MY BEOWULF, HILDEBURH EDITION

Two of my favorite things: Megan Purvis' Beowulf and my cat, Stanley.

Two of my favorite things: Megan Purvis' Beowulf and my cat, Stanley.

I’ve had some fun pointing out the quibbles I’ve had with some Beowulf adaptations. To offer a quick refresher, to date my quibbles have been: 1) the creators of a recent graphic novel taking out the women in the story but putting in a female sex buddy for Beowulf, who of course doesn’t have any dialogue of her own but rather kind of floats around in the background; and 2) whatever fiery lake of misogyny is going on in The 13th Warrior, the weird subtext of which is truly marvelous to behold. (The earth-dwelling cannibals, for example, who are clearly the bad guys in the film, tote around Venus of Willendorf-esque figurines on their belts, plus lots of other good stuff. It’s really not subtle at all.)

There are other Beowulfs, of course, and the different adaptations/translations concentrate on/bring into focus different aspects of the story, but Meghan Purvis’ Stephen Spender Prize winning translation is hands down one of my favorites. It’s certainly a non-traditional translation, as it’s constructed as a series of individual but obviously linked poems rather than one continuous epic poem, but the effect is not onlystunning in terms of language—Purvis can write—but a useful reminder that Beowulf is not just a rip-roaring adventure story of monsters defeated yada yada heroism yada but actually a high-level tragedy. Without Beowulf, who dies at the end of the poem after insisting on fighting a dragon alone (because ill-advised Germanic machismo and pride??), the Geats are swallowed up by history. So the story goes. But there are other sad stories woven into the text of the poem and Hildeburh’s story belongs to these. Purvis’ translation gives Hildeburh a voice in a way that no other Beowulf adaptation/translation that I’ve ever seen has.

To be brief, Hildeburh isn’t so much a character in the poem but a figure referenced. She’s sung about in Hrothgar’s hall and it’s truly a tale of woe. Hildeburh gets caught up in the struggle between Finn and Hengest and loses both her husband (Finn) and her son, before being taken back to her people in Denmark. Purvis’ poem, “Hildeburh,” tells the story in two voices. The first voice is that of one of Hengest’s men, who tells the story of settling scores in a matter-of-fact tone, but the second voice belongs to Hildeburh herself, a queen figure who has essentially failed to keep the peace in her hall, in the parlance of Anglo-Saxon expectations of queens. (I used to relate to Hildeburh a lot on this matter, as for a while my biggest fear was that I was going to fail at certain aspects of adulting with regards to cohabitational romantic relationships and have to live in my parents basement until I got back on my feet. I suppose this could still happen although, thankfully, it would no longer feel like such a terrible failure.)

It’s hard to pick out a single quote to convey the almost eerie, heavy weariness and sense of the kind of regret and displacement that a person can probably feel in their bones that lingers in Hildeburh’s voice, but here’s a try anyways:

“They waited to burn our dead / until we were back in Denmark. / I sat in the boat, till they came for me / with welcoming garlands. My hair / smells of smoke. That long winter / and the smell of pine on the fire-- / my husband smiling at me, my smile / and its stupidity, a mead-carrying fool, / my son in the flames.”

Anyways, it’s a great poem, with a cold, stone-like rhythm to underscore the heavy emotional burden being carried.

Hildeburh, by the way, was one of the women left out in the recent graphic novel addition that I’ve already had my fun lambasting. (Instead, the scop tells the tale of Siegfried and the dragon, which of course has its roots in the story of Sigurd, which we also get in Beowulf if my entire memory isn’t failing me and playing awful tricks on me right now, but Siegfried, as a name, takes me out of Beowulf and straight to the Nibelungenlied. I can’t help it. That’s just where I go.) But Hildeburh’s story adds something important to the arc of Beowulf as work of literature. There’s a sort of foreshadowing here about the devastation of feuding and vengeance-seeking, which is going to spell out the end of the Geats after Beowulf’s death (because the Swedes are coming, unfortunately, and there’s nothing a leaderless people can do to stop them, or so we are led to believe by the language of the poem, for example in the words spoken by the anonymous woman at the end who laments the fate of the Geats going forward). And this ties into what some scholars argue may be a central theme of this poem, written for a Christian audience by a Christian poet about a pagan ancestral homeland. Namely, all that pagan Germanic feuding and the like is really destabilizing.

So. Hildeburh isn’t just a sideshow. She’s an integral part of the epic and should never be erased, although some have tried, and we all know that women are often erased from history in general. For comfort on that last point, I find myself turning to Purvis’ poem.

That is all. Thanks for reading.