Once upon a time, back around the advent of science fiction’s New Wave movement in the 1960s, a theory was propounded that SF had rightfully and usefully usurped the functions of myths and legends and fairy tales and even religion. This bit of Age of Aquarius manifesto-making was always two-fold in its intentions, even if the proponents of the party platform often conflated the two somewhat divergent wings of their campaign.
On the one hand, it was intended that science fiction could take its primary twentieth-century subject matter—the glories and perils of emergent technology –and manufacture new stories that would perform the same satisfying psychological and spiritual and entertainment functions that mythmaking had performed for older, pre-technological cultures. Thus, a story like Damon Knight’s “To Serve Man,” in which seemingly benevolent aliens are revealed to regard humans as cattle–a story which passed into common anonymous currency thanks to media adaptations–could now substitute for some older cautionary legend about ostensibly altruistic strangers who proved to have ulterior motives, maybe hailing from Prester John’s remote and exotic domains. And the realm of comic book superheroes would provide us with a new pantheon to replace the aspirational Greek and Roman gods and goddesses. This desire to have SF create new and different objective correlatives for archetypical human concerns and emotions is perhaps best typified by the title of a J. G. Ballard collection from 1982, issued rather late in the backwash of this fable-crafting game: Myths of the Near Future. And the notion of superheroes functioning as Olympians found its codification as late as 2011, in Grant Morrison’s Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human.
The second way in which SF was said to have supplanted myths and legends was less revolutionary and more evolutionary. The genre had the ability to adapt the old stories through the donning of modern garb. Still-potent but slightly fusty old fairy tales and legends could be directly transubstantiated into hip science-fictional terms. Perhaps the first writer to venture into this realm was Cordwainer Smith, always concerned with the nature of legend-making in his Instrumentality stories. His tale, “The Dead Lady of Clown Town,” reworked the life of Joan of Arc. Next up in this mode was Samuel Delany. The Ballad of Beta-2 finds a future anthropologist unravelling the reality of a folk belief, while The Einstein Intersection rings in Orpheus, Billy the Kid, and other larger-than-life avatars in a jumbled posthuman setting–a mashup style later found in Michael Moorcock’s The Dancers at the End of Time sequence. But the apex of Delany’s science-fictional mythmaking is surely the magnificent Nova, the Arthurian Grail quest transliterated into space opera. During this same period Roger Zelazny brilliantly recast Hindu and Buddhist narratives into Lord of Light. The impulse continues today, in such projects as Clockwork Fairy Tales: A Collection of Steampunk Fables.
Like many world-revisioning strategies of the 1960s, the notion of deploying SF to produce myths of the near future–whether freshly conceived or recast from old templates–petered out after its potentials seemed thoroughly plumbed. But everything old becomes new again, and using the language of science fiction to convey the truths and lessons once embodied in classical folk motifs seems back in fashion. Hybridizing Jungian archetypes with postmodern or futuristic trappings can provide new insights and psychological frissons. A prominent example is Lidia Yuknavitch’s striking The Book of Joan, which–gladdening the shade of Cordwainer Smith–fashions a dystopia out of Joan of Arc’s career.
And now comes Maria Dahvana Headley’s The Mere Wife, which turns to Beowulf for inspiration and structure and import. John Gardner, of course, famously recast that poem in his novel Grendel, re-centering the epic around the monster, and plumbing its ancient setting with modern psychological depth. Headley is after something else entirely. In language brutal, elegant and as consequential as a sniper’s precision, constructing a drama that is no less fateful and tragic than the original, Headley abstracts from Beowulf many of its classic motifs and characters and plot points, but uses them to illuminate themes and conflicts vastly different from the Dark Ages concerns of the original. Nonetheless, an emotional and intellectual resonance comes to exists between the ur-text and the modern version.
Our setting is a gated community known as Herot Hall, an exclusive suburb of wealth and privilege, perhaps the day after tomorrow. Immediately, thanks to Headley’s astringent but not entirely unsympathetic depiction of the place, one feels in Ballardian territory–Super-Cannes or High-Rise–and fully expects that the facade will be ripped asunder, by the eruption of repressed emotions, downtrodden underclass doings, or both. And indeed, Headley delivers a drama along those very lines, turning Beowulf‘s portrayal of allied noble houses and a team of equals menaced by almost cosmic irrationality into a parable of twenty-first century social and economic inequality.
At the center of the community are Roger and Willa Herot (Hrothgar and Wealthow of the original). Roger is the pure unquestioning embodiment of all the community’s values and standards, while Willa is a vessel of discontent and self-doubt, a dutiful housewife sensing that her life is a sham. Their young son Dylan is the annointed heir on whom the future depends.
Herot Hall has made one fatal mistake in securing its foundations, however. The place encircles the base of a mountain, a kind of central faux wilderness preserve that is openly accessible to the suburbanites, a perk of living there. But if they can reach the mountain, the mountain can also reach them. It’s a heart of darkness with its secret sharers, to invoke Conradian tropes. And its two hermit human habitants will prove the undoing of the village.
The mountain once featured a Victorian spa, with a miraculous healing lake, or mere. (This image of fallen glory, of abandoned therapeutic natural healing, is a vital one.) But the forgotten subterranean remnants of the spa now house an anomalous mother and child: Dana Mills and her son, Gren. Dana is an ex-soldier who fought in either Afghanistan or the Iraq theater: one of America’s problematic conflicts. She was captured and–so a public videotape testifies–beheaded. But after experiencing her own apparent death, she awakes impossibly in a hospital, minus one eye–and pregnant with her inexplicable, enigma-fathered son. Eventually, she and infant Gren–a lad who will soon grow at a prodigious rate–escape the authorities and make their way to their mountain hideout. Ironically, Dana is now overlooking her own ancestral lands. There they live a subsistence life, desirous only of avoiding civilization. But when Gren becomes an adolescent, he yearns for the life he sees below. Specifically, he wishes to have Dylan Herot as his playmate.
This innocent ambition–a radical revisioning of character and motive far from the mindless cannibal rapine of Grendel in the ur-book–is the trigger for a cascade of disasters. It would be a critical faux pas for me to reveal the welter of surprising, gut-wrenching tumults ahead, but suffice it to say that no one comes out unscathed, and the book leaves its lone survivor elegaically consoled only by ghosts:
My son is with me, my son with his beloved, and everyone else, the bones and blood dispersed into this water, the history of my family, the sand and bullets, the old hotels, the train tracks, and the train. The mountain and the mere, the trees we touched, the rabbits we snared, the wolves we heard but never saw. The cats and the dogs bounding down the driveways, the children on the swings and the women on the bridge and the echo of the sirens, singing their way into notes for birds to mimic.
I need to supply one last vital component of the tale for the cast to be complete: Headley’s version of Beowulf the man. In her tale, Ben Woolf is a cop–described at one point as a “Viking”–who comes off as a kind of Bruce Willis, Jason Statham, Vin Diesel, Daniel Craig action figure. In his portrayal Headley lets herself cut loose from the serious nature of her enterprise and offer a leavening dose of slapstick, humor and irony. Yes, Woolf is also pitiably doomed by his own nature, but it’s a more cartoony doom than experienced by the others, right up to his final superheroic moment.
Ben Woolf’s been up since five in any case, doing what a man of a certain age needs to do to stay combat-ready. Bodies want to crumble.
Fifteen miles on the stationary bike. Four hundred sit-ups, bench press, elliptical, pees, speed bag, stairs, high school bleach-ers, up them, down them, chin-ups, yoga plank cooldown. Shower in ice water (circulation), jerk off while showering, why not, though the cold water makes that a challenge, dress in uniform, comb hair neatly, and out of there by 6:45. Steak tartare. Raw egg. Ben Woolf may be forty (face it, forty-four), but he’s in the best shape of his life. He’s never off-duty, despite the drowsy nature of this situation. Trees fall on houses and he has to be there, nature committing crimes against property. People collapse in the middle of the grocery store, or end up driving while dead. Crime doesn’t sleep and Ben doesn’t either.
Now it’s nine, and Ben’s been sitting in the station, alert for hours, waiting for anything at all to happen.
Having tailored her analogues and set up the dynamics of their relationships, Headley riffs engagingly on social and monetary injustices; the manifold, multiplex nature of motherhood (is the “mere wife” Willa or Dana or both?); the attempts by human beings to construct impossible cocoons of total security; the nature of sacrifice; the tensions between city and country; the immorality of war; and the abuses of power and the mass media. Her novel never loses sight of its microcosmic humans, but embeds them in the macrocosmic matrix.
In terms of authors who chime alongside Headley, we might point to the much-missed Kit Reed, who mined similar hills in her many stories of conventionality versus rebellion, starting as far back as the 1950s, as well as the cool and subtle derangements of Carol Emshwiller. Robert Coover’s Briar Rose, a retelling of Sleeping Beauty, lends its transgressiveness to Headley’s tale. Tom Perrotta’s exaggeratedly naturalistic chronicles of suburban malaise seem relevant also, as do two of Donald Antrim’s more surreal books, The Hundred Brothers and Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World.
I have not even dared here to tease out the threads that might support an interpretation of Dana Mills and Gren as the Grinch (monster[s] looking down acerbically from a mountain perch upon Whoville) or as Prospero and Caliban.
There’s an island I heard of once, off Nova Scotia. It’s a shipwreck island and nothing comes near it anymore. People’ve lost it on maps for centuries. It might not even exist. But maybe we could get to a place like that and stay. We can live on gulls and eggs, me and Gren, and when he’s grown, we’ll build a ship and sail off again.
The ease with which Headley folds such imaginative connections into her vision speaks volumes: The Mere Wife is a boldly conceived work that can stand proudly on the bookshelf next to its inspiration.