Archive for ‘epic poems’

“…far away from dry land, and its bitter memories.”

Seamus Heaney is a fine poet, but his Beowulf and I have sailed past each other for ten hopeless years. When I skim his translation, I drift, and the audio version only lulls me to sleep, despite its potent brogue. Having failed to enjoy Heaney’s Beowulf as a poem all its own, I had hoped that the book might at least appeal to reluctant readers who’d otherwise flee from medieval lit. Instead, Heaney’s Beowulf is, I’d bet, one of the least-finished bestsellers of the last 25 years, while its omnipresence has overshadowed more recent attempts to draw readers into a lost heroic age.

One such Beowulf, the 2004 Longman Cultural Edition, comes packed with a timeline, a glossary, genealogies, and snippets of primary sources. At its core is a translation by Alan Sullivan and his partner, Timothy Murphy, whose respect for formal poetry dictated the guidelines Sullivan enumerates in his introduction:

(1) It would be written in four-beat lines, like the original, though differing somewhat in metrical detail. (2) It would follow a loosened variant of the Scop’s Rule, alliterating three times in most lines, but using other patterns of alliteration as well. (3) It would employ modern syntax, with some inversion for rhetorical effect. (4) Words of Germanic origin would be chosen preferentially.

Their boundaries set, Sullivan and Murphy spin a translation that evokes the craftsmanship of the original poem without the stringency of an antiquarian exercise. Here’s Beowulf and his men bidding farvel to Denmark:

They boarded their vessel,      breasted the deep,
left Denmark behind.     A halyard hoisted
the sea-wind’s shroud;     the sail was sheeted,
bound to the mast,     and the beams moaned
as a fair wind wafted     the wave-rider forward.
Foamy-throated,     the longboat bounded,
swept on the swells     of the swift sea-stream
until welcoming capes     were sighted ahead,
the cliffs of Geat-land.     The keel grounded
as wind-lift thrust it     straight onto sand.
The harbor-guard hastened     hence from his post.
He had looked long     on an empty ocean
and waited to meet     the much-missed men.

Heaney’s version of this same passage is a lovely bundle of lines—but Heaney, by his own admission, is “less than thorough” regarding meter and confesses that his alliteration “varies from the shadowy to the substantial, from the properly to improperly distributed.” By contrast, Sullivan and Murphy find power in form. Read their translation aloud, as I have since finding it in the library last month, and you hear—and feel—diction constrained by rules and traditions, restlessness evident in every line, the entire translation all the more vibrant and immediate for it.

Over the years, I’ve sometimes dropped by Fresh Bilge, Alan Sullivan’s blog about poetry, religion, politics, weather, and sailing. Since I share only the first of those five interests, I’ve never been one of Sulivan’s regular “rare readers,” but a few weeks ago I went to drop him a note telling him him how much I was enjoying his Beowulf—but I was too late. Alan Sullivan died on July 9, 2010, after a long battle with leukemia.

Blogger Brendan Loy has written a heartfelt appreciation of Alan Sullivan. Here’s Sullivan’s death announcement and obituary, plus a selection of his poetry. Here’s Timothy Murphy conducting a far-ranging interview of Alan Sullivan in Able Muse magazine, in which Sullivan discusses being critiqued by Richard Wilbur and implores would-be poets to pry themselves away from the campus:

I would add a more general comment that introversion and bookishness have harmed the estate of poetry. Teachers who encourage these traits do their students no favors. Better to foster the natural curiosity of the young, press them to acquire general knowledge, demand accuracy and precision in language, and promote monomanias as escape hatches from the self.

That advice, and the above translation of Beowulf’s leave-taking, aren’t a half-bad way for a poet to be remembered: as a man who knew the difference between worda ond worca, and made the best of both.

“So many shots fired, so many daggers thrown…”

Seven years ago, I stepped into a musty workshop in the Balkans and faced the glares of a thousand ancient Serbs. They leaned against walls and rested sideways in racks; a few were upside down. All around, drawn from every corner of the late Yugoslavia, the silent icons were burned, torn, drenched, or devoured by mold. They had been sent to this office for safe keeping—and to await the conservation and restoration that the Serbs may never have the funds or personnel to finish. An eerie sense of patience pervaded the place; in the Balkans, a thousand-year art project is the least reason for despair.

So as someone whose only friends in the Balkans hail from Serbia and Montenegro, I approached the publication of The Battle of Kosovo 1389: An Albanian Epic with caution. For a decade, I’ve taught the Serbian epic cycle about the Battle of Kosovo as a case study in medievalism that fosters the worst sort of nationalism and as one of the best examples of Balkan epic poetry, but I’d never heard of the Albanian take on the Serbs’ sacred story. Published only a year after Kosovo declared its independence, this book was bound to be sensitive; some condemned it as “science fiction” and sent its editor hate mail.

I suspect the angriest critics didn’t actually read the book, which turns out to be a relatively mild collection of eight poems about episodes tangential to the Battle of Kosovo. All but one of the poems were recorded between 1923 and 1955, each is presented in a facing-page translation by Robert Elsie, and the entire volume is introduced by Anna Di Lellio with a placid and decidedly un-Balkan ambivalence.

Most of the Albanian Kosovo variants tell the same basic story: The pious Sultan Murat has a prophetic dream. His seers interpret it, his mother weighs in, and soon the sultan sets off to conquer Kosovo. Like Moses, he prays to God to part the seas, and then he invades the Balkans. When a hungry soldier breaks the fast, the war goes badly, but after the sultan dismisses his less committed troops, his fortunes improve—until he is assassinated by Milosh Kopiliq, an Albanian Christian who picks up his own noggin and strolls away after the sultan’s men behead him.

Readers who know the Serbian poems about the Battle of Kosovo will be startled to see Miloš Obilić, a saint of the Serbian Orthodox Church, presented as an Albanian assassin, a variation that explains why Amazon reviewers have given the book one star if they’re pro-Serb and five stars if they’re pro-Albanian. In the Serbian texts, Miloš is a captain in the army of Serbian Prince Lazar. At the last supper before the ill-fated battle, Lazar unsettles him with a terrible prophecy:

Hail, Cousin! friend of mine and traitor!
First of all my friend—but finally my betrayer.
Tomorrow you’ll betray me on the field of Kosovo,
Escaping to the Turkish Sultan, Murad!
So to your health, dear Milosh, drink it up,
And keep the golden goblet to remember Lazarus.

Miloš does cross over to the Turkish side, but only to assassinate the sultan. Lazar is captured and beheaded. The Serbs are defeated, but their martyrdom wins them the “heavenly Serbia” promised by God—and a longing to reclaim Kosovo that haunted their descendants well into the 21st century.

The transformation of Miloš Obilić, Serb saint and patriot, into Milosh Kopiliq, Albanian Christian, may seem strange coming from the mostly-Muslim Albanians of Kosovo, but Di Lellio explains that a multifaceted Miloš represents an old debate: The Albanians claim ancient descent from the Illyrians, while the Serbs assert that they wandered into the Balkans more recently. Oddly, the existence of Milosh Kopiliq is, Di Lellio says, less a statement of division than a claim to brotherhood. Through Milosh, the Albanians are insisting that their ancestors fought and died alongside Serbs—and that Albanians have deep roots in Christian Europe.

Fortunately, despite a misleading subtitle that promises a far more inflammatory book, The Battle of Kosovo 1389: An Albanian Epic is not a propaganda pamphlet. In her 48-page introduction, Di Lellio carefully shows that the Albanians come by their assassin honestly, with a wealth of place-names near the village of Kopiliq attesting to centuries of belief in Milosh’s local roots. Still, Di Lellio leaps to no conclusions; she contrasts Albanian oral history with an overview of the development of Miloš Obilić in Serbian historiography, and she looks beyond the Balkans at a Catalan tradition that makes Milosh Hungarian. She also raises the possibility of etymological confusion based on the word kopil, which means “trickster” or “bastard.” The Albanian Milosh certainly is that: He gets close to Sultan Murat under false pretenses, he cracks jokes after being beheaded, and (in one 1955 variant) he uses magic to makes the eyeballs of two gawking maidens leap from their sockets.

Few scholars who lay a hand on Balkan folklore are objective. Di Lellio worked in Kosovo for the United Nations, and in 2006 she edited The Case for Kosova: Passage to Independence. This collection of texts was also published with the cooperation of the Centre for Albanian Studies, a reputable organization that nonetheless must have an opinion or two about the uses of history and legend. That said, The Battle of Kosovo 1389: An Albanian Epic was clearly published in good faith. Contrary to the claims of their critics, Di Lellio and translator Robert Elsie aren’t inventing the Milosh Kopiliq tradition; rather, the variants in this book were all recorded and published decades earlier by ethnographers and folklorists. (Students of medieval English literature will see a familiar name at the end of a 1937 variant: Albert Lord, whose theories about oral-formulaic poetry were picked up by Anglo-Saxonists.) Only one tale in this volume, a 32-line poem recorded in 1998, feels both too recent and too fond of its own historical awareness as it shows the decapitated Milosh Kopiliq striding into legend:

Mountain birds do chirp and wonder
Who is climbing up that hillside?
Headless now proceeds that body,
White with snow now turns the mountain.

Although these poets use Milosh to argue that Albanians are innately European, Di Lellio writes with detectable unease about official textbooks that treat the shadowy Milosh as an historical figure; refraining from overt judgments, she documents how Albanians have come to see themselves. “It is in this context,” she writes, “that I place the stories about Kopiliq, as I try to rescue them from turning into a new prison for collective memory.” With care, she catalogs “a unique production and diffusion of historical memory” since the end of the Balkan wars shaped by “war veterans, former political prisoners, journalists, teachers, politicians, and historians, engaged in owning and rewriting the past,” and no consensus emerges:

Interviews with a range of individuals, from intellectuals to political activists or ordinary people, confirm that Millosh Kopiliq occupies a contested place in Albanian historical consciousness. For some, the issue is a non-starter, a concern that remains confined to naïve nationalist circles. For many others, an Albanian Kopiliq is an undisputed fact: he was always “one of us,” just not always publicly.

If the unsettled yet minor role of Milosh Kopiliq in the Albanian national story makes him an ineffective foot soldier for propaganda, then the stories in this slim volume are also unlikely to eclipse the fame of the Serbian Kosovo epic. Even in its most witty variants, the legend of Milosh Kopiliq isn’t very engaging; the fact that an Albanian Kopiliq exists is itself far more interesting than the actual details of his brief, formulaic adventures.

Compared to the Kopiliq variants, the Serbian poems about the Battle of Kosovo are a far richer read. Their historicity is debatable, and they hold an unsavory place in the nationalist arsenal, but they’re also imbued with a sense of tragedy and loss that overshadows the tale of a single tricky assassin. I’ll continue to teach the Serbian epic in class, but I’ll also mention the Albanian poems for the way they highlight the Balkans’ baffling cultural churn. I’ll also be glad that a Serbian publisher has expressed interest in a translation of this book. Perhaps waiting for former countrymen to find amusement in each other’s cherished legends doesn’t need to become another of the region’s many thousand-year projects.

“The general sat, and the lines on the map…”

Today, as the world little noted nor long remembered, was the 620th anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo. According to AFP, “no incidents were reported during the ceremony” held by Serbian pilgrims and officials near the battlefield that’s no longer Serbian territory, although Belgrade radio station B92 reports—how reliably I don’t know—that some Kosovars marked the day by bulldozing a 1999 monument to the medieval Serb heroes.

Pundits and politicians have forsaken the Balkans, but medievalists should keep Kosovo in mind—not because outsiders should rush to take sides, but because nowhere is a medieval conflict still burning quite so brightly. Gavrilo Princip assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo on this date in 1914, the 525th anniversary of the battle, and Slobodan Milosevic chose the 600th anniversary to visit the battlefield and rally nationalistic Serbs. The Battle of Kosovo hasn’t really ended, and one epic poet predicted what diplomats never fully grasped: “Earthly kingdoms are such passing things—/ A heavenly kingdom, raging in the dark, endures eternally.”

From the “Quid Plura?” archives, here’s the medieval background to Kosovo’s 2008 declaration of independence, and here’s the capture of Radovan Karadžić and the ugly side of modern medievalism.

“You thought the leaden winter would bring you down forever…”

How flippant should Agamemnon sound? In a review of Anne Carson’s new translation of the Orestia, Brad Leithauser contrasts the “plainspoken delivery” of Carson’s dialogue with the “combination of metrical mellifluousness and clunkiness” of Richmond Lattimore and finds a middle ground in the “clipped yet graceful, brisk cadences” of Robert Lowell. Leithauser’s review is interesting, but it feels incomplete without a mention of Christopher Logue, the one modern poet who has found his calling in making the ancient world shamelessly colloquial.

An activist, autodidact, and occasional actor, Logue has spent nearly half a century using all the gimmicks of modern poetry to craft a loose, idiomatic version of Homer’s Iliad. Literally irreverent, Logue frees himself from the tyranny of his source material through one curious disadvantage: he’s ignorant of ancient Greek. As a result, his Homer—currently collected in three separate volumes—includes scenes that aren’t in the Iliad; at one point, he even cribs a passage from Milton. Sensitive to the distinction between scholarship and artistry, Logue calls what he’s doing an “account,” not a translation—and if that makes classicists cringe, they’re probably missing the point.

Known for his gleeful use of anachronisms—like his description of Ajax, often cited by reviewers, as “[g]rim underneath his tan as Rommel after ‘Alamein”—Logue deploys evocative modern language to create quick, crisp snapshots. Here’s his description of Agamemnon’s champions in “All Day Permanent Red”:

Nestor, his evening star.
Ajax, his silent fortress. Good—even on soft sand.
Odysseus (you know him), small but big.
Fourth—grizzled and hook-tap nosed—the king of Crete,
Idomeneo, who:
“Come on!”
Would sign a five-war-contract on the nod.

Logue’s Homer resounds with the diction of war, but he also crafts domestic scenes with a deftness that other poets should envy. In “The Husbands,” an exchange between Zeus and a petulant Athena neatly reveals the condescension that defines their relationship:

The armies wait. “Dearest Pa-pa, the oath said one should die.
The Trojan was about to die. He did not die.
Nobody died. Therefore the oath is dead.
Killed by a Trojan. Therefore Troy goes down.”

Drivers conducting underbody maintenance.

“Father, You must act.
Side with the Trojans, Greece will say,
Were we fools to believe in His thunder?
Why serve a God who will not serve His own?”

And giving her a kiss, He said:

“Child, I am God,
Please do not bother me with practicalities.”

When battle calls, Logue can craft a passage as thrilling as anything in 300, combining heroic deeds with colloquial diction while never undercutting the tone, as in this passage from “Patrocleia”:

The air near Ajax was so thick with arrows, that,
As they came, their shanks tickered against each other;
And under them the Trojans swarmed so thick
Ajax outspread his arms, turned his spear flat,
And simply pushed. Yet they came clamouring back until
So many Trojans had a go at him
The iron chaps of Ajax’ helmet slapped his cheeks
To soft red pulp, and his head reached back and forth
Like a clapper inside a bell made out of sword blades.
Maybe, even with no breath left,
Big Ajax might have stood it yet; yet
Big and all as he was, Prince Hector meant to burn that ship:
And God was pleased to let him.

Logue’s poetry may be campy, but it also moves, and thrills, and entertains. By making translation look like a blast, he disguises his real accomplishment: mastering a style that suits his particular genius, all to turn quirks into genuine art.

“He brewed a song of love and hatred…”

In his English translation of The Battle of Kosovo, John Matthias commends his co-translator, Vladeta Vučković, and offers this passage from Vučković’s modern poem about Serbian legend and history:

The Serbs quieted down, but they did not shut their mouths. Idled by the time on their hands they started to sing and sang themselves hoarse in endless poems accompanied by the mourning sounds of the sobbing gusle. The blind guslars gazed into the future, and those who could see covered themselves out of shame and became the leaders of the blind. But what kind of music is this, my poor soul, reduced to just one string!

I was inspired to hunt for this gloomy passage after the Guardian reported that prior to his capture on Monday, Radovan Karadžić liked to jam on the gusle in a Belgrade pub:

In retrospect, it is hardly surprising it was his favourite pub. The walls and bar of the Luda Kuca (the name means madhouse) are adorned with the Serb pantheon – Slobodan Milosevic, Vojislav Seselj, Ratko Mladic and of course, Radovan Karadzic – each one a nationalist hero. For the hardline clientele, the fact that they also shared the distinction of having been charged by The Hague war crimes tribunal only enhanced their status as warriors.

There were many stories being told yesterday about the man the locals knew as Doctor David, psychiatrist holistic health guru and mystic. But one winter’s night in particular was passing speedily into folklore.

That night, there was a jamming session on the gusle, the one-string fiddle played across the Balkans to accompany epic poetry. Dabic turned up to listen and was eventually persuaded to join in. Those present that night shook their heads yesterday in disbelief at the memory. There was Radovan Karadzic, their hero and icon, playing the gusle for them under his own portrait, and no one had a clue who he was. It was the stuff of legend.

Raso Vucinic, a young Serb nationalist who had been playing the gusle that night, was burnishing a tale he would one day tell his grandchildren.

Balkan epic poems are a gift to the world. Early in the 20th century, recorded performances of epics such as The Wedding of Smailagić Meho helped a generation of scholars better understand the compositional techniques behind Beowulf and other medieval works, and the surviving fragments of the Kosovo cycle are tinged with wistful eloquence. The stories they tell are exciting and sad—but these songs can’t be sung in a vacuum.

Five years ago, while visiting Serbian friends, I found myself in an ancient city on the Montenegrin coast. To escape the midday sun, we ducked into a run-down shop full of pirated software and used compact discs. On a high shelf, safe behind glass, was a special item: a cassette case adorned with a somber portrait of Slobodan Milošević. My host squinted at the title and explained, ruefully, that the cassette was a recording of epic poems lamenting the tragic downfall of Milošević, performed in the traditional manner and set to the screech of the gusle. It wasn’t on sale for its philological interest.

Karadžić, by contrast, composed his own tale. In 1992, for the benefit of documentarians, he played the gusle in the house of his 19th-century forefather Vuk Karadžić, a philologist whose work gave Serbian nationalists something to sing about. A poet himself, Radovan knew that moving incognito among his own people as a bearded mystic would be reminiscent of epic, a motif so cleverly adapted that even his own capture would make for a beguiling story.

Medievalists, take note: sometimes, this is how epic heroes are made, under conditions so ugly that lawyers start to wonder whether poetry can be a war crime. If nothing else, the long-overdue capture of Karadžić, dramatic though it is, refutes that old Joseph Campbell baloney: sometimes the hero has only two faces, and neither one is really worth a damn.


Years ago, in days of old, I was an aspiring cartoonist. Pathetically, I still nurse vain daydreams about literally going back to the drawing board—so it made my week to learn that I helped inspire, however tangentially, a character in a forthcoming Kid Beowulf graphic novel. Can Charlemagne plush toys be far behind?

Here’s an interview with Kid Beowulf creator Alexis Fajardo, who explains why he chose to develop an all-ages comic in which a 12-year-old Beowulf and his brother, Grendel, romp through the epics of the world:

I was always a bit of a mythology nut when I was a kid so I was familiar with these types of stories. But BEOWULF was the first epic poem I ever read and I remember being struck by the language of it; it was very different from the language of Bulfinch’s or those dreaded “novelizations” of epics that seem crop up. Believe it or not, the poetry really popped: the specificity of the visuals and the characterization of the heroes clicked for me in a way that those other stories didn’t. Epic poetry sounds boring, but it really isn’t, a lot of it depends on the teacher you get and the translation you read, because these heroes are bad-ass and worth reading about.

Fajardo describes his work as “a weird hybrid of the humorous and the heroic,” a worthy combination. It’s no secret that English teachers often inspire cartoonists; it’s neat to see a cartoonist returning the compliment.

“Your face, your race, the way that you talk…”

Recently, the “Charlemagne” column in The Economist declared Playmobil Man its “European of the Year,” noting persuasively that Homo playmobilis offers “a striking snapshot of European aspirations, anxieties and foibles.” That approach to toys, I’d hasten to add, also says something about how they see history:

There are Playmobil knights and barbarians, pirates and Roman legionaries, all wielding lethal weapons. Europeans can even live with American military toys, if they are old enough: there are Playmobil cowboys from the Wild West, and soldiers from both sides in the American civil war.

The difference is philosophical, says Mrs Schauer. There are no more knights and pirates, so their combat is a “resolved story.” Modern war is “really horror.” That is echoed by Gabi Neubauer, a librarian buying toys in Nuremberg. She suggests that “it is more honourable to fight with a sword, somehow.” Not all explanations are as high-faluting. Asked why Playmobil makes any tiny toy guns at all, Mrs Schauer admits “otherwise, we probably wouldn’t be accepted by boys.”

To the modern toy-shopper, a medieval battle may seem more honorable when viewed through the thick lens of history. But when 14th-century conflicts continue to perplex, and frustrate, and threaten to come between allies, it’s iffy to claim that the knights of old Europe belong to a story that’s somehow “resolved.”

If you’re just catching up on the news of the weekend—Kosovo’s declaration of independence and the reaction it’s causing in Serbia—you’ll see that most articles skimp on historical background. They summarize briefly the wars of the ’90s, but doing the subject justice is nigh on impossible. Even for many foreigners with Balkan connections, disentangling the skein of religion and culture and old ideology is the work of at least half a lifetime. Besides, seeing Kosovo with no more than two decades of context, or panning back only a century, is like opening a book more than three-quarters in. To begin understanding what happened this weekend, you have to go back more than 600 years.

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.

Unless you understand the Serb defeat at Kosovo polje, you won’t see the symbolism in Gavrilo Princip assassinating Archduke Ferdinand on the 525th anniversary of the battle, the act that ignited World War I; you won’t know why charmless nationalist Slobodan Milosevic scored a propaganda victory by speaking at the battlefield on the 600th anniversary of the defeat (shortly before his own helicopter-assisted apotheosis); and you won’t appreciate why 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. But the Kosovo conflict is medievalism, too, the sort we would often prefer to forget. In the Balkans, where the scholarly study of Bosnian guslars later shed new light on Beowulf, medievalism also kindled World War I. During the 19th century, as medievalism adapted to the vagaries of national character, 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 world they created, though grim it may be, springs right from the same source as Tolkien.

Sometimes, medievalism should give us pause, especially us Americans, for whom the phrase “that’s history” is more likely to be dismissive rather than admonitory. The battle of Kosovo resonates still; its legends and lore have profound implications. Playmobil knows this; just look at their toys. They sell Norsemen and Romans and wee Gaulish leaders, but no Lazarus or Sultan Murad. The thought is unnerving, outlandish, and weird. Let’s hope that their story is someday resolved.

“She began to wail, jealousies scream…”

Everyone is done talking about the recent Beowulf movie. I thought I was done with it, too, until I saw this comment from Dave Itzkoff at the New York Times blog “Paper Cuts”:

One of my favorite tropes in “Cloverfield,” the new J.J. Abrams-produced monster-destroys-Manhattan movie that made one zillion dollars (give or take) at the box-office last weekend, is that the camera rarely lingers on the giant beastie long enough for audiences to get a clear look at it. What makes the monster so frightening is whatever we viewers project onto it – it’s whatever we think it might be.

If I were teaching this semester, I might ask my students: How come the guy behind television shows like “Alias” and “Lost” knows that this timeworn approach to the monster is guaranteed to work, but nearly every ambitious artiste who tries to adapt Beowulf feels the need to flesh out Grendel, make him visible and sympathetic, and turn him into a fathomable, manageable creature rather than an inexplicable evil half-spawned from the viewer’s own psyche?

The modern-day maker of mass entertainment understands implicitly what some too-clever adapters, with “fresh readings” and pretentious meta-narratives about storytelling, do not: that our scop had it right all along.

“In you I confide, red dragon tattoo…”

[Because I was unable to sit through Beowulf without experiencing a series of minor pedantic flare-ups—”A reference to Vinland at the beginning of the sixth century!?”—I requested a review from a considerably less biased guest blogger: me when I was eleven years old.]

Since the dawn of time, mankind has told the story of Beowulf. In the movie, which is different from the book, Beowulf kills Grendel but doesn’t slay his mother, who had full chestal nudity, even though he could of taken all her gold and gotten alot of experience points. In this way, the movie is different from the book.

Later, Beowulf is the king and he has to kill the dragon. I couldn’t figure out what kind of dragon it was. Red dragons shoot fire, but it wasn’t red, it was closer to brown. It also polymorphed into a person, which was stupid. But the dragon when it was a dragon was pretty cool. They should of had Unferth heal Beowulf because he becomes a cleric and he could cast a Heal Light Wounds spell. Maybe he healed somebody else that day but the movie doesn’t show you if he did.

The monster’s mother had a charisma of 25. But Grendel was desgusting (sp?) so his is probably a 3.

No, I don’t like Angelina Jolie. I don’t. Shut up! Stop it!

“Smelled the spring on the smoky wind…”

Amid the reactions to wild plot changes in the Zemeckis-Avary-Gaiman movie, it’s amusing to imagine that perhaps the version of Beowulf that survives in manuscript form might not have been acceptable to certain traditionalists back in the day: “There goes Brother Ceolfrith again, stirring in more of that Christianity business like a cook tossing leeks into the stew-pot. What was wrong with the story the way it was? Why couldn’t he leave well enough alone?”

With that possibility in mind, don’t miss Mary Kate Hurley’s “Ruins and Poetry: Beowulf and Bethlehem Steel,” a lovely essay from the perspective of an Anglo-Saxonist about the meaning of ruins both literal and literary. Hurley didn’t particularly enjoy the new movie, but she wonders if it isn’t a noble failure, an attempt to salvage something worth preserving, “another performance of a poem whose ending has not been written yet.”