“The story is old, I know, but it goes on…”

With its mix of sunshine and harmless bluster, September brings back-to-school nostalgia—ivy-covered professors, that first fall riot, scoldings for being insufficiently euphoric over sports—and perhaps that’s why the past two weeks have swirled with stories about the woes of humanities types in academia. I’ve watched would-be scholars expire en route to the ferne hawle of full professorhood for 20 years, so I’m guessing that many grad students and adjuncts have newly discerned, with the sort of creeping, pitiless dread otherwise confined to Robert E. Howard stories, that they won’t find long-term employment.

First, at the Atlantic, Jordan Weissmann asked why the number of grad students in the humanities is growing. Then, Slate ran a piece about the awkwardness that still hangs about people with doctorates in the humanities who land “alt-ac” careers—that is, jobs where they don’t teach college. Apparently, though, there aren’t enough such lucky people, because a few days later, Salon covered adjunct professors on food stamps.

With all the attention this subject now gets in the press, I can only hope that fewer souls will fling themselves into the hellmouth—but maybe academia shouldn’t have undone quite so many in the first place. While reading about medievalism in recent days, I found two historians who sensed where things were headed long ago.

The first was Karl F. Morrison, who wrote “Fragmentation and Unity in ‘American Medievalism,'” a chapter in The Past Before Us, a 1980 report commissioned by the American Historical Association to explain the work of American historians to their colleagues in other countries. Morrison writes candidly about his field, but he also makes an especially prescient extrapolation, which I’ve bolded:

There was also an expectation in the “guild” that investment in professional training would, in due course, fetch a return in professional opportunity.

By 1970, these benefits could no longer be taken for granted. By 1974, even the president of Harvard University was constrained to deliver a budget of marked austerity, reducing “the number of Assistant Professors substantially while cutting the size of the graduate student body below the minimum desirable levels.” The aggregate result of many such budgets across the country was a sharp reduction in the number of professional openings for medievalists, and an impairment of library acquisitions and other facilities in aid of research. Awareness of this changed climate impelled a large number of advanced students to complete their doctoral dissertations quickly, producing a bulge that is noticeable around 1972-1974 in our tables. For many reasons, including the deliberate reduction or suspension of programs in some universities, it also resulted in a decline in the number of graduate students proceeding to the doctorate.

In effect, the historians who became qualified during this period without being able to secure professional employment constitute a generation of scholars that may be in the process of being lost, casualties of abrupt transition. There is no reason to expect that the demographic and economic trends that so sharply reversed their professional expectations will alter before the end of the century, and this projection raises certain quite obvious possibilities regarding the diversity and renewal of the profession.

Fast forward to 1994. Norman Cantor was gearing up for his fourth year of professional besiegement after the release of Inventing the Middle Ages, a book for non-academic readers in which he sought to show how the formative experiences of certain 20th-century medievalists explained the ways they interpreted history. Fellow historians didn’t like his blunt biographical approach—and so in “Medievalism and the Middle Ages,” a little-read article in The Year’s Work in Medievalism, Cantor hammered back at “establishment dust-grinders” and noted, in passing, the crummy academic job market and the prevalence of certain “alt-ac” career paths even then:

Within academia a fearful conservative conformity prevails. The marginal employment situation has a twofold negative impact. First, it discourages innovative minds and rebellious personalities from entering doctoral programs in the humanities. People in their late twenties and thirties today with the highest potential to be great medievalists and bridge academic medieval studies and popular medievalism are a phantom army, a lost generation. Instead, for the most part, of climbing the ladder at leading universities they are pursuing careers (often regretfully and unhappily if well-paid) in major law firms.

Second, even if imaginative people take Ph.D.’s in medieval disciplines, they face the job market and particularly once they get a prized tenure track post they encounter a chilling intellectual conservatism that frustrates expressions of their best thoughts and deepest feelings.

I like Cantor’s claim that academia is literally conservative. After all, people are still fretting over problems that he and Morrison noticed decades ago. It’s September 2014, yet Rebecca Schuman at Slate can still write: “The academic job market works on a fixed cycle, and according to a set of conventions so rigid that you’d think these people were applying for top-secret security clearances, not to teach Physics 101 to some pimply bros in Sheboygan.”

The early blogosphere was rife with humanities grad students and adjuncts wavering between disgruntlement and despair; the much-praised Invisible Adjunct rose up to unite them in discussions so civil that I can scarcely believe I saw them on the Internet.

As someone who writes about people who use the imagined past to carve out identities, argue from authority, resist mainstream culture, or seek respite from the real world, I think I understand why the number of new students in arts and humanities doctoral programs grew by 7.7 percent in 2012, but I can’t claim a moment’s nostalgia for the geeky excitement they surely must feel. Morrison and Cantor both imagined a lost generation, but their jobless contemporaries were merely wandering. For this next generation, that luxury is long gone—as is the prospect of claiming that nobody warned them.

“A legacy of romance from a twilight world…”

Last night, when the U.S. began walloping ISIS militants in Syria, our jets also hit the Khorasan group, hardcore Al-Qaeda veterans who are reportedly expert bomb-makers. When I first heard the news on the radio in my car, I wondered why Al-Qaeda had a group called “Corazón”—some Spanish-speaking faction, perhaps?—but then I realized I’d already written about the original Khurasanis. They were the muscle behind the Abbasids: the third Islamic caliphate, the dynasty associated with Baghdad’s founding and golden age, and the contemporaries of the Carolingians.

The fourth chapter of Becoming Charlemagne takes readers on a tour of Baghdad around the year 798:

In the ritzy Harbiya suburb of northwest Baghdad, the families of soldiers started each day with expectant prayers. In summer, they awoke in their cool basement apartments, or on their rooftops within sight of the Round City, where they greeted the dome at the hub of their city.

As a boy, the current caliph, Harun, had led their fathers and husbands to the frontiers against the Rum, the so-called Romans of Constantinople, the ones whom poets called al-asfar, “the yellow ones.” More recently, they had been paid to quash local rebellions, commanding armies in the service of the caliph. In a caliphate that stretched from northern Africa to India, there was a constant market for well-armed men. Praised by their contemporaries in story and song, these generals rarely lacked for work.

The comfortable estates of Harbiya had been built on that same military might. Only a few generations earlier, these soldiers had stormed out of the eastern province of Khurasan, bringing to power the descendants of al-Abbas, the uncle of the Prophet Muhammad, in a show of force and a flurry of black banners. The Abbasid caliphs had rewarded the Khurasanis with desirable land and jobs for their children, who now commanded the palace guard and ran the police force.

As this blog has long shown, Europeans and Americans love to dress up in medieval costumes, follow pseudo-medieval soap operas on television, construct medieval-ish buildings, and otherwise evoke or re-create the Middle Ages, sometimes to spurn the modern world, more often to carve out a place in it, whether individually or in groups. With their choice of name, the Khorasan nutjobs are heeding that same inexhaustible impulse. I can respond only by marching out one of my favorite observations from scholar Tom Shippey: “There are . . . many medievalisms in the world, and some of them are as safe as William Morris wallpaper: but not all of them.”

“Holding their own, last orders commanding attention…”

Some of us are so busy spotting medievalism in the modern world that sometimes we need to stop and notice the moments when the lack of it is literally remarkable.

Three days before Thursday’s referendum on Scottish independence, the Wall Street Journal ran a curious piece by foreign affairs writer Bret Stephens, who harks back to the 1919 Paris Peace Conference. Stephens suggests that the Wilsonian emphasis on national self-determination backfired, leading people around the world to the perilous realization that “nations are almost endlessly divisible into smaller entities.” Wilson and his advisers (some of whom were medieval historians) did get it wrong when they cobbled together a doomed Yugoslavia, but Stephens believes that when smaller countries go it alone, they may become dangerous, poor, corrupt, or insignificant.

The point is interesting and debatable—but Stephens’ conclusion is inarguably weird:

Some Scots may imagine that by voting “Yes” they are redeeming the memory of William Wallace. Maybe. The other way of looking at it is as a vote for medievalism over modernity.

Memo to wannabe Bravehearts: The 13th century wasn’t all that fun.

“Medievalism over modernity”! That might seem like a fair way to talk about a referendum that was almost slated for June 24, the 700th anniversary of the battle of Bannockburn, a key moment in the medieval fight for Scottish independence.

The thing is, I followed the news surrounding the referendum, which was actually held on an otherwise unimportant date in Scottish history. I browsed the “Yes” websites and sat through the videos. Knowing that European nationalists love to dig up and reanimate their shambling medieval ancestors—benignly in countries like Finland, malevolently in places like Germany and Serbia—I kept an eye out for William Wallace, Robert the Bruce, and other heroes hauled from the pages of Sir Walter Scott.

I saw economic arguments, anti-nuke and anti-English rhetoric, sentimental appeals to independence, and other pleas—but outside of news articles reporting on Scotland’s history of pre-1707 independence, I saw nary a trace of sword-wielding medieval warriors. I don’t doubt that in recent weeks, somebody decked out in costume and kit spoke glowingly of Scotland’s medieval glory, and I hope readers will send me examples—but overwhelmingly, the “Yes” side rooted its arguments not in some politicized dreamland of castles and kings, but in the here and now.

The press has been keen to emphasize that separatist movements in Catalonia, the Basque region, Flanders, the Crimea, and even Venice were watching to see what the Scots would decide. I assume there was interest in Wales and Cornwall as well. I suppose it’s possible that these movements will conclude that the “Yes” campaigners failed because the Scots didn’t sufficiently use their medieval heritage to inflame nationalistic pride—but if so, that won’t be Scotland’s fault.

As a distant, disinterested observer, I had no opinion on the outcome of the referendum except to note that the Scots set a worthy and decent precedent: asserting their identity and affirming their independence while keeping their medieval forefathers silent and snug in their graves.

“Mais nous pouvons faire ce que nous voulons…”

Because I’m monstrously busy, I figure it’s time to bring back some of the more literal monsters featured on this blog from 2009 to 2012. Every few weeks, I challenged myself to wander up to the National Cathedral, choose from among its myriad gargoyles and grotesques, and write a poem inspired by what I’d seen.

With the kind permission of the cathedral, I collected the resulting poems, 53 in all, in a 138-page paperback that you can order online, buy at the cathedral gift shop, or purchase from me via email. (You can browse the first drafts of 51 of the poems here.)

Written in March 2011, “Apologia” was certainly one of the weirder poems, inspired as it was by the indifference of a snake to the shock and hopelessness of his prey. I almost put a poem in the mouth of the rabbit, but then I attended an exhibition of medieval reliquaries in Baltimore and jotted down this note: “snake an antiquarian with a fascination for the Anglo-Saxons, attempting to explain to the rabbit the weird, mythologized larger purpose for eating him.”

The resulting poem is full of New Old English, but my hope is that even people who don’t get a word of it will read it aloud and find it fall familiar on the tongue.

APOLOGIA

Heo cwaeð: “Seo naedre bepaehte me ond ic aett.”
—Gen. 3:13 (British Library MS Cotton Claudius B.iv)

We rede the Saxons sympathised with snakes:
On broach and bract they turve and intertwine
But buckle when modernity awakes;
All laud the wyrm who weaves a wulfish vine.

In retsel-books and wrixled words we find
The Saxons, ever lacertine, bestirred
To grammar-craft, whose duple pronouns bind;
So sundered lives were woven with a word.

(A scene: Some god-forsook Northumbrish monk,
Emboldened by an asp to double think,
Professes wit and unk and unker-unk,
But shrinks from git and ink and inker-ink.)

Now I, who raveled precedent relate,
Propose that we be litchwise intertraced;
The wulf and adder gleam on plink and plait,
Yet no immortal lepus ever graced

The lapidated latch of art divine,
So spurn your sallow scrafe, forget the sun.
For you the relic, I the blessid shrine;
In wit and work alike, we two are one.

 

“Empty-handed on the cold wind to Valhalla…”

For all the violence the Vikings unleashed, their enemies and victims might find cold comfort in the torments Americans now inflict on them. We’ve twisted them into beloved ancestors, corny mascots, symbolic immigrants, religious touchstones, comic relief—and, this week, proponents of gender equity on the battlefield. The medieval past is grotesque, uninviting, and indifferent to our hopes. We wish so badly that it weren’t.

“Shieldmaidens are not a myth!” trumpeted a Tor.com blog post on Tuesday, sharing tidings of endless Éowyns in the EZ-Pass lane to the Bifröst:

“By studying osteological signs of gender within the bones themselves, researchers discovered that approximately half of the remains were actually female warriors, given a proper burial with their weapons . . . It’s been so difficult for people to envision women’s historical contributions as solely getting married and dying in childbirth, but you can’t argue with numbers—and fifty/fifty is pretty damn good.

Great Odin’s ophthalmologist! Holy hopping Hávamál! Half of all Viking warriors were women?

Alas, no. “Researchers discovered” nothing of the sort—but that didn’t stop wishful linkers from sharing the “news” hundreds of times via Twitter and countless times on Facebook.

So what’s going on here? Besides conflating “Viking” with “Norse,” the pseudonymous author of the Tor.com blog post misread a two-year-old USA Today summary of a 2011 article by scholar Shane McLeod, who most definitely has not delivered forsaken warrior maidens from their long-neglected graves. No, McLeod simply did the un-newsworthy work of reassessing burial evidence for the settlement of Norse women in eastern England in the late 800s, with nary a Brunhilde or Éowyn in sight.

You can find “Warriors and women: Norse migrants to eastern England up to 900 AD” in the August 2011 issue of the journal Early Medieval Europe. If you don’t have institutional access to scholarly databases, the article is imprisoned behind a $35 paywall, which is a shame, because although McLeod’s piece requires a slow, patient read, you don’t need expertise in ninth-century English history or modern osteology to understand it—just the ability to follow an argument about a couple dozen skeletons in a tiny corner of England at a very specific time in history, plus an openness to the possibility that McLeod hasn’t brought your “Game of Thrones” fantasies to life.

Here’s the gist of McLeod’s article, as concisely as I can retell it:

Focusing only on the area of eastern England occupied by the Norse in the 800s, he looks at one sample of six or seven burials from five locations dating from 865 to 878 A.D. where scholars had made assumptions about the sex of the dead based on the stuff buried with them. He compares them to a second sample: 14 burials from five sites (dating from 873 to the early 10th century) where osteologists determined the sex of the dead by examining their bones.

In the first group, only one person was tagged as female. In the second group, between four and six of the dead, perhaps half of the sample, were found to be female, even though based on grave goods, at least one of them might previously have been assumed to be male, because one of those women was buried with a sword. (Ah, but that woman was also interred with a child of indeterminate sex. What if the sword belonged to her young son? And look: someone in the first group who might have been a woman was buried with a sword, too…)

McLeod’s assessment is this: If we scientifically determine the sex of the dead based on their bones rather that assume their sex based on grave goods, we find more evidence (to pile atop existing evidence from jewelry finds) that Norse women came to England with Norse armies, earlier and in greater numbers than previously thought, rather than in a later wave of migration and settlement. Perhaps the men weren’t “a demobbed Norse army seeking Anglo-Saxon wives,” but intermarried with local women in smaller numbers than historians previously believed.

For the lay reader, that’s a disheartening hoard of unsexy conclusions—and a far cry from the Tor.com blogger’s claim, mindlessly brayed across social media, that “Half of the Warriors were Female.” It’s fantasy, not scholarship, and certainly not science, to interpret one woman buried with a sword, maybe two, as evidence for Norse women in combat.

Shane McLeod deserves better. Working with limited data pried out of ninth-century crevices, he recognizes that his sample size is tiny, that it’s tough to identify burials as “Norse” for sure, and that his findings are only “highly suggestive.” He’s precise, tentative, and conscious of counter-arguments, and he seems willing to go wherever the evidence takes him. His biggest accomplishment, however, is highlighting a major scholarly error. Experts who made assumptions about male versus female grave goods failed to reassess the biases they project backwards onto the Middle Ages—even though doing so is one of the traits even the most pop-minded academic medievalists will often claim distinguishes them from the duct-tape-sword-wielding masses.

Likewise, science-fiction fans are forever congratulating themselves for holding the right opinions on such subjects as evolution, but this time they lazily succumbed to fannish fantasies, failing to question a claim that deserved to be pummeled by doubt. I’ve done tons of social-media copywriting, so I get why that blogger just wanted to throw something out there after a holiday to beguile weekend-weary eyeballs—but come on.

Science doesn’t always tell us what we want to hear. Truth demands nuanced consideration of evidence, and reason demands skepticism, neither of which flourish on social media—so if you shared or re-tweeted the Tor article, congratulations! This week, in the name of medievalism, you made the world stupider.

“Crossing the central reservation of my imagination…”

I was heartened to find them right where I left them: the Notre Dame chimera and his beak-faced buddy leering over the baggage carousels at Denver International Airport. I landed in Colorado just as the news broke that the state’s cutest pests were busily vectoring some good, old-fashioned plague, and my first thought (after “¡ay caramba!“) was to wonder what other medieval grotesquerie I might encounter.

Medieval Europe casts a strange, slanting shadow across the American West, even before you take into account the culture and traditions of Spanish speakers. (It’s not for nothing that the 1984 book The Medieval Heritage of Mexico is 600 pages long.) For generations, we Americans were fond of imagining that we’d made a clean break from Europe—“Shrouded bards of other lands! you may sleep—you have done your work”—but in the deserts and prairies, that belief is still duking it out with evidence that we’re the blatant heirs to medieval traditions.

False starts abound there, too. At Mesa Verde National Park, we were gawking at Far View House, the ruin of an Ancestral Puebloan home built between 1100 and 1300 A.D., when my wonderfully indulgent traveling companion spotted this:

Could it be? The remains of an Ancestral Puebloan gargoyle that once spewed forth some of the mesa’s 18 inches of summer rain—set in place at the same time Europeans were building great Gothic cathedrals? Could a medieval French architect have been shipwrecked on our shores and then whisked away to the desert by a super-tornado? Perhaps with the aid of medieval Welsh UFO abductees?

Alas, no. Those drainage stones only look old; they were placed there by the National Park Service to draw water away from the fragile sandstone ruins. The two rangers who answered my questions seemed awfully embarrassed that somebody noticed.

In Ouray, Colorado, which bills itself as “the Switzerland of America,” I spotted familiar beasties atop the local pharmacy museum:

As common as prairie dogs, these grotesques are variants of a standard garden-store and souvenir-shop species known as the “Florentine gargoyle.” They usually have dog or cat faces, and they often have chains around their necks. If their ancestors actually lurk on a landmark in Florence, I’m still hunting for them.

Fortunately, other, more perspicacious medievalists have moseyed down this road. In his 1965 article “The Legacy of the Middle Ages in the American Wild West,” historian Lynn White, Jr., argued that pioneers were “particularly beneficiaries of the Middle Ages” whose “essential equipment was largely the culture of the mediaeval lower classes.” Log cabins? A medieval building style brought to North America by Swedes, reintroduced by the Germans and the Swiss, and carried westward by Scotch-Irish settlers. Stirrups? Eighth century. Spurs? Late 13th century. The distillation of spirits, card games, garter belts, the title “sheriff,” and even lynching? All of them, White argues, were “medieval patterns of preference” that shaped the American West.

Of course, White belonged to a school of historians who were obsessed with showing irrefutable continuity from the Middle Ages to the present. “Indeed,” he surmised, “a good case could be made for the thesis that today the United States is closer to the Middle Ages than is Europe.” In his 1965 article, he’s eager to believe it’s so. He’s not wrong when he claims that the revolver, barbed wire, and the windmill couldn’t have existed without medieval innovations in gunpowder, drawing wire, and water pumping—but sometimes he seems to be trying too hard.

That said, one of White’s revelations is particularly neat. To find traces of the Middle Ages in Colorado, you need to look no further than the countless squares, parks, and museums for the carcasses of a conveyance that most people don’t consider “medieval” at all.

The Conestoga wagon! To generations of Americans—and to the throngs of European tourists I saw at the national parks last week—it’s an icon of the Old West. I’d assumed it was the culmination of 19th-century New World ingenuity, but White makes a case for its medieval-ness.

The Romans, he argues, had nothing quite like it. The earliest example of a harness with padded collars and lateral traces or shafts pops up only around the year 800. Nailed horseshoes, which gave horses traction and reduced wear on their hooves, first appear in the 890s. Finally, around 1070, we see the first evidence for the humble but ingenious “whipple tree,” the rod across the front of a cart that connects the sides of tandem animals to the front and center of the cart, equalizing the pull and making the whole contraption safer and more efficient.

Capable of hauling several people and heavy loads, the large frontier wagon, the longa caretta, is now feasible—just add youthful sinewy races full of manly pride and friendship. “In the early twelfth century,” White concludes, “it appears in essentially the same form which came to dominate the American West in the Conestoga wagon.” O pioneers!

Is he right? I don’t know. Historians bicker mightily about the timing of the first nailed horseshoes, and when I look at the marginal doodad on the Bayeux Tapestry that White believed was the first evidence for the whipple-tree, I just don’t see it. But his explanation is plausible (and great fun), as is his underlying belief in the medieval-ness of the United States:

We Americans greatly puzzle Europeans, including Britons, because whereas every European state assumes absolute sovereignty, even over religion, we are still happily mediaeval in political concepts and deliberately splinter sovereignty quite minutely. The central issue in American domestic politics at present is whether, or the extent to which, our mediaeval legacy of pluralism is still viable.

“The Legacy of the Middle Ages in the American Wild West” is nearly half a century old, but White could have written those words yesterday—or a decade from now. The road goes ever on and on, leading us back to medieval Europe, even when we’re positive we’re headed west.

“…with my eyes turned to a different time or hour…”

After translating a poem, I’m always left with a troubling handful of brackets and screws. The bookshelf sure looks like it stands on its own, but anyone peering at it closely, comparing the finished product with the instruction sheet, might spot the small, vital pieces I had to leave out. That’s the frustrating trade-off of this sort of writing, but I like to believe I’m getting better at it—and I’m pleased that one of my poems made it into the summer translation issue of Able Muse.

It’s a fine issue, too, with translations from Catullus, Martial, Victor Hugo, Christine de Pizan, Cavafy, Rilke, Rimbaud, Lope de Vega, and many more. My contribution is modest—ten lines of Latin, an epitaph for Charlemagne’s baby daughter Hildegard translated into alliterative, metrical English—but I’m among poets whose work I admire, including medievalist Maryann Corbett, classicist A.E. Stallings, and X.J. “Nude Descending a Staircase” Kennedy.

Last year, I let my subscription to Poetry lapse after realizing that I rarely found one memorable poem per issue. I put that money toward the biannual Able Muse instead, and it’s proven to be a far more satisfying read. Mirabile lectu, its editors are supportive of poems composed in recognizable forms, but they’re also open to good free verse, prose poems, essays about literature, and even the occasional visual-art portfolio. The 2010 Able Muse Anthology, which collects the best of their first decade, is a worthy introduction to their style and approach. Rather than serve as a one-way repository for CV enhancement, Able Muse feels like a journal its craft-conscious contributors actually read.

I’m busily working on a pile of new translations—and on this sun-baked afternoon, I’m happy to dredge up old “Quid Plura?” posts about this very subject:

“Not under the thumb of the cynical few…”

“In fact, the great champions of liberty against oppression, if their own words are to be trusted, have fought for the maintenance of liberties inherited from the Middle Ages. In our own day such traditional conceptions of liberty appear less seldom perhaps, for many liberals, and certainly most extreme radicals, are now frequently struggling for rights for which the Middle Ages can furnish few precedents. But this should not blind us to the all-important fact that for a long period in this historic struggle, indeed for the whole of the early part of it, it was for their medieval inheritance that all opponents of oppression engaged.”

—C.J. McIlwain, “Medieval Institutions in the Modern World,” Sixteenth Annual Meeting of the Medieval Academy of America, April 26, 1941, Princeton, N.J.

“He brewed a song of love and hatred…”

One hundred years ago today, Gavrilo Princip gunned down Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, making World War I inevitable—but few of today’s retrospectives are likely to tell you why. Of course, the 19-year-old assassin wanted a united home for Slavs in what would later officially become Yugoslavia, and he wanted it free of Austrian influence. But why did he and his co-conspirators choose June 28?

The timing of the archduke’s visit must have struck them as auspicious. The day was the 525th anniversary of a symbolically crucial battle that almost nobody outside the Balkans remembers, although more of us should; Princip’s medievalism sent millions of men to their deaths.

The Battle of Kosovo is murky indeed, but shadowy memories of this turning point in Serbian history did survive the centuries, first in oral tradition and then, in the 19th century, in the written records of a patriotic Serbian philologist. (You can order a hard copy from Ohio University Press or read all the poems online.) Commanded by a noble named Lazarus, the Serbs clashed in June 1389 with the invading Turkish forces of Sultan Murad at Kosovo polje, the Field of Blackbirds. The epic tradition is wonderfully vivid: Lazarus doesn’t want war, but he refuses to pay tribute to the sultan. Elijah appears to Lazarus as a falcon and forces him to choose the destiny of Serbia: glory on earth, or glory in Heaven? Lazarus thinks—then he makes his choice fast:

O Dearest God, what shall I do, and how?
Shall I choose the earth? Shall I choose
The skies? And if I choose the kingdom,
If I choose an earthy kingdom now,
Earthly kingdoms are such passing things—
A heavenly kingdom, raging in the dark, endures eternally.

Before the battle, Lazarus celebrates his slava, the feast-day for his patron saint, with a last supper and grim prophecies of betrayal. The Serb leaders know that the Turks vastly outnumber them; Ivan Kosančić declares that “[i]f all the Serbs were changed to grains of salt, / We could not even salt their wretched dinners!” Nonetheless, they agree to tell Lazarus that the Turkish army consists of children, old men, and cripples, but Lazarus seems to know otherwise.

The Turks easily slaughter the Serbs, but much of the epic tradition dwells on the poignant stories of individuals, such as the Maiden of Kosovo, who wanders the carnage looking for the man she was supposed to marry; the nine Jugović brothers and their father, whose deaths cause their mother to die of heartbreak; the redemptive bravery of a falsely accused hero; and the treachery of his accuser. Much of the Kosovo epic is unverifiable, even ahistorical, but the fragment we have is a powerful read. Its legacy, though, is both tragic and sad.

When you understand the Serb defeat at Kosovo polje, you see why Gavrilo Princip must have reveled in the symbolism of assassinating the archduke on that day, imagining heavenly victory but actually inviting earthly calamity. World War I failed to bury this centuries-old nationalism: On June 28, 1989, charmless nationalist Slobodan Milošević scored a propaganda victory by speaking at the battlefield on the 600th anniversary of the defeat (shortly before his own helicopter-assisted apotheosis), and many Serbs still regard Kosovo not only as their ethnic and religious homeland but also as the site of their national martyrdom. At this point, history fades into vapors; as John Matthias writes, “while the final and conclusive battle was not fought until 1459…it is Kosovo which has lived in the popular imagination and in epic poetry as the moment of annihilation and enslavement.”

Today, we prefer our medievalism sweet: Renaissance festivals, fantasy novels, CGI movies, and Playmobil toys, with occasional forays into “Game of Thrones” grimness. Every European culture craves its own brand of medievalism: During the 19th century, the English gave us Tennyson and the Gothic revival; the Scots had their Ivanhoe and the Eglinton Tournament; the Finns found themselves in the charming Kalevala; the Germans gave the world Wagner (not only his music but also, alas, the man) as well as the Monumenta Germaniae Historica; and the French, bless their hearts, gave us Migne.

The Balkans bequeathed us their own Middle Ages. The century that resulted, with its awful world wars, springs from the same source as Tolkien. Today, the 625th anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo, is the ideal day to ponder what scholar Tom Shippey has long pointed out: “There are . . . many medievalisms in the world, and some of them are as safe as William Morris wallpaper: but not all of them.”

“Bless with a hard heart those who surround me…”

After A Brief History of Time, Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf must be one of the least-read bestsellers of the past 50 years. When Heaney’s translation came out in 2000, co-workers and acquaintances who heard about it on NPR asked me if they should read it, and the “should” struck me as odd; “do as thou wilt” really ought to be the whole of the law when it comes to recreational reading. (NPR’s capacity for instilling status anxiety is remarkable. They run a piece about Serbian gusle rhapsodies, and the next day every upper-middle-class white person in America has always been into Serbian gusle rhapsodies, or wants to seem to have been…)

With last month’s debut of Tolkien’s 1926 prose translation of Beowulf, the New Yorker published a smart but lengthy non-review by Joan Acocella, who doesn’t so much evaluate the book as provide a backgrounder for the same anxious culture mavens who need to bluff their way through the chitchat of the moment. Slate went there, too, with a piece headed “Is Tolkien’s Beowulf Translation Better Than Heaney’s?” The contrast isn’t very interesting: Heaney was commissioned by W.W. Norton to create a readable new poem from a language he only barely understood; Tolkien translated the poem from a language he knew well into English prose for his own edification.

What’s more, Tolkien composed his prose Beowulf when he was 34, before spending decades teaching the poem and reflecting on its larger meaning. This new 425-page volume includes that translation, plus more than 200 pages of commentary edited from Tolkien’s later lecture notes and 80 pages of previously unseen Beowulf-themed stories. It’s a curious melange, and the author’s son Christopher seems eager to lower readers’ expectations. “The present work should best be regarded as a ‘memorial volume,’ a ‘portrait’ (as it were) of the scholar in his time, in words of his own,” he writes in the introduction, calling his father’s translation a “vivid personal evocation of a long-vanished world.”

But is Tolkien’s Beowulf a good read—and if so, for whom? Well, here’s an excerpt, the aftermath of Grendel’s first attack on the Danes:

The glorious king, their price proven of old, joyless sat: his stout and valiant heart suffered and endured sorrow for his knights, when men had scanned the footprints of that foe, the demon cursed; too bitter was that strife, too dire and weary to endure! Nor was it longer space than but one night ere he wrought again cruel murders more, and grieved not for them, his deeds of enmity and wrong—too deep was he therein.  Thereafter not far to seek was the man who elsewhere more remote sought him his couch and a bed among the lesser chambers, since now was manifested and declared thus truly to him with token plain the hatred of that hall-keeper; thereafter he who escaped the foe kept him more distant and more safe.

There it is: Tolkien’s Beowulf. Beyond “good” or “bad,” it’s murky, twisting, archaic, steeped in learning, as precise as a poem, artful in a manner that’s all Tolkien’s own, and like no English ever before uttered or heard.

Sometimes there’s a wonderful rhythm to it, inspired by the rising and falling of Old English meter, with the stress falling on long vowels, or on short vowels followed by multiple consonants: “Many a mighty one sat oft communing, counsel they took what it were best to do against these dire terrors.” Sometimes the meter is decidedly post-1066, as in “[t]he spearmen slept whose duty was to guard the gabled hall,” a nice bit of iambic heptameter, and when Tolkien has a chance to work alliteration into his prose, he goes for the gusto, as in his glimpse of Grendel’s “great gobbets gorging down,” a line that’s pleased the book’s early reviewers.

To find those standout moments, you need to wade through 200 pages of this:

“Art thou that Beowulf who strove with Breca in swimming upon the wide sea, that time when ye two in pride made trial of the waters and for a rash vaunt hazarded your lives upon the deep? No man, friend nor foe, could dissuade you two from that venture fraught with woe, when with limbs ye rowed the sea. There ye embraced with your arms the streaming tide, measuring out the streets of the sea with swift play of hands, gliding over the ocean. The abyss was in tumult with the waves and the surges of the winter. Seven nights ye two laboured in the waters’ realm. He overmatched thee in swimming, he had greater strength! Then on the morrow-tide the billows bore him away…”

That’s Beowulf in Tolkienese: not the saga-like prosody of The Lord of the Rings, not at all redolent of sparse, economical Old English, but a cross between literally translated modern German and a makeshift, clattering pseudo-Middle English with modernized spelling and anachronistic “esquires” and “knights.” Yes, Tolkien knew that the root of “knight” was “cniht,” Old English for a youth, boy, servant, retainer, or warrior, and the agony of the philologist writhes in every choice of word—but that doesn’t mean most readers will find this lucid or pleasant. Translation isn’t about making the shades of Joseph Bosworth and Northcote Toller beam in Elysium, and sometimes even minor syntactic choices send the whole thing awry. When Tolkien translates “þaet waes god cyning” as “a good king was he,” how can we not hear nursery-rhyme echoes that cheapen the lofty tone?

The truth is, I’ve never loved Tolkien as a translator. His Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, published in paperback in 1975, leaves me cold, even though it’s another poem Tolkien knew intimately—perhaps, like Beowulf, too intimately to translate it beautifully into something wholly new, lest some beloved philological pebble be lost.

Tolkien excels, though, when he dreams up hypothetical Beowulfs in other places and times, as he does in two other original works in this book. The first, “The Lay of Beowulf,” retells the fight with Grendel in seven ballad-like stanzas, as if minstrels had inherited the story later in the Middle Ages. It’s a charming poem, all the more so because Christopher Tolkien recalls his father singing it to him when he was a child. The second, the terrific “Sellic Spell,” gets its name from a phrase in Beowulf, syllíc spell, meaning “a strange/wonderful story.” In 70 brisk pages, Tolkien imagines one of several folk tales that might lie behind the Beowulf story, telling it so convincingly that if Christopher Tolkien had claimed to have translated it from the collection of a 19th-century Danish ethnographer, I wouldn’t have doubted him. It’s great fun, and not just for veterans of grad-school Beowulf seminars; I can imagine “Sellic Spell” being used to get high-school students thinking about lost sources, folk memory, and hypothetical tales. Are more of Tolkien’s similar flights of fancy unpublished? I’d gladly read a volume of the stuff.

I was reassured to read that Tolkien himself didn’t like his own Beowulf. “I have all of Beowulf translated, but in much hardly to my liking,” he wrote to a friend in 1926. Nearly a century later, Anglo-Saxonist and Tolkien scholar Michael Drout concurs. “The translation itself is not a great piece of art,” he suggests, even as he praises the 222 pages of commentary culled from Tolkien’s lecture notes as “straight-up brilliant, a pleasure to read, and a significant contribution to Beowulf criticism.”

So who’s really the audience? I’m tempted to say that only Anglo-Saxonists and die-hard Tolkien fans will love this book—but arcane tomes sometimes find unexpected readers.

Eldritch prose! Six pages of painstaking descriptions of manuscripts! Hundreds of notes on Old English diction! I like to think that somewhere out there, a kid has been given this book but doesn’t have the foggiest idea what to make of it. In a moment of idle browsing, he glimpses a story that’s fated to haunt him, and he’s perplexed and bewitched by impenetrable notes and alien words that hint at the depths of one very old tale. Years later, he rises to grapple with Beowulf on its own formidable terms.

Tolkien’s Beowulf doesn’t have broad appeal, but I like that it exists. We won’t see many more cases of fantasy and fandom intertwining to push medieval literature toward the mass market, so I welcome this book, even if I may never read it again, because it’s weird and wonderful to see Tolkien, 40 years dead, beckoning readers to stranger and brainier worlds.