Tuesday, April 8, 2008

(Short) Review of Wealtheow, by Ashley Crownover

Being a blogger has its perks. It's not just the fame, the fortune, the prestige that naturally associates itself with the act of blogging. Sometimes, just sometimes, you get free stuff.

Along with Dr. Noakes and JJ Cohen, I was fortunate enough to be sent an advance copy of Ashley Crownover's Wealtheow: Her Telling of Beowulf. Overall, I have to say that I enjoyed the book. As you may guess, the novel (re-)tells the story of Beowulf from the point-of-view of Wealtheow, Queen of the Danes and Hrothgar's wife. In this telling, the plot revolves around her and the focus is on the role of the wife, as peace-weaver, as settler of feud, in this society.
Beowulf, as you might expect, shows up eventually and the familiar story takes over. But this is almost an epilogue to the main telling and Crownover spends the majority of her time on the shape of Danish society and the subtle interactions among all those with different roles to play.

Crownover certainly is a good storyteller. The narrative flows along at a quick pace and the characters are well-drawn. I have minor quibbles here and there but my only major concern was about the role magic seems to play in this society. It's not there, then it's sort of there, then it's REALLY there, then not so much again. When magic became important in the narrative -- and that comes suddenly -- it's quite jarring and, for me, was almost a "jump the shark" moment. Luckily, it wasn't.

Overall, I'd recommend the book. It might go well in a course on medievalism, especially if paired with Zemeckis' telling of Beowulf.


wanderingtree said...

Thanks for informing me about this new book.

In his Amazon.com review/explanation, Todd Bottorff states:

It seems that everyone had to read Beowulf at some point or another and it can best be described as a tough read, a valuable read, but a tough read. Any reader of books must include the classic themes of Beowulf in their reading education-good vs. evil, bravery vs. cowardice, etc. But as our society has evolved, so has our perspective on those themes. We start with the simple and absolute and then develop a greater understanding of the grey areas and more complex conflicts that exist. Wealtheow gives us another evolutionary step on the original themes of Beowulf, presenting new questions and perspectives.

I was wondering if you could comment on this "evolutionary process" of theme that Bottorff refers to, and its implication with regards to Anglo-Saxon/medieval texts and culture. I have no real training in Anglo-Saxon narrative, so your perspective is appreciated.

Matthew Gabriele said...

I don't know the Amazon review you're discussing but I'm always hesitant about "evolutionary" understandings of texts. I'm OK with "changing" but "evolutionary" suggests that Beowulf (in this case) was originally a simple story with simple lessons and that's just not the case. Crownover's new, modern, feminist view of the poem addresses complex issues in different ways but I wouldn't say that she's adding a complexity that wasn't there before.

wanderingtree said...

I should have emphasized that Todd Bottorff is the publisher of Crownover's new book, and the A.com post was a combination review and explanation of why he chose to publish the work. This notion of evolution, which does seem to infer the "simplicity" of the original text, seemed relevant in that the comment came from someone involved with the publishing of the book. Not that this infers Crownover herself agrees or disagrees, but it would be interesting to get her perspective...