When I started to write The Mere Wife, it was because I’d been thinking about the foundational myths that’ve shaped our messed-up contemporary society. I got interested in the ways that monsters have often been invented wholecloth out of people who are simply disempowered, in order to further agendas both colonialist and sexist.
Beowulf is a story like that. The poem is, on its face, a story about a Good Man confronted with several levels of profound evil he must fight, at considerable risk to himself, in order to save his society. We’re familiar with narratives based on this theme in all kinds of literature, whether the monsters are literal or figurative—from The Odyssey to news accounts of American police officers ‘defending’ white citizens from young black men.
In Beowulf, Grendel and Grendel’s mother are inhabitants of the area where Hrothgar decides to build Heorot Hall, bringing soldiers, drinking, shouting, and what we’d now call gentrification to a wild, strange, and already inhabited place. The history of colonisation has often been aggressively marketed as one of betterment rather than of invasion, and in thinking about the history and future of America, I saw Heorot as a mostly white gated community, an aspirational suburb, encroaching on land that was already the historic land of people of colour.
Many stories about monsters are actually stories about people who have something another person wants. What better way to claim ownership of someone else’s belongings than to declare them inhuman, and yourself a hero? Again, the history of America, and of the world, is riddled with tales that describe similar actions. Declaring thieves and murderers heroic defenders rather than monstrous invaders is a convenient tradition in racist, sexist, and classist societies.
The Mere Wife came out of all of this. I was interested in modernising Beowulf and telling the story from the perspectives of Grendel’s mother and Hrothgar’s wife, who are, in very different ways, victims of a society structured to serve men and money. To my eye, the original poem is a tale of toxic masculinity and violent colonisation, of yearning for power and of lawbreaking by men who consider themselves heroic. It’s a story, as well, of maternal love and rage, of resistance against injustice, and of, ultimately, complicated communities. The Mere Wife is a feminist rendition of the classic story, placing women at its centre—Grendel’s mother, Dana Mills, is a former soldier, an injured veteran of foreign wars, and the soldiers of police officer Ben Woolf’s army are the white matriarchs of suburbia, invested in defending the toxic structures that have supported them. Willa, based on Hrothgar’s wife, Wealhtheow, is a suburban hostess, the keeper of the peace, but within her boils rage at her confinement as a good wife and mother. Dylan, Willa’s son, is a young boy who, in his love for Gren, challenges the structures that have surrounded him. As for Gren, he’s a small child with brown skin—and as we know, in America, that’s long been enough to get someone perceived as a monster.
I wanted to get into the old story and shake it up, making something new with the old ingredients and new context. At present, America has a president loudly declaring himself a hero and everyone else a monster, at every opportunity. I mean, if you’re a hero, in that classical and misunderstood sense, and there are no monsters, who will you fight? Women and children? The poor? The desperate? (Yes, as has been made extremely clear by this moment in American politics.) There’s a reason the vulnerable are being declared monstrous right and left in our world right now, and it is part of a single tradition, one of mythic storytelling. The Mere Wife—and my forthcoming new translation of Beowulf—are my attempts to sort out what the old stories really said about heroes and monsters, and what those stories actually mean to us today. I think they’re as relevant as they ever were, and perhaps even more so.