In Grendel's Mother: The Saga of the Wyrd-Wife, Susan Morrison has given us the story behind the Old English saga of Beowulf, an epic hero who saves his people from the monster Grendel and, later, from Grendel's mother. But in Morrison's telling—a powerful extension of the story and a deep and compelling glimpse into the culture that produced it—Grendel is a tragic hero and his mother a real and fascinating woman. Morrison names her Brimhild and portrays her throughout her life: the mysterious child who appears on the shore in a cradle-boat; the noble wife and exalted hall-queen of the Scylding king Hrothgar; the target of political intrigue and duplicity; and a banished healer and seer who is both eagerly sought-after and desperately feared, a witness to the destructive violence around her and to come.
A medieval scholar with an impressive command of her material, Morrison embellishes this powerful narrative of a medieval woman's rise and fall and with threads of Celtic and Germanic legend and myth—herbal medicines, mysterious charms, riddles, poetry, and lore—and sets it all within the context of overwhelming political and cultural change. Her richly evocative prose echoes the poetic structure of Old English alliterative verse. From the "Prologue," depicting Brimhild's arrival:
Long after the frost ogres fought with the gods, before Rome was sacked, when our ancestors, the northmen, pillaged in their longships and plied the whale's path, a woven basket floated on the salt-rimed sea. The basket, woven wave-rider, rocked with the flood, moon messenger. Foamy white peaks washed the suckling to the shore, sandy beach haven. Salt-encrusted, the maiden slept, skin sun-tattered scarlet. Breathing in land wind, the girl-lady stirred, sensing the end of the flood, womb sheltered. That was an innocent child.
I wish I'd had Morrison's novel when I was teaching Beowulf; my students would have had a much stronger sense of the real-life struggles that lay behind and created the mythic poem. Those who don't know the poem will appreciate Morrison's work on other levels, for Grendel's Mother tells a universal story of heroic dimensions through the eyes of a woman who sees and understands and deeply feels everything that happens. It is a rare glimpse into a world that is both profoundly alien and surprisingly, wrenchingly, our own.
Professor of English at Texas State University, Susan Signe Morrison lives in Austin, Texas, and writes on topics lurking in the margins of history, ranging from recently uncovered diaries of a teenaged girl in World War II to medieval women pilgrims, excrement in the Middle Ages, and waste. Visit her website.
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