Bro! Tell me we still know how to speak of kings!
We’re thrilled to share an excerpt from Maria Dahvana Headley’s radical new translation of the Old English epic poem Beowulf—available now from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Nearly twenty years after Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf—and fifty years after the translation that continues to torment high-school students around the world—there is a radical new verse translation of the epic poem by Maria Dahvana Headley, which brings to light elements that have never before been translated into English, recontextualizing the binary narrative of monsters and heroes into a tale in which the two categories often entwine, justice is rarely served, and dragons live among us.
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. The familiar elements of the epic poem are seen with a novelist’s eye toward gender, genre, and history—Beowulf has always been a tale of entitlement and encroachment, powerful men seeking to become more powerful, and one woman seeking justice for her child, but this version brings new context to an old story. While crafting her contemporary adaptation of Beowulf, Headley unearthed significant shifts lost over centuries of translation.
Bro! Tell me we still know how to speak of kings! In the old days,
everyone knew what men were: brave, bold, glory-bound. Only
stories now, but I’ll sound the Spear-Danes’ song, hoarded for hungry times.
Their first father was a foundling: Scyld Scefing.
He spent his youth fists up, browbeating every barstool-brother,
bonfiring his enemies. That man began in the waves, a baby in a basket,
but he bootstrapped his way into a kingdom, trading loneliness
for luxury. Whether they thought kneeling necessary or no,
everyone from head to tail of the whale-road bent down:
There’s a king, there’s his crown!
That was a good king.
Later, God sent Scyld a son, a wolf cub,
further proof of manhood. Being God, He knew
how the Spear-Danes had suffered, the misery
they’d mangled through, leaderless, long years of loss,
so the Life-lord, that Almighty Big Boss, birthed them
an Earth-shaker. Beow’s name kissed legions of lips
by the time he was half-grown, but his own father
was still breathing. We all know a boy can’t daddy
until his daddy’s dead. A smart son gives
gifts to his father’s friends in peacetime.
When war woos him, as war will,
he’ll need those troops to follow the leader.
Privilege is the way men prime power,
the world over.
Scyld was iron until the end. When he died,
his warriors executed his final orders.
They swaddled their king of rings and did just
as the Dane had demanded, back when mind
and meter could merge in his mouth.
They bore him to the harbor, and into the bosom
of a ship, that father they’d followed, that man
they’d adored. She was anchored and eager
to embark, an ice maiden built to bear
the weight of a prince. They laid him
by the mast, packed tight in his treasure-trove,
bright swords, war-weeds, his lap holding a hoard
of flood-tithes, each fare-coin placed by a loyal man.
He who pays the piper calls the tune.
His shroud shone, ringed in runes, sun-stitched.
I’ve never heard of any ship so heavy, nor corpse
so rich. Scyld came into the world unfavored;
his men weighted him as well as the strangers had,
who’d once warped him to the waves’ weft.
Even ghosts must be fitted to fight.
The war-band flew a golden flag over their main man;
the salt sea saluted him, so too the storms,
and Scyld’s soldiers got drunk instead of crying.
They mourned the way men do. No man knows,
not me, not you, who hauled Scyld’s hoard to shore,
but the poor are plentiful, and somebody got lucky.
Finally, Beow rolled into righteous rule,
daddying for decades after his own daddy died.
At last, though, it was his turn for erasure:
his son, the Halfdane, ran roughshod, smothering
his father’s story with his own. He rose in the realm
and became a famous warlord, fighting ferociously
dawn to dusk, fathering his own horde of four,
heirs marching into the world in this order: Heorogar,
Hrothgar, Halga, and I heard he hand-clasped his daughter
(her name’s a blur) to Onela. Tender, she rendered that battle-Swede
happy in fucking, where before he’d only been happy in fighting.
War was the wife Hrothgar wed first. Battles won,
treasures taken. Admirers and kin heard of his fight-fortune,
and flanked him in force. Strong boys grow into stronger men,
and when Hrothgar had an army, his hopes turned to a hall
to home them—a house to espouse his faithful.
More than just a mead-hall, a world’s wonder,
eighth of seven. When it was done, he swore,
he’d load-lighten, unhand everything he’d won,
worn, and owned, pass to his posse all God’s gifts,
save lives and land. He’d keep the kingdom, of course.
He gave far-reaching orders: carpets, carpentry, walls and gables,
tables for seating a clan, rare gifts plated like rare meat,
all for his men. So it rose: a greater hall than any other!
Hrothgar filled it, blood-brother by blood-brother,
and named it Heorot. His words were heard and heralded,
and yes, yes, bro! The man was more than just talk:
he gave good gifts. His war-wedded wore kings’ rings,
and drank their leader’s mead. Nightly, he feted his fight-family
with fortunes. The hall loomed, golden towers antler-tipped;
it was asking for burning, but that hadn’t happened yet.
You know how it is: every castle wants invading, and every family
has enemies born within it. Old grudges recrudesce.
Speaking of grudges: out there in the dark, one waited.
He listened, holding himself hard to home,
but he’d been lonely too long, brotherless,
sludge-stranded. Now he heard and endured
the din of drinkers. Their poetry poisoned his peace.
Every night, turmoil: raucous laughter from Heorot,
howling of harps, squawking of scops.
Men recounting the history of men like them.
The Almighty made Earth for us, they sang.
Sun and moon for our (de)light,
fens full of creatures for our feasting,
meres to quench our thirst.
Heorot’s hall-dwellers caroused by candlelight,
stumbling to sleep with the sunrise, replete,
lambs bleating comfort, ease-pleased,
until the night wakefulness moved their watcher to wrath.
Grendel was the name of this woe-walker,
Unlucky, fucked by Fate. He’d been
living rough for years, ruling the wild:
the mere, the fen, and the fastness,
his kingdom. His creation was cursed
under the line of Cain, the kin-killer.
The Lord, long ago, had taken Abel’s side.
Though none of that was Grendel’s doing,
he’d descended from bloodstains.
From Cain had come a cruel kind,
seen by some as shadow-stalked: monsters,
elves, giants who’d ground against God,
and for that, been banished.
Under a new moon, Grendel set out
to see what horde haunted this hall.
He found the Ring-Danes drunk,
douse-downed, making beds of benches.
They were mead-medicated, untroubled
by pain, their sleep untainted by sorrow.
Grendel hurt, and so he hunted. This stranger
taught the Danes about time. He struck, seized
thirty dreaming men, and hied himself home,
bludgeoning his burden as he bounded, for the Danes
had slept sweetly in a world that had woken him,
benefited from bounty, even as they’d broken him.
When golden teeth tasted the sky,
Grendel’s silent skill was seen. His kills—
grim crimson spilt on banquet-boards.
The war-horde wailed at the spoiling of their sleep,
at the depths they’d dived in darkness, while their enemy ate.
A mournful morning. Their leader sat at his plate, old overnight,
impotent at this ingress. The band tracked the invader, but not to his lair.
They had prayers to call out, and pains to bear.
Grendel did not stay himself from slaughter. The next night
a second slaying, and then another, his rope played out and
rotted through, a cursed course plotted without mercy,
and corse after corse cold in his keep. Bro, it was easy
after that to count the weepers: men fleeing to cotes
beneath the king’s wings. You’d have to have been a fool to miss
the malice of the Hell-dweller, now hall-dwelling. Those who lived, left—
or locked themselves in ladies’ lodgings, far from fault lines.
Those who stayed? Slain.
For twelve snow-seasons, Grendel reigned over evening.
Hrothgar suffered, Heorot buffeted, no hero to hold it.
Every outsider talked shit, telling of legends and losses.
Hrothgar’s hall became a morgue, dark marks on floorboards.
No songs, no scops, no searing meat, no blazing fire.
And Grendel, incomplete, raided relentlessly.
Dude, this was what they call a blood feud, a war
that tore a hole through the hearts of the Danes.
Grendel was broken, and would not brook peace,
desist in dealing deaths, or die himself.
He had no use for stealth—he came near-nightly,
and never negotiated. The old counselors knew better
than to expect a settlement in silver from him.
Ringless, Grendel’s fingers, kingless,
his country. Be it wizened vizier or beardless boy,
he hunted them across foggy moors, an owl
mist-diving for mice, grist-grinding their tails
in his teeth. A hellion’s home is anywhere
good men fear to tread; who knows the dread this
Grendel, enemy to everyone, waged his war
without an army, lonesome as he lapped
the luxurious lengths of Heorot. He howl-haunted
the hall at night, the gold-gifter’s throne throwing
shade at him, his soul burning with dark flame.
He couldn’t touch the treasure, or tame
his yearning, for he’d been spurned by God.
Times were hard for the prince of the Scyldings, too,
heart-shattered, battered spirit spent.
Men came to advise, bringing pithy plots
and plans to arrest Hrothgar’s awful guest.
They bent themselves to idols, and offered up
their own spells, that a soul-slayer might suddenly
show up and save them. That was their nature,
these heathens, hoping at the wrong heavens,
remembering Hell, but nothing else.
They knew no true Lord, no God, no Master.
They, too, were cursed, yet thought themselves clear.
Bro, lemme say how fucked they were,
in times of worst woe throwing themselves
on luck rather than on faith, fire-walkers
swearing their feet uncharred, while
smoke-stepping. Why not face
the Boss, and at death seek
salves, not scars?
So it went for years, the Hell-sent raider harrowing
the Halfdane’s son, who sat in silence, brooding
over unhatched hopes, while in the dark his
people shuddered, salt-scourged by weeping,
by nights spent waking instead of sleeping.
News went global. In Geatland, Hygelac’s right-hand man
heard about Grendel. Bro, here was a warrior
like no other: massive, mighty, born of noble
blood. He called for a ship to be readied
for his band, and boasted he’d try his teeth on this tale,
sail in as a savior over the swan-road, seek that king
and lend a hand as defender. His elders
understood his quest, and though he was dear to them,
they knew better than to spear him with speeches.
They augured the omens—ooh!—and ushered him onward.
He found fourteen fists for hire, the boldest men
of the Geats, and enlisted them as fighters.
He, as their captain, went aboard to pilot
the vessel, with sea-skill, through
keen currents and mean depths.
Soon it was time to depart:
the boat’s belly was wet,
and beneath the land-locks
these warriors met, cheering,
bringing battle-gear into her bosom.
As sand spit and surf sang, they pushed off
and sent themselves to sea, made men.
The wind sent them surging.
With a foam-feathered throat,
their bird flew free, sailing with certainty
over salt waters. On the second day,
she sought a shore, and the men saw cliffs,
crags uplifting from the ocean:
the end of the voyage. Overboard
the Geats leapt, shifting from sailors to soldiers,
the moment their soles touched solid earth.
Their weapons rattled as they moored the boat,
their mail unveiled in sunlight.
They thanked God for easy passage
and sweet seas.
Far above them, the Scylding’s watchman
waited. It was his duty to keep
these cliffs unclimbed. When his gaze hit
gleam: swords and shields glittering
across the gangplank, passing without permission,
Hrothgar’s man set out for the sand on horseback,
straight spear in hand, to stand
formally and question them:
“How dare you come to Denmark
costumed for war? Chain mail and swords?!
There’s a dress code! You’re denied.
I’m the Danes’ doorman; this is my lord’s door.
Who are you that you dare steer your ship
for our shore? I’m the watcher of these waters,
have been for years, and it’s my duty to scan the sea
for shield-bearing dangers to Danes. I’ve never seen
any force come so confidently over swells, certain of welcome,
no welcome won. Did you send word? No! Were you invited?
No! You’re not on the guest list. And, also, who’s the giant?
What weapons does he hold? Oh, hell no.
He’s no small-time hall-soldier, but noble!
Look at his armor! I’m done here!
Spies, state your secrets, or be denounced.
Who are you, what’s your business,
where’d you come from?
I’ll ask one more time.
You’re not coming past this cliff.
Answer now, or bounce.
You, men: Who? Where? Why?”
Their leader unlocked his word-hoard.
He was the senior soldier, so he spat certainty:
“We are Geats, born and bred, bound
to Hygelac. My father was Ecgtheow.
No doubt you’ve heard of him. He was famous.
He lived through winters that would’ve
pressed the life from a lesser, and though
he’s long since left us, everyone, the world over,
knows my daddy’s name. We come in peace,
looking for your lord and land-shield,
the son of the Halfdane. Kindly give us
directions and we’ll get gone.
We’re here to offer ourselves up
to the Dane’s lord, and our plans
are open, no secrets from you.
Is it true that something savage
walks at night? We’ve heard the stories,
that misery stalks and rages here,
that good men are endangered here,
by a stranger in this country.
We come to counsel your king
on how to cleave his reaver,
and court calm. If there’s respite
to be had, I’m the lad to bring it.
Otherwise, Hrothgar will be grieving
and desperate as long as his
hall hangs—I see it there—
at the horizon.”
The watchman was unmoved, his authority innate.
He sat tall on horseback. “I know
the difference between words and deeds,
as anyone with half a brain does.
Thus far, I’ll endorse your scheme:
you seem a troop true to my lord.
The rest is in the proving.
Come, then, bring your battle-gear.
I’ll lead you to my leader,
and send my guards to circle
your new-tarred ship on the sandbar,
until it’s time for her to rise ring-prowed
over this rolling road and be boarded again
by whichever of you—if any?—
survive the sword-storm you’ve sought.”
Off they went, agreed, leaving
their own mount, that wide wave-rover,
hitched to rope and anchor.
Boars bristled from their cheek-shields,
gold forced into fierce forms by fire.
The watchman led them toward their war.
Fifteen men heeded him and marched
with speed, until the timbered hall
was before them, shimmering, golden,
the structure best known under the sun and stars
to every citizen of Earth.
This was a place real men could be rebirthed,
and their guide pointed the path to it,
then turned tail, saying:
“I’ve been away from my sea-view too long.
May the Father leave you living.
For me, I return to my ocean-post,
to scan the shore for
The road was stone-cobbled, and kept them
coming correct, a straight line of marchers,
war-garb gleaming, chains linked by hardened hands,
their armor ringing, loud as any hall-bell. By the time
they arrived in Heorot, dressed for demons,
they were sagging, sea-stung. They stacked shields,
wood-weathered, against the walls, then sat down
on benches, their metal making music. Their spears,
they stood like sleeping soldiers, tall but tilting,
gray ash, a death-grove. Each maker of armor-din
was twinned to his weapon. A man of Hrothgar’s
company, admiring them, inquired:
“What kingdom sent you here, boys, with your crests
and shields, your gilt helmets and gray-clothed
chests, your sharpened spears? I’m Hrothgar’s
herald and officer, and in all my years
I’ve never seen such an impressive
assembly of outlanders. You’ve too much style
to be exiles, so I expect you must be
heroes, sent to Hrothgar?”
The man—we know him, his name means nerve—
the leader of the Geats, hard-core in his helmet,
spoke their mission succinctly:
“We’re Hygelac’s reserve, trained
and ready. Beowulf’s my name.
Excerpted from Beowulf: A New Translation, copyright © 2020 by Maria Dahvana Headley