One of the things I adore about Women’s History Month is that I get to introduce everyone to writers who they should read, but I also get to show a tiny corner of the world just what amazing and varied lives omen have. Dena Taylor is a good example of both these. And she’s talking about Beowulf! What more could you want? A bio? You’ll find it just beneath the essay. Gillian
The Women of Beowulf
by Dena Bain Taylor
I’ve been fascinated with the story of Beowulf since I was in first year university. I had fallen madly in lust with a handsome young prof who happened to teach Anglo-Saxon poetry and I took all of his courses over the four years of my degree. Decades later (I won’t say how many), I’m now publishing my first novel, Bones & Keeps, a historical fantasy about Beowulf that’s due out in early October 2020.
The story of Beowulf comes down to us in three written sources. The most famous is the epic poem Beowulf, written in Old English in (likely) the early tenth century but telling the story of a sixth century Scandinavian king. I’m fully prepared to argue over drinks that it’s the greatest poem in the history of English literature. In the first 2200 lines of the poem, the young Beowulf sails with his warband to Denmark and saves Hrothgar’s kingdom by killing the man-eating monster Grendel, quite spectacularly tearing off its arm and pursuing it to take its head. He follows up by wrestling down and killing Grendel’s equally monstrous mother. In the second part (972 lines), Beowulf is an old king compelled to fight and kill a dragon that has been ravaging his people. He succeeds but is himself killed. There’s an inescapable sadness at the end of Beowulf. For all his greatness as a king and a warden of the land, Beowulf dies alone, deserted by all but one loyal thane. He has no heir to leave his wargear to and he knows that his people, the Geats, are doomed to destruction at the hands of their old enemies the Swedes once they get news of his death.
The poet devotes exactly ten lines to what happens in between the two stories: Beowulf succeeds his uncle Hygelac as king of the Geats, rules his land well for fifty winters, and grows old and wise. And then the dragon wakes. Bones & Keeps rose out of my need to answer a question that’s been burning me ever since I first encountered the poem: So what happened in that 50 years? What changed Beowulf from a young hero surrounded by loyal followers and honoured by two kings to an old man deserted by all but that one loyal thane?
Ah, but wait, there’s one more person who turns up at the end to weep over the king’s body. An unnamed woman. Stripped of her identity by the poet, we’re left to wonder what her relationship is with the great king. No mother, wives or children are recorded for Beowulf — only this mysterious woman who mourns at his funeral. Wife? Daughter? Lover, perhaps? In Bones & Keeps, where Beowulf navigates a sea of rivals for his throne and a witch-queen sister determined to destroy him, I gave him a young daughter named Keana. She is, as he puts it, the only trouble-free female in his life. I’ve imagined that it’s she who mourns his passing, with a love that’s as pure as the love she felt for him as a child.
The saga literature of which Beowulf’s story is a part usually omits the names of women even though they seem to have exercised a considerable degree of ritual and political power in 6th century Scandinavia. Writing the novel gave me much opportunity to reflect on the role of women in the tale of Beowulf.
Events within the political realm are as integral to the Beowulf poem as the monsters who bookend his life. Feuds, wars, invasions, alliances, marriages, the nature of kingship and queenship, all are discussed and illustrated over the course of the poet’s vividly descriptive and exciting account of Beowulf’s heroic battles with his monsters. It’s here that we see the power exerted by women.
For one thing, women had very real power in matters of succession and inheritance. A sister’s son had a greater right to claim the throne than a king’s own son. In Beowulf, Hrothgar’s queen Wealtheow — speaking publicly in the hall before Hrothgar and all his thanes — urges her husband not to adopt Beowulf and make him his heir, as he’s just offered to do, but to favour his sister-son Hrothulf as successor to the Danish throne. And so her husband immediately drops the idea of adopting Beowulf. I couldn’t bring Wealtheow into Bones & Keeps as a character (though she is mentioned) because she belongs to that earlier period of his life, but a central driver of the plot is the fact that Beowulf’s sister-son, Skuld’s son Hring, has at least as much expectation of being named the king’s heir as Beowulf’s own son Siggeir.
Another imposing female presence in Beowulf is Yrsa, who wields both military and political power as a noblewoman belonging to both the Danish and Swedish royal families. I incorporated her as a character in Bones & Keeps, and I think her story alone would make a great Netflix series. It’s complicated but, basically, she unknowingly marries her own father, has a son (the same Hrothulf who’s in line for the Danish throne), flees in horror from Denmark to Sweden as soon as she discovers the truth, and saves herself by agreeing to marry the Swedish king who turns out to be a greedy, grasping asshole. Years later, she must manipulate her husband to save her son from his treachery. It doesn’t end well for anyone.
All the sources of Beowulf’s story share an old problem, that ‘his’tory excludes or diminishes the role of women. Luckily, historical fiction and historical fantasy give us the opportunity to dig beneath the surface and bring to light the true agency of our powerful foremothers.
Dena Bain Taylor has spent most of her life in Toronto, Canada, pursuing her joint passions: music and books. She is a classically-trained singer. She is also a writer, critic, tv script advisor, literary award juror, and erstwhile owner of Ben Abraham Books (specializing in the occult and William Blake). Along the way, she had a long career at the University of Toronto – first as a Professor of English Literature, then as the Director of the prestigious Health Sciences Writing Centre. She now lives with her husband in a small palace in the sky overlooking Lake Ontario.
She has published extensively, and eclectically. Bones & Keeps (Prism Publishers) is her first novel, a historical fantasy about the great Scandinavian hero Beowulf. Visit her website at www.denabaintaylor.com.