But what does the monster want? It’s a modern question to ask of an ancient story. Maria Dahvana Headley’s muscular, bloodthirsty novel is a contemporary retelling of Beowulf from the perspective of Grendel’s mother: nameless in the poem, here she’s called Dana Mills, and her son is Gren. In the Old English original, Grendel is simple malignancy, a grotesque “other” who stalks Heorot Hall and savages its inhabitants; when Beowulf kills him, his mother returns for vengeance. Over 800 years later, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein gave us a monster with not just pathos but psychology; Headley’s story owes as much to the Romantic era as the Anglo-Saxon.
The Mere Wife is clever and often funny, finding ingenious ways to update the Beowulf story, in a way that produces wry social commentary. Roger works “in the city, nipping and tucking, a gardener tidying the edges of labial hedges while Willa’s busy making Dylan into a miniature man”... It uses the poem as a jumping-off point to look at environmental destruction, foreign policy and gender politics. It is a razor-sharp refashioning of Beowulf for our times.
Moreover, “all shall be well” doesn’t feel like a very appropriate tagline for the frightening dystopia that Headley creates in The Mere Wife, a world that feels (as all the best dystopias do) queasily similar to our own. Such redaction, or rather its exposure, is what drives The Mere Wife... She invites us to peel back the glossy cover of a finished book and reveal who it is doing the telling, translating, editing, to consider what traditions they might be building on or glossing over – and why.
As Headley explains in a note on translations at the beginning of her story, the Old English word “aglæca” has been translated as “fighter, warrior, hero”. But add the suffix “wife”—“aglæc-wif” — and the meaning is abruptly transformed into “wretch, monster, hell-bride, hag”. Strip away the make-up of Herot Hall’s wives and mothers and what do you see: “what’s always been there, coarse fur and gaping maws, whipping tails, scales, claws and hunger, and teeth, and teeth, and teeth.” A little boy might look like a feral monster and a woman might look like a gentle helpmeet, but no one is quite what they first seem in this gleaming, glowering, blood-soaked beast of a book.
But the book isn’t based on literary tricks. There’s real heart in The Mere Wife; even in its most shocking, bloody moments, it’s ultimately the moving story of one woman’s desire to protect her child, and of that child’s yearning for connection. With its themes of gentrification, racism, parental love, class displacement and post-traumatic stress disorder, the story of Dana and Gren and Dylan and Willa and Ben is a very 21st-century one. But its roots are coiled deep in the old earth and the dark water, the place that nightmares come from, and dreams too.