Category Archives: Podcast

Beowulf 2, in which he meets a feminist

A few months ago, I posted my first piece on the ancient poem Beowulf, saying I would have more to say later. I referred to versions of the poem that I had on my shelves, two of which were designed for children. The post featured versions for present-day readers by Seamus Heaney, Rosemary Sutcliff and Michael Morpurgo.

Beowulf is a poem that delights in masculine power and it is a story told by men about men for men. Maria Dahvana Headley suggests that we can look at Beowulf another way. In her novel she gives a name to Beowulf’s second opponent, Grendel’s mother, and tells a modern version of the story, avoiding depicting her as a monster.

Maggie Gee, in an article in The Author reminds us that ‘female monsters and villains have been an avenging presence in myth ever since human story-making began’. Some of them have been half animal and half human. We need them, she suggests, to counter the apologetic behaviour encouraged in women.

On to the page they stride and out across the landscape, laughing maniacally, axes in hand. The tact we try to display in real life is equalled by the dark side of our fictional monsters. [The Author Autumn 2019] 

Her own monster can be found in Blood, published in 2019. 

Maria Dahvana Headley challenges the idea of Grendel’s mother being monstrous. The avenging threat of Grendel’s mother is just that – a mother who has lost her son, ‘carried on a wave of wrath, crazed with sorrow, looking for someone to slay, someone to pay in pain for her heart’s loss’ (l. 1275-7). She is a much more interesting character than the tactful and conforming Willa (a version of Wealhtheow).

At the time of my first post, I was not aware of the Backlisted Podcast on Beowulf, which referred to several versions, and mentioned an upcoming translation by Maria Dahvana Headley and her novel The Mere Wife. Since then (February 2021) I have read both books by Maria Dahvana Headley, attended an on-line event with her, and listened to the podcast.

The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley

The novel is a feminist telling of part of the Beowulf story, focusing in particular on Grendel’s mother, set in a place and time which is something like present-day America. Dana Mills, a marine, was filmed being executed in a desert war but she somehow manages to return home. She is pregnant and gives birth secretly to Gren, who she sees will be categorised as an enemy to be destroyed. She finds refuge in the caves in the mountain above her former home. They had been part of a railway system, long since abandoned and forgotten. 

Herot Hall has been built over the previous settlement where Dana had been brought up. It is a gated and privileged community run and profited from by the Herot family. Willa Herot has a son and is concerned to keep up appearances for the rest of the community. 

Willa’s son Dylan is intrigued by what he sees out of his window: Gren, Dana’s son. The two boys form a secret friendship, but at her Christmas party Willa finds evidence of Gren, and Dana, watching the party from outside, sees that her son is in danger and tears through the party. The outcome is that Willa’s husband is killed. The tall, blonde, muscular chief of police – Ben Woolf (say his name) – is believed to have killed Dana by drowning her in the mere. In fact, Dana and Gren have retreated to the underground railway station inside the mountain. Later Dylan runs there too and then the hunt is on.

I really liked the way that the author used the details of the original story. The dragon that emerges from the underground lair is here represented by the restored train. The policeman is seen as a hero because he is big and golden and appears to stand between the comfort of the Herot community and danger represented by Dana and Gren. 

We see that those who define others as monsters have power and authority. They include the police, but also the important families, and the press. At play here is the destruction of the history of the US, gender struggles and the damage done by wars. 

The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley published in 2018 by Scribe. 306pp

Beowulf: a new translation by Maria Dahvana Headley

In this new translation of the poem, Maria Dahvana Headley refutes Tolkien’s suggestion that the language used in its translation must be ‘literary and traditional’. Instead, she brings to it a modern idiom, the boastful, male fraternizing tradition of the ‘dude text’. Here’s the opening.

Bro! Tell me we still know how to speak of kings! In the old days,
everyone knew what men were: brave, glory-bound. Only
stories now, but I’ll sound the Spear-Danes’ song, hoarded for hungry times. (l.1-3)

Compare with Heaney’s translation:

So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by
and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness.
We have heard of those princes’ heroic campaigns. (l.1-3)

The original Old English poem begins with the word Hwæt. Listen to the podcast for a discussion of its possible pronunciation and meaning. 

This is how the boastful Beowulf introduces himself to Hrothgar, offering to defend the hall against Grendel. 

I’m the strongest and the boldest, and the bravest and the best.
Yes: I mean – I may have bathed in the blood of beasts,
netted five foul ogres at once, smashed my way into a troll den
and come out swinging, gone skinny-dipping in a sleeping sea
and made sashimi of some sea monsters.
Anyone who fucks with the Geats? Bro, they have to fuck with me.
They’re asking for it, and I deal them death. [l.416- 422]

Beowulf is all male and aggression, like the hero of an action movie or a video game. 

Her introduction on translating the poem and her interest in it, through Grendel’s mother, is a good explanation of the approach she took and the decisions she made for this new version. One of the interesting things about the text of Beowulf is that it seems to be a very adaptable text, and to have relevance to many different times. I have some thoughts about why that might be which I am saving for a future post.

Beowulf by Maria Dahvana Headley published in 2021 by Scribe. 140pp

Relevant Links

Beowulf 1 on Bookword.

The Backlisted Podcast on Beowulf

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The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste

This book bowled me over. We chose it for the January meeting of our book group, and the next day I found it on the shelf at our new (yes NEW) bookshop, and began reading it immediately. The Shadow King tells a great story, especially of the women warriors who fought against Mussolini’s invasion of Abyssinia in 1935. Because I have visited Ethiopia and because the history of the first half of the twentieth century absorbs me I was predisposed to like this book. 

What I found was a novel, worthy of the shortlist for the 2020 Booker Prize, and all the critical acclaim it has garnered. In addition it is written by a woman of colour from Ethiopia. 

The Shadow King

The Shadow King tells a very good story, and all the better for being based in truth. It has some very appealing elements: such as the ultimate success of the underdogs. When Mussolini invaded, a latecomer to the European scramble to colonise Africa, he brought his mechanised army to defeat the Ethiopians. The Ethiopians had very little with which to prevent the invasion. They did have the memory of the successful campaign against the previous Italian invasion in the 1890s, as the weapons retained from that struggle. They also had a determination not to be conquered, inspired by their Emperor Haile Selassie. And they knew the terrain, and how to work with the people who lived there. 

The story begins in a very small and restricted setting. Hirut is a young girl, an orphan, who has been taken in by Kidane, who owed her parents. She lives in a tiny shed with the cook, and under the watchful and jealous eye of Aster, Kidane’s wife. 

Hirut hears Aster shouting her name, calling for her in a voice threatening to break from strain. Hirut looks up from the slow burning fire she is tending in a corner of the courtyard. She is hunched into a stool, next to a pile of onions waiting to be peeled. The cook is behind her in the kitchen, chopping meat for the evening meal. Aster should be drinking coffee in bed, tucked inside a soft blanket, perhaps looking out the window and gazing at her flowers. This should be a quiet morning. Hirut stiffens at the intrusion. (11)

The quiet morning is interrupted by more than Aster’s slightly deranged attempts to implicate Hirut in the theft of a missing necklace when Kidane returns from recruiting troops. He takes an old rifle from Hirut, the only thing she has from her father, because the Emperor needs all the weapons he can get. And we can see that her life, Aster’s, Kidane’s and even the cook’s will be upended and broadened by the campaign to drive back the Italians. 

Aster and Hirut join Kidane’s army to support their men by caring for the wounded and providing food. When things go badly and the Emperor leaves Ethiopia for exile in Bath, it is Hirut who suggests a way to provide the people with the inspiration of a shadow king. Hirut and Aster become his bodyguards and when needed take up arms with other women to fight the Italians. 

The story also is told from the point of view of a photographer in the Italian army. His commanding officer is known for his ferocity, and his cruelty is shown to the reader early in the story. But Ettore is Jewish and as anti-Semitism is promoted in Italy he becomes more and more detached from the official view and the actions of his commander, while powerless to refuse commands.

The climax of the story comes when Fucelli has captured Hirut and Aster, and waits for Kidane’s army to come to rescue them.

At times the novel is hard to read because of the atrocities committed. No one who survives comes out of the war without damage. Everyone has had to compromise themselves.

The telling of the story

While Hirut is the central character and the person we see gradually changing from that insignificant servant girl into a strong warrior, we also see the war from the perspectives of other people. What is clear is that the opposing sides have little understanding of each other. Here is Ettore looking at Hirut, who is in prison and refusing to respond to her captors.

That he has not managed to see more than a resolute and stubborn girl is proof of the Ethiopian native’s unfamiliarity with all that he finds commonplace. She has no reference points that intersect with his: no myths or fables, no ideas on science or philosophy. She is unlearned and unschooled, illiterate and limited. Unknowing and thus, unknowable. She lacks the imaginative capacity to consider an existence beyond her frames of reference: these mountains, her village, the hut where she was born. What rests behind that face and in that mind are sturdy, thick thoughts of survival and routine, and nothing else. (339)

Hirut has been stubbornly refusing to respond to Ettore, or any of the soldiers. She has been studying the enemy’s routines and waiting for signs of the rescue. She has her pride too.

Because this is one thing that neither the ascari [African soldiers in the Italian army] nor Fucelli nor this stupid soldato staring at her with a gaping mouth will ever know: she is Hirut, daughter of Fasil and Gerey, feared guard of the Shadow King, and she is no longer afraid of what men can do to women like her. (338) 

Many scenes are framed by the photographer, and in the final battle by a film crew. This device, showing us photographs, describing the way the light falls, what Ettore captured in his images, is powerful way of telling of the story. It reminds us of the fascist dictators’ love of images. But it also has the effect of putting a distance between us and the most difficult passages. Two photographs bookend the text, but while they are both of women it is not clear why they were chosen. The narrative based in Ethiopia is interrupted every now and again by sections on his meditations on leaving his country. The only section that I found jarring was a long vision by Haile Selassie towards the end of the novel.

For the most part, Maaza Mengiste’s narrative is skilful and even lyrical. Her prose has rhythm and pace, even littered with Amharic and Italian words. She manages to convey what matters to the characters, the stories of the Ethiopian characters, the conflicts of Ettore and even Fucelli’s fears. These are people living through the upheavals of the 1930s. 

The plotlines wind around each other, and details are revealed, small actions and major battles without reducing the tension: the action of spies, the cook, the ascari, Haile Selassie in exile, and Hirut’s part in the armed struggle. The themes are played out at an individual level, Hirut and Ettore, but also at macro level: Italy vs Ethiopia, evil against humaneness.

Maaza Mengiste  

The author published her first novel Beneath the Lion’s Gaze in 2010. She was born in Addis Ababa in 1974, but has lived most of her life outside Ethiopia, and now teaches in New York. Her own grandmothers were involved in the war and her researches were extensive as she revealed in this podcast from History Extra (link here. )

The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste published in 2019 by Canongate. 429pp

Shortlisted for 2020 Booker Prize

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The Best Books for … a lockdown

I am thoroughly fed up with newspapers, booksellers even book tweeters assuming that they know what I want to read during the lockdown. By the time this post appears it will be more than 50 days into the restrictions, and although we may still be finding them hard, we will know more about how we cope than pop psychologists with their routines of resilience. I am dubious about the idea of reading being some kind of antidote to boredom and loneliness.

We are being recommended to read long books, or comfort reads, or books about restrictions and the plague, or books that offer escapism. But we may not want this. What everyone seems to agree on is that readers are reading more, and readers have more time for more reading. But I don’t want to work through a list of long books I’ve been meaning to read forever; I don’t want books to cheer me up; or to match any low mood; or books that pander to a reduced ability to concentrate. 

During the lockdown I have enjoyed a good mixture. So here’s my list of Best Books and I invite you to add your choices too. 

Quiet books

If you haven’t read Stoner by John Williams this might be a good opportunity. The main character leads an unremarkable life, which can be described as an accumulation of failure and disappointment. But it is a life worth reading about. You can read my review here.

Barbara Pym is another writer, but very different, who writes about the small things of life, the quiet people, everyday events. I really enjoyed rereading Excellent Women, and highly recommend it to you. It was the subject of the previous post. And for a book by her in the older women in fiction series you could read Quartet in Autumn.

A thoughtful writer

An early casualty of the cancellation of all my activities was an event in Bristol at which Rebecca Solnit was due to speak. What made it even more frustrating was that this was the second time she had cancelled a visit to Bristol. I’m not taking it personally. But I want to read more from Call them by their True Names by Rebecca Solnit. This was a gift from my daughter at Christmas, being a collection of essays. And in anticipation of that cancelled event I had obtained a copy of her memoir: Recollections of My Non-Existence. I have scheduled a post on this blog on her writing for the near future.

She always provides a wider perspective on events, allowing one to understand the world in which we live in more breadth and depth. You will find several posts featuring her writing (all non-fiction).

Comfort Reading

I don’t usually go in for comfort reading, but there is one book that I have read in the past during times of great personal difficulty. It absorbs my attention and flatters my focus as a reader, for I know the plot so well. I enjoy reading new details, of style, comment, interaction and so forth. It is Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. And if the moments of personal difficulty follow too close together I will replace it with Persuasion. Neither novel comforts me because they end well for the heroine, but because they are so well crafted, such a treat for the reader.

Books I started and want to finish now

One book in this category has to be Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo, which won the Booker Prize. I started it a few months ago, but it was called back to the library and so now I have my own copy I can continue to read it without the threat of being parted from it. I relished Mr Loverman, partly because it is set in Hackney, a part of London which I know well. And also because the people in that novel were, as it were, known to me. I had lived among them. In addition I attended a day course at the British Museum on which Bernardine Evaristo tutored. It was a good experience. That woman has serious talent.

And another book to finish is RC Sherriff’s A Fortnight in September. This is another book that I read a chapter of and now want to get back to. It regularly receives praise on social media, and I feel I should know it. 

Poetry

I am dipping into various collections and enjoying the work of a range of poets: Kathleen Jamie and Helen Dunmore for example. 

Novels on the theme of pandemic:

Maybe I will try one or more of these:

Lockdown by Peter May 

La Peste by Albert Camus

A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe

The Stand by Stephen King

But probably not.

And …

I am enjoying listening to Podcasts, for the discussions about books or words. And I’m pleased that Backlisted Podcast is now in production again. These podcasts feature, as the name implies, books that are on publishers’ backlists but still deserve attention. They restarted the series in April with a look at Barbara Pym.

And I continue to read chosen books for the blog, especially the series, my book clubs and because I have them on my shelves. 

Recommended by others

Five Comfort Reads from A Life in Books blog

Lockdown Reading by Anne Goodwin on Inspired Quill

Comfort Reading on the Guardian, chosen by various writers

There are lots of good suggestions there for people who like lists of recommendations.

Best Books for …

This was my third post in an ad hoc series which all begin The best book for …  Some other ideas are … reading in translation; … recommending to book groups; … taking on holiday; … when I am ill in bed; and so on. The first two were: 

The Best Books for … changing my life in December 2019

The Best Books for … giving in January 2020.

Over to you

So what books would you add to a list of the best books for the lockdown?

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A writer’s anthology of words and other writerly things

Collecting words

Some time ago I wrote a post about collecting words, creating word hoards, and what a good activity it is for writers. Recently I haven’t been very disciplined about recording them, but here are a few from my collection:

  • Tincture
  • Manciple
  • A murder of rooks
  • Smoocher
  • Swingle 
  • Sontagsleere  (from the German, Sunday emptiness or melancholy)

I like the sound or the feel in the mouth of these words, or in the case of the German word, how it captures a particular feeling.

I love being introduced to derivations and connections of words and that’s why  on train journeys I often listen to  the podcast Something Rhymes with Purple in which Susie Dent and Gyles Brandreth talk about words and language.

And here is a book in which the stories demonstrate over and over again the power of the word, the author’s inventiveness, her creativity with individual words. 

Public Library and other stories by Ali Smith (2015) published by Hamish Hamilton

Here is another book which will delight lovers of words. Robert Macfarlane has burrowed into the languages of the natural world to give us eleven glossaries of landscape. Many of these words of are in danger of being lost. The final list is a ‘gift glossary’ of words sent to him since the publication of the first edition in 2015.

Landmarks by Robert Macfarlane, published by Penguin. The 2016 edition has the additional glossary.

And I hope you have not missed the wonder that is The Lost Words. This collection aims to reinstate words that are being lost from children’s lives and dictionaries. And the illustrations make real the preciousness of the things and their words.

The Lost Words by Jackie Morris and Robert Macfarlane. Hamish Hamilton (2017).

Collecting titles

Here are titles of five unwritten short stories I have collected. 

  • Singing without knowing the words
  • Hunted by Cows
  • Don’t Poke the Bear
  • Stumbling
  • A Plain, Motherly kind of Woman

I have no story in mind for any of these titles, I just like the possibilities created by them.

Collecting phrases

And from rock music I note these:

‘I gave up my life of crime. 

I gave it to a friend of mine.’

Two lines from a song by Josh Ritter I think.

My current favourite is from Terry Allen, from a song called I Left Myself Today

There is a wonderful rhyme: smear/mirror. And a great list of things he didn’t do (float, fly, transcend). And then comes the punchline: ‘I just walked out on me, again’.

Sentiment resonates and word play delights. Great combination.

Related post

In praise of … word hoards (December 2016)

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