Wealtheow: Her Telling of Beowulf
Iroquois Press, 2008
I admit that I’m rather jaded against the “feminist revision” of numerous traditional tales. I enjoyed MZB’s Mists of Avalon way back when, but got tired of the “Women are always good” vibe I got after a while (as well as the Avalonian-Goddess-worship-is-historical movement that also rose up in response to the novels). And I continue to see rather awkward, “GIRL POWER!” reworkings of various stories and themes, including in fantasy lit.
Wealtheow manages to avoid the cliched pitfalls while maintaining a unique perspective on the story of Beowulf. The story centers on Hrothgar’s wife, Wealtheow, from the time of their marriage through Grendel’s siege and on into Beowulf’s arrival. Rather than presenting a simpering maiden or a GODDESS! worshipper, Crownover gives us a Wealtheow who is dedicated to her people (both those she grew up among, and those she married into), as well as to the sanctity of the land. Though she shows strength of character, this is no Mary Sue; not everything is perfect for her. And the devastating secret that brings about the creation of Grendel becomes a burden only she can truly carry. And I like how the story doesn’t turn into “Women are always good, men are the bad guys” dualism; Grendel’s mother has a surprising origin in this tale!
This is a very quick read; I finished it in a day, and it would be a good book to take on a plane trip. It’s well-written, though. I had no trouble remembering which character was which, and she manages to tell a relatively short story without using cardboard characters. She weaves the traditional tale of Beowulf with her own embellishments that are believable and blend well with the original. I can’t speak to the historical accuracy, so I can’t guarantee that modern heathens won’t be having similar wincing moments that other pagans had in response to the Avalon books. However, the descriptions of Danish culture and religion didn’t strike me as nearly as fanciful as some other modern revisionist tales, and I found myself thoroughly enjoying the tale rather than groaning in pain from some poorly executed “update” or “improvement”.
Overall, this is a great debut novel, and I very much look forward to more from this author.
Five pawprints out of five