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. . . .


Anonymous val said...

I had found reference to this article a few days ago in a medievalists group page.

What a hoot! And I don't even know anything about Beowolf.
Apparently this article is on the curriculum for Home Schoolers.You've only pointed out a few choice nuggets. I highly recommend to all who've seen this blog post to check out the full article for a lark.

12:25 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"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."

Love it!

(this is from slowgirl, who can't remember how to log in)

3:17 PM  

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