With the exception of John Gardner's Grendel, I now have a new favorite re-telling of the Beowulf story. Ashley Crownover's Wealtheow: Her Telling of Beowulf avoids the pitfalls of the women's-retelling subgenre, and enriches the Beowulf mythos in ways that writers have failed to do since Gardner.
I was prepared to hate this book. The problem of great writers like John Gardner is that they make it seem so easy. Here, the writer thinks, I'll just take this great story, slap a new point-of-view on it, and I'll be edgy and praised for my social commentary. Uh, no, it's not that easy. Gardner fills his story with philosophical richness that cannot be conveyed merely by changing perspectives. So many "re-tellings of" are a medium in search of a message -- such as Michael Cricton's Eaters of the Dead (aka The Thirteenth Warrior) which has its genesis in the challenge of making Beowulf non-fantastical.
That was, however, only a minor reason. For a debut novel, I could forgive an amateurish "re-telling of" approach. My major concern was over the treatment of Wealtheow. I teach Beowulf at least once per semester; this semester, for example, I've taught it three times. Students' view of Wealtheow is uniform: she's a pathetic little meadhall wife, bringing brewskis when her husband's carousing friends when they pop in unannounced. They dismiss her with the same smug condescension this culture dismisses June Cleaver. The only admirable woman in this perspective is Grendel's Mother, who has been libeled by centuries of evil Christian scribes.
Crownover, however, recognizes what nearly every student fails to see -- that Wealtheow in the meadhall isn't the serving wench, she is wielding power in ways men are not permitted. The role of the Peaceweaver is depicted as it most likely was, an active role of diplomacy and power, not merely a passive role of submission and sexual servitude, wherein the daughter of a king is reduced to a broodmare.
By teasing out the power of Wealtheow, Crownover manages to make a book about the women of Beowulf without falling into cliche. The men are not diminished, nor are they transformed into villains. Instead of cutting the men down to size, Crownover elevates Wealtheow and the women to the level the original audience probably understood them to be at.
Nor does Crownover shy away from exploring the evil of Grendel's Mother. Too many "women's re-tellings" are afraid to depict women in shadow. Through Grendel's Mother, we see ways in which women like Wealtheow and those around her, with good intentions, could slide into evil. Crownover sees these two females (one hesitates to say "women") as two paths open to leaders and mothers.
Wealtheow: Her Telling of Beowulf is surprisingly good for a debut novel. I recommend it.