Archive for June, 2014


“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.