns, they did it! Uncanny was Kickstarted earlier this year.
The opening story is by Maria Dahvana Headley – “If You were a Tiger, I’d have to Wear White” – and I thought it was weird and clever and, indeed, uncanny while reading it and then I discovered just how much of it is true. It’s a reporter going to Jungleland (real) to interview the MGM lion (who really lived there, but probably not in a smoking jacket) and who ends up talking to Mabel Stark, the tiger tamer (real). Love and loss and memory; commercialism, culture and the crass.
Ken Liu’s “Presence” is sad and sweet and uncomfortable-making. One of those lovely sf pieces that brings together awesome tech with very real human stories.
“Late Nights at the Cape and Cane,” from Max Gladstone, isn’t really my thing. Nor was “Celia and the Conservation of Entropy” by Amelia Beamer.
Kat Howard’s “Migration” takes a quirky look at the idea of death and rebirth, while Christopher Barzak takes a Peter Pan story I had never heard of and updates it somewhat in “The Boy Who Grew Up.” And the fiction is rounded out by a reprint of a Jay Lake story, “Her Fingers like Whips, her Eyes like Razors” which also does interesting things with death – this time, challenging it, which I can’t help but imagine was inspired by Lake’s own cancer.
There are three poems included – from Neil Gaiman, Amal El-Mohtar, and Sonya Taaffe. I am not a connoisseur of poetry.
Then there’s the non-fiction. I have to say that my one disappointment with this first issue of the magazine is that there wasn’t more non-fiction, which I thought was going to be a bit of a Thing. Anyway, Sarah Kuhn talks by way of cosplaying as Sailor Mars about the reception of geeky women in fan spaces over the last few years, which felt like a round-up of some of the issues for people who haven’t been following it all closely. I did enjoy the discussion of becoming more and more involved in the Sailor fandom. Tansy Rayner Roberts’ “Does Sex mark Science Fiction ‘Soft’?” never answers its own question but does discuss the ways in which some in the sf scene have tried to banish stories with Too Much Sex/Kissing/Whatever out of sf… although they wouldn’t be accepted by romance immediately anyway. And Christopher J Garcia’s “The Ten Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Shorts on the Web” is a really great sort of article to include in a magazine like this and indeed makes its online nature an absolute positive. So too does the fact that the interview with Headley (there are interviews with Barzak and about Lake too) contains links to pictures of Stark. Overall this is a positive start to the magazine and I look forward to more.