Memorial Day Reading: A Beowulf Marathon

It’s Memorial Day Weekend!

Some love summer holidays.  Some do not.

Three days of drinking beer and grilling hot dogs  with the relatives from Kansas may be a trial for an addicted reader. I have been reduced to perusing People magazine at the picnic table. And don’t forget: Cousin Myrna, her husband Mickey, and their grown-up kids, Dakota, Dylan, and Donny, WILL be camping in the backyard.  Tattoos WILL be compared.  Too many marshmallows will be roasted.

Personally, I’m doing a Beowulf and Beowulf retelling marathon this weekend. (Do I think the relatives are monsters?  But I may eat some bratwurst.) I can’t recommend too highly the novel I am reading, Maria Dahvana Headley’s The Mere Wife, a feminist retelling of Beowulf.

Whether you know the Beowulf story or not does not matter.  The Mere Wife is a compelling book.  Somewhere, we do have  a copy of Seamus Heaney’s translation. (It has been a LOT of years.)  But you can always read a  summary of the poem at Encyclopedia Britannica.

People love retold myths, poems, and fairy tales.  The Mere Wife, touted by critics,  is no exception. Set in a suburban gated community called Herot Hall, this version focuses on the women characters, especially the mothers.   Dana, an ex-soldier with PTSD, lives in a cave under the mountain with her son Gren (Grendel), a boy born with teeth and claws; her suburban counterpart, Willa, is the miserable wife of the heir of Herot Hall, who is cheating on her with a neighbor, and Willa is also the ice-cold mother of Dylan, a lonely friendless boy.

The women don’t have much power, or so it seems. Dana, who volunteered as a soldier sometime after 9/11, has survived rape and torture in a hostage situation and returned to the U.S. with only one eye and pregnant by an unknown captor.

Headley writes so insightfully about PTSD that I did really wonder if the author was a veteran. (I haven’t looked it up.)  She lyrically, impressionistically describes Dana’s state of mind.  You are immediately in Dana’s chilling world in the first paragraph of the prologue.

Say it. The beginning and end at once. I’m facedown in a truck bed, getting ready to be dead. I think about praying, but i’ve never been any good at asking for help. I try to sing. There aren’t any songs for this. All I have is a line I read in a library book. All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of things will be well.

And Dana understands how the military recruits young ignorant people who want to be heroes.  The reality is different.

Back in the U.S., Dana returns to Herot Hall, where she grew up (though her modest family’s house has been bulldozed), and in a harrowing scene, gives birth in the mountain cave to her “monster” son, Gren.  He will never fit in, so she protects him by living in isolation under the mountain.

But the blond, gorgeous trophy wife, Willa, is the really violent one. Boiling with repressed rage at Herot Hall, where she has nothing to do, she wants her glass house–glass walls and no curtains–to remain perfect.  Her willful misinterpretation of what she has seen—Gren as a monster rather than a child playing with her son during her perfect party—drives her berserk. And she goads the Beowulfian hero, Ben Woolf, a policeman and war veteran, to investigate.

Sometimes there is a chorus of the zoned-out wives of Herlot Hill, who do Pilates, boxing, and are in shape for whatever  happens. They don’t have power, but they insist on action here.  They want blood.

The most famous retelling of Beowulf is John Gardner’s Grendel, written from the point of view of the monster. I have had a used copy on the shelf for many years, but I am ashamed to say I have never read it.  And I just discovered that there is WRITING in it. You cant imagine how unhappy this makes me. But it’s in pencil, so I plan to erase it.

Have you read Beowulf ? Have you read The Mere Wife or Grendel? And what are you reading this weekend?