I suppose, whenever we write into a narrative that already exists, there’s always the text that is and the story we make up.
I’m currently writing a novel that centers around the fact that Beowulf, of epic hero status, doesn’t have a queen, though he’s the central figure in a poem full of queens. There are good queens, like Wealhtheow and Hygd, a failed queen, like Hildeburh, and more interesting cases, like Thryth. (Thryth, if you’re wondering, is very beautiful, and orders men put to death for looking at her, but reforms after marriage. Because, you know.) Naturally, I’m approaching this novel thing as a writer of fiction. In other words, as someone who makes things up.
On the other hand, there’s the source material. Beowulf is an actual poem. It exists, and has for a long time. A lot of people have translated it. (And at least one more translation is coming, for example, this Stephen Mitchell translation, which sports what I believe is the Sutton Hoo helmet on its cover, in a move that seems, well, quite frankly, maybe a little derivative. Still going to read it though, as I thoroughly enjoyed his version of Gilgamesh.)
Also, all sorts of scholars have been working on Beowulf for some time, and every time I read some of this scholarship, I’m reminded of how much I am making up.
I think that’s okay, and then I wonder, and then I think that’s okay, again, and then I wonder some more.
Suffice it to say, the fact that Beowulf, as the character, as the king and the man, doesn’t have a queen has always struck me as some sort of plot device. Otherwise, considering the peace-weaving roles of Wealhtheow and Hygd, this queen’s absence just feels ridiculous, like some sort of awful oversight. However, the anonymous poet was probably no slouch. No. If Beowulf had a queen, he would have progeny, lineage, someone to carry on after his death. Of course, that’s not what happens in the poem. At the end, threatened by Swedes and various other old feuds coming back to bite, things don’t look so good for the Geats.
There may be some fatalism on the part of the poet, here, or this may just be the poet’s way of stressing that, as Nicholas Howe writes, “[Beowulf’s] world betrays his achievement by succumbing to feuds as soon as he is dead. In portraying the heroic ethos of the north, the Beowulf poet forces us to recognize that its emphasis on physical strength, courage, and loyalty is ultimately to no avail.” (I’m getting this from “Beowulf and the Ancestral Homeland,” published in The Postmodern Beowulf: A Critical Casebook., edited by Eileen A. Joy and Mary K. Ramsey.) Which, if you think about it, would be sort of fatalistic.
My reason for focusing on Beowulf’s missing queen is a bit different, and very much concerned with the idea of a woman in some sort of real or figurative leadership role, and is also somewhat (though not entirely) rooted in recent events.
(I maintain it’s entirely possible to withhold from agreeing with every goddamn thing HRC has ever done or said while still acknowledging the colossal amount of sexism and outright misogyny the woman has faced, both historically and during the campaign. I will put it this way: I was seventeen when WJC first ran for President. I remember how awkward it was. The cookies. Everything. This last campaign season, well, it was still awkward. So, you know, this all sorts of sits somewhere behind my eyes when I’m writing.)
I guess this is where I come back to: the text as it is opposed to the story I’m telling. And the story I’m telling, as much as it’s not about here, or now, is very much rooted in the fact that I am, in fact, most assuredly present in both.
So here I am. Making stuff up.
Till next week.
PS. Thryth would be a good name for a cat. You’re welcome.