Category Archive 'Beowulf'

01 Sep 2020

“Bro!”

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Here we have a classic representative production of contemporary elite culture delivering a rather remarkable mixture of admirable learning thoroughly polluted with repulsive left-wing ideology.

Jo Wilkinson, in the course of reviewing a new “femininist” translation of Beowulf by Maria Dahvana Headley, exhibits a thorough understanding of the poem’s origin, scholarship, and cultural significance. This tidbit was news to me:

There is only one historical “fact” (a word of debatable meaning) in the poem: when Beowulf explains how the Geatish lord Hygelac died in battle. Using the spelling Chlochilaichus, the sixth-century historian Gregory of Tours attests to the same event in his chronicle.

But you also get some of the worst kind of old-fashioned middle-brow Freudian crap:

Why does the blade melt? On the surface, it seems as though some enchantment is undone by the monster’s foul blood. But this is also the final extermination of an ancient, albeit monstrous, lineage, and there’s something anticlimactic about that final, cruel thrust. The sword melts away, leaving Beowulf with nothing to do but go home. As with every other apparently triumphant moment in the poem, it just doesn’t feel like a triumph.

A lecturer once told me she was sure the blade is a phallic symbol and that its melting represents Beowulf’s manhood going limp after finishing with the woman in the cave.

Along with lavish doses of Toni Morrison references, contemptuous hostility to appropriation of the poem by “white supremacists,” and the now traditional left-wing inversion of values. The new translator, Maria Dahvana Headley, previously published a Grendel-and-his-Mom’s-point-of-view retelling, The Mere Wife.

The last Beowulf translation was a very loose version by the Irish pansy Seamus Heaney. Now, we get an inner-city vernacular version, in which “Hwaet” [more or less: Hark, Listen, or Attend!] gets translated as “Bro!”

As he armors up to attack Grendel’s mother, the Beowulf-poet writes that he does not mearn for his ealdre—mourn for his life. In her version, Headley translates those words to mean Beowulf “gave zero shits.”

Jo Livingstone relishes Headley’s female us-versus-them approach:

Headley’s boyish narrator wraps his story in colloquial language almost as a trick, a flashy come-on to lure readers into a story that turns out to be full of dark lessons about traitorous soldiers and the inevitability of old age. Her Beowulf is a tragicomic epic about the things men do to impress one another. It’s as fierce an examination of masculine weakness as The Mere Wife was of feminine strength.

Depressing and annoying as all the vulgarity and left-wing politics are, I still think this is a book review worth reading. I’m of two minds about actually buying the Headley translation, but I did buy one of her novellas on Kindle.

WT

26 Oct 2019

Swedish Scholar Dates Beowulf to 550 A.D.

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Pictorial Stone from the Church in Bro in Gotland.

A year old story, but news to me. Bo Gräslund, a prominent Swedish archaeologist, published a book, arguing on several grounds for an earlier date of composition for Beowulf. What a pity that J.R.R. Tolkien is not here to critique and review it!

Medieval Histories:

[W]e are met with a catalogue of the material culture of the late migration to early Vendel period. With its gold, rings, ring-swords, swine-helmets, and chain-mails, we are obviously transported way back in time, either prior to or around the period 536 to 50. Secondly, it is demonstrated that several of these particular artefacts are virtually unknown in an early Anglo-Saxon context. Not until the Viking Age, do we meet “rings” in the archaeological assemblies in Britain. Nevertheless, they are mentioned 44 times in the poem, and whenever they are further characterised, they are made of gold. How should an English poet c. 700 be acquainted with this particular cultural item – golden rings – which is never found in a British context, and which disappeared in Scandinavia in the late 6th century, Gräslund asks? As for ring-swords, it is important to note, that while three ring-swords have been found in England, most (77) have been found in France, Germany, and Scandinavia. And one of those – the one from Sutton Hoo – is probably Swedish, he writes. At the same time, he notes that the only chain mail ever found in an Anglo-Saxon archaeological context is from the same grave, making it a unique item in an English context from c. 400 – 1000. Finally, Gräslund draws attention to the fact that the descriptions of the cremations of Hnæfs and Beowulf have a sensual character, which makes it mind-boggling to imagine that a Christian poet c. 700 was able to describe these events in such details. Thus, the material culture of the poem does not fit at all with an Anglo-Saxon origin, Gräslund concludes.

In the second part of the book, Gräslund discusses the ethnonyms in the poem and argues that the main group, to which Beowulf belongs – the Geats – in all likelihood came from Gotland. Seafaring islanders, known also as wederas, the latter epithet has been consistently translated as wind, weather, or storm. However, much more likely, writes Gräslund convincingly, the prefix in weder-geatas refers to Proto-Germanic wedrą, meaning ram – Old English weder, Old High German wetar, Old Norse veðr etc. It so happens, that rams were significant symbols of the people from Gotland, as witnessed in documents, sagas, and in the official seal.

Gräslund also touches upon the Christian varnish and concludes (as have others before him) that it seems to have been added as a gloss. In its core, the poem is heathen. This conclusion leads to Gräslund’s next hypothesis that the poem was composed as an oral epic in the mid-sixth century and probably in Gotland; but also that it would have circulated widely, for instance in a Swedish context at Uppsala.

We know Rædwald of East Anglia was married to a pagan princess who worked assiduously to make her husband relapse. We also know, that his presumed grave at Sutton Hoo held an assemblage of artefacts with a clear Swedish origin. Were these objects – the helmet, the chain-mail and the sword – bridal gifts of a Swedish princess? Did she bring a bard along in her entourage? After which the oral poem circulated until it was written down by an Anglicising and Christianising scribe c. 700? We shall never know, but the hypothesis fits the facts as well as Ockham’s razor.

RTWT

No English translation of Beowulfkvädet. Den nordiska bakgrunden. so far. I looked.

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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