Sharon Emmerichs’s Shield Maiden hopes to give voice to two social groups whose bodies sustained early medieval northern Europe’s culture of masculine heroism and display, as mythologized in the Old English epic poem Beowulf: the women whose betrothals were currency in male rulers’ alliances, and the slaves whose labour underpinned the opulent crafts that those rulers and their households enjoyed.
Curiously, the novel’s title only relates to one of these groups. Its protagonist, Fryda, is Beowulf’s niece (we are told—she is not mentioned in the poem), and has suppressed her girlhood dreams of becoming a warrior like that great Geatish king—that good king, that “god cyning”—since maiming her arm during a headstrong adventure into a treasure-hoarding dragon’s cave. She is about to be sold off as a bride to whichever lord will bring her cruel father the wealthiest deal.
Fryda is the daughter of Weohstan, ruler of the Waegmundings, a minor character in the Beowulf epic whose household incites the epic’s third act. Beowulf’s fight against a dragon there pits the hero against a fearsome creature in one last fatal combat, fifty years after he slew the monster Grendel—and Grendel’s even more monstrous mother—in the deeds that won him the right to be called king. Weohstan’s heir Wiglaf, Fryda’s brother, is lauded in the epic as the only thane courageous enough to brave the dragon’s flame alongside Beowulf, but here cuts a corrupt and indolent figure as an antagonist who—unlike the dragon—commands no respect as a deserving foe.
If Shield Maiden is concerned with its titular maiden, it is equally concerned with Theow, the enslaved Celt whose story fills in the background of the unnamed slave from Weohstan’s household in the epic. In the original poem, a slave’s theft of a goblet incited Beowulf’s last battle by provoking the creature into ravaging the Waegmundings’ lands and burning down Weohstan’s hall. For his own part, Theow was captured in a Danish slave raid on Ireland, and his very name is the Old English for “thrall.” As Fryda’s childhood playmate, and now as a strapping kitchen hand, he displays the kindness and bravery which Fryda’s lordly male relatives fail to show.
Theow and Fryda share experiences of bodily difference which unite them across the household’s social boundaries and set them up, with apparent inevitability, for the forbidden love affair which leads to Theow’s exile from the hall. Fryda’s crushed hand has healed into a mangled shape, and Theow’s face bears prominent burn scars, marking them both as outsiders in a heroic culture that celebrates beautiful decoration and bodily strength. Their sensitivity to each other’s trauma and impairments is the basis of their healing and their love.
Parts of Shield Maiden’s imagination echo two movements in contemporary speculative fiction, which together interrogate the patriarchal and Eurocentric bases of Western storytelling’s heroic martial myth-stock: critical engagement with the legacies of Beowulf itself, and the vogue for feminist retellings.
Thanks in no small part to J. R. R. Tolkien, who parlayed his lifelong scholarly reckoning with Beowulf into the symbolic language of his own fantasy world, the themes and tropes of the Beowulf epic are distant ancestors of Middle Earth, D&D, and every plot in which a Western hero stands between a homely hearth and a dragon, whatever shape that metaphorical dragon may temporarily have taken on. Of recent speculative fictions that try to break down what Beowulf has meant in the Western patriarchal imagination, chief among these rebellious dragonlings is Maria Dahvana Headley’s multimodal duology. Headley’s The Mere Wife (2018) mapped the figure of Grendel’s mother on to twenty-first-century America’s continuum of racialized state violence—from carceral policing to the War on Terror. Headley’s subsequent translation of the Beowulf epic itself (2020), meanwhile, draws on early medieval English and present-day American celebrations of masculine sociality, boastfulness, and competition to create one transhistorical space in which the poem’s famous opening declamation—"Hwaet!”—can be translated as “Bro!”
Emmerichs’s storytelling is not aiming at this level of intertextual or political play. It does, though, participate in the field’s collective effort to resist white supremacist appropriations of ancient and medieval Europe by establishing African presence in the world of Beowulf from the very first page. This slight nod towards antiracist medievalism comes through Fryda’s friend Hild, a kitchen servant and aspiring warrior who was indentured along with her parents when Weohstan built the hall. Hild secretly practices sword-fighting with Fryda under the eye of the household’s blacksmith, and is first to witness how Fryda’s fate is becoming entwined with the awakening dragon’s—though, unlike with Theow, little about Hild’s story stems from the cultural background against which she has lived. It matters that she is an outsider to the clan, with no surviving kin who could object to Weohstan’s extortionate management of her indenture; but the circumstances in which Theow was captured from Ireland affects other characters, whereas Hild’s African heritage and her family’s history as Roman freedmen do not cause anything to happen in the story that would not have stemmed from any other origin that an indentured servant in Geatland might have had.
The dragon, on the other hand, is given a backstory that links her back to the earlier episodes of the Beowulf legend: in the dragon’s hoard is a goblet forged by Weland the Smith, one of a pair that a lord shared with his brother centuries ago. The brother, known only as the Lone Survivor, cursed the dragon through the goblet after she had ravaged his family and hall. The pain of the curse leaves the dragon thrashing in throes that caused the earthquake in which Fryda was maimed, while the Lone Survivor wandered until he had “withered and shrivelled into a monstrous form,” to be taken in by a she-demon and live “beneath the surface of a rank and polluted mere”—that is, Grendel’s home. (In perhaps the most textually confusing part of the epic, a long-ago figure—named the “Last Survivor” by the Beowulf translator who has most influenced Emmerichs, Seamus Heaney—is responsible for mournfully committing the dragon’s treasures to the earth.)
Throughout the story, Fryda’s emotions and the dragon’s grow entangled, pulling the land further and further towards doom as Fryda’s experiences of betrayal, humiliation, passion, and disobedience put her through trials that make her question who counts as family and what it means to rule. In this way, Shield Maiden uses women’s voices to question the epic imagination’s masculine warrior culture, as when Hild and Fryda stand before a tapestry illustrating what will turn out to be a warped account of a battle involving Weohstan, Beowulf, and a royal power struggle in Sweden (told in one of the epic’s many interlaced flashbacks). As they do so, they ask themselves why men place so much value on war.
The novel taps the potential of retelling best when it depicts Beowulf and other characters grappling with the strangeness of being legends in their own lifetimes, as their deeds are inflated by scops (the Old English word for storytellers who declaimed heroic poetry at household feasts; the Old Norse of the story’s actual setting called these same people skalds) and imitated by children at play. Beowulf’s myth is evolving in real time, to the chagrin of those who remember the truth: “They have him fighting for a full day. In a cave. Underwater,” one character comments on the latest version of the verses about Grendel’s mother. Even Beowulf himself is aware of the difference between the “glorious death” that scops praise in their verses and the “ceremonial nonsense” they convey. Beowulf cannot avert death, nor his transformation “from man to memory,” but his passing is redemptive rather than elegiac, leading to Fryda’s investiture as a new Geatish queen rather than the time of troubles that otherwise looms over the Geats—especially the keening women—around the epic’s closing funeral pyre.
In giving women roles beyond peace-weaving cupbearer or monstrous enemy, Shield Maiden also joins in a second movement of literary activism: the wave of empowered feminist retellings featuring women whom myth and ancient history have previously fixed as men’s playthings, silenced as victims, or otherwise maligned. Within this space of historical and mythological redress, reopened as marketable by Madeline Miller’s Circe (2018) and the bestsellers which have been published in its wake, Shield Maiden is firmly on the liberal, commercial wing. Fryda is motivated to distinguish herself as worthy to rule the Waegmundings so that she can repair the unjust treatment of servants and slaves in her father’s household, choose a future husband for love rather than for duty, and protect herself from the casual misogyny that Weohstan and Wiglaf have allowed to become endemic at court. These are present-day feminist concerns as much as, or more than, motivations grounded in the past that the story represents. So unremarkable is it for women to fight in the warband, for instance, that shield maidens are an everyday component of the clan—though Fryda somehow interacts with them so little that the reader only discovers this halfway through the story, when a band of exiles attacks the homestead, and none are even named until after the battle when one Eawynn is promoted into the clan’s warband after the battle.
Rather than having Fryda simply take Wiglaf’s place beside Beowulf in the final showdown with the dragon, however, imagining Fryda as a disabled hero who cannot easily win renown in combat seems intended to force her narrative onto a different course—and broaden the tale’s notion of what heroism might be. Fryda has internalized an ableism which teaches her that her injury makes her unfit to serve as a shield maiden, but still keeps on training with Hild and the kindly blacksmith Bryce, who teaches her to fight in ways that adapt to her impairment—symbolizing a fatherly care that her biological father does not display. When she triumphs at the end of the story, her hand is still impaired.
Like other novels at this more commercial end of the swell of feminist retellings, however, Shield Maiden’s aim to re-examine its chosen story is in some tension with the pressure to reproduce the beats of commercially tried-and-tested plot—in contrast to how, say, Nicola Griffith’s Hild (2013) starts to reject both slavery and women’s social role as peace-weaver without becoming—as T S Miller has written—“the mouthpiece of a contemporary feminist progressivism dropped into the seventh century.”
Remove the Beowulf references from Shield Maiden, and much of Fryda’s path to fulfilment could equally unfold in a Viking-inspired secondary world, or for that matter a dystopia, a magical academy, a fantasy empire, or any other setting that a young woman is confronting with her diverse friends. The story does engage more imaginatively with some of the epic’s supporting male characters, such as Wiglaf or the unheroic Unferth—who is furnished with his own redemptive reimagining as the story goes on. Its emphasis on how its setting’s social structures depend on slavery and servitude is never far from the page in Theow’s plot, and is where the book deals most critically with the romanticization of the Viking and Old English past.
As Neil Clark writes in Children of Ash and Elm (2020), his recent synthesis of Viking history, the early medieval Scandinavian economy depended on “staggering” amounts of wool production and textile processing, which written sources place firmly within women’s social sphere—but, since we see no “exponential” expansion of the free female population, most of this labour must have been enslaved. In the historical Viking Age which grew out of Beowulf’s time, captives enslaved on raids performed much of the basic manufacturing work that let fresh raids set sail. Fryda’s detachment from the system of slavery, however, is already fully formed at the start of Shield Maiden. She is the only member of her household who asks rather than commands these unfree laborers, and the only highborn member of the clan who notices the kitchen overseer’s abuse of the workers—all apparently bought as a job lot in Bristol (a city now reckoning with its standing in the transatlantic slave trade), when Weohstan bought his homestead with his Swedish spoils. While the epic takes for granted how servants would have dressed the longhouse for the many feasts that unfold Beowulf’s drama, Emmerichs makes this labour visible. Indeed, the place of slavery in this early medieval social order is even more important to the story than the idea of becoming a shield maiden, as commercially appealing as that may be; might a different title have conveyed its take on Beowulf better?
Even where Shield Maiden does grow closer to the history and culture of its setting, then, questions remain: for example, it is unfortunate that the language and plotting of Fryda’s story is present-shaped to a degree that some readers will find frustrating. Knocked onto her behind while sparring, Fryda grumbles, “Bollocks.” Beowulf himself is introduced with similes which might be the stuff of kennings, but do not push the reader’s imagination far beyond conventional descriptions from our present day: his hands as big as dinner-plates, his chest as broad as a standing stone. Characters look out anachronistically over the “Baltic” Sea, not the Austmarr, the Eastern Sea, or any place-name more appropriate to their time.
Similarly, while honour may be on the characters’ minds authentically enough, but religion and spirituality are not. Whenever the Beowulf epic was written (a disputed enough topic that ‘Dating Beowulf’ is a scholarly in-joke), its author lived in a Christianizing early medieval England, looking back at a pagan past which had already faded from history by placing it in an already-fantasized far North. But, though on the first page of Shield Maiden we read that the Waegmundings worship “Woden and Frige,” besides occasional mentions of “the gods,” belief has scarcely any presence in the characters’ lives (unlike, say, those of 2023’s other female-focused Old Norse retelling, Genevieve Gornichec’s The Weaver and the Witch Queen).
Elsewhere, there are occasional nods to the wider body of early medieval English poetry: a parade of exiles and last survivors wander through the Exeter Book (another influence on Tolkien); Hild is equipped with seemingly all the dirty-but-clean riddles from the Exeter riddle-hoard; one warleader has fought in the Battle of Maldon, the subject of another Old English poem—though this took place in 991 CE, four-and-a-half centuries after the war between the rival Swedish kings Eadgils and Onela that erupts into another cycle of vengeance in this story while Beowulf is on Weohstan’s land. Shield Maiden also follows the epic in asking what it means to be a “good king,” the role that the poem declares its most favoured rulers to have fulfilled. Theow’s arc and the failings of Weohstan and Wiglaf show that goodness and fitness to lead are independent of social status, just as Theow’s and Fryda’s impairments show that honour is not linked to bodily perfection. Beowulf himself repents his less heroic deeds in earlier life and the consequences they have brought to the Waegmundings’ hall.
Frequent interludes from the awakening dragon’s perspective, meanwhile, also allow the narration more lyricism than the main voice or mere historicism can accommodate. As the story develops, a more self-aware and cyclical narration does start to emerge. In one of the dragon’s visions, “[t]ime has become a dazzling confusion,” “past and present overlap,” “[t]he Lone Survivor is here,” and so is the hero who bested him, “but twice; split into young and old, man and woman” as “[s]tories written long ago are retold.” Wiglaf—who was cruel enough to joke to Fryda that Hild “must have been the child of Grendel” when they used to play Beowulf games together (and followed this by coercively touching Hild’s black braids)—merges with Grendel in the dragon’s eye … and in the fate he earns.
At the end of the Beowulf epic, the Geats gathered around the pyre of their fallen ruler mourn their “good king” and dread the time of troubles that will follow in his wake, where women will again become lords’ bargaining chips for peace and wealth, and another round of unfortunates will be enslaved. Here, Theow himself warns Beowulf that such a doom will follow if Wiglaf becomes king. And thus Fryda’s presence in the battle, and her magical rapport with the dragon lets Beowulf’s death be marked in a very different mood.
This novel, then, is not entirely the story of a shield maiden that the title might suggest. Instead, it is an exploration of how a young noblewoman in Beowulf’s time, but with strikingly twenty-first-century values, might grow up in the shadow of—and then succeed—a very “god cyning” indeed.