Growing up in rural Indiana during the 40’s and 50’s, the world of Beowulf was as unknown and foreign to me as the dark side of the moon. It did not enter my field of vision until gradute school in the 60’s, when I had to take a course in Old English Literature. Bingo! Beowulf – in the original! I struggled through the epic, got my degree and moved on.
Years later I found myself in a high school classroom, preparing to teach Honors English to 16-year-olds. On the curriculum: Beowulf. I immersed myself in the Burton Raffel translation, papered the walls of the classroom to simulate a sixth century mead hall, and drew a life-sized Beowulf with blonde hair and chain mail to occupy it.
On the day I planned to introduce the epic, I brought in a friend who played hammered dulcimer. We dressed in long cloaks and turned out the lights. As she “harped,” I intoned the opening lines:
“Hear me! We’ve heard of Danish heroes,
Ancient kings and the glory they cut
For themselves, swinging mighty swords!”…
My dumbstruck students knew they had entered a different world, one possibly occupied by a crazy teacher.
Every year I looked forward to making a deeper acquaintance with Beowulf. My students memorized passages to recite before the class. We made facsimiles of the helmet excavated at Sutton Hoo, we learned how to write our names in futhork, the runic alphabet. We immersed ourselves in an ancient world of gods, heroes and monsters.
Sixteen years down the road, I was standing before another class reading Beowulf when I had an epiphany. I stopped in mid-sentence as the idea hit me, then declared out loud, “I’m going to write a book about the WOMEN of Beowulf!” One of my sophomore boys jumped to his feet. “Yeah, Dr. Rogers – you can call it The Babes of Beowulf!”
As it turned out, I used a different title, Faces in the Fire, but I did write that novel about the women of Beowulf. In fact I’m now at work on Book Two of the series. I still love Beowulf and the world it represents, a world of gods, monsters, heroes – and women.
Have you ever taken part in a treasure hunt, racing from clue to clue, each one leading you on…and on…and on? The excitement of the search is often as much fun as the reward! Researching the background for a historical novel is much like this adventurous game, but research is a hunt for answers.
To use a different analogy, research is like archaeology: you search for clues – often faint and barely discernible (like post holes that outline a long-vanished mead hall) or obvious, concrete and visible (like a Viking ship resurrected from a watery grave and put on display in a museum). Archaeological excavations can be a major source of information. For example, the bones found in a kitchen midden (i.e. trash dump) may reveal which animals were cooked and eaten there, or what household objects were in everyday use before being thrown away – such as Viking hair combs fashioned from deer antlers.
Scientific data about historical weather patterns can be mined for answers. While writing Faces in the Fire, I wondered if it snowed in Denmark when Freawaru was a girl. Answer: yes, but only a little. Was the water level in Roskilde harbor high enough to accommodate Viking longships? Answer: Yes. Aerial photography shows details not easily observable from the ground, like grave sites in the shape of ships. Even tiny objects can yield much information. For instance, one small cast silver figure designed as a pendant reveals specific details about female hair styles and clothing.
To be a successful time-traveler in foreign lands and ancient places, you must being along your curiosity, an eye for telling details, and a zest for research. How else can you create a believable world for your readers? I found researching sixth-century Scandinavian life for my novel about the women of Beowulf to be great fun, an adventure in itself.
Do you want to write? Join the treasure hunt!
Goddess worship is distinctly out of fashion in our western, Christianized culture, but it has not always been so. We learned in school that the Greeks, and later the Romans, personified various aspects of the feminine as goddesses (ex. Aphrodite/Venus, Hera/Juno) and gave expression to the concept in other forms as well (ex. The three Fates: maiden/mother/crone).
In Norse mythology one female figure stands out, high above her competition: Freyja, twin sister of Freyr, both associated with fertility and prosperity. Think about it: the power to create life – be it human, animal or vegetable – is a power above all others.
Perhaps reflecting the earthy character of life in northern climates, Freyja is a goddess of lusty appetites: for sex, for gold, for all things beautiful. She is also a shape-shifter with magic powers. She can transform herself into a falcon or the shape of a feather in order to fly to different lands. She can also drive a chariot drawn by cats or ride upon a great boar when she journeys. Freyja was a popular goddess; her amulets and pendants can be unearthed all over Scandinavia.
The power to leave one’s physical self and be transported elsewhere is a mark of the shaman, who journeys in spirit to other worlds to obtain information – perhaps from the dead, perhaps from the gods themselves. In my novel about the women of Beowulf, Faces in the Fire, the heroine Freawaru is developing her power through trance states.
Just as the Greeks and Romans separated woman-as-lover-and-mistress from woman-as-wife-and-mother, the Norse did the same, assigning the former role to Freyja and the latter to Frigg, wife of Odin. Both goddesses could be called upon to assist in childbirth, and both could receive women after their death.
Want to be a goddess? Develop your powers!
Have you ever felt ignored, unnoticed, kept in the shadows, passed over?
For hundreds of years, one woman has existed only as a name: Freawaru – a single name from a single manuscript surviving from the tenth century. Her brief mention in the epic, Beowulf, intrigued me throughout my teaching career. When I finally decided to retire and write a novel about the women of Beowulf, I chose Freaw as my heroine. Faces in the Fire is her story, set within the context of the events in the original epic.
Have you ever been afraid of the dark? Feared there might be a monster lurking in your closet or under your bed? As a child and young girl, Freaw must endure the terror of nightly raids by Grendel, a man-eating monster. She must watch, helpless, as many of those she loves fall prey to its greed.
Has your family ever made plans for you or held expectations that you did not share? As she comes of age, Freaw is asked to play a significant role in tribal politics. She is challenged to act as a peace-weaver in an arranged marriage with a rival chieftain. Her mystical connection with the Norse goddess Freyja brings a kind of power in the form of visions predicting future events. But this power is unfocused and uncontrolled, leaving her vulnerable to the influence of others.
Freaw has much to learn as she struggles to find her way in a world of stark realities. Despite the passage of hundreds of years, her story could be the story of each of us.