Archive for November, 2007


“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!

“Gleymum sorg og sút, og sinnisgrút…”

Once upon a time, I spent two weeks in Iceland, where I stayed in the home of an elderly couple. They thought I was there for the intensive Icelandic language course—but since I wasn’t there for the intensive Icelandic language course, I was unable to dispel their misapprehension. I was similarly unable to keep them from throwing dictionaries at me or forcing me to watch subtitled television shows about clever German police dogs. I developed a huge crush on their country nonetheless.

A decade later, I’ve introduced my students to medieval Icelandic literature through the Saga of the Volsungs and translations of eddic poetry. Lately, though, they’ve begun to fret about their grades, their papers, and their final exams. Empathetic teacher that I am, I decided to send them this: “Hakuna Matata” translated and dubbed in Icelandic.

Whether or not they appreciate the intention behind it remains to be seen.

“I’m looking for cracks in the pavement…”

Back in July, while visiting family, I discovered that downtown New Orleans had been deprived of a prominent literary landmark.

Today, an email missive brings good news: Ignatius has returned. All hail the restoration of theology and geometry to Canal Street!

Behold the grandeur of his physique! The complexity of his worldview! The decency and taste implicit in his carriage! The grace with which he functions in the mire of today’s world!

(Photo courtesy of the blogger’s very cool mom.)

“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.”

“I am a monster, I’ll make you run faster…”

The Zemeckis-Avary-Gaiman Beowulf is some kind of monster—but its actual monster, like so many Grendels before him, has been quasi-humanized, reduced to a pitiful antagonist rather than a creature of perfect evil. As Scott Nokes pointed out last year in his review of the film Beowulf and Grendel, this characterization of the monster is typical of modern adaptations:

This Grendel, though, is what I refer to as the Postmodern Grendel — deeply misunderstood. Way back when John Gardener was re-imagining Grendel as simply misunderstood and flawed, this reading was audacious. Now, it is simply boring and pedestrian. I find that my students are incapable of understanding Grendel as evil, or as an enemy of God.

He’s right: postmodern whimsy sometimes makes it harder to teach a modern work. When so many readers have seen Hamlet as the story of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and far more have considered The Wizard of Oz through the eyes of the Wicked Witch of the West, those of us who teach John Gardner’s Grendel may have a hard time explaining to students why the novel was such a big deal when it was published in 1971.

But maybe novelty no longer matters. As I gear up to talk about Grendel in class in a couple of weeks, I’m finding that not having to fawn over the rather obvious shift in the narrator’s point of view will give me much more time to discuss with students what this novel is really about. Conventional wisdom has always dubbed Grendel a postmodern novel, the tale of “the outsider, the person who walks on the edge”—but the book keeps howling at me that it’s something else entirely.

For example, here’s Grendel soaking in ennui:

So childhood too feels good at first, before one happens to notice the terrible sameness, age after age.

Here’s Grendel on the heroism of Unferth:

“Monster, prepare to die!” he said. Very righteous. The wings of his nostrils flared and quivered like an outraged priest’s.
I laughed. “Aargh!” I said. I spit bits of bone.
He glanced behind him, making sure he knew exactly where the window was. “Are you right with your god?” he said.
I laughed somewhat more fiercely. He was one of those.

Here’s Grendel on the pointlessness of it all:

Stars, spattered out through lifeless night from end to end, like jewels scattered in a dead king’s grave, tease, torment my wits toward meaningful patterns that do not exist.

Here’s Grendel on the unreliability of narrative:

As if all by itself, then, the harp made a curious run of sounds, almost words, and then a moment later, arresting as a voice from a hollow tree, the harper began to chant…

What was he? The man had changed the world, had torn up the past by its thick, gnarled roots and had transmuted it, and they, who knew the truth, remembered it his way—and so did I.

Here’s the young Grendel after getting his foot stuck in a tree-root and facing an attacking bull. Wallowing in solipsism, he throws in a dash of blasphemy for good measure:

I understood that the world was nothing, a mechanical chaos of casual, brute enmity on which we stupidly impose our hopes and fears. I understood that, finally and absolutely, I alone exist. All the rest, I saw, is merely what pushes me, or what I push against, blindly—as blindly as all that is not myself pushes back. I create the whole universe, blink by blink.—An ugly god pitifully dying in a tree!

Here’s Grendel meeting his first humans, who assume he’s a giant fungus or a tree spirit. Of course, Grendel is unable to communicate with them.

“You’re all crazy,” I tried to yell, but it came out a moan. I bellowed for my mother.

So here we have a monstrous parody of the 20th-century protagonist: a narcissistic, solipsistic, nihilistic atheist who bemoans his alienation and wallows in existential angst. He disdains traditional heroism, he blames society for making him what he is—and he has mother issues!

I can see my students feeling pity for this character, maybe a little sympathy, and they’re sure to find him a clever and intriguing narrator. But really, what careful, thoughtful reader has ever admired this nasty, self-obsessed monster?

In 1971, a Time magazine reviewer compared Gardner’s Grendel to Caliban, Milton’s Lucifer, and King Kong, suggesting that the monster “throbs with primal rage, despair, collegiate idealism and existential inquiry.” But like many ersatz idealists, Grendel finds that his world-view literally can’t survive a collision with reality. Here’s Beowulf disabusing Grendel of his solipsism:

Grendel, Grendel! You make the world by whispers, second by second. Are you blind to that? Whether you make it a grave or a garden of roses is not the point. Feel the wall: is it not hard? He smashes me against it, breaks open my forehead. Hard, yes! Observe the hardness, write it down in careful runes. Now sing of walls! Sing!
I howl.
Sing!

“I’m singing!”
Sing words! Sing raving hymns!

“You’re crazy. Ow!”
Sing!
“I sing of walls,” I howl. “Hooray for the hardness of walls!”
Terrible,
he whispers. Terrible. He laughs and lets out fire.
“You’re crazy,” I say. “If you think I created that wall that cracked my head, you’re a fucking lunatic.”

Dying, Grendel at last sees the world as existing beyond himself:

Every rock, every tree, every crystal of snow cries out cold-blooded objectness. Cold, sharp outlines, everything around me: distinct, detached as dead men. I understand.

In the novel’s final line, Grendel at last has a breakthrough:

“Poor Grendel’s had an accident,” I whisper. “So may you all.”

Too late, Grendel acknowledges the reality of others. That closing line is easily read as a curse—but perhaps it’s a benediction, with the monster hoping that others might benefit from the same enlightening “accident.”

Like many a postmodern protagonist, Grendel embodies the intellectual trends of the day, but he’s not some whining prep-school antihero or an English professor coping with a midlife crisis; rather, he’s a creature of consequence. Julie Taymor has suggested of Grendel that “the monster is the most human of humans,” but I don’t think she’s right. Instead, he’s a truly wretched creature: an abomination cobbled together from the spare parts of modernity—a monster made insane by modernity itself.

There’s much more to say about Grendel, and I suspect my students, an increasingly candid bunch, will surprise and enlighten me with perspectives that aren’t stuck in 1971. Accustomed to other novels that sincerely praise nonconformity, they’ll probably notice, without my prompting, that Grendel isn’t just the story of a sensitive rebel, a Morrissey with bloody claws.

Grendel is a work of stark medievalism. It expresses little sympathy for the prejudices of the modern wit and outright disdain for the fatal affectations of the anti-hero. This Grendel is misunderstood—every time a reader assumes he ought to be seen as something other than the embodiment of doctrines that presumably rot the modern mind. Forget the conventional wisdom: Far from being a postmodern paean to the moody outcast, John Gardner’s Grendel may, in fact, be one of the most reactionary novels an English major will ever read.

[UPDATE, 12/1/07: Welcome, new readers!  Whether you’re here from 2Blowhards, Urban Prowlers, StumbledUpon, StevenHartSite, or Unlocked Wordhoard, I hope you’ll stop back occasionally if you’re interested in books, history, teaching, and medievalism.]

“Nun danket alle Gott…”

One year ago this week, my little Charlemagne book hit the shelves. To my amazement, the book-buying public actually cared. From Massachusetts to Louisiana, on TV and on the radio, I’ve spoken to countless people about Karl, King of the Franks—but before I gear up to promote the (very affordable) paperback, please indulge me as I pause for a moment of requisite but sincere sappiness, in the spirit of the holiday.

I’m thankful for…

…the editors, agents, and publicists who have worked hard to discover opportunities that otherwise would have passed me by.

…friends, family, and colleagues, who have indulged my endless Charlemania with remarkable good cheer.

…book-buyers, all of whom took a chance on a new author. Their e-mail, their questions, their overall enthusiasm—heck, even their occasional criticism—have made those interminable evenings of research and editing entirely worthwhile.

…the many teachers, bloggers, bookstore managers, librarians, adult-education directors, festival organizers, and radio-show hosts who let potential readers know that a book about the coronation of Charlemagne doesn’t have to be boring.

…and you, my “Quid Plura?” guests, whether your visits are frequent or occasional. Please keep reading, linking, and commenting!

Creating a book truly is a team effort; selling it is, too. After spending the last year meeting the people who keep culture alive by organizing book salons, developing continuing education programs, and rounding up audiences for lectures and library talks, I’m even more humbled by their commitment to their work—despite the chorus of naysayers who argue, wrongly, that no one cares about history and literature.

Aspiring writers, take note: This isn’t something you can do alone. The lesson of the past year, for me, is that it wouldn’t be worth it if you could.

“…gearowe oþþe na, her cumað cnihtas suðan.”

Beowulf is out, reviews are in, and blogs will soon be abuzz with the input of Anglo-Saxonists. Compared to other medievalists, Anglo-Saxonists are numerous on the Web, but then they’ve long been a forward-looking bunch. More than a decade ago, the now-vanished Old English Pages at Georgetown were some of the earliest online resources for studying any medieval language; the Anglo-Saxon poetic corpus was digitized even before most academics had personal e-mail addresses; and graduate students in the mid-1990s were already exploring the potential of hypertext editions.

Given access to the same technology as their fellow humanities scholars, why are Anglo-Saxonists such early adapters? A 1952 Time magazine article suggests one reason: they’re heirs to a decades-old “Anglo-Saxon boom”:

After, next week, Beowulf scholars will not have to worry too much about the fate of the original, nor will they have to travel thousands of miles to pursue their studies of Thorkelin, whose mistakes in copying (e.g., 599 “d’s” for “eth”) will still take years to untangle. But Beowulf is only the opening salvo of the new Anglo-Saxon boom. Within the next few years, scholars all over the world will have reproductions of everything from St. Gregory’s Pastoral Care to King Alfred’s translation of Orosins’ History of the World. Next volume on the list: an 8th century manuscript of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, the original of which is now in the Leningrad Public Library, where Western scholars would have a hard time getting at it.

After reading the entire article, which summarizes postwar efforts to preserve and publish Anglo-Saxon manuscripts, I wanted to see if the magazine’s coverage of Old English literature had changed in the past half century. I poked around the Time archive and was struck by these excerpts from the magazine’s review of Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf in the year 2000:

“Just don’t take any course where they make you read Beowulf,” Woody Allen advised Diane Keaton in Annie Hall (1977). The throwaway line elicited laughs from Allen’s core audience of college grads, especially the one-time English majors among them who had learned to dread—if not actually read—what they had heard was a grim Anglo-Saxon epic filled with odd names and a lot of gory hewing and hacking.

The joke, it turns out, was on the chucklers…

Heaney’s Beowulf…has now been published in the U.S., giving American readers the chance to take the measure of this Harry Potter slayer, the deadest white European male in the politically incorrect literary canon. Judging by the electronic-sales ratings updated constantly by Amazon.com Beowulf is becoming boffo on this side of the Atlantic as well.

Note the difference in tone. The reporter in 1952 may have been ignorant of the continuing value of the Beowulf manuscript even after its copying and reproduction, but he reports on the state of Anglo-Saxon manuscript preservation without any snark. Amazingly, he even refers to “the famed Thorkelin transcripts” with no trace of irony. Time magazine didn’t expect its readers to know who Grí­mur Jónsson Thorkelin was, but the mid-century reporter kindly explains the scholar’s importance in four concise sentences—without jokes, without dismissive anecdotes, without caveats about political incorrectness, and without calling anything “boffo.”

Maybe the contrast is unfair. After all, a straight news article serves a different purpose than a book review that takes its subject seriously after three paragraphs of irony. But those three paragraphs sure are telling. The reporter in 1952 takes for granted that Anglo-Saxon manuscripts are important, and he assumes that the average Time reader, when briefed on the basics, is likely to agree. By contrast, the reviewer in 2000 assumes that the reader is inclined to think an Anglo-Saxon poem irrelevant based on a quip in a Woody Allen movie; that the reader needs a Harry Potter reference to make this material palatable; and that the reader requires inoculation against—or permission to enjoy, I’m not sure which—the work of “the deadest white European male.” The 1952 article respects the discernment of its readers, who may be receptive to the obscure. The 2000 review condescends. Really: “boffo”?

What’s especially strange to me is that Time magazine is so out of sync with the literate public’s genuine interest in the past. Except for bored patients in doctors’ offices, most of the people who still read general-interest news magazines must be doing so because they’re at least somewhat curious about the world. I don’t want to overstate the number of readers who might be interested in medieval manuscripts, but the massive success of the Beowulf translation tagged as “boffo” by Time magazine suggests that we shouldn’t understate their numbers either. Why preface a review with cutesy language that camouflages an implicit apology to the larger, incurious public? They’re not going to see the article anyway. How strange to let non-readers set the tone of a book review.

Then again, this is the same magazine whose technology bloggers write movie reviews with skittish disclaimers like this: “The little I remember about Beowulf the poem, which is nothing, since I never read it, is that it was incredibly boring.” Perhaps the writers and editors at a magazine with plummeting subscription rates should think twice before suggesting that reading is somehow uncool.

At the end of Carolingian Culture: Emulation and Innovation, Rosamond McKitterick writes, in a line I love to cite, that the Carolingians “imparted to future generations…the conviction that the past not only mattered but was a priceless hoard of treasure to be guarded, conserved, augmented, enriched and passed on.” That isn’t only a ninth-century sentiment. In the past year, I’ve spoken about Charlemagne in church basements full of senior citizens and I’ve met enthusiastic high-school kids who plan to become medievalists. This passion for history is hardly confined to the Middle Ages: One of my colleagues, a photographer and IT professional from Hawaii, recently drove through the Northeast visiting lesser known Revolutionary War sites; another toured ancient cities in Turkey. All of these people honor the memory of McKitterick’s monks and universalize their motives: To seek wisdom in the past is simply the impulse of civilized, literate people.

The big-screen Beowulf looks pretty silly, but its existence was inevitable, a function of the rampant public fascination with the Middle Ages that many of us witness firsthand. If this movie turns out to be one of medievalism’s more lamentable mooncalves, that’s fine; other opportunities will present themselves—at libraries, in classrooms, in the stillness of a museum gallery or in the raucousness of a Renaissance festival. No wonder that after fifty years, Old English experts, so often derided as fusty and dull, now have a better sense of the popular culture than do the editors of Time. The “Anglo-Saxon boom” continues; scholars are happy, but hardly surprised.

“On Thursday, watch the walls instead…”

When I started this blog, I planned to devote a weekly post to “Forgotten Video Friday.” You, dear readers, are no doubt glad I decided otherwise—but here, this morning, because I can’t help myself, I beg your bemused indulgence, and I offer you this occasional cavalcade of ephemeral video linkage.

Today’s theme: cover tunes.

Did you know that Peter Gabriel can be re-purposed for the club scene? Of course he can. Just as Crowded House can be turned into soft, melodious rap.

The guys in Aerosmith surely have guitar picks older than the kids who are covering their tunes.

Maybe you’ve secured a place in pop-music history when whippersnappers cover your songs.

Then again, maybe you haven’t really arrived until your song is covered by a whippersnapper and used as the soundtrack for a fan video about a canceled television series.

Ah, but when all is said and done, you’re not a canonical pop group unless one of your tunes is adapted for the ukulele and the other is covered by a psychic spokeswoman.

…but then sometimes, you discover a surprising and lovely Bob Dylan cover. When that happens, you simply can’t close with a joke.

“Is that my teasmade?”

No sun—no moon!
No morn—no noon—

No dawn—no dusk—no proper time of day—
No sky—no earthly view—
No distance looking blue—
No road—no street—no “t’other side the way”—
No end to any Row—
No indications where the Crescents go—
No top to any steeple—
No recognitions of familiar people—
No courtesies for showing ’em—
No knowing ’em!
No traveling at all—no locomotion—
No inkling of the way—no notion—
“No go”—by land or ocean—
No mail—no post—
No news from any foreign coast—
No Park—no Ring—no afternoon gentility—
No company—no nobility—
No warmth, no cheerfulness, no healthful ease,
No comfortable feel in any member—
No shade, no shine, no butterflies, no bees,
No fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds—
November!

Thomas Hood (1799-1845)

“I hear in my mind all of these voices…”

I’m recovering from a week of travel, book talks, and nonstop copywriting—but here are a few links worth following on this foggy Wednesday morning.

If you plan to be in Alabama this weekend, why not join Unlocked Wordhoarder Scott Nokes for the Big Beowulf Bash? (Trust me, they serve mighty fine cake at those Troy University functions.)

Speaking of Anglo-Saxon epic, Gypsy Scholar Jeffery Hodges offers a preview of a Beowulf translation I’m eager to read.

Jonathan Jarrett at A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe wonders, not rhetorically: why should people become historians?

Television writer Lee Goldberg flies to Germany on Air India and can’t recommend the experience.

Steven Hart—author of The Last Three Miles—has smart things to say about the wrath of Harlan Ellison, the “generational taste” of Norman Mailer readers, and the obscurity of James Branch Cabell.