As long as we have the text, we’ll never stop translating Beowulf. The Old English poem is one of the foundational works of Western literature, and its enduring power and mystery — we can’t even say who wrote it down, or when — are irresistible to scholars and writers. A goal of each new translation, of course, is to uncover something in the source material, to interpret it for the current age by casting a different light on the page. American author Maria Dahvana Headley is the latest to take on the challenge, and she kicks off with an incredible choice of word: “Bro!”
Yes, Headley has delivered a Beowulf for the frat boys, replete with dudely quips and boasts. The first, interjectionary word, “hwæt,” had previously been a more formal call to “listen” or “hark” to the tale that follows. In Seamus Heaney’s admired version, it’s a gentler beginning: “So.” But Headley knows that nowadays the lads begin their epic anecdotes with an appeal to manliness itself: Bro, you’re not gonna believe this. Her often anachronistic approach is, if not entirely convincing to some critics, a lot of fun to examine and debate, simply because it pulls Beowulf into the fraught discourse on masculinity in the 21st century. At the core of this project, we have a question about heroic narrative: Are legendary warriors a bunch of stupid jocks?
Headley certainly warps the line between translation and “retelling” — her 2018 novel The Mere Wife moved the saga to the modern American suburbs, turning its medieval protagonist into a police officer, which tells you what lens she’s working with. But it’s hard to dispute that among the towering figures of the canon, Beowulf is the most deserving of the meathead treatment. Looking back to other epics: Odysseus is better known for his cunning than brawn, Achilles is more of a brooder (and famously skipped leg day), other Greek and Sumerian poems concerned demigods who transcend the worldly concerns of dudes rocking and the Arabic and Sanskrit epics often focused on fantastical voyages and dynastic struggles as opposed to the violent badassery of a single man. Never forget that in the 2007 computer-animated Beowulf movie, he chooses to fight the monster Grendel without a sword… and naked as hell.
Okay, there’s dispute as to whether Beowulf took on his nemesis in the nude — the poem only says he takes off his armor — but it’s the attitude that he brings to his preparation for battle that makes him the ultimate bro. He wants to face the creature on equal terms because he arrogantly believes he’ll win. The text, even in traditional verse, is full of boasts and brags, and in one account, he notes, “I never supposed myself poorer in battle-strength, in battle-deeds, than Grendel himself.” This is even funnier when you recall that Beowulf is the son of some random nobles, not deities (his mother’s name is never mentioned), and therefore has little reason besides hubris to trust in his victory. Unlike several other characters in Beowulf, he also has no parallel to a known historical person, making him the very essence of “just some guy.”
Indeed, at times it seems the unfounded macho bluster is what gives Beowulf his power, and his thirst for glory is what sparks his bloody adventures. How perfect it is that, seeking greater renown, he shows up with his crew (or “thanes”) from afar to defend a king’s mead-hall from a demonic being. You want to harsh the boys’ buzz when they’re singing and clinking their ale-horns? Not on Beowulf’s watch! You can meet him in the parking lot, bitch. It’s basically a scene from Road House.
And everything Beowulf does is for his male comrades; the poem concludes on a tragic note, since in his 50 years as a king, he never sired an heir to the throne. Pretty extreme “bros before hoes” energy right there. Sex can always wait if there’s another supernatural beast to be slain. When a dragon does finally strike a fatal wound against him (don’t worry, he still kills it first), it’s down to his stubborn pride despite old age. He insists on attacking the fire-breathing menace alone, as if still an invulnerable young stud. Total bro move.
Headley’s attention to this belligerent, shit-talking side of Beowulf in her translation will continue to divide readers, as it surely intends to. But her blasphemous choice of backward-hatted, beer-soaked vernacular has its origins in the grandstanding language of the hero as we’ve always known him — a beefcake who wants to pull off such incredible feats that dudes will hype his reputation for centuries to come. Of the many thrills and wonders in Beowulf, we can at last celebrate its birthing of an unmistakable archetype: For better or worse, we’ve had bros represented in art since the Middle Ages.
Kinda sick when you think about it.