Thursday, April 11, 2024

Bro! Beowulf!

At last year’s Philly Zine Fest I bumped into a cool Temple University faculty member who recommended Maria Dahvana Headley’s newish (2020) translation of Beowulf to me. I had heard that she was a bit of a troublemaker, so I was already inclined toward checking out her take on ol' Bee Wolf at some point. Then my friend dropped this on me:

“She renders the initial Hwæt as 'bro!'”*

Sold, my dude, sold.

So here are my favorite lines from Headley’s version.

Old grudges recrudesce.

Bro, fate can fuck you up.

Any season is a season for blood, if you look at it in the right light.

not living, but living on in legend.

…through perilous passageways, places off-map, paths too slender for company, where sea monsters sang and cliffs called for suicides.

Meanwhile, Beowulf gave zero shits.

Living has killed us all.

Both he and his enemy had seen the edge of existence, tripped and fallen over it.

bro, nobody changes God’s mind.

now they were custodians of the bloody mud. [referring to the winners of a battle.]

He was our man, but every man dies.

*How to convey the proper tone and meaning of the first word of the poem, Hwæt, is a long-running problem among translators and adapters. Seamus Heaney's otherwise much-admired version stumbles out of the gate with a bloodless "So.", while Roy Liuzza's more scholarly translation manages to be both unimaginative yet strong with "Listen!" Tolkien opts for "Lo!", which I quite like. In grad school I vigorously argued for "Yo!" But since everything I know about the Anglo-Saxon language fits neatly into a single lecture suitable for undergrads, no one listened. Headley goes all-in with her choice of "bro!", turning the bleak landscape of Dark Ages Scandahoovia into a romping ground for braggy jocks.
Dennis Mize's Beowulf & Grendel (Ral 01-189) figured into my Beowulf slide deck back when I taught this stuff on the regular. The parallel poses helped me make the case that in some ways the two characters are apposite as well as opposite.



  1. Anonymous1:45 PM

    I love it when folks capture the essence of something. I imagine there will be many who disapprove, but this seems like a great translation for HS English teachers to utilize.

  2. I thought about it, and it feels like a translation to a language I don't particularly like. Kind of like the 90's russian translation of "Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep" - a very well-made one, especially in comparison with others of its kind.
    And why wouldn't Maria Dahvana Headley just write her own version of Beowulf - oh, wait, my bad. She did.

  3. Around here we pronounce Hwaet as Yea-huh. Really it hasn't changed much in 1000 years.

  4. "a romping ground for braggy jocks" immediately reminds me of Neil Gaiman''s Norse Mythology book, especially any of the tales that include Thor. Maybe not so far off.

  5. Bruh, that's awesome!

  6. Reminds me of the "Cowboy Havamal" by Dr. Jackson Crawford. Odin speaking like a grizzled ole' cowpoke is awesome.

  7. Anonymous1:18 AM

    thanks for this! this is awesome!

  8. Anonymous11:11 AM

    Try this one: