Grendel’s Mother in Fascist Italy: “Beowulf” in a Catholic Youth Publication

Cover of the 1950 Italian reprint of the original.

I’m delighted that my article “Grendel’s Mother in Fascist Italy: Beowulf in a Catholic Youth Publication,” has just been published in the International Journal of Comic Art. This essay focuses on a 1940-41 Italian comic book version by Enrico Basari (author) and Kurt Caesar (illustrator). An anti-semitic portrayal of Grendel’s Mother grows out of German views of Beowulf in the 1930s.



Cover of the 1955 Brazilian Portuguese translation.

The anti-semitic overtones present in German Beowulf youth translations and adaptations sympathetic to Nazi German propaganda, produced in the decade before and simultaneously with the publication of the comic under scrutiny here, likewise crop up under the Italian fascist reign. The fraught nature of Grendel’s Mother takes on insidious dimensions in Enrico Basari’s Beowulf. Leggenda cristiana dell’antica Danimarca, appearing in serial form from Oct. 5, 1940-Jan. 25, 1941.

It was featured in Il Vittorioso, a Catholic youth publication, “a nationalist publication often distributed through Catholic parishes” (Calderón, 2007:112), that attempted to go beyond mere Fascist propaganda for young people. Just how could an anti-semitic inflected Beowulf comic have affected youth readers?

Read the full article here: Morrison IJOCA Grendel’s Mother in Fascist Italy.

Full Citation of article

Susan Signe Morrison. “Grendel’s Mother in Fascist Italy: Beowulf in a Catholic Youth Publication.”International Journal of Comic Art (IJOCA) 20.1 (2018): 331-348.

The history of Beowulf’s sandwich: A sketch about ‘fake news’ from 1909 — Dutch Anglo-Saxonist

Imagine what Grendel’s sandwich would consist of!

Before ‘fake news’, there was ‘Beowulf’s sandwich’. A reconstruction of a comic sketch from 1909.

via The history of Beowulf’s sandwich: A sketch about ‘fake news’ from 1909 — Dutch Anglo-Saxonist

FaceTiming from the Anglo-Saxon Period

My and my partner in crime, Lorraine Stock

When Dr. Lorraine Stock, Professor of English at the University of Houston, invited me to come speak about my novel, Grendel’s Mother: The Saga of the Wyrd-Wife, I was thrilled. She wanted me to engage with her students who were reading Beowulf and Beowulf adaptations. I gave a lecture entitled: “Grendel’s Mother: How Silenced Women Speak Through Historical Fiction.”


Additionally, I attended her class to answer their questions (and sign their books!). But things don’t always go the way you expect them to.

Sadie Hash, intrepid graduate student and cool-as-a-cucumber driver as I FaceTime with Lorraine’s class

Intrepid University of Houston grad student Sadie Hash scooped me up after my much delayed (4 hours) flight. I FaceTimed with Lorraine’s class as Sadie coolly drove to campus, where another student, Travis, whisked me away from curb to classroom to perform live.

Somehow being late was all to the good. The students were a bit intimidated to meet a real live author. But after FaceTiming with me for half an hour as we puzzled over the sound quality of the connection and they got a glimpse of the blue and green streaks in my hair, they relaxed.

Engaging with the audience

Then, Lorraine had fashioned a convivial mead (wine) hall for my lecture with warm and responsive guests. I spoke to undergraduate and graduate students, as well as faculty. It was an utter delight to converse with Anglo-Saxonist John McNamara, whose 2005 translation of Beowulf is a Barnes and Noble Classic.

We listened to Sarah McSweeney’s poignant rendition of Helga’s Song from my book.

In a wonderful surprise, a dear friend, Sabrina Martinez, was able to attend my talk.

A great surprise! My friend from Swarthmore College Alumni Council (now she’s on the Board!), Sabrina Martinez. It was a thrill she could attend and we could chit-chat late into the night

That was a good day.

Moses before the Burning Bush by Raphael

The next afternoon, after having a delightful time filming an interview with Lorraine  and conversing with faculty and students, Lorraine, Sadie, and I made it to one of my favorite museums: the Museum of Fine Arts Houston.

Studies of Feet by Bartolomeo Passarotti

Most amusing was our conversation about Rubens’ Leda and the Swan.

Leda and the Swan by Rubens

The closer you look, the more it strikes the viewer as a tad…kinky. We were very giggly.

Leda and the Swan by Rubens, close up.

Art–whether written or visual or musical–continues to inspire, bringing us together in convivial spaces of exchange and dynamic warmth. Thanks to Lorraine and her students for fostering such a delightful climate and partnership!

“I Love My School” in Runic Letters…and Harry Potter’s Scar

I love my school, writes one 4th grader. Nothing unusual in that. Except she writes it…in runes!!!

How do kids learn to write runic letters? Through the wonderful Young Writers’ Workshop that takes place every year at Travis Heights Elementary School. Not only do I love this school because my own kids had been pupils there, but because it continues to be an active part of my life. These 3rd-5th graders have the opportunity to work with writers from all fields–playwrights, business/tech writers, songwriters…and medievalists!

Pupils writing imaginative and fanciful tales.

The other thing I learned today: one pupil was looking at the runic alphabet and we were discussing how “Z” is really complicated. But “S,” I said, “looks like a lighting bolt.” The pupil said, “It looks like Harry Potter’s scar!” All these years, and I never made that connection before: his scar DOES look like the runic S.

I hope I can keep learning from these amazing kids. One added treat: I was in the room with the wonderful 3rd grade teacher — who happens to be the mom of my son’s dear friend. Happy day!

Using runes as models


Haunting Word from Old English

wer-genga, m.n: a stranger who seeks protection in the land to which he has come. [WAIR-yen-ga]

via wer-genga — Old English Wordhord

Old English Wordhord sends a daily word. Somehow, wer-genga tantalizes. Aren’t we all strangers seeking protection at some point in our lives? Let’s show compassion to our fellow strangers, making us compatriots with everyone.

God Jul! My Ancestors Crafted Beowulf’s Armor…and other lessons from the classroom

My grandfather, Werner Wehlen, in his 80s.

God Jul!  My ancestors crafted Beowulf’s armor. Ok, maybe it’s a stretch. Earlier this semester, one of my students blurted out, “That means your great-grandparents made Beowulf’s armor!” I’d like to explore the  justification for this suggestion on this day, in memory of what would have been my mother Joan’s 95th birthday.

Her father, my grandfather Werner–who called himself a Viking–was born in the 19th century in Sundsvall, Sweden. He grew up on a farm where tomtens knotted the horses’ tails every night. The milk Werner left out was always drunk by them. So he maintained.


His little footprints in the snow….

This old Swede, as I knew him, said he was descended from Weland or Wayland the Smithy, the smith god in the Norse and Germanic mythological panoply. After all, his last name was Wehlen, though my Swedish cousins spell it Welin. So when Beowulf talks about his armor as “Welandes geweorc” or “the work of Weland” (line 455), that must be my ancestor’s artistry at play–at least according to my student. I like to think that’s true.

Oh! You’ve caught a glimpse of him!

In case you don’t believe in the tomten, see this book by Viktor Rydberg, which features the beautiful paintings of Harald Wiberg. Below is the very copy my second cousin, Barbro, sent to my brothers and me in 1963. I still read it out loud to my children, just as my mother, Joan, did, on a still Christmas Eve. Maybe Weland is listening, too?

The copy sent from Sweden to New Jersey.

The inscription from almost 60 years ago.