Thursday, August 21, 2008

The Reading List: Beowulf

Beowulf is a message in a bottle from an amazingly remote time and way of life. It is like a letter that you find in the attic, written by a cultural great-great-grandparent, an eccentric ancestor that you never had the chance to meet and whom you know precious little about, but whose influence is still felt every time the family gets together.

The differences between your life and the life of a medieval Anglo-Saxon tribesman are notable. You, gentle reader, live perched on the framework of a global economic system, a relatively stable social order, and myriad wonders of technological achievement and materials science. The Anglo-Saxon, on the other hand, has a life style that, although by no means "natural" -- we're talking about human beings, here -- is far more exposed to the elements and to the immediate questions of food supply and survival than we are or probably could bear to be. Manufactured items are exceedingly rare. With communication sporadic and resources few, human-on-human violence is a commonplace.

These are people without literacy, without an organized justice system, without antibiotics. They can not expect to be famous in the future or to be defended from assault by others, and they know that life is always extremely tenuous. All of this breeds a way of thinking about priorities that seems to the modern eye, shall we say, bracingly rugged. There are no frills, and there is no romance. Beowulf, the warrior hero, lays it out for us before going into battle: not grieve. It is always better
to avenge dear ones than to indulge in mourning.
For every one of us, living in this world
means waiting for our end. Let whoever can
win glory before death. When a warrior is gone,
that will be his best and only bulwark.

A Note on the Text
No one knows the exact origins of the Beowulf story. We don't know whether it was an important legend among the Anglo-Saxons or just a random one that happened to survive by accident. It is an oddity in that it is a written relic of a non-literate people; the oral tale survived long enough into the reintroduction of literacy for someone -- two someones, judging by the handwriting -- to write it all down.

There is a lot of Christian content in Beowulf layered over a clearly pagan core narrative. This may be because the scribes who wrote the tale down, who were almost certainly monks, manipulated its content; or, it's possible that the tale had evolved Christian trappings among its tellers in the newly Christianized population. Either way, the text reflects its having been written down in the period of transition from non-literate pagan England to literate, Christian England.

That Was a Good King
The Anglo-Saxons are a tribal people; in the grand game of Civilization, they have discovered Iron Working but not Monarchy. What they call "Kings" are really regional warlords. The job of these kings is to protect their people through wise leadership in war and diplomacy, and to ensure that everyone gets an equal cut of the spoils. Alliances must be well thought out, wars must be prosecuted with vigor and valor, and treasure and the honor that it signifies must be distributed fairly and properly to those who have earned it.

To an great extent, Beowulf is a kind of Medieval Machiavelli, a manual of advice for the Anglo-Saxon king. Beyond the basic tale of hero fighting monsters, the text is packed with digressive speeches that recount the histories of tribes, heroes, and events. Each of these tales comes with an implied suggestion for the best practice of leadership.

One of the key messages of Beowulf, for instance, is "avoid feuds." The idea that "it is always better to avenge dear ones than to indulge in mourning" is intended to deter crime and violence by the threat of reprisal, and doubtless it often served that function. It's an unstable system, though, in that once the peace is broken it tends to stay broken, in an endless cycle of reprisal killings. And this is bad. Feuds are costly, disruptive, and almost impossible to stop once they are underway. They can fester for generations. The Anglo-Saxons, as you might expect, understood the psychology of this very well; at one point, the tale contemplates two tribes trying to end a decades-old feud through a judicious political marriage:

Than an old spearman will speak while they are drinking [at the wedding feast],
having glimpsed some heirloom that brings alive
memories of the massacre; his mood will darken
and heart-stricken, in the stress of his emotion,
he will begin to test a young man's temper
and stir up trouble, starting like this:
'Now, my friend, don't you recognize
your father's sword, his favourite weapon,
the one he wore when he went out in his war-mask
to face the Danes on that final day?
...and now here's a son of one or other
of those same killers coming through our hall
overbearing us, mouthing boasts,
and rigged in armor that by right is yours.'
And so he keeps on, recalling and accusing,
working things up with bitter words
until one of the [bride's] retainers lies
spattered in blood, split open
on his father's account....
Then on both sides the oath-bound lords
will break the peace....
It's hard to end feuds. Readers of Beowulf are reminded of this constantly, and reminded that the best path is to make sure that feuds don't get started in the first place.

An even more important message is "be generous." Give until it hurts. In Beowulf, the final measure of a king is how much loot he is passing around. If you are distributing a lot of gold to your people, it shows that you have successfully fostered and defended the wealth of the community, and that you honor and respect the work of the people who made it all possible. It is, oddly enough, a more or less democratic mechanism, a way of assuring the consent of the governed. If you are tight-fisted, you will sow resentment and dissent, and you will not be king for long.

Considering that we are in the Early Middle Ages, here -- the proverbial "Dark Ages" -- its impressive what a promenant role queens have in this system of distributing wealth and honor. They mix freely and with apparent ease through the company of warriors, and the honors that they bestow through words and gifts are portrayed as somewhat independent of, but equal to, those of their husbands. That they possess some measure of power -- and that they, like their husbands, were considered under obligation to exercise that power wisely -- is shown clearly in this episode:

Great Queen Modthryth
perpetrated terrible wrongs.
If any retainer ever made bold
to look her in the face, if an eye not her lord's
stared at her directly during daylight,
the outcome was sealed: he was kept bound
in hand-tightened shackles, racked, tortured
until doom was pronounced -- death by the sword,
slash of blade, blood-gush and death qualms
in an evil display. Even a queen
outstanding in beauty must not overstep like that.
A queen should weave peace, not punish the innocent
with loss of life for imagined insults.
Queens are definitely not entirely autonomous, but then this is not a society of autonomous individuals. Everyone in the community is bound to everyone else by obligations of service, responsibility, and the sharing of loot.

About that loot
The Anglo-Saxons are mad for it. They do not share our notion of the embarassment of riches. Unabashed materialists, they find gold fascinating and lovely, and frankly want as much of it as possible. In a time of very, very few manufactured goods, a handful of gold hoops seems to have represented the good life. Indeed, to an Anglo-Saxon gold "rings" (bracelets, really) ARE the good life -- they are the luxury automobile, the McMansion, the marble countertops, the master bedroom suite with wraparound shower, the weekends in Aspen, the whole deal. It's all wrapped up in a few bands of metal. A person's rings represent their honor and their standing among their peers, and thus, like the luxuries of any era, they have a psychological worth unrelated to their inherent beauty or utility.

This is the kind of thing that makes Beowulf so fascinating. Its characters think and act in ways that are often wholly alien to us. But at the same time, they are human beings and, for those of us who grew up in the matrix of the English speaking world, they are important cultural ancestors. In there with the alien, there are plenty of glimpses of what we share.

On the Translation
I read the popular recent translation by the Irish poet Seamus Heany. This version is sometimes criticized on technical grounds and for being "too much Seamus Heany, not enough Beowulf." I am unqualified to comment on the technical questions, but can comfortably say that "too much Seamus Heaney" is an oxymoron. The text as he renders it is a brilliant piece of alliterative poetry. I read it out loud, probably to the puzzlement of the neighbors, and it felt great coming out of the mouth. The only problem was getting the rumbling rhythms out of my speech for a few hours afterwards.


You know the story. Man fights monsters: Grendel, Grendel's mom, and a dragon. The fights don't make up much of the text, though, and for my money they are just window dressing for a much more interesting meditation on the qualities and responsibilities of leadership.


Yankee in England said...

Ah it brings back memories of Senior Year English Lit class. I think we read it in Middle English or what ever it was written in no one told me there was a freaking modern day translation. It made reading Cantabury Tales look easy. I must admit that I did read the Cliff Notes as I usually did with all of my reading assignments. Not to cheat but I found it ties everything together very nicely.

Michael5000 said...

@Yank: I don't think so, dude. Beowulf is in Old English, and unless you had at least a couple months of specialist training, it wouldn't have been possible to read it in the original.

Ye Canterbury Tales are in Middle English, and if you are persistent, knowledgeable, and a bit liquoured up, you can wade your way through them in the original. But Old English is much, much, much further removed from the language we know.

Here is what Beowulf looks like in the raw.

Here is Chaucer, by comparison.

Elizabeth said...

M5K - I enjoy all of your synopsis(es) on books and movies - though sometimes they lead me astray; "The Apartment" made me cry, it was so sad - but this one I quite like. I'll have to read this again (the book, not the synopsis) because when I read it in *my* AdvLit days in highschool, I was much more interested in loot than politics. Worth a second look, esp. if the translation's that good.

Michael5000 said...

@elizabeth: Of "The Apartment," I said it was a scatheing social critique about people being cruel to each other. Sadness experienced while expecting it to be a fun-filled romp would not be the fault of michael5000.

But really, thanks for the letting your movie choices be influenced by my rantings. That's very flattering. And I hope you at least found "The Apartment" to be, you know, ~good~...

Anonymous said...

I've got a CD of Michael Drout (Anglo-Saxon and Tolkien scholar, and the living academic I'd most like to be, see his blog at reading the original Beowulf aloud. It's amazing; I wish I were competent to a) understand it or b) put a heavy metal opera soundtrack to it.

Yankee in England said...

I don't rememer maybe we had a really old translation then because it was nothing as easy as the passages you included.

Rex Parker said...

OK, medievalist in the house, so listen up ...

OK, so I have nothing to say about Beowulf except that I like to say "Hrothgar" and "Heorot," and my sister once entertained the idea of writing a rollerskating musical adaptation of the thing.

Michael5000 said...

@Nichim: I listened to some lecture series by Drout (linguistics, science fiction), and was actually kinda disappointed. I thought his coverage of SF, in particular, was extremely conservative and dusty. He studies interesting stuff, though. I'll follow his blog for a bit, and see if it fires my rocket.

@Rex: Aww... I was listening up!

I like to say "Hygelac." I LOVE to say "Thaught was a gud king," or "Thaught was a gud xxx" in general, in a kind of rumbly barbarian voice. ("@Elizabeth: Thaught was a gud comment!") But I don't like saying "Geats."

Fool for paper said...

I know what you mean about too much Seamus Heaney being an oxyomoron. I picked up the book at bookstore and casually glanced at the introduction. 20 minutes later I lifted my head, noticed where I was, and realized I was going to buy the book because I couldn't stay there the rest of the day reading.

Michael5000 said...

@fool for paper: Thaught was a gud testimonial.

Anonymous said...

This was excellent and my kind of fun to read. Oh your paragraph about the gold! I loved that.

The meditation on leadership responsibilities is something I had not really ever considered. Well not as in depth and it does make me want to read a bit more and maybe excerpt some to go along with Machiavelli later.

So where does Angelina Jolie come into it? He he he. :-D

So glad you fond it fascinating. I found your take fascinating enough to pick up my copy and give her a try. I have long since abandoned trying to get through Canterbury Tales in Middle English. (I read that out loud too. It helped, but I never finished it.)Btw, Appreciated the links in your comments.