Mini classic review: Beowulf by Unknown

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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. 

Beowulf is a major epic of Anglo-Saxon literature, probably composed between the first half of the seventh century and the end of the first millennium. The poem was inspired by Germanic and Anglo-Saxon oral tradition recounting the exploits of Beowulf, the hero who gave his name to the poem. 

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Each of them, living, was intolerable to the other, and in fury, they fell to it.

Beowulf is an epic poem I’ve wanted to read for years, but didn’t know which translation to start with; there’s just so many of them. But then a new translation was released by Maria Dahvana Headley, lauded as a feminist translation of the original with a more modern touch to the language, and I was more intrigued than ever.

Beowulf is set in Scandinavia in the 6th century and follows Beowulf, a hero of the Geats, who travels to help King Hrothgar of the Danes whose hall is under attack by the monster Grendel. After Beowulf kills the monster, Grendel’s mother, another famed and dangerous creature, seeks vengeance.

In the introduction to her translation, Headley explains that she views the poem as a story about brothers, or more accurately, comrades trying to outshine one another in the daring feats they accomplish, while becoming increasingly drunk. And I think her modern translation perfectly represents this. A lot of the time, classic texts (or poems) may seem inaccessible or intimidating, but Headley has managed to capture the essence of the original tale by breaking it down into a simple tale of bros outdoing bros.

I really enjoyed the use of more contemporary language in this translation — it made the poem seem fresh and new, and more welcoming to a modern audience. Such an interesting way to start a translation of an epic poem with “Bro! Tell me we still know how to speak of kings!”, whereas the original is “Hark! We have heard of the might of the kings!” Really enjoyed this modern use of slang.

I haven’t read the original translation of Beowulf written by Seamus Heaney, but I fully intend to after reading Headley’s. I doubt I’d enjoy it as much as Headley’s, as hers just seems to breath life in what I believe is going to be a stuffy tale of male loyalty and camaraderie. But I’ll save my judgement for when I actually read the original 😅.

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