Wednesday, December 10, 2008

I'm Captain Evil (and I'm General Disarray!)

Aaah! I had intended for this to be a longer and more thought-out entry, but I got caught up doing Actual Work and now it is already midnight. I should really give it up and go to bed, but I just finished this Tolkien paper, "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics" (of which Wikipedia has a brief but accurate summary) and I wanted to mention a few things it brought to mind. Curse you, Norton Critical Editions, you and your large samplings of interesting and relevant critical material. Whatever. I'll sleep through the musical we're seeing tomorrow. (The plot summary of which reminds me of two different novels I read recently, and oh god, I'm already going off on tangents.)

Anyway. Tolkien. (I'll leave the
LOTR angle to Fiona, since it's not my department.)

He discusses
Beowulf in the context of its inevitable companions, the Aeneid and the Odyssey (apparently Beowulf used to be known as "the Beowulf"!); he considers the former a more appropriate counterpart, although he demurs on the question of whether Beowulf's author had read Virgil (I don't know if this question has been resolved since 1936, and if so, what the answer is; I'll investigate further):
There is, of course, a likeness in places between these greater and smaller things, the Aeneid and Beowulf, if they are read in conjunction. But the smaller points in which imitation or reminiscence might be perceived are inconclusive, while the real likeness is deeper and due to certain qualities in the authors independent of the question whether the Anglo-Saxon had read Virgil or not.... We have the great pagan on the threshold of the change of the world; and the great (if lesser) Christian just over the threshold of the great change in his time and place.... (p. 120).
In a footnote, Tolkien adds
In fact the real resemblance of the Aeneid and Beowulf lies in the constant presence of a sense of many-storied antiquity, together with its natural accompaniment, stern and noble melancholy. In this they are really akin and together differ from Homer's flatter, if more glittering, surface. (p. 120)
Ooh, burn. Seriously though, I did think of the Aeneid much more frequently than the Iliad (I haven't read the Odyssey yet, ok) while I was reading Beowulf, but I wasn't sure how much of that was because I read the Mandelbaum translation of the Aeneid and the Lattimore translation of the Iliad (mah hexameter, let me show u it). Lattimore's Iliad is very formal, whereas Mandelbaum's Aeneid and Heaney's Beowulf, neither of which attempts rigorously to adhere to the meter of its original, share -- perhaps partly as a result -- an immediacy and intensity that Lattimore's Iliad lacks. Since I have no Greek nor Latin nor Old English, I can't be sure which of all these qualities result from the poems as written and which are a consequence of their various translations. Tolkien's jab at "Homer's flatter, if more glittering, surface" would hint that at least some of this difference is inherent to the originals, but I just don't know.

One aspect of
Beowulf that did remind me of Homer was the epithets, but oh, SO MUCH BETTER. If you thought "Hector, breaker of horses" was a pretty sweet moniker, how about Grendel, "captain of evil" (l. 749)? And while we're on the topic of exciting nomenclature, let's not forget the line where Beowulf describes his sword as a "sharp-honed, wave-sheened wonderblade" (l. 1490). (Hey, baby... wanna see my wonderblade?)

Beowulf also contains my new favorite example of serious understatement. When Grendel is fighting Beowulf in Heorot, the hall where he (Grendel) has been murdering people every night for the past twelve years or so, Grendel begins to realize that he is losing: "The latching power/ in his fingers weakened; it was the worst trip/ the terror-monger had taken to Heorot" (ll. 763-65).

Yeah, the worst trip for sure. You know. The one where Beowulf rips off his arm, which injury shortly results in his agonizing death. Look, you guys, it was definitely way worse than those other trips where he just killed and ate a bunch of people and stuffed their remains into his dragon-skin pouch [Per Beowulf: "I had done no wrong, yet the raging demon/ wanted to cram me and many another/ into this bag" (ll. 2089-91)].

Oh dear. I have a lot else to say about Tolkien and Christianity and epithets and kennings (shield-clash! wave-vat! neck-ring! hate-honed! hall-roofing! bone-house!), but somehow I have been writing this post for well over an hour. More soon.

1 comment:

Fiona said...

I don't know, Grendel, that time we tried to find the IHOP at like 4 a.m. and we almost got stopped by that cop sucked pretty badly.