And now, without further ado, talking shop with Susan Signe Morrison, whose novel Grendel’s Mother: the Saga of the Wyrd-Wife is just out from Top Hat Books!
Q: In Grendel’s Mother you use a spare style, no psychological explorations, no in depth descriptions of clothing, customs, explanations of the culture as one often finds in historical fiction. Is this style book-specific, to echo the language of Beowulf, or might you use it again?
A: When I began writing the novel, I want to echo the language of Anglo-Saxon literature. In terms of word-stock, this meant using a lot of Germanic words. More key, I felt, was the style. How could I replicate– but also update for a contemporary, novel-reading audience–the feeling of Old English conventions? Almost unconsciously, I layered the texture of the writing with many appositions–noun and verbal phrases that function like synonyms. For example, rather than just saying, “the fierce warrior,” a more Anglo-Saxon thing to do would be to write, “the fierce warrior, weapon wielder, war-like wreaker.” I tell my students that this poetic device increases the density and weight of such verse. A Picasso portrait might have three eyes for an individual in order to show how that person looks from all sides. It creates a 3-D effect. I think the Anglo-Saxon habit of doing this in writing does an analogous thing: conjuring up a multi-dimensional world. I ended up loving this spare style and might indeed return to it in the future. I hadn’t thought about a sequel until an Amazon reader’s review: “It would make a great mini-series. (And there’s room for a sequel.)” I’d certainly be up a mini-series. :-) So now I’m thinking: what should/would a sequel entail? I’m pondering poetic possibilities (to put it alliteratively).
Q: Chapter 3, Gobban’s God, is a delight to read, the priest’s awkward attempts to explain his Christian beliefs, the amusing puzzlement of Brimhild and her parents, her mother’s attempts to politely relate the wildest ideas to their own Norse gods. The Scylding beliefs sound like a far more pragmatic system. I wondered as I read whether this hilarious discussion evolved from classroom discussions. Did it? Am I right in guessing that this chapter was great fun to write?
A: Thanks for seeing the humor here! The book on the whole is quite serious, so it’s important to spice it up occasionally with rough comic moments. Your asking this question makes me think: yes, it does stem from some classroom discussions. I remember distinctly a particular incident. A student was presenting an oral report on a song by Hildegard von Bingen, that great, multi-talented twelfth-century doctor, visionary, healer, theologian and musician. The student said, “I don’t believe in God, but if I did, I wouldn’t believe in three gods like Hildegard!” I furiously thought, “What is she talking about? There aren’t three gods in that song!” And then I realized: the student had never heard of the Trinity before, a key concept of Christian thought. Ever afterwards, I never assume prior knowledge about any religious reference in medieval literature that students encounter. This certainly influenced the scene with Gobban. I tried to imagine: why would anyone convert? Why would you change your religion if you had a perfectly fine mythology and panoply of gods? How would you understand your first encounter with Christianity if you were a pagan (a loaded term!)? Not only that, but Germanic peoples were not naturally given to “turning the other cheek.” Sæwald is highly skeptical about Gobban’s awkward description of Christianity, but the young Brimhild is haunted by the thought of a little god born in a manger.
Q: Did you find it difficult to stay within the known structure? Any temptation to change someone’s fate? Perhaps someone you grew fond of? Or to change it for the sake of a good story?
A reconstructed Viking Age longhouse. (Fyrkat_hus_stor)
A: Actually, having the confines of the known story of Beowulf was the most helpful thing of all in my act of writing. The boundaries of the narrative forced me to build the world of Grendel’s Mother within the walls of the hall of the Beowulf poem, so to speak. I chose to lurk in the obscure corners of that edifice, much like Grendel and his mother. Beowulf includes a lot of flash-forwards and flash-backs, what are sometimes called the “digressions.” These moments briefly and tantalizingly suggest violent and tragic events taking place, as it were, offstage. That’s where I went. I did change people’s fates. After all, Grendel’s Mother–my Brimhild–is not killed by Beowulf. Nor is Grendel’s fate exactly like the one as portrayed in the original poem. And making Grendel and his mother human definitely deviates from most readings of Beowulf. I believe the poem allows, even invites, alternative readings of history, mythology and story. After all, in lines 874 and following of the Old English original, the scop or minstrel tells the story of Sigemund and the dragon. There were many differing versions of this lore at the time the Beowulf poet wrote, so I feel doing my own take on a legend is even invited by the story itself. I did feel bad, though, about Freawaru’s and Inga’s fates, which were necessary to bring home the bloody fate doomed by the culture.
Q: Some of the characters in the book do not appear in the poem, and all are more fully developed. I imagine the additional details and insight come from your research—other poetry/folk tales/history of the period, and some from your own imagination, building on that background. Could you talk about your process?
A: I’ve taught Anglo-Saxon poetry, culture, and language for over twenty years. So I am pretty familiar with the Old English corpus of poetry and prose. Naturally this exposure, over time, bled into my writing process, even though I hadn’t originally read these works in order to include them in my novel. Once I began writing, I still had to do a lot of research. For example, how would have an Anglo-Saxon hall looked? I was toggling back and forth between research about Anglo-Saxon culture and what continental Danish culture was like from about the 4th to 6th centuries. I took the liberty of applying Anglo-Saxon traits–which date from later than the setting of the book–to the situation in Denmark around the year 400 C.E. I would interlace these discoveries into my narrative.
Q: What was your inspiration for how Brimhild comes to Hildilid and Saewald? [You might have answered it in one of the other questions.]
A: My inspiration definitely lies in the opening lines of Beowulf itself when the reader/listener hears about Scyld Scefing, who arrives among the Danes according to the floating founding legend. Scyld is the great-grandfather of Hrothgar, who is a central figure in the Old English poem and in my novel. As a feminist, I was interested in imagining what would happen if a girl child had arrived in a basket, much as Scyld had arrived. What would be the consequences? That’s where my novel begins.
Q: Telling the story from the perspective of the women, you are able to explore the grim underside of the lives of “heroes.” It affords the opportunity for observations such as Freawaru’s when the queen tells her that the beheadings are “man’s business.” Freawaru thinks, “Surely…this is woman’s business, too. We are the ones married off as peaceweaving brides after the blood and gore have barely dried.” Was this the driving urge behind your writing it from this perspective, for a reality check?
A: Absolutely. Two moments in Beowulf continue to haunt me. The first is the Fight at Finnsburg. The scop sings about Hildeburh, a Dane who marries into a Frisian family as part of a peace-weaving marriage between her clan and that of King Finn. However, as inevitably happens in Anglo-Saxon tales, that attempt at harmony falls apart violently. Not only do Hildeburh’s uncle and son die, but ultimately her husband as well. She is sent back to her own people, bereft of her marriage family and resentful of her blood kin. Another woman’s fate we learn at the end of Beowulf. This nameless woman laments about the fate of Beowulf’s people after his death; they are doomed to death or slavery. I wanted to explore what this culture was like for the women, compelled to participate in peace-weaving marriages doomed to failure and oppressed as victims of rape and bondage.
Q: If you were using Grendel’s Mother in a Beowulf seminar, would you have students read it first, then the poem, or visa versa?
A: Either way would work, depending on what you want to emphasize. Currently I am teaching a seminar called “Beowulf’s Literary Hoard: Contexts, Interlace, Allusion, Influence, and Intertexuality.” In it, we begin with an introduction to Old English and start doing basic translation. We read a number of shorter Old English poems in translation because I believe it’s best to come to Beowulf knowing some of the images and conventions that can be found in all sorts of Anglo-Saxon material, from elegies like The Wanderer and The Seafarer, to saints’ legends like Juliana with its totally kick-ass heroine. Next we read three different translations of Beowulf. One is by Seamus Heaney, the Irish Nobel-laureate. It works as an thrilling adventure and beautiful poem. We also will use Roy Liuzza’s facing-page translation so we can see what the Old English is for specific lines. And now Christopher Tolkien has just had published J. R.R. Tolkien’s own translation! This is incredibly exciting, given that Tolkien basically transformed the state of Anglo-Saxon studies in the 20the century. He drew on Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and Germanic material for his own work. After reading Beowulf, we will read works inspired by that iconic poem, including Tolkien’s own Sellic Spell and The Lay of Beowulf and John Gardner’s Grendel. We’ll conclude with my own Grendel’s Mother. Then students will write their own creative responses to this amazing material. Many high schools teach Beowulf alongside Gardner’s Grendel, which has the perfect “emo” and angst-ridden protagonist that resonates with teenage boys. I hope teachers will include Grendel’s Mother to give the female point of view of girls and women in that culture, so that teenage girls find characters with whom they can identify or from whom they find inspiration.
Q: There are a number of short poems/lyrics in the novel. Are all of them gleaned from manuscripts, or did you compose some of them?
A: I composed them all, except for those indicated under Sources for Quotes (section epigrams and medical charms). I was inspired by some medieval short lyrics called Frauenlieder (women’s songs). There are a few in Old English: Wulf and Eadwacer is a very short poem voiced by a woman about fraught and erotic encounters with two males. The Wife’s Lament is uttered by a betrayed woman trapped under an oak tree. These compact verses affected my lyric composition. Originally I wrote them when I had a number of fantastic MFA poetry students in my Anglo-Saxon seminar whose own work became heavily affected by the verse we read. In turn, I found myself spontaneously writing short poems. Only later in my revision process did I integrate them into the prose of Grendel’s Mother. Fortunately, they expressed emotional states that would have taken many pages of prose to convey.
Q. In your Note to the Reader you list the sources for the medical recipes, procedures, and charms, and warn readers “Do not try these recipes at home!” Hah! You add that you amended some. Could you give some examples?
A. That would be telling! Actually, a lot of these recipes can be found in Bald’s Leechbook–one of the best names of a work ever. I believe I would leave out an ingredient or two just so someone could not replicate such a recipe. Some recipes seem, from our modern perspective, “crazy.” For example, it is suggested that a woman who bleeds too much should find a horse “turd” and put it on a fire; she should stand over it to be fumigated by the smoke. I always wondered how someone would avoid being burned! So I wouldn’t try that at home. But other recipes and folk remedies may have been efficacious, and not just as placebo effects. After all, a tea made of willow bark is said to cure headaches–aspirin is synthesized from elements occurring in the willow plant. Many recipes involve chanting charms. Music therapy is said to be curative; the charms and their rhythms might have had a healing effect.
Q: Also in you Note you remark that you have “set the story about one century earlier than the usual dating of the action [6th century] for dramatic purposes.” Could you elaborate?
A: Spoiler alert!
I don’t want to give everything away, but I wanted the final scene to involve Hengest. The 8th-century monk Bede in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People writes that Hengest and his brother Horsa were the original Angle chieftains to invade Briton in the middle of the 5th century. So that meant moving the (supposed) action of Beowulf back a century. It’s fiction, after all, not history.
This was such fun. Let’s do it again soon, Susan!
You can follow Susan on her website: grendelsmotherthenovel.com
which includes a blog: http://grendelsmotherthenovel.com/category/blog/
And Susan’s on Twitter: @medievalwomen