Whose “Bro” Is It Anyway? Review of Beowulf: A New Translation by Maria Dahvana Headley
Beowulf: A New Translation. Translated by Maria Dahvana Headley. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2020.
Author’s note: Warnings on this review for discussions of gendered violence, transphobic language, and racism. My thanks to Erin Horáková and Sean Guynes for their feedback on this review.
“Headley’s [Beowulf] offers a commentary on a particular kind of white frat-boy masculinity.“
When I originally agreed to review Maria Dahvana Headley’s Beowulf: A New Translation, I had read one or two excerpts that suggested Headley had updated the language of the text to include a dudebro element to its telling. Indeed, the poem launches itself with the line “Bro! Tell me we still know how to speak of kings!” and then escalates this less than a page later with the lines “We all know a boy can’t daddy/ until his daddy’s dead.” As a result, I went into my copy a few weeks later with the expectation that I’d get a little tipsy, have great fun bellowing some of the lines out, and likely write about it in a style I’d term “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Literary Review.” Thankfully (or sadly), this is not that review.
Neither will this review spend much time contextualising the original Old English epic and its various translations; existing works already cover that angle, and I would offer nothing in repeating them here. Having not read Headley’s The Mere Wife, I cannot situate this against her other reworking of Beowulf. Instead, I offer a close reading of the Headley translation that argues that while it is no doubt a feminist text, it is (perhaps inevitably) a white feminist one.
The distinction between a feminist and a white feminist text is important when it comes to an epic like Beowulf, particularly given that the field of Old English is currently in the midst of reckoning with white supremacy and its effects on the field (as scholars like Dorothy Kim, Mary Rambaran-Olm, and others have made clear). As Dorothy Kim notes, Beowulf is almost always read through “the white gaze and a preserve of white English Heritage.” Kim points to the ways in which Black scholars in particular have been systematically shut out of Old English literature, citing the case of Stuart Hall, who experienced gatekeeping at the hands of J.R.R. Tolkein. Mary Rambaran-Olm makes evident that this gatekeeping continues to date. Where Black and Indigenous scholars push back against white supremacy, their work is elided or outright erased. For example, though Adam Miyashiro spoke to his reading of “Grendel as an indigenous person with a specific biopolitics, and linked a non-European reading of Beowulf to the contemporary issues of white supremacy that plague Anglo-Saxon studies, and medieval studies more broadly,” this was not accepted as a valuable addition to ongoing analysis by the organizers of the field’s primary conference.
These were things that were present in the back of my mind when reading Headley’s translation, in large part because of the manner in which the translation makes interventions in the text to grant space to its women or because of how it genders previously neutral characters, such as the dragon, to add to these numbers. Grendel and his mother are granted (limited) space in this version that neither Tolkien’s nor Heaney’s translations allowed. We learn that “Grendel hurt, and so he hunted” and his mother is called a warrior as she avenges his death. As such, early in my reading of Headley’s translation, I had a brief moment of wonder because it seemed like the text would perhaps respond to Toni Morrison’s essay “Grendel and His Mother” (from The Source of Self-Regard) that reads Grendel and his mother as raced Others. Such a positioning would even allow for a response to Miyashiro’s positioning of the two as Indigenous, since it was made clear that they were longtime residents of the land. This was exciting because the choice to offer up room then, if raced, could also talk back to white cultures of privilege and colonization while at the same time refiguring Beowulf as feminist. The sheer possibility of that left me breathless.
Although Headley’s translation never gets quite that far, it still manages something amazing nevertheless. Given the author’s note at the start of the text, I’m certain Headley deliberately sought to poke holes in the bombastic masculinity of the source text. Her translation makes evident this is a masculinity that requires its own constant reaffirmation lest it shatter, emphasized with the choice of dudebro language and talk of the legacy of wealth and privilege every other character carries down from his daddy. Headley’s use of bro neologisms and modern contexts (via words like “hashtag” and “talked shit”) position the text both within the past and our contemporary moment, asking the reader to consider who would have this kind of power and dynastic privilege in these regional and linguistic contexts. Perhaps inadvertently, Headley’s text underlines this default to whiteness (as is inevitable unless deliberately pointed away).
Headley’s telling offers a commentary on a particular kind of white frat-boy masculinity. For a pointed example, the poem notes of Beowulf and his compatriots that “They’re well-dressed,/ thus well-born, and thus worthy.” Beowulf introduces himself thus: “My father was Ecgtheow./ No doubt you’ve heard of him. He was famous […] though/ he’s long since left us, everyone, the world over,/ knows my daddy’s name.” The reader understands that this is a boy boasting of his connections, an affirmation of why he belongs in Horthgar’s halls, though we learn later in the poem upon his return to his homeland that “he hadn’t had this status/ when he left, a boy who men looked on as low—/ the Geats thought him lazy, and even their lord/ had never given him span on the beer-bench, believing/ he was all bluster, no badass, thinking his position came/ from privilege, not class.”
As a consequence, Beowulf’s plan to fight Grendel barehanded no longer feels simply like heroic prowess or militarized hypermasculinity, but also like the sort of boastful nonsense a dudebro would do, despite the danger, simply to prove that he can. While fortune repeatedly favors Beowulf throughout his life, his particular bombast and faith in himself is the mark of a kind of privilege dealing with legacies, descendants, familial connections, and overall contexts of power that, within European and British post/colonial histories, is marked by whiteness. While previous translators and critics of the epic have noted that we’re not necessarily always supposed to read Beowulf as a perfect hero, particularly given his early focus on recompense for deeds, the text’s focus on masculinity has previously not been so visibly raced. The epic’s original contexts shift through Headley’s choices in the telling: a commentary on how we construct “good (white) men” through actions only made possible through privilege.
This visibilizing of whiteness allows for it to be critiqued in a way that might otherwise have been closed off in the work of other translators (I’m thinking here of Seamus Heaney’s 1999 version, which is the one I’m most familiar with). At the same time, Headley’s text never quite expands into what it could do with whiteness made so evident, leaving this visibilization of whiteness feeling like an inadvertent outcome of other creative choices. As a result, the poem stalls out where any critique of whiteness might occur.
Intended or not, race and culture are deeply enmeshed in Headley’s text through her choice of contemporary neologism and metaphor. Beowulf’s claim that he “made sashimi” of sea-monsters is not just a metaphor but also carried with it the knowledge of globalized Japanese food culture, which then inadvertently makes Japanese peoples part of Beowulf. Similarly, the translation’s use of contemporary neologisms like “throwing shade,” “your fool self,” and “drop some truth” inevitably brings Blackness into the text through the use of phrasing from AAVE. Unferth and Beowulf’s stand-off references the text’s own riddle fights as antecedents, but, in this translation, is obviously a nod to the contemporary rap battle. There is a marked emphasis in this section that draws from African-American culture.
“Headley’s text never quite expands into what it could do with whiteness made so evident, leaving this visibilization of whiteness feeling like an inadvertent outcome of other creative choices. As a result, the poem stalls out where any critique of whiteness might occur.“
Headley’s choice to use this sort of linguistic and cultural appropriation in the mouths of performatively egregious and presumably white dudebros offers readers a chance to see this as commentary on appropriative whiteness. But the text never feels self-conscious enough to position this as its aim (despite Headley’s claim in the introduction to have referred to Morrison’s Black feminist essay on Beowulf). More self-consciousness on the part of the text could have opened it not only to the entry-level conversations about appropriative whiteness that we’re engaged in now, but could have also been used to talk about something like Vershawn Ashanti Young, Rusty Barrett, Y’Shanda Young-Rivera, and Kim Brian Lovejoy’s theorization of code-meshing and the ways in which code-meshing destabilizes ideas of how ideas of institutional or “proper” English language use is constituted through histories of whiteness. Code-meshing pushes back against language hierarchies that distinguish between “proper” English and AAVE as dialect (and thus “improper”), and it is possible to argue that the choice to have a translation of Beowulf using AAVE thus performs code-meshing by putting both on a level playing field and intermixing them. However, this is complicated by the fact that the text’s defaulted whiteness (or at least lack of self-awareness around race and ethnicity) allows for acceptance of this performance through the absenting of Black people; it does not carry the same markers or costs. As a result, it feels like the text repeats whiteness in its uses of language and neologism rather than deconstructing it, easily allowing for it to be reified, though a conscious reader could use this fruitfully if they wished.
Regardless, in-text claims that the events “went global” inevitably brings in people and cultures the poem itself hasn’t or won’t make space for. In propping itself up by appropriating AAVE, Black, and Japanese culture, without necessarily affording space to Black and/or Japanese people, white bro culture repeats erasure. In A New Translation, including this cultural appropriation produces the possibility of discussing this ongoing phenomenon in the contemporary world, even through texts like Beowulf that have long been used to structure white supremacy. Here, oddly enough, is progress. It is not unproblematic but it does feel like an evolution; a response to Morrison that I didn’t see coming when I picked up this book. There are a hundred things a good critic could do with this text to speak to its raced constructions of culture, gender, and power, and I’m excited for those eventual conversations.
Notably, the long poem is made up of events being recounted by a narrator who Headley characterizes as the kind of guy at the bar who takes up space and wants to tell a story as if he were there. Beowulf is an incredibly performative piece, and Headley, as poet, writes a narrator who speaks of a series of tales with their own embedded stories. There are shifting and collapsing levels in play as Headley’s feminist take—offering female characters additional space, a chance at agency and grace—doesn’t quite account for the bombastic bro-narrator playing to his crowd in a bar. I read these choices as a kind of quiet underlying contempt that constantly problematizes how this narrative of “real men” is constructed.
Two points arise out of the translation’s fixation on “real men.” First, and perhaps most important for me, is that narratives around “real men” (or “real women”) are often heavily charged with transphobia. The poem’s repeated use of this language made me flinch. The translation actively worked towards a feminist reading, but, to do so, employed terms now deeply associated with trans-exclusionary radical feminism (TERF). Sure, the source text is arguably rife with misogyny and irrefutably obsessed with hypermasculinity, but if we can make space for feminist intent, then we can make space for trans-inclusive feminist intent (or at least a reading that doesn’t immediately invoke contemporary politicized language use in jarring, counter-productive ways). The choice to translate is to engage in a relationship with language use and its cultural contexts: these are never distinct.
Second, the poem constructs violence itself as gendered. In Beowulf’s fight with Grendel’s mother, the text reads: “He’d fight like a man, and take her hand to hand,/ his fingertips blueprinting her skin. This is what/ real men must do, come on, we all know the truth:/if you want to win, you have to forget you’re afraid to die.” The description of his fingers bruising her skin is viscerally violent, and the use of enjambment forces the reader to confront other possibilities for what is being said. Those line-breaks between “This is what” and “real men must do, come on, we all know the truth” invoke hypermasculinity and draw allusions to domestic violence. Grendel’s mother is a warrior in her own right avenging her son; a man has broken into her home and is attacking her, and the source text expects us to take his side. At every moment in this stanza it is impossible to ignore how Headley’s interpretation pushes back against the telling.
At moments like these, Beowulf seems to slip and crack open; I found it impossible to reconcile the supposed dudebro in the bar telling this story and the way the story was being told—the text collapsed its performance and, for just a minute, this isn’t the man in the bar speaking but someone else under his (performed) voice. The failure of that performance allows the poem to specifically layer meaning, and this was intentional and self-conscious enough that it was impossible to miss. For me, the moments where the poem failed in its pretense were some of its most powerful.
There are multiple instances throughout the poem where this happens. Each time this hidden contempt creeps in as commentary on the construction of “good” masculinity in question, it reminds us that this cannot be performed by the supposed narrator. If Beowulf was a performance, then Beowulf: A New Translation has exacerbated this to the extent that we can never be unaware that even the narrator is but a half-mask, slipping on and off as suits Headley’s poetic persona. It is, for all intents and purposes, postmodern Beowulf, somewhere between pastiche and satire, going through the traditional verses but with completely different emphasis points and expressions. It’s very much new wine in old bottles and I am here for it!
“Beowulf seems to slip and crack open; I found it impossible to reconcile the supposed dudebro in the bar telling this story and the way the story was being told—the text collapsed its performance and, for just a minute, this isn’t the man in the bar speaking but someone else under his (performed) voice.“
A truly epic rumble, reading Beowulf: A New Translation feels, in the end, like watching Icarus soar a second before he falls. The moments this poem sneers and winks, it’s flying, but it’s not fully successful because it doesn’t seem to know what to invest in: the dudebro narrator in a bar or its underlying feminist purpose; its modern global contexts or the fact that these still entail a specificity of race, culture, and language use. These do inevitably read as at odds to me (though your own interpretation might vary). I’m reminded of Anna Tsing’s ethnographic concept of “friction”: a new zone in which awkward or conflicting engagements push up against each other, but also allow new meanings and possibilities to emerge. Beowulf: A New Translation may have only intended to speak to updated contexts in feminist purpose and contemporary language, but the new zone of engagement allows us to read the text’s masculinities as a critique of whiteness.
In response, my review is one that echoes Dorothy Kim’s call to “scholars to read and listen to the medieval archive with a racialized gaze and a racialized ear,” in large part because I cannot opt out. Literature is not and could never be unmarked for me. For all that I admire what Headley has managed to do in this book, I see a road far further.
An academic and freelance journalist by day, Samira Nadkarni (she/ they) spends far too much of her time having feelings and yelling on the internet. Although she sometimes writes reviews for the SFF magazine, Strange Horizons, the majority of her energy is spent reading, binge-watching terrible TV, and being stared down by her cat. Twitter: @SamiraNadkarni.
This review was commissioned by editor Sean Guynes on August 29, 2020 following a discussion with the author of the review on Twitter; the author and editor are mutual acquaintances through shared scholarly and genre fiction review networks. A digital review copy was provided by the publisher.