Beowulf, Maria Dahvana Headley (translator); JD Jackson, narrator (Macmillan Audio 978-1-25023217-5, $12.64, digital download, 4 hr., unabridged) August 2020.
For several months now, the literary world has been abuzz about Headley’s modern translation of this ancient saga concerning a mighty warrior who saves a kingdom by slaying a monster and his vengeful mother, rules his own land in peace for years, and then dies as an old man in a battle with a dragon, abandoned by the majority of his men. I am unsure how much I can add to their assessment, given the seemingly universal acclaim (deservedly so). I will just note that when I reviewed the audiobook of Maria Dahvana Headley’s contemporary take on Beowulf, The Mere Wife, I admired how clearly it drew from an oral tradition and argued that the book was more effective as audiobook than text. Of course, that remains true for the source material as well. Headley’s language lends itself beautifully to being read aloud. Much has been made of Headley’s invocation to her audience with the term “Bro!” Yes, it’s great, but my love is given to her copious use of alliteration, which I’ve been a sucker for ever since we had to read Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” in elementary school. My absolute favorite turn of phrase that she employed was, “fucked by fate.”
I can easily imagine myself in a modern mead hall with JD Jackson performing this version of the epic poem for us all. He declaims in a warm, velvety rumble, managing to thread the needle between formal and chatty, almost gossipy, in his narration. I confess that I have never read or listened to any other version of Beowulf, and after this one, I can’t see that I really need to.
This review and more like it in the January 2021 issue of Locus.
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