Beowulf, Book Reviews, Jo Livingstone, Maria Dahvana Headley
Here we have a classic representative production of contemporary elite culture delivering a rather remarkable mixture of admirable learning thoroughly polluted with repulsive left-wing ideology.
Jo Wilkinson, in the course of reviewing a new “femininist” translation of Beowulf by Maria Dahvana Headley, exhibits a thorough understanding of the poem’s origin, scholarship, and cultural significance. This tidbit was news to me:
There is only one historical â€œfactâ€ (a word of debatable meaning) in the poem: when Beowulf explains how the Geatish lord Hygelac died in battle. Using the spelling Chlochilaichus, the sixth-century historian Gregory of Tours attests to the same event in his chronicle.
But you also get some of the worst kind of old-fashioned middle-brow Freudian crap:
Why does the blade melt? On the surface, it seems as though some enchantment is undone by the monsterâ€™s foul blood. But this is also the final extermination of an ancient, albeit monstrous, lineage, and thereâ€™s something anticlimactic about that final, cruel thrust. The sword melts away, leaving Beowulf with nothing to do but go home. As with every other apparently triumphant moment in the poem, it just doesnâ€™t feel like a triumph.
A lecturer once told me she was sure the blade is a phallic symbol and that its melting represents Beowulfâ€™s manhood going limp after finishing with the woman in the cave.
Along with lavish doses of Toni Morrison references, contemptuous hostility to appropriation of the poem by “white supremacists,” and the now traditional left-wing inversion of values. The new translator, Maria Dahvana Headley, previously published a Grendel-and-his-Mom’s-point-of-view retelling, The Mere Wife.
The last Beowulf translation was a very loose version by the Irish pansy Seamus Heaney. Now, we get an inner-city vernacular version, in which “Hwaet” [more or less: Hark, Listen, or Attend!] gets translated as “Bro!”
As he armors up to attack Grendelâ€™s mother, the Beowulf-poet writes that he does not mearn for his ealdreâ€”mourn for his life. In her version, Headley translates those words to mean Beowulf â€œgave zero shits.â€
Jo Livingstone relishes Headley’s female us-versus-them approach:
Headleyâ€™s boyish narrator wraps his story in colloquial language almost as a trick, a flashy come-on to lure readers into a story that turns out to be full of dark lessons about traitorous soldiers and the inevitability of old age. Her Beowulf is a tragicomic epic about the things men do to impress one another. Itâ€™s as fierce an examination of masculine weakness as The Mere Wife was of feminine strength.
Depressing and annoying as all the vulgarity and left-wing politics are, I still think this is a book review worth reading. I’m of two minds about actually buying the Headley translation, but I did buy one of her novellas on Kindle.