Book Review | Beowulf translated by Maria Dahvana Headley

⭐⭐⭐✨ (3.5/5)

I was kindly approved for an E-ARC via NetGalley.

Beowulf is an epic poem written in Old English that tells of the warrior hero Beowulf and the monsters and epic battles that he faced.

I first read Beowulf when studying it at university. We worked with the Old English text, but read a translation by Seamus Heaney. During that module, we studied Headley’s novel, The Mere Wife, and although there were some gruesome aspects that were not for me, the novel was brilliant. So, when I heard that Headley was writing a translation of Beowulf, I knew I wanted to read it.

Before going in, I knew this translation was going to take a more feminist perspective and that definitely made me want to dive in, but I was hesitent as to how modern the language would be.

I read Headley’s introduction first and found it really interesting. I liked the opportunity to understand why she had made certain choices with her text, and reading this did make me think more deeply about the translation rather than judging it purely upon personal opinion. If you do read this text, I recommend reading the introduction first, especially if you are new to Beowulf.

I think Beowulf is such an interesting text for learning about Anglo-Saxon culture and I loved studying at uni. I enjoyed reading this new translation and was taken back to some of what I learnt during my degree.

If you are interested in Anglo-Saxon culture and would like to know more about some of it, I would recommend this text as a way in.

Due to the fact that I knew this would be quite a feminist translation, I went in with this lens on. I particularly wanted to see how Headley would portray female characters, especially Grendel’s mother. I found that I did take interesting ideas away about the women in this text because of Headley’s translation. I was surprised by the connections this text drew in my mind between Grendel’s mother and the dragon, but this was intriguing.

Although I had expected to see a fresh portrayal of the female characters, I was not expecting such a clever depiction of masculinity and the male characters of the poem. I found that Headley’s use of modern language made me picture how this narrative could be in modern times. What then happened was that I drew comparisons between Anglo-Saxon masculinity and modern masculinity, which was really interesting to think about.

Despite having this clever usage, I personally was not a fan of the modern language used in this translation, but I can understand why Headley chose to use a mixture of various kinds of language (including modern slang) and I appreciate what this did for the translation.

Overall, I liked revisiting Beowulf through this new translation and I think that Headley has made some interesting and thought-provoking choices. Whilst thinking about it myself was interesting, I do wish that I could have studied this text at uni because I would liked to have studied and discussed it further.

Headley’s translation of Beowulf is released on the 8th March.


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