So. I decided to take a break from the fourth (yes, fourth, but ultimately final) draft of my Wulf and Eadwacer/Beowulf novel to expand a wee bit on my Twitter thread from a few days ago, inspired by the NYT review of The Mere Wife, about why Beowulf, the epic, is so, so relevant today. And also to reaffirm why the original poem means so much to me.
But first, the elephant in the room.
Because, yes, I also have a Beowulf novel (though it also draws heavily on the eighth century Anglo-Saxon poem, “Wulf and Eadwacer,” and is a parallel novel rather than a retelling). Therefore, believe me when I tell you that my feelings about The Mere Wife, Maria Dahvana Headley’s retelling, have been complicated. When I first heard about the book coming out, I honestly felt a bit of dread.
I imagined submitting my query packet to agents who would look upon my project and declare, into the confines of their offices, full-Highlander style: NO! THERE CAN BE ONLY ONE! Only one Beowulf novel, and certainly, only one by a woman.
(Although there have been countless film, television, and print Beowulf adaptations over the years, I sometimes get a horrible feeling in my stomach that women’s creative output isn’t always afforded the benefit of multiplicity. Case in point: the rise and fall of every Hollywood It Girl ever.)
But The Mere Wife itself is fantastic. (And to my great relief, very different from my own novel.) Ultimately, I think, it’s high time for more women-centered takes on this poem, which sometimes does indeed feel very bound up in masculinity. Along those lines, Meghan Purvis’ award-winning, but ultimately somewhat nontraditional translation, is also a great read. And in my opinion it’s pretty interesting that both the Purvis translation and Headley’s novel tell the tale from multiple points of view. There might be a whole world worth exploring in that observation, but I’m going to leave it here for now.
So. Elephant dealt with. Which means I can move on to my take on the poem itself.
I’ve loved the poem since the moment I first cracked open the Heaney translation on a Christmas years ago that I was forced to spend alone because I was working retail, half a continent away from family. But I also really came to identify with its titular hero.
There are a few lines in the poem, and I think Beowulf is talking to Hrothgar when he says them, but don’t quote me on that. Something about his kinsmen not thinking much of him when he was younger, but, well, look at him now. (I’m totally paraphrasing here.) And I dug into those words, and soaked them up, and told myself: Well, maybe there’s hope for you too.
Which leads to a brief aside about my psychiatric diagnosis of schizoaffective disorder: I rarely think about it anymore. I feel almost wholly recovered. I’ve had the benefit of the kind of therapy that suited my specific needs and have been able to address and work through all the underlying trauma. These days I mostly think of myself as neurodivergent: brain maybe not made quite for this world, and because of this, I respect my limits and do a lot to maintain balance. I try not to be always busy. (The fact that I have the heart of a true slacker really helps.) But suffice it to say, there have been deeply ruinous episodes in my past where shit got extremely frightening and weird and in their wake, my life collapsed. It was kind of cyclical for a decade or so. Collapse. Build life back together again. Collapse. With lots of hurt and pain along the way and the feeling that, though I might have had potential, I was never able to capitalize on any of it. (On top of all that, it’s not necessarily possible to do your best writing when your mind feels like it’s breaking all the time.)
So I found comfort in those lines from the poem. I mean, I was kind of a hero in my own story, fighting a pretty epic monster, wasn’t I. And who knew? Maybe I would win in the end.
But that didn’t mean I thought Beowulf was any sort of great guy, and I still don’t. Because (enter relevance, stage right) the poem is practically dripping with what we now refer to as toxic masculinity and the hero himself is the poem’s worst offender.
The sheer masculinity of the poem comes into play most obviously in its final third, in my opinion, because Beowulf, now King of the Geats, doesn’t ever bother to get himself a queen. And lest one would think, oh, she was there, the poet just didn’t mention her—oh no, I would say, if she were there, she would have been written about. Because the poem has plenty of other queens in it.
No. Beowulf’s queen can’t exist because he has to die without issue so the Geats, his people, can be enslaved by the neighbors, with which, predictably, there’s a (toxically masculine) feud. (And it’s also probably worth pointing out that for Beowulf to become king in the first place, various other men have to die, for ultimately stupid reasons.)
And there’s another matter: Beowulf insists on fighting the dragon alone, out of stubbornness and pride, and thus ends up getting himself killed. As for his last wish? He wants to look upon the dragon’s gold. No thought at all for his people. In this sense, the poem can also be seen as a critique on the sort of rampant individualism currently informing our most toxic, pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps rhetoric, not to mention the perils of seeking glory, which could be seen here as a very selfish aim, not to mention shirking one’s responsibilities as leader. And I get it, I get it. The Christian poet is probably making a point: our ancestors were glorious, but it’s better that we’ve left their pagan, feuding ways behind. But again, the poem feels quite relevant, and I dare say, at the moment of the current political situation in the US, painfully so.
And yet, life is complex, and so are feelings, and here I still am, listening to Beowulf say: I used to be nothing but look at me now.
That is all. Thanks for reading.