An amber bead. A gold and glass drinking horn. A ring engraved with Thor’s hammer – all artifacts from a Germanic tribe that carved a space for itself through brutality and violence on a windswept land .
Brimhild weaves peace and conveys culture to the kingdom, until the secret of her birth threatens to tear apart the fragile political stability. This is her story – the tale of Grendel’s Mother. She is no monster as portrayed in the Old English epic, Beowulf. We learn her side of the story and that of her defamed child. We see the many passages of her life: the brine-baby who floated mysteriously to shore; the hall-queen presiding over the triumphant building of the golden hall Heorot and victim of sexual and political betrayal; the exiled mere-wife, who ekes out a marginal life by an uncanny bog as a healer and contends with the menacing Beowulf; and the seer, who prophesizes what will occur to her adopted people.
We learn how the invasion by brutal men is not a fairy tale, but a disaster doomed to cycle relentlessly through human history. Only the surviving women can sing poignant laments, preserve a glittering culture, and provide hope for the future.
Kirkus Reviews: "An enchanting, poignant reimagining of Beowulf."
REVIEWS & ENDORSEMENTS
Susan Signe Morrison is a Professor of English at Texas State University and writes on topics lurking in the margins of history, ranging from recently uncovered diaries of a teenaged girl in World War II to medieval women pilgrims, excrement in the Middle Ages, and waste. An absolutely fascinating read from beginning to end, "Grendel's Mother: The Saga of the Wyrd-Wife" is her very best work to date and is a deftly crafted novel that it is as entertaining and it is thoughtful and thought-provoking. A unique and impressively written work of extraordinary literary merit, "Grendel's Mother: The Saga of the Wyrd-Wife" is enthusiastically recommended for both community and academic library Literary Fiction collections. For personal reading lists it should be noted that "Grendel's Mother: The Saga of the Wyrd-Wife" is also available in a Kindle edition ($7.19). ~ Midwest Book Review
Synopsis: Brimhild weaves peace and conveys culture to the kingdom, until the secret of her birth threatens to tear apart the fragile political stability. "Grendel's Mother: The Saga of the Wyrd-Wife" is her story – the nordic tale of Grendel's Mother. She is no monster as portrayed in the Old English epic, Beowulf. We learn her side of the story and that of her defamed child. We see the many passages of her life: the brine-baby who floated mysteriously to shore; the hall-queen presiding over the triumphant building of the golden hall Heorot and victim of sexual and political betrayal; the exiled mere-wife, who ekes out a marginal life by an uncanny bog as a healer and contends with the menacing Beowulf; and the seer, who prophesizes what will occur to her adopted people. We learn how the invasion by brutal men is not a fairy tale, but a disaster doomed to cycle relentlessly through human history. Only the surviving women can sing poignant laments, preserve a glittering culture, and provide hope for the future.
Critique: Susan Signe Morrison is a Professor of English at Texas State University and writes on topics lurking in the margins of history, ranging from recently uncovered diaries of a teenaged girl in World War II to medieval women pilgrims, excrement in the Middle Ages, and waste. An absolutely fascinating read from beginning to end, "Grendel's Mother: The Saga of the Wyrd-Wife" is her very best work to date and is a deftly crafted novel that it is as entertaining and it is thoughtful and thought-provoking. A unique and impressively written work of extraordinary literary merit, "Grendel's Mother: The Saga of the Wyrd-Wife" is enthusiastically recommended for both community and academic library Literary Fiction collections. For personal reading lists it should be noted that "Grendel's Mother: The Saga of the Wyrd-Wife" is also available in a Kindle edition ($7.19).
~ Mary Cowper, Midwest Book Review
The epic Beowolf was the earliest tale in the Old English language to pass down to us in manuscript form. It tells the tale of the eponymous Geat hero's adventures in the lands of the Scyldings (~6th Century Denmark), as well as his own native Sweden. Of course, the legend has many fantastic aspects, involving the conquest of monsters and dragons. Such a slant was made the most of in the 2007 screen adaptation of the epic poem, which starred Angelina Jolie as Grendel's Mother. The monster Grendel was depicted in 'Lord of the Rings' fashion. I say this to underline the difference between the movie and this novel which Susan Signe Morrison has crafted so beautifully and skilfully, using the original epic poem as ample source material. Although the essential 'sword and sorcery' devices remain (and are, in many respects, vastly improved upon in her new novel), her approach to understanding the tale is woven into the history, culture and drama of the times. The result is a gritty, no-holds-barred epic in its own right which retains some historical impact.
The author presents the guts and horrors of the time (much raping and pillaging) in a frank, open way, providing the reader with a compelling account of life in Danish society during the Dark Ages. Living conditions were basic, and human life was cheap. There was no room for sentimentality in those times of hardship. The Germanic Danish tribes survived purely through bloody conquest of each other, and any other fledgling society within unfortunate reach of their longboats. But the bloodlust created a never-ending cycle of destruction. It is that corruption which concentrates the mind of the author in trying to understand the origins and motivations of the central characters of the original epic.
Her inspired interpretation provides a background tale which satisfies the modern mind's need to delve into what Beowolf might actually have been about. Generations of oral rendition inevitably heaped layers of mystery upon the tale over time, and the author does a wonderful job of unpicking the mythical aspects of the narrative to deliver a powerfully human novel.
So who was Grendel's Mother? Known more simply as Brimhild in this novel, the protagonist first arrives on Danish shores literally in a Moses basket, washed up onto a beach within the realm of King Hrothgar of the Scyldings. Fate lends a hand to ensure the survival and nurturing of this foreign infant, as well as her eventual integration into the Danish King's court, such that it is. Learning fast, Brimhild represents an integration between the old ways of the Scyldings and other Scandinavian/Germanic tribes, and the coming revolution of early Christianity as it spread inexorably across the European continent in the wake of the slow demise of Rome:
"The best way is both ways, the strength of the past embracing the mercy of the future." (p193)
Brimhild gains much influence in her adopted society, largely through her pragmatic knowledge of the 'old ways'. The author interweaves tales and lore of the ancient gods and heroes of Scandinavia into her story, reflecting the broad knowledge of the old gods understood and skilfully used by Brimhild, as well as their central importance to the social fabric of the society - which enjoys a short golden age. Brimhild is also learned in the more obscure medical practices of the time, whose peculiarities are described luxuriously throughout the novel. Many a witch's recipe is laid out, like a bizarre cookery book. This skill of 'leechdom' becomes increasingly important for Brimhild's survival as her life, and that of her son Grendel, are suddenly plunged into crisis when her past returns to haunt her. Betrayal and death follow, causing the kingdom to slide into crisis, and bringing forth the anti-hero Beowolf to clean the mess up on the politically-paralysed Hrothgar's behalf. Beowolf and his band of thugs hunts down both outcasts in the watery mere, with mixed success.
This stirring reinterpretation is a 'creative response' to the ancient Old English epic, and makes much sense of the underlying mystery of the original poem. Susan Morrison takes the story further, interlacing the epic with historical events in 5th Century Western Europe. The author is an American professor of English, and has a passion for the languages of Old English and Old Norse. Her elegant prose reflects elements of these languages, including its rhythm, whilst remaining accessible to the modern reader. Many beautiful poems break up the text; often songs privately sung from one character to another, or set pieces provided to the court by bards, or 'scops'. Throughout, well-considered allusions to the deeds of the deities and heroes of one mythos or another provide further colour and focus, in keeping with the original epic (pp207-8). A helpful glossary and index of proper names provided easy reference to pick through these often unfamiliar tales.
Perhaps what is most striking is the utter brutality of the era, often brazen and purposeful. I have pondered before how the old societies were driven by alcohol-fuelled binges of violence. Water was usually unsafe to drink, and alcoholic beverages - ale, wine, mead - were thus part of the staple diet, even from a young age. There were inevitable consequences to this. Morrison's portrayal of court life in the Dark Ages reflects the drunken reality, where the mead-fuelled warriors held sway over all; Alpha-male drunks with no lawful restraints to concern themselves with. The women inevitably suffered the consequences, time after time. It is perhaps no surprise that they would be more sympathetic to a new, softer religion than their dominant, brutal men-folk.
To reinforce this inherent brutalism, the author does not shy away from graphic descriptions of the violence (both physical and sexual), nor from some very base language to underscore the drama. In comparison, the movie version of Beowolf appears sanitised, lacking the crude savagery contained within this new novel. It's surprising, in a way: an English Prof. doing 'Conan the Barbarian'. But it works really well, transporting the reader into the Dark Age world of magic, mystery, pagan rites, human sacrifice, incest, ancient earth medicine and some unorthodox sexual appetites. I expect that this particular author has not used this kind of material simply for effect, or to scandalise the work. Instead, she has tried to paint a picture (more sew a tapestry, I suppose) of how life in those times was experienced, particularly from the woman's point of view.
I fear that the book's rather academic-looking cover may misguide the prospective reader, presenting a work that appears more formal and dry than is actually the case. In fact, so dramatic is the storyline that I wondered how this reinterpretation might present as a film - after all, the ideas explored are gripping enough - but concluded that the subject matter was too coarse for Hollywood tastes. The frequent dishonouring of women here is simply too sustained to be acceptable in that format, even if implied. But as a novel it provides a powerful lesson in morality, and a contextual understanding of how Christianity - a self-evidently foreign religion - was able to take root so successfully throughout Western Europe. Simply put, people were getting sick and tired of the relentless raping and pillaging and its sorrowful aftermath, and sought a new way. In exchange, they put up with the slow relinquishment of the old ways, the building over of their sacred groves by the mausoleum keepers of Christ.
I really enjoyed reading this multi-layered work of historical fiction, and learned much about what we might refer loosely to 'Viking culture', or more accurately the earlier Danish Anglo-Saxon/Frisian/Jute raiders. I was also invited to consider a valuable modern conceptualisation about how an epic like Beowolf may have been fashioned out of real events. Susan Morrison is a masterful guide through this Dark Age epic, as well as being an accomplished story-weaver of passion and tragedy. ~ Andy Lloyd, Andy Lloyd Book Reviews
Morrison’s historical novel explores the legend of Beowulf.
On the shore of the land of the Scyldings arrives a baby found in a boat of foreign make, swaddled in salt-encrusted blankets and accompanied only by a silver spoon, an illuminated book, and a piece of gold jewelry. The foundling is taken in by a local fisherman and his wife, who name her Brimhild. The young king, Hrothgar, sanctions the adoption, though the king’s mother is sure that the alien girl will bring only misfortune to the land. From a local “mere-woman” Brimhild learns the lore of the land and its magic. From a traveling Irish monk she learns of a religion that worships a pitiable, gentle god. Brimhild grows to adulthood, rising to a place of prominence among her new people: she becomes the wife of Hrothgar and oversees the construction of Heorot, an immense hall that becomes the pride of the Scyldings. She bears the king a son, Grendel, a sensitive child she raises secretly in the faith of Christ. Yet Brimhild sits at a crossroads between old ideas and new ones, and the truth of her origins threatens her placement at the head of her adopted tribe. Her betrayal and fall from grace give birth to a new set of stories, one in which she and her son are defamed for all time. Morrison writes in alliterative, lyric prose that evokes the Old English of her source text: “There she saw the soft seaweed, barnacled bed, of a marine monster. Leaving her work, approaching with caution, she listened for linnets along the lime lane.” An incredible world is spun out of blunt, staccato words: a world of customs and objects, of heroes and faiths, and, of course, monsters. Morrison manages to update the medieval morality of the original poem while preserving its mournful sense of the old ways passing away.
An enchanting, poignant reimagining of Beowulf.
https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/susan-signe-morrison/grendels-mother/ ~ Kirkus Reviews, Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1st, 2015
I just found out great news: Grendel's Mother has been shortlisted for the 2014-2015 Sarton Literary Award for Historical Fiction.
~ Story Circle, http://www.storycircle.org/SartonLiteraryAward/pressrelease_2016.shtml
In Grendel's Mother: The Saga of the Wyrd-Wife, Susan Morrison has given us the story behind the Old English saga of Beowulf, an epic hero who saves his people from the monster Grendel and, later, from Grendel's mother. But in Morrison's telling—a powerful extension of the story and a deep and compelling glimpse into the culture that produced it—Grendel is a tragic hero and his mother a real and fascinating woman. Morrison names her Brimhild and portrays her throughout her life: the mysterious child who appears on the shore in a cradle-boat; the noble wife and exalted hall-queen of the Scylding king Hrothgar; the target of political intrigue and duplicity; and a banished healer and seer who is both eagerly sought-after and desperately feared, a witness to the destructive violence around her and to come.
A medieval scholar with an impressive command of her material, Morrison embellishes this powerful narrative of a medieval woman's rise and fall and with threads of Celtic and Germanic legend and myth—herbal medicines, mysterious charms, riddles, poetry, and lore—and sets it all within the context of overwhelming political and cultural change. Her richly evocative prose echoes the poetic structure of Old English alliterative verse. From the "Prologue," depicting Brimhild's arrival:
Long after the frost ogres fought with the gods, before Rome was sacked, when our ancestors, the northmen, pillaged in their longships and plied the whale's path, a woven basket floated on the salt-rimed sea. The basket, woven wave-rider, rocked with the flood, moon messenger. Foamy white peaks washed the suckling to the shore, sandy beach haven. Salt-encrusted, the maiden slept, skin sun-tattered scarlet. Breathing in land wind, the girl-lady stirred, sensing the end of the flood, womb sheltered. That was an innocent child.
I wish I'd had Morrison's novel when I was teaching Beowulf; my students would have had a much stronger sense of the real-life struggles that lay behind and created the mythic poem. Those who don't know the poem will appreciate Morrison's work on other levels, for Grendel's Mother tells a universal story of heroic dimensions through the eyes of a woman who sees and understands and deeply feels everything that happens. It is a rare glimpse into a world that is both profoundly alien and surprisingly, wrenchingly, our own. ~ Susan Wittig Albert, http://www.storycirclebookreviews.org/reviews/grendelsmother.shtml
Words on Wings Book Award for young adult fiction, a Literary Classics Top Honors Award 2016. http://www.clcawards.org/2016_Award_Books.html
Finalist for the 2014-2015 Sarton Literary Award for Historical Fiction
Finalist: Foreward Reviews' 2015 Indiefab Book of the Year Award: Historical (Adult Fiction) ~
In Grendel’s Mother: the Saga of the Wyrd-Wife, an emotionally rich retelling of Beowulf, Susan Signe Morrison reveals the tragically human monsters obscured by the heroic bravado of the original poem. Only a scholar and poet steeped in Anglo-Saxon literature and culture could conceive of such a lyrical extension of the poem from the perspective of the women in the mead hall. Reading it opened the poem to me as never before. What a gift! Grendel’s Mother is sure to become an integral part of every class on Beowulf. ~ Candace Robb, author of the Owen Archer Mystery Series and, as Emma Campion, A Triple Knot
This fascinating narrative is to readers today what John Gardner’s Grendel was to readers of the 1970s. Grendel’s Mother gives extra pleasure to lovers of medieval culture, since Morrison has enriched her novel with numerous treasure pieces taken from the earliest literatures of northern Europe. Poignant and yet exhilarating, Morrison’s story surrounding the women of Beowulf has a universal appeal that will keep readers captivated from beginning to end. ~ Haruko Momma, Professor of English, New York University, author of The Composition of Old English Poetry
Finally, a creator in the long afterlife of Beowulf who puts Grendel's Mother at the centre of our consideration--just exactly where she belongs! And what a figure of knowledge, cultural intersection, power, and pain. Morrison's evocative text not only recreates and restructures the tales underlying Beowulf, but also weaves in a whole host of Germanic and Celtic material, including Norse tales and poems, medical recipes, charms, and riddles. She tells a realistic story of cultural and political intersections, with the focus on the woman at its core: a baptized Christian child, servant in a hall, a pagan queen, a wise woman, a bereft mother, an angel of death, a poet, a true leader and thinker. ~ M. J. Toswell, Professor of English, University of Western Ontario
Grendel’s mother of Beowulf is one of the most fascinating monsters in world literature, and she finds new life in Susan Morrison’s fascinating narrative of love, strife, and sorrow in the age of the Scyldings. Drawing upon her own deep knowledge of ancient and medieval history, Morrison reconstructs a Norse world in vivid detail, creating scenes and characters for whom the great whale road, Valkyries, and earthy magic are terrifyingly real. Morrison’s revisionary novel complicates traditional notions of heroism and villainy, evoking an eldritch, feminine power every bit the equal of the brazen warrior’s might. Teratophiles, rejoice! With Grendel’s Mother, Morrison has given us a “monstrous” woman worthy of our fear, our respect, and our love. ~ Robert T. Tally Jr., Texas State University, author of Poe and the Subversion of American Literature: Satire, Fantasy, Critique, CHOICE Outstanding Academic Title 2014
Since the era of Wagner, we have seen great public interest in Old English narratives like "Beowulf" and in Old Norse narratives like "The Saga of the Volsungs." Unfortunately, popularized versions of these tales based on translations often perpetuate unfounded assumptions about what the past must have been like. More informative –– and more enduringly popular –– have been retellings by authors like Poul Anderson and J. R. R. Tolkien, literary artists who know the old tales in their original languages. Morrison has a scholar's command of "Beowulf." Like Anderson and Tolkien, she has hit on a method that brings ancient times to life more effectively than direct translation, which entangles the reader at once in doubts and difficulties. The most authentic recreations of early Northwest Europe weave material from many sources into an original plot. We may not understand everything that happens in "Beowulf," but Morrison incorporates material from related songs and sagas to create a compelling story with the special appeal of a window on the past. ~ Geoffrey Russom, Professor Emeritus of English and Medieval Studies, Brown University