Monday, January 22, 2018

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.

24 comments:

  1. After beginning to read Beowulf, I was intrigued by the symbolism of lineage that is seeped throughout this poem. Line 105 reminds the reader that Grendel, the poem’s villain descended from Cain, a biblical character who killed his own brother. Cain was outcasted by God, and Grendel, being a descendant from Cain, was also an outcast. Grendel was “a prowler through the dark” (Line 86), and was forced to hear the celebration and happiness that the men in Heorot were experiencing. His jealousy of the life of those on the inside caused him to murder hundreds of men. In the Bible, Cain killed his brother out of jealousy. Grendel too, appears to be jealous of the wealth and success of Hrothgar, and wants revenge. This goes to show how sin can be passed on through generations.
    In contrast, heroism can also be passed on, as seen through the lineage of Shield. His greatness was passed on to Beow, Halfdane, and finally to Hrothgar, who is the current King during the time of this story. “The fortunes of war favored Hrothgar. Friends and kinsmen flocked to his ranks, young followers, a force that grew to be a mighty army” (Line 64-66). The greatness that began with Shield was passed on through generations, and helps to show how important lineage is.
    -Sarah Basler

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    1. I agree that sins are passed through generations. Things can be passed through generations that can affect peoples live in good and bad ways. After reading your passage I can now see how the greatness of the shield was passed through the generations.

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  2. While reading Beowulf, lines 1-490, I’m under the impression Grendel’s murderous acts stem from the jealousy he feels over the success and wealth Hrothgar has created for his kingdom. What surprises me about the acts of Grendel is that they only occur during the ruling of Hrothgar but not the other rulers such as Beow or Halfdane. Maybe Grendel didn’t feel threatened by Beow or Halfdane because they were not as success as Hrothgar. I believe Grendel began killing the innocent men of Heorot because he was tired of listening to them celebrate their success.
    Jenna Cipriano

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  3. Because Beowulf is an old oral tale, it's easy to say that most characters aren't as drawn out as characters of today. What was highlighted in these tales were action, rather than character. It was what Beowulf did for what reasons that caught the attention of listeners. If Bewoulf were written today, it would be necessary to put more attention into the characters of not only Beowulf and the Danes, but the monsters he fights as well. We would have to look at the past of Grendel and his Mother, which is what Gardner does for us. The most character development, concerning his background, we receive, so far, is that Grendel is the son of Cain. Being a Christian story, this is meant for the listeners to hate Grendel and justify Beowulfs actions as holy and right. Though the monsters aren't as complex as some could be today, it is important to think while reading Beowulf that maybe these monsters and creatures have important reasons for destruction, as well as questioning Beowulfs title as "Hero". Is he a hero for the world? Or is he only a hero to those who look more like him (I.E. Danes and Geats)

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    1. I agree Marie maybe we need to dig deeper. Is Beowulf such a great hero? In the people’s eyes, I think they believe he is. I think the reason Beowulf behaves the way he does is because he lost his father at a young age so he feels like he must be strong. Maybe Beowulf is acting the way he is because he feels pressured and he has big shoes to fill now that his father isn’t present. (lines 372-374) “I used to know him when he was a young boy. His father before him was called Ecgtheow. Hrethel the Great”.

      Emma Guglielmi

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  4. Beowulf states (lines 440-441) "Whichever one death fells must deem it a just judgment by God." He is not scared of death, only wants honor and riches. He is very passive about whoever wins the fight. In line 455 Beowulf states "Fate goes over ever as fate must." He believes that it is known already who is going to live and who is going to die in the battle with Grendel and is complacent with the decision. It amazes me as to how much respect warriors are shown for the fight against Grendel. The king showers them with riches and feast until hearts content even though the warriors keep dying. He is grateful for whoever tries to help his kingdom.
    Crystal Ruger

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  5. I have never read anything like this in my college experience but what I gained from reading it is Hrothgar is a person who is successful in fighting battles. Line 65: “Friends and kinsmen flocked to his ranks” People seem to follow him because he is gaining treasures and everyone is proud of him. He buids Heorot into a palace. Heorot is a place where he wants enjoy his wealth and life with everyone. But as a writer wrote all those great things it quickly changed expressing that the Heorot will burn because of the problem with father in law and the son in law. As I read those lines I thought why would Heorot burn because of an agreement or problem?

    Erica Jackley

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  6. Beuwolf written in the 1000 AD gives us a European style of literature that goes to show the trouble that was shown in Heorot. Having this piece of literature show us characters like Grendel being a gruesome monster who will attack anything that comes in its way, and Beuwolf, having the heroic heart to fight the monster and save everyone. The style of writing gives us a view on how they use to talk and it seemed easier to me than what I thought it would be. Having the end be Beuwolf ripping off Grendel's arm only to be told revenge will be near by his mother was a great ending. Three battles in only around seventy pages shows us how much can go on in such a short story.
    Julia Vasconcelos

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  7. While reading Beowulf, I came to see all the different emotions that were throughout this poem. In "Heorot is attacked", a powerful demon is being presented and that happens to be a man named Grendel. When a demon like is being portrayed I could feel that this character was not going to be a good one. During the night, Grendel commits murders, while when the morning comes he does not. The next night he strikes again. Line 137 shows that he is not feeling any guilt or regret on what he did wrong. In "The Hero Comes to the Heorot" starts off with people panicking because of the terror they feel. They feel that terror because of the raids that happen in the night. Then, here comes the mightiest man on earth also known as the "hero". He hears about Grendel and wants to sail over and come and help. In lines 217-218, the words describe his boat, but I could also feel the way he was feeling at the moment, the feeling of going to help and old friend and the movement of fast waves and a breeze. The king eventually welcomes Beowulf and his people in, but still doesn't have enough trust in them, which is why they can't bring their shields and spears in. In lines 412-414, I like how they made the legendary hall feel like it did have a meaning before all these people were killed. Since it is now empty they feel sad because of how empty the room is. Throughout this poem there were many emotions to feel such as feeling powerless, no remorse, people panicking, jealousy, revenge, emptiness, but there were also feelings of, bravery, trust, respect, and feeling powerful and strong.
    Jaimee Barrett

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  9. As a historian, I approach this from the angle of the mindset that many hands may have and more than likely did indeed taint the story via translation, and the old cliche of works being lost in translation. As an allegory to the comment about the novel Grendel, I find that Shakespeares Tragedy of Julius Ceasar is a perfect example of an adaptation of a previous work, or in this case works, as many of the Roman "historians" as they called themselves had breadthes of work on the career of Caesar. Much like Beowulf, these tales were translated in later years and much of it is lost to time. In essence, I feel to an extent that a decent amounnt of the content of the original telling of Beowulf has been faithful, and that even in its translation's and especially into modern English it still holds some deep meaning, be it a tale of heroism, an example of literary canon, or an inspiration for a budding author. As many other students have pointed out, the literary prose in the poem has stood up to the test of time and still awes and inspires readers in the 21st century, so clearly the translators down the line were the cream of the crop.

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  10. The story starts off with the few basic characters. There’s Hrothgar, the king, who’s very proud of his brave men and all they’ve done for him and his kingdom. He makes a hall, Heorot, specifically for his men to party and have fun. Also, the antagonist, Grendel, who terrorizes Hrothgar and his men at night. Beowulf, the protagonist of the story who’s seen as the town’s hero. I noticed a few emotions throughout the first part of the story. Grendel’s hatred seems to come from pure spite and jealousy of the men having fun and enjoying their time with the king. Beowulf also comes off really confident especially in his speech as one who is seen as the hero of the story would be. So far these characters add to the basic plot we’ll see in the future where Beowulf is successful in his mission to help Hrothgar and his men but at a price.

    -Kristina Williams

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  11. While reading Beowulf, I tried to make connections to heros and heroines that are present in today’s literature, but none quite match up to the confidence and determination that Beowulf holds. Beowulf was would rather face his death than be beaten by any monster. Not only are readers able to see his confidence, but the people who go into battle with him do too. To go up against a monster like, Grendel, who held the people of Denmark captive for 12 years, without the slightest worry gives the confidence his followers need to go into battle. Beowulf is so confident in his ability he says in lines 436-439, “I hereby renounce my sword and the shelter of the broad shield, he heavy war-board: hand-to-hand is how it will be, life-and-death”.
    -Samantha Wellington

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  12. I find it interesting that there are different readings of Beowulf that see Grendel in a more sympathetic light. My initial reading of this poem can see that Grendel is an evil creature out to cause havoc on the surrounding community. However, after re reading the text I can also see why he might be looked at in a sympathetic way. For one the text makes this seem like this was originally Grendel’s land so, he is taking out his anger on the people who came in and tried to take over his land.

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  13. When I began to read Beowulf’s short stories, I noticed that the author mentioned God an enormous amount of times throughout each page. I felt a very religious and spiritual energy as I transfered my thoughts to wherever he was taking me. The first mention of Him was in “Heorot is Attacked” when he said, “His splendor, He set the sun and the moon.” In this story, the readers get an understanding of who the villain is; a demon named Grendel. From Grendel came “ogres, elves, and evil phantoms.” The readers begin to learn that Grendel has killed 30 men, one of them being the prince’s “guard”, and continues to murder more citizens. In “The Hero Comes to Heorot”, 14 men, including the story’s supposed hero, board a boat on their mission to stop Grendel. What I enjoyed about the story so far is how involved the characters are with their religion. An example of this would be when the watchman allowed the captain and all his men to continue their journey to the prince from docks, saying, “May the Almighty Father keep you and in His kindness watch over your exploits.” I believe that Beowulf included this because of how big of a factor religion was in the 1700s. I also enjoyed the villain of the story because he thickens the plot and allows readers to picture who Grendel might be or what he looks like based off of the little details that were given about him.

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  14. Its interesting to think about the different translations of this poem and how people from different backgrounds can depict it. In John Gardner's novel called, Grendel, written in 1971, it depicted Grendel with more a sympathetic overview. For in this version of Beowolf by Seamus Heany, Grendel is looked more of as an invader and represented an evil entity. These two depictions have most likely caused some sort of argument among the literary communities. It reminds me of how more powerful nations go around the world colonizing different foreign lands that to them seems like it is not inhabited by anyone. Like how the British first colonized America. The Native American's could be compared to Grendel and the British could be compared to the Danes. Even though the British were trying to occupy the Native American's land, they views the native people as enemies and probably disagreed with many of their customs. This can be compared to the Danes building Heorot on Grendels land. Just a thought! I love this kind of reading in this historical time era and enjoy studying the history behind the words.

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  15. The prologue reading was quite intrigueing. It was interesting when they introduced grendel into the story by killing all the men then took over as the leader or god to the common people. You felt sorry for the common folk who tried to appease grendel with sacrifices and praying, only to be disappointed by the action of this demon. It was also intrezting when they talk about the old kings. Specifically shield and when he passed on. I wonder if their custom on the after life was like the Egyptian culture, where they bury the kings with all the tresure they so they could enjoy it in the afterlife.
    Richard young

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  16. After reading Beuwolf I see two different sides of Grendel. Grendel is played to be a horrifying monster that wreaks havoc on all that crosses his path but what if that wasn't the case. I can see the other side of Grendel becoming angry because now they want to over take what little he has of his home he shares with his mother. They want a place to have fun and laugh but how is that fair to Grendel who has been there all his life? Grendel seemed to be over the fact of listening to the laughter and happiness that over took his home.
    Julia Vasconcelos

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  17. I Agree. I overall also found Grendel to be a very interesting character. I came to question whether Grendel was truly as terrible of a character as he is made out to be. Of course, Grendel was full of animosity and hatred. He tore Danes apart limb from limb without any remorse. However, Grendel is a man-eating demon. He is a descendant of the Biblical Cain, which in itself suggests he is meant for something greater than evil itself. Grendel is cursed because of he connection to Cain, it is even stated that those amongst Cain had been shunned off as outcasts: "[Grendel] had dwelt for a time in misery among the banished monsters, Cain's clan, whom the creator had outlawed and commended as outcasts" (102-114). There are many times in Beowulf so far where I question Grendel as a character, surely he was destined to live amongst evil. He was raised to be evil. Grendel was what I found to be the most interesting through this section.

    - Crystal Agyemang

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  18. I honestly sympathize with Grendel after reading the first section of Beowulf, though at first I did not. However, I realized that it's especially easy to demonize and criticize someones character if you do not take the time to understand their behaviors and actions. After reading, I really took the time to analyze Grendel, and I tried to relate his situation to something more familiar to me. Grendel on the surface seems to the antagonist in this tale, he is negative, remorseless, jealous (a sin), and "evil." He's an easy character to hate. But can we blame him for being this way? Hate and animosity is a learn behavior, and as it states in line 165, "he was God's outcast." Maybe he never stood a chance as he was born an outcast of God, and lived under the guidance of Cain, the first born and banished son of Adam and Eve. Could he have known any better? I'm excited to see how Grendel's character develops throughout the course of the story.

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  19. I Beowulf is just a very strong character that simply was already traveling the world and looking for challenges defeating the sea creatures of the sea and being able to stay under water for long periods of time, so he presnted as a person who won't back out of a fight. a hero in some aspected but far from it as he really is just a weapon I imagine that if there was a person that is as strong as him than clearly a battle can rise between the two

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  20. When I first started reading Beowulf, I was struck by how this hero is different from our contemporary heroes (Batman, Spiderman, etc.). Our heroes now typically celebrate people who come from humble origins, yet Beowulf is highborn, so clearly the divine right of kings is still a prevalent idea during the time Beowulf was created. He’s arrogant, strong, so I assume that people are reassured by this overbearing confidence. Who would follow a leader who isn’t, especially during a time where a series of occupations/raids from different tribes and high mortality rates were common? Reputation and honor are also important to Beowulf, and his ego seems to be fueled by winning. A great example of this is how Unferth tries to embarrass Beowulf in front of his followers during the feast by bringing up this swimming competition in which Beowulf lost. Beowulf explains why he lost, but because that’s not enough he keeps attacking Unferth and insults the entire nation of Denmark because Unferth is from there. – Arrissa Tavares

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  21. After reading Beowulf, I was intrigued by his heroic character, his leadership, and the politics of his society. The poem starts off explaining how much of a monster Grendel is and as to why he started his feud with Hrothgar's men. Beowulf steps in to help Hrothgar because he feels as though his men are "idles and useless." Although, he came to help Hrothgar he did not start a war with Grendel until he killed and eaten one of his companions. He wanted for his fight to be based off personal reasons instead of fighting ones battles. A typical hero's task is to "save the day," but as for Beowulf, he didn't think Hrothgar's reasoning was appropriate enough to start a fight. Beowulf is portrayed as a strong, courageous man in this poem. He was not afraid of Grendel, even though he was undefeated he was up for the challenge. In the end, Beowulf is so focused on maintaining his reputation as a brave man he fails his obligations to provide for his people's society. In reference to him allowing Grendel to kill his men to start an altercation and prove a point that he is very courageous.
    -Leony Lopes

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