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Monday, September 10, 2007

How not to hate Beowulf

Billy Goat just panned the trailer the upcoming movie, Beowulf. No objection here. It's true I hadn't even heard it was coming out yet, but Beowulf has been done before -- BADLY (The Thirteenth Warrior; they say it's based on a Michael Crichton novel. No: Beowulf.).

But, but, but, my dear bridge-goers, to criticize the poem itself, oh no, that I will not stand for! Old Billy Goat has the temerity to borrow my treasured copy of Beowulf and then to dismiss it so casually? It's "like wading through muck"?! (Maybe Billy Goat just meant that as a slur on my lifestyle. Listen, this bridge has been in the family a long time. So I don't clean under every rock all the time. Humph.)

But listen, why don't you have a seat here under the bridge, and let me explain...

How not to hate Beowulf

One of the oldest extant works of what is arguably considered English literature, Beowulf hardly needs introduction; who hasn't read it in school? (And who didn't hate it when they did?) I place the blame squarely on the largely abominable translations available. Instead, avail yourself of Howell D. Chickering's dual-language translation: English, and Old English, on facing pages.

(This is the version I loaned Billy Goat. A large metropolitan library should have it; it's been recently re-issued, so you can find it at the major online booksellers as well: Beowulf: A Dual-Language Edition).

Mr. Chickering's edition has an admirable introduction that discusses not merely the structure of the poem, but also the social context in which the action, and lack thereof, takes place. The latter is important to understand for the impatient modern reader, who, for example, can easily become frustrated at a lengthy discussion of the history of the hero's sword - right at a crucial moment in the fighting. The surviving text of Beowulf is also damaged in parts; it pays well to at least realize that at many spots, specific words (even entire passages) have been omitted or lost, and perhaps reconstructed.

How to love Beowulf

Beowulf is an alliterative poem, a high and sadly lost art. To appreciate it, you must take some time to learn the sounds of Old English and the various meter styles. It was intended to be heard, not read, and you will be doing yourself a favour if you acquire a little bit of the sound and feel of the poem. Hence, my suggestion that you read at least some of it in Old English. Don't worry, Old English isn't hard to pronounce (and Mr. Chickering's book will give you the brief introduction you need). When you read this poem out loud, you'll hear the similarities with modern English; it's not as different as it seems when written.

Let's pull out a little phrase towards the end of the poem, and see what we can learn. The hero Beowulf, by now an aged man, must fight a dragon who ravages the countryside. It turns out the dragon was awoken by a thief who steals a cup from the dragon's hoard.

I've simplified the writing somewhat (with apologies to real scholars!), but read this out loud, just for fun. Can you feel the alliteration? Do the words start to fall into peculiar rhythm? Imagine yourself a Anglo-Saxon bard, reciting manful deeds in front of the hall table. It doesn't matter if you don't understand the words; give them heart!

"... Hord-weard onbad
earfothliche, othat aefen cwom;
waes tha yebolyen beoryes hyrde
wolde se latha liye forgyldan
drinc-feat dyre. Tha weas daey sheashen
wyrme on willan..."

Done? Then let's take a look at the translation (Mr. Chickering's, naturally):

".... The hoard-keeper waited,
miserable, impatient, till evening came.
By then the barrow-snake was swollen with rage,
wanted revenge for that precious cup,
a payment by fire. The day was over
and the dragon rejoiced."

Now let's listen to the Old English fragment once or twice more. The alliteration is relatively subtle, with the consonants and vowels used to connect words and phrases. (The meter is subtler still, and follows more than one pattern.)

See for yourself what the alliteration does. The first stress in the second half of each line connects with one or more stresses in the first half. "aefen" (evening) connects to "earfothliche" (impatiently); "beoryes" (barrow) with "yebolyen" (became angry); "latha" (hateful) and "liye" (flaming); "daey" (day) with "drinc" and "dyre" (drink and precious, as in precious drinking-vessel); "willan" (rejoiced) and "wyrme" (dragon). The meaning of each word is strengthened by the alliterative connections. The barrow seems to constrict as the dragon's anger grows. The golden sun is dimmed, and night has come. Can you feel the dragon's hot joy when at last it bursts free of its lair to pour forth hatred and fire?

I think we can easily find alliterative connections between lines as well: "weard" (keeper) connects with "wyrme" (dragon); "onbad" (waited) with "othat" (until); and "forgyldan" (pay for) with "latha" and "liye". These alliterative connections are outside of the technical alliterative conventions, but in each case the meaning is strengthened. Even the conventional, but superficially odd, link between day, cup, and precious is meaningful; the golden treasure is compared to the sun (indeed, as the vessel has been taken from the hoard, so has the sun been taken from the sky).

The alliteration makes a kind of web, as words, phrases, and lines are all linked together. We're not used to seeing so many interlocking connections in writing, and so it certainly takes effort to appreciate the raw beauty of the poem. The translation alone is relatively bland. (Of course not, for what poem can be translated? Is that not what it means to be a poem?) So to enjoy Beowulf, you must play a little game. Flip back and forth between the translation and original language. The translation will give you the sense, but the beauty is in the original.

Are there hobbits in Heorot Hall?

The thief might seem to be a minor character in Beowulf, perhaps just a plot device to bring forth the ire of the worm. Unfortunately, though, the manuscript is damaged at the very place where the thief is described. So who actually was this thief? And if we knew, would we interpret the poem differently?

One eminent scholar was certainly curious. I refer to Professor J.R.R. Tolkien, whose curiosity about the thief led, in no small way, to the wonderful story we know as The Hobbit. Yes, this is Bilbo Baggins' story (the ellipses indicate lost text):

"Not deliberately, for his own desires,
did he injure the dragon, break into his hoard,
but in desperate trouble this slave of nobles,
I know not who, fled angry blows,
homeless, roofless, entered that place,
a sin-troubled man. When he looked inside,
fear and terror rose in that guest.
But the frightful shape ....
... when fear overcame him
he seized the treasure-cup."

Or is it this?

"He stole from the shadow of the doorway, across the floor to the nearest edge of the mounds of treasure. Above him the sleeping dragon lay, a dire menace even in his sleep. He grasped a great two-handled cup, as heavy as he could carry, and cast one fearful eye upwards... but the dragon did not wake--not yet--but shifted into other dreams of greed and violence..."

Indeed, this is the central moment of The Hobbit (if we recognize that the sequels have not yet come). The similarities go beyond mere tropes. The Hobbit is a deliberate re-working of Beowulf, all told from the view of the unnamed thief who is so elusive in the original manuscript.

And realizing that, perhaps you will try one day to read The Hobbit out loud. Watch for the alliteration; when you hear it, you will catch echoes of a grand tale once told a thousand years before!


Well, that's enough for today - and quite enough, too, I can see from the expression on your face! Still, I thank you for your time. Oh, don't worry about the toll; your attention was plenty reward. May the road that carries you always be interesting. And... if I could ask one favour... should you happen to run into my old friend, Billy Goat, could you ask him to return my @#%# book if he doesn't like it?!

1 comment:

Joel said...

There's some great info here!

I had heard that The Hobbit was a retelling of Beowulf, but even after reading Beowulf, I never made the connection. Now I know!

Also, I had not realized the poetic nuances of the Old English version.

I'll have to give it another try. I don't know how it will turn out, though. Long-form poetry may not be my thing.