Beowulf’s homecomingEssex Book Festival, 19 March 2016 Chris McCully Department of Literature, Film and Theatre Studies, University of Essex, UK firstname.lastname@example.org
Beowulf: the translating industry • Beowulf translated into more than two dozen languages Marijane Osborn gives an annotated list of Beowulf translations (https://acmrs.org/academic-programs/online-resources/beowulf-list) • Poem translated since 1815 (first complete translation, by Thorkelin, into Latin) • First complete English translation by Kemble (1837) – this was a prose translation • Beowulf translated into Latin, Danish, Norwegian, Swedish (which one might expect)…but also into Bulgarian, Italian, Brazilian Portuguese (a comic-book version), and even Hindi • Work based on (or more or less distantly related to) Beowulf includes rock-opera scores, film scripts, musicals, plays (including, I’m afraid, one of my own [a five-night run at South Trafford College, 1991]), novels, TV series, video games, board games….
Beowulf: the critical industry • Since every translation is a reading or ‘execution’ of the originating poem, the translations have sometimes given rise to works of criticism (usually via a consideration of editorial problems) • Critical industry gained impetus in the later C19th/early 20th via an interest (sometimes a perverse interest) in the Germanic past • Critical movements of the later C20th generated yet more readings, e.g. considerations of the audience of Beowulf > contextualisation > historicised readings, e.g. Whitelock (1951) • Structure, language (literary dialect), metrics, dating of the poem are alike problematic, e.g. Chase (1997); many other works • Since Beowulf is a relatively early poem, and written in a language now difficult to read without specialised training, that leads to a problem (of topicality or presumed relevance) which itself generates further critical work, e.g. eds. Chickering et al. (2014)
Beowulf: what more can one say? …or should one say? • The geography of Beowulf • The dynastic context of Beowulf (3) Tropes of home and homecoming • The sadness of Beowulf And in conclusion I’d like to leave you with a thought about the wisdom of poets and how epics and romances may be formally distinguished
The geography of Beowulf Geography > the morphology of landscape: (i) natural landscape (= there before the witnessing or intervention of humans, = ‘site’, habitat) (ii) cultural landscape (quote below from Sauer 1965)
Natural geography and Beowulf(http://heorot.dk/map-suthscand.jpg, accessed January 8th 2016)
Geographical setting implies… • Danes (and Geats) surrounded by intermittently hostile tribes (> tropes of war and peace, hostage-taking, gift-giving, memory and malice) • The actions of the poem are modulated by the presence of water/the sea • Presence of the sea > underlying contrasts such as water/sky, water/earth, earth/sky • Heorot and its construction central: a cultural intervention in a ‘site’
Heorot and its construction • Historically near Lejre (DK): at the centre of present day Sjaelland • Like a glorious Viking longhouse (illustration of a longhouse c.880, built on site of an older hall c7th century; Lejre, DK) • Place of shelter, of light, of treasure-giving – a place of ‘onto-ecological settledness’ (see below); celebrated by poets and by implication is part of God’s Creation itself (ll.90-100). Man is a ‘distinct agent of modification’ in this cultural landscape and that modification is celebrated in ritual and verse.
The dynastic setting Often given in diagrammatic form in editions and translations. I’d argue that the ‘dynastic setting’ – the reassurance that governance by a particular ruling family will continue – is a key element of ‘onto-ecological settledness’, i.e. for a tribe to feel ‘at home’ there must be a wise, generous and courageous leader (and his/her successors). [Tree below fromhttp://www.humanities.mcmaster.ca/~beowulf/thedanes/the_danes.html, accessed 10 January 2016.]
The poem opens with a statement of dynastic history… Hear from yesterday, from the yore-days, of the Spear-Danes - how sped by courage, how doomed in blood their best of men. It was Scyld Scefing, their sure founder, the Eruli’s terror, who overturned benches, 5 was rampant in the halls of surrounding clans. First a foundling, far from his beginnings, honour helped him flourish; he was himself honoured under the teeming heavens. Even tribes distant across the dark whale-roads owed duties to him… 10 (translation mine: CBMcC; thanks here to Jeremy Solnick)
…and continues with an account of Scyld’s funeral – a ship-burial They bore him at the end to brink of the tide, his chosen men, just as their chief had asked when he wielded words like weapons; carried him 30 and his reputation to the tide’s slow brim. At the hythe the prow, hung with winter, was ready, ring-carved: right ship for chiefs. And there they laid their last, first leader, their ring-giver, in the roomy hold. 35 He lay in state. Stripped from outlying tribes, trinkets there were, turned, ornamented – fine-wrought war-things, friends for his journey….
Themes as products of mythemic contrasts • ‘Mytheme’ = underlying and contrastive features of discourse • Mythemes modelled on phonemes • Mythemes (like phonemes) arguably comprised of features having + and – elements • Lévi-Strauss and myth: a mytheme is the essential kernel of a myth— it represents an irreducible, unchanging element, a minimal unit that is always found shared with other, related mythemes and reassembled in various ways ("bundled" was… Lévi-Strauss's image) or linked in more complicated relationships [this definition from wikipedia] • ‘The structural study of myth’ first published1955 > Structuralism
Mythemes and three-term surface forms: • [±human] > human, non-human, humanoid • [±water] > water, earth, marsh/fen • [±earth] > earth, sky, smoke • [±habitation] > hall/home, moors, misery-paths, exile-tracks • [±living] > alive, dead, wounded/dying And combined forms: • [+human, +habitation] > in-hall, ‘home’ • [+human, - habitation] > exile, displacement (Grendel as Cain) • [±human, +habitation] > Grendel as ‘guest’ in Heorot • [-human, +habitation] > dragon in its lair (where NB. the gold is rusted – [±treasure])…
Mythemes problematic [±] features presumably universal (like analogous features used in the world’s languages), but • No agreement as to what such a list of features might be • No agreement on how to constrain such a list of features (even if one existed) • Few critics these days seem interested in the notion of ‘underlying structure’ anyway
Habitation and home ‘Home’ wrote Philip Larkin, ‘is so sad…’ • Yet many of us think our home is simply ‘where we live’, the (static) place to which we return; it’s where we keep our things and where we may encounter (if we’re lucky) those we love and who love us • ‘Home’ that is, is part of our identity; if we’re separated from what we imagine our ‘home’ to be, we may experience a (non-pathological) condition which is given a special name: homesickness
‘Home’ explored from the Odyssey onwards • Yet it’s well to remember that the Odyssey doesn’t end with Odysseus’s homecoming • O. arrives on Ithaka mid-way through the poem • Final passage of the poem shows Odysseus, Telemachos and Laertes (NB. a dynastic grouping) donning war-gear • Poem concludes with an uneasy truce
Home and HMP Wandsworth (2015) • Home defined as warmth, love, safety, security, wealth, pride…. But also as • Where evil begins • Where pain cuts closest to the bone • Where water meets fire • Friendly fire [These definitions via a writing workshop conducted by Safe Ground, 2015]
Romances end with happy homecomings (contrasts are resolved); epics generally don’t and can’t (contrasts are suspended) (i) Wind in the Willows (mole, Toad): a romance (ii) Star Trek: Voyager also a romance…[image from www.background –pictures.feedio.net, accessed 10 January 2016]
Homesickness in Beowulf • When Grendel’s attacks on Heorot begin, the hall (habitation, home) becomes unusable: king and warriors must sleep elsewhere: they can never be or feel ‘at home’ (= invasion of cultural space) Sick at home • G. lives among ‘ Cain’s kin’. Cain = wanderer (‘a fugitive and vagabond upon the earth’, Gen. 4:10–12) Home and exile • Beowulf’s warriors can’t wait to depart Heorot; they need to go home to Geatland. Homesickness – ‘nostalgic disorientation’
Beowulf and his journey home They came to the tide tearing in spirit, those young warriors, wearing ring-mail, close-locked battle-shirts….. 1890 …And Beowulf left, furrowed deep water on his way homeward. Sheets sang on mast; the shrouds of the sea 1905 fastened filled sails; the foam-traveller, the wave-dancer, by wind unchecked, was unhindered. Onwards it fared, froth-necked, floating further over wave-ruck, its prow cleaving the currents of the sea, 1910 until they could make out the cliffs of home, Geatish headlands.
Grendel’s attacks: threats to ‘home’ • are launched from (literal) darkness (dark/light) • are motivated by jealousy (= presence of human culture in imaginative space temporarily occupied by ‘the kin of Cain’) • instigated by harp-song celebrating creativity • are a radical subversion of all warrior-like conduct (= irony; G. described as a rinc – a warrior – and a gæst, guest) • are an invasion of settled, cultured, creative imaginative space
Grendel’s attacks: home and exile Jealously the unjust one, enduring darkness, suffered the daylight, though his durance was shadows: a demon, each day doomed to hear rejoicing, the noise of the hall. There was harp-music, poet’s clear-voiced song…. (86-90a) He was named Grendel, their wrathful guest – infamous reiver who ravened the moors, waste-places, margins. He’d remained a while, miserable half-man, in the no-home of monsters after the Lord banished him among the bale of Cain’s dreadful kindred - the dear justice deemed by the Almighty for Abel’s death. Uncondoned, evil, he was exiled by God for that fell murder… (102-110a)
Papadopoulos (2002) and ‘home’ • Home is ‘one of the most fundamental notions of humanity’ • ‘A place, region or state to which one properly belongs, in which one's affections centre, or where one finds refuge, rest or satisfaction’ (OED, cited in Papadopoulos 2002 p.2) • Odysseus yearns to see the smoke from his homeland (NB. γαια, gaia – ‘earth’ – rather than ecos, place – which Pope translated as ‘palace’) • Homecoming about the re-establishment of connections (e.g. with family, kin, tribe), not merely a nostalgic or retrogressive action • Homesickness = nostalgic disorientation
Home holds opposites and contradictions (contrasts) ‘Most homes provide some kind of continuity that enables co-existence between many opposites: love and discord, distance and proximity, joys and sorrows, hopes and disappointments, flexibility and obstinacy, envy and magnanimity, rivalry and collaboration, loyalty and betrayal, enmity and friendship, similarities and differences… ‘…Homes can provide that deep and fundamental sense of space where all these opposites and contradictions can be contained and held together. Inevitably, this develops a sense of security…’ (Papadopoulos 2002, p.6) That sense of security = ‘onto-ecological settledness’.
The sadness of Beowulf and the importance of smoke • The gold B. thought would ensure the prosperity of his tribe is useless (cursed) • Gold given back to the earth • The survival of the kingdom isn’t ensured; neighbouring tribes still threaten • Smoke is (as in Homer) ‘the most tangible image of an intangible form of home’ (Papadopoulos 2002, p. 2) – contrasted with a ‘tangible and grounded element’: earth, land • Beowulf’s pyre constructed on a headland: adjacency of earth and sea
Beowulf’s homecoming Grieving warriors began to kindle the pyre, built huge on the high headland. Smoke climbed and scattered as swart wood caught 3145 in a crackle of flame, whose call mingled with their tide of cries - a tumult, dying only when his body’s core broke, fire-eaten. That death they grieved with dirges, sorrow, one death-lay sung by a woman, who… 3150 …. with hair bound up… sang grief’s concern, whose song expressed her fear that time would fill with terror – vicious invasion, vile kidnap’s killing, humiliation…. Heaven swallowed the smoke. 3155
The end of Beowulf • All contrasts are suspended: • rich/poor (Geats only notionally ‘rich’) • human/non-human (B. dead but reputation alive) • earth/sky (smoke of the earth but also of the sky) • land/sea (pyre constructed on headland but its meaning is marine – ‘visible to those viking seas’) • courage/cowardice (courage can result in invasion or kidnap and humiliation)
‘Heaven swallowed the smoke’ The last few lines of Beowulf are an encomium on Beowulf’s virtues – And so they lamented, these men of the Geats - companions and brothers - the passing of their lord. They said that of all earthly rulers 3180 he’d been the mildest man and the most gentle, kindest to his clansmen, and keenest in fame. - but there’s still the smell of smoke on the wind and ‘heaven’ offers no benediction:
In the hands of other A-S poets, ‘home’ appropriated by Christianity Where, after all, is our home? Our homecoming? We should give our thanks, thoughts to the journey, and our long labour, so that longing shall pass to its appointed place, praise the blessedness 120 whose life is vivid in the love of God, in heavenly hope…. (conclusion to The Seafarer) Yet may good fall to one who guards his faith rightly, whose grief remains silent; who renders remedy for bitterness of mind, for the wreckage of hope; whose conduct is courage. Care-worn, mind-torn, may his grace be mercy, a hope of heaventhat offers to all a home, haven. 115 (last lines of The Wanderer)
But the Beowulf poet… • Eschews resolution of underlying contrasts • Rejects Christian consolation (heaven as home) And in the end, at the end….
Selected bibliography Books/text Bonjour, Adrien (1950) The Digressions in Beowulf. Oxford: Blackwell (Medium Ævum Monographs 5.) Chase, Colin (1997) The Dating of Beowulf. U. Toronto Press: Centre for Medieval Studies Chickering, Howell, et al. (2014) Teaching Beowulf in the 21st Century. Tempe, Arizona: ACMRS Hume, Kathryn (1975) ‘The Theme and Structure of Beowulf’. Studies in Philology 72 No. 1, pp.1-27 McCully, Chris (2015) ‘Home in Wandsworth’ [review of Home anthology produced by prisoners of HMP Wandsworth and Wandsworth residents]. PNReview 225, pp.78-80 Papadopoulos, Renos K. (ed., 2002) ‘Refugees, home and trauma’ in Therapeutic Care for Refugees. No Place Like Home. London: Karnac, pp. 9-40. Sauer, Carl Ortwin (1965) ‘The Morphology of Landscape’. In Land and Life. Berkeley: University of California Press. Whitelock, Dorothy (1951) The Audience of Beowulf. Oxford: The Clarendon Press Web www.heorot.dk (original text of the poem with annotations and word-for-word translation; I’ve found this hugely useful) Thank you