The Books of My Numberless Dreams

Book chatter

Posted on: November 8, 2007

I was emotional at the end of Beowulf. I won’t deny that my eyes got a bit watery at his funeral, when his twelve men publicly verbalised their grief by his barrow at the cliff.When one woman sang a dirge, which included dour predictions of their ¹cynn’s future, with the gold-giver unable to offer any protection, it reminded me of a similar scene in The Two Towers extended film adaptation. Éowyn sings at Théodred’s funeral, King Théoden’s son; the women’s bitterness and pessimism in Beowulf shares a similarity with Éowyn’s grief. To her Rohan’s situation seemed as dire: the king was under Saruman’s evil thrall, his only heir dead, and her brother Éomer out-of-favour, reduced to small feints with orcs, and herself stuck at the hall with nothing to do but sit and wait for her people’s end. It’s not a scene from the books, so I wondered if the script writers might have have had Beowulf in mind when they wrote it.

I’m taken with Old English poetry now. I skipped the chapters in The Keys of Middle-earth that did not include a comparison of any of Tolkien’s fiction to Beowulf , but there was one entry that included it as well as “The Wanderer”, an Old English elegy. I read Lee’s and Solopova’s translation and was transfixed. The exiled speaker’s stark loneliness, his reminisces of days in the hall, his forced solitude on the waves and lack of success in finding another community was pointedly and beautifully expressed. The fact that cynn was everything to the Germanic people at the time (Angles, Saxons, Jutes), that without one you were as good as dead, underscored every line. But even without that knowledge given in the introduction, you would have gained a sense of that from the poem.

The speaker’s situation was bleak but he wasn’t whining: the true test of a man’s mettle is to be stalwart and keep striving for a glory and a brighter future no matter what transgressions. It is that every day he must meet again this new reality and with no one to share his feelings with, he must speak it. He does not keep the focus on himself throughout the poem either. It start out from a personal point-of-view, and then it switches to the third person, and he reflects on how a man only learns to be cautious and not take for granted the joys of living after experiencing significant loss. At first he has all that he could want but then harsh weather or war takes it from him, and only the birds and the wolves who feast on the remains are left to benefit, the homes and the possessions left (those that are not taken) to the elements. Lord of the Rings fans may recognise what I consider to be the climax of the poem.

Where has gone the horse? Where has gone the young man? Where
has gone the giver of treasure?
Where has gone the dwellings of the feasts? Where are the joys
of the hall?
Alas, the bright cup! Alas, the mailed warrior!
Alas, the glory of the prince! How the time went,
grew dark under night’s helm, as if it never were.

This is described as a “well-known fate”. He wonders how one can keep on living, knowing the transience of life. The poem opens and closes with the Christian sentiment that one can only take refuge in God’s mercy but I find the lines in-between the undermine that point. They take up very few lines and read a bit perfunctory.

Ha. I had no intention of writing all that when I first began this post. And I have to go soon. I’ll just add that I find that the the rhythm, the general beat of four stresses in each line, adds….I suppose a sense of nobility to the proceedings, when you read it out loud. It maintains a solemnity, and naturally demands your attention, as though it were ceremonial. As if you were being called to bear witness to something important. If that doesn’t seem too fanciful.

Anyway. Blog a Penguin Classic posted a recent review of The Earliest English poems, also translated by Michael Alexander, so I immediately borrowed it from the campus library, as well as Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics by Tolkien, edited by Michael D.C. Drout. I’m still rather torn at which other Beowulf translation to get. Turns out the local store has the Heaney and the Chickering Jr. I am also quite amused (in an affectionate way) at how nakedly enthused Old English scholars are about their scholarship, or at least the ones I’ve read. Michael Alexander’s intro to Earliest English Poemswas practically fiery. (He’s much more reserved and laa di daa in the one for Beowulfwhich he wrote decades later.) In the introduction to the Tolkien essay Drout was the same as was John D. Niles in his College English article. All nerdy delight.

¹In The Earliest English Poemsintroduction Alexander translated “cynn” as “community”.

5 Responses to "Book chatter"

There’s no delight like nerdy delight!

I discovered that I have Heaney’s translation in my Norton Anthology of Eng. Lit. I want to try Ruth Lehmann’s translation to get the original rhythm and alliteration.

A beautiful evocation of the poetry… thank you for posting your thoughts.

I’m with Sylvia on the nerdy delight. I will have to see if my library has the Earliest English Poems book. And I’ll have to dust off Beowulf and finally get around to reading it. I saw a preview for the movie the other day and it looked so bright and special effect-y that it worried me a bit.

Sylvia let me know if Heaney puts you to sleep or not. I took a look at the Lehmann’s which I liked, except that I wonder if the dedicate to replicating the alliteration works all the time. That “foamy fore-stem” flying like a bird made me chuckle, which probably wasn’t the intention.

Jacob you’re very welcome. I’m glad I managed to effectively convey my reaction.

Stefanie oh wee! And I’ll take your “worry” about the film adaptation and raise you to a “that-looks-god-awful”. Truth be told I’m not sure if Beowulf is at all suited to film. It’s not nearly as long or as elaborately developed as the Greek epics, and without the language it could very easily be reduced to another faux-Viking-monster flick.

It is probably too much to hope that the people directly involved are totally into Old English lit.:/

Oh, I love Beowulf. As you are reading all this great literature, you’re making me want to return to them, Beowulf, and also Paradise Lost.

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