Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Manuscripts and Bogs

Found out late last night about the discovery of the early Christian psalter in a bog in Ireland -- how amazing. Just when you think "there are no more manuscripts to discover, we have everything we will ever have from the past" they find something. Be it a Psalter in a bog, fragments of the Tristan that were thought lost, part of a new play of Sophocles -- proving once again that the past returns, again and again, if only we know where to look for it.

That said, I'll admit I'm highly unlikely to go digging through peat bogs looking for Heo Cwaeth points out who knows what else is preserved down there. Or who. Not that that's a bad thing. I just don't think I'd be able to sleep without nightmares at night if I stumbled across a bog mummy during the day. I'll just enjoy the excitement of other peoples' discoveries.

Anyway, this should be a fascinating story to follow -- so far, it's mostly "hey look what we found" and who knows how long it will take to preserve it. As my grandmother put it when she told me about it this morning, it's amazing what they can do nowadays with artefacts.

So here's an article. And it has pictures!!


Sunday, July 23, 2006

Old English Anxieties

I haven't much time to blog at present -- I've got the lovely task of reading Chaucer all afternoon, a task I'm really relishing. I could do without the paper I need to write about it, but ah well. Anything that requires reading Chaucer, and then thinking more about Chaucer makes this Anglo-Saxonist quite happy.

However. For anyone on Ansax, you know that a discussion has been going on there about the article on the apartheid like social structure of Anglo-Saxon England post Anglo-Saxon Invasion. Now granted, the way this has been received in the popular press is more like this: Anglo Saxons were Apartheid Racists!.

The reaction's been telling, and it's one I didn't entirely expect. Everyone has been extraordinarily defensive. Saying that that's anachronistic, it can't apply, why are we saying they're racist?

But it must be asked: are we really going to argue that they were nice and cuddly, that invasion involved no pain for anybody? As an old history prof of mine used to say, the Anglo-Saxons spent their time "bopping" people with swords. I mean, do you know how many words for "kill" there are? That's not to say they didn't write fascinating literature, and beautiful poetry that can break your heart. But I wonder if this isn't a reaction to the "death of anglo-saxon studies" more generally, which we Anglo-Saxonists fear above all else. I'm pretty sure Old English has been "dying" since before I was born -- in the 80s -- and I think that the alarm bells were first sounded back in like 1990. It's been a long death (if death it is) to say the least. Living in the same area as the ASSC (see the link on the side bar for the homepage) -- I'd have to say that for a field in such supposed jeopardy, it looks pretty good to me.

So in lieu of saying any more for now -- for Chaucer calls, and I must heed him! -- I'll direct you to Eileen Joy over at Jeffrey Jerome Cohen's blog. Read the post. Check out the comments. Read the links. And moreover, talk about this, leave comments, ask questions. It's important. And not just to Anglo-Saxonists, either.


Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Of Magic and Magicians...

Check out the comments to my incredibly silly post on The Wonders of the East -- we've been granted some great bibliographic resources for the Mambres and Jamnes tradition, courtesy of Ian Myles Slater. Thanks Ian!


Monday, July 17, 2006

If I had it to do over again...

Having just arrived home from a riveting Latin class yes, on infinitives and indirect constructions (which for once I seemed to understand during class and not in the hours outside of it spent studying), I was expecting to eat a quick meal, and then start doing a bit of work before bed. However, on Arts and Literature Daily, I found an absolutely fascinating -- and honestly, somewhat disheartening -- article. It's titled Good-bye, Mr. Keating. The title, of course, is a reference to the amazing English professor from Dead Poets Society, who inspires his students to reach for their dreams, to suck the marrow out of life -- with the tragic consequences of the suicide of one of them, who is forbidden by his father to pursue his dream of acting. It's a movie I saw relatively late in college, and I love it. The article is essentially about what the author seems to view as the great let-down of graduate school -- that to become a professor one must give up what one initially loves about literature.

A representative quotation (though one should really read the whole article to get a better feel for its tone):

It makes me sad to think how little those motives will be acknowledged if they go on to graduate school. They will probably go for the wrong reasons: to continue their experience as undergraduates. They are romantics who must suddenly become realpolitikers. Maybe that's why most drop out before they complete their doctorates. Those who stay have political commitments (and probably come from undergraduate programs where those commitments are encouraged early), or they develop them as graduate students, or they feign or exaggerate them to get through.

For me, it's strange and wonderful, after receiving tenure, to be able to rediscover my undergraduate self, to nurture in my students the motives that drew me to graduate school in the first place.

The problem is you can't get to where I am now without going through a decade or more of immersion in a highly politicized and anti-literary academic culture. You have to spend so many years conforming that, by the time freedom presents itself, you don't know why you became an English major in the first place. You might even have contempt for your seemingly naïve students, who represent the self that you had to repress in order to be a professional.

It is not that I want to privilege some form of literary dilettantism as a substitute for professionalism. I simply want to demonstrate that the reasons most people get into English are different from the motives that will make them successful in graduate school and in professional life beyond that. They must, ultimately, purge themselves of the romantic motives that drew them to English in the first place — or pretend to do so. If you want to be a literary professional, you must say goodbye to Mr. Keating.

You may be teaching English, but in many academic positions (and certainly in the mainstream of academic publishing), you'll have to fulfill your emotional life in other ways, probably in secret, the way some people sing along with Barry Manilow in their cars.

The author offers this opinion after his run down of the reasons his students have given him for choosing to pursue English after one semester of literary theory study. They're typical reasons -- reading was a comfort, a joy, something the students truly loved. Frankly, they're reasons that sound familiar to me. I love getting lost in stories, in worlds that are removed and different from my own.

Now, I wouldn't be terribly offended if people think me naive, or perhaps simply innocent -- in a lot of ways, I'm pretty sure (and frankly, hope!) that I am, and I made myself a promise that I'd ward off "cynical grad student"-itis as long as I possibly can. I realize that the academic world is not all about loving literature...but there's this part of me that thinks that this, the chance to study what I love, and more importantly to teach others about it, to connect others (and I return, as always, to Forster's "only connect") to the past and to the present through literature -- how could I ever be disappointed when I will one day have the chance to return to others what my professors gave to me? And I'm not even sure what, precisely, makes the author feel the way he does -- there seems to be a very anti-theory tone to the article, but on some level it seems to be a frustration with literature as no longer being the discipline it once was?

I've had that conversation before. And I have to say -- I'm not disappointed with literary study. There are days it's difficult, but that's always struck me as kind of like life. Of course I have doubts, and fears, and there are days when it all seems kind of pointless, like I'm wasting my time. It isn't what I thought it would be in high school when I decided that this was what I wanted for my life. The difference isn't a bad one, though. Do I understand every literary technique and theory that I'm exposed to? Of course not. I don't understand a tenth of it. But it has stretched my mind, and opened up whole new ways of thinking for me, ways of understanding the world, ways (I hope) of finding my own way to make some small difference in it. There are days where my mind is an incoherent muddle, from historical linguistics or hours of Middle English or from reading too much theory -- but then I stumble across one of those lines in Derrida that can just take your breath away in its artistry, or a line in Chaucer that is perfect in its wry humor about life and love, or a facet of vowel morphology that explains why a modern word looks the way it does but still carries the valence of an ancient meaning, now present only in part -- and my frustration and inability to understand vanishes, and all I can see is how interesting and downright beautiful literary study can be. And I see the way some of my professors' work intersects with their commitment to the world and to making the lives of ordinary people better -- and frankly, it gives me hope.

This is relatively incoherent (thank you, Latin) -- but I guess I just wonder if Benton's is a common reaction. Certainly graduate school does disappoint some people. And of course there are days I feel like screaming out Eliot's line from Prufrock -- This is not what I meant at all! Then I quiet down, remember to breathe, and in a day or two it passes, and I realize that I'm here because I feel so compelled to read and write and teach that there is literally nothing else I want to do with my life. And I just can't imagine that, standing in his vantage point (god willing) in 10 or 15 years time, there'd be any qualifications on the statement that I would, in fact, do it all again.

Unless of course, it's "in a heartbeat."

Edit: Check out the link Tiruncula sent in the comments below for a far more articulate response to Benton's article.


Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Poetry and Prose

One of my fondest -- and, I've found, least realistic -- dreams was always to be a writer. Of fiction, of poetry -- I always loved both, and when I was younger I loved the way that writing felt, the craft of it. I've transferred that love of language and of word-work to scholarship (it's no coincidence I love dead languages of every kind), but sometimes I still miss writing for other reasons than academic papers. So when, a few weeks back, comment-er (comment-or? I have no idea.) ljs posted links to poetry blogs on JJC's blog , I decided to check them out. I started reading them out of curiosity, and they've definitely become staples of my blog diet. Anyway, getting to my point, today I ran across something absolutely exquisite over at Cahier de Corey . It's about poetry and prose -- and the last paragraph is really amazingly beautiful. Check it out.

More soon, including (maybe, unless I come to my senses) a post in which I will try, against my better judgement, to be humorous.


Sunday, July 09, 2006

The Return to Blogging -- Beowulf and Grendel

For those who don’t want to know about the film until they can see it themselves, there are spoilers ahead! Not many, given that my memory is a little blurry and I’m not going to be able to give a point by point summary of the movie. But still -- consider yourself duly warned…

So Friday night, the opening night in NYC, I saw Beowulf and Grendel, choosing to the go to an early showing at Quad Cinema with my Anglo-Saxonist-Poet colleague and friend, who I think I’ll call Scop. There are perks to having friends with the similar research interests – you can enjoy being what others might consider dorky knowing full well your enthusiasms will only be fueled by hanging out. It’s great. Anyway, I’ve been looking forward to seeing this movie, with mixed terror and delight, since I first heard they were making it. Certain things, of course, are to be expected from the Icelandic Film Corporation. Beowulf and Grendel had the same feel as No Such Thing, another movie that Scop and I saw together a few months ago (though being older, it was on DVD). The landscapes were exquisite.

As the film opened, I was immediately struck that as “A Hate is Born,” (the subtitle for this section of the film) we’re meeting Grendel’s father. I was a little taken aback. Grendel’s father? Why would Grendel have a father? I forced myself to wait and see before I judged it, which was a bit difficult given that Grendel does not have a a father!! Anyway, Hrothgar and his men kill Grendel’s dad. Grendel, a mere child (albeit a a child with a beard ), is saved because his father has him hide on the edge of a cliff. Hrothgar takes off his helmet, revealing the wonderful Stellan Skarsgard as the assailant. Grendel’s dad having just fallen from the cliff to the beach below, Grendel clearly isn’t going to remember the mercy of the king, who chooses not to kill him. The scene ends with Grendel going down to the beach, finding his father’s body and, when he gets no response from him, hacking off his fathers head. He takes the head back to his lair, where he sets it up in a sort of shrine. Fast forward to years later, and the shrine is still there, a withered head that seems to stand in metonymically throughout the movie for all the blood this feud will spill, and all endless violence occasioned by hate. Grendel attacks Heorot on the day of its building. He kills all who sleep there. This is after there’s a ceremony to protect it and give luck to Hrothgar, etc. Bad timing – particularly given that the ineffective ceremony is pagan, and Christianity is just beginning to come in amongst the Danes.

Next, enter the hero. Beowulf appears, being washed up on the shore after Breca and he are shipwrecked in a storm. The film’s wry humor becomes apparent. Beowulf lands and the man who discovers him finds out that the hero’s been swimming for three days, and asks – “do you do that often?” And that’s just the beginning. Throughout there are moments of humor that are surprising. I can’t recall more than a handful, but one hysterically funny moment would have to be when someone tells Beowulf that the Christian god never sleeps – and he replies “that’s just what we need, a god gone mad for lack of sleep.” Another great moment is when Stellan Skarsgard replies to the priest (Saint – I mean Father (!!) Brendan of Ireland, whose arrival on the scene was, albeit probably anachronistic, great fun), who has just told him that there was some sort of fire of heaven that would rain down, “if your heavens are on fire you better look to that.” Another prime moment: Beowulf : “I’m Beowulf.” Geatish warrior in his band: “Here we go again.”

Wealtheow was an undeniably strong woman, who slaps her grief-strickened husband to bring him to his senses. She supports him when he cannot open the feast because he is too drunk already. I was impressed. Stellan Skarsgard was also remarkable as Hrothgar. He’s one of my favorite actors, and he does very well in the role of a king in a masculine hall culture who feels himself weakened nearly beyond recovery by a foe he cannot fight. One of the strangest additions to the film is Selma, a witch who was brought to Hrothgar’s court by some guy whose epithet is “Three-Legs,” as his whore. She can see people’s deaths. She also (BIG SPOILER HERE) is the mother of Grendel’s child. Grendel took her one night – and after that protected her from the Danes who would come and rape her before that. She also sleeps with Beowulf after Grendel’s death. My first reaction was that this was irredeemably bizarre. Why add sex to Anglo-Saxon? This is Beowulf, not the riddles.

This addition, however, is key to the understanding of the movie that I came to by the time it was complete. Despite the closing assertion of the last paragraph, this movie is not Beowulf. It’s Beowulf and Grendel, and there’s something in that shared title that stands out in this film. Sarah Polley, as Selma, speaks to Beowulf after the death of Grendel, in the context of his grief for his fallen comrade – “Handscio's life had worth to you since you knew him. Others knew others.” Beowulf registers what she means “You mourn the troll.” Her next line is absolutely fraught: “I knew him.” Two different meanings, there, of course. But the point seems to come from the first part – “others knew others.” There are many outsiders in this film – Grendel and Selma are but the two most obvious. The one that comes slowly into sharper focus is Beowulf himself. He understands Grendel in a way that Hrothgar cannot – he can see that there is reason behind the attacks, and a sort of code, and it becomes clear to Beowulf, with Selma’s interpretation, that Grendel has language and that there is a method to his killings. The “monster” does not kill without cause. His attacks are to avenge his father. It makes one wonder what will happen to Grendel’s child. This could be the eternal feud, comparable to that inspired by the necklace of the Brosings. Or could there be an end in sight?

The movie draws a connection between the hero and the monster, one that has been pointed out in criticism but not in the same ways. They’re marginal. In the film, both are brought into fights they don’t ask for. That they do not understand fully. Grendel as a child. Beowulf as a hero. When asked what he’ll do now that all the Grendel family (except the child) are destroyed – Beowulf replies “I’m thinking I’ll likely go where I’m sent.” And we know that he will. He never becomes a king in this movie, but for those who know the story, he does – he goes on, he faces a dragon alone, he dies. There’s a moment in the movie, early on, where Wealtheow goes to Selma, and says that she could find a place for the witch “inside.” In this movie, it’s clear that those who are Outside, at least as outside is defined by those Inside, can never really come in. Others knew – and know -- others, and Gunnarson’s Beowulf is as much on the Outside, in the end, as the “monster” he fights.

With a breathtaking landscape and a musical score that had me close to tears at times, Beowulf and Grendel is not the poem I, and perhaps some of you readers, study or have studied. Yet I wonder if it’s not a certain aspect of that poem, refracted through time, to show a side of it the Old English did not, or could not, fully articulate. As Tolkien once said, the characters of the Anglo Saxon epic go forth to fight “the battle that ends for all, even kings and champions, in darkness.” In this movie, night comes down on monsters and heroes alike – and the withered remnants of their lives, like the enshrined head of Grendel’s dad, serve as stories for those who remain. It’s making sense of it that we must struggle with – and in the end it can only make sense for us at our moment. Beowulf and Grendel is, then, that rendering – one more chance for us to make sense of story of long ago. One more chance to see the “Outsider” in his many forms – and perhaps, if for only a moment, to go Outside our own fortressed thoughts to meet him.

EDIT: at Sarah Polley's website, you can download clips from the movie, including the scene I mentioned above. Scroll down from the page the link directs you to, and choose the scene "Others Knew Others." Absolutely haunting. I've corrected the dialogue above too, since I was a tad bit off at its start.


Saturday, July 01, 2006

Beowulf (and Grendel) in New York

Blogging from Upstate New York (on a short stop to visit family for the fourth before heading back to the City) -- however, I've found an internet connection, and in my inbox this morning was some fabulous news. I posted awhile back about how Beowulf and Grendel was finally being released in the United States. Well, as it turns out, it's now coming to New York City!!

So, for all those other New York fans of Hygelac's boldest retainer -- mark your calendars! It opens at the Quad Cinema on July 7th! And for those of you who aren't in the big city, you can find out if it will be playing in your area by going to the official movie website.