Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Beowulf: The monsters and the nutjobs

We interrupt our regularly-scheduled bookblog to bring you the shocking truth about Beowulf! It's all real! And Michael Crichton wasn't even close!

I know, I know. I should be outraged at the author's perpetuation of some pretty weird flavors of fundamentalism. Truth is, though, I laughed so hard my asthma kicked in and I was actually wheezing. Here are some gems from the essay and my responses:

[Edit--an alert reader just told me that not all browsers are showing the different fonts I used to distinguish the original essay from my comments. I have now italicized the original essay.]

Beowulf liked adventure more than ruling the land. A band of warriors adventured with Beowulf. In those days warriors often vowed loyalty to their lord, or leader, and a group trusted and respected each other and risked their lives for each other. They shared the plunder they gained through victories. Beowulf with his band of warriors fought and killed monster animals.

Beowulf didn't actually go adventuring after he became the king. At no point was did he "like" adventuring in favor of ruling--the two options were not simultaneously available.

The main monster in the story of Beowulf is Grendel. That is capitalized as though it is a proper name like Fido or Black Beauty.

The manuscript doesn't capitalize any names, including that of Beowulf.

Later in the story Beowulf killed Grendel’s mother also. He returned to Sweden and was king for fifty mostly peaceful years. He died while once again conquering a monster.

This is the entire discussion of the two later fights. Guess that whole "magic sword" thing was a little inconvenient for our author.

Only one manuscript of the original poem exists. People found it, partly burned, in England about five hundred years after Beowulf lived.

Nope. The manuscript wasn't "found" in the eleventh century, it was written in the eleventh century. There's a difference. The manuscript also didn't get burned until the 18th century. We can be certain about this because a short while before it got singed, a Danish scholar named Thorkelin made a transcript, including bits that are now lost or illegible due to fire. If it was already burned, how come Thorkelin could read it?

Many literature books say that it is fiction, one of the earliest examples we have of an English novel.

I want to see the "literature book" that calls a 3000-line poem from the Middle Ages a "novel."

But if someone were writing fiction, he would not name so many real people; he would invent characters as novelists do. And if someone wrote it long after the events, he would not know all those real people who lived in Beowulf’s time.

Novelists don't name real people? Oh, man--guys, this is terrible. I don't know how we're gonna break this to Bernard Cornwell.

And if someone wrote it long after the events, he would not know all those real people who lived in Beowulf’s time.

Er, he read the many, many lists of geneology or regnal lists (names of kings) that still survive in medieval manuscripts? Just a thought.

But the basic story is historically true, and the animals are zoologically real. They are not called trolls or other fantasy names.

This is true! They're not called trolls once in the Old English! Of course, that's because "troll" is an Old Norse word, and not an Old English one. "Troll" doesn't enter the English language until the nineteenth century (yeah, you read that right--contemporary with Brahm's lullaby and the American Civil War). The poem doesn't call Grendel a flamenco dancer, either, but we can't claim, on that basis alone, that he didn't have rhythm.

No English kings or events are mentioned. This shows that the poem was written before the Saxons, Geats, and other tribes migrated to England.

Wait. She said that Beowulf was born in 495. The migrations happened in 450-500. How'd they write about him before he was born? And how come they could write in Old English when it didn't exist yet?

At least this is a break from the folks who claim Beowulf is a Tudor forgery. . . .

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Carr: The Italian Secretary

Oops! It's been a month. I have been getting reading done, but, due to technical difficulties at work, haven't had much chance to blog when I'm home. Things were resolved last week, so with luck I'll be a little more frequent.

Today's post is about a book I didn't really like. Yeah, I didn't mean to do negative reviews, and I'll still mostly focus on recommendations. Caleb Carr's The Italian Secretary, however, is a Sherlock Holmes pastiche, which means some readers might enjoy it anyway, so I'll go ahead.

The thing to know about Carr's book is that it originated in a request to contribute a short story to an anthology of Sherlock Homes pastiches centering on ghost stories. Yeah, you read that right. Carr's contribution was too long, but the publishers liked it so they put it out as a novel. It does, in fact, read more like a long story. Holmes and Watson get called up to Edinburgh to investigate two murders in Holyrood House that resemble the ancient slaying of Mary, Queen of Scot's music secretary, David Rizzio. They spend the train ride in exposition and back-story, have a mildly interesting interlude, and arrive in Edinburgh. When Watson wakes up the next morning, Holmes has solved the case. This lack of any development in the mystery is OK for a short story, annoying in a novel. True, several more chapters ensue in which our heroes try to trap the villain, etc., but as a mystery this isn't terrifically successful.

Holmes has suddenly developed a belief in ghosts, in direct opposition to his comments in Conan Doyle's original stories (the Canon, for those of you not familiar with the term), but that's not Carr's fault since it's the premise of the original collection. I think this could have been successfully cut back to a short story, rather than spun into a novella. Still, it's Holmes and if you're like me and you'll read just about anything with that character, it's probably worth picking up in a used bookstore.

Carr also has a bad habit of using "being as" instead of "because" or just "as." I will be honest with you all and admit that this is a pet peeve of mine. It's annoying in vapid teenagers. It's pretty poor in published novels, which ought to employ the fewest words possible. It's inexcusable in a book written in the first person before "being as" entered the language as a common speech tick. Shame on you, Carroll and Graf. This is something your editors should have caught.

Carr's own series of late nineteenth-century mysteries are far superior. He's a better writer than this; the premise was just too silly. I'll tell you about a good book of his next time.

The Brits can put curry in anything. I heartily approve. Here's my own suggestion for how your life can be improved through curry paste:

My Mom's Beer Cheese Soup

<>½ stick butter (4 Tbsp)
4 Tbsp flour
¼ - ½ cup finely diced onion
1/8 – ¼ tsp dry mustard
1 tsp salt
¼ tsp pepper
1 can (aprox. 2 cups) chicken stock
1 to 1½ cans beer
½ tsp Worcestershire sauce
¼ cup finely dices carrots (optional)
¼ cup finely dices celery (optional)
¾ - 1 lb. shredded (or hunked) cheese (sharp cheddar or Velveeta)
½ cup (or so) broccoli floweret’s, chopped
2 – 3 slices bacon, crumbled
Shredded cheddar cheese
Green onion, chopped <>

Sauté onions in butter. Add flour, salt, pepper and dry mustard. Stir until bubbly. Gradually add chicken stock, beer and Worcestershire sauce. Bring to a boil, stirring constantly. Add carrots and celery, if desired. Simmer 5 – 10 minutes until vegetables are tender. Add cheese, stirring constantly until melted. Add broccoli and simmer until just barely tender (2 - 4 minutes?). Garnish with sprinkle of bacon, shredded cheese and green onion (optional, of course). Serve with bread sticks or garlic bread. Enjoy!

Mom Notes: I prefer the flavor of sharp cheddar, but Velveeta melts a little smoother. If you use Velveeta,reduce or eliminate the salt added to your white sauce. I add enough cheese to make the soup a pretty light yellow color. Use more or less as you like. Better flavored beer makes better soup and you get to drink the 4½ cans left over so get a decent one.

My note: Try adding 1 tsp of curry paste when you add the dry mustard. It gives the soup a very nice flavor--not too overpowering. The only downside is that it makes the soup a bright orangey-yellow color that makes it look like you're using some weird preservative.