I read, and write, a lot, to the point that my vision starts to blur, and I get migraines. The actual pain isn’t terrible, but the headaches are draining all the same.
So. I just have these days.
On one such afternoon, I decided to spend some time in my recliner with Beowulf, the graphic novel by Santiago García and David Rubín, published in late 2016 by Image Comics. The book is a big hardcover, with glossy color pages, and I had just received it, per post, earlier that day.
What better way, I thought, to unwind, than to look at some pictures? To sink into what may be my favorite story of all time, told, this time, in highly sensory, saturated drawings instead of in the usual blocks of black text crawling across a white page.
I will give this to the two dudes who created this particular version of the Anglo-Saxon epic. The artwork is pretty cool. But then I started to notice a peculiar absence of anything female.
Here’s the thing.
Hrothgar, King of the Danes and lord of Heorot, has a queen. Her name is Wealhtheow. (As a reminder, it is to Hrothgar’s aid that Beowulf comes when he kills Grendel.) Wealhtheow doesn’t have the biggest role to play, but she serves mead in the hall, in her capacity as a queen. According to my understanding (and I’m nothing close to an Anglo-Saxonist, so hopefully I’m getting this right), this is an important, vital role. A queen, after all, was a peace-weaver in Anglo-Saxon society. The order in which she served the mead, to the thanes in the hall, served a purpose. Just the fact of her marriage cemented a bond between tribes. (Peace, in other words, or, at least the hope of peace.)
But there’s no Wealhtheow in this version.
Uh-oh, wait, my bad. There’s a very young looking blonde lady in a few frames, standing next to Hrothgar. She says nothing. Does nothing. Go figure.
This erasure wasn’t exactly helping my headache. But I kept turning the pages.
(Later, in the poem, after Beowulf and his men return home triumphantly, it’s Hygd’s turn to shine. Hygd is Hygelac’s queen. Hygelac is Beowulf’s uncle. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Hygd also fails to make an appearance in this graphic novel, created by two individuals who I, I think, I am going to keep referring to as the two dudes.)
Okay. Where was I? Right. I had a headache, and at this point, I was also feeling slightly annoyed. But, whatever, right?
Not whatever, as it turns out.
The erasure gets really real, really fast, when everybody is hanging out in Heorot, drinking and celebrating the demise of Grendel. Again, the artwork is pretty cool. The two dudes had me hooked, at least in this manner.
Here comes the scop! (A sort of poet/bard in Anglo-Saxon culture.) Great, I’m thinking. I figured the scop was going to tell the story of Hildeburh. That's what the scop does in the poem. This is one of my favorite, albeit saddest, parts of the original text. (Hildeburh is, I guess, a failed queen. Her marriage didn’t create any sort of lasting peace, and her brother, son, and husband all die.)
Meghan Purvis, whose creative and highly original translation of Beowulf won the Times Stephen Spender Prize in 2011, does the best job out there, I think, of portraying Hildeburh’s story. (I’ll spend an entire future post discussing the Purvis translation. In the meantime, you can look it up here.)
Soooo…no Hildeburh. But there is a scop in the 2016 graphic novel, and that scop does tell the story….of….wait for it….Siegfried and the Dragon.
By this time, my temples were kind of throbbing. Being erased is bad for the soul.
Okay, you might be wondering. What’s so terrible about bringing in Siegfried? After all, you might point out, isn’t there a dragon in Beowulf?
Yeah, there’s a dragon. Sure, there’s a dragon. (BUT THERE ARE ALSO LADIES!!)
All the same, Siegfried feels kind of random to me. And though I’m no linguist, the name ‘Siegfried’ itself feels too medieval German for this Anglo-Saxon poem.
Siegfried, you see, is one of the stars of the Nibelung poem, a poem, I might add, that was first written down in the thirteenth century. (So, a few centuries after Beowulf.) The Nibelung poem is also associated mostly with the Burgundian tribe, who, sure, were some sort of Germanic people, but…I don’t know. It all seems so far-fetched to me. I mean, are women so terrible, or so meaningless, that all traces of their lives, and their concerns, have to be taken out of an epic poem and replaced with allusions to a completely separate literary work?
(Speaking of those Burgundians. I’ll write more about them in a future post. I had a manic episode that revolved heavily around my reading of the Lex Gundobada, their law code. And, I don’t know. Stories about manic episodes that involve dark age legal tracts are probably worth telling.)
Okay. Back to the lady-effacing graphic novel in question. At this point, my eyebrows were raised, despite the physical pain this was causing me. I just could not with the two dudes. Could. Not.
The final (missing) lady I will discuss (and I'm skipping over a number of ladies mentioned in the poem, for sake of space) is the anonymous Geat woman at the end of the poem.
In the poem, Beowulf dies after defeating a dragon, leaving the Geats defenseless to outsiders. It is the anonymous woman in the poem who voices their fears. The fears of an entire people. The fear, among others, of being enslaved.
The two dudes could not possibly have changed the ending, right? Oh, well, they kind of did. Sure, the sentiments are expressed, but Wiglaf (a male kinsman of Beowulf) gets to say them. You know, instead of having a human woman in the adaptation.
Wow, you might be thinking. Impressive. Considering that women make up half the world’s population, getting through a whole story without any must be quite a feat.
It must have been. It must have been.
OH BUT WAIT I AM TOTALLY JOKING BECAUSE THERE IS A LADY IN THE TWO DUDES’ BEOWULF. HOW COULD I HAVE FAILED TO MENTION HER?? IT IS THE LADY, WHO IS NOT IN THE POEM, THAT BEOWULF HAS SEX WITH. SHE DOESN’T SAY ANY WORDS THOUGH.
Don’t get me wrong, I am sure that Beowulf, had he lived, would have been sexually active. And in the poem, he spends a night away from Heorot. In fact, the two dudes’ Beowulf would not be the first Beowulf adaptation that has turned that little fact into sex for my favorite epic hero.
But here’s the thing.
It’s not the sex that bothers me. Sex is great!
It’s this. No way ever ever should two dudes cut out pretty much all traces of the many female presences from an original work of literature, while at the same time inserting into their adaptation a little bedroom fun in the form of a dark age one-night stand for the (male) main character.
With a faceless, nameless woman, no less.
(Whoops. Perhaps I misspoke earlier. Looks like we have an anonymous woman here after all!)
By crafting their (admittedly very well-drawn) story this way, the two dudes are promoting the narrative that providing bedroom fun for brawny heroes is the tippy-top purpose that a lady can serve.
Guess what? It’s not!!!!
Seriously, male earthlings. Please don’t do stuff like this. Please help my headaches go away. Or, at least don’t make them worse.
Thank you. That is all. See you next week.