Beyond Beowulf: Maria Dahvana Headley’s The Mere Wife

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In Beowulf, perhaps the best-known epic poem, Beowulf, the hero of the Geats, helps Hrothgar, the king of the Danes, to defeat Grendel, a monster that threatens Heorot, the king’s great hall. Beowulf slays Grendel with his bare hands and then proceeds to slaughter Grendel’s mother with a gigantic sword he discovers in her lair. Victorious, Beowulf moves on with his life unhindered and eventually becomes king of the Geats. Much like Hrothgar before him, Beowulf finds himself fighting a monster. In his case, it’s a dragon. He attacks the creature with the aid of his servants, but they fail to kill it, so Beowulf follows the beast to its lair assisted only by a young relative by the name of Wiglaf. Beowulf defeats the dragon, but he is mortally wounded during the battle.

This classic narrative gets a remake in Maria Dahvana Headley’s new novel, The Mere Wife. Headley’s reconstruction of the tale takes place in Herot Hall, a quiet, clean, safe suburb. The residents of Herot Hall live in mansions surrounded by picket fences, perfect landscaping, and high-tech surveillance equipment. They are comfortable in their excess and rarely have to come into contact with individuals who don’t live in their community, which is entirely self-sustaining. However, the residents are not alone. There are people living clandestinely in and on the mountain that looms over Herot Hall. For Willa, the wife of Roger Herot, whose father founded Herot Hall, life is almost perfect. Her days are filled with opulence, playdates for her son Dylan, cocktails, and parties with their equally affluent neighbors. All of it stands in stark opposition to Gren’s existence. Gren, short for Grendel, lives up in the mountain behind Herot Hall with his mother, Dana, a former soldier suffering from PTSD who cheated death and then gave birth to Gren as if by chance. Gren wasn’t wanted or planned, but he now makes up the epicenter of Dana’s life and protecting him from the evilness that resides beyond the mountain is all Dana does. When Gren ignores the invisible boundaries all around him and ventures into Herot Hall, he almost immediately finds a friend in Dylan. But they come from entirely different worlds, and when they run away together, their mothers, along with the divergent worlds they represent, collide in an explosion of fear, tension, grief, and violence.

More than a modernized retelling of Beowulf, The Mere Wife is the result of a deconstruction of the text that was followed by a reconstruction in which Headley keeps the basic elements and adds many new ones to instill new life into the old narrative. She modernizes the place, gives the characters contemporary problems, and injects the tale with things like war, survival, and even development at the cost of nature in order to make it feel like could be happening now. The modernization allows the novel to resonate with readers without moving away from its source. Themes of safety, Otherness, and violence permeate the novel, and having those subjects revolve around kids in the age of school shootings is just one of the many things the author gets right:

But who’s ever safe? Down below us are the kind of people who walk armed into churches and movie theaters and through libraries, blast fevers into federal buildings, and build bombs out of things they bought cheap at a hardware store. What kind of myth is it, that people like them are keeping the rest of us safe?

Alongside adding new elements, Headley takes the story to a difference place and that allows her to make sharp critiques of things like the lingering obsession with keeping people from diverging socioeconomic backgrounds separate and the idea of “perfect” households where peccadilloes and addictions are constantly swept under the proverbial rug. There are infidelities, secrets, and plenty of lies within the clean, beautiful walls of all the mansions in Herot Hall. The residents think they have built a world away from the world, but while they left poverty and grime behind, they carried with them anxiety, bad habits, inappropriate desires, and dishonesty in their DNA. What they inhabit is something someone else built, and the ground it was built on remembers. In this regard, The Mere Wife almost acts like a horror novel, as there are inescapable things that affect the past, present, and future:

Time passes for lost objects, and it is not time at all. Centuries after a burial, bogs turn up the murdered, and foundations turn up the sacrificed, and beneath this very house, there are a thousand nights ending in tears, the salt of those tears part of the soil now. Not enough to ruin in the possibility of crops, but enough to change things.

Perhaps the most interesting element in The Mere Wife is the positioning of women because it is diametrically opposed to the patriarchal society so evident in Beowulf. In this novel, the women control everything. Sure, some are subservient wives on the surface, but they still mastermind every move. Mothers and wives are also warriors and nurses, decision makers and controllers, keepers of the status quo and rebels, protectors and manipulators, lovers and destroyers:

Willa wonders if her mother has plans for everyone she’s ever met, graphing their futures on some invisible chart. Her mother and women like her are the reason men can live at all, running corporations, announcing wars. Every man has a woman at home, and every woman plots the course of the universe, putting it into his breast pocket, like a note attached to a kindergartner, sending him out into his day.

The Mere Wife is multilayered and nuanced. It can be read as an entertaining reimagining of a classic text, but it can also offer interested readers hours of deep thought while analyzing all its subtexts. For example, there is an almost imperceptible critique of gentrification as what used to be a place for everyone becomes something for those who live in Herot Hall:

The mountain is hollowed by progress: the old tunnel mouths reopened and stabilized with cement, the ceiling tiles replaced so they look like the tale of a sea creature. Dust is moved and marble is polished, and blood stains are bleached.

Likewise, motherhood is constantly contrasted and compared from two very different realities, and the results are for the reader to create.

Ultimately, The Mere Wife goes beyond Beowulf to become a narrative that offers a bold look at American suburbia while exploring the power of women in society. Both tales share some elements: death, fear, a hero in distress, a youngster serving as the only help for someone in need, and a strange period of peace between two life-changing events. However, Headley’s new reimagining touches on things like PTSD, the negative side of overprotecting a child, and the need for friendship and love, all while never straying too far from the women at its epicenter. These new elements, along with the female protagonists, come together to create a story about two mothers who made some mistakes, but who were more or less pushed to those mistakes by the society that killed their trust. The results of their actions are negative, but their strength is praiseworthy. The women are survivors, and that carries the tale further than Beowulf went. Because of this, while the poem it’s inspired by became a staple of epic poetry, this novel is a reimagining of that poem that will undoubtedly claim its own space as a unique, ultraviolent feminist classic.

Gabino Iglesias is a writer, journalist, and book reviewer living in Austin, TX. He is the author of Zero Saints, the book reviews editor for PANK Magazine, and a columnist for LitReactor. You can find him on Twitter at @Gabino_Iglesias. More from this author →