Susan Thurston's "Sister of Grendel": a cultural critique of the epic hero

“And I have at last accounted for this last part of my story.” Beowulf’s voice surrounds me, and his image again appears whole before me.
Beowulf the warrior reaches out his hand as if to touch me.
I extend mine toward him. “Which causes more pain, I wonder. The words unsaid or the words not said well enough?”

Susan Thurston, Sister of Grendel

A re-imagining of the Beowulf epic

Early 1980’s: the Dynasty women, the Dallas woman, and Princess Diana were wearing shoulder pads and feathered hair. Our radios blared Blondie’s Call Me, or Queen’s Another One Bites the Dust. Meanwhile, in a sparsely attended upper-class seminar at Minnesota State University (Mankato), Susan Thurston was studying an Anglo-Saxon medieval (Old English!) epic story of a warrior culture, its hero, Beowulf, and their territorial battles highlighting their valorous victory over the “evil” monsters, Grendel and his mother.

Susan Thurston Hamerski
Photographed: Thursday, December 28, 2006, Edina, MN

“My sympathies aligned not with the Geats or the…mercenary [Beowulf],” she writes in the preface to her book Sister of Grendel, “but with the invaded: Grendel and his mother.” 
Is this a novel? Well, yes, but, “the large publishers just didn’t know how to classify it,” Susan told me in a private interview. “They couldn’t figure out the potential audience—the target market. It doesn’t neatly fit any of the recognized genres.”
Her agent, Diana Finch “believed in the magic of this tale from its beginning,” as did many publishing house editors who read the manuscript. Marketing teams, however, (those powerful deciders who cast the decisive yea or nay over most of any publishing house’s acquisitions) couldn’t classify it and kept saying no. The book was at long last published by Black Hat Press of Minnesota in 2016.
It wasn’t difficult for me to classify this book. Sister of Grendel is an epic prose-poem. Here’s a definition from The Academy of American Poet’s website, which perfectly summarizes the characteristics of an epic, which are also the characteristics of Sister of Grendel:

An epic is:

  • a long, often book-length, narrative;
  • in verse form;
  • that retells the heroic journey of a single person, or group of persons.

Elements that typically distinguish epics include:

  • superhuman deeds;
  • fabulous adventures;
  • highly stylized language;
  • and a blending of lyrical and dramatic traditions.

So let’s shelf Sister of Grendel in literary fiction, under the subcategory “epic-narrative-prose-poetry.”
Unfortunately that shelf doesn’t exist in contemporary bookstores, because the genre is generally considered obsolete and irrelevant.

A micro-summary of the History of Epic Poetry/Literature from Ancient Classical times through the Modernists (mid-1950’s):

Some Classical Epics:

  • Homer’s epic poems Iliad and Odyssey (eighth Century BCE/BC) recount the legend of Ulysses’ heroic adventures;
  • The Babylonian epic Gilgamesh  (ca. 1600-1000 BCE/BC) focuses on protecting a civilization.
  • Together with Beowulf, these serve as models for epic poetry for millennia.

Some Pre 18th Century epics:

  • Chaucer’s The Knight’s Tale;
  • Spenser’s The Fairie Queen;
  • Milton’s Paradise Lost.

Some 18th Century Satirical Mock epics (something like neoclassical forerunners of The Onion)

  • Pope’s The Dunciad and Rape of the Lock;
  • Dryden’s Abloom and Achitophel.

Some 19th Century’s re-envisionings of epic, exploring the mind’s interior adventures and discoveries:

  • Wordsworth’s The Prelude; 
  • Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, and Don Juan; 
  • Tennyson’s Idylls of the King;
  • Longfellow’s Hiawatha;
  • Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.

Some Modernist re-envisionings of epic, dealing with the tension between self and the culture in which the self exists:

  • Pound’s The Cantos;
  • T. S. Eliot’s ˆThe Wasteland (1922);
  • James Joyce’s Ulysses.

Epics authored by women:

In The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, in more than twelve, two-columned pages of minuscule type, J. K. Newman expounds on the history and theory of Western epic literature from the ancient-classical era through modern times. Citing dozens more English language (male) poems/poets than I’ve mentioned, along with a score of epics in non-English languages (all by males), Professor Newman mentions just two women poets:

  • “Elizabeth Barrett Browning in Aurora Leigh (1857) could lay claim to have written a novel in verse or a feminist epic,” and;
  • “H.D. in Triology (1944-46), using the lyric voice to record her experiences of wartime London, tackles the universal problem of war.”

The death of epic

As far as Professor J. K. Newman was concerned, when he was writing in 1999, “the fragmentation of the Classical tradition [of the epic poem] in our time has … led to impatient rejection of its relevance.” He infers that all that remains to do with the centuries-long tradition of epic is for scholars to articulate a unifying epic theory that would seek to accommodate the history of individual achievement, as if the epic belongs the dead past.

Some 21st Century epics:

Seventeen years later, Susan Thurston’s Sister of Grendel, is blurring and extending boundaries: of genre (fantasy? allegory? historical?); of form (prose? poetry?); and of critical theory (Neo-romantic? Feminist? Post-gender?). By reinventing the Classical epic, she rejuvenates its relevance for a third-millennial, global culture. She is not alone. Two other contemporary women writers’ poetic tales of epic adventure that spring to mind: Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing; Natasha Trethewey’s Native Guard. Doubtless there are others. I’ve observed that women writers are claiming the power of their voices in reshaping cultural values, and epic has a long history of transmitting the moral codes and ethics of individuals and groups.

The power of epic to shape cultural values

Sister of Grendel tells the story of a race of beings, the Anathians, “who possess refined language and intelligence, great physical strength, and longevity. They live close to the natural and spiritual world, are skilled in herbal medicine, music, and magic, and can enter the dreams of sleeping humans.” Specifically, this is the story of the Sister of Grendel, Rehsotis, and how she bridges “the dangerous divide with humankind—the Smallheaded—with the help of her few allies, including a forsaken monk, a grieving love, and a trusting child.”
While set in the realm of fantasy, Sister of Grendel is not a story of escape from reality. Ms. Thurston does not shy away from the real-life consequences of human selfishness, fear, greed, deception, betrayal, and violence, encountered by all of us without and within ourselves and our communities. She exposes the shadow side of our nature to the light of compassionate reason.
She does not offer readers the false hope of blind optimism, but instead points to healing possibilities existent in poetry, story, music, art, artisanship, and the meaningful rituals that bind us together. She reminds us of what  ennobles us: the loving kindness we demonstrate to one another (an other!) transforms us from predatory, hostile survivalists into sustainable, hospitable human communities. Failing to extend loving kindness to each and every other keeps us in slavery to our baser instincts.
Writing for the Los Angeles Review, here is Nancy Posey on Sister of Grendel:

“Rehsotis (Grendel’s sister) becomes a kind of archetypal hero on her own journey seeking a home and her own people. Thurston creates a world as clear and credible as More’s Utopian or any of Swift’s fabled lands in Gulliver’s Travels.”

The archetypal hero’s journey grew to pop-culture status in the years after Bill Moyers’ influential television series with Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth, aired. Rehsotis’ story, however, critiques that archetype.  The classical mythic hero, Beowulf, seen through the eyes of  Grendel, his mother, sister and their tribe), is a violent exterminator not only of their people and culture, but also of beauty and wisdom. Rhesotis, a maker of instruments before Beowulf annihilated her family and culture, describes her craft:

When I take a piece of wood into my hands, I sense the seasons the tree has known–times of abundance, years of constant thirst, prevailing twists of wind, or an unexpected skewer of lightning. As I work the wood, various tones and colors ripple before my eyes. I blend and mingle the strips of wood…Each player takes up one of my bring boxes, rests it under her chin or across her lap, and draws a tight bow over stretched gut strings, and–knows me. With one of my creations, one never plays alone.”

This is also, of course, a metaphorical description of the intimate connection between writer and reader, working in concert to bring a narrative to life. If you are a reader who reads to enter “the heart and soul of a writer’s being,” to experience “an emotional journey through the symphony of words, leading to a stronger grasp of the universe and of ourselves,” you may want to read this story, to bring it to life in your own imagination.

New Epic: Listening to the Missing Stories

In penning Sister of Grendel, Susan Thurston questions militant assumptions about what it means to be heroic. She challenges imperialism and colonialism by giving voice to the conquered. She questions the arrogance of conveniently labeling the Other-Stranger a Monster-Demon-Villain, which silently condones the evil-doings of one’s own cultural institutions and practices, and blindly ignores the destructive prejudices lurking in one’s own psyche.
Political rhetoric does not create predatory, narrow-minded racism and nationalism. Stories disseminate our values. The words we take into our hearts and pass on to the next generation–about where we came from, what is meaningful, who we are, and what defines heroism–are the building blocks of our moral codes and ethics.
Many who seek power and attempt to retain power know how to use the rhetoric of hate and fear. They dump it like bait into shark-infested waters. They pour fear into those minds shaped by stories of violent conquest portrayed as heroism, and they feed hatred.
Coincidentally, I recently finished (as a book group assignment) Yaa Gyasi’s novel Homegoing–another reinvention of epic for the 21st Century–spanning 300 years and telling the stories of a tribe, the descendants of 2 half-sisters and their experiences of (and participation with) colonialism, slavery, and racism in Ghana and the U.S. Here is an excerpt, in which a history teacher in Ghana speaks to his students:

“This is the problem of history. We cannot know that which were were not there to see and hear and experience for ourselves. We must rely on the words of others…Whose story do we believe, then?”
The boys were silent. They stared at him, waiting.
“We believe the one who has the power. He is the one who gets to write the story. So when you study history, you must always ask yourself, Whose story am I missing? Whose voice was suppressed so that this voice could come forth? Once you have figured that out, you must find that story too. From there, you begin to get a clearer, yet still imperfect picture.”

Sister of Grendel challenges us to ask, “Whose story is missing?” and to examine our cultural differences and our similarities with compassionate clarity. In a July 27th (2017) share of a article on Facebook, Sister of Grendel’s agent Diana Finch wrote, “Let the resistance thrive on the bookshelves!” Ms. Thurston’s epic story is indeed a work of resistance, opposing a politics of division, the practice of vilifying the other in justification of their harm, expulsion, and eradication.
This will be a challenging read for those who identify as Christians, as it is told in the voice of a pagan, non-Christian. Ms. Thurston challenges self-righteousness and the justification of inflicting harm on those who believe differently, speak differently, look foreign. She challenges us to listen to the voice of “others” who have been vilified and exterminated. She asks us to understand that every one of us is a limited, fallible, finite-visioned, small-minded creature. In this she admonishes Christians to live without hypocrisy, to adhere to their New Testament teachings–to demonstrate love and compassion for all creatures, to forsake vengeance, to seek forgiveness, and allow God be the judge. Most powerfully, she challenges all to be considerate and careful of the pain we inflict, not only through physical violence, but through the violence of speaking careless words or withholding words of kindness:

“And I have at last accounted for this last part of my story.” Beowulf’s voice surrounds me, and his image again appears whole before me.
Beowulf the warrior reaches out his hand as if to touch me.
I extend mine toward him. “Which causes more pain, I wonder. The words unsaid or the words not said well enough?”

This work of literature—epic story / poetic novel–deserves a place on the shelves of serious readers of literature, and Susan Thurston, an award-winning Minnesota poet, deserves more critical attention and acclaim. (Click here to read her poem Rapunzel Takes a Stand, which won the 2016 1st prize in the San Miguel Writers’ Conference & Literary Festival’s contest.)

About Susan Thurston, poet/writer

Susan Thurston relishes spending time with her children Madeleine and Samuel and draws inspiration from ancient myths and legends as well as the ceaseless beauty of the Mississippi River that flows through the heart of her city. She is working hard to achieve a life that offers more time to cherish friendships and create, travel, and read deeply. All of that is enhanced by good food, libations, and sun. She is a writer, educator, and professional communicator who lives in St. Paul, Minnesota. Her work has been published in numerous publications including the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Los Angeles Review, Garrison Keillor’s The Writer’s Almanac, Minnesota Monthly, Fox Cry ReviewRag Mag; several anthologies including Open to Interpretation: At Water’s Edge (Taylor & O’Neill, 2012), Low Down and Coming On (Red Dragonfly Press, 2010), Tremors Vibrations Enough to Rearrange the World (Heywood Press, 1995); and the chapbook Wild Bone Season (Heywood Press, 1996). Her novel Sister of Grendel was published by The Black Hat Press in 2016. She coauthored Cooking-Up the Good Life (University of Minnesota Press, 2012) with local-food movement leader Chef Jenny Breen. As part of earning her master’s degree from Hamline University, she spent time exploring the influence of gender on the creative process with the game-changing writers Carol Bly, Patricia Hampl, and Meridel Le Sueur.
Disclosure: I could, as friends of writers have been doing for hundreds of years, pretend that I’m an objective critic writing about a stranger, but as J.C. Hallman wrote in the review of Marc Nieson’s memoir Schoolhouse, “fie on that… it’s finally okay to acknowledge what most have long known — namely, that book reviewers sometimes know the authors of the books they review.”
Susan Thurston and I have been friends for nearly thirty years. I met her through a writing group, where my admiration for her talent and skill came before, and provided the initial basis for, our friendship. Her kindness, decency, courage, intelligence, and exuberant enjoyment of life have cemented my affection and loyalty.
But despite my deep fondness for her, I still wouldn’t praise anything she (or anyone) wrote, if I didn’t honestly believe the work is praise-worthy.

Which stories/histories do you question? Whose story is missing from your understanding of what happened? Or, which contemporary authors do you think are deserving of more critical acclaim/a larger audience, and why aren’t they getting their due?


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