The Mere Wife is an eerie, twisty retelling of Beowulf that is built around doubles: Everyone in Beowulf is mirrored and reimagined over and over again, until everyone — the monster, his mother, Beowulf himself — shatters into fragments of themselves.
Author Maria Dahvana Headley sets her interpretation of the Old English epic in American suburbia, in the gated community of Herot Hall, nestled into a mountainside. Here there are two little boys: Gren, who lives in a cave in the mountain, with some kind of ambiguous disfigurement that makes people afraid of him, and Dylan or Dil, who lives in Herot Hall, awash in a life of luxury and privilege. Both Gren and Dil are Grendel, the monster who Beowulf must fight and kill — and, in The Mere Wife, both of them are innocents.
But Headley is less interested in either Beowulf or Grendel than she is in Grendel’s mother — the second monster who Beowulf fights and kills, and the “mere wife” of the title. (The clearest analog for Beowulf himself barely features in this book; he’s a cop named Ben Woolf, and he’s not very interesting.)
It’s the two women who hold the place of Grendel’s mother: Gren’s mother Dana and Dylan’s mother Willa. They are the ones at the center of this story, and their battle is what carries the book to its climactic conclusion.
In the battle between two monstrous mothers, the real enemy is the patriarchy
It’s characteristic of Headley’s winking references that the phrase “mere wife” holds multiple meanings. It’s a straight translation of one of the epithets usually given to Grendel’s mother — “merewif,” or water-woman — but it is also specific to both of the women who represent Grendel’s mother in this book.
Dylan’s mother Willa is an actress turned trophy wife and considered by those around her to be merely a wife, while Gren’s mother Dana — a former soldier who fled the army after she got pregnant — hides herself behind the mere, or lake, that surrounds her mountain, making her a wife to the mere.
Both Willa and Dana are determined to protect their territory, and both believe Herot Hall to belong to them: Dana because her family lived on the mountain long before it became host to a fancy suburb, and Willa because she married into the Herot family, who founded the gated community. When Gren and Dil meet by accident and begin to forge an emotional bond — a deep friendship tinged with hints of romance — both Willa and Dana react with territorial outrage and fury. This is a threat to the very balance of their worlds.
But of the two, Headley’s sympathy clearly lies with Dana, who manages to raise her son in a cave on nothing but her own wits, and who even Dylan prefers over Willa. Dana is heroic in a sexy and slightly troubled way, but trophy wife Willa is a trickier character. She seems to stand not just for Grendel’s mother but also for Wiltheow — the queen of the Danes who is Beowulf’s hostess when he slays Grendel, and who some scholars see as another aspect of Grendel’s mother — and at times for Beowulf himself.
It is Willa who is the most fiercely martial of all the characters in this novel, and Willa who poses the greatest danger to Gren, Dana, and even Dylan. In the moral structure of The Mere Wife, that makes Willa the closest thing we have to a villain. But she’s a beautifully wrought villain, all Betty Draper clothes and perfectly coiffed hair on the outside, and murderous fantasies on the inside. And as murderous as Willa’s fantasies might get, and as closely as she maps onto the archetype of Grendel’s mother, Willa is not — Headley is clear on this — a monster.
Neither is Gren, although the outside world treats him as one. Headley remains artfully vague about what it is about Gren that makes those who look at him think that he’s a monster: we only know that he has long nails, and that when he tries to draw himself, he draws a black blur of self-loathing. But there’s an underlying suggestion that in this isolated suburb, Gren might be treated as a monster because of his race.
“I don’t know what he looks like to other people,” Dana tells us, because to her, “he looks like me.” But she knows how other people would react to Gren: “My son running down a street would be my son confessing to a crime. My son shouting would be my son attacking. My son sleeping would be my son addicted. My son in love with the boy from down there would be my son hanging from a tree.” Dana’s fears about how her son will be treated echo the fears black mothers have for their children, and for Gren, who is queer, those fears are multiplied.
As Dana prepares to protect Gren, and as Willa prepares to protect Herot Hall, Headley plays obsessively with words and language. Her linguistic games are relentless, but there’s a kind of joyful elegance to the way she references and remixes the Old English of her source material. Beowulf famously begins with the invocation “Hwæt!” which has been translated variously as “Listen!” or “So!” “Speak!” In The Mere Wife, each section is named after a different translation of “hwæt,” and each chapter in that section begins with the translation: The book opens with “Say it,” and then we get chapters-worth of “Listen” and “So” and “Attend.”
And at the heart of this whole thing — this book that is built around a nameless, monstrous woman out of a legend, that multiplies her across multiple characters and insists on her humanity — there’s another linguistic joke. It’s locked in the title, but Headley provides the key in the form of a brief glossary at the front of the book.
The glossary reveals that in Beowulf’s original Old English, Beowulf is referred to as an “aglæca,” traditionally translated as warrior or soldier. Grendel’s mother, however, gets the feminine form of the word, with “wif” at the end: “aglæca-wif,” traditionally translated as monster or hell-bride. In our culture, the mere addition of the feminine suffix “wife,” Headley seems to suggest, is all that it takes to turn a soldier into a monster.