Edward L. Risden, Alfgar’s Stories from Beowulf. E-book: Witan Publishing, 2013.
Reviewed by A. Keith Kelly, Georgia Gwinnett College (email@example.com)
Revisiting the Middle Ages in order to find inspiration for the creation of something new is not a rare technique among authors. Revisiting the Middle Ages to create something new that also seems like it is an authentic part of the Middle Ages, however, is a bit less common. The latter is precisely what Ed Risden endeavors to accomplish in his book Alfgar’s Stories from Beowulf—and with notable success. In this relatively short book—it comes in at 134 pages—Dr. Risden offers readers four original works of fiction (with a smattering of poetry embedded throughout), each connected in various ways to Beowulf. “Grendel’s Mother” retells Beowulf from the somewhat removed and intensely personal perspective of the more celebrated monster’s mother. “Lay of the Last Survivor” is the tale of a man devoted to a blood feud that leaves him bereft of hearth, kin and even his humanity. “Scyldingasaga” serves as a prequel to Beowulf, reaching back to the exploits of the hero’s renowned ancestors, Scyld and Beow. The final tale, “Freawaru’s Lament,” expands upon a story hinted at in Beowulf about a woman whose peace-weaver marriage leads to life-long tragedy and grief. The four tales are framed by the character of Alfgar, who is a poet, or scop, in the service of a monastery around the year 1000 (he asserts that his grandfather served King Æthelstan). He is regaling a young monk in the scriptorium with stories that are a marked departure from the Christian tales prescribed by the abbot. The young man listens eagerly and even consumes valuable parchment to record Alfgar’s words. There is the suggestion that Alfgar may be the teller of Beowulf itself, and the young monk the reason it survives in manuscript form. The interaction between these two characters bookends the tales, serving as Prologue and Epilogue.
Dr. Risden’s book really operates on three levels: one, as a work of carefully studied medievalism that echoes elements from Beowulf and early Anglo-Saxon/Scandinavian culture, two, as a resonance of what might best be termed an Old English or Old Norse voice, and three, as a stand alone narrative work to be considered on its literary aesthetics. As a notable medieval scholar it should come as no surprise that Dr. Risden provides rich material in accomplishing the first. The second level of achievement is much more challenging, and Risden’s success there is noteworthy. There exists—in three of the four stories at least—a real echo of the voice found in the early medieval epics and sagas. The only shortcoming of the book, and this is not a failing but merely a limitation, lies in its aesthetics as a work of contemporary literature. In large part because of how well Risden captures an archaic style of story-telling, some readers less attuned to the medievalisms in the book may find the narrative style of Alfgar’s Stories sparse and underdeveloped.
As a work of aesthetic fiction, “Grendel’s Mother” is the strongest in the collection and it should appeal to the widest variety of readers. Risden’s choice to place it in the primary position was well-advised as it is both haunting and compelling to the reader, and will undoubtedly be recognizable because of its direct connections with Beowulf. Risden’s tight, first person narrative delves into the psychology of the monstrous mother, and the entire piece is spun out as an internal monologue by a beast that lacks the ability of speech but who possesses a complex identity. She is a reclusive figure who is descended from Cain and powerfully connected to the natural, pagan world—while her beginnings were somewhat human, by the time of the story she has become something of an earth spirit who is strongly connected to the water as well. Tormented by her own muteness and the violent, abusive passions of her son, Grendel’s mother in the end must seek the path of vengeance prescribed to all who have had a kinsman slain. The presentation of her character invokes sympathy and pity, and not a small amount of respect as she fulfills the role of the devoted mother as well as the avenging kinswoman. The first person perspective, that is so well-suited to psychological reflection, is reminiscent of John Gardner’s Grendel, and it is likely that Gardner’s novel served as an inspiration for Risden. This tale is the most appealing in the book from a literary perspective, though on the other hand it contains fewer medievalisms than the other stories.
While “Grendel’s Mother” is the leading literary achievement in the work, the “Lay of the Last Survivor” is arguably the most successful as a work of literature and medievalism. With allusions to “The Wanderer” and Volsunga Saga, and a surprise connection to Beowulf at the end, this tale is rich with the spirit of early medieval Germanic culture. The opening scene demonstrates all too well how fragile peace can be in a society dedicated to family honor, warfare and vengeance. From a bloody beginning the account follows the character of Ormr, who over a life-time treads a path of violence in pursuit first of revenge, then glory, then material gain until he is literally the last man left alive from two feuding tribes. From that point Risden goes on to explore what becomes of the life of a man who has devoted himself to the destruction of life and the attainment of material things once all are slain and those things have lost all satisfaction. The result is a loss of humanity that becomes more than metaphorical. In addition to its connections to several medieval sources, the “Lay of the Last Survivor” shares resonances with a number of Tolkien’s works—not surprising given Tolkien’s fascination with the same material that inspires Risden, and the latter’s interests in the works of the renowned author. The story covers a wide swath of years and the pace of the narrative is consequently swift. Missing throughout most of the story are narrative features such as dialogue, character development and detailed descriptions of action, place or person. The style is rather that of an oral storyteller spinning out what is the story of a whole lifetime in the span of an hour. This heavy reliance on exposition is precisely what marks Alfgar’s Stories as being what meadhall tales might have actually been like. The story is stark in theme, tone and presentation, concerned more with the medieval ideas conveyed than the modern art of fiction writing. While the tale itself is fascinating, the result of the style is one that creates a sense of authenticity that will appeal to some, and leave others perhaps a bit wanting.
In both “Scyldingasaga” and “Freawaru’s Lament” Risden picks up threads of stories found, but not expounded upon, in Beowulf. The former is simply, and quite entertainingly, the story of Scyld Scefing, his son Beowulf the Dane (referred to in the tale as Beo), his son Halfdane and ultimately, though not treated in the work itself, Hrothgar. As heralded in the opening lines of Beowulf, Scyld and his son are remarkable heroes, giant-slayers and templates for “good kings.” The story, with its mythical beasts, legendary accomplishments and fast pace smacks of the Old Norse fornaldarsögur, as is appropriate for their characters and content. There is a celebratory feel to the exploits of these figures of a legendary past that echoes the enthusiasm of the Beowulf poet. In contrast, “Freawaru’s Lament” picks up on the tragic undertones of Beowulf’s words to Hygelac concerning the marriage of Hrothgar’s daughter to Ingeld of the Heathobards. Beowulf’s remarks—beginning at line 2025—forecast a bleak outcome and Risden’s tale carries through on that promise. In an effort to weave peace between the Danes and the Heathobards, young Freawaru is married to Ingeld, the heroic warrior king. In spite of Hrothgar’s intentions, however, the peace is broken. Ingeld ends up lost, wandering the world, and Freawaru is as steadfast in her devotion to finding him as she is bound to the grief caused by the loss of her family. As someone on both sides of the feud she is the ultimate tragic figure. While the view of the past in “Scyldingasaga” is as glorious and joyous as its heroes, the view of the future in “Freawaru’s Lament” is as desolate as the broken heart of Freawaru herself. This split view of the past and the future echoes the northern pagan beliefs themselves—the concept of a glorious past and the bleak future of Ragnarok. The dichotomy likewise captures a very real sense of the tensions and struggles of the Christian/pagan world of the northern Germanic peoples around the year 1000. And though both texts also move quickly and somewhat sparsely in terms of narrative craft, they offer tantalizing and once again compellingly authentic looks into the literary past.
The book closes as it opens, back in the scriptorium with Alfgar speaking to the young scribe. While there is the promise of more tales to come, the entrance of Father Alaric—one of the most austere and pious of the monastery’s denizens—brings to an abrupt end the stories of Alfgar. Admonishing the story-telling as a waste of time, Alaric condemns such heathen tales, echoing Alcuin’s words of centuries earlier, “What has Ingeld to do with Christ?” This epilogue, by describing the disdain for the past, offers a counterpoint to the prologue, which expressed a youthful enthusiasm for the old stories. Again, these contrasting views present the dichotomy between past and present, pagan and Christian, that must have been a real struggle for the English at the turn of the millennium. It also, in an indirect way, highlights the strengths and limitations of Risden’s book. As an echo of a medieval past—in tone, in themes, in voice, and in style—it is a distinctive and captivating achievement. As a work of contemporary fiction—which its author may not even intend it to be—it is certainly unique, but perhaps some will view it as being a bit scant in its narrative craft and stylings. As a work of medievalism it is inarguably a success.
A. Keith Kelly, Georgia Gwinnett College