Okay, sit still. I have a lot of things to say about Maria Dahvana Headley's new book, “Beowulf,” and I'm gonna try to say them all right now.
The first thing I need to tell you is that you have to read it now. No, I don't care if you've read Beowulf (the original) before. No, I don't care if you loved it/hated it, if it traumatized you, if it ruined and/or energized the English language for you, or ruined you for translations or whatever. I don't care what you think of when you think of Beowulf in any of its hundreds of other translations because this — this — version, Headley's version, is an entirely different thing. It is its own thing. A remarkable thing that probably shouldn't even exist, except that it does.
It is Beowulf, mostly. Beowulf, kinda. It is Beowulf down to the line numbers, and tells the story of Beowulf and Hrothgar and Grendel and Grendel's mom and the dragon and Wiglaf and everything.
Except that Headley has made it modern, not in form or style or content, but in temperament. In language. "Language is a living thing," she writes in her introduction. "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 courtly romance and knights."
Truth: “Beowulf” would've been a vanity project if it wasn't written by Headley, and if Headley hadn't made a splash back in 2018 with “The Mere Wife” which was, in itself, a retelling of Beowulf set in 21st century suburbia and focusing (largely, but not exclusively) on Grendel's mother. It would've been a thesis. An academic passion project read by no one but Beowulf nerds, loved or hated almost in a vacuum.
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Instead, Headley's “Beowulf” is a big release — discussed, debated, talked about (as it should be) because it has everything: Love, sex, murder, magic, dungeons, dragons, giants, monsters. It spills blood by the bucket and gore by the gallon, makes heroes, slays villains and serves as an instruction manual for toxic masculinity, circa 700 AD.
Bro! Tell me we still know how to
talk about kings! In the old days,
everyone knew what men were:
brave, bold, glory-bound. Only
stories now, but I'll sound the
Spear-Danes' song, hoarded for
Yeah, she starts it all with "Bro."
I mean, that's ridiculous. And brilliant. And genius-level washed-up barstool-hero trolling all at the same time. "Bro" to take the place of Behold! and Lo! and What ho! because Behold! and Lo! and (especially) What ho! are all silly and stilted and stupid and do not — not a single one of them — have the social heft and emotional dwarfism and Bud Light swagger of "Bro," because "Bro" is the braggart's call, the throat-clearing of someone who wasn't, you know, there, but heard about it from some dude who totally was.
And THAT is the emotional level at which Beowulf works. Has always worked, really, but absolutely works in Headley's newest version. It is bragging. It is urban legend. It is that guy who once threw three touchdowns against State telling the story again — five beers deep on a Tuesday night — before hey-buddy-ing the bartender for his sixth.
That's what Beowulf always was. An epic poem made to be shouted over the howls of mead-drunk Spear-Danes as they toast the fallen and lovingly punch each other to sleep. It is thousand-year-old slam poetry, Hamilton for the Geats and Skyldings — full of blood and honor, inside jokes and historical digressions.
Headley takes liberties. She has reasons (and explains them in an extensive intro) and she has the right (having studied Beowulf as closely as anyone), and so she tinkers with focus and with the weight given to smaller characters (Unferth going toe-to-toe with Beowulf, trying to put the lie to the tales already told of him, becomes one of the poem's most memorable scenes — an epic mead-hall rap battle), and re-humanizes Grendel's mother into a grief-stricken mom demanding a blood-debt for her murdered son. Monstrous, yes. But no longer a monster.
Which is all fine. Which is all as it should be. Because there is no real Beowulf. Not anymore. It has been translated and re-translated. Academics have tussled with the language for ages. Even the original (not the original-original, but the original document upon which all other translations are based) was a group project. Two scribes, working through the 3,182 lines together, fighting each other in the margins, crossing out each other's words and replacing them.
So Headley's version (translation? transcription?) is just as real and twice as vital right now as any other. It sings straight through, the alliteration and temper of it invigorating (as it should be) and roaring (as it should be), like Beowulf, introducing himself to Hrothgar:
I'm the strongest and the boldest,
and the bravest and the best.
Yes: I mean — I may have bathed in
the blood of beasts,
netted five foul ogres at once,
smashed my way into a troll den
and come out swinging, gone
skinny-dipping in a sleeping sea
and made sashimi of some sea monsters.
Anyone who f***s with the Geats? Bro,
they have to f*** with me.
It rolls. It demands to be spoken, to be shouted and spat. To be taught as the thing that it is — the Marvel movie of its time.
I always liked Beowulf a little for what it was: history, foundational myth, epic poem of swords and dragons, source material for paintings on the sides of vans. But Maria Headley's Beowulf I love for exactly what it is: a psychotic song of gold and blood, stylish as hell, nasty and brutish and funny all at once, mad and bad and sad and alive now in a way that these words simply haven't been for more than a thousand years.
Jason Sheehan knows stuff about food, video games, books and Starblazers. He is currently the restaurant critic at Philadelphia magazine, but when no one is looking, he spends his time writing books about giant robots and ray guns. Tales From the Radiation Age is his latest book.
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