Poems for the Women of Beowulf: A Creative-Critical Project

Dr Laura Varnam, University College, Oxford



We have heard of the Danes.

We never stop hearing about them.

Those death-and-glory Danes.

Them, their demons, and their glory-

days. Me, I’d prefer a little variation.

If you’d like to,


this is our sisters’ side of the story.

This is the opening poem in the collection that I’m currently working on, inspired by the women of the Old English epic Beowulf. It deliberately subverts and upends the original poem’s call to attention and lays the foundation for my own feminist re-imagining of the world of Beowulf. How you deal with Beowulf’s opening hwæt is a litmus test for a poet or translator and it sets the tone for what’s to follow; think of Tolkien’s grand ‘lo’, Seamus Heaney’s dignified ‘so’, and Maria Dahvana Headley’s unapologetic ‘bro’. My ‘indeed’ raises an eyebrow at the original poem’s confidence that of course we’ve heard of the Spear-Danes, of the glory of the kings of that people. In Old English hwæt can means both ‘what’ and ‘why’ and in this poem I want to draw the reader’s attention to the masculine heroism that we never cease hearing about in order to question what other stories might be hiding between the lines. My project asks, what might happen if we imagined a female poet or scop reciting Beowulf? How might the poem’s monsters and queens appear through her eyes? And if we unlock this new wordhoard, how might a change of perspective enable and encourage more new voices and stories to emerge?

            This project, as I’ve discussed in detail in my 2022 article in postmedieval, arose directly from my teaching (‘Poems for the Women of Beowulf: A “Contemporary” Medieval Project’, postmedieval 13, 105-21). Beowulf is a poem that over the last seventeen years has taken root in my mental landscape and returning to it, year on year with new groups of students, has only increased my fascination with the ways in which the poem is able to speak to our present moment– and for our present moment to speak back. And for women’s writing and rewriting, the question of speech is all important. It is striking that only one woman in Beowulf speaks, Queen Wealhtheow, and when she does so, no one answers her. The Old English Maxims declares that ‘gleawe men sceolon gieddum wrixlan’ [wise men must exchange songs or tales] but what about wise women? How can they speak when they have been silenced by the original text?

            The feminist poet and critic Adrienne Rich famously asserted in her essay ‘When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-vision’ (1972) that for women:

            Re-vision– the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text          from a new critical direction– is for us more than a chapter in cultural history: it is an   act of survival. Until we can understand the assumptions in which we are drenched we    cannot know ourselves. And this drive to self-knowledge, for women, is more than a           search for identity: it is part of her refusal of the self-destructiveness of male-          dominated society.

Rich’s ‘act of survival’ is a driving force of my collection, especially when it comes to Grendel’s Mother, the so-called ‘monster’ at the centre of the poem, whose gender, ferocity, and very existence poses a threat to the patriarchal society represented by King Hrothgar and his hall. In my poems I give Grendel’s Mother a voice, both to ‘answer back’ to the poets and translators who deal with her troubling presence by silencing and misrepresenting her, and to give her an afterlife outside of the original text– to give her the gift of survival.

            A selection of my Grendel’s Mother poems will be published by Nine Arches Press in August 2024 in Primers Volume Seven (https://ninearchespress.com/primers) and this poem gives a flavour of the voice and approach:

Grendel’s Mother addresses the Author

For all your bluster, warrior-poet,

Your puffed-up preening,

Your sword-swagger and shield-shuffling,

You still won’t look at me.

Petrifying people? That’s not my style.

It’s not my stare that needles your braggadocio.

Any road, you started it.

Edging me out, making me your mearcstapa,

your boundary-stalker, border-controller.

I never wanted to shoulder those lines.

You kettle me into the corners of your compounds,

Tuck me into the bottom drawer of your wordhoard,

Shushed and smothered by your fabrications.

Water-witch, she-wolf of the deep, troll-dam?

Give over. Don’t be so nesh.   

This poem was inspired by the moment when the Beowulf-poet introduces Grendel’s Mother into the narrative but can’t quite keep his eyes on her (lines 1265-76). His narrative focus is drawn back to Grendel, to the relative safety of the comprehensible male monster, as though giving Grendel’s Mother too much attention might be to draw a dangerous, Medusa-like, gaze. In my poem, Grendel’s Mother uses the northern dialect of my foremothers (‘nesh’ being a dialect word for feeble or wimpy) and she calls out the ways in which her presentation by translators, too, has caused her to ‘shoulder’ the burden of men’s anxieties about female power. It’s striking that in Tolkien’s field-changing 1936 lecture and essay ‘Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics’ that for all his insistence that the monsters are at the imaginative heart of the poem, he only focuses on Grendel and the dragon. Grendel’s Mother only merits a brief footnote.

            In Transforming Memories in Contemporary Women’s Rewriting (2011), Liedeke Plate comments that ‘in women’s rewriting, distrust, disbelief, anger, and a desire to set things right converge to give shape to a reader’s response in the productive reception of literature’ (p.42). This ‘re-righting’ impulse has particularly shaped my poems on grief and mourning when it comes to Grendel’s Mother. In Beowulf itself, ritual mourning is a fundamental part of the poetic economy; indeed, Gale Owen-Crocker famously argued that the structure of the poem revolves around funerals, beginning with Scyld Scefing and concluding with Beowulf’s own funeral pyre (The Four Funerals in Beowulf, 2000). But Grendel’s Mother is accorded no such commemorative rituals in the poem nor is she given the space to mourn her only son, outside of her violent revenge. And yet there are hints that the Beowulf-poet, and even Beowulf himself, recognises the legitimacy of maternal grief, despite the fact that it causes Grendel’s Mother kill Aeschere, Hrothgar’s counsellor. When he returns to the Geatish kingdom and relives his adventures for King Hygelac, Beowulf admits that she travelled on her ‘sorhfull’ (grief-filled) journey in pursuit of ‘gyrnwræc’ (revenge for injury, 2118-19). In my poetry collection, I have a number of poems which perform the work of mourning for Grendel’s Mother: poems where she laments the loss of her son; an elegy for the loss of Grendel’s Mother herself in the voice of Queen Wealhtheow; and a poem which constructs a textual burial for her.

            In this poem, entitled ‘Grave for an Uncuð Woman’, I use both the content and form of the poem to create a resting place for Grendel’s Mother. In Old English ‘uncuð’ means both strange and unknown, and in the poem I play with the paradox that by burying her, we both honour her memory and, paradoxically, pin her down to a safe location. While the monsters in Beowulf are left unceremoniously for dead– the decapitated Grendel with his mother on the floor of the mere, the dragon pushed off the cliff as Beowulf’s own funeral pyre is erected– there is an imaginative freedom in their refusal to be bound by human rituals of mourning.

Grave for an Uncuð Woman

In this poem, I construct a burial for Grendel’s Mother that reflects, and aims to compensate for, her marginalised status in the original poem. The fox-tail and cowrie-shell are symbols of maternal ferocity and fecundity; the seax or dagger is her weapon of choice in her mere. The goose-flute offers her the voice she was denied and the shoes dignify the joyless journey she makes into death, mirroring her grief-fuelled approach to Heorot.

            In the opening poem in my collection, I invite the reader to ‘listen’ to my alternative version of Beowulf, ‘if you’d like to.’ In these poems, and in the collection as a whole, I aim to open up a space for different voices to be heard and new perspectives to uncovered in a manner that is welcoming and hospitable to new readers too. Beowulf’s opening hwæt is as insistent as ever when it calls for our attention but perhaps in returning our gaze we might look afresh and askance at the stories it discloses. In a piece of creative non-fiction in Annie Journal last year, combining poetry and prose, I even went so far as to translate hwæt as ‘welcome’ (https://www.anniejournal.com/g%C3%A6sthus-with-beowolf-laura-varnam). I hope that by shaping new approaches to Beowulf, in the content and form of my poetry and creative-critical reflections, that readers will be similarly inspired to welcome the poem anew into their own imaginative landscapes… and see where it might lead them.

Dr Laura Varnam is the Lecturer in Old and Middle English Literature at University College, Oxford. She is the author of The Church as Sacred Space in Middle English Literature and Culture (2018) and the co-editor of Encountering The Book of Margery Kempe (2021). A selection of her Grendel’s Mother poems are forthcoming in Primers Volume Seven (Nine Arches Press, August 2024). You can find out more about her work on her website: https://drlauravarnam.wordpress.com/ Or on twitter/X: https://twitter.com/lauravarnam

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