(trans. Maria Dahvana Headley)


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.


Their first father was a foundling: Scyld Scefing.

He spent his youth fists up, browbeating every barstool-brother,

bonfiring his enemies. That man began in the waves, a baby in a basket,

but he bootstrapped his way into a kingdom, trading loneliness

for luxury. Whether they thought kneeling necessary or no,

everyone from head to tail of the whale-road bent down:

There’s a king, there’s his crown!

That was a good king.


Later, God sent Scyld a son, a wolf cub,

further proof of manhood. Being God, He knew

how the Spear-Danes had suffered, the misery

they’d mangled through, leaderless, long years of loss,

so the Life-lord, that Almighty Big Boss, birthed them

an Earth-shaker. Beow’s name kissed legions of lips

by the time he was half-grown, but his own father

was still breathing. We all know a boy can’t daddy

until his daddy’s dead. A smart son gives

gifts to his father’s friends in peacetime.

When war woos him, as war will,

he’ll need those troops to follow the leader.

Privilege is the way men prime power,

the world over.


Scyld was iron until the end. When he died,

his warriors executed his final orders.

They swaddled their king of rings and did just

as the Dane had demanded, back when mind

and meter could merge in his mouth.

They bore him to the harbor, and into the bosom

of a ship, that father they’d followed, that man

they’d adored. She was anchored and eager

to embark, an ice maiden built to bear

the weight of a prince. They laid him

by the mast, packed tight in his treasure-trove,

bright swords, war-weeds, his lap holding a hoard

of flood-tithes, each fare-coin placed by a loyal man.

He who pays the piper calls the tune.

His shroud shone, ringed in runes, sun-stitched.

I’ve never heard of any ship so heavy, nor corpse

so rich. Scyld came into the world unfavored;

his men weighted him as well as the strangers had,

who’d once warped him to the waves’ weft.

Even ghosts must be fitted to fight.

The war-band flew a golden flag over their main man;

the salt sea saluted him, so too the storms,

and Scyld’s soldiers got drunk instead of crying.

They mourned the way men do. No man knows,

not me, not you, who hauled Scyld’s hoard to shore,

but the poor are plentiful, and somebody got lucky.


Finally, Beow rolled into righteous rule,

daddying for decades after his own daddy died.

At last, though, it was his turn for erasure:

his son, the Halfdane, ran roughshod, smothering

his father’s story with his own. He rose in the realm

and became a famous warlord, fighting ferociously

dawn to dusk, fathering his own horde of four,

heirs marching into the world in this order: Heorogar,

Hrothgar, Halga, and I heard he hand-clasped his daughter

(her name’s a blur) to Onela. Tender, she rendered that battle-Swede

happy in fucking, where before he’d only been happy in fighting.

Beowulf (tr. Maria Dahvana Headley)