Wednesday, August 27, 2008

retconning beowulf

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I've been reading Beowulf again, this time Crossley-Holland's translation. I'm struck by its similarity to episodic television drama. (Radio drama too, of course, but apart from Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, radio serials were before my time.)

For example, halfway through, around line 1270, we get a recap, a Previously on Beowulf the Grendel Slayer moment: of them, Grendel
that hateful outcast, was surprised in the hall
by a vigilant warrior spoiling for a fight.
Grendel gripped and grabbed him there,
but the Geat remembered his vast strength,
[...] thus he overcame
the envoy of hell...

In daytime soaps characters often announce things the other characters already know. So we'd get some awful piece of dialogue such as, 'Hello Susan, identical twin to my amnesiac foster mother'. In Beowulf, starting around line 1335, we have:

...she has avenged her son
whom you savaged yesterday with vice-like holds
because he had impoverished and killed my people
for many long years...

Why does Beowulf need to be told what he did yesterday? He was there. This is for the audience, because some of them might have missed the earlier installment.

But the biggest swerve of all, for me, was the retconning of Grendel. (Retconning is a fan term, meaning 'retroactive continuity', basically putting a sudden new spin on the information we thought we had about a character, or event, in a long-running series.) Think of all the daytime soaps you've ever watched (or just read about--because none of us have ever stooped to that rubbish, oh no), or that moment in Tootsie where Dustin Hoffman's character pauses dramatically and announces 'the hospital administrator you thought was a nice girl actually turns out to be A MAN!' In Beowulf we find that our good old-fashioned monster turns out to be THE OFFSPRING OF CAIN!

I'm not a scholar. I haven't studied Beowulf at any level. Perhaps this is all old hat to the literary historians out there. But it's new to me, and extremely interesting. I've been under the impression that Beowulf was meant to be an epic, one-night performance, like an uncut Shakespearean play, but clearly it's an episodic drama. Why else would the scop put in reminders, rewinds and retcons? (Yes, I know the Anglo-Saxons drank a lot--but so much they couldn't follow one poem over the course of an evening?) It's pretty clear to me that this piece was designed to be performed over several nights; Yule, perhaps, or during the multi-day visit of the king or ealdorman.


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  1. This is an interesting reading of Beowulf, but one problem in approaching medieval texts is coming at them from one's own, modern, mindset. It is hard to do that and honestly get close to the text as it might have been received in its period. Oral-formulaic poetry is just that, there are formulas and repeated phrasings and the universe, in that one is clearly good and the other can’t help but be evil. The fascinating bit is that it is clear from the text that Grendel’s mother is connected to Hrothgar, and that it is the sin (dishonor) of Hrothgar’s father, who exiled Grendel’s mother, that brings the wrath of Grendel on Hrothgar. There are further connections between Beowulf and Hrothgar, as revealed in the genealogies, and these would have been riveting sections for the audience as they traced the tangled web of family histories that go back to the gods, all a huge part of Anglo-Saxon culture. That Beowulf was performed in a night is clear, I’ve heard it done before. I think the retconning you point out serves a different function than trying to straighten out crooked plot lines with sudden revelations. Remember, this is a poem that was honed and recited by scops for years before it was written down and not a sitcom in which the writers had written themselves into a corner.

  2. anon, yes to just about everything you've said--though I'm not entirely convinced of the oral-formulaic argument. I'm not absolutely against the notion, but my profession is writing fiction, and while it's clear that the creator borrowed freely from older oral traditions, I can also see a strong, clear intentional thread that, if I had to guess, I'd say comes from the mind of a single writer. I say 'writer' because it has the feel of something composed with a pen. I'm not familiar enough with the work to point to specifics. Having said that, of course, I'm now beginning to become very interested indeed in the piece, and might study further.)

    Meanwhile, over on my other blog, Ask Nicola (, Lisa Spangenberg has left a very interesting comment, pointing out that the scop would have to have paused many times to rest and take refreshment--which I'd not considered. (As you've pointed out, it's difficult sometimes to imagine the circumstances of performance and creation from our 21st C perspective. I was thinking 'performance' as TV show, sigh, or, if I stretched, an Elizabethan play, with a huge cast. I'd just blanked on the notion of one person performing the whole thing.)

    She also points out that the retcon I imagine isn't a retcon at all: the reference to Cain is right there near the beginning of the poem and I just missed it because I was giggling over the notion of Grendel basically being an enraged neighbour driven demented by noise pollution.

    This whole conversation is a delight to me. I'm particularly taken by similar points both you and Lisa raise: the fascination of the poem's contemporary audience with genealogical issues. I can't tell you how useful this all this. Thank you.

  3. Anonymous wrote;

    The fascinating bit is that it is clear from the text that Grendel’s mother is connected to Hrothgar, and that it is the sin (dishonor) of Hrothgar’s father, who exiled Grendel’s mother, that brings the wrath of Grendel on Hrothgar.

    I'm wracking my brains, and I can't think of any references in Beowulf that suggests Hrothgar's father exiled Grendel's dam. Pointer please?

  4. I do, personally think that Beowulf as we have it is a work of a single poet/story teller. There's a single narrative spine, despite all the interwoven stories, that unites the major themes--and even the "Christian overlay," as it's sometimes called, works in terms of story.

  5. anon, lisa, I don't know the poem as well as I'd like, so I can't speak to the Hrothgar/Grendel's mum connection--but just the notion made me more alert for such things and last night I read the coming of the dragon, and it seemed to me Beowulf had a guilty conscience about something. Any thoughts on that?

  6. Oh, it's been a while, but I recall Fidel Fajardo-Acosta writing on the Hrothgar-GM connection in his "Condemnation of heroism in the tragedy of Beowulf : a study in the characterization of the epic." I'll need to go back and pull the ref, it'll take a bit (days maybe before I can get to the library), so be patient.... Fajardo-Acosta has an interesting thesis that the monster and Beowulf are one and the same and pulls a lot of his evidence from the genealogies. Most scholars accept a single author for the text of Beowulf that has been preserved in the Nowell Codex, but clearly it is an oral poem with a long tradition. Whether the author preserved a particular version or came up with his own is debatable, as it the dating of it. The author's Christian sympathies come through clearly, but it is the heroic bits that point back to the A-S culture. It is worth learning Old English to be able to ready Beowulf in the original; it is a very different experience to read the poem aloud in OE and hear the breath-taking alliteration.

  7. anon, I found the publisher's description of the Fidel Fajardo-Acosta: "An interpretation of Beowulf as a disconfirmation of the heroic type in which the author argues that the poem is the vehicle of a strong anti-militaristic, anti-heroic, pacifist wisdom that he claims is the essence of epic literature." Interesting.

    As for suggesting I learn Old English: don't encourage me! I'm such a ham, I'd be rolling those r's and pounding the table rhythmically as I orated, and driving the neighbours and my sweetie mad. Besides, I can just go listen to Michael Drout, who seems to have done a wonderful job at Anglo-Saxon Aloud.

    Seriously, though, I started to piece together bits of OE and Old Welsh and other stuff (I already have some Latin) and then thought, hang on, you're writing a *novel* not planning a scholarly monograph. So I let that go, and am relying on the kindness of academic strangers, such as yourself (and Lisa, and Michelle, and everyone else who has dropped by, or who chats with me on their blogs). You lot, after all, are the professionals.

  8. But if you truly want to get inside the A-S mind, then you MUST learn the language, not as an academic exercise but as a way for you, the author, to get in their skin and look out their eyes, even for a moment. Otherwise, you are accessing everything A-S via translation, which necessarily involves interpretation. Pound the table, roar the poetry out loud, float on its heights! The simple genius of the use of kennings never translates from the original, "a good wave-rider" may be a ship, but it lacks the raw power of "godne gegyrwan."

  9. Michael Drout is an excellent source, though he is now really the man on Tolkien, who was himself considered one of the most sensitive readers of Beowulf. Read Tolkien's "The Monster and the Critics", it is still an essential work of Beowulf criticism. Chris Vinsonhaler has an interesting interpretation of Beowulf and performs it live in the U.S. Her web page is

  10. anon1, I believe I can get inside the A-S mind enough to write a novel without actually learning the language. Would I do it better with the language? No doubt. But I simply don't have the time to immerse myself in all things Old English, to learn the grammar and vocabulary, go through the exercises, as well as to write to a schedule that will ensure bills get paid. And a writer's profession, skill, gift (if you want to get woo) is learning how to get inside. With a lot of help from friends.

    anon2, many thanks for that link.


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