Book review: 'Bro!' A tough-talking modern Beowulf with a feminist slant

Maria Dahvana Headley draws on the swagger of contemporary slang to bring a feminist twist to Beowulf.
Maria Dahvana Headley draws on the swagger of contemporary slang to bring a feminist twist to Beowulf.PHOTO: FARRAR, STRAUS & GIROUX

Poetry

BEOWULF

Translated by Maria Dahvana Headley

Farrar, Straus & Giroux/ Paperback/ 140 pages/ $24.95/ Available here

4 out of 5

Any translation of Beowulf, the Anglo-Saxon heroic epic that is the oldest surviving long poem in the English language, hinges on the first word.

It has been rendered as "Listen!", "Lo!", "Hark!", "Attend!" or, conversationally by Irish poet Seamus Heaney in his landmark 2000 translation, "So".

American writer Maria Dahvana Headley's take may be the most controversial yet: "Bro!"

She draws on the swagger of contemporary slang to bring a feminist twist to this manliest of poems, the latest in a wave of women translating or rewriting male-dominated classics.

With "Bro!", Headley does not so much throw down the gauntlet as slap somebody in the face with it.

"Tell me we still know how to speak of kings." And so, she charges headlong into this brash, bloody epic of a hero who travels to a Danish hall to slay Grendel, the monster terrorising it, and win glory - only to fall years later in a battle with a dragon.

In the very crowded field of Beowulf translations, Headley's is radical. Some will decry it as playing to the millennial gallery with slang words like "swole" and "stan".

Certainly, she does not hew closely to the text, but she does to its spirit. Beowulf is a fists-up, drag-down fight of a poem, the kind where gatecrashers ghoulishly eat partygoers and guys brag over drinks how many sea monsters they killed the other day. It meanders and jumps through time. It is disorderly.

Not all of this translation works. Some phrases read as gimmicky: the dragon "scrawling red RSVPs in the sky" falls flat.

But Headley strives to preserve the alliteration where she can and borrows the internal rhyme schemes of modern-day rap battles to slick effect.

She also captures the elegiac elements of the poem in lines like "Both he and his enemy had seen the edge of existence, tripped and fallen over it".


Author Maria Dahvana Headley. PHOTO: BEOWULF SHEEHAN

Headley's vaunting braggadocio both revels in and satirises the masculine aggression of heroic language.

"He rode hard!" cry Beowulf's warriors of their fallen king. "He stayed thirsty! He was the man! He was the man."

"We all know a boy can't daddy until his daddy's dead" is a particularly delightful line, which she follows up with the mic drop moment: "Privilege is the way men prime power, the world over."

And what of the women? Though it is mostly men who drive Beowulf, Headley takes pains to centre the many women in the poem - not least Grendel's mother, who murders to avenge her son's death and fights Beowulf underwater, very nearly winning.

Headley's 2018 novel, The Mere Wife (available here), re-imagines Grendel's mother as a 21st-century war veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder, who lives with her troubled son next to an elite gated community.

In her return to the original text, Headley makes decisions to foreground not the monstrosity of Grendel's mother, but her humanity and her martial bearing.

Where Heaney dubs her "monstrous hell-bride", Headley chooses "warrior-woman".

She and Beowulf are shown to be evenly matched in battle; it is only when divine intervention highlights a magic sword that he wins.

The Danish queen Wealhtheow is cast as the canny diplomat she is. She and the other queens and princesses who flit through the poem's tangents do vital work as "peace-weavers" in a society perpetually on the brink of war.

The dragon, too, is rendered as female, one who, when disturbed, puts "the world on blast".

In a translation, one both builds on and is bound by the original text. One cannot change the course of events or give characters more progressive politics.

It is an art to wrestle within these constraints, and when the result rolls so lithely and gloriously, it is something to relish.

If you like this, read: The Odyssey by Homer, translated by Emily Wilson (Norton, 2017, $30.99, available here). The line, "Tell me about a complicated man", opens this lean, groundbreaking translation of the Greek epic of Odysseus' adventures, the first published in English by a woman.

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