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.

19 comments:

  1. I am reading Beowulf with a new set of eyes that are far more appreciative of the story. What struck me in the first part of the reading was the idea of family honor: the oath of allegiance that Ecgtheow had to Hrothgar from many years in the past, and how Beowulf is stepping up to continue this allegiance as the epic hero to conquer Grendel who has the village under siege. Although, it appears from reading lines 480 - 490 that Hrothgar thinks in some ways that this may not be the best idea - he seems skeptical that Beowulf will succeed, leading him to the same table that his murdered kinsmen ate and drank at before going to their deaths.

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  2. I'll admit: I hated Beowulf in high school. Now I find that the reason why is because the teacher barely immersed us in the text. We barely brushed the surface, with a lot of our lessons being just taken notes on what the teacher told us. Reading the work has given it some new wonder and made it more enjoyable.
    The one thing that has stuck out to me both times around is the familiar pride. This makes me long for older times, if only because family meant something more than who you want to do better than by the time you meet your end.

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  3. I have never read Beowulf before so reading this for my first time was quite okay. The character I enjoyed the most was Grendel because he's the antagonist of this text and I find myself wanting to know more about him. Throughout reading the lines from 1-490, I found myself deep into the lines because it felt very vivid with the details provided! Can't wait to read the rest of the text.

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  4. I do not understand nor know how to answer the questions. This is the second rime I am reading Beowulf, and I have always enjoyed reading the material and learning something new. To me Beowulf was a heroic story about never giving up and always trying even if you fail and that following your heart and virtue is what makes you a true compassionate person and someone to look up too. The fact that he is known for what he has accomplished and he is proud of that. Unferth is envious of Beowulf and tries to bring him down. But Beowulf stood strong didn't make himself or belittle his friend that he apparently had a swimming challenge. Beowulf respects other and does not put them down but heightens their own achievements. He is a true friend, warrior, and fighter who stays true to himself and his beliefs. I love the story.

    - Mackenzie Tellier

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  5. This is my second time reading Beowulf and I find myself just as confused as the first time. My basic understanding of Beowulf is that there are three battles and that they are fighting against the monster Grendel. I understand that Beowulf is highly respected and people like him. The main thing that confuses me is trying to decipher the Old English in this poem, I find it rather confusing most times.

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  6. Beowulf is a much easier to listen to in class. Trying to read it in Old English at home is tough. I have found myself reading bits and pieces translated into Modern English. This way, I can understand the story. From what I gathered thru class coverage and reading, Beowulf is a tough and respected warrior. He is responsible for his many soldiers who he obviously cares for and protects. It seems that he is a fearless warrior, though the battle with Grendal may be more of a challenge than he anticipates. Hand to hand combat is vicious. The main idea thus far seems to be good versus evil.

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  7. I love the meticulous use of detail, whether descriptions of the glittering mail and swords, or the everyday manner in which people operate. I always feel the need to drink ale and feast on large chunks of meat when I read Beowulf. It is a world alive.

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  8. I feel like many people read Beowulf in high school and I can't help but wonder why it was never in my english curriculum. In general, Old English texts were very rarely used in our classes. I enjoy the text now, but rely a lot on class discussions for understanding and interpretation because I wasn't asked to do so prior. However, once you can understand the text, the story underneath is an enthralling story of a hero, fascinating to read or listen to.

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  9. I share a similar view to others, where I read Beowulf in high school but didn't enjoy it. Through the discussions in class I am able to understand and enjoy the story more. The story of Beowulf reminds me of Greek Epics, in that Beowulf is this fantastical figure takes on larger than life tasks. The pride of Hrothgar seems to be his downfall as he never sends out for help and just deals with Grendel attacking his people for 12 years. I also found it strange that despite Grendel's constant attacks on Hrothgar's hall, that the people still got drunk and slept in the hall when they know Grendel could easily get to them.

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  10. This is my first time reading the oldest surviving epic Beowulf. While difficult to read, the tale of Beowulf is brought to life with it's descriptive sequences. The character Beowulf is clearly a fearless, strong and confident leader. I wonder about his character and his story. What made him this way? Does he have any weaknesses? Will he survive the battles coming his way and keep this admiration the others have for him? I look forward to answering my questions while trying to understand this old English text.

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    Replies
    1. I also wonder why Beowulf is as strong as his is. My theory: it's shaming. So if you are a Saxon warrior listening to the story and hear that no man has been able to kill Grendle in these 12 years, then comes Beowulf who takes care of his, you'd probably talk some smack about "if Grendle ever came to my village, he better watch out, cause I'd rip him into shreds. He knows better than to mess with me!"

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  11. I found a few things interesting. One, there's the fact that the action is short, and the reward, feasting drinking, celebrations are longer, and appear more than action. I guess that's attributed to either add a positive tone, or because great feast was an integral part of their culture at the time. In our time, action scenes make up the whole movie, and celebration comes at the end, too soon, or never.
    Second, why don't they fault the king for not trying to protect his people? A good reason would be because they would need a new ruler--but he had heirs. Beowulf goes to fight the dragon (as king right?) and dies for his people, as far as we know, Hrothgar never tried. Or is that Beowulf's real mistake, he gave up his life in his old age, when he knew he would not win. However, I thought that was what Beowulf was praised for, going to his death anyway.
    Lastly, Grendel's mother has no claim, not even considered by the Danes and Geats, to Grendel's arm and a death price. This is likely a double standard excused by the fact she's just a monster, and one related to Cain at that. I wonder what the original was like.

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  12. Reading Beowulf for the first time in high school, I was very uninterested and found it extremely hard to follow the story, leaving me with a bad taste. But this time around the story is so exciting to me. The journey Beowulf has embarked on is one of bravery and triumph. Though difficult to read sometimes, it is still very interesting and while reading gets my full and undivided attention. I can't wait to see where this story takes Beowulf.

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  13. Beowulf is the story of an epic hero, which is obvious, but it so much more than that. Besides the themes of Paganism and Christianity, it is also a story of moral relativism. Heorot was established in territory that was claimed by Grendel and his mother, which is unfair to Grendel. However, he kills many of Hrothgar's men, which is simply unacceptable. Thus, our friend Beowulf shows up and kills both Grendel and his mother. The text seems to support Beowulf's cause, but in the end, Beowulf dies. Is this an equilibrium of sorts, to balance the world of two evils, or is his death merely tragic? That, I suppose, is up to the reader.

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  14. This is the first time I have ever read Beowulf as in high school it was assigned for regular english classes, not honors. For me it is hard to read at times but is also really intriguing. For me there are aspects to this epic that I have read in some of Shakespeare's historical plays and in The Tempest. I am enjoying this epic being unfolded despite that it is one I am very unfamiliar with.

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  15. This is my second time actually reading the epic Beowulf in its entirety and my third time looking at it in an English class. The first time I studied the story was in my high school english course, however we only looked at one section of it. Despite the constant praise the story receives, I find the tale to be slightly boring and a bit of a chore to read.

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  16. After reading over in class, it seems almost cruel to not take a look at both sides of the story. Upon first reading it, I thought gosh, what a terrible ugly creature and his mom Gretchen too. The second time listening to it, I couldn't help but to feel empathy for the underdog. The underdog who is depicted as an ugly sac religious peagonistic monster. It kind of reminded me of Columbus and the Indians. Christians took over the land and the mom just wanted her sons arm back and revenge that would really never come because her son was gone. Actually a very sad part of Beowulf's story. Maybe the monsters where just "different" looking and not terrible horrific...

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  17. Although I have only heard of Beowulf and this being my first time so reading this for my first time was a little hard to read. I noticed that there was a large amount of detail behind the text and the strong vocabulary used which captured me. It appeared the poem was coming alive in a sense and felt myself reading deeper and deeper into the details that were provided.

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  18. I decided to give Beowulf another chance and I am glad I did. When I first read this I was rather immature, and could care less about my education let alone anything about British Literature! This is something I'm considering even typing my paper about. The story/poem revolves around three battles and the main character, Beowulf. I believe that Beowulf is the ultimate epic character!

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