Columns

More than a Fairytale: the (s)hero complex

Artwork by Chen (Cornelia) Chen

Confession time. I was absolutely planning on writing about saints vs superheroes this week – I had my plan all done, chock-full of fascinating parallels between the Avengers, the Kardashians and medieval mythology… It was going to be great (disclaimer: it still will be great, it just will be next week – gosh I bet you just can’t handle the suspense!!).

You see, I got all mad. It all started with me casually putting ‘hero’ into the Oxford English Dictionary (O.E.D) – I’m not sure whether a use of the O.E.D could be described as ‘casual’, it’s not like it’s some chick-lit novel, but oh well. So, I put ‘hero’ into the O.E.D, the alleged King of Dictionaries, God of the English language, the Commander of conventions, and I was not a happy bunny. 

You may have noticed that the epithets I provided for the O.E.D are masculine, which is deliberate. You only need to look at the controversy recently surrounding the dictionary’s treating of the word ‘woman’ to see how the O.E.D is as pig-headed as it is patriarchal. 

Maybe they could justify their definition of ‘woman’: 

woman, n. sense 1 ‘the counterpart of man’. 

Yes, every woman, heck every enlightened 21st century person, would of course take issue with the fact that the first thing to define about women is how they exist in relation to men.  However, linguistically the definition stands (on a very precarious balance). The modern word ‘Woman’ is a corruption of the Old English ‘wifman’ which can mean something like ‘wife of man’ (although, as with anything in Old English, there are many other interpretations) – so yes, in one very specific translation of an Old English word, which is actually very rarely used in comparison with other feminine nouns, a woman is ‘the counterpart of man’. 

When it comes to how they define ‘hero’ the O.E.D is nothing but plain wrong: 

Hero, n. Sense 1 – ‘a man (occasionally a woman) distinguished by a superhuman strength, courage or ability’

Why ‘occasionally a woman’? Why is heroism even gendered – last time I checked the word ‘superhuman’ has no gender. By that logic, if a hero’s strength or ability has no gender, why ‘a man (occasionally a woman)’? The brackets suggest an embarrassment, a need to conceal the existence of female heroes, a desperation to prove they are lesser than the untouchable God that is ‘the male hero’.  

Why is this? Well, our storytellers have always been slightly uncomfortable with the possibility of a woman selfishly having any kind of physical power. I say ‘selfishly’ because in folklore and fairytales, the male hero is unapologetically narcissistic and egotistical… and for centuries, we loved him for it. Unfortunately, we still kind of do: you only need to compare the Google results for ‘male hero’ against those for ‘female hero’. 

Upon googling ‘male hero’ I was first faced with the article, ‘Top 20 male action-movie heroes of all time’. So, our popular culture seems to define the male hero by their capacity to act, by their fighting strength; this is nothing new to English, it’s how our language is constructed. In Old English (bet you didn’t think you were going to be learning a new language today, yay!) a ‘male hero’ is a ‘rinc’/warrior, an ‘aglæca’/fighter, a ‘hæle’/bold soldier. You wouldn’t want to meet one on the battlefield. Notice also the reference to ‘movie heroes’, a male hero is a commercial animal, a feared celebrity, something to drool over.

What about the women? Googling ‘female hero’ presented me with ‘50 amazing women who have changed the world’. After scrolling through 5ish articles I got a ‘list of female action heroes and villains’; but even that title is problematic. Where a man is undeniably an ‘action-hero’, the woman will always be treading a tightrope suspended over a chasm of villainy. 

Now, I am not saying that all these women who have ‘changed the world’ aren’t worth admiration, they absolutely are. I’m just saddened that after having googled ‘female hero’, I had to pass 4 articles before the word ‘hero’ even made it into a title. It’s like female heroism is something that should be hidden. Is this a feature of our language? Well, the Old English word for ‘female hero’ is… oh gosh wait, there isn’t one. 

Does this mean early-medieval culture and folklore only had men heroes? Well, not going to lie, the male translators clearly thought so. You only need to look at the way they’ve approached Beowulf. I am choosing Beowulf as an example, 1. Because I love it, and will never miss a chance to talk, slightly pretentiously, about it and 2. Because it is your archetypal hero story: 

Monster attacks kingdom, strong man kills said monster, then kills another scarier monster, then kills a dragon. Man = hero, simples.

(click here for a more complicated breakdown of the plot… although it honestly does all come down to testosterone and trauma)

Beowulf is of course the hero, it’s a poem called ‘Beowulf’. 

But remember, titles can be deceiving – for a start ‘Beowulf’ remained untitled until the 19th century. Basically, some stuffy (male) middle-class Victorian academics decided that titling would help with branding which would help with selling copies and all that commercial jizz jazz. Yes, ‘Beowulf’ does the job – I would’ve preferred ‘100 reasons to consider anger-management therapy’ – but I guess that’s not as catchy. 

If Beowulf is your hero, that’s your prerogative: he is awesome – we’ll just gloss over him cracking open a man’s chest with his bare hands for no apparent reason, or him casually watching his brother-in-arms become an-all-you-can-eat buffet for Grendel without attempting to intervene (again for no apparent reason!) – he kills a dragon, he fights unapologetically for his own glory; he must be a hero! 

He was just never my hero. Now, Grendel’s Mother – that’s a hero I can get behind. That’s a hero who needs reclaiming from the fetters of disgrace imposed on her by her male translators. 

You might remember the Old English word ‘aglæca’ from earlier – it’s a great word. An ‘aglæca’ is a formidable fighter, someone to be as equally respected as they are feared, to many, an ‘aglæca’ is justifiably a ‘hero’. 

When we first meet Grendel’s mother she is an ‘aglæc-wif’, so why is she a ‘monstrous hell-bride’ to the noble-prize winning poet Seamus Heaney or an ‘inhuman troll-wife’ to J.R.R Tolkien? Look at the language, 

aglæca/formidable fighter + wif/woman = formidable warrior woman…right?!!! But I guess ‘inhuman troll-wife’ sounds cooler; ‘monstrous hell-bride’ is certainly more poetic. 

It wasn’t until Maria Dahvana Headley’s incredible and game-changing 2020 translation that Grendel’s Mother was reclaimed in popular culture as a ‘warrior woman’. A moment which was quickly undermined by booksellers branding the translation as ‘feminist’ in an attempt to sell more copies. Never mind that not once does Headley label her translation as ‘feminist’. Don’t get me wrong, I am all for feminist reworkings of myths and legends but calling this translation ‘feminist’ does it a disservice. It implies Headley is adding something to the text that isn’t there in order to change the way we think. Yes, thank goodness she is challenging the monstrous (pun absolutely intended) treatment Grendel’s Mother has received from previous translators; but her work stems very much from the original text.

While we are on the topic of genuine feminist reworkings of myths – I cannot recommend Headley’s ‘The Mere Wife’ enough. Grendel’s Mother becomes a battered, broken, violated, villainised US marine who lives only for her child – because the world has left her with nothing else worth living for. It’s a story about motherhood, about trauma, about police brutality, racism, otherness, survival. The women are strong, sublime and unstoppable because of how they keep surviving in spite of the odds endlessly stacked against them. Yet, no matter how hard their fight, the female fighter is always perceived to cast a monstrous shadow. It’s, well, it’s just wow.

I guess the biggest issue with Grendel’s Mother is that she is female and a fighter. I mean it’s not an issue for me, but it’s something the poet clearly struggled with. There is even a moment where he gets in quite the muddle and starts referring to her using male pronouns. Yes, I am retrospectively coding the Beowulf poet as male, but would a woman be silly enough just to ‘forget’ the poem’s only significant woman-warrior’s gender? Maybe they would, maybe they wouldn’t, but personally ‘he’ just feels right. Deliberate or not, what this forgetting does succeed in doing is reminding us that war is man’s world and that Grendel’s Mother is the unwelcome intruder. The (bizarre) film adaptation of Beowulf attempts the opposite; Angelina Jolie plays a very racy – and very naked! – version of Grendel’s mother who chooses sleeping with Beowulf over fighting for her child. I hate it! I hate how the question ‘Is Angelina Jolie too hot to be playing Grendel’s Mother?’ was allowed to become a thing. 

Grendel’s Mother is my hero because she causes masculine coded heroic society to collapse. In hero culture it a real must to take trophies from your slaughtered enemies. They are proof your awesomeness, that you’re real deal, someone who is absolutely 100% the true hero. Now Beowulf, after he kills Grendel’s Mother – in what is probably the most emasculating fight in medieval folklore (her shattering of his ‘sword’ being a moment I’m sure he’d rather forget) – his toughest opponent yet, decides that, instead of following custom, he would rather take home the severed head of the very dead, and very very rotten, Grendel. Basically, Beowulf – and all the little humans at Heorot Hall – don’t want to be reminded that they came *this* close to being bested by a woman; and a woman with a completely justified motive at that. A woman who acted in accordance with every code and law, who’s only incentive was the protection of her child – much more justified than piles of money. I LOVE it! Her femininity literally (or figuratively – I never know) causes the entire heroic society to breakdown… that’s some power. 

‘hero, sense 1 – a man (occasionally a woman) blah blah blah…’ well it’s just wrong – I could list many more women-warriors who are just as important and game-changing as Grendel’s Mother who desperately need reclaiming from monstrous – and male-orientated – narratives. I could, but I think it’s much more fun to find your own inspiration, the hero that suits your narrative, your life. 

Grendel’s Mother rewrote my rules, made my narrative all new and shiny again, she’s my hero… Who’s yours?  

Jessica Steadman

Jess, one of The Oxford Blue's Columnists, is a first year studying English at Univ. She writes a column inspired by the medieval stories she read to procrastinate her modernism paper. When she is trying to avoid work completely you will find her halfway up a climbing wall.