Language is a living thing and when it dies, it leaves bones. I dropped some fossils here, next to some newborns.
Despite its reputation to generations of unwilling students, forced as freshmen into arduous translations, Beowulf is a living text in a dead language, the kind of thing meant to be shouted over a crowd of drunk celebrants. Even though it was probably written down in the quiet confines of a scriptorium, Beowulf is not a quiet poem. It’s a dazzling, furious, funny, vicious, desperate, hungry, beautiful, mutinous, maudlin, supernatural, rapturous shout.
My own experiences as a woman tell me it’s very possible to be mistaken for monstrous when one is only doing as men do: providing for and defending oneself. Whether one’s solitary status is a result of abandonment by a man or because of a choice, the reams of lore about single, self-sustaining women, and particularly about solitary elderly women, suggest that many human women have been, over the centuries, mistaken for supernatural creatures simply because they were alone and capable.
The phrase “That was a good king” recurs throughout the poem, because the poem is fundamentally concerned with how to get and keep the title “Good.” The suspicion that any moment a person might shift from hero into howling wretch, teeth bared, causes characters ranging from scops to ring-lords to drop cautionary anecdotes. Does fame keep you good? No. Does gold keep you good? No. Does your good wife keep you good? No. What keeps you good? Vigilance. That’s it.