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Beowulf: A New Translation

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Member Reviews

I've read at least four other modern translations of Beowulf, but never have I had as much fun as I have with Headley's translation. The text practically begs you to read it aloud, and it whips along with giddy intensity. As I read, I kept texting snippets to my husband until he finally demanded to know what I was reading. He picked up where I paused and began reading aloud to me from that point on, both of us erupting with laughter at the Hashtag Blessed moment. I'm the lit person; he isn't, but he loved it. Headley's feminist reading also shines light on the dim corners where female characters lurked, ignored backdrops for the male romps, or, as in the case of Grendel's mother, dismissed by tired archetypal framing.  She adds more value to the text by revealing what was missing. This is the version to gift everyone that thinks they don't like Beowulf. Seriously.
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I have a graduate degree in English, and I'm a librarian who likes classic literature, so I've encountered Beowulf quite a bit over the last few decades. I wasn't sure what to expect from this new translation, but within a few pages it quickly became my favorite. Headley makes the story feel modern without taking away from the original author's (or authors') rhythm and intent. I kept reading bits out loud to marvel at her wordplay. Headley is a poet in her own right, and this telling will make the story become so much clearer to a new set of readers.
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I've always wanted read "Beowulf", an Old English epic poem from the Early Middle Ages consisting of 3,182 alliterative lines that has survived only in the Nowell Codex. Unfortunately though, I don't understand Old English and I've also struggled with renditions that try to emulate some kind of ancient English (like the ones by J.R.R. Tolkien and Seamus Heaney). Now, Headley comes along and serves us a fierce, modern version of the text that makes for a riveting read. Beowulf (which probably was intended to mean "bee wolf", so "bear"), the warrior hero of the Geats, saves the day when he comes to help the Danish king who has been under attack from Grendel, an unspecified ferocious being and descendant of Cain. Beowulf slays Grendel and then Grendel's mother, a female warrior who wanted to avenge her son. So Beowulf is #badass, or, as he himself explains in Headley's translation:

"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 fucks with the Geats?
Bro, they have t0 fuck with me.
They're asking for it, and I deal them death."

So Beowulf travels home, becomes king and, 50 years later, slays a dragon and dies. Throughout the whole poem, vigilance, loyalty, and courage are core themes, and it's safe to say that out warrior-king isn't particularly woke when it comes to the importance of riches and fame: So. much. gold. Plus a momument at the shore - sure, why not.

Reading this old text was so much fun, and Headley wrote a fantastic foreword explaing the importance of the text, talking about the feat of translating it and her intention to do right by the women in the text: For instance, "aglæca" was often translated as "hero" when referring to Beowulf, but Grendel's mother, the "aglæc-wif", suddenly was a "monstrous hell-bride" (Heaney), not a "warrior wife".

A great book, now I have to read The Mere Wife.
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This author was an instant favorite when I read The Mere Wife, and I couldn't wait to see her version of the source material. The perfect translation for now, written with casual language that enhances rather than overwrites the original text. The author's introduction, in which she explains some of her choices, is fantastic just by itself. But the actual text is the real gem. It really does evoke the feeling of being told the tale while getting drunk in some tavern, as the story was originally told. All around terrific.
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