Grendel’s Mother Eats Man, Woman Inherits the Epic: Why Women Should Continue Teaching Beowulf

At a conference I attended earlier this month, a woman medievalist suggested we stop teaching Beowulf. It was during a session on privilege and position in medievalist pedagogy that the presenter proposed we remove Beowulf from our syllabi and replace it with Judith. She prefaced her proposal with a powerful anecdote: in preparation for reading Judith, she warned her students about encountering sexual violence in the poem. She was particularly concerned about one of her students whom she knew had been victimized, but rather than being triggered, the student said that she had felt empowered by the narrative, that Judith’s heroism helped her see her own strength as a survivor.

Judith displays Holofernes’s severed head upon her sword in this depiction from the Nuremberg Chronicle, first published in 1493. The Old English poem, however, dates to approximately 1000 CE; Judith appears after Beowulf in the Nowell Codex, one of four major manuscripts containing Old English literature.

By substituting texts focused on male figures with those centering women’s experience, the presenter argued, we would not only be disrupting a predominantly male medieval canon but also be teaching texts that resonate more with the women in our classes. I agree that Judith deserves a place in our reading lists. But the idea that we should sacrifice Beowulf pains me because it was in the pages of Beowulf that I found myself and decided who I wanted to become.

There are many markers from my adolescence that might have signaled my proclivity for medieval studies. I grew up reading The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings and watching Disney’s Sword in the Stone on repeat. I hoarded anything related to Arthurian legend and collected all the British folklore I could get my hands on. Although my literary preferences tended toward medievalism, my interests were rooted in Medieval England, rather than fantasy. But it wasn’t until I read Beowulf in one of my undergraduate courses that I realized how much I loved medieval literature and wanted to make my way in academia.

I’m a medievalist because I read Beowulf—because it gripped me and pulled me in and has never let me go. So the thought of removing it from my syllabus is, frankly, unfathomable because I remember the way it whispered to me in a language at once ancient and familiar and how it made my heartbeat feel like the echo of drums carried across so much water.

Dated to the late tenth or early eleventh century, Beowulf is the longest epic poem written in Old English. It tells the story of the warrior Beowulf in 3,182 alliterative lines and recounts his battles with Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and the dragon responsible for his demise. The poem survives in a single manuscript known as the Nowell Codex, part of the bound volume Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, which is housed at the British Library in London and opened here to display the poem’s first page.

Setting Beowulf aside to center women with other Medieval English texts implies not only that its female characters are unworthy subjects of study but also that the poem does not or cannot resonate with women. Discarding Beowulf would, I think, do us all a disservice.

The women of Beowulf have long been relegated to the margins, a critical tradition that corroborates the misperception of the poem as both about and for men. Women medievalists, too, have been underrepresented in the adjacent scholarship. Indeed, Beowulf studies suffers from a gender problem in a way that scholarship on other iconic medieval texts does not. Women publish proportionately less on Beowulf than they do on many other texts in the Old English corpus, a disparity that does not appear to correlate with women’s limited representation in the narrative. Even The Battle of Maldon, which includes no female characters whatsoever, generates more published work by women than Beowulf does, relatively speaking. The same is true for The Wanderer, The Seafarer, and The Dream of the Rood. Women are eclipsed by men in the production of published editions and translations of the poem, as well as in their contributions to critical anthologies. I suspect that our skewed scholarly representation does not reflect a lack of interest in the poem but, rather, the extent to which we are welcomed to engage with it. 

For example, Meghan Purvis, whose stunning translation was published in 2013, did not initially feel that a translation of Beowulf was a project she should undertake. In the preface to her translation, she writes, “I was in my third year of university when the professor of my History of the English Language class stood up at the front of the lecture hall and recited the opening of English’s first epic poem. The hair on the back of my neck stood up…It was because the class was taught by Professor Jennifer Bryan, and it was the first time I’d heard Old English spoken by a woman.” Purvis acknowledges that “[t]here were, of course, women already working with Old English,” but it was the experience of hearing the language of Beowulf voiced by a woman that invited her to consider that “Beowulf was a story [she] could tell.”

Meghan Purvis’s Beowulf (London: Penned in the Margins, 2013) was awarded the Stephen Spender Prize for literary translation and recommended by the Poetry Book Society. With its unique format and unprecedented exploration of gender, Purvis’s translation departs from the traditionally conservative approach to the poem’s translation. Listen to her read her award-winning poem “The Collar,”

Like Purvis, I have also felt that Beowulf was not within my reach—as a non-traditional student who came to the story late and the language even later and as a female scholar who is keenly aware not only of the vastness of Beowulf studies but also of the academic landscape’s predominantly male and often hostile terrain. So while my singular love for the poem most certainly influences my desire to teach it, I will continue to include Beowulf in future courses because I want other women to feel welcome to find themselves in its pages.

We do not need to stop teaching Beowulf. We do, however, need to think about teaching it in ways designed to destroy the stigmas surrounding women’s interest in the text and any misconstrued ideas about gendered accessibility. Instead of eliminating Beowulf and other similarly male-centric Old English texts from our literature courses, let’s actively reflect upon how we teach these texts and revise traditional pedagogical practices that inherently center men in the canon and in our classrooms. Let’s teach the Old English Judith alongside Beowulf; The Wife’s Lament and Wulf and Eadwacer in tandem with and not simply supplemental to The Wanderer and The Seafarer.

Two female-voiced laments, Wulf and Eadwacer (MS 3501, pictured here) and The Wife’s Lament, survive solely in the Exeter Book, dated to the tenth century and housed at Exeter Cathedral Library. Like the Nowell Codex, the Exeter Book is one of the four major codices containing Old English literature; the other two are known as the Vercelli Book and the Junius Manuscript.

When teaching Beowulf, let’s incorporate translations by women—whether more conservative or more creative depending upon our individual preferences. For my part, I am particularly fond of Meghan Purvis’s translation, which multiplies women’s voices, underscores their position in relation to violence, and renders Grendel’s mother visible in a way that highlights both her ferocity and her femaleness, as exemplified in this excerpt:  

Grendel was torn apart, and she came looking for the meat

of her son, hanging from hooks in the ceiling.
Her home was a death-house, was becoming Grendel’s tomb;
the hell-dam came – and was she less frightening


for being a woman? – hardly. The men in the dark room
screamed out that “he” was here, too caught in pain
and fear to see the claw at the end of an arm smooth


and hairless, sharp teeth in a softer jaw.

Furthermore, maybe we focus on Grendel’s mother and the fear she evokes through her fury and her fighting skills. Maybe we review a variety of translations with our students, analyzing how and why representations of Grendel’s mother vary so greatly—from woman to monster, a mere-wyf, a “monstrous hellbride,”[1] and even Angelina Jolie.[2] Then we also teach Judith. Maybe together, she and Grendel’s mother can swallow up any remaining misconceptions about women’s proximity to the Old English heroic poetry.


[1] See Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf (W. W. Norton and Company, 2000).

[2] See Beowulf, directed by Robert Zemeckis (2007).



Emily McLemore
PhD Candidate in English
University of Notre Dame

Re-Locating the Voice of the Sad Shield in Exeter Book Riddle 5

Translation, like any cultural practice, entails the creative reproduction of values.

— Lawrence Venuti, The Scandals of Translation (1998), 1.

In the introduction to the provocative collection The Word Exchange (Norton, 2011), Michael Matto cites the anonymity of Old English poetry as a constraint on its perceived voice, a problem exacerbated by the likelihood that any anthologized group of Old English poems will have been rendered by the same translator (Broadview, I’m looking at you). Matto states that avoiding this singularity is a motivation for seeking the efforts of established American, English, and Irish poets to have a crack at the highlights of the extant corpus. And some of these versions are quite tasty. [Particularly fun is James Harpur’s version of the “Rune Poem” or the Metrical Charms section. Many of the riddles are good too].

However, the cast of characters is pretty uniform otherwise: mostly white [Yusef Komunyakaa is the only Black poet featured] and all intentionally non-specialists. There may be a desire to bring multiplicity to the corpus, to “frequently exchange/ kindred voices” there — to cite my current translation of Riddle 8’s nightingale [wrixle geneahhe / heafodwoþe, ll. 2–3] — but the tone is pretty level no matter what. Mostly serious, mostly stately, mostly the expected sorts of voices. This is unfortunate. A good opportunity lost to the basic assumptions of the field. Dan Remein makes a similar observation, noting how conservative impulses to translation inevitably “converts Old English to popular contemporary workshop verse,” and produces a “homogenizing operation of conversion” (“Auden, Translation, Betrayal: Radical Poetics and Translation from Old English,” Literature Compass 8 [2011], 813).

I’m no stranger to Old English translation. Like Leonard Cohen says, “I know this room and I’ve walked this floor.” I took on a massive translation project unasked in 2007 as a game, as training, as a challenge. It started with Andreas, a text I needed for my dissertation and eventual book (Political Appetites [The Ohio State University Press, 2017]) and it ballooned from there. I have to admit I started it in pique, after being assigned S. A. J. Bradley’s Anglo-Saxon Poetry (Everyman, 1982) back at Princeton. Those translations are so thoroughly non-apt, tamed and domesticated — yet so bloody canonical, ubiquitous like a cough. So, I went to work: rendering fifty lines a day for years, through change and transformation, learning a lot and making many, many mistakes along the way [many you can still find in my as-yet unedited versions online].

But after rendering about 27,000 lines of Old English poetry (which you can find here), I can only hear a dry wheeze in the “accepted voice” for its translation, the voice preferred even in The Word Exchange — the voice my work fell into as I went along, I am ashamed to admit. I stepped into the arena wanting to render poetry into poetic translations but failed at it largely. The conservatism of the field was a tide risen up to my thighs, and it was obstructing my steps.

Studies of Old English poetry have been resistant to change, slow to adapt, quick to distrust innovation, eager to exclude alternatives and erase competing arguments. It lags in time — and flirts with its own irrelevance. Part of the answer to this hesitancy, as far as I can survey in this valley of dry bones, rests in sepulchers of translation. In canons of respectability, as if Frederick Klaeber’s going to reach out from wherever and say, “Good job.”

But screw that, I no longer want to practice respectability.

I want my translation work to be scandalous. Queer. Deviant. Affronting. Extra extra. I want my translations to streak across the sky, their path both fyre gefysed and “scrawling red RSVPs in the sky” (Beowulf, 2309, tr. Headley, 2313).

Sure, I’m punk rock kid and I want to freak out the squares, but my desire is scholarly as well. These fusty translations do not invite interesting theories. They are largely “dog-trots,” to be truthful — guides to the language, and little more. Tightly controlled curations of a historical experience. They sacrifice poetry and music while chasing the dragon of “accuracy.” They often don’t even acknowledge that new arguments have been made and old ideas overshadowed or passed over, repeating the same old interpretation again and again. Largely this is because translation is not seen as productive scholarly work. It’s something thrown to a senior scholar, someone vested in the traditional ways of doing things. And any attempt to even gently question the party line is usually met with shuddering revulsion. How many Beowulves are out there that say exactly the same thing, that contain no fresh insights?

As Lawrence Venuti argues in The Scandals of Translation (1998), translation is fraught, difficult, and bound up in power differentials — these relations conscribe the translated text to the service of the translating culture (4). It is no different for translating Old English poetry: the theories and the needs of scholarship drive how the text is revealed. We clothe that figure. There is no objectivity possible in the act. There is no accurate translation. Even the reflex to claim authenticity is suspect — how often are the words themselves subject to emendation when they don’t accord with what an editor or dictionary-maker or metricist presumes should be there? Sculan does a lot of work in Old English studies, and the infinitive isn’t even extant.

Tl;dr — I am less interested these days in translating with propriety in mind and more about discovering new ways the poems might work through playing at their glitches. I am all about treating this archive less like a fetish in a glass box, and more like one of the items in my colleague James Brown Jr’s RCADE resource (the Rutgers-Camden Archive of Digital Ephemera), a place where one learns about the intersections of technology, culture, and code by “cracking” an archived device — breaking it in effect.

That is where hip hop comes into the “Shield” Riddle.

It is clear that this lyric does not operate in the same way as its comrades in either run of Riddles in the Exeter Book. It does not riff on anaphoric hwilum clauses. It does not demand answers to its identity. It does not even move that far afield in its figurative leaps: a matter of sad synecdoche rather than eager metaphor. Its solution is only half the picture, and not really the most interesting part. Far more daring and challenging is how the poem exploits riddlic technology to invest an everyday object with otherwise unrepresentable emotion. There usually is no room in heroic literature for the aftermath, for the wounds and losses, for the pain even in victory or survival. The shield speaks those remainders — the real guþ-laf —  through the glitches in its design.

I have long been an admirer of hip hop culture. At first, I was intrigued by its contrariety, its insistence on reinterpreting history beyond white exceptionalism. How it thwarts musical expectations by making “noise” into structure, lovely in its chaos. I loved how it reverses chains of the commodity through sampling and loops and breaks and beats. The artform reclaims products of dominant culture to serve the needs of those it marginalizes. The consumer determines a proper use for the commodity — a reversal of the idea of “productive consumption” (to use Marx’s term [“Introduction to the Critique of Political Philosophy” (1857), 92]). It’s what “poaching” might sound like in de Certeau’s scheme of strategies versus tactics as resistance (The Practice of Everyday Life [Berkeley, 1984, trans. Steven Rendall], I.xii).

Only later did I start to appreciate the poetic designs of its emcees. How traditional practices of “signifying” not only challenge dominant schemes of language but also unfolds their fullest potentials in chains of signification (see Gates, The Signifying Monkey (1988), see ch. 2, 44ff.) in exactly the same way as the samples, poaching the resources of a language many did not choose. Rap lyrics encode minoritarian resistance to linguistic structures of oppression (such as Deleuze and Guattari describe in A Thousand Plateaus, 106ff.) Tricia Rose, in her foundational 1994 study of hip hop history and aesthetics, Black Noise, invokes hip hop’s Legbean quality of rising from the intersections of US urban cultures:

“Situated at the ‘crossroads of lack and desire,’ hip hop emerges from the deindustrialization meltdown where social alienation, prophetic imagination, and yearning intersect. Hip-hop is a cultural form that attempts to negotiate the experiences of marginalization, brutally truncated opportunity, and oppression within the cultural imperatives of African-American and Caribbean history, identity, and community. It is the tension between the cultural fractures produced by postindustrial oppression and the binding tics of black cultural expressivity that sets the critical frame for the development of hip hop” (21).

Del tha Funkee Homosapien’s 2011 release, “Golden Era” (with one of his earlier rhymes superimposed), edited by Aaron Hostetter (2021).

Dr. Rose’s invocation of “Black noise” is appropriate here: hip hop thrives in the immense marches that Eurocentric poetics rely upon as exclusion, as outside to acceptability in order to create its own spaces of power. Hip hop poetry is a mearc-stapa (here, Ini Kamoze might chorus, “Word ‘em up!”], a voice from a culture many are conditioned not to accept as poetical at all. Jay-Z, in his book Decoded (2010), discusses the flush of language possible in the intersection of rhythmic spaces, low social expectations, and the desire to express oneself on multiple levels at once:

The words you use can be read a dozen different ways: They can be funny and serious. They can be symbolic and literal. They can be nakedly deceptive. It seems so straightforward and personal and real that people read it completely literally, as raw testimony or autobiography. (54)

Jay-Z hits at a common truth here: just like with hip hop emcees who could not possibly be creating elaborate metaphorical worlds of identity and expression, ancient poets are also denied fictionality and ambiguity by many modern readers. Scholars reduce their voices into stereotype. So, my goal is to locate and celebrate the moments of distortion, play, and contradiction in these lyrics.

Here, in Exeter Book Riddle 5, I though the best way to do so was to try my hand at writing bars.

Hip hop also features an expansive metrical form, embodied in the tension between rhythm and verbal stress, with unstressed syllables popping in to fill spaces between hard beats. The structure of a line is very similar to Old English meter, roughly built in groups of four strong stresses (to follow a rhythmic musical line in 4:4 time). The uneven distribution of unstressed syllables creates frequent opportunities for syncopation and off-stress sound effects (much like extant Old English poetry does, when performed properly).

Additionally, hip hop poets frequently glory in sound relations of every sort, including slant-rhyme, internal rhyme, off-beat rhyme, assonance, consonance, and of course alliteration. Most importantly, hip hop is explicitly a performed poetics, negotiating both sides of a supposed “Great Divide” between oral and written literatures, always already both and the same.

For my re-translation of this riddle, I chose to adopt a dense lyrical style similar to that used by the late MF DOOM (but is hardly exclusive to his rhymes). For example, see the intricate network of sound-play in this couplet:

Spot hot tracks like spot a pair of fat asses.
Shots of the scotch from out of square shot glasses (Madvillain, “All Caps” [2004]).

Also check out this couplet from Inspektah Deck:

My mind’s all-smart, it’s in the ballpark as Jean-Paul Sartre.
Yours is in the parking lot of Walmart bagging Duck Dynasty wall-art [Czarface, “Deviatin’ Septums” [2015]).

The translation cannot be just voiceless, so I thought I’d engineer an easy beat and arrangement for it (I’m only just learning how to do this). The backing track is an instrumental version of “Mind’s Playin’ Tricks on Me” by The Geto Boys (1991), a song about the psychological costs of violence and stress. The samples are eclectic, some Bringing Out the Dead (1999), some Space is the Place (1974), and a bit of Dead Presidents (1995), as well as Admiral Akbar, Del tha Funkee Homosapien, and Biggie Smalls. The idea is to link the experience of post-traumatic stress disorder possibly alluded to in the Shield Riddle, with expressions of reality made weird through warfare and violence, especially as that trauma has been unevenly distributed to African-American communities. To give the shield warrior’s space to heal: to be their læcce-cyn after all these centuries.

Aaron Hostetter
Associate Professor of Old and Middle English
Rutgers University-Camden

For Dr. Hostetter’s translation and recitation, see his Exeter Book Riddle 5.

For more translations by Dr. Hostetter, see his Old English Poetry Project.

Translating Exeter Book Riddles

In my my most recent blog, “Encoded References in the Exeter Book Bird-Riddles,” I discuss arcane references in the Exeter Book Riddles and build on a previous piece, “Reading Runes in the Exeter Book Riddles,” which explores the cryptic use of runes in this Old English riddle collection. Both of these blogs note how certain Riddles contained in the Exeter Book (Exeter Cathedral Library MS3051) rely on esotericism as a rhetorical strategy in order to obfuscate their solutions.

Because I translated four bird-riddles in my most recent piece on Exeter Riddles, I decided that I would supplement my work by providing also recitations and making them available through our Medieval Poetry Project.  Currently, the translated Old English riddles include:

Exeter Book Riddle 7
Exeter Book Riddle 8
Exeter Book Riddle 9
Exeter Book Riddle 10

Exeter Book Riddles 7-9; Exeter Cathedral Library MS3051 f.103r. Image reproduced with permission of the University of Exeter Digital Humanities and the Dean & Chapter, Exeter Cathedral.

Translating a medieval riddle can be especially tricky because these poetic projects double as verbal puzzles, and therefore coded language is crucial to their rhetorical structures and modes of obfuscation. In this way, specific diction and the semantics of those words chosen (especially when polysemous), are often quintessential clues for solving these riddles, and for this reason I have attempted to stay as faithful to the original Old English as possible in my translations. Although at this point there are only four translated riddles (from the Exeter Book collection containing almost a hundred riddles), perhaps others may soon wish to follow my lead and contribute their favorite Old English riddles. With this in mind, I am hopeful that eventually we may have many more of the Exeter Book Riddles available as part of our poetry project.

Richard Fahey
PhD in English (2020)
University of Notre Dame

Editions and Translations:

Exeter Anthology of Old English Poetry. Edited by Bernard J. Muir. Exeter, UK: University of Exeter Press, 1994.

The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book. Edited by Craig Williamson. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1977.

Further Reading:

Fahey, Richard. “Reading Runes in the Exeter Book Riddles.” Medieval Studies Research Blog. University of Notre Dame, Medieval Institute. February 17, 2017.

Fahey, Richard. “Encoded References in Exeter Book Bird-Riddles” Medieval Studies Research Blog. University of Notre Dame, Medieval Institute. December 6, 2019.