Thursday, November 29, 2007

Judith Complete at Anglo-Saxon Aloud

I've now posted the last bit of Judith over at Anglo-Saxon Aloud, which completes the first four volumes of the Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records (Junius Manuscript, Vercelli Book, Exeter Book, Beowulf Manuscript [Nowell Codex]).

I hadn't gone over Judith in OE (except for the Holofernes in hell part that seems to have Old Norse analogues) for some time, and it really is a pretty excellent poem. I would put Judith's Braveheart-esque speech up there with Maldon in terms of inspirational battle oratory in the Anglo-Saxon corpus. And it seems to me that Judith, despite it being about a victory rather than a defeat, is a lot more like Maldon than Brunanburh in tone and "feel," more in touch with some tradition of living poetry and less a pseudo-pangyric for the purpose of politics (just wanted to get the alliteration in there).

Tomorrow I'll make my first post from the Paris Psalter. I'd really appreciate comments, because, although I've done some reading, etc., I really know nothing about medieval music and don't know if what I've produced is acceptable. If it turns out that the Psalter is too hard to do right now, I may skip ahead to the Minor Poems and then come back to the Psalter. Your comments tomorrow will really help.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Review of Beowulf (the film)

My favorite part of the Beowulf film (which I saw in 3D on Sunday) was the moment when, in her watery lair, Angelina Jolie shows herself and starts speaking to our hero:

"Are you the one they call Beowulf?" She asks. "The wolf of the bees? The bear?

At that particular moment I wanted to jump up in the theater and yell:

Angelina Jolie is doing philology!!! Angelina Jolie is doing philology naked!!!

(Does it get any better than that?)

And then I thought, wouldn't it be great if Beowulf replied:

"You'd think that, wouldn't you?" Beowulf said, clutching Unferth's sword. "But actually it means 'Woodpecker'(as Grimm and Skeat guessed)-- and there's a good reason for that." [cue dumb sexual puns on "Woodpecker].

[The above is probably a good explanation of why I haven't won any awards for film scripts].

But the opportunity to make insider-jokes about philology is just one of the many opportunities lost in this movie, which is a weird cross between a serious attempt to envision the Northern early medieval past and "Ye Olde Medieval Worlde" of Shrek. Although I had at least moderately high hopes going in becaues Neil Gaiman was one of the screenwriters, I was pretty disappointed with how it came out.

There are a number of good visual moments in the film: Grendel is the most horrifyingly disgusting monster that has ever appeared on screeen, the sword Hrunting dissolving into little mercury blobs was great, Angelina Jolie's "tail" being her hair was a good choice, and Heorot beseiged by the elements worked very well. But there were also too large a number of absolutely false notes: Hrothgar's drunkenness and absolute lack of dignity, Wealhtheow's cold shoulder both to Hrothgar and Beowulf in public venues, the Beowulf vs. Finn confrontation, Hrothgar's suicide, the introduction of a young girl, Ursa, and the tedious and predictable use of visual and situational cliches with her and Wealhtheow (falling off of collapsing bridges only to be grabbed by the strong hand of Wiglaf, etc.).

But I think I was most disappointed by the theme of the film, which is nothing like the theme of the poem (which is fine), but which was a tedious cliche. I think that people are giving the film way too much credit when they say that it is about unreliable storytelling. Or, rather, they are mistaken in thinking that making Beowulf into a film about unreliable storytelling is anything new, interesting or important. The problem is that there are two many different levels of truth and falsity to make the twists work: On the one hand, we have to believe that everyone is lying when they tell their stories. On the other, there really are Grendel monsters, lamias and dragons. The whole "here is what really happened" approach just doesn't work very well when there really are monsters in the world of the film. I think the combination of these two pieces—the "explanation" of Beowulf's ripping off Grendel's arm with the chain pulley system [which was used in Shrek I] with the "sense of the marvellous" of living monsters (not just confusions about Neanderthals or T.Rexes or whatever)—simply injects some postmodern cynicism without doing anything interesting with it.

Secondly, I wonder if Hollywood directors all have very serious Daddy issues. So the great sin of Hrothgar is that he cheated on Mommy? There are more, and more important sins in the world, and this particular sin is so completely brought into the contemporary socio-psychological context that the story, dialogue and acting could have been out of American Beauty and not from a poem that deals with kings and queens and dynasties--Hrothgar, Wealtheow, Beowulf and Ursula live, for this part of the film, on Wysteria Lane, not in Heorot. If we are in the heroic world or the 6th-century historical world, then the idea that Wealhtheow is being cold to Hrothgar and refusing his sexual advances both in public and for the long term, is absolutely ridiculous. So instead, for those elements of the story, we are in a modern, post-psychological world even though we have dragons, monsters, dynasties, magic drinking cups, etc. Having written at least one bad fantasy novel that tried to take this approach, I think it is doomed to failure.

There is a core of an interesting interpretation that could be centered around Beowulf making a bargain with Grendel's mother for the fame and success that he has later on: he would then be seen as not having earned it, and the film could be an examination of that bargain and its pitfalls (which could have worked if Grendel's mother was the dragon, rather than the dragon being Beowulf's son). Set against the dishonesty that Beowulf would have exhibited in making this bargain would have been the 50 years of peace and prosperity (no mean thing) he gave his kingdom: the failed raids by the Frisians in the film should have been seen as being good: it means that the Frisians are not able to burn, rape, pillage and murder Beowulf's people. Who cares if they are slaughtered on the beach of a country that they are invading? But that's not the film we have, which is focused almost exclusively on the "Daddy cheated on Mommy" sin. This sin might have been made more interesting if Hrothgar and Beowulf had refused to acknowledge their mutant offspring in some way (I don't know how you'd do it), which could then do the (tedious; but a lot of people seem to like it) John Gardner turn-around that Grendel really does have some kind of grievance. But that's not in this film, either.

The back-stories and connections of Beowulf are even more complicated than those of The Godfather, and there are all kinds of opportunities to work on the other sins that can be found in Beowulf (though note in the poem that Beowulf himself, as John Hill points out, is remarkably free of these sins, which is why he is so appealing -- but he is only so appealing in that context of all the other scheming, murdering and manipulating people in the background and the tradition. Hollywood does know how to do stories about pride, ambition and the net of fate woven by early promises, but for some reason when it comes to the fantasy genre, all of that goes out the window. The villains have to be all straight-out-of-Central-Casting: Saruman as generic "Eeville Wizard" or Denethor stuffing grapes in his mouth and slavering or Hrothgar's drunken ineptitude. There's no subtlety of the kind we get with Vito and Michael Corleone or the Martin Sheen character in Apocalypse Now or any number of complex, somewhat compelling villains or flawed men. I wish Hollywood would take a chance on respecting the audience in the fantasy genre. Or, just make pure, escapist fantasy (which I like very much; and I'll note that the 80's film Dragonslayer was better than Beowulf in this regard -- kudos to Vinny A for pointing this out to me).

There is also the problem of narrative 'tighness' vs. 'slackness'. The poem Beowulf has a loose feel that is lost in the film (the suicide of Hrothgar and Beowulf picking up the kingdom of the Danes right there is another example of "tightness" that makes a viewer/reader lose the "feel" of Beowulf). The Lord of the Rings book has this same kind of slackness, with characters appearing out of nowhere, the introduction of new plot points or problems that are not anticipated at the beginning, etc., and it was significantly tightened in the film versions. The radical simplification of Beowulf thus may have been necessary for the tightening of the narrative (no Geatland, no Hygelac, strictly tight connection between all monsters) and may be a demand of the genre. But 'tightness' is not in itself necessarily a virtue, and many of us who love Tolkien or love the old materials (Beowulf, Sagas), love exactly that leisurely and loose feel of the narrative). And all this, in a very round-about way, brings me to a general comment about the film.

Different genres and different time periods have different sets of aesthetic expectations. My major criticism of this Beowulf film is that it bounced from the comic-book-heroic, fight-by-wire, visual-cliches everywhere action-movie aesthetic to the post-modern, psychologized, we-all-know-that-heroes-aren't-reallyheroes cynical aesthetic. I think a film or even an adapted story that couldn't find a Hollywood audience could find some interesting middle ground to occupy, but this film did not reach that ground. And if we are to have cliches, visual or narrative, I would prefer the old cliches of Beowulf (and there are plenty, probably more than we recognize) than the newer cliches of late 20th-century visual media, middle-brow psychologizing narrative, and superficial and cynical ideology.

Posts whose citation I should have worked into this main post, but didn't:

Dr. Virago.
Scott Nokes.
John Walter.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The Exeter Book is Complete at Anglo-Saxon Aloud

Dear compiler of the Exeter Book,

There are simply too many riddles. Please remove some.

Thank you.

I started posting recordings of the poems of the Exeter Book on June 25, and although I did have a short vacation in there, I've pretty much kept it up at approximately 100 lines per weekday for nearly five months. Today I finally posted Riddle 95, so the Exeter Book is done. You can download an mp3 of any of your favorite Exeter Book poems by going to Anglo-Saxon Aloud. [Update: I did a little checking as part of a back-up, and the entire Exeter Book is 7.6 hours of poetry, or more than twice as long as Beowulf. It takes 8 CDs to store it in regular aiff format. If I ever sell Anglo-Saxon Aloud, it looks like it will have to be about a 20-24 CD set. Maybe I'll just load the entire thing onto an iPod shuffle and sell it that way].

Later I'll probably post one more excerpt from Beowulf Aloud to celebrate what has been "Beowulf Week" on the internet.

Next: On to Judith (which should be done by the end of next week), and then the Paris Psalter. Any Psalm experts out there want to give me tips on the best ways to record the OE Psalms?

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Out of the mouths of babes...

[For this story to make sense, you really should watch this brilliant video, which is for the song "Mandelbrot Set" by Jonathan Coulton].

It's a song about fractals and the Mandelbrot set, which were the topic last week in our Math/Science Fiction course. Great sections include:

I hate the Peano Space and the Koch Curve
I fear the Cantor Ternary Set
The Sierpinsky Gasket makes me want to cry.

But there's a small problem with having your kids learn the song:

Mandelbrot set
You're a Rorschach Test on fire
You're a day-glo pterodactyl
You're a heart-shaped box of springs and wires
You're one bad-ass #$%!!@#ing fractal.

I taught my kids to sing that last line "bad-ass monkey fractal." So that problem is temporarily solved (hey, I knew a kid in Boy Scouts who insisted that "Life in the Fast Lane" was actually a song about fishing (!): "Life in the Bass Cage." It took us weeks of making fun of him to show him he had heard it wrong).

But yesterday my 3-year-old son wanted to bring the CD to his school.

Me: I can't let you do that, big guy. There is a bad word in that song.

Him: And I can't say bad words at school, right?

Me: Right. You can't say bad words at school. You'd get in trouble and your teachers would be upset.

Him: Ok Daddy. I promise not to say Sierpinski Gasket.

I swear I am not making this up. I laughed on and off for the rest of the day.

(Am working on that Beowulf review but am trying to process lots of other commentary in other places).

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Susan Cooper

I'll be posting my Beowulf review tomorrow, but what happened on Saturday was better than any movie could be: I got to meet an author I've idolized for (almost exactly) 30 years: Susan Cooper, who wrote The Dark is Rising books.

Cooper was doing a book signing at our amazing local bookstore here in the Dedham, The Blue Bunny, and we arrived early. She ended up chatting for almost half an hour with my family and me, she signed my old, falling-apart copies of The Dark is Rising and the The Grey King, and laughed when I pointed out that I'd found an inconsistency in The Dark is Rising (she said I was only the second person in the world who had noticed it).

Even more happily, she confirmed that the town I had identified as the setting for The Dark is Rising is in fact the one I thought it was (I am saving this for a publication) and that certain landmarks are still standing.

But best of all, she was one of the first famous writers I have ever met who was not disappointing (Stephen J. Gould was the other). Instead, she was charming, funny and genuinely kind.

Thank you, Ms. Cooper, for the many years of joy you've given me (and now my daughter, and soon my son) through your writing, and for the wonderful time we had on Saturday speaking to you.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Beowulf, Aloud (Wiglaf and the Dragon Fight)

To celebrate Beowulf's fifteen minutes of pop-culture fame, this week I am posting excerpts from Beowulf Aloud over at Anglo-Saxon Aloud.

Here is the final excerpt, Beowulf and Wiglaf fight with the dragon.

You can purchase the entire 3-CD set of the poem over at Beowulf Aloud (it is $25.00, including North American shipping) or email me at mdrout -at- wheatoncollege dot edu.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Dating of Beowulf in the Newspaper: 3 sentences or less

"I have seen friendships lost over this," said Michael Drout, professor of English at Wheaton College. "I have seen people raise their voices at conferences. I think the reason is there really is a right answer. But no one knows what it is."
"Beowulf" was written sometime between 515 AD and 1025 AD, said Drout. Some argue for earlier dates, for reasons such as language and references to ancient Germanic peoples, according to Drout.Others believe it was written later because of the date of the manuscript and the possible influence of Latin Christian literature.Either way, the poem describes events that took place in sixth century. So what difference does a few hundred years make?
"A lot of the things in the poem would mean very different things depending on the cultural context," said Drout.
For example, he said, "'Most eager for fame' (which is describing Beowulf in the poem), is that a good thing or a bad thing? If it's a late Christian poem, then probably 'most eager for fame' is a criticism. If it's an early warrior poem, then probably 'most eager for fame' is a good thing."

The bolded sentences are the three I refered to in this laugh-producing post
Beowulf in the Newspaper: Maybe nobody bothered to write down the happy things

This is a link to Megan Scott's story Life was Tough Back in Ye Olde Beowulf Days.

The me: The time has traditionally been known as the Dark Ages, or the early Middle Ages, because it follows the fall of the Roman Empire. The overall economy in Europe collapsed, said Michael Drout, English professor at Wheaton College in Norton, Mass."There was much less writing, much less trade, the population declined from plague," said Drout. "So there was a lower level of technology and economic activity."

More me: People also drank mead, a fermented honey drink, from hollowed out cows' horns that couldn't be set down once they were filled "so you either had to empty your horn in one drink or pass it around to others," Drout said. [W00T. I am chosen as excerpt on drinking. Insteand cred with students...]

Concluding me: "There was still a great deal of beauty and joy," Drout said. "It just seems that literature is filled with tragedy and disaster. Maybe because no one bothered to write down the happy things."

Monday, November 12, 2007

Beowulf, Aloud

To celebrate Beowulf's fifteen minutes of pop-culture fame, this week I am posting excerpts from Beowulf Aloud over at Anglo-Saxon Aloud.

The first excerpt, lines 115-164 (Grendel's first attacks on Heorot), can be found here.

You can purchase the entire 3-CD set of the poem over at Beowulf Aloud (it is $25.00, including North American shipping) or email me at mdrout -at- wheatoncollege dot edu.

Friday, November 09, 2007

The Ultimate Beowulf Question

From a reporter today:

"Is it possible in three sentences to sum up the debate over when Beowulf was written?"

(she knew I would start maniacally laughing at this point)

You know, I used to be a journalist, so I took up the challenge. I'm hoping that the reporter (who is very good and thorough and, and who had actually read this entire series of posts about the dating of Beowulf) will be able to polish my answer and that it will make the article.

But I had a student in the office when the email came in, and I showed it to her, and she laughed and laughed...

(Today in Anglo-Saxon we descended into "Philological Hell" based on a few comment on the runes on the Ruthwell Cross. That led to different European writing systems of the early Middle Ages, which led to questions about why the Anglo-Saxons used thorn and eth instead of th, used sc to indicate the sh phoneme, and used the rune wyn for w. That led us to the Merovingians in Beowulf and Shippey's excellent article. We also got deletion of intervocalic h, loss of w -- or the difficulty Latin scribes had with the Germanic w phoneme and their various ways of representing it--and finally, that Alcuin's name should be pronounced "Alc-win" but never will be. Really, really fun. Monday we do some corpus work on Maldon and ofermod.)

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Beowulf Popularity

We've just completed registration for Spring 08 classes at Wheaton, and I'm happy to report that nearly half of my Anglo-Saxon students were brave enough to decide to continue on and study Beowulf with me this spring. Beowulf is the only course in the Wheaton English department that has a true pre-req --you just can't survive it without having had Anglo-Saxon, so a yield of 14 students isn't bad, particularly when at least five of the class are going away for Junior Year Abroad next semester and another four are seniors who have student teaching in the spring.

I am not attributing this largest-ever-at-Wheaton Beowulf class to the film, however. Instead, I give the students all the credit. They have worked amazingly hard this semester and are plowing through The Dream of the Rood right now. One student, who forgot to bring her translation to class, sight-translated a good long sentence and got it mostly right. (Unfortunately, she is going off Junior Year Abroad next year). All of a sudden the idea of working through all of Beowulf is exciting for them rather than daunting. Exactly as I had hoped, they are now proud of their technical and linguistic mastery and want to expand it. Watering down Beowulf never works for me. Making the technical and detailed interesting always does, whether for junior high and high school students at a lecture at a local library, for inner-city kids from Brockton, or for my own students with richer academic backgrounds. We need not fear the technical and the detailed: it's what makes us special.
(Of course we'll see how they feel when we spend at least 30 minutes of discussion on line 6a, is it reall the Heruli? Who are the Heruli? What about the loss of initial H...heh, heh, heh.

Unfortunately, getting through Beowulf in one semester can eat up a whole lot of class time, so I need to think about how to reconfigure the course for a larger number of students. I want to take some time to teach them paleography (and that means speedball pens, ink and learning to write hands -- I teach paleography the old-fashioned way of learning by doing), and the course is linked to the "Computing for Poets" course (as are the Anglo-Saxon and JRRT courses), which has also filled up, so we will need to spend some time on corpus searching, etc.

It should be great: in the spring I'll be teaching Beowulf and the second half of the Math/SciencFiction (and now also First Year Seminar and FYS course) that I teach with Bill Goldbloom Bloch, so it will be a very technical, mathematical semester in the classroom. And, unfortunately, another semester of being department Chair. But the teaching can make up for that, I hope.