Skip to main content
Log in

Poems for the Women of Beowulf: A ‘Contemporary Medieval’ Project

postmedieval Aims and scope Submit manuscript

Cite this article


This article is centred upon seven new poems from my poetry project inspired by the women of Beowulf. To contextualise the project, the poems are framed with a creative-critical reflection on their genesis in my undergraduate Beowulf class, where I teach the original poem through modern translation, adaptation, and creative response. I discuss my indebtedness to feminist scholarship on the ‘overwhelmingly masculine’ nature of Beowulf (Overing 1990) and briefly survey recent feminist translations and adaptations. I propose my poetry as a form of creative close reading and an example of Lees and Overing’s ‘contemporary medieval in practice’ (Lees and Overing 2019). I also offer short notes on the poems and their relationship to questions of gender, voice, and autonomy.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in via an institution to check access.

Access this article

Price excludes VAT (USA)
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.

Instant access to the full article PDF.

Institutional subscriptions


  1. With Elizabeth Adams and Robin Darwall-Smith, I co-curated the ‘Women at Univ 1249–2019’ exhibition, celebrating and uncovering the hidden histories of women at University College, Oxford, from the Middle Ages to the present. The exhibition was part of the fortieth anniversary of the admission of women students in 1979.

  2. On the poem’s masculine critical history, see Lees (1994, 129–148) as well as Chance (2019), with reference to Chance (1980), a foundational essay on the ‘problem’ of Grendel’s Mother.

  3. See Gíslason (2021) on the unexpected affective impact of creative engagement and performance, especially pages 61, 64, and 69.

  4. For an examination of translations up to 2011, see Magennis (2011).

  5. Purvis (2020) discusses her translation of the poem in detail.

  6. Forni’s monograph (Forni 2018) surveys adaptations ‘focused on female experience’ on pages 59–65. See also Killilea (2015–16) for discussion of gendered power structures in male-authored adaptations.

  7. In Morrison’s version, Brimhild (Grendel’s Mother) washes up, unidentified, on the shores of the Scylding kingdom. She marries Hrothgar but is banished with her son when it is revealed that Hrothgar is her father, having raped her mother on a raiding expedition. See Forni (2018, 62–63) on the incest motif.

  8. Morrison also translates the opening of The Wife’s Lament as an epigraph to the fourth of her five sections in Grendel’s Mother: ‘This riddle, my personal experiencing, I put about my most melancholy self’ (Morrison 2015, 169).

  9. Purvis (2013) also declines to name Grendel’s Mother in her translation. In other poems in my work-in-progress collection I have explored the significance of the Beowulf-poet’s naming strategies, including with reference to Wealhtheow, discussed in the introduction to ‘Wealhtheow on the Whale-Road’ and the title of Hildeburh’s poem (‘Hildeburh (Battle-Stronghold)’).

  10. Credit (and my gratitude) for this idea must go to my peer as a graduate student, Bethan Tovey, who introduced me to many adaptations of Beowulf and suggested that I use them in teaching. Texts that I have used include Gardner (1971), Hinds (2007), and Morpurgo and Foreman (2006).

  11. See Brookman and Robinson (2016) for a similar creative approach to teaching Old English translation in an Oxford context.

  12. ‘Defective metrically and in sense’ is George Jack’s description of the line (Jack 1994, 31).

  13. The translation here is Liuzza (2000, 55).

  14. For a recent example of practice-based engagement with medieval texts, see Gíslason (2021).

  15. My reading of this episode is indebted to Trilling (2007), in which Trilling outlines how the poet’s anxieties about Grendel’s Mother’s gender and maternity inform the narrative strategies of marginalisation and repression whenever her character is represented in the poem.

  16. See Miyashiro (2020) for an important academic discussion of the role of the Grendelkin in challenging the Danes’ territorial sovereignty.

  17. Purvis narrates this scene from the perspective of the Danish warriors, and when Hildeburh is shipped back to her people, she gives her a voice to express her experiences herself (Purvis 2013, 48–50).

  18. ‘Grendel’ is included in ‘Uncollected Poems (1976–1981)’ in Morgan (1996, 427–428). Morgan’s translation of Beowulf was originally published in 1952 (see Morgan 2002).


  • Brookman, Helen and Olivia Robinson. 2016. ‘Creativity, Translation, and Teaching Old English Poetry.’ Translation and Literature 25: 275–297.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Campbell, Claire Pascolini. 2020. ‘Thomas Meyer’s Beowulf: The Visual Text.’ In Beowulf in Contemporary Culture, ed. David Clark, 90–110. Newcastle upon Tyne, UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

    Google Scholar 

  • Chance, Jane. 1980. ‘The Structural Unity of Beowulf: The Problem of Grendel’s Mother.’ Texas Studies in Language and Literature 22: 287–303.

    Google Scholar 

  • Chance, Jane. 2019. ‘Reading Grendel’s Mother.’ In New Readings on Women and Early Medieval English Literature and Culture: Cross-Disciplinary Studies in Honour of Helen Damico, eds. Helene Scheck and Christine E. Kozikowski, 209–225. Leeds: Arc Humanities Press.

    Chapter  Google Scholar 

  • Earl, James W. 2006. ‘Reading Beowulf with Original Eyes.’ In The Postmodern Beowulf: A Critical Casebook, eds. Eileen A. Joy and Mary K. Ramsey, 687–704. Morgantown, WV: West Virginia University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Forni, Kathleen. 2018. Beowulf’s Popular Afterlife in Literature, Comic Books, and Film. London: Routledge.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Gardner, John. 1971. Grendel. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

    Google Scholar 

  • Gíslason, Kári. 2021. ‘Retelling the Icelandic Family Sagas.’ postmedieval 12 (1–4): 53–73.

  • Headley, Maria Dahvana. 2018. The Mere Wife. London: Scribe.

    Google Scholar 

  • Headley, Maria Dahvana. 2020. Beowulf: A New Translation. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

    Google Scholar 

  • Headley, Maria Dahvana and Carolyne Larrington. 2020. ‘A Conversation between Maria Dahvana Headley and Carolyne Larrington.’ In Beowulf in Contemporary Culture, ed. David Clark, 200–211. Newcastle upon Tyne, UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

  • Heaney, Seamus. 1999. Beowulf. London: Faber and Faber.

    Google Scholar 

  • Hinds, Gareth. 2007. Beowulf. London: Candlewick.

    Google Scholar 

  • Horner, Shari. 2006. ‘Voices from the Margins: Women and Textual Enclosure in Beowulf.’ In The Postmodern Beowulf: A Critical Casebook, eds. Eileen A. Joy and Mary K. Ramsey, 467–500. Morgantown, WV: West Virginia University Press.

  • Housley, Marjorie. 2020. ‘Uneasy Presences: Revulsion and the Necropolitics of Attachment.’ postmedieval 11 (4): 434–41.

  • Hume, Kathryn. 2021. ‘Maria Dahvana Headley’s The Mere Wife: Diffused Satire in a Troubling Piece of Beowulfiana.’ Orbit 9 (1): 1–22.

  • Jack, George. 1994. Beowulf: A Student Edition. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

  • Jones, Chris. 2006. Strange Likeness: The Use of Old English in Twentieth-Century Poetry. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Killilea, Alison Elizabeth. 2015–16. ‘Smash the Matriarchy!: Fear of Feminine Power Structures in Beowulf Adaptations.’ Selim 21: 57–80.

  • Kim, Dorothy. 2019. ‘The Question of Race in Beowulf.’ JStor Daily.

  • Klein, Stacy S. 2019. ‘Introduction: Feminism and Early English Studies Now.’ In New Readings on Women and Early Medieval English Literature and Culture: Cross Disciplinary Studies in Honour of Helen Damico, eds. Helene Scheck and Christine E. Kozikowski, 1–19. Leeds, UK: Arc Humanities Press.

  • Lees, Clare A. 1994. ‘Men and Beowulf.’ In Medieval Masculinities: Regarding Men in the Middle Ages, ed. Clare A. Lees with Thelma S. Fenster and Jo Ann McNamara, 129–48. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

  • Lees, Clare A. and Gillian R. Overing. 2019. The Contemporary Medieval in Practice. London: UCL Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Liuzza, R.M. 2000. Beowulf: A New Verse Translation. Peterborough, Ont.: Broadview Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Magennis, Hugh. 2011. Translating Beowulf: Modern Versions in English Verse. Cambridge, UK: D.S. Brewer.

    Google Scholar 

  • Meyer, Thomas. 2012. Beowulf: A Translation. New York: Punctum Books.

    Google Scholar 

  • Miyashiro, Adam. 2020. ‘Homeland Insecurity: Biopolitics and Sovereign Violence in Beowulf.’ postmedieval 11 (4): 384–95.

  • Morgan, Edwin. 1996. Collected Poems. Manchester, UK: Carcanet Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Morgan, Edwin. 2002. Beowulf: A Verse Translation into Modern English. Manchester: Carcanet Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Morpurgo, Michael and Michael Foreman. 2006. Beowulf. London: Walker.

  • Morrison, Susan Signe. 2015. Grendel’s Mother: The Saga of the Wyrd-Wife. Winchester: Top Hat Books.

    Google Scholar 

  • Morrison, Toni. 2019. ‘Grendel and His Mother.’ In The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches, and Meditations, 255–262. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

  • Osborn, Marijane. 1983. Beowulf: A Verse Translation with Treasures of the Ancient North. Berkeley: University of California Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Overing, Gillian R. 1990. Language, Sign, and Gender in Beowulf. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Overing, Gillian R. 2012. ‘Beowulf: A Poem in Our Time.’ In The Cambridge History of Early Medieval English Literature, ed. Clare A. Lees, 309–331. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

  • Purvis, Meghan. 2013. Beowulf: A New Translation. London: Penned in the Margins.

    Google Scholar 

  • Purvis, Meghan. 2020. ‘From Scop to Subversive: Beowulf as a Force for Inclusivity.’ In Beowulf in Contemporary Culture, ed. David Clark, 134–152. Newcastle upon Tyne, UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

  • Rambaran-Olm, Mary, Leake, M. Breann, and Goodrich, Micah James. 2020. ‘Medieval Studies: The Stakes of the Field.’ postmedieval 11 (4): 356–70.

  • Thomson, S.C. 2021. ‘The Composite Unity of the Entangled Self in Maria Dahvana Headley’s The Mere Wife.’ In Studies in Medievalism XXX: Politics and Medievalism (Studies), ed. Karl Fugelso, 203–227. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer.

  • Tolkien, J.R.R. 2006. ‘On Translating Beowulf.’ In The Monsters and the Critics, and Other Essays, ed. Christopher Tolkien, 49–71. London: HarperCollins.

  • Tolkien, J.R.R. 2014. Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary, edited by Christopher Tolkien. London: HarperCollins.

    Google Scholar 

  • Trilling, Renée R. 2007. ‘Beyond Abjection: The Problem with Grendel’s Mother Again.’ Parergon 24 (1): 1–20.

Download references


My sincere and heartfelt thanks to the following for their kind encouragement and invaluable feedback on my poetry: Helen Barr, Cheyenne Dunnett, Jane Griffiths, Jenni Nuttall, Teresa Pilgrim, Lizzy Potter, and Robert Shearman. Thank you to the anonymous reviewers, Shazia Jagot, and the team at postmedieval for their insightful feedback and their support when I approached them with my poetry. I am especially grateful to Helen Barr for her comments on an earlier draft of this article and to my University College, Oxford students Diana B T, Emily C, Isabel F, Nina L, Trudy R, and Joe S, whose enthusiastic response to Beowulf fuelled their tutor’s creative endeavours. Thank you!

Thank you to Ink, Sweat & Tears for publishing ‘Queen Wealhtheow: Cup-Bearer’ in July 2021:

. ‘I am the Queen without a Name,’ ‘Hwæt,’ ‘Grendel’s Mother,’ and ‘Wealhtheow on the Whale-Road’ were first published in The Oxford Magazine, no. 424 (second week, Michaelmas Term 2020), 8–9.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Laura Varnam.

Additional information

Publisher's Note

Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Check for updates. Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Varnam, L. Poems for the Women of Beowulf: A ‘Contemporary Medieval’ Project. Postmedieval 13, 105–121 (2022).

Download citation

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: