Thursday, June 09, 2011
The Women of Beowulf: Faces in the Fire
Donnita L. Rogers
By Rene Schwiesow
Most of us are familiar with the epic poem “Beowulf.” Many of us read it as part of our literary studies and some of us have analyzed the work, line by line. But few of us have been driven to go beyond the master manuscript, to dive into the lives of the behind-the-scene characters of the work and put them to the page. Donnita Rogers has done just that in her first book of a series, “The Women of Beowulf: Faces in the Fire.”
Roger’s interest in and love for “Beowulf” served her well in her career as a teacher in Texas, where she inspired her students with her innovative style. Her students did not simply read “Beowulf,” they became involved with “Beowulf,” just as Donnita Rogers was. After retiring from her teaching position, Roger’s embarked on a journey designed to offer her research opportunities for her Beowulf series. For five years Rogers committed herself to the study of Viking culture. This time included travel to Scandinavia, where she experienced a trip on the replica of a Viking ship and climbed funeral mounds. Her goal: to understand what life during the Viking Age was like, particularly for the women.
While some might consider “The Women of Beowulf,” a feminist study, one does not have to be a feminist or even a woman to appreciate the story that Rogers weaves. She crafts a fine tale that depicts the strength of character held by the Viking women, but does not discount their vulnerabilities.
Freawaru, the Danish king’s (Hrothgar) daughter is a focal point of the book. We meet her at the young age of 4 and are soon introduced to the fact that she is marked by the Goddess Freyja – she bears a birthmark in the shape of a feather on her shoulder. It is through Freawaru’s eyes that we meet the principle characters of “Beowulf.” We find ourselves entwined with Hrothgar, Aeschere, Unferth, and Beowulf, himself, on a level that takes steps beyond our previous understanding or discovery. Yes, even the menacing Hrothulf is expanded in his unsavory character and personality.
While we watch Freawaru mature into a beautiful, young woman, we are drawn into the struggles of Heorot and into the way those struggles affect its inhabitants. Years pass with nights spent in fear of the Grendel, the Great Hall abandoned each night to avoid further death. The loss of men is astounding; however, life in the kingdom continues during daylight hours, the women of Beowulf creating close-knit relationships within the community. They are the life-givers, the healers. They are keepers of the Sacred and the rituals performed within their circles are designed to guide and protect – from the shearing of their own locks of hair while skyclad, to ritual circles of healing using herbs, to the reading of Runes, these women are a vital part of their community and an often unrecognized strength.
Donnita Rogers has given us a rich look into the Viking Age culture. Those of us who maintain an interest in culture from an historic perspective will appreciate the research that she accomplished and the way in which her knowledge has enriched the story of Beowulf, offering depth through her exploration of the feminine. This reviewer is looking forward to continuing the saga in Donnita Roger’s next book.
Rene Schwiesow is the co-host of the popular South Shore poetry venue: The Art of Words held in Plymouth, MA.