Manuscript Discovery: Grendel’s Mother and My Mother

From the Table of Contents. Note how Joan has written “Hrunting” here.

I was flipping through the pages of my mother’s book from when she was a high school student in Chicago in the 1930s. I had held World Literature (edited by E. A. Cross, also 1935) numerous times. I opened it to gaze within, seeing her inscription: “Joan Wehlen October 26, 1938 U-High.” In the Table of Contents, she had transcribed this famous quote from Anatole France: “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.” Coming from a family with socialist leanings in the wake of the Depression, this sentiment must have resonated. She also had transcribed the word “Hrunting”–the name of the sword loaned to Beowulf by Unferth.

I found the version of Beowulf she had been taught–only an excerpt in prose, but what thrilling passages. Here it is for all to read from the 1904 translation of Clarence G. Child (Houghton Mifflin) as reprinted in World Literature (edited by E. A. Cross, also 1935).

Note how Mom inscribed on the title page: “Social conditions of Greek drama” and wrote the name “Joyce” (James?) twice.

Grendel’s Stepmother

I love Grendel’s Mother. I even wrote a novel from her perspective. But this short piece from The New Yorker imagines Grendel’s Stepmother. It’s silly and funny–and good to know Beowulf is still exciting people’s imaginations!

A viking figurine from Bornholm, Denmark, with the typical circular motifs found in silk fabric from Central Asia. Similar patterns were found in the graves in Sweden. Credit Annika Larsson

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.