Scholarly Analysis of “Grendel’s Mother: The Saga of the Wyrd-Wife”

Jolene Witkam’s MA Thesis in Philology from Leiden University

It is so interesting when one’s own novel becomes fodder for literary scholars to analyze. As a literary scholar myself, it is really fun to read. For example, I came across an MA thesis which analyzes Grendel’s Mother: Jolene Witkam’s MA Thesis in Philology from Leiden University. One of her advisors is none other than Dr. M. H. Porck, whose blog on Early English material and Old English is fantastic. Then there is Kathleen Forni’s Beowulf’s Popular Afterlife in Literature, Comic Books, and Film (Routledge, 2018). Forni calls my novel “a realistic and lyrically poetic version of a story….As Morrison’s elegant retelling attests, high art can also embody the experiences of the marginalized.” I’m delighted academics are able to take this novel and read it from theoretical and linguistic perspectives. I’m looking forward to seeing more in the future! Let me know if you come across any other such works.

Tolkien as “gateway drug”? And the winner is….

Photo by Cheyenne Johnston Ashton. The fateful tally…..

Whose the winner in a comparative translation exercise? My students had to argue for the best of four translations of Beowulf: Heaney, Bradley, Tolkien, or Liuzza. The students had excellent arguments for and against the various translators, all of whom had compelling artistic visions.

Many aspects were considered. What would be the best teaching text? What would draw the most diverse set of readers in? Should one strive for accuracy and authenticity or passion? My student Jessica writes that the translator needs to decide if the work to be translated should be a relic or a living art piece. Tolkien, Tyler points out, wrote in an archaic style, but the actual Beowulf poet was writing in a contemporary way for his audience. Thus, the translator of Beowulf today should do the same. The reader should be, according to Gaje, transported to the world of the poem.

Stephen argues that the “best translations are the ones that resonate with the translator. When the translator takes the story and recreates it; when the story is melted down and reforged to be true for the translator.” Tolkien’s love of Old English shines through.

One of my students, Rachel, wrote “Tolkien’s translation acts much like a gateway drug to obsession with Old English, easy and compelling to a point that hooks one and leaves them craving more.”

Jeremy suggests, “If the Liuzza translation is a classic Old English ale, the Heaney translation is a glass of finely balanced mead.” Skol!

And one of my grad students, Zach, is working on a translation for English language learners. His work is spectacular. I can’t wait to see what happens with that.

In the end, Liuzza won! But it was neck-and-neck until the last student’s presentation. Jeremy broke the tie in a wild finish!

One student–Lauren–chose her own translation. You go, girlfriend!

Photo by Joshua Gonzalez–who also lent me the first season of The Vikings

And while comparative translation may seem dry and dusty, several students claimed it was their favorite activity in the semester. One wrote, “I’m thankful to say that Old English literature helped me to translate my self from someone in a bad place to a happy and carefree person. Much like Tolkien’s translation of Beowulf, I’m looking to be a whimsical and adventurous individual….Texts and people are like little caterpillars that, with preparation and motivation, can turn into beautiful butterflies.”

Perfectly said!

Father Christmas and Tolkien

Tolkien loved to write letters from Father Christmas to his children. The Great Polar Bear is Father Christmas’s companion–who periodically causes merry havoc. As Elizabeth Hand writes in this article from The Washington Post,

As the years pass, Father Christmas takes note of the darkening world beyond the North Pole, as when he writes to 10-year-old Priscilla in 1939: “I am very busy and things are very difficult this year owing to this horrible war. Many of my messengers have never come back . . . Polar Bear has hardly done anything to help.” (“ROT!” Polar Bear retorts.)

You may wish to make these letters, Letters from Father Christmas, part of your Christmas tradition!

Correspondence from “Letters From Father Christmas, Centenary Edition” by J.R.R. Tolkien. (Copyright © The Tolkien Estate Limited and The Tolkien Trust. Provided by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books and Media.)

Tolkien and C. S. Lewis: Fantasy’s Global Influence

I highly recommend this article by Maria Sachiko Cecire in Aeon: “Empire of fantasy.” As the description suggests, Tolkien and Lewis’s influence extends to today. “By conquering young minds, the writing of J R R Tolkien and C S Lewis worked to recapture a world that was swiftly ebbing away.” Addressing issues as wide-ranging as Oxford education and racist appropriation of medieval symbols, Cecire is thought-provoking about important issues.


“Tolkien and Lewis identified salvation in the authentic, childlike enjoyment of adventure and fairy stories, especially ones set in medieval lands. And so, armed with the unlikely weapons of medievalism and childhood, they waged a campaign that hinged on spreading the fantastic in both popular and scholarly spheres. Improbably, they were extraordinarily successful in leaving far-reaching marks on the global imagination by launching an alternative strand of writing that first circulated amongst child readers.”



The article was adapted from material published in Re-Enchanted: The Rise of Children’s Fantasy Literature in the Twentieth Century (2019) by Maria Sachiko Cecire.


My Amazing Students…Yet Again!

Emily Sawyer with her amazing artwork.

My students never fail to amaze, astound, and astonish me. Whether it was a poem fashioned with alliteration and pathos or a gaffaw-inducing Leechbook for college students, my students are valiant thegns and wise warriors.



They made art, such as the painstaking embroidery that portrays the dragon, Beowulf, Grendel’s Mother, and Grendel’s arm, as Claire did.

Emma and her collage depicting good versus evil.

Emma made a collage dividing good and evil. Kyle made us roar with laughter with his “newspaper,” The Heorot Herald. It included tidbits on how to stop Grendel’s arm from rotting in the rafters and also a “Missed Connection” for Unferth, who promised to be reading Pride and Prejudice! A parody requires the writer to understand the original perfectly and is a lot of work–even if the result is to die for!

Kyle and his hysterical “newspaper,” The Heorot Herald.

Kandi and her astounding calligraphy of a beautiful, well-researched story. Her brother hand-sewed the book and its his leatherwork!!!!

Kandi fashioned a book with her own calligraphy and story, interlacing The Wife’s Lament with her own story inspired by historical characters. I think it should be a novel or series. And her brother made the leather-bound book with vellum. Truly mind-blowing!




I’m so grateful to my class for creatively showing how Old English material can be refashioned for today’s world. James made a D & D Beowulf style that was jaw-dropping in its intricate detail.


Old English Risotto and Grendel’s Dinner for One

The head peaceweaver, Rachel

Old English Risotto and Grendel’s Dinner for One? Such is the daily fare of the humble Old English professor.

My student, Rachel, wove a space of peace at the beginning of class in our “meadhall”. She served lamb cooked in berries, whole wheat pancakes (barley was not available), and fresh berries.

Rachel poured mead (well, apple juice) into our cups as she urged us to make boasts. I got a “gold” ring for boasting that I would do my grading.

A golden ring for my boasting to finish grading

Here is a video of how Rachel made her food. With ambient medieval music!

Lauren barley pearls (Old English risotto!)

Lauren made an Old English risotto out of barley pearls and bacon. You can use bacon bits just like in the pre-Conquest period 😉






Stephen is a wood burner who created this gorgeous linden wood plaque commemorating Grendel’s arm.

Cheyenne’s amazing artwork depicting my favorite scene from Grendel’s Mother!

Cheyenne created this lovely work inspired by Grendel’s Mother. The scene is when Brimhild conquers Beowulf with her menstrual blood.

And Alisa made an Old English cookbook, replete with snacks for Grendel 😉

Grendel’s Dinner for One: Drunken Men with a Side of Rage


  • Two intoxicated warriors, fermented overnight
  • 3 cups of fresh blood
  • 20 fingers, chopped
  • 4 arms, filleted
  • 4 legs, boiled


  • Literally swallow all of it in one bite.
  • Enjoy!

Sounds yummy to me!

Jessica’s poster pays tribute to two powerful virgins–Beowulf and Judith.

While Josh made coats of arms for the Danes and Geats. As he writes, “As Tolkien had done with words, I endeavored to do with art.” Great idea!

One student had us play of play of fate or wyrd. I hope you don’t get “A dragon attacks your kingdom.” You might “feel, forever to be known as a coward.”

Another student made sculptures of the dragon and Beowulf in a helmet.

The dragon is pretty cute!

One favorite was devoted to Old English Film Loglines. I want to see Judith Unchained!

Other works cannot be shown, but include a Bruce Lee version of the fighting virgin, Juliana; the story from Beowulf’s point of view in a Lovecraftian homage; and a Blaxploitation version with Heorot as a brothel called The Bone House.

While I miss the doughty thegns and peaceweavers of my class from last year, I currently have some wonderful new ones this semester! I can’t wait to see what they come up with.

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.