'The Mere Wife' brings new life to a classic in this reimagining of 'Beowulf'

Novelist Maria Dahvana Headley plays with language as much as she plays with the plot of the epic poem.

The Mere Wife By Maria Dahvana Headley Farrar, Straus and Giroux 320 pp.

In her book, The Mere Wife, novelist Maria Dahvana Headley spins a contemporary feminist tale from the ancient epic poem “Beowulf.” Retaining the elements of heroes and monsters, of power and loyalties, she crafts a story about two women locked in struggles to protect what is most dear to each of them.

The first is Willa, the perpetually dieting wife of Roger Herot, the heir of Herot Hall. The enviable power couple reigns over their idyllic community of picture perfect families living in picture perfect homes. Willa cares for their son Dylan, or “Dil” as she usually calls him, when she isn’t flitting between yoga classes and cocktail parties.  

Conforming to, if not exceeding what she believes to be the ideal image of womanhood, Willa receives regular visits from a group of wives, older women of the community who quietly wield power from behind the scenes. They have expectations to uphold that preserve the image of the community. Willa, of course, abides by their directions.

Then there is Dana, a scarred, traumatized war veteran who returned home from combat to discover the town of her childhood had been supplanted by Willa’s planned community. Walls –both the physical ones as well as the societal ones – now bar her entrance.

She retreats to a cave in the hills behind Herot Hall where she gives birth to Gren, an unexpected, unexplained twist in her life. She raises her son in the surrounding woods, subsisting on whatever food she can find. While Dana seeks to protect Gren from the culture that has brought her such pain, she is unaware that he has discovered Dil whom he watches him from afar, yearning for a friend.

The themes of “refuge” and “power” thread through Headley’s book, illustrating their different meanings to different people. The residents of Herot Hall seek refuge from the coarseness of the larger world by withdrawing behind walls. Believing themselves to be in control of their lives as well as their social status, they close their eyes to the fact that they have forfeited their individuality.

Dana eschews this life, though there is no doubt she would never have been accepted into it, anyway. Instead, she seeks refuge in a cave. A seemingly powerless outcast from society, Dana retains her fierce individuality. A skilled and seasoned war veteran, she draws upon her reserves of personal strength at critical points in the story. She fights to control her destiny. The one thing she cannot control, however, is her son.

Knowledge of the classic poem is not essential before reading “The Mere Wife.” The novel stands on its own as both an adventure tale and a social commentary. But a passing familiarity with the original, even a faint memory from a high school English class, illuminates detail that brings texture and layers to the story.

Quick refresher: in the 6th-century poem, a monster named Grendel torments the great hall of Heorot. The local hero, Beowulf, defends the town and kills Grendel. When Grendel’s mother seeks to retaliate, Beowulf slays her, too, using a sword he discovered in her lair.

Conjuring the updated story, Headley plays with language as much as she plays with the plot of the epic poem, starting with the title –“ The Mere Wife.” Does she refer to an incidental character, some important only because of her marital status? Or does she reference the powerful female outcast whose lair is only accessible through a lake? “Mere,” after all, is the Dutch word for “lake.”

And what is a monster? Headley makes clear that not everyone’s answer would be the same.  In the ancient tale, Grendel plagued the town. In the contemporary story, chaos erupts when Gren and Dil meet, bringing together their divergent lives with a friendship their parents view as an attack on everything they have chosen.

The hero of the novel might be the local police officer, Capt. Wolff (like Beowulf?).  But real heroes are never as straightforward as the ones found in ancient tales and, as the novel repeatedly makes clear, things are seldom what they appear to be. And don’t forget about the sword Beowulf found in the lair. Capt. Wolff weilds a sword, too.

“The Mere Wife” paints an acerbic view of contemporary society while it proves the adage shared by high school teachers everywhere – we continue to be captivated by the classics because the tales they contain are timeless.

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