Tag Archives: Maggie Gee

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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Filed under Feminism, Podcast, poetry, translation, words

Missing Books

You run your fingers along the spines of your shelf where you book should be and find – the book has gone. It’s a gone book. Somewhere there is a library of lost books, perhaps in the same street as the laundrette for single socks; opposite the museum of lost contact lenses; and the newspaper reporting on people who lost their hearts.

All those books, where are all those books? How have they come to be gone?

Not on the shelves

221 Well of LThe Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall. Writing a post about banned books I went to my shelves of novels, to look for the green spine of my copy of the Virago classic. I read the book I am sure in the ‘70s. But it was missing, although a friend was able to lay her hands on her copy when I mentioned this a few days later. Perhaps I only borrowed it. It’s a book I should have on my shelves, a classic. What else is not on my shelves?

Gone from the library

Virginia Woolf in Manhattan by Maggie Gee. I wanted to read this book because of the title. I like the idea of a novel about a novelist, and especially of one as revolutionary as Virginia Woolf. I reserved it from my local branch of the county library. A week later I received this email.

Dear Ms Lodge,

I’m sorry but the copy of

Gee, M Virginia Woolf in Manhattan

Which you requested is missing. As this is the only copy on the catalogue I have had to delete your request.

Unforgiveable, a library user in Devon has failed to return the service’s only copy of Virginia Woolf in Manhattan. Check your shelves Devon readers!

Not in the shops

24 Sussex, Ottawa

24 Sussex, Ottawa

What are you Reading Mr Harper? by Yann Martel. I posted about this book a couple of weeks ago. I planned the post after reading of the fall of Mr Harper and his Conservative government in the Canadian General Election. But the book was not available from my usual sources. In the end I went to the subsidiaries of a well-known on-line company that sell second hand books. My copy arrived from Switzerland. An international affair. And what has happened to all the books that Yann Martel sent Mr Harper, more than a hundred of them. Have they gone back to Calgary with Mr Harper? Or are they in cardboard boxes in the cellars of 24 Sussex Drive, Ottawa?

Lent but not returned.

And then there is the category of books that go missing because they were lent to a person posing as a friend who never returned them. Is that what happened to The Well of Loneliness? Annecdotalist mused on this topic on her blog in November in a post called Never let me go: the dilemma of lending books. She lent Never Let Me Go and, yes, it has not returned. She writes movingly about the betrayal of trust, the damage to a relationship if the book is not returned. And has a word or two for those people who don’t ever buy books.

Not exactly given away

193 Bees coverThe Bees by Laline Paull. This is a new category, discovered when my book group was deciding what to read in 2016. My daughter revealed that she had my copy and overheard to say ‘it’s mine now.’ Not so much given away or lent as adopted, taken over. I need to check her shelves of course.

 

 

About missing

Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey. In this book it is people that are missing, a sister and a friend. And Maud is losing some of her marbles as dementia progresses. It’s a very successful debut novel, that treats an older woman with great respect. I reviewed it in the series on older women in fiction on this blog.

Not yet written

In my half century of writing I have imagined so many novels and written so few. I began a few. There was the as-yet-untitled saga of a large family who lived in a lighthouse in Brittany. And there was the adult feminist novel featuring Megan and her struggles in a life of discrimination against women. And not even started, the memoirs of a book obsessed reader.

Not yet finished

And then there is the novel I have drafted, but need to produce a second draft. And while I am not revising the first draft I am writing, with two others, a book on ageing. This book is scheduled to go to the publisher in March and then I can return to the novel.

With all these missing books, it’s fortunate that I have a tbr pile that extends for two feet along my shelves and continues as a file of scraps of paper waiting to be obtained from the shops or the library (or perhaps by underhand methods). On with the reading.

Explore the wonderful website: Library of Lost Books

Any books gone missing in your life?

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Filed under Books, Libraries, My novel, Publishing our book, Reading, Virginia Woolf