Category Archive 'Beowulf'

12 Nov 2018

Old English Manuscripts

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A page from Cotton Vitellius A. xv containing the epic poem Beowulf.

Josephine Livingstone got to see the four manuscripts of Old English poetry exhibited currently at the British Library. It would be nice to be in London right now.

There are four original manuscripts containing poetry in Old English—the now-defunct language of the medieval Anglo-Saxons—that have survived to the present day. No more, no less. They are: the Vercelli Book, which contains six poems, including the hallucinatory “Dream of the Rood”; the Junius Manuscript, which comprises four long religious poems; the Exeter Book, crammed with riddles and elegies; and the Beowulf Manuscript, whose name says it all. There is no way of knowing how many more poetic codices (the special term for these books) might have existed once upon a time, but have since been destroyed.

Until last week, I had seen two of these manuscripts in person and turned the pages of one. But then I visited “Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War,” a new show of artifacts at the British Library in London. It’s a vast exhibition, covering the art, literature, and history of the people whose kingdoms spread across Britain between the sixth and the eleventh centuries. The impetus for the show came from the library’s 2012 acquisition of the St Cuthbert Gospel, the “earliest intact European book,” in the words of the show’s catalog.

Seeing the earliest European book alone would be the event of a lifetime, for a certain kind of museum-goer. But for this viewer, the main attraction lay in a quiet little vitrine: all four Old English poetic codices, side by side. They don’t look that impressive to the casual eye. The exhibition room is dark and cold, to keep the books safe from damage. The manuscripts are brown, small, almost self-effacing. There’s no outward sign of how important they are, how unprecedented their meeting.

So why are these four books so special? It has to do, I think, with the concept of the original—a concept we have almost entirely lost touch with. The Beowulf Manuscript is not just composed of words that serve as the basis for every translation of the epic poem. It’s foremost an object, the only one of its kind. It is not merely a representation of a story; it is the story. In this respect, the manuscript resembles the Crown Jewels more than any document written in today’s world, any word that moves through the crazy fractal of the internet. The manuscripts confront us with a former version of our literary selves; identities that we barely recognize, and which estrange us from ourselves.

Each of the poetic codices has a specific history engraved into the text’s physical form. The very space they occupy on earth is meaningful. The Vercelli Book is named for Vercelli, a town in Northern Italy whose cathedral library holds the manuscript. Nobody knows for sure how the book got there, although the prevailing theory is that a pilgrim left it behind or gave it away on his travels. Who? Why? When? Unknown.

The Beowulf Manuscript’s permanent home is the British Library. Unlike Vercelli, we know exactly why it’s there. The manuscript’s pages have been remounted onto new ones, because the book was singed around the edges in a library fire in 1731. The fire consumed much of the collection of Robert Cotton—his unburned books were later all given to the British Museum, forming its foundational collection—but Beowulf only suffered a little. (The original Cotton collection was kept, with a horrible kind of accuracy, in a building called Ashburnham House.)

If we compare the Vercelli Book to the Beowulf Manuscript, we see different kinds of mysteries. The Vercelli Book is in fabulous condition, its English lines neatly written and sitting, inexplicably, in a region of Italy famous for its rice. The Beowulf Manuscript is a half-burned thing whose survival is a miracle. Its provenance is unknown: It was probably written down in the tenth or eleventh centuries, but it’s impossible to tell when it was actually composed.

RTWT

26 May 2016

Epic Deprivation

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Iliad3

John C. Wright sounds like C.S. Lewis when he argues the importance of the epic to humanity, and contends that Epic Deprivation Syndrome has a lot to do with the deficiencies of the contemporary age.

The moderns are hallow without knowing they are hollow: the world is not descending into paganism. It has reached something darker and worse. The postmodern is craven and smug and doomed where the ancient pagan was noble, melancholy, and doomed, because the modern world is hollow and small, but he postmodern men are too hollow and too small to notice.

Read the whole thing.

Hat tip to Karen L. Myers.

09 Sep 2015

The Culture and the Monsters

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Beowulf_Cotton_MS_Vitellius
Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, British Library.

The Book section of the Economist describes the curious journey of a Dark Age epic to a firm position in the literary canon and in popular culture as well.

Few works of literature have intimidated readers as much as “Beowulf”, and few have been the cause of such obsession. The Anglo-Saxon epic of a mythic Scandinavian warrior and his monstrous foes is generally seen as the first great work in the English canon. Unfortunately, it is also one of the least accessible. These three thousand lines of dense, alliterative Old English are utterly incomprehensible to speakers of the modern variety, and even in translation the obscure Norse mythology is about as hospitable to the uninitiated reader as an axe to the skull. For most of its history, the poem has behaved like one of the monsters within it, scattering almost everyone in its path, to be confronted only by a handful of compulsive souls.

The poem’s history in the popular imagination is surprisingly short, given that it is set in sixth-century Scandinavia, and may have been composed around that time: it was published just 200 years ago this year. Though the oral folktale passed for generations from bard to bard, and was written down by two unknown scribes at the dawn of the last millennium, it vanished as the Dark Ages receded. The sole surviving manuscript reappeared in the 1500s, and circulated among private collectors before finding its way into the extensive archives of Sir Robert Cotton. These were damaged by a fire at the ominously named Ashburnham House in 1731. Two decades later, in 1753, the flame-singed codex was stowed in the bowels of the British Museum, lost and long forgotten. In all this time a tiny snippet of the poem appeared only once in print.

That “Beowulf” was ever brought to public attention at all was thanks to its chance rediscovery by Grimur Jonsson Thorkelin—an Icelandic antiquarian who stumbled upon it in 1786, and devoted 29 painful years to rendering it in Latin. The tale of Thorkelin (and his ill-fated edition) has something of a Dark Ages quest about it. Having been promised the prestigious role of Keeper of the Royal Privy Archives in Copenhagen, he set sail for Britain in the hope of finding Norse fragments, and chanced upon the “Beowulf” manuscript while scouting in London. As he set about dissecting the muscular Anglo-Saxon verse, he might have chuckled at the parallel with the warrior prince Beowulf, who had also travelled far from his Geatland home in search of glory—albeit of the sort gained by protecting the king of Denmark from man-eating foes.

26 Mar 2015

How English Sounded

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The Week found YouTube videos demonstrated what earlier versions of English actually sounded like.

Shakesperian English:

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Middle English (not the best version of the Prologue):

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Earlier Middle English (13th Century):

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Old English (terrific performance of the opening of Beowulf):

They concluded with a pretty chick singing a semi-rock ballad in Breton to illustrate the sound of pre-Anglo-Saxon British, but I think that one is beside the point.

11 Jan 2014

Beowulf in 100 Tweets

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Beowulf prepares to behead Grendel

Stanford medievalist Elaine Treharne was doubtless moved by the perception of a similarity of compressed concision between Twitter tweets and Old English alliterative poetry to try to produce a Twitter version of the Beowulf epic. The Atlantic admired the elegance of her result.

Her Beowulf-in-a-hundred-tweets blog is here.

Sample:

“You guard my hall, Beowulf,” said Hrothgar, stumbling to bed. Our hero disarmed: “Hand-to-hand we fight. God let win who he will.”

08 Jan 2013

Beowulf Meets Godsylla

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    Meanehwæl, baccat meaddehæle,
    monstær lurccen;
    Fulle few too many drincce,
    hie luccen for fyht.
    Ðen Hreorfneorhtðhwr,
    son of Hrwærowþheororthwl,
    Æsccen æwful jeork
    to steop outsyd.
    Þhud! Bashe! Crasch! Beoom!
    Ðe bigge gye
    Eallum his bon brak,
    byt his nose offe;
    Wicced Godsylla
    wæld on his asse.
    Monstær moppe fleor wyþ
    eallum men in hælle.
    Beowulf in bacceroome
    fonecall bamaccen wæs;
    Hearen sond of ruccus
    sæd, “Hwæt ðe helle?”
    Graben sheold strang
    ond swich-blæd scharp
    Stond feorth to fyht
    ðe grimlic foe.
    “Me,” Godsylla sæd,
    “mac ðe minsemete.”
    Heoro cwyc geten heold
    wiþ fæmed half-nelson
    Ond flyng him lic frisbe
    bac to fen
    Beowulf belly up
    to meaddehæle bar,
    Sæd, “Ne foe beaten
    mie færsom cung-fu.”
    Eorderen cocca-cohla
    yce-coeld, ðe reol þyng.

Tom Weller, Cvltvre Made Stvpid

Hat tip to Karen L. Myres.


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