No mask, no physical distance, no hand sanitizer: I just climbed onto a narrow ledge in our family library and took down an old book from the top shelf. Holiday rereading: it might be the only part of Christmastime that the pandemic can’t ruin.
Twenty-two Decembers ago, a professor of mine mentioned that he planned to reread Sir Gawain and the Green Knight when classes ended. I investigated. The six-hundred year old English epic proved the perfect Christmas story. Ancient, mystery-filled, wintry and heroic, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight recounts the story of a Yuletide banquet hosted by King Arthur for the Knights of the Round Table that’s interrupted by a ghastly, giant green knight. He offers a lethal wager that young Sir Gawain accepts. A year later, the knight sets out on a life-threatening quest that succeeds because of his loyalty, fidelity and steadfastness.
Every rereading, my favourite sequence is thirty lines from the poem’s second section. These swiftly recount the passing of a single year, from one Christmas and New Year’s to the next, through interwoven descriptions of religious and natural cycles of growth, decay and renewal. This year, however, I was struck by the two lines that immediately precede this passage, as Simon Armitage’s 2007 translation has it: “each year, short lived, is unlike the last | and rarely resolves in the style it arrived.”
I winced, of course, at how apt this seems right now. But pandemic or otherwise, this is what ritual rereading allows for, particularly during the holidays: a reflective measuring of what’s changed and what’s remained the same for us, year over year.
Sir Gawain is out again, and I’ve once more made my way through the annual Advent Short Story Calendar from superb Alberta indie publisher Hingston & Olsen; and listened to two versions of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol on Audible, a 1939 Orson Welles radio drama adaptation and a 2010 unabridged version read by Tim Curry, switching back and forth when either becomes too over-the-top.
Every Christmas Eve, as we’ve done every year of our married life, Anna and I read one of the Gospel accounts of Christ’s birth. Unlike almost anything else right now, Christmastime reading remains full and intact and unchanged, which is what makes the admission of a new book to my list all the more unexpected.
Since September, whenever possible as a university administrator, I have read physical books instead of e-mail as my lunchtime treat. But the dings and buzzes always overcame me, at least until I came across Maria Dahvana Headley’s ass-kicking new translation of Beowulf. A popular and critically-acclaimed American fantasy fiction writer, Headley has taken an of-the-moment approach to retelling a 1200-year-old epic.
Her version of Beowulf is slangy, swaggering and feminist, even if the story doesn’t seem amenable to such treatment: it’s a bloody tale of both manly bravery and bravado, and of men boastfully telling and retelling brutal events and bold deeds.
The tale begins with the young warrior Beowulf and his men coming from Sweden to King Hrothgar’s grand mead hall in Denmark, which has been devastated by nightly visits from a man-eating monster, Grendel. Drinking and dining with his skeptical hosts, Beowulf vows to kill the monster. He lops off one of its arms so that it bleeds to death, then kills the monster’s mother in an extended undersea battle.
He goes home and becomes an old lonely king who dies while battling a gold-hoarding, fire-breathing dragon. In the last century, the poem’s been written about, adapted and translated from Old English by the likes of J.R.R. Tolkien, John Gardner and Seamus Heaney, the results of which have been grave-toned, grand-minded and gory.
Headley’s version is far livelier, from the start: “Bro! Tell me we still know how to speak of kings! In the old days, | everyone knew what men were: brave, bold, glory-bound. Only | stories now, but I’ll sound the Spear-Danes’ song, hoarded for hungry times.” These indeed are hungry times for something old and familiar to be made new and strange, and that’s what Headley has done, both in terms of breezily using urban-inflected contemporary English (“Meanwhile, Beowulf gave zero shits” …. “our boy and his horde marched in …”) and in writing sympathetically, even admiringly, about a character long regarded as a monster: “Now [Grendel’s] mother was here, | carried on a wave of wrath, crazed with sorrow, | looking for someone to slay, someone to pay in pain | for her heart’s loss.” Headley radically reframes the drama of the middle event of the poem: it’s not just the second occasion for Beowulf to show off his mad manly skills. It’s also a striking evocation of the feelings and actions of a grieving mother seeking vengeance for her murdered son.
In a brilliant introduction, Headley sees off any notion that her translation is either idiosyncratic or determined by rigid ideological commitments. She cites both her own prior work and that of other women who have worked with the poem, and also argues, persuasively, that her rendering of Grendel’s mother as “warrior-woman” and the amazing “reclusive night-queen” brings forth the more feminine, humanizing connotations of Old English words associated with the character than other (male) writers have emphasized: “Beowulf is usually seen as a masculine text, but I think that’s somewhat unfair …. While there are many examples of gendered inequality in the poem, there is no shortage of female power.”
My Fall term reading of Headley’s Beowulf abruptly ended in November when Toronto entered lockdown and I stopped working from my campus office. I finished it at home over the holidays, discerning resonances of the poem with the season. Beowulf, like Christmas, is as much about remarkable events as it is about their recollection and retelling, both within the text and well beyond, in many times and places, including ours. Reading Headley’s Beowulf during the pandemic-era holidays brings the deep, living embers of our human past into our grey cold present. I’ll reread it next year, hopefully in a brighter, warmer time for everyone.
Randy Boyagoda is a novelist and professor of English at the University of Toronto, where he also serves as Vice-Dean, Undergraduate in the Faculty of Arts and Science.