Donnita L. Rogers' The Women of Beowulf is far from being a romanticised tale of a Danish princess in the world of Grendels. It is a mesmerising novel that animates the old Scandinavian world of reality and superstition. The first two Books, Faces in the Fire and Fanning the Flames, cover the three heroic feats in the epic - Beowulf's killing of the Grendel monster and his dam, and his final meeting with death in the face of the dragon.
What lies within this simple storyline is a beautiful recreation of the splendour of mead halls, the mundane life of chieftains and slaves, warriors and women, alongside the reality of raid, loss, grief, and triumph. The author zooms in on Beowulf, probing into the person of the invincible warrior in all his human needs and wants. Sagas, history, and imagination interweave into the fine texture of the story - everything within measure, everything with finesse.
The novel strikes as a literary embroidery, a tapestry of the golden age of bards, Beowulf, brutality, and beauty. The author sculpts dozens of characters throughout the novel and keeps up with each life in fascinating detail. The books are noisy with indelible personalities as much as events - most vividly, Queen Wealtheow of the Danes, the cuddly and kind nurse Willa, the gentle scop Aelric, the mysterious rune-master Unferth, the little sparrow-girl Gerda, and the heroine of the story, seeress Freawaru, who bears the mark of Freyja. Exposed before us, in between the Viking raids, is the beauty of love and devotion, the pangs of old age, the bliss of married couples, the spirituality of the moon and the stone circles, the adventures of gods. Above all, Rogers depicts a woman's world, as rich and unique as any, set in the far away past of the old religion.
The last Book, Cloak of Ashes, goes beyond the plot of Beowulf and is even better than the first two. From the stern rocky cliffs of Sweden we are taken through the fjords of Norway and back to the gentle flat Danish landscape. But Freawaru's journey does not end in her homeland - in search of her mother, she takes the whale road to Angle-land. Rogers derives the final destination of her story from the impressive treasure hoard found at Sutton Hoo in East Anglia in 1939. From her hut in the rural Helmingham of holy springs and Roman ruins, Freawaru faces her final challenge - to uphold the goddess despite the coming forces her dying mother is warning against.
"I wish I could see the future as clearly as I see the present, but only scattered fragments have come to me - brief glimpses. In one recurring image..." she took a deep breath, "...hooded, dark-robed men advance in waves, crushing women underfoot. These men bear before them wooden talismans - like weapons..."
The author is remarkably unbiased in her portrayal of the coming of Christianity, the clash between the old and new religions, the fear of the future without the goddess. Such raw presentation of the two religious worlds - one with strong matriarchal sentiments while the new one sternly masculine - gives the reader room for thought and insight; the author homes in on spiritual and religious dilemmas that never ceased to vex the humanity. King Raedwald's peaceful temple with two altars - one for the Norse gods, the other for Christ - hints at a possibility and a promise for religious compatibility in the world - something that rings loud bells today.
Thomas the younger was filled with pride as he recited for me a part of the lay his father had already composed.
"That's very good," I said approvingly, then hesitated. "I now realize that I've forgotten to tell you about many things: Beowulf's grandfather, Hrethel, and details about the Swedes..."
"That's alright, my lady," assured Thomas the elder. "I can still include them. My boy will help me listen and remember. Tell us as much as you can in the time remaining."
The Women of Beowulf is one of those special novels which hold on like a hug on the soul.
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