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Beowulf

Maria Dahvana Headley • 2020

Three things I liked about this book:

  1. The translator’s preamble, which both accurately called me out as a “person whose only experience with Beowulf was a stilted translation delivered in a high-school English class” (I’m paraphrasing, but the spirit is there) and delivered in wonderful prose a rallying cry for why Beowulf, and epics in general, are worth reading.
  2. The prose itself! It is delightful to listen to. I think there was a bit of concern that the translation — featuring “bro”, “swole”, “fucked up”, and more neologisms — was going to be a bit dated-by-design, but it was wonderful, rhythmic and modern and mellifluous.
  3. The substance of the book itself (of course buoyed by the first two points):
    1. One thing similar to the Greek epics: the emphasis on storytelling (which, duh, epic poem, oral tradition, yadda yadda yadda). There’s more discussion about having fought things than actual fighting; there’s more boasting than proving of boasts; there’s more memory of good kings than actions of good kings.
    2. One thing different (and, in retrospect, very similar to the Poem of the Cid which I did not exactly love) — the emphasis on fealty to king and kingdom. You don’t really notice it as much — except maybe in the Iliad, but that’s different — but the only fealty in the Greek epics are to gods, and yet in Beowulf (and, again, The Cid) there’s this strange power dynamic of the glorious warrior’s subservience to their majesty.

Anyway, this book was fun. I think As An Epic it still pales in comparison to the Iliad or the Odyssey, but the translation is delightful and it gave me much to think about.

11/18/2020
✭✭✭✭
epic

Highlights

Language is a living thing and when it dies, it leaves bones. I dropped some fossils here, next to some newborns.
Despite its reputation to generations of unwilling students, forced as freshmen into arduous translations, Beowulf is a living text in a dead language, the kind of thing meant to be shouted over a crowd of drunk celebrants. Even though it was probably written down in the quiet confines of a scriptorium, Beowulf is not a quiet poem. It’s a dazzling, furious, funny, vicious, desperate, hungry, beautiful, mutinous, maudlin, supernatural, rapturous shout.
My own experiences as a woman tell me it's very possible to be mistaken for monstrous when one is only doing as men do: providing for and defending oneself. Whether one's solitary status is a result of abandonment by a man or because of a choice, the reams of lore about single, self-sustaining women, and particularly about solitary elderly women, suggest that many human women have been, over the centuries, mistaken for supernatural creatures simply because they were alone and capable.
The phrase "That was a good king" recurs throughout the poem, because the poem is fundamentally concerned with how to get and keep the title "Good." The suspicion that any moment a person might shift from hero into howling wretch, teeth bared, causes characters ranging from scops to ring-lords to drop cautionary anecdotes. Does fame keep you good? No. Does gold keep you good? No. Does your good wife keep you good? No. What keeps you good? Vigilance. That's it.
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