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Beowulf

9780374720155 fc
Digital, MCD × FSGO, 2020
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Maria Dahvana Headley

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A new, feminist translation of Beowulf by the author of the much-buzzed-about novel The Mere Wife

Nearly twenty years after Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf—and fifty years after the translation that continues to torment high-school students around the world—there is a radical new verse translation of the epic poem by Maria Dahvana Headley, which brings to light elements that have never before been translated into English, recontextualizing the binary narrative of monsters and heroes into a tale in which the two categories often entwine, justice is rarely served, and dragons live among us.

A man seeks to prove himself as a hero. A monster seeks silence in his territory. A warrior seeks to avenge her murdered son. A dragon ends it all. The familiar elements of the epic poem are seen with a novelist’s eye toward gender, genre, and history—Beowulf has always been a tale of entitlement and encroachment, powerful men seeking to become more powerful, and one woman seeking justice for her child, but this version brings new context to an old story. While crafting her contemporary adaptation of Beowulf, Headley unearthed significant shifts lost over centuries of translation.

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An excerpt from Beowulf

"Well. I’ve heard my people, those simple citizens

who live out in the muddy country, say they’ve seen

these two together, roaming the moor,

wading the mere, heath-rambling and of a height.

One is, as far as they can tell, a woman,


and the other, misshapen, formed like a man,

but larger than any man has a right to be.


He was named Grendel, a fatherless son.

Who knows whether he had other kin.

He was a sin-walker, is all they said,

those who’ve talked to me of these things.

They say the two stalked the hillsides,

the concealed country. They denned with wolves

and dove in windy rivers, slipped like mist-fish

into the fen and through it, down into the


darkest places underwater and underground,

cliff-bound. It’s not far from here, the mere,

but it’s a world away, a forest frosted

even in green months, old wood, wicked

and well-rooted. Water reflects trees

like tangled teeth, a gaping maw that, at night,

is lit with flames in the flood. No one’s ever

touched the bottom. No one born of man, anyway.

Men can’t go in. Even animals, a heath-hopping hart,

held to mere’s edge by hounds, would sooner spin


on hooves and fight, lower horns, and ready itself for death

than step upon that stinking sod and dive into the dark.

That is a bad place. Waves roil, and taste the sky’s edge,

winds gust, clouds spit and spark, and when it storms,

mere mixes with mist, geysers up, and Heaven moans.

I’ll say it again: this is on you.


Everything depends on a boy who knows nothing of this terror,

not least what you might fear when you get there,

the nerves that might make you quake


in horror’s homestead. Go in, if you dare.

 I’ll pay in gold, old and new, heirlooms

and holdings lately wrought, if only

you return having done it.”

  • "Of the four translations I’ve read, Headley’s is the most readable and engaging. She combines a modern poetry style with some of the hallmarks of Old English poetry, and the words practically sing off the page . . . Headley’s translation shows why it’s vital to have women and people from diverse backgrounds translate texts."


     —Margaret Kingsbury, Buzzfeed

  • "Bold . . . Electrifying."

    —Ron Charles, The Washington Post


  • "The author of the crazy-cool Beowulf-inspired novel The Mere Wife tackles the Old English epic poem with a fierce new feminist translation that radically recontextualizes the tale."


    —Barbara VanDenburgh, USA Today

  • "Headley brings a directness, intensity, and rhythm to her translation that I haven’t seen before. This is what it must have felt like to sit in a mead hall and listen to a scop tell the tale. Other translations may be more scholarly, literal, or true to the poetic form of the original, but it’s been a thousand years since Beowulf was this accessible or exciting."

     —Steve Thomas, The Fantasy Hive

  • "An iconic work of early English literature comes in for up-to-the-minute treatment . . . From the very opening of the poem--'Bro!' in the place of the sturdy Saxon exhortation 'Hwaet'--you know this isn't your grandpappy's version of Beowulf . . . Headley's language and pacing keep perfect track with the events she describes . . . [giving] the 3,182-line text immediacy without surrendering a bit of its grand poetry."

     —Kirkus Reviews (starred)

  • "This new translation of Beowulf brings the poem to profane, funny, hot-blooded life . . . Lively and vigorous . . . I've never read a Beowulf that felt so immediate and so alive." 

    —Constance Grady, Vox

  • "I have a lot of things to say about Maria Dahvana Headley's new book, Beowulf . . . 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 . . . 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." 

    —Jason Sheehan, NPR Books


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