Archive for December 4th, 2008

Wealtheow: Her Telling of Beowulf

Thursday, December 4th, 2008


By Ashley Crownover

The Short Take:

I certainly enjoyed Ashley Crownover’s take on this epic a great deal more than my high school required reading of Beowulf. Not only do you get a welcome female perspective on this saga, you also get a much more nuanced portrait of daily life among the Danes during (maybe) the fifth century. The way faith, nature, and culture intertwine and influence daily life in this story makes it magical. And enjoyable.

Why?

I’ll admit right up front that I love books that tell a known story from a different view point. If that conceit bothers you, move on now.

Wealtheow tells the best known portion of Beowulf through two very different women: Grendel’s mother Ginnar, and Wealtheow, the Queen of the Danes. Both women are fiercely motivated by love to protect their offspring from death. If you are at all familiar with Beowulf, you know that the actions of the former threaten the children of the latter.

What sets this book apart is the time Crownover spends exploring the lives of these women. She fleshes out their dreams and desires, taking them from youthful hope and innocence through despair to their full strength in maturity. It is this life long journey with all its rich details that makes this book fascinating. In fact, the hero Beowulf doesn’t even appear until well past the book’s midpoint. And you don’t mind his tardy appearance in the least.

An often repeated line in this novel reads, “Hear my tale O gods, and bless the telling.” Bless Crownover for giving voice to these women and moving beyond the blood and guts valor of the original epic poem to focus on the humanity, pain, and strength of all the people involved.

A Little Plot:

Wealtheow follows two women in parallel story lines that eventually overlap with deadly results.

The title character leaves her home and people as little more than a child to become the bride of the Danish king. She fills her position with honor, managing a royal household that really includes all the people of the clan. She is a talented weaver, and with the other women, weaves spells to help and protect her people in every length of cloth.

Ginnar is also a talented weaver and lives what seems to be a charmed life until she gives birth to a deformed child. As is the custom of her tribe, her baby must die. To protect her child she flees into the deep wilderness, weaving magic that gradually transforms both her and her child into fearsome monsters of incredible strength.

It is when Ginnar and her child are drawn back to civilization and people that the traditional Beowulf story begins to unfold.

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