Mere: noun (1) chiefly British
An expanse of standing water
- being nothing more than
— Merriam-Webster online dictionary definition of mere
The genius of this novel begins with the title.
The Mere Wife, on its face, refers to Grendel’s mother in this modern day reimagining of the pre-Norman conquest epic poem Beowulf. Grendel’s mother, who in the poem has no name, lives in a mere: a deep, mysterious pool. As his mother, she is a wife, at first glance (to modern eyes) surely someone’s wife, but in the English of the time, wife meant not only “spouse” but more broadly “woman.” Thus, the title is beautifully literal: it’s about the woman who lives in the mere.
But it’s so much more in modern English. Look again at the definition above. Or, rather, think of the way you probably read the title when you first saw it. You thought of “mere” as an adjective.: Nothing more than. Simply. Only. Just a wife.
That too is what this novel is about: women who are seen as merely, simply, only wives. That is the role they been put in by the circumstances of their lives and by the power of others, despite what other choices they may have desired, despite the inner lives they may lead.
This duality of meaning thrills me, because it feels so true to the source material. In Old English, poets used a technique called kennings — a kind of expanded metaphor — to create complex imagery for their audience. For example, one kenning for the ocean was the “whale road.” Author Maria Dahvana Headley, whose translation of Beowulf will be released later this year, understands these concepts in her bones. Throughout the novel, she uses words in ways that feel both modern and ancient.
Headley is a wordsmith in the tradition of the Old English poets (scops*). She sculpts and crafts her words to create a world that is at once realistic and magical, sharp-edged and misted, harrowing and moving. As a reader, I was captivated. As a writer, I was destroyed. I need to revisit this novel with a highlighter and pen, to examine her craft… but not yet. I don’t want to destroy the spell this novel casts by looking too closely.
You may be interested in this interview author Headley did with NPR about the book and her translation of the original text.** Although I have sworn not to buy any more Beowulfs, this one is a pre-order must-have.
*scop, pronounced like “shop,” comes from the verb “to shape,” so their word for poet was basically “a shaper of words and meaning.” Something of a kenning in itself.
**The first photo on the website is the handwritten first page of the Beowulf manuscript, some 1000 years old. That opening line, with its commanding “Hwaet,” is vital to The Mere Wife.