KORVA COLEMAN, HOST:
Let's talk about "Beowulf." It's possibly the classic Anglo-Saxon text, a thousand-year-old epic poem written about the quintessential hero - a mighty warrior who defeats the monster Grendel, his mother - a sea witch - and eventually does battle with a dragon. A thousand years is a long time. Maybe it's time for a rewrite. Maria Dahvana Headley has done so. Her book is called "The Mere Wife," and it updates and revitalizes the characters - and one in particular, Grendel's mother. Headley told me she was the character who Headley always thought was the most interesting.
MARIA DAHVANA HEADLEY: Grendel's mother is way more hardcore than Grendel is. She's amazing with a sword. She's really strong. And Beowulf has to get very armored up in order to fight her. And he kind of only wins by luck. So I always thought, well, why isn't she really important?
COLEMAN: In Headley's telling, which takes place in the present, she's the center of the book, just back from war in the Middle East.
HEADLEY: Dana Mills is a woman who's - she's a veteran. She has pretty bad PTSD. She doesn't know exactly what happened to her in the war. She's been kidnapped and held, and has returned back into society and comes back with the news that she is pregnant, and she doesn't know how she got pregnant. And she goes home. She runs back to where she came from, which is this mountain. And around the mountain is a new development called Herot Hall, which is a gated community. And she gives birth to her son, and has a lot of fear about their place in the world and whether or not they will be able to be integrated with society at all. And she decides that they can't be. So they are in isolation but looking down at the sort of glittering capitalist grandeur of America.
COLEMAN: So there's a character in your book who makes a fateful decision - police Officer Ben Woolf. Now, he's really the stand-in for the hero of the original tale, Beowulf. Ben Woolf is the character who appears to us readers, at first, to represent Beowulf, but he's actually a man that's committing crimes.
HEADLEY: Yeah. This is something that I was really interested as I started writing this book - and in the world. I mean, the world is so full of profound injustice to young people of color, young men of color and to women of color, specifically. And in this book, Dana Mills and her son Grendel are both people of color. And so Ben Woolf is a police officer. So in this case, Ben Woolf, the Beowulf character, is based very much on the original Beowulf. He's a soldier. He's a veteran. He's become a police officer. He wants glory. And I think the story of Beowulf is a story about a man who wants glory. He comes as a mercenary to kill monsters, so he comes to kill Grendel and then is hired onward to kill Grendel's mother. And that's in the original. So in this, I thought, OK, what equivalence do we have in contemporary American society? And we have a lot of difficulty with getting categorized as a strong, heroic man and how to do that. And lots of that is pretty shady, in my opinion.
COLEMAN: You've spread heroic traits among all your characters - love, duty, faithfulness. They all exhibit that. And these have actually been ascribed mainly in the original tale to Beowulf himself. But in your book, you've described women in particular as women whose lives we have lived ourselves, or people we have loved, or people we know. Tell us a little bit more about the two main female characters, and that would be Dana Mills, the war veteran, and Willa Herot. And both are mothers.
HEADLEY: Yes. I - again, I was interested in - obviously, in Grendel's mother, but also in Hrothgar's wife, who is a main character in the original. And in this story, she's a suburban housewife who's sort of holding the glamour of suburbia together. She's trying to not only be the queen of the suburbs, but to be the queen of all women in that way that has been increasingly tempting the more that social media can make us each queens of our kingdom. I was interested in writing about the ways in which female roles are sort of double downed upon, so that we end up with this increasingly, like - the lovely housewife role, which you would think we would be past at this point in history, but we're not. We now have the lovely housewife role which is hashtagged and which is, like, filtered to make it look even more perfect and, like, perfect to excess. I think it is the role of this character in her suburban community, whereas Dana Mills has none of that. She's living in a very survivalist kind of fashion on this mountain without any of the accoutrements of modern American society.
COLEMAN: Ms. Headley, I'm told that your inspiration for this work came from a literary argument - an argument over how to translate one word in the "Beowulf" tale. And it's one of the most vital words in the whole story.
HEADLEY: Yes. I was sort of wandering through research about Grendel's mother, and I happened to run across something that's pretty well-known in the scholarship on "Beowulf," which is that the word used for Beowulf, for Grendel's mother, for Grendel and for the dragon, who ultimately kills Beowulf, is the same word. For Beowulf, it's the masculine. For Grendel's mother, it's the feminine. We have a lot of debate over how to pronounce this because there's no spoken text for Old English, but it's aeglaeca. And the word means - in the early English translations, it was translated for Beowulf as hero, and for Grendel as monster, and for Grendel's mother as wretch of a woman or hag. And so - but it's the same word. And so that is clearly a choice. That's somebody saying, that's what I think of a woman with a sword.
And that's what I - and, you know, Grendel in "Beowulf," in the original, is monstrous. He's really big. He has claws. Grendel's mother doesn't. She's a woman with a sword. She's a woman who fights, and she's also - the words that describe her are probably related to being noble. She's a noblewoman. But none of that ends up in the translations because that's not as good a story for our culture. So I was really interested in thinking about, like, OK, what does that word really mean? And there's a lot of scholarship about that. The word probably means formidable or awe-inspiring. It's also used to describe the Venerable Bede, who's a scholar, and it's in talking about how impressive his scholarship is.
COLEMAN: So have we've been getting it wrong all along?
HEADLEY: Yeah. The translations in the 20th century of "Beowulf" are really wrong upon wrong because the scholarship about the terminology dates to the '70s. People have been talking about this for a long time. But I think that the way that the translations have run, they've been mostly male translators looking back and thinking, OK, well, I read that guy's translation and he's really a major scholar; he's really smart - in the case of Tolkien, for example, who studied "Beowulf" for 40 years. He was working on a translation for a very long time. And obviously, he's brilliant, but he really received the idea that Grendel's mother was a monster, and it was tempting to him. And I think that a lot of people went back and looked at his work and thought, well, he would know. And that's a tradition that we've had throughout translations of texts like these.
COLEMAN: Maria Dahvana Headley, you have undertaken a new project to be published next year. You are engaged in translating "Beowulf."
HEADLEY: Yes. So it's great. It'll come out - as the paperback of "Mere Wife" comes out, we will also have a new translation, which is mine.
COLEMAN: Why is it vital for women scholars to interpret ancient texts?
HEADLEY: Well, I think it's vital because there's just so little of it in the history. Women were edged out of the ivory towers, edged out of feeling like they had enough skill to be the primary interpreters of texts like this. This text has long been perceived as a masculine text. It's been perceived as, oh, that's about men and war. But I think this text is as much about domesticity as it is about men and war. I think it's a text about home, as much as anything. And Grendel and his mother have a home. And Herot Hall is a home. It's a domestic place. Even though it's a soldier-filled space, and full of stories, and mead and whatever, it's also a story about, how do we live amongst other people? How do we live as neighbors? How do we do those things?
And so I think that, like, for the history of women in literary canons, like, people often interpret our work as, oh, they're just writing about the small domesticity, the, like, little stories of the home. And I think so many of the big stories are the big stories of the home. I think that many of these canonical texts have been kind of misinterpreted as just exclusively masculine when, really, many of them are about love, and about how to sustain it and how to sustain life with a family.
COLEMAN: Maria Dahvana Headley, the author of "The Mere Wife," thank you so much for joining us.
HEADLEY: Thank you so much for having me. This was lots of fun.