Warning: this essay assumes that you have read the Settlement series, or that you don’t mind having parts of it spoiled for you. Read with caution!
The original Settlement trilogy (Dark and Deep, Promises to Keep, Before I Sleep) was loosely based on the three battles of Beowulf. I took one monster for each novel, loosely interpreted through the world of the settlement, and used that as a central conflict for the books’ protagonist, Alexander Smith.
Friedrich Panzer labeled a category of tales about heroes with the qualities of a bear (which, as far as I can see, only means a hero of great physical strength) Bear’s Son Tales. Beowulf is the Bear’s Son Tale that a contemporary reader is most likely to be familiar with. The name is a concatenation of the Anglo-Saxon beo (bee) with wulf (wolf), bee-wolf being a name for bears.
Throughout the Settlement books, references are made to bears, specifically with regards to the brothers Alex and Arthur. Arthur itself comes from the Celtic root artos meaning bear. Arthur’s chosen last name, Matheson, is an Anglicized version of the Celtic name mathghamhuin which means bear. Alex himself isn’t the one who takes the bear names, initially; rather, Arthur first confers the bearish qualities upon him via the injury that leads to Alex’s frontal lobe damage and subsequent bear-like furies. Later, Alex murders Arthur and consciously takes on many of Arthur’s qualities, including violence, survivalism, entitlement, and purposefully-enacted “bearlike” behavior.
Cuasmogoir (currently unpublished)
The unpublished novella Cuasmogoir follows the twins through the first year after their mother’s disappearance. It is told through the eyes of their aunt Coira, to whom they are sent. When they arrive at her house in the Highlands, Coira has never met them. She knows that their father, her brother Camron, is an absent and self-motivated sort of person who is unable to provide much support or even presence for them. She knows that their mother, Tilda, was an odd, reclusive woman.
The reader guesses that Tilda has named her sons after Alexander the Great and King Arthur. Further, they come accompanied by a pet tarantula named Beowulf, a name that could only have come from Tilda (the boys tell Coira that they didn’t know Beowulf was a character in a story). Despite Tilda’s obvious romantic turn of mind, the boys arrive with duffel bags full of contemporary superhero comics and action films. Coira, who doesn’t understand or trust those heroes, sets them on a program of classic adventure tales. She hopes that they can find the role models there that are so lacking in their real lives.
In The Thin Line the twins are thirty-three years old and Coira is on her deathbed. They reminisce thusly:
“You started me with the fairy tales.”
“I did. Fairy tales first. It’s important to have a good foundation. Then Blyton, Stevenson, Rowling, Lewis…”
“Pullman. Haggard. Tolkein. Burroughs. L’Amour.”
“My dear bonny lad. I can still see you, ten years old and curled up in the window seat with that tattered volume of Norse legends. You and Arthur both went straight for it every time you arrived.”
“You’ve got bravery and you’ve got steadiness, and you’ve got true originality. You’re a big person—one of the biggest I’ve known, and you can carry great weights. You have it in you to genuinely love people, and that’s not a gift everyone has. You’re the makings of a hero, Alex. I wouldn’t see you wasted.”
He smiled wistfully. “Fairy tales, Coira, aren’t about the world we live in.”
“That’s pish and you know it. You can be a hero to yourself. You can maybe be a hero to one other person, and that’s all it takes. Alex—”
“They never begin as heroes, aye? It’s always a transformation. Some have it thrust upon them, but the very best ones go looking for it. Go looking for it. I have faith you’ll find it.”
This establishes that Coira continued to feed adventure stories to Alex as he grew older, and that she wished for them to shape his approach to the world: one in which the stuff of legends is the distilled stuff of real life, in which a person can be a hero, if only to one other person, and in which epic adventure and noble deeds are made in the re-telling. This is a recurring theme throughout the Settlement books, in which Alex and Anna find ways to tell their stories such that they are heroes, witches, shapeshifters, and ultimately a resurrected king.
Coira’s project worked. After events in Cuasmogoir, she and Alex both recognize that he has a capacity for destructive violence. The near-future world in which they live (The Thin Line is set in 2054) is one in which any form of physical confrontation is intensely shameful. Alex has grown up suppressing his natural tendency to engage men via hand-to-hand combat (he has sublimated that urge by engaging a few hundred women in bed, instead), but in The Thin Line both Arthur and Alex’s girlfriend, Emily, push him to the point where he loses his careful self-control. He is actually arrested for fighting Arthur. Later, Emily works him into a position in which she could easily have had him sent to jail for years.
Alex recognizes what Coira suspected all along: he’s not fit for the panoptic, non-violent world of the future. To stay in it, with Arthur (who enjoys tormenting Alex, purposely bringing out his violent side) is to be waiting around to get into serious trouble. After Coira dies, Alex signs on to be transported to a frontier Possible World, as a voluntary colonist. Eventually he finds out that Arthur has signed on for the same expedition. The Thin Line ends with this realization, and the reader recognizes that things are about to get serious between the brothers.
Dark and Deep: Grendel
In Beowulf, Grendel is described as the seed of Cain. He is, in Julia Kristeva’s interpretation of the word, abject: a thing that once belonged to “us”, but which has fallen away and become repugnant.
This concept of abjectness works at several levels, in the Settlement novels. The settlement itself is, from the POV of the near-future world from which it came (and possibly from the reader’s own POV), an abject thing. Two dozen odd, damaged, dangerous, or plain eccentric people have given up everything that humanity had worked for in order to start afresh, without expectations, policing, or punishment.
Arthur is abject in Alex’s eyes, too. The twins were close as children. Personal differences as well as the stress of their mother’s disappearance have driven them apart. In Cuasmogoir, Alex viciously attacks Arthur, causing him serious injuries. While this incident ends in Alex bottling up his violent tendencies, it drives a wedge between the twins and creates Arthur as a monster, who nurses his resentment and eventually becomes Alex’s evil doppelganger.
Near the beginning of Dark and Deep, Alex confides in Anna that there is a voice deep inside him which urges him to do some things that are “only brave,” and other things which are “pure mad and violent.” Later, at the lake, he tells Anna that he has stayed away from her because to love her would be to anger Arthur, and that “I’ve a queer feeling that in the end it’ll be either him or me.”
Eventually Alex and Anna do marry. This leads to a confrontation between Alex and Arthur in which Arthur hits Alex on the head with a blacksmithing hammer and leaves him for dead. Anna saves Alex’s life via trephanation, but Alex appears to be left with decreased emotional inhibition. He is no longer able to suppress his violent tendencies, and sometimes “blacks out,” and fights to kill, when provoked.
Alex, still working under Old World beliefs about forgiveness and rehabilitation, elects not to kill Arthur outright. After the fact, when his injuries have healed, he even begins to have misgivings about having ostracized his brother. The weight of leadership and decision, with regards to justice and revenge, isn’t something that his Old World mind is prepared to take responsibility for.
Ultimately, Arthur kidnaps, rapes, beats, and sells Anna. She rescues herself, and when she tells Alex what has happened, he decides that enough is enough. Surely, at this point, Arthur deserves to die. His act against Anna is the equivalent of Grendel tearing apart Hrothgar’s hall while Beowulf’s men are in it. Alex/Beowulf goes after Arthur/Grendel and kills him, bringing home a body part as a trophy and proof of the kill (Beowulf takes Grendel’s arm; Alex takes Arthur’s head).
Dark and Deep concludes with an intense discussion between Alex and Anna about the way the New World has changed him. Some part of him recognizes that the violence with which he dealt with his brother is distateful, to Old World minds, so he offers Anna a way out of their marriage, and away from him. She wants to stay with him, though. He promises her that he won’t change: he is now a killer, and will kill again, if necessary. From Alex’s point of view, the brain damage has turned him into a Bear’s Son hero of old.
Promises to Keep: Grendel’s Mother
My task in Promises to Keep was to integrate Beowulf’s second battle, with Grendel’s Mother, into the story in a way that wasn’t corny as f#@$. I had already established that the twins’ mother, Tilda, disappeared when they were six years old. This is something that has festered at the back of Alex’s mind throughout his life, and I did want to deal with it–so I decided that Tilda herself had been transported to the same Possible World. I never put her “on screen” as a character, though; Alex never meets her. Rather, she hovers in the background as a foggy, indefinite presence. This lets her assume a sort of monstrous quality that a physical appearance, as a real, living person, wouldn’t have allowed.
Promises to Keep deals heavily with ideas of motherhood, parenthood, origins, and memory. While in Dark and Deep the reader was asked to take the characters very much as they presented themselves–a nod to the fact that they were escaping from the Old World and their old lives–in Promises to Keep the “significance of the past is dying,” and the characters begin to open up about their histories. We hear about Robert’s mother and grandmother, and his fixation on his dead Scottish father. We hear about Christine’s fraught relationship with her mother, which leads to her complex, often unhappy feelings about her own pregnancy. We watch Anna deal with her second pregnancy, and the complicated feelings that her previous stillbirth bring into it. Lastly, we deal with Alex, who first hears odd whispers and rumors of a woman very like his mother, and ultimately decides that the woman must be her.
The “monster” in this book isn’t so much Tilda herself as it is her village, which goes to war with the Settlement. In Beowulf, Grendel’s mother attacks Hrothgar’s mead-hall in revenge for her murdered son. While the chain of events isn’t so logically direct in Promises to Keep, Tilda’s village does hear about the Settlement via the story of Arthur’s murder (“The Man Who Murdered Himself”), and the reader might fancy that the violent, selfish nature of the New World–which Arthur espoused so naturally–is taking revenge for the settlement’s Old World tendency to punish and reject it.
Throughout this book, Alex/Beowulf rises to power. He begins by butting heads with the settlement’s leader, Robert Roy/King Hrothgar. Eventually Robert dies of battle injuries, and Alex decides to take his place as leader/king. This leads to another pivotal moment in Alex/Beowulf’s development: his succession is challenged by another settler, and in a moment of heroic, violent thinking, Alex decides to resolve the issue via a fight. The violence of the fight comes neither from hotheaded emotions of the moment nor from a righteous desire for revenge. The man Alex fights is his friend, a friendly, helpful family man. Alex beats him literally senseless in order to gain leadership of the Settlement.
Beowulf must go into the swamp to find Grendel’s Mother. Likewise, Alex must go to Tilda’s village, located in wetlands that dance with will o’ the wisp, in order to sort out the war between the settlements. There, he learns that Tilda has died, leaving behind two half-brothers. The villages make peace, via some very New World negotiation tactics, and the conflict ends.
Throughout this book, Alex’s bear-like qualities are enumerated in a more literal manner. While in Dark and Deep the bear-like nature of his “rages” are only alluded to, in Promises to Keep his hands are described as paws, his face as a muzzle or snout, his body hair as a pelt, and his signature irritated slump as “his grizzliest attitude of displeasure”.
Before I Sleep: The Dragon
If Promises to Keep dealt with motherhood, parenthood, and looking back to origins, then Before I Sleep deals with children, heirs, legacy, and the future. Alex is preoccupied, in this book, with the Settlement’s progress in the colonization of the New World. His concern that they make sufficient advances to support the oncoming massive migrations motivate much of what he does in this book.
Beowulf is the king of the Spear-Danes when the dragon begins to ravage the land. Though the Spear-Danes depend on Beowulf’s presence to maintain peace and order in the land, Beowulf insists on fighting the dragon himself. He is killed in the battle, leading to woe and ruin for his people. The moral of the story is the good warriors make bad kings.
In Before I Sleep, Alex hears about a fort farther upriver that is blocking all trade between the coast and the lands to the west. Though he is the lynchpin in the treaty between Red Oak Hollow and Devil’s Hollow (being a speaker of their language, a hero of fierce repute, and half-brother to their chief), he insists on exploring and “cracking” the fort himself. Throughout the book it becomes increasingly clear that this is a dangerous and hopeless venture, but Alex becomes increasingly fixated on it, and unable to give it up.
Throughout this book, the weight of leadership begins to crack Alex. He wants to believe that his brain damage has made him impervious to Old World moral niceties, but the truth is that he was raised there, and some part of it will never leave him. A parallel to this is illustrated in the character of Iomhar’s, Alex’s half-brother from Devil’s Hollow, about whom Anna remarks “Iomhar might be taken from the clan, but some part of the clan will never be taken from Iomhar”.
Half out of desperation, fear, and stress, and half out of a need to prove to himself that he can be king and do everything that needs doing, Alex becomes increasingly violent over the course of this book. He beats a boy who threatens to break the treaty, spanks Anna when she criticizes his obsession with the fort, forces a father to beat his son after the son attempts to assassinate Alex, and ultimately decides that he will blow up the fort and murder the men inside it, after they murder one of his own people.
While the reader sees Alex’s motivation for reacting to events as he does, the reader is also meant to disagree with the way Alex chooses to behave. He is meant to become so viciously out of control that the reader no longer believes in him as the fittest person to lead the Settlement. Alex, himself, is subconsciously coming to the same conclusion.
The culmination of Alex’s violence comes when he realizes that his violent “blackouts” aren’t real blackouts at all, but dissociation of the memories of what he does while angered. While his New World brain understands violence and the need for it, his Old World brain still protests. The two have been at odds, throughout the trilogy. Ultimately, Alex recovers a memory of himself committing a violent act that he can’t justify: rape. This memory breaks him. After quarreling with Anna, he leaves for the fort, to blow it up.
“They’re reclusive, and mistrustful, and they like riddles. They’re sitting on a treasure horde buried deep in the middle of nowhere, and they’re greedy. They want to keep it for themselves, for no earthly reason. They’re no trolls, Anna. They’re a dragon.”
Alex has said these words to Anna earlier in the novel, and he means them. He knows the story of Beowulf, he sees the parallels to his own life, and having become abject to himself–by committing what he sees as the unforgivable crime–he goes to the fort in order to die there. While his conscious mind might not recognize it, his subconscious mind sabotages the mission by failing to bring enough fuse. He is forced to be too close to the fort when it ignites, which leads to his apparent death in the explosion.
While Alexander Smith doesn’t literally die in the explosion, the hero does. He is left ill, alone, full of self-loathing, and–so he decides–unfit to return home. He spends a season tramping around the coast (also known as Waltzing Matilda, a reference to his mother’s name, which is also a variant of the Celtic math-, or bear, that Arthur chose as a surname). When he finally returns home, he is finished with being king, with being a hero, with being anything except “just Alex the blacksmith, who works in the forge and the fields, who eats dinner with his family, makes love to his wife, and sleeps sound all night long.”
Anna then acts as the savior of his romantic dreams by offering him a way to live his legends without violence. They trick Iomhar, who has been ruining the Settlement’s vestigial Old World values, into believing that Anna has resurrected Alex so that he may re-claim his kingdom. Alex is physically unable and mentally unwilling to be a full acting leader again, but his influence against Iomhar is valuable and the trick makes Alex and Anna happy. In Iomhar’s narrative–and in that of some other settlers–Anna is a powerful witch, Alex is a resurrected king, and both of them are probably skinchangers.
And there ends the inspiration of Beowulf and the character arc of Alexander Smith, who dreamed of being a hero, tried and failed to be a king, but ultimately slipped into Settlement legend.
There may be more Settlement books, but Beowulf is dead, and Alex won’t be the main character.