Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Beowulf II

The second section of Beowulf has much in common with the first -- it is framed by feasts, features a fight with a monster, and has a fortuitous finale. One may, rightly, wonder at the internal repetition of the narrative pattern, and so it makes sense to ask what's different the second time around.

We're told that Grendel 'nursed a hard greivance,' though its nature is somewhat vague -- it seems to have to do with a sense the that building of Heorot and the sounds of feasts within offended Grendel, as it was previously part of his domain (though one might point out, that from the point of view of monstrous appetites, it was rather like someone building a McDonald's next door to one's house). But unlike Grendel, Grendel's mother has a very specific grievance that the Saxons and we today can all instantly recognize: revenge for the death of her son.

But there are other, perhaps less-obvious points of comparison: Grendel's mother lacks a name (though in a poetic form averse to proper names, it may not be a handicap), and her visit to Heorot is quite differently framed; despite its ferocity it is fringed with fear: "the hell-dam was in panic; desperate to get out / in mortal terror the moment she was found." She had come, it seems, not so much for revenge as to retrieve her son's arm, which had been hung as a humiliating war-trophy from the cross-beam.

Hrothgar, belatedly, tells that he has heard tales of "two such creatures," and gives Beowulf directions to the mere (!) -- one wonders why he didn't say something about it sooner. And, though the response of the hero is no less bold than before, the battle is quite a different one: it takes place unseen by comrades, and Beowulf comes disturbingly close to defeat. His eventual victory comes by using like against like; only a weapon from the age of giants can slay a giant. His faithful comrades go home, believing he has lost, and he has to go after them to announce his victory, perhaps a foreshadowing of the faithlessness his retainers will show at his final battle with the dragon. All in all, it's a bleaker, lonelier episode, one that all the rich rewards offered at the second feast, it seems, can scarcely recompense for. Even for the boast-loving Saxons, there is a sense of hubris.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Beowulf I

Could Seamus Heaney be right? Might Beowulf be, in some sense, a postcolonial text intrinsically allied with the Irish literary tradition?  At first glance, the idea seems far-fetched. And yet ...

If we think in terms of postcolonial theory, of poco as a way of reading as much as a body of texts, then there are of course quite a few texts which in their narrative and structure embody the questions of a colonized people struggling to step forth from under domination by a foreign power. Shakespeare's The Tempest is a common text here, as it was in part inspired by the shipwreck of a small colonial flotilla, and the character of Caliban has been seen by many writers and critics as the embodiment of the subjugated or subaltern colonial subject. This view underlies many recent iterations of the Tempest story, such as Aimé Césaire's Une Tempête (A Tempest, 1968), which offers both a radical adaptation and response to Shakespeare's text.

The comparable figure in Beowulf, of course, is Grendel. Like Caliban, Grendel is the lone offspring of a powerful mother, an original inhabitant of the land on which the Shield-Danes built their hall of Heorot. The poem introduces Grendel's hatred of the Danes with the fact that their house was built upon his land. And, although the nominal hero here is the very man who slays Grendel and then his mother, there is room enough for a more sympathetic reading, as was demonstrated by John Gardner in his 1971 novel Grendel. And, with the enormous influence of Seamus Heaney's Irish-ized translation of Beowulf, the position of Ireland as England first colony has been re-framed in implicitly political terms. No less a figure than Professor Seth Lerer, in his essay “On fagne flor: The Postcolonial Beowulf, from Heorot to Heaney,” has taken up this question. Critics may counter, again, that such readings somehow distort the original sense and intent of the poem, but as with any literary text, we need to approach such claims with caution. Any search for the meaning and intent behind Beowulf is beset with difficulties, as it is already a palimpsest of multiple purposes, a warrior poem from a pagan era inscribed within a Christian polemic and rediscovered within the context of linguistic antiquarianism. By whom, and for whom, is such a text today? The postcolonial perspective may well be the answer for our times; the popularity of Heaney's translation will certainly keep this aspect of the poem in readers' minds.

Friday, January 20, 2017

The Dream of the Rood

The land now known as England was originally inhabited by an unknown culture of people, sometimes referred to as "Megalithic" people (a reference to the standing stones they left at, among other places, Stonehenge).  These people were displaced by Celtic tribes, who in their turn were pushed back to the peripheries of the island by three Germanic tribes -- the Angles, the Saxons, and the Jutes -- who arrived in the fifth century to fill the power vacuum left by the departing Roman colonizers.  We know little of their culture, though, and nothing of their literature, until the moment when they were converted to Christianity -- and literacy -- a couple of centuries later, and some of the earliest texts we know are those used by missionaries to help persuade the Anglo-Saxons of the superiority of Christian belief. In fact, the very oldest written text -- The Dream of the Rood -- survives in part as a runic inscription on a stone cross (shown here).  The Dream is a proselytizing poem -- a poem that sought to convert its readers actively. The main speaker of the poem, in fact, is the Cross itself, which explains why it had to allow Christ to be crucified upon it -- a vital "backstory" for the Saxons, who considered crucifixion to be be the equivalent of "fraecodes gealga" -- the thieves' gallows. The cross, in contrast, represents itself as a faithful thegn (vassal) who only did as his Lord commanded, and was rewarded by having a mini-resurrection of his own, uplifted into the light of heaven, where it was covered with gold and rich gems, a hero's reward.

This mixture of Christian and pagan elements, as we will see, marks Beowulf as well, though there the source is a thoroughly pagan poem, interpolated and redacted by the poet -- who still knew the craft of alliterative verse as well as his (or her) ancestors -- into a Christian epic.  But we can also see the pure flight of Saxon verse in religious lyrics, most famously the hymn ascribed to Caedmon by the Venerable Bede.  Bede gave the poem only in Latin, but some nameless monks in his monastery added the Saxon original, and its fame traveled far and wide in the dominion of the Angles and Saxons.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Welcome to English 205

Gold coin of Coenwulf, King of Mercia
Welcome to the blog for our section of ENGL 205, British Literature to 1700, Fall 2016. As with any survey course, this one is selective; had we but worlds enough, and time, we could perhaps read a representative selection of literature from this thousand-year stretch, but alas we have only one semester.  So, we shall have to survey the shifting sands of the English canon as best we can -- paying homage alike to well-established monuments and the odd, forgotten Ozymandius – as well as investigating the strange and diverse forces through which canons themselves take shape.  We will begin by looking at the history of English as an academic field, and the cultural histories that have brought the “canon wars” to their current, uneasy truce.  We will read a wide variety of primary texts – poetry, drama, and fiction – from the full chronological range from Beowulf through 1800, along with selected commentaries and supplemental visual materials.  Weekly response essays of one page each will be the basis for our class discussions; there will also be two formal literary essays, a midterm and final on selected texts or themes.

Our textbook will the Norton Anthology of English Literature, Ninth Edition, Volume I.