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.