112th Annual Conference - Riverside Convention Center, California
Friday, October 31 - Sunday, November 2, 2014

This page is about the 2014 conference. For 2015 conference info, go to PAMLA 2015.

Selma as the New Woman in Beowulf

Brett Diaz, California State University, San Bernardino

This paper understands Beowulf as a work of adaptation, and subsequent uses of the work as forms of appropriation.  The paper seeks to interpret the role and depictions of Selma, a new character introduced by Sturla Gunnarsson's 2005 film, within the Beowulf universe compared to other females in previous iterations.


Beowulf as a text has been adapted, and appropriated (Hutcheon, 2006; Sanders, 2006), in numerous ways and to numerous purposes.  From a post modern, post structural critical literary perspective, the purposes behind Beowulf are the purview of the reader rather than the author.  Thus Beowulf as a primary text can be taken and have our modern perspectives applied to it.  For example, when reading Beowulf one may propose that the work is about civilized man against savage man; or as John Gardner chose to interpret and discuss it, a struggle of existential philosophy against nihilism.  This combination of positions leads me to the adapted-appropriated film Beowulf & Grendel (2005), directed by Sturla Gunnarsson.  In this version of the story, a new character is introduced named Selma, an outsider from Heorot.  Using the lens of Selma as a newly introduced figure within the Beowulf universe, my goal is to discover how women are used as both actors and symbols within Beowulf, and what connections can be extrapolated (rather than interpolated) about them in that world.

Scholars have gotten at the issue of women in Beowulf through a number of angles, and my methodology will follow this same pattern. The first angle I would point to is to address historical literary traditions, such as William Miller's description of the blood feud and women's role within that (1983), Michael Murphy's take on boasting and women's roles within that in medieval literature (1985), and Carol Jamison's work on women in Germanic literature (2004). Additionally, authors have used feminism as a lens for getting at women's roles in history.  Some authors, such as Carol Clover assert relationships of power in Northern Europe (1993).  Other points of access within this lens are those such as Billie Melman who discusses the experience of the historical woman as a construction (1993).  Allen Frantzen takes this further by explaining the recent history of feminism itself, and its bearing on the discussion of women's roles in historical contexts (1993).  Finally, one of the interesting areas of literature on the subject of Beowulf has been the development of Grendel's mother as a subject. This area of consideration comes in two forms, one linguistic form offered by Melinda Menzer which gets at the linguistic construction of /aglæca/ which complicates the mother's gender (1996), and M. Wendy Hennequin's deconstructs Grendel's mother as a symbol (2008).

Selma presents a new female within the Beowulf context that can be considered.  This new topic, or new subject of thought, offers the field a new area of consideration.  For example, in what ways does Selma operate similarly to women of previous iterations, or analyses?  By introducing this new area of work within the Beowulf conversation, the impact of Beowulf on the critical field of literary adaptation and appropriation is deepened.  By delving into this consideration, it is expected that this paper will find Selma fitting within some norms of depiction, but also in new ways such as her role as a truth-giver.  This expectation is such that the work of Gunnarsson in the film, will fulfill in many ways the idea of appropriation offered by Sanders and Hutcheon, adding a new dimension to the role of women in the realm of Beowulf.