“Beowulf”: A Horror Show

Maria Dahvana Headley’s translation of “Beowulf” forces us to think about what we need to be true about the past, and our access to it.

Scene: Scandinavia, late summer, a cloudless night. The Dark Ages. Seemingly from nowhere, a quasihuman monster, descended from Cain, hears the sounds of warriors reveling in their Great Hall and decides to silence them. Creeping out of the unstructured darkness of his usual stomping grounds, this monster sneaks into the Great Hall and slaughters the warriors in their sleep. The monster develops a taste for blood, so these murders become habitual. For years.

When the monster is at last maimed and slain by a hero, his semihuman mother creeps out of the fetid pond they live in to take revenge for her only child’s death. She rips men apart in the night, seething like death itself. The same hero follows this grim hag into her pond (he’s a strong swimmer) and cuts her down with a talismanic sword. Some time later, a third monster surges forth, this time a poisonous dragon. The hero kills the dragon, too, but not before the dragon lethally poisons him.

All that is left is horrified lamentation at the certainty that worse things are coming. Despite the hero’s efforts and sacrifices, no one is safe. The women ululate, and the rituals of burial for the hero bring no comfort.

This is the story of Beowulf. And, to the best of my knowledge, it is the earliest horror narrative in English literature.

There are few—surprisingly few, in fact—good working definitions of horror, or even criteria that apply across long time spans. One definition leans on Freud’s notion of the uncanny: things that are eerily unfamiliar; twisted versions of recognizably human, domestic things. Another is Julia Kristeva’s notion of the abject: literally, things that are cast down, or cast out, yet somehow surge back into social space as an unwanted surplus, often a residue of our own bodily decay and vulnerability. A third definition understands horror less by its subject and more by its method of action, as a mode that simultaneously overloads the reader’s or viewer’s capacity for rational understanding and floods her with fear; the horrific, then, acts both cognitively and affectively.

I would add to the list an important fourth criterion. There are other literary modes, like tragedy, that leverage fear, or convey some degree of abjection or uncanniness. But, unlike tragedy, horror leaves readers or viewers with a hangover—a sense that, even though the story is over, we still have something to be afraid of. Tragedies end relatively tidily (usually, everyone dies but there’s a sense that the violence is now over; there’s a lot of blood on the floor at the end of Hamlet, for instance, but one doesn’t have the sense that Fortinbras is going to turn out to be the next Nero). Horror ends chaotically: everyone dies, but the threat of future violence or blood or terror remains.

By all these criteria and definitions, Beowulf qualifies as horror. Grendel and his mother are perfectly uncanny: they’re almost human, but not human. They’re the spawn of Cain, one of the most notoriously unruly and unnatural characters of the Old Testament. They’re also abject: they live cast down in a watery, rank pit, below the surface of the earth; they are the death and darkness that the revelers of the court of Heorot must suppress or be destroyed by. Readers of the poem are made to experience that abjection by proxy, in the cognitive confusion they feel as to the precise ontological status of Grendel and his dam: What exactly are they? What do they mean? Readers are also made to feel terror: Grendel is horrifying, his mother is horrifying, the dragon is horrifying, and the idea of living on without Beowulf to save us all is horrifying.

And, of course, there is the hangover: everyone knows more chaos is coming. This holds true even for the characters within the story. At the end, a grieving old woman says she dreads the hard days to come.

But there is still one other, often overlooked element of horror: humor.

Horror leaves readers or viewers with a hangover—a sense that we still have something to be afraid of.

It’s a tough element to contend with critically, because humor’s not as universally present in the genre as the other four criteria I’ve mentioned. In fact, some of the great American horror films almost totally lack it. It’s usually the grosser, often shittier horror movies—the movies that give the genre an undeservedly bad name—that have the most humor: slasher movies, teen-scream movies, zombie movies, or spoof horror flicks, like The Cabin in the Woods or The Evil Dead franchise. “Serious” horror movies and stories are usually, well, more serious.

And, for my part, I have always read Beowulf as serious horror. Since I first read it in college, in the original Old English, and then painfully (and poorly) translated it into Modern English. Since I read Seamus Heaney’s oft-maligned but simply magisterial facing-page translation. Since I decided to slog through most of the 20th-century versions of the poem, almost all by men, many in prose, some in verse, most awful. The one thing all these translations have strongly in common is that they read and interpret the poem seriously.

Maria Dahvana Headley’s new translation does not. And the first time I read her Beowulf, I was so furious I had to put the book down—several times—before I could get to the end. And I had come to the book wanting so badly to like it. Because a balls-out feminist translation of Beowulf is long, long overdue, and that’s what Headley aims at.

But then she starts her translation with “Bro!” as a rendering of the Old English “Hwæt.” “Hwæt” is, admittedly, a very difficult word to render. It literally means “what,” but it has the force of an invocation, like “lo!” or “behold!” or “so!”—but definitely not “bro!” My sense of the seriousness of Beowulf roiled within me as I slunk angrily through the first pages of Headley’s book. Too many “bros,” so I put the book down for a few days.

When I came back to it, I saw there were approximately one million exclamation points in Headley’s translation. This irked me beyond telling; exclamation points were only invented after the printing press. They are, therefore, completely anachronistic in this context. Setting aside the blazing anachronism, exclamation points are also loud orthographic forms. They are stupid. They are jokey. They are, of course, hyperbolic. They are not serious. They are not Beowulfy. At all. Beowulf is a poem that operates litotically, snaking from understatement to understatement. It’s not a thrilled, overwrought, ecstatic, or fun poem. Inner sense of seriousness roiling, roiling.

And then I saw that Headley uses slang and profanity. Words like “daddy” and “fuck.” She calls Grendel “fucked by fate.” In one passage, the narrator says to the reader, “Bro, lemme say how fucked they were.” I mean, come on. “Bro, Fate can fuck you up.” Why not “Wyrd can work you,” I wondered. I had to put the book down for a few weeks. Beowulf is a goddamn epic. Slang has no place in epic discourse, and neither does profanity.


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But when I came back to the poem, something had shifted. And I can tell you exactly what it was. I had seen Jordan Peele’s crackling horror film Get Out, which, although extremely serious, highly politically charged, and totally brilliant, is also very, very funny, self-spoofing, and engaged with prior horror narratives (The Stepford Wives andRosemary’s Baby, to name a couple of the obvious ones.) Now, reading Headley’s Beowulf, I started to find myself chuckling at the “bros,” shaking my head at them not in wrath but in some kind of fate-fucked lockstep with Headley. When Headley talks about Wealhtheow, the semi-enslaved wife of the leader of the Danes and probably the single most important female character in the poem, she says, “Hashtag: blessed.” I laughed out loud.

And then it dawned on me: Headley sees in Beowulf what Peele sees in American horror cinema—that humor can be an asset in dealing with the horror of life, and in transforming what are otherwise slasher narratives into political critiques. Peele aims his humor at the horror of American racism. Headley aims hers at the horror of Anglo patriarchy.

For example: Queen Wealhtheow’s name is often translated as “treasure bearer,” but it can also mean “death thrall,” or, better still, “corpse slave.” Why? Because queens were often given over as a bribe to end a war. So, yeah, “treasure bearer” works; so does “death thrall.” Or, maybe just a little bit, because, by becoming servants to their new lords, these women became the living dead: corpse slaves. Zombie queens. Hashtag: blessed, indeed.

I read Headley’s book again, tip to tail. The heroes seemed frivolous, shallow, narcissistic. I keened at this; I had to take deep breaths every time Beowulf behaved like, well, like a bro. “Anyone who fucks with the Geats? Bro, they have to fuck with me,” he says. It’s hard to stomach when your heroes start to look like dickheads: “Beowulf,” Headley writes, “gave zero shits.” I felt like my brain had Norovirus. But I kept reading, in part because I realized something about Headley’s project. Namely, that her translation forces us to contend with what we expect and maybe even crave from a translation of a historical work of literature. It forces us to think about what we need to be true about the past, and our access to it.

I’m a medievalist. I like translations that bring the past to us in a way that still seems somehow to honor the past as the past. This is why I love Heaney’s Beowulf so much: because of the poetic and lexical license Heaney takes, the poem feels old and present at the same time.

I crave a little piety from a translation—a respectfulness toward a distant history that we can’t ever really recover or participate in. (And maybe we wouldn’t want to.) But if I dig deep, I think that hunger for piety is a resistance to the absolute certainty of death, the certainty of abjection. It is a resistance to the painfully real horror of living in historical time. I want to feel, when I read a translation, that the people in the translation still live, if only a little. Seriousness, accuracy, precision, transparency, literalness, preservation … these are the elements of a translation that makes the past less dead for me. Respect. Piety.

But Headley’s Beowulf is not especially respectful. It’s certainly not pious. Instead, it enacts a spitfire, pistol-whipping commentary on translation, while also doing the work of translation itself. The book insists that it can, indeed, bring the past into the present. Because Headley’s translation really does feel old, like Heaney’s; it feels authentic to the original poem in many, many ways. It generally maintains the alliterative verse form of the original poem. It deploys a word-hoard that is mostly anciently English. But it does not domesticate or familiarize the past; it doesn’t make the past pretty or cute or fancy. Instead, it coughs it up and roughs it up, makes it gross—like the hairball in the 2016 horror movie Raw—and keeps it squarely in that horrifying domain of the uncanny. At one point, Headley writes about how Grendel’s “arteries unscrolled” when Beowulf hewed off his arm. Unscrolled! Because a scroll is both an ancient literary technology and a contemporary way of engaging with online information.

A balls-out feminist translation of “Beowulf” is long, long overdue.

All the slang, the profanity, the references to tech culture and social media—all of these things feel loud and wrong in the poem on first reading. But then you realize that Headley’s translation is a verbal form of brutalism, and, like brutalist architecture, she wants to make us see and experience the nuts and bolts, the I-beams and structural elements of her creative intervention into the already overbuilt past of Beowulf. You can hear Headley everywhere in her translation; she doesn’t disappear into the text like Tolkien, Gordon, Morgan, Donaldson, Heaney, or Mitchell in their translations. (Heaney, admittedly, disappears less than the others.) She remains there, everywhere, the zombie corpse-bride of the poem and its long history of maleness; she’s another Wealhtheow, but a louder, scarier, and funnier one. In being a loud and often grotesque new Wealhtheow, Headley reminds us, at every turn, that this particular past of England—which is part of the American past, too—is one of radical, entrenched, unflinching, self-aggrandizing male privilege.

If you like horror—or feminism, for that matter—and have never read Carol Clover’s book Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film (1992), I recommend it as your beach reading this summer. Slasher films are traditionally seen by critics as wildly misogynistic. But Clover argues that there is a feminist element in slashers that should not be overlooked. That element is the so-called “final girl”—the one girl who survives the often bloody, often rapey, often stabby murder orgy of the usually male psychopath in the film. This final girl eventually gets phallicized—usually by taking up a knife or axe or some other penetrating agent—and murders the murderer.

The third time I read Headley’s translation, I realized that she is the final girl. Splattered by the blood of a hundred other Beowulfs, she takes up her pen and goes berserk. (Note: “berserk” comes to English from an Old Norse term for a frenzied warrior, so I mean this literally.) Fate really can fuck you up, but it turns out you can fuck it up right back. Headley fucks up her own fate—as translator of the original English epic poem—with humor, grossness, cheesy phrasing, slang, profanity, anachronism, and a donkey dose of deadpan glee.

I reread Headley’s final three lines, which describe the death and burial of Beowulf and which I had absolutely hated the first time.

Here he is now! Here our best boy lies!

He rode hard! He stayed thirsty! He was the man!

He was the man.

The original poem reads:

cwædon þæt he wære wyruldcyninga

manna mildust ond monðwærust,

leodum liðost ond lofgeornost.

These Old English lines literally, piously, precisely translate to, “They said that he was, of all worldly kings, the mildest to his men and the most courteous, the most loved of his people, and the most eager for fame.” So, Headley is straight-up writing a new ending here.

If translations are supposed to render the past available to us in pellucid, precise ways, the ending here fails unequivocally. And in that failure, it’s magnificent. The at-first-reading annoying repetition of “here” does real work. Headley is suggesting that Beowulf is—as part of the deep literary past of our cultural present—still here, right here, like the horror monster that will not die.

But Beowulf really is also dead. Right here, right now, he’s both; he’s the Schrödinger’s cat of English literary history. Headley’s also-annoying exclamations do their work, too: we’re wired by the last few lines, amped and juiced, only to land, hard, on the enigmatic and bathetic statement that “he was the man.” This I read, both darkly and victoriously, as Headley saying, “he was the man”—but, implicitly, “I am the final girl.” icon

Featured image: Photograph by Andreia / Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)