I have not read any of the multitude of translations of this epic poem. My rudimentary knowledge of the narrative comes from the film that was made about 15 years ago. I seem to remember Neil Gaiman’s name in the credits for writing and producing, but I may be wrong it was so long ago.
Whether he had anything to do with the screenplay or not I remember enjoying it immensely.
Without having read the original, I cannot compare this version to it, but the author, in a wonderful introduction, explains her intentions and reasons for how she has written this contemporary translation.
A quick word or two about the poem.
Hrothgar, king of the Danes has built this wonderful mead hall, in which he and all his warriors and kinsman, can get rolling drunk, reliving there halcyon years. However, before they can enjoy this wonderful mead hall, which seems to be known about far and wide, a huge troll like creature named Grendel turns up uninvited and proceeds to eat anybody he can get his hands on, stuffing the rest into a sack to save for later.
Hrothgar and his men try but fail to slay this monstrous beast, and Hrothgar is forced to close the mead hall, despairingly boarding up the main entrance.
This brings the hero of the poem, Beowulf, from across the sea, I told you that the mead hall had a reputation known far and wide. Beowulf and his trusty band of warriors promise to slay Grendel for Hrothgar. Beowulf in true heroic fashion defeats and slays Grendel with his bare hands.
However just when you think all is well, along comes Grendel’s mother seething for vengeance. Grendel’s mother is every bit equal to Beowulf in the martial department and a truly epic battle between the two ensues.
In a nutshell this is the story, there is a little more involving a dragon, but I do not want to spoil it for anybody, like me, who does not know the story.
The poem itself is beautifully written. It flows along swiftly, and the author’s use of alliteration is phenomenal. Hearing this read aloud from a skilled orator would be magic.
Maria Dahvana Headley has done a magnificent job of translating an epic poem written in Old English, giving it a cotemporary spin, and bringing it to everyday readers. Writing it in a beautiful style, that is a joy to read, even for those who very rarely read poetry. I know nothing about poetry and verse, but I do know that this is such an enjoyable read. As I said I cannot compare this to the original poem, I have a strong feeling I would struggle to even understand the first lines, but this translation is a wonderful read for everybody. 4 stars!
One thing that did surprise me is that it is marketed as a feminist translation. But to me it still comes across as a very masculine poem. Not that there is anything wrong with this, I just struggled to find feminist undertones. I thought that perhaps we might find Grendel’s mother more humanized and grieving for her son. Very hard to tell with no knowledge of the original.
Another point is that the language uses swearing, which I believe ties into the contemporary male braggadocio and adds a great deal to the tone that Headley is trying to achieve. Still if you are not a fan of “bad language” it may be an issue.
Maria Dahvana Headley (born June 21, 1977) is an American novelist, memoirist, editor, and playwright. She is a New York Times-bestselling author as well as editor.
Her work includes the young-adult space-fantasy novel Magonia and Queen of Kings, an alternate-history fantasy novel about Cleopatra, and The Mere Wife, a retelling of Beowulf. Her short story "Give Her Honey When You Hear Her Scream", originally published in Lightspeed magazine in July 2012, was a 2012 Nebula Award nominee, in the short story category. Her short story "The Traditional" was a finalist for the 2013 Shirley Jackson Award.
There is a link here to Slate and a brilliant interview with Headley talking about Beowulf and her translation - https://slate.com/technology/2020/11/beowulf-new-translation-maria-dahvana-headley-interview.html