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.
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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. https://www.univ.ox.ac.uk/news/women-at-univ-exhibition/.
See Gíslason (2021) on the unexpected affective impact of creative engagement and performance, especially pages 61, 64, and 69.
For an examination of translations up to 2011, see Magennis (2011).
Purvis (2020) discusses her translation of the poem in detail.
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.
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).
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)’).
See Brookman and Robinson (2016) for a similar creative approach to teaching Old English translation in an Oxford context.
‘Defective metrically and in sense’ is George Jack’s description of the line (Jack 1994, 31).
The translation here is Liuzza (2000, 55).
For a recent example of practice-based engagement with medieval texts, see Gíslason (2021).
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.
See Miyashiro (2020) for an important academic discussion of the role of the Grendelkin in challenging the Danes’ territorial sovereignty.
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).
Brookman, Helen and Olivia Robinson. 2016. ‘Creativity, Translation, and Teaching Old English Poetry.’ Translation and Literature 25: 275–297.
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.
Chance, Jane. 1980. ‘The Structural Unity of Beowulf: The Problem of Grendel’s Mother.’ Texas Studies in Language and Literature 22: 287–303.
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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.
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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: https://inksweatandtears.co.uk/laura-varnam/
. ‘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.
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Varnam, L. Poems for the Women of Beowulf: A ‘Contemporary Medieval’ Project. Postmedieval 13, 105–121 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41280-022-00225-3