A new translation reimagines Beowulf, spotlighting female 'warrior'

Cover image of "Beowulf" translated by Maria Dahvana Headley.
Book cover of "Beowulf" translated by Maria Dahvana Headley.
Courtesy of MacMillan

Bookseller Anthony Ascione of Brilliant Books in Traverse City, Mich., is excited about a new translation of the classic epic poem “Beowulf,” translated by Maria Dahvana Headley. It’s being billed as both radical and feminist. 

Many high school English classes have battled their way through the story of the hero Beowulf, who (spoiler!) defeats the monster Grendel and the monster’s mother. Ascione recalls those classes clearly, saying, “my English teacher can tell you, I never thought Grendel’s mother got a fair shake.” In Headley’s new translation, Grendel’s mother gets credit as a warrior trained with a sword, rather than an ugly follow-up to the main action. 

Headley gained attention for her 2018 novel “The Mere Wife,” a modern retelling of Beowulf that puts women at the center. Publisher MacMillan states that while researching that contemporary story, “Headley unearthed significant shifts lost over centuries of translation." 

Headley’s translation is the first in over 20 years, since Seamus Haney’s version was published in 1999. It came out in paperback this week.  

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