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You will stan this modern retelling of ‘Beowulf’
The story of Beowulf is old. Really old.
The epic poem, which has been translated and re-translated for centuries, is the Anglo-Saxon tale of a warrior who’s celebrated for his victorious bouts with the monster Grendel, a vengeful Grendel’s mother, and finally a dragon that mortally wounds him.
Maria Dahvana Headley, whose new translation of “Beowulf” came out last year, wanted to build onto the thousand-year-old poem’s long history. Part of its staying power, Headly said, is how its themes — heroes and villains, how to ensure safety, who’s a monster — are absorbed into our society today.
“It’s an old story, but we’re still talking about the same things,” she said.
One way Headley connects the poem with modern readers is through language, mixing in some contemporary words into an Old English text. “Beowulf” famously opens with a storyteller wanting to snap a crowd to attention. Previously, it’s been “Hark!” or “So!” Headley, instead, opts for “Bro!,” a word that would resonate more with readers today.
Headley, whose 2018 novel “The Mere Wife” is itself a modern “Beowulf” retelling, said she’s always been interested in how mythology and folklore have been “building blocks” for society. With her version of “Beowulf,” she said, she wanted to make the Old English story feel more intimate, “to make it feel like you could be watching the news and watching the story and having your own suspicions about whether or not this is a good story.”
“I think that’s how you change,” she told the PBS NewsHour’s Jeffrey Brown. “The world is looking at the building blocks and going, “This is still the case. Why is it built like this? It doesn’t have to be built like this.'”
Headley said in her translation, there are still all the familiar heroics, humor, bravery and bravado of “Beowulf,” in addition to a theme of mourning,not just for individual loss, but a “mourning for societies that don’t function correctly, that don’t have equality, that don’t have safety for everyone. I think that’s something that we can really apply to our contemporary society.”
Headley spoke with the NewsHour on what initially drew her to the epic poem, how she rehumanized characters like Grendel’s mother, and how words like “stan” opened up new possibilities for her translation.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
For the non-“Beowulf” knower, what is “Beowulf”? What is the story? What did it become for you?
“Beowulf” is a 1,000-plus-year-old epic poem, and it’s something that’s in the canon. People have taught it for a couple of hundred years-ish. It’s an important, long poem, and it’s in Old English, which is very different from contemporary English. It’s a story about a young warrior who decides to prove himself by fighting a legendary monster that’s attacking a neighboring kingdom. He goes to the kingdom and kills the monster who’s named Grendel. And then, he thinks he’s won. He gets lots of gold, he gets lots of joy. Everybody’s proud of him and thinks he’s amazing. Then Grendel’s mother shows up. He has to fight Grendel’s mother, and he kills her. Then 50 years pass, and he has to fight a dragon, and they kill each other.
You write in your introduction about coming to it through your love as a child of fantasy literature and that kind of drama, an epic drama.
I have always been interested in mythology and folklore and the ways in which those categories have been used to change the world. Really, the ways in which they’ve been building blocks for our society. So this is a poem that’s been so influential, in terms of the ways it’s been adapted into media and into novels and even into political rhetoric. It’s a poem about what you do to ensure your safety. Who do you fight? There are questionable aspects that have been adapted into our society, indeed, because we have the idea of, if you create a monster and kill the monster, then you’re a hero and you get status. So the poem is about that. It’s about the price of that status for some of the heroes.
As you write, you first got to know it as a child through the character of Grendel’s mother. When you first looked at the actual text, the longer poem — I don’t know what translation you first read — but did it grab you? I mean, not everybody finds that Old English translation’s fun to read. Did you, from the beginning?
(laughs) It did not grab me. Because I had encountered Grendel’s mother, I knew that this powerful woman was part of the poem. I had encountered her free-standing in an illustrated compendium of monsters. So I had seen an illustration of her, and I thought, “She’s so powerful. The poem must be about her.” And then the poem isn’t about her. She’s just a small character. But when I first read it in translation, I thought, “Where is the excitingness about this story?” The story should be so exciting, so invigorating. It has battles and dragons and monsters. It should be thrilling. And instead, for me, the translation that I read was a pretty literal prose translation that was in the Norton anthology before the Seamus Heaney translation in high school. It was dry. (laughs) I’m not going to lie to you. I read it, and I thought, “All of the elements are here for this to be thrilling. And instead it feels just kind of flat. Why is it even important it feels so flat.” And so, years passed, and I was disgruntled for years, and then I wrote a novel based on “Beowulf,” which is called “The Mere Wife” in 2018.
Your “Beowulf” is called a translation, but what does that mean exactly? What does the word mean to you? How much did you feel you had to stick as close to the literal meaning of words as possible?
In the case of the “Beowulf” poem, Old English is a language where many of the words mean multiple things. It’s a language where you often have to pick and choose which meaning you’re going to use as a translator. And, for me, that actually offers a lot of liberty. Part of the thrill of working with all the English poetry is that there are a lot of possibilities — and possibilities, not just in terms of poetic notion, but in terms of what is actually happening in the poem — because people have had many years of dispute. And so for me, working on this and translating the poem, this is really a translation. I did every line. But it also is a translation, absolutely, through my own filter on the world and what the poem can be used to do and what it might mean if you look at it a certain way.
I was interested in tying this poem to our world now and to the ways that we think about gender and colonialist violence and power now. I wanted to make sure that the language I was using cued those thoughts up in our heads. In the original, when it was when it was written, it was probably an oral performance that was transcribed, so it was a poet standing up saying, “Here’s this story, I’m going to tell it to you.” And it would have been exciting. I wanted this to feel exciting, which is another reason that I use contemporary language in this translation. People have always used contemporary language. Old English is really not the same language as contemporary English. So you have to use contemporary language. But people often translate it with a kind of Elizabethan tone or an old and dignified tone. I felt like it would be interesting, because the story is full of brawling and drunkenness, to use a tone that is much more modern, that is a contemporary vernacular.
But you’re making a case that all those things that you just mentioned that go to our time are there in the poem, whether it’s patriarchy or colonialism. You’re bringing them out, somehow, in a different way.
Yes. I think we have a long tradition as humans of all of these things. In terms of patriarchal culture, this is a patriarchal culture that we’re talking about in the “Beowulf” poem, even though it’s set in roughly the 6th century, in an imaginary version of the 6th century. It’s a culture where your king also has paternal qualities. He’s your father figure, and he’s giving you rings and giving you gold and supporting you, and you’re doing the work for him. So there’s that structure and also for the women in the poem, there are particular wifey roles that are necessary for the society to function. I wanted to get a little deeper into them and analyze them, mostly through the language that I used. In the poem, I used a lot of words that can cue up notions of our own history that we, just with our contemporary minds, we’re like, “Oh, she’s talking about this kind of relationship with gender.”
You wrote in the introduction, “Like everyone who’s ever translated this text, I had some fun.” It looks like it was fun because it’s fun to read. But there’s this mix of contemporary and archaic language, familiar and weird, all at once.
Yes, I did have fun. I can’t tell you how much fun it is to write a poem that is full of alliteration and rhyming in a world in which that’s become unusual. For me, it’s always been tempting to write in that register. I started out as a poet and playwright and then became a novelist. But I always had the vision of oral tradition, of telling a story and having it stay in people’s minds because of the way that the language works. So, in this translation, I used everything from “stan” or “bro,” which is the first word of my translation. I did that so that we could draw a thread through culture and storytelling in the English language from the time that the poem was created until now. It’s sort of like touching fingers with the ghost. (laughs) I see it as a collaboration between me and the “Beowulf” poet, who is anonymous. We don’t know who wrote the poem. We don’t know anything about that person. And for me, it was really an interesting exercise to imagine the possibilities that we hadn’t thought of in terms of who actually uttered this poem. It’s assumed that this author was male, but we don’t know that. Not necessarily. And I think if someone looked at this translation in a thousand years and didn’t have my name on it, they might think that I was a man writing this one. So it was an eye-opening experience doing this translation for me.
You mentioned the first word and everybody focuses on that first word because it’s famous in any translation. It becomes like “lo” or “hark” or some archaic English, and Seamus Heaney famously made “so,” which he wrote about thinking of his uncle at the bar, telling a story. You made it, “bro.” Explain that. What’s the word — how do you say the Old English word? — “Hwæt!”
Hwæt! (laughs) It’s sort of like “cat,” but with an “hw” at the top.
But it’s a word that is an attention-getting word. Certainly, in terms of “Beowulf” scholarship, it’s definitely attention-getting because it’s the first word, everyone looks at how you translate it. And it’s disputed, and people have lots of ideas — that maybe it’s just a sound or like a throat clearing or a thing that says, “This is the story!” and maybe you don’t even say it. But in my version of this, I had this idea about attention-getting storytelling in the contemporary world, but also in the time of the poem’s setting. It wouldn’t have been “bro” then, but it’s a room full of men that the poet would be speaking to. So I thought, “OK, well, that word conveys almost a collegial relationship, a familial relationship, a friendly relationship,” but also sometimes a relationship that involves status because of the way that we use now is often someone saying, “Bro, I am now taking the floor,” which I think is what is happening at the beginning of this poem. The storyteller is taking the floor and is about to tell you a story that has a lot of history in it and digressions, and the storyteller needs to get attention. I love Seamus Heaney’s “so” as well. I love that he got it from his Irish uncle. I love that he was using vernacular storytelling in his translation as well.
And did you literally start there? I’m wondering if the word “bro” opens up the poem, it also opens up a way of thinking about what language you’re going to use. And later on, you use social media hashtags. It sounds like we’re in the middle of “Hamilton” or something like that. That first word — was it the first word for you, and then it opened up things?
Yes, when I sold this translation, that was the first idea that I had. I was considering whether or not I should do a translation of “Beowulf” because it seemed crazy. And someone in a Q&A session for “The Mere Wife” asked when my translation was coming out and I said, “No, no, no, no, I’m not translating that. I don’t have the credentials.” (laughs) And then I thought about it a little bit and thought, “I haven’t read a translation that views this as a ‘bro’ story.” And indeed, I hadn’t read a translation that had a real sense of the narrator’s point of view, even though the narrator in the original periodically shows back up in the narrative and says, “I was there, and I saw it happen.” This is an interesting part of the poem that people do different things when they translate it. Sometimes they just edit that out because it doesn’t make sense. But it’s a storytelling technique. So I thought about the POV of that narrator, and I really thought about using the “bro” as a way to craft a persona for the narrator of the poem, who is there the whole time filtering information for you, the listener, and saying, “You should look at it this way here. Let’s look at these characters who think that they are going to heaven, but they’re not because they believe in the wrong God.” So what’s for them? Because this is the narrator that’s coming at this material several centuries after the material allegedly takes place. This is a Christian narrator rather than a pagan narrator, which is an interesting aspect of the poem as well.
There are so many ways to look at the storytelling and to think about the ways that humans have always told stories. For me, the “bro” aspect of this was a way for me to craft a kind of blooded, vigorous narrator that takes us through this story. But there are also digressions that are really lyrical poetry, and beautiful little stories are told throughout the poem. I think that narrator has that capacity as well, because in the original they feel like he’s quoting someone else, he’s telling someone else’s story. I think that that’s what’s happening here too. The narrator is like, “And then I heard this one story, let me bring it in, because it’s relevant to this material.” But the storyteller told it this way. So you get a sense of that voice as well.
I want to go back to something you said earlier, which is about the idea of who is a monster, and who decides who’s a monster, because it’s so clearly — at least for me — the hinge that ties it to our times now — this questioning of “Who is a monster?” and whose perspective it is and clearly around the character, most of all, of Grendel’s mother. But tell me a little bit about how you thought about that “monster” issue and why it became so important for you.
The Grendel’s mother character is really interesting. She’s the character that caused me to write “The Mere Wife” because I happened upon something that said the word that is used to describe Grendel’s mother is the same word that’s used to describe Beowulf. In early dictionaries, this word was translated when referring to Grendel’s mother as “monster” and when referring to Beowulf as “hero.” And that seemed very questionable and mysterious to me, but also predictable. It seemed like, OK, the Grendel’s mother character is a single mother. We never learn who Grendel’s father is. She’s only referred to as “Grendel’s mother.” She doesn’t have a name. But she’s very powerful. She’s a warrior. She has an armory of weapons in her kingdom, and she’s been queen of her kingdom for as long as Hrothgar, the main king, has been king of his kingdom, which means [Grendel’s mother is] an old woman.
I thought about the history of what we’ve done with characters like that. Often they’re witches, often they are monstrous in some way because they’re powerful and single mothers and living without men. They just often get assessed as not human, if they have power, because you’re not supposed to have power. I thought a lot about that as I was working on this and because the word was already there to lead me to the possibility — not just the word — but also lots of scholarship about this. I just had to look at her as a human. I thought, “Well, what if she’s a warrior? What if she’s a veteran, and she’s now older, but she can still fight.” Because when she fights with Beowulf, she almost kills him. He’s very frightened of her. He armors up very well because he is worried that she will beat him — and then she almost does. The only reason he survives that battle is that God saves him. It’s not his own doing. God shines a light on the sword that can kill her, and he is able to kill her.
I’m not the first person to translate her as non-monstrous. But I am, I think, the first person to really make that a hinge point of my translation. And it was interesting to just compare 20th century translations of the text and even 21st century translations — the way that she became more and more ugly. At first, she was just translated as the monstrous mother of Grendel. But then, she began to be translated as “ugly monster hag” and started to have long teeth and long claws, which are not in the original text. I think she just has fingers in the original, and she also carries a knife. With long fingernail claws, it would be so hard to effectively fight with a knife in your hand. You have to clutch it. You would be stabbing yourself with your own claws, and why would she do that? So I thought it would be interesting for her to just not go in that direction at all. She’s just a human mother who has a child who is questionable, and who has reasons to attack Heorot Hall. It’s loud. It’s essentially a giant development right next door to his nature preserve. And he’s mad. His ears hurt. So I wanted to give Grendel’s mother the same level of analysis that John Gardner gave Grendel in the novel he wrote about Grendel.
But that also then clearly suggests reasons why it ties to our own time. In that characterization — and not just her — but others as well.
It definitely does. As humans, we’ve always had territorial disputes, we’ve always had difficulties with boundaries and often a persistence in analyzing our boundary structures as, “Our place is the good place, and on the other side of the world is the bad place. And on the other side of the wall are the monsters. And we get our status in our good place by killing the people on the other side of the wall. Clearly, they want to come and kill us and take all our stuff.” And that’s just a longstanding human situation and something that we’ve done in pretty much all cultures in the world.
But I think that it’s something that in American culture — and obviously I was really thinking about America and about the ways that we’ve divided America, insisting on status relationships that are essentially “monster versus hero,” whether racially or class-based analysis that is really wrong, really messed up and justified often by mythology. By “We’ve always done it this way. This is how heroes do it. This is how it’s done.” But I think that in terms of the way that we’ve structured American society, we have a lot of those elements. And some of them actually came from poems like this and came from, I think, faulty analyses of poems like this. Because the other part of this poem is that once you create a monster, you have a monstrous element in yourself. You are not going to be able to recover. And that’s what happens to Beowulf. He ends the poem dead, but he’s also single. He never marries. He’s lonely. He’s just the only guy like him, feeling bad. And the only way he can have a feeling of satisfaction is to fight another monster. And it’s questionable for his kingdom, it doesn’t keep his kingdom safe, it actually opens his kingdom to threat. So thinking about it, about all of these things in American culture that have been poisonous to the culture and continue to be, I wanted to cue those up in this translation so that we could think about them this way.