The Books of My Numberless Dreams

Epic heroes & origami surgeons

Posted on: October 30, 2007

After I finished The Lord of the Rings I felt as if I needed another Tolkien fix immediately. The Silmarillion turned around in my mind, especially since I have the huge illustrated edition, art provided by Ted Nasmith, one of the three Tolkien artists worth paying attention to. (If I had my druthers it would only be the first two, but people, the Tolkien estate particularly, seem to go for Alan Lee’s drab watercolours.) But I hesitated as I always do when a firm decision on a new book is needed. By chance I reached for the revised edition of Michael Alexander’s verse translation of Beowulf for Penguin Classics. It turned out to be exactly what I needed because of how it heavily influenced Tolkien ‘s work. A browse through the archives revealed that it’s also on my Seafaring Challenge list, so I’ll actually be meeting a reading goal, which is always a nice thing.

Alexander briefly addresses the style, theme, history and context of Beowulf with a heavy (often wearily so) emphasis on what it meant to the English descendants whose forefather’s world is explored: the Angles, the Saxons and the Jutes. Much of what he touches on when he defines what an “epic” is happily applies to Paradise Lost as well, and is helpful in shaping my hazy ideas of what an epic is (ummmm its action occurs on a large scale and stuff):

Beowulf is a rather condensed epic poem. The epic genre resolves these questions of centre and periphery, of nature and supernature. The epic genre accommodates the mythic and the monstrous. Epic takes in all of life, representing it with an archaic truth. Such poems show war and peace, men and gods, life and death as a connected reality. The presentation is not partisan. In the Iliad, ‘the fall of an enemy, no less than of a friend or leader, is tragic and not comic’. In his analysis in the Poetics, Aristotle makes the action, the story itself, central…The story carries the meaning. Beowulf is not merely a poem about a hero, it has the epic qualities of inclusive scope, objective treatment, unity of ethos and significant action.

It’s interesting to compare how Tolkien modified the world in his version of middanyeard (middle-earth). The “‘social’ theme’ of loyalty between lord and liege and the honourable importance of maintaining alliances is something that is carried over wholesale into LOTR. In the lands of Rohan and Gondor soldiers are tested. Theoden, the King of Rohan, fell under Saruman’s negative influence through Wormtongue and Eomer, Theoden’s sister-son, is faced with putting his people’s well-being above blind royal obedience. Beregond, a member of Gondor’s Tower guard, must choose between the will of the Steward Denethor to whom he swore loyalty, and love of the Steward’s heir Faramir, who Denethor, in a fit of madness, plans to burn alive in a neat murder-suicide, in the middle of a battle. One difference is that, though Tolkien’s heroes are taken with the idea of their deeds being passed down into song until the last age, there are more mindful of the essential goodness of their acts, whether or not the deeds are immortalised. It’s repeated throughout the books that they must trod on and do as they must, even if there is few or no one left who will cheer or benefit from their labours. In older epics like Beowulf and The Iliad, fame is given a higher priority. Beowulf‘s last lines are

they said that he was of all the world’s kings
the gentlest of men, and the most gracious,
the kindest to his people, the keenest for fame.

A lot of the diction is similar, of course, and I was quite pleased with myself when I knew what a “barrow” was without need for explanation. “Beorn” means “bear”, I think, and reflects the common custom of warrior’s being named after or in relation to an animal. I’m expecting to note some metrical similarities with parts of the poem and Tolkien’s songs, based on some of the quotes, but it will take closer investigation to say for sure.

Alexander is good at letting you know what to expect. Apparently Beowulf doesn’t have a lot of action — I wonder how the movie will make out? — but is more of a “meditation” on action than anything else. Lots of speeches, side stories and so on, which I don’t think will pose a problem. For a second or two I questioned the wisdom of starting another epic with some books of Paradise Lost still unread, but I reasoned that a) Beowulf is much shorter and b) it should be a quicker read as the translation renders most of it recognisable, unlike PL which has a lot of archaic words, definitions, and outdated phrasing. It’s also packed with allusions and references.

The People of Paper by Salvador Plascencia is the other book I’ve started lately. It’s a book that demands your close attention because the form, a lot of the time, closely mimics the content. In one chapter when a gang splits into two groups, the paragraph, in column form, splits into two as well; and it only rejoins when the groups rejoin. It’s an odd little thing too, because I want to (at least I did, initially) describe it as delicate and mystical and whatever other adjectives Latin American magic realism should inspire, but along with dead cats brought to life by paper organs, wrestler saints, and Virgin sightings, there’s a lot of piss, blood, puss, and self-inflicted burning. It’s working for me so far, and I don’t find it “self-indulgent” at all, although if it’s one thing I never go to the A.V. Club for its book reviews.

That’s one of the reasons I go to Dan Green’s blog: do take a look at his observations on Shining at the Bottom of the Sea by Stephen Marche, a book I first heard of in Bookmarks magazine, I think. I almost picked up it up last week, but only left the store with Excellent Women by Barbara Pym. Which reminds me: I picked up On Spec, one of the many literary magazines the local Chapters picked up, and promptly re-shelved after reading the oddest editorial. The writer went on and on and on about global warming and how developed countries vs. developing countries were and would have to deal with it, eventually. There wasn’t a blessed thing about any of the stories featured in the summer issue, or about literature in general, as far as I could tell. What on earth…? It’s a speculative fiction magazine (going through an identity crisis?).

The other wtf is for authors: no, I don’t want to interview you and I’m not remotely interested in mentioning your book on my blog, unless you’re offering at least $5,000 CAD, cash. Thank you.

8 Responses to "Epic heroes & origami surgeons"

Thank you for your posting on Beowulf, way back in high school we of course studied this book and I was asleep literally in the back corner of the class. Well, I am planning on attempting this book again, wish me luck.

I’ve not read Beowulf but want to and hope to get around to it sometime. I’ve got People of Paper on my TBR pile. You make me want to pull it out and start reading right now.

Your final wtf made me laugh. I know exactly what you mean!

MissDaisyAnne hahahahahaha, no doubt that may have been my reaction too if I had been in that class. Luckily (?) I managed to miss out on the literature syllabus (which changes a bit every few years in Jamaica) that included any sort of medieval European or Ancient works. I’m relieved that I can come to such books on my own without any baggage.

Stefanie yes, I’m interested to see how I find the actual poem.

Don’t say that these good people have bothered you too? :p Honestly. I should be more sympathetic but I get impatient when it’s so obvious that none of these people contacting me have read my blog.

I’ve been meaning to pick up Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf. Do you have an opinion on that version?

Ditto to the rest!

Many years ago now a friend of mine did a retelling of Beowulf for children and asked me to try it out with my class of ten and eleven year olds before sending it to his publishers. They absolutely loved it and as a thank-you to him they set about creating a class illustrated version which a colleague then photographed and put on slides. Somewhere I still have the recording they made of the text and the slide show that accompanies it. I must look it out.

Beowulf is an intimidating tome! One I’ve always wanted to attempt. You’re so inspiring Imani!

Melanie this is my first time approaching Beowulf so I can’t comment on that translation. Michael Alexander, however, the translator of my copy, does mention Heaney’s translation in the introduction fairly often, and with implied regard. It’s probably a safe bet.

Ann Darton that’s so good that your students ended up enjoying it. Alexander had a thing or two to say about children re-tellings as well.

Heather T. oh, it’s not so bad😀 since the translation isn’t so abstruse as to be inhibitive. Also, a love for Tolkien (which I have) really comes in handy.

Those good people bother me all the time. I get several emails a week for books that I would have no interest in at all–new age, conserative politics, self-help romance. Oy.

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