13 September 2021

Hugos 2021: Beowulf by Maria Dahvana Headley

Translation published: 2020
Acquired: May 2021
Read: August 2021

Beowulf: A New Translation by Maria Dahvana Headley

Finally, here it is, the first of my 2021 Hugo Award posts! Normally, of course, I'd be all done posting these by now, but because Worldcon 79 has been punted to December, I can stretch out my reading over the summer and the fall, instead of cramming it all into a couple months of the summer. This book is a bit of an oddity, in that it is a finalist for Best Related Work despite being a work of fiction, but more on that when I get to the actual rankings for the category.

I've read Beowulf twice before: once in high school (no idea what translation) and once in grad school (Seamus Heaney). Headley's new translation (in?)famously updates the language, using constructions like "Hashtag: blessed" (l. 622) and "Previously prone to calling bullshit" (l. 980) and rendering the opening hwæt as "Bro!" (l. 1) It's that latter choice that I think is the most interesting; Headley plays up the boasting. This is a story of men telling stories about the prowess of men, both their own and that of others. I read a review by a medievalist that said Headley "insists on its emptiness and bullying element" but though that might be true in the paratext, I don't think it comes across in the actual text. Beowulf is a braggart, but Beowulf can do what he says he can do-- and more!

Here's a sample passage of bragging (I basically opened the book at random and hit one), from when Beowulf is introducing himself to King Hrothgar:

"Every elder knew I was the man for you, and blessed
my quest, King Hrothgar, because where I'm from?
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 fucks with the Geats? Bro, they have to fuck with me.
They're asking for it, and I deal them death." (ll. 414-22)

These were the passages that sung the most for me, and are incredibly fun to read aloud. I'm no poet or even an analyst of poetry, so I can't tell you much about why it works for me, but I think Headley captures the way men talk about their accomplishments. There's some excellent alliteration, and also I like the way the register changes. Lines 417-20 may use some modern language, but they have a poetic, slightly archaic feeling (it's the long sentence, I think), and then you're suddenly thrown into the very unpoetic boast of line 421, which could come straight out of, I dunno, hip-hop lyrics.

Another review I read talks about how the last third of the poem (where Beowulf fights the dragon) has much less modernized language. I don't know if that's right per se, but it does have a lot less boasting. But I think that's on purpose: Beowulf is an old man now, and an old king. All his friends and enemies are dead; his renown was such that there hasn't even been a war for him to fight because everyone is afraid to attack the Geats while he rules. So who does he have left to boast to or boast of? He goes out killing a dragon, but it's almost tragic, in the sense that one feels like Beowulf deserved better! He comes across as a tired old man grateful for a fight that will kill him, so he doesn't have to die in his sleep, but it's not a fight that would have rated had it happened when he was in the prime of life. As he embarks to kill the dragon, the narrator portrays him as missing old friends and enemies:

The old king fell to his knees on the cliff point
Stricken, suddenly unsteady, he foresaw his fate
in the fog, shrouded but certain. For a moment,
he felt for his old foes, fen-bound, embarking alone.
Soon, soon, his own lease would expire,
evicting him from hall, hearth, and home. (ll. 2418, 2421-25)

That said, I agree, it's much less fun to read that part of the poem, even if there's good reason for the shift in tone.

There's a lot you can talk about here; (as the review I quoted above says) Headley's lasting influence will probably be her insistence that most of the language that is usually translated as indicating Grendel's mother is a monster is, when used to describe men, not translated in such a way; the phrase others have translated as "inhuman troll-wife" or "monstrous hell-bride," she renders as "formidable noblewoman"! (pp. xxiii-xxv) I really enjoyed reading it, and it makes me want to dig into Beowulf again, and makes me miss hanging out with medievalists as I did in grad school.

Speaking of which, this is surely the first Hugo finalist to thank someone I went to grad school with in the Acknowledgements!

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