Born and raised in Massachusetts’ Merrimack Valley, Michael C. Carroll has always loved storytelling. After graduating from Boston College, he moved to Atlanta, Georgia where he teaches and lectures on the epic poetry that inspires his writing. It was not until his master’s program through the Bread Loaf School of English brought him to Oxford University, that Michael knew he had found the story he would spend the rest of his life telling.
In Professor Francis Leneghan’s tea-scented office, Michael began studying the Old English manuscript of Beowulf. That literary exploration led to his thesis that addresses the allegorical significance of the dragon fight that concludes the Anglo-Saxon epic poem. Not long after earning his Master’s degree, Michael began writing Beyond the Fall of Kings, the incredible true story of the war behind the poem of Beowulf.
Currently, Michael lives in Atlanta, Georgia where—when he is not giving lectures on Beowulf—he can be found making dinner for his wife and daughter, coaching his school’s football and swimming teams, and working through his own translation of the Old English Beowulf Manuscript.
Thank you so much for joining me this month, Michael. I’ve really been looking forward to our visit. You’re involved in a lot of things that I want to get into. But first, I’ve been dying to ask you about what it’s like to immerse yourself in the world of Beowulf. I admit I haven’t read it, but I enjoy the cinematic interpretations. I’ve never met anyone who’s made it a life study, especially to the point of mastering Old English. You’re like a modern day bard. We’ll be sharing a couple Instagram video clips of your readings below.
I’ve been studying up on the poem for our discussion. Aside from the significant themes like the warrior code and the cost of adhering to its principles, and what Grendel and his mother might represent in contrast, it fascinates me that this very old tale is steeped in fantasy with witches and dragons, and a good reminder how far back our modern fantasy stories reach for inspiration.
Q: What drew you to the ancient poem? Was it the period of writing, the style, the characters, or the story? Can you elaborate on the elements that interest you the most?
MCC. First off, thank you for all of the kind words! I have been looking forward to this interview ever since you contacted me after reading one of the short stories I wrote a little while back, which I’m sure we’ll talk about in just a bit. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate this opportunity to talk about my writing and the things that inspire me.
Alright, let’s get into it.
I think what first drew me into Beowulf and why I love the story are actually a little different. When I was in high school, I had a phenomenal AP Literature teacher—isn’t that always how these stories start. His name was Jay Pawlyk. As part of our curriculum, Mr. Pawlyk taught the anglo-saxon epic. Oddly enough, I don’t remember much about the story from that first initial read. I remember that the translation that we read was in verse; I believe it was Seamus Heaney’s translation though it’s hard to be sure. I also remember writing an anglo-saxon poem bragging about my abilities playing the guitar hero, and while my attempts at reliving those glory days during the pandemic with that video game were unsuccessful, I do still have my students write a similar assignment.
What I remember most was how much Jay Pawlyk loved the anglo-saxon world that the poem calls home. I remember him explaining how when he was in grad school, he dove head-long into a language he didn’t understand and came out on the other side practically dripping with alliteration and verse and meter. I remember his passion for bringing that world to life in our modern day.
I think in retrospect, now that I teach the poem and have submerged myself in the old English manuscript, those are the aspects that I love the most now as well: the world, the poetry, and the way the poem is still applicable today.
DLL. That is so fantastic-That aspect where you can take a deep dive into history, find literature that is both informative and entertaining and bring it to life in the present. I’ve always envied those who found a way to dedicate their lives to academia, and it is a real treat to get these details from someone who has done it and is happily immersed. This also makes me want to take a class on poetry to expand my skills as a writer.
Q: I’d be thrilled if you could provide a synopsis of your Beowulf-themed thesis on the allegorical significance of dragon flight. Sounds fascinating. What prompted you to pick that subject?
MCC. Of course! The final draft of the thesis was well over a hundred pages, so I promise to keep this as brief as possible. Here’s a synopsis of the poem for those that need a refresher, followed by my hundred-page thesis in a nutshell.
At the start of the epic poem, the title hero travels to the land of the Danes where he kills a monster along with the beast’s mother before traveling home. Then, fifty years pass, and voila, Beowulf somehow finds himself king in the land of the Geats. Finally, after a thief steals a treasure from a fire-breathing dragon, elderly Beowulf fights the poem’s final monster, dies in the process, and dooms the nation he loves to destruction from impending warfare.
Ok, that’s the poem.
My thesis deals with the “voila.” During that fifty year gap, Beowulf and the Geats (the Hretheling dynasty) go to war with the Swedes (the Scylfing dynasty). That historical feud has become known as The Swedish Wars, a five-phased bloodbath that leads to Beowulf ascending the Geat throne.
I argue in my thesis that the dragon fight that claims the life of the title hero allegorically represents that feud, the true, historical cause of the Hretheling demise.
And here’s a little plug…that Swedish War is the exact tale that Beyond the Fall of Kings, the first book in the Sons of Hrethel Trilogy, brings to life.
DLL. Thank you for sharing that! And giving us a peek into your works in progress. An exciting project for sure. It must be a thrill to weave your own epic tale out of a passion for language and history.
Q: Your bio shares how you became interested in studying Old English. But can you talk more about the link between your fascination with Beowulf and its archaic language?
MCC. While I fell in love with the poem when I started teaching it, I only became interested in the Old English manuscript when my master’s program brought me to Oxford University and I had the opportunity to learn from Professor Francis Leneghan, author of The Dynastic Drama of Beowulf. I earned my master’s degree through the Middlebury’s Bread Loaf School of English, which brought me to Oxford in 2019. The class I took with Francis dove into the manuscript, and that was my first introduction into Old English studies.
Now, for some background, I am a huge grammar nerd. In addition to writing, I am also a teacher at a private school that runs from 7th grade through 12th grade. My time in the 8th grade classroom has led to a great love of grammar, right down to the lost art of diagramming sentences. I could talk with you for hours about the difference between gerund and participial phrases and consider it an afternoon well spent. At the same, however, while I know that being passionate about grammar makes me more of an exception rather than the rule as an author, I do think that it makes me a better writer.
For those reasons, I think finding my way into Francis’ office was the perfect storm for me. An epic poem that I knew and loved? Check. A professor equally passionate about an anglo-saxon epic poem? Check. Alliterative structure and epic meter ripe for analysis? Check and Check.
That was when I dove into the murky waters of translating, and I have found that those waters are as tumultuous as they are deep.
DLL. It is so refreshing to hear from a writer who appreciates all things grammar and vocabulary! Editing is often the labor we all want to put off. You’re making me want to take your classes and get back to the basics. But even more than editing is having such an arsenal at your disposal to craft your best story. Like a sculptor with all the best tools to hew out a masterpiece. My background is in office and legal assistance… decades of writing and editing. I was very happy to utilize those tools when I started writing fiction a few years ago. It felt like I had a small leg up. I say small because I had no idea about the amount of growth that lay ahead. You never stop learning!
Enjoy clips of Michael reading Beowulf in Old English borrowed from his Instagram page at the end of our discussion, and follow him for more.
Q: I would also love to hear about what it was like to study at Oxford, to be immersed in a world of academia and a university that encapsulates an entire historic city. What an opportunity and avenue to find your life’s passionate pursuit!
MCC. To say that studying at Oxford was like living out a dream would be an understatement. While I was overseas, I lived in a dorm room on the Lincoln College campus, which is right off of Turl Street. What was even better was the fact that my wife came with me for the summer as well! The memories we made that summer are among those I cherish the most in my life.
Oxford, England is like a writer’s paradise. You turn the corner and see J.R.R Tolkien’s house. You walk the doors of The Eagle and Child pub, and you are greeted by a massive portrait of C.S. Lewis. You take a walk along the river and find yourself staring at the quad where they filmed scenes from the Harry Potter movies. The marks those writers have left are everywhere. The impact they’ve had on literature is everywhere. The air is practically steeped in it.
DLL. That’s exactly how I imagined it! Thank you for sharing your experiences from the inside of such a phenomenal literary mecca!
Q: Do you imagine yourself as an English bard in a past life? Would it have been only in the time of Beowulf? Or are there other periods you see yourself wandering through?
MCC. While I love poetry, I think there’s something unique about Beowulf, and perhaps more specifically, the history behind Beowulf, that I find super fascinating—indeed, more fascinating than any other story I’ve ever encountered.
I talk about this a bit on the Required Reading podcast episode where we discuss Beowulf—another shameless plug—but Francis Leneghan once compared Beowulf to an Anglo-Saxon Forest Gump. I have come to use this comparison every time I begin teaching the poem and any time I’m charged with explaining why I love the poem so much. Really, I bring this comparison up whenever anyone will listen…
Like Forrest Gump, the poem of Beowulf does more than describe a renegade warrior tearing limbs off of monsters in 7th century Scandinavia. The poem of Beowulf is the history of the Anglo-Saxon people. It’s one of the most thorough and complete historical accounts of a group of people in all of literature. For that reason, just as the story of Forrest Gump follows a hero through the Vietnam War, and the Watergate Scandal, and draft riots, the Anglo-Saxon epic follows its hero through the rise and fall of three historical dynasties, countless blood feuds, and a handful of wars that shaped three centuries of human history. The characters and references and mead-hall songs are all entrenched in that captivating history.
For that reason, I don’t think that it’s the time of Beowulf, but rather the history of Beowulf that resides at the heart of my passion for the story.
DLL. Great analogy and glimpse into your classroom! Definitely helps me grasp the impact of how literature can be a window into a period of civilization.
It would be amazing to listen one to of your lectures on Beowulf. What are your key topics? Who gets to avail themselves of your expertise? Only students? Or do you have a broader circuit?
MCC. For the last eight years or so, I have taught Beowulf at the school where I teach. I teach the Seamus Heaney translation because it’s beautiful, approachable, and tells the tale in verse, which I think is an important distinction. Admittedly, there are many scholars who deem the translation “Heaney-Wulf” due to the fact that Heaney was a poet first and a translator a far-and-distant second, but part of what that means for my students is that nearly an entire term of study is dedicated to a single poem, which allows for me to read the poem out loud to them in its entirety. Without a doubt, it is the term I enjoy teaching the most.
To answer your question though, yes, my students are the only ones who must endure my lectures; with that being said, however, I do bring up the poem whenever I can on the Required Reading podcast.
But I will say, for those who are interested, I have begun posting on my Instagram page a series of reflections entitled, “Beowulf Was First” in which I take a look at modern movies, books, and television shows—from How the Grinch Stole Christmas to Disney’s Tangled—that draw inspiration from Beowulf, so feel free to take a look at some of my musings there!
What theme or element from the poem does your audience want to hear about most?
MCC. Every year we have a set of themes that we address with the students that are prevalent: hospitality, identity, legacy, heroism, etc. Sometimes those themes change from year to year, most often they remain essentially the same. But the theme that we always address that seems to gain the most traction is when we discuss the human code.
In class, before we read the first line of the poem, I always have the students write down three codes by which they must abide. At our competitive, private high school, most often those codes end up being their academic honor code, their dress code, and their athletic code of conduct. After giving them some time to muse, write, and share with one another, I introduce the theme of the Human Code, a code by which all Anglo-Saxon people—kings, princes, and warriors alike—abide. It’s a code that dictates everything, how they live, breathe, and ultimately pass on into the Lord’s keeping as the characters so eloquently state in the poem.
I think addressing the human code that way helps to show them that while they might use a different language and wear different clothes and live in a different, albeit much colder, part of the world, the challenges that they face and the morals they use to approach those challenges are not too dissimilar from their own.
DLL. Well. Since I can’t be young again and a student in your class, this was the next best thing. Thanks! And I’m glad you touched on the code. When I delved into the poem for this interview, that was an intriguing element I wanted to explore.
Let’s talk about your work on Beyond the Fall of Kings. It sounds epic. I would love to know about the story itself and your progress and plans for it.
MCC. I know I mentioned this above, but Beyond the Fall of Kings is the untold story of the history behind Beowulf. It’s the first book in The Sons of Hrethel Trilogy that essentially tells the story of the Swedish Wars. The book itself follows three different characters: King Heathcyn of the Hrethelings, King Ongentheow of the Scylfings, and a young warrior named Eofer for the Geat nation.
What I love about the story, and I hope readers love as well, is that it’s historical fiction. These battles really took place. These kings really rose to power. These characters really lived and breathed and in some cases died for their kingdom. I love being able to bring those stories to life.
I did have a manuscript request from an editor for Beyond the Fall of Kings, so the novel is being considered for representation; for more about the texts journey through publication readers can feel free to follow my Instagram page where I release chapter excerpts and publication updates.
DLL. That is amazing news about representation, Michael! Thank you for sharing right here your exciting prospects for this body of work! Your labor of love. Congratulations! I’ll just keep sprinkling your Instagram page around, so our readers can be sure to find you.
I reached out to you for this chat after reading and thoroughly enjoying one of your short stories. I also read it out loud to my husband because I knew he would love it and we got into a great discussion about it. It’s called A Wrong Cruelly Done. It won a place in our Fantasy Sci Fi Writers Alliance anthology in Part I, God vs. Man, and I can’t wait for it to come out in print. After reading it, I really got a sense of your flexibility as a writer. What other projects do you have in the works? And where can we find them?
MCC. A Wrong Cruelly Done was a short story I wrote that, like a great deal of my writing, finds its inspiration in Beowulf. For readers who might be unfamiliar with the story, A Wrong Cruelly Done reimagines Prince Herebeald’s death from the Anglo-Saxon epic in 1970s Northern Ireland. I loved writing that story. It gave me a chance, with Beyond the Fall of Kings in publication limbo, for lack of a better phrase, to keep me writing.
When I submitted the piece for the competition, I sent a message to Eric thanking him for the prompt because it launched me into what has become my current project.
I’m really excited to announce that I’m nearing the completion of a book of short stories! It’s entitled Retold: Eight Short Stories with Roots in Epic Poetry. Like A Wrong Cruelly Done, these short stories reimagine tales from epic poetry in a variety of settings, everywhere from a spy-infiltrated Istanbul to a starship in outer space. I’m hoping to take some time to seek publication opportunities for some of the stories in a few literary magazines before queerying the collection.
DLL. Those stories sound not only awesome but a ton of fun to write. And I can’t wait to read more. Please keep me posted, so I can share your future publications! Visit the Fantasy Sci Fi Writers Alliance and find out more about the short story challenge, which is still in progress.
Besides Beowulf, what other literature or authors have influenced you? Is there a person(s) who has inspired you most?
MCC. Yes, and his name was Brian Jacques.
At a scholastic book fair in second grade, I discovered Brian Jacques’ Redwall series. For readers who are not familiar with the Redwall books, they are essentially stories about knights in shining armor set in a world of rodents. When I was younger, I read every Redwall book that I could find. I have memories of being in the back seat of the car during long vacation drives devouring those stories of adventure. The first origin story I ever read was Martin, the Warrior, the prequel to the Jacques’ flagship Redwall; I can remember sitting in the public library with tears streaming down my cheeks as I fought through the ending of that book.
When I think about the stories that inspired me, I always come back to Redwall, and for that reason, I owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to Brian Jacques.
Let’s get into the amazing Podcast world of Required Reading. Did you really tell me it’s hitting a million downloads! Wow! I’ve been dipping into quite a few of the episodes because they cover so many books and authors I love. How did it get started and when? Can you tell us about your co-hosts and what your objectives are, who your target audience is? What do you have planned for future episodes?
MCC. Of course! So Required Reading is a podcast that I co-host with a couple of other teachers that I consider both coworkers and friends. We are blessed to have a fully equipped podcasting studio right on our campus, which makes arranging our episodes a little easier. We typically release episodes on the first and the 15th of every month, and the books that we read span everything from graphic novels to Shakespearean classics.
While our conversations bring us in a myriad of different directions, we center our discussions around what it means to read and teach great literature.
Dr. Nic Hoffman and Mr. Mike Burns are the other co-hosts, and oftentimes, we will feature a guest who is somehow affiliated with the text—they are a fan or scholar of the author, they recommended the text for an episode, they wrote their master’s thesis or doctoral dissertation on the material, etc.
And yes, the last I heard from Nic, Required Reading was on pace for a million episode downloads, which is both crazy and exciting.
You can find us on Spotify, the apple podcast app, or wherever else you listen!
DLL. Awesome. Thanks, Michael, and congratulations to all of you on your growing platform.
You can catch the latest episodes here.
Now I’d like to touch on your life as a creator. With so many pursuits, how do you balance it all with family? What are your tips on staying organized and getting things done, while finding time to relax?
MCC. I wish I had a good answer for you on this one. I think that this really is the hardest part: balance. I teach full time for a living, and on top of those courses, I’m also the head 7th grade football coach, the head middle school swimming coach, and an assistant coach on the varsity diving team. Before all that, though, I’m a husband to my amazing wife, Katherine and a father to our beautiful daughter. Finding time for writing, seeking representation for publishing, and keeping up with things like continued features and posts online is hard. Really hard.
I can’t say that this works for everyone, but I will say what has worked for me. Every Sunday afternoon, my wife and I talk through the upcoming week. I use that time to create the “To Do List” of papers that need grading, cars that need oil changes, meals that need cooking, and everything in between. It might seem exhausting, and sometimes it is, but at the bottom of every “To Do List” I write “Continue Writing Retold” or “Keep Writing BTFOK” or “Continue WIP.” Amidst all the craziness of life, I have found that keeping that on my to do list always keeps my writing on the table. It feels like a treat when I finish a stack of papers, and I can carve out a few hours here and there to do some writing. For me, it also keeps writing as a passion that I look forward to rather than work that simply needs completing.
Lastly, though, I love to cook, and I have found that to be an excellent outlet when things pile up.
DLL. Ah… the power of making lists. This is a great tip! And so is having a dedicated hobby. Highly recommended!
Do you have a favorite creative space? How do you prepare your environment, so you can be your most productive? Any routines or tips you’d like to share?
MCC. I write a lot at work. Sometimes that means in my classroom. Sometimes that means in the library surrounded by students and books. Sometimes that means at my desk in the English Department.
I tend to be quite social when it comes to my work. Not with sharing it, mind you—I still have a great deal of work to do on that front—but I like being around people when I work. Nothing beats a rustic coffee shop with a bold dark roast, packed tables providing a little white noise, and a nice scone.
Of course, that’s the dream, but that’s not always the reality. These days, when I finally sit down to write, the coffee has gone cold and there’s a monitor next to my keyboard that could break me from my trance any second. I think it’s beautiful in its own way, though.
DLL. I love it!
What do your kids think about Old English and history? Any like-minded scholars following in your footsteps?
MCC. Well, I don’t know how many students really love Anglo-Saxon epic poetry, but I do think that there are some who are interested in the history. In class, we talk a great deal about the code by which the characters in the poem abide. I think some of the lessons that the students gravitate towards the most tend to be the lessons that bring the poem to the students where they are.
For that reason, I have kept Jay Pawlyk’s Anglo-Saxon boast assignment alive. I think they really start to understand the verse and meter when they write to imitate the poem themselves, bragging about everything from brushing their teeth to tying their shoes. Whenever the lecture veers toward something they encounter in their teenage lives, the poem takes on a new light.
I will say that in addition to lecturing on Beowulf, I also teach a Creative Writing elective at the school where I work, so while there might not be many budding Old English scholars, maybe there will be a new author who hits the writing scene in a few years who I taught in class; if they start talking about their crazy high school teacher who would wear an Anglo-Saxon war helmet when reading about the title hero’s clash with Grendel, you’ll know who they’re talking about!
DLL. Oh yeah! I’ll be looking out for those writers for sure. LOL
Thank you again for spending time with me this week and sharing a day in the life of a writer, podcaster, and Beowulf and Old English scholar. It was epic, just as expected! Do you have any parting words of advice for our readers who want to follow similar passions?
MCC. If I had one word of advice, I think it would be to focus on the story. After all, as a writer that’s our most valuable currency. I know it can be difficult, especially when entering the scary world of agents, publishers, editors, social media, and challenges that await around the corner that I can barely pronounce or understand, but I think by focusing on the story that you want to tell, that story that keeps you up at night when you’re lying in bed, that story that gives you chills when you’re stopped at a red light because you can feel deep down in your bones that it needs to be told, if you focus on that story, and telling that story the best that you can, as passionately as you can, not somebody else’s way, but your way, I think the rest will take care of itself.
A. I. art created using Photoleap. I used the primitive setting and one word, Beowulf. And somehow Michael popped up.
Feel free to leave any questions or comments about this interview, more on Mr. Carroll, or how to find him.