Before ‘fake news’, there was ‘Beowulf’s sandwich’. A reconstruction of a comic sketch from 1909.
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.
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.
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.
That was a good day.
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.
Most amusing was our conversation about Rubens’ Leda and the Swan.
The closer you look, the more it strikes the viewer as a tad…kinky. We were very giggly.
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!
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!
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!
wer-genga, m.n: a stranger who seeks protection in the land to which he has come. [WAIR-yen-ga]
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.
For a bonus question on their exam, my students used their artistic talents to draw their own rendition of Grendel’s mother from the Old English poem Beowulf.
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.
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.
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?
I love what happens in the classroom. Just before the end of our penultimate day discussing Beowulf, one of my students burst out, “How is a brown girl like me supposed to identify with Beowulf?”
The next class we discussed issues of diversity and how we can use them to explore Beowulf and Anglo-Saxon culture. I shared with my students all sorts of material, including about Jorge Luis Borges, the brilliant Argentinian author who read, wrote about, and translated Old English literature. I shared an undergraduate honors student’s thesis written for me in 2004 called “Jorge Luis Borges: Nazi critic / by Andrew Edward Dunsky. We explored The Public Medievalist, a blog site devoted to defending medieval studies from white supremacist racist rhetoric.
Most importantly, I opened a page to my blog on Grendel’s Mother. This particular entry, called “Old English is Mine!”: Diversity and Old English, includes a poem by Nahir I. Otaño Gracia, the medievalist. She writes about how just because she is from Puerto Rico, she has “as much right to” Old English as anyone else.
I asked my student if she would be willing to read the poem—in both modern English and Spanish– aloud to the entire class. She was willing and sparked the most wonderful class. Later she wrote me, “I just wanted to thank you for showing me the poem in class. It was very empowering for me, and I’m very grateful for that.” Later she fashioned a wonderful final project in which she translated a favorite song in Spanish into Old English. She chose is “La Trenza” by the Chilean artist Mon Laferte. As she writes so eloquently, “Overall, this was a very healing project of me. Being able to reclaim a part of my culture which has been co-opted by hateful groups has allowed me to feel welcome and validated as a student at Texas State. Additionally, merging two very different aspects of my identity has given me the opportunity to understand the value of diversity and inclusion.”
I’m grateful to my student, for opening the minds and hearts of all our students—and me.
And I’m especially grateful to Nahir for sharing this poem that allowed for a moment of grace in the classroom. And here’s the song that inspired my student so much.