Essay on Good vs Evil in Beowulf
1568 Words7 Pages
In Beowulf, the clash between good and evil is the poem's main and most significant focal point. Although the epic poem Beowulf utilizes many characteristics of Christian themes, the violence in the poem relates to paganism. By exploring the characteristics of “good vs. evil” such as Cain, Grendel and Beowulf, this paper will explore the elements of Beowulf in such a light.
The Anglo-Saxon poem, Beowulf, was originally told orally then later was written down anonymously in the Old English language. It is not known who or whom wrote this poem down. What we do know is that Beowulf is the oldest surviving epic poem of the English language; the original has suffered irreparable damage in a fire. “The poem dates back to 1000 AD”…show more content…
Beowulf represents all of those values. The story starts with King Hrothgar of the Danes celebrating his region by building a bar called Heorot. He holds a feast there; the loud music and laughter makes Grendel attack the hall at night. The bloodshed and loss of warriors lasts twelve years. Word spreads of Grendel’s attack to the Geats. Beowulf decides to help them. Beowulf and his men arrive to help the Danes. They wait for Grendel to attack Heorot, when he does, Beowulf tears Grendel’s arm from the socket. Grendel runs to his lair where he dies. Grendel’s arm is nailed to the wall in Heorot. Grendel’s mother comes to the hall for revenge of her son. Beowulf goes to defeat her at her lair at the bottom of the lake where Grendel’s mother is waiting to attack. They battle but Beowulf’s sword cannot hurt her; he finds another sword near by which slices her head off. He then goes to find the dead Grendel to cut off his head as a trophy. Everyone is waiting at the surface of the lake and because it is taking such a long time that they have gave up hope. Beowulf comes up victorious and with treasures; they all celebrate. Beowulf returns to his home, fifteen years later a fire-breathing dragon is terrorizing the Geats. Beowulf being the hero that he is goes to fight the dragon. The arm that he brings runs in fear except Wiglaf. They battle the dragon; the dragon was beheaded. During the battle, Beowulf had been bitten and later dies from the poisonous venom
ENG505 - Beowulf, Cultural Memory, and War
OUR BEOWULF BLOG*
(natterings, chatter, dialogue, and other bits and pieces of intellectual and lower forms of discourse flung across national and cultural borders between students at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville and Université Laval in Quebec City, Quebec)
Map of Edwardsville, Illinois/Map of Quebec City, Quebec
*All interested queries and submissions to weblog should be directed to Eileen Joy via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Figures 1 & 2. Replica of a helmet found at Sutton Hoo ship burial site & Russian soldiers returning from Chechnya
I N D E X O F P O S T I N G S
22 Jan. 2004: Simone Weil, "The Iliad, or The Poem of Force" (B. Rable)
3 Feb. 2004: Tolkien, "Beowulf: The Monster and the Critics" (J. Olson)
3 Feb. 2004: Response to Olson re: Tolkien Essay (E. Joy)
5 Feb. 2004: The Godfather films and Beowulf (E. Joy)
5 Feb. 2004: Beowulf & the "Dating Controversy" (B. Rable)
5 Feb. 2004: R.M. Liuzza, "On the Dating of Beowulf" (J. Olson)
5 Feb. 2004: Beowulf & the "Dating Controversy" (P. Heyen)
5 Feb. 2004: Beowulf and the "Dating Controversy" (S. Kollbaum)
5 Feb. 2004: R.M. Liuzza, "On the Dating of Beowulf" (J. Bosomworth)
5 Feb. 2004: The Electronic Beowulf (J. Moy)
7 Feb. 2004: Response re: Comments on the "Dating Controversy" (E. Joy)
9 Feb. 2004: The Narrator of Beowulf (B. Rable)
9 Feb. 2004: Response to Rable re: Beowulf Narrator (E. Joy)
12 Feb. 2004: Why Beowulf in Quebec City? (S. Bédard)
17 Feb. 2004: Response to Bedard re: Beowulf in Quebec (E. Joy)
17 Feb. 2004: Overing and Osborne, "Mapping Beowulf" (B. Rable)
17 Feb. 2004: Overing and Osborne, "Mapping Beowulf" (C. Liu)
17 Feb. 2004: Overing and Osborne, "Mapping Beowulf" (P. Heyen)
19 Feb. 2004: What do we mean by "basic human condition"? (E. Joy)
20 Feb. 2004: The "grassy knoll" and Kiernan's Beowulf (S. Barclay)
20 Feb. 2004: Sailing, Sutton Hoo, and Niles's "Appropriations" (S. Kollbaum)
20 Feb. 2004: Niles, "Appropriations: A Concept of Culture" (J. Olson)
20 Feb. 2004: "Anglo-Saxonism" and Social Identity (D. Krisinger)
20 Feb. 2004: Frantzen, "Origins, Orientalism, and Anglo-Saxonism" (J. Bosomworth)
20 Feb. 2004: Frantzen, "Origins, Orientalism, and Anglo-Saxonism" (C. Liu)
20 Feb. 2004: Niles, "Appropriations: A Concept of Culture" (J. Smith)
20 Feb. 2004: Niles, "Appropriations: A Concept of Culture" (P. Heyen)
20 Feb. 2004: Niles, "Appropriations: A Concept of Culture" (J. Moy)
20 Feb. 2004: Them's Fightin' Words, Frantzen! (E. Zelasko)
20 Feb. 2004: Niles, "Appropriations: A Concept of Culture" (C. Cooper)
20 Feb. 2004: Niles, "Appropriations: A Concept of Culture" (J. Turbe)
20 Feb. 2004: Niles, "Appropriations: A Concept of Culture" (B. Rable)
26 Feb. 2004: Is History Only in the Mind? (E. Joy)
26 Feb. 2004: Grendel as Minotaur? (M. Dulude)
27 Feb. 2004: The Things We Carry (E. Joy)
27 Feb. 2004: Howe, "Beowulf and the Ancestral Homeland (S. Drake)
27 Feb. 2004: Niles, "Locating Beowulf in Literary History" (B. Schrimpf)
27 Feb. 2004: Howe, "Beowulf and the Ancestral Homeland" (D.Krisinger)
27 Feb. 2004: Niles, "Locating Beowulf in Literary History" (B. Rable)
27 Feb. 2004: Niles, "Locating Beowulf in Literary History" (J. Bosomworth)
27 Feb. 2004: Howe, "Beowulf and the Ancestral Homeland" (S. Kollbaum)
27 Feb. 2004: Niles, "Locating Beowulf in Literary History" (J. Moy)
27 Feb. 2004: Howe, "Beowulf and the Ancestral Homeland" (C. Liu)
28 Feb. 2004: Howe, "Beowulf and the Ancestral Homeland" (P. Heyen)
28 Feb. 2004: Niles, "Locating Beowulf in Literary History" (J. Turbe)
28 Feb. 2004: Beowulf as a Migrating, Unifying Figure (E. Zelasko)
28 Feb. 2004: Beowulf and Geography (C. Cooper)
28 Feb. 2004: The Function of Criticism? (E. Joy)
2 Mar. 2004: Niles, "Locating Beowulf in Literary History (J. Smith)
2 Mar. 2004: Beowulf, Fightin' Jesus, and Severed Ears (J. Bosomworth)
2 Mar. 2004: Human Culture is a Complete Slave to History (B. Schrimpf)
2 Mar. 2004: Lamentably, She Answers Her Own Question (E. Joy)
3 Mar. 2004: A "Sense of History" was Rare in Medieval England? (D. Krisinger)
3 Mar. 2004: Response to D. Krisinger re: Medieval "Sense of History" (E. Joy)
8 Mar. 2004: A "Sense of History" & Cave Drawings in Siberia (J. Moy)
8 Mar. 2004: Earl, "Transformations of Chaos" (D. Krisinger)
8 Mar. 2004: History and the Geats--Some Questions (S. Kollbaum)
8 Mar. 2004: History's Dark Shadows (C. Liu)
8 Mar. 2004: Beowulf and the Past (C. Cooper)
8 Mar. 2004: Beowulf and Kin-Feuds (J. Olson)
8 Mar. 2004: Frank's "pastness of the past" (S. Drake)
8 Mar. 2004: Roberta Frank as the "hot topic" (J. Smith)
8 Mar. 2004: Should the title of Beowulf be . . . . Hrothgar? (E. Zelasko)
9 Mar. 2004: Beowulf, Pagan vs. Christian, Nazis, and Beer Maidens (B. Gilchrist)
10 Mar. 2004: Beowulf, Identity, and Quebec Independence (P. Dolbec)
10 Mar. 2004: The "Middle-ness" of Beowulf (E. Joy)
17 Mar. 2004: Junior Soprano's Ashes and Beowulf's Memorial Tomb (J. Smith)
17 Mar. 2004: The Female Mourner at Beowulf's Funeral (J. Bosomworth)
18 Mar. 2004: Death, Memory & Drowning Boys in Kosovo (E. Joy)
19 Mar. 2004: Feminist Criticism & the "Tower of Beowulf" (P. Heyen)
19 Mar. 2004: Overing, "Gender and Interpretation" (D. Krisinger)
19 Mar. 2004: On Being the Strong, Silent Type (B. Rable)
19 Mar. 2004: The "Others" of Beowulf: Women, Grendel & Beowulf (J. Moy)
19 Mar. 2004: The Female Mourner and Black Elk Speaks (S. Kollbaum)
19 Mar. 2004: Beowulf, Blanks, and Lacunae (E. Zelasko)
19 Mar. 2004: It's a Man's World, After All (B. Schrimpf)
19 Mar. 2004: Bennett, Lees, & Tolkien's Abstract Sadness (S. Drake)
19 Mar. 2004: Silent Mourners and Doomed Peace-Weavers (C. Cooper)
19 Mar. 2004: Some Questions re: Bennett, "The Female Mourner" (J. Smith)
19 Mar. 2004: The Female Mourner's Strength? (J. Olsen)
20 Mar. 2004: Monsters, Freaks, and X-Men (J. Bosomworth)
20 Mar. 2004: Beowulf as Monstrous "Other" (E. Joy)
23 Mar. 2004: Some Late Night Thoughts About Beowulf-as-Art (B. Gilchrist)
24 Mar. 2004: Earl, "Beowulf and the Men's Hall" & My Fair Lady (J. Bosomworth)
25 Mar. 2004: Earl, Monsters, Halls, & Death (J. Turbe)
25 Mar. 2004: Earl's Desire to Tame the Shrew (J. Moy)
25 Mar. 2004: Earl, Deformed Dolls, and "The Fall of the House of Usher" (P. Heyen)
25 Mar. 2004: Earl, "Beowulf and the Origins of Civilization" (C. Liu)
25 Mar. 2004: Beowulf in High School (S. Kollbaum)
25 Mar. 2004: The Heroic Life: No Girls Allowed (B. Rable)
25 Mar. 2004: Earl, Beowulf, and History (B. Schrimpf)
25 Mar. 2004: Earl, Beowulf, Hellboy, and Tall Buildings (S. Drake)
25 Mar. 2004: Earl, the Men's Hall, and Epic (E. Zelasko)
27 Mar. 2004: Earl, "Beowulf and the Men's Hall" (C. Cooper)
27 Mar. 2004: My Love Letter to James Earl (E. Joy)
29 Mar. 2004: Dancing with Beowulf (J. Beaulieu)
29 Mar. 2004: Emendation: Labelling for a Better Enslavement (P. Dolbec)
29 Mar. 2004: Grettir versus Beowulf (P. Dolbec)
30 Mar. 2004: Response to C. Liu: Earl, Hill, & the Narcissistic Wound (P. Dolbec)
31 Mar. 2004: Seth Lerer and the Body as a Foreign Country (M. Dulude)
31 Mar. 2004: Burial Rituals & Other Worlds (M. Dulude)
31 Mar. 2004: Earl, "Beowulf and the Men's Hall" (D. Krisinger)
5 Apr. 2004: What If Beowulf Were on Television? (S. Barclay)
5 Apr. 2004: Beowulf and Grettir's Saga (A. Kabbaj)
7 Apr. 2004: Marcello, Frederico, Beowulf, the Poet and 8-1/2 Pieces of a Doll (M. Dulude)
7 Apr. 2004: Cohen's Monster Theory and the Longue Durée (B. Schrimpf)
15 Apr. 2004: Pondering Pasternack (B. Rable)
15 Apr. 2004: Beowulf, Earl, and Nominalism (A. Beverley)
15 Apr. 2004: Beowulf--the Third Time, or: Liuzza vs. Heaney (A. Beverley)
15 Apr. 2004: Beowulf's Burial (A. Beverley)
26 Apr. 2004: Adieu, Beowulf Blog (E. Joy)
11 May 2004: Eleven Lessons from Reading Beowulf and All Those Monstrous Critics (B. Gilchrist)
22 Jan. 2004
B. Rable on Simone Weil's "The Iliad, or The Poem of Force":
Of the Achaean warriors, Simone Weil states, “At the outset, at the embarkation, their hearts are light [. . .] they go off as though to a game, as though on holiday from the confinement of daily life.” Weil’s image of the lightheartedness of warriors “with nothing but space to oppose” them is relevant to modern armies that believe themselves physically and morally superior to an untested enemy. Take for instance the following poem by Bob McDowell, a member of the Royal Irish Fusiliers, titled “The Hill Street Tommies,” which speaks of the men from the Lurgan linen mill, some of whom perhaps sought adventure if not flight from Ireland during World War I:
There’s big Bob Lunn and Donaldson,
Who could make boots with any other,
And the Blizzard Boy, his mother’s joy,
Who could never keep out of bother.
There’s Bobbie Gordon, solid man, old
Tom Black and Campbell.
When these lads brave cross o’er the waves
The Germans in their boots will tremble.
Further, there is evidence that at least some World War I English soldiers dealt with battle as a sort of game. For example, in The Great War and Modern Memory, Paul Fussell notes that on the German’s first use of chlorine gas, Sgt. Reginald Grant remarked, “It is a new device in warfare and thoroughly illustrative of the Prussian idea of playing the game.” Fussell also recounts instances in which “the sporting spirit was to kick a football toward the enemy lines while attacking.” Most notable was one Capt. Nevill, a company commander in the 8th East Surreys, who offered a prize to the platoon which, at the jump-off of the Somme attack, first kicked its football up to the German front line. Capt. Nevill, who kicked a ball apparently to signal the attack, was killed instantly. The following revealing poem resulted from this event:
On through the hail of slaughter,
Where gallant comrades fall,
Where blood is poured like water,
They drive the trickling ball.
The fear of death before them
Is but an empty name.
True to the land that bore them—
The SURREYS play the game.
One wonders how the bitter realities of trench warfare might have changed the author of this poem. One also wonders how the realities of modern warfare, in which the only thing between the combatants is space—for example, bombs dropped from 40,000 feet and missiles launched from hundreds of miles—have changed the rules of the “game” forever.
3 Feb. 2004
J. Olson on Tolkien's ideas re: myth and allegory:
I was reading over the Tolkien essay again, and found myself at the passage we discussed in class: "Folk-tales in being, as told—for the ‘typical folk-tale’ of course, is merely an abstract conception of research nowhere existing—. . ." From this quote in class, we ventured into the unexplainability of the origins of folk tales, in that if one traces its origins back, one always reaches a vanishing point. However true this maybe, I think Tolkien is talking about something different. He puts stress around the words “typical folk-tale” because, for him, a “typical” folk tale does not exist; folk tales, by their natures, cannot be typical. Each tale is rich in its independence from other such tales of other such people. The classification of folk tales, and thus the "typification," only arises within academia, only within "an abstract conception of research."
Just below this explanation of the impossibility of typical folk tales, he talks of the interconnectedness of myths and folk-tales and how both escape analytical reasoning. Then he writes, "Its [myth’s] defender is thus at a disadvantage: unless he is careful, and speaks in parables, he will kill what his studying by vivisection and he will be left with a formal or mechanical allegory." What strikes me about this passage is that Tolkien suggests that the critic, or the "defender" of myth, must talk in parable, which is an allegory with moral implications, if he is to keep the myth from turning into a poorly functioning allegory. Tolkien uses allegory in explanation/investigation of myth to avoid the myth from becoming an allegory.
Eileen Joy's response to J. Olson:
That "folk-tales," by their very nature, cannot be typical--I agree with you. I think, in fact, that you are right about what Tolkien meant there--it makes sense. It's still connected, too, to why, when you search for a folk-tale's supposed "origin," you always reach a vanishing point, because these stories are so rich in their multiplications and transformations (always evolving, etc., and changing, too, along different cultural lines). As regards his comments about how a critic should "speak in parables," or else he will kill what he is studying--myth--while also degrading it, I guess, into an allegory (and here we can see Tolkien puts "myth" above "allegory" as a genre of tale-telling)--what he's really doing, in a way, is defending the important cultural role of the creative artist, while also insisting that "criticism" itself be more artistic, or metaphoric (which is what he himself is doing in his essay). There's a danger in all this, I think (although I have to say I *love* Tolkien's essay for many different reasons), in believing that "myth" can never really be "explained" without simultaneously destroying it, because it means that, ultimately, for Tolkien, "myth" stands in a realm "above and beyond" criticism, which means it is also not subject to cultural critique or to political inquiry, and cannot be investigated via ethics, philosophy, etc. In that sense, Tolkien seems to be treating myth in a religious way, as a form of mysticism, almost. But I *do* think Tolkien is ultimately right to point to the fact that, in certain times and places, art (broadly speaking) has its own rules and effects (aesthetics), and has to be judged, at some level, "on its own terms."
One other comment about allegory (which means, in the Greek, "to speak otherwise"--Joanne e-mailed me this definition, and I also realized I have a new website link for allegory, which you can access here): it appears Tolkien, gives a higher status to myth over allegory, perhaps because, for Tolkien, myth possesses a certain power whereby it can never be reduced to just one pat meaning, whereas an allegory almost always refers to something specific outside of itself; in other words, an allegory, once "solved," is thereby also "reduced." Of course, I might argue that allegory can be far richer than that, and certainly, medieval writers and the early Church fathers (like Dante and Augustine) read and interpreted texts, like the Bible, allegorically in a way that was productive of richly diverse and multilayered meanings (mainly spiritual, of course). For an explanation of the allegorical method early Church authors used to interpret the Bible (called "patristic exegesis"), go here.
5 Feb. 2004
Random thoughts of Eileen Joy on a snow day:
Realizing that we would probably have a snow day today, and feeling a bit insomniac, I undertook an experiment last night and watched the entire Godfather trilogy on DVD . . . backwards. So, I watched The Godafther--Part III first, then The Godafther-Part II, then the first film. [Never mind that The Godfather-Part III is awful--it's practically camp, especially the parts where an older and ill "godfather," Michael Corleone (Al Pacino, with a bad buzz haircut) is hatching nefarious deals with Catholic bishops at the Vatican--but the first two films are American classics.] Watching these films backwards is really kind of extraordinary because you're looking at a kind of "family history"/American mafia history "in reverse," with sometimes illuminating results. When you consider that the second film incorporates flashbacks related to the past of the "godfather" from the first film--Don Corleone, Michael's father (played by Marlon Brando in first film and by Robert DeNiro in second film)--then, in a way, watching the films backwards is really watching them "forward," too. But the reason I bring this up at all, is that I was struck, watching these films, how much the American mafia culture of the 1940s through 1960s was really very much like the tribal culture of Beowulf--"cosa nostra," they called it, or "our thing." In this world, even though "family" (as in blood relationships) obviously matters, what matters even more are the relationships formed between the strongest and most powerful members (always men) of the different crime families, who then also become "like blood." In the famous ending of the second film, Michael authorizes the murder of his own brother, and in the first film authorizes the murder of his sister's husband, because "business"--which is itself a "family" operation--always comes before "kin." A lot of the aspects of a kind of "machismo" Sicilian culture that are portrayed in the films (and also in the HBO series, The Sopranos), where the relationships between the men are always more important than the relationships with the women, and where all business activities exist in a realm somewhere "outside the law" but also always within a kind of family/tribal "code of honor," also resonates, I think, with the world portrayed in Beowulf. Just some thoughts.
B. Rable on Beowulf and the "Dating Controversy":
From Prescott, Kiernan, and Bjork and Obermeier, we deduce that scholars cannot agree as to when Beowulf was written, where it was written, by whom it was written, and why it was written. We also construe from Liuzza that in all probability none of these questions will ever be answered—Alain Renoir is quoted as saying, “I readily confess that I should be at a loss to tell when, where, by whom, and under what circumstances, this greatest of all early-Germanic epics was composed.” Following further discussion of the importance of answering the when, where, who, and why [4 W’s] of the poem—and the frustration of not being able to do so—Liuzza concludes, “When we talk about the dating of Beowulf we are talking about nothing less than the philosophical foundations of our discipline.”
Why is it so important to determine the origins of Beowulf? If there is little chance that the 4 W’s will ever be answered to everyone’s satisfaction, why do so many continue to invest so much in the problem? Indeed, it can be argued that even lacking the context of the 4 W’s, Beowulf treats many enduring aspects of the basic human condition, such as the concepts of honor, courage, loyalty, and immortality, not to mention the constant struggle of good versus evil.
I believe that the primary reason for the unrelenting quest for the origins of Beowulf (by scholars and readers alike) lies in the fact that the poem speaks to Everyman, and in doing so, it appeals to Everyman’s issues of authenticity and authority. I believe that further complicating the matter is yet a fifth question: is the text being studied either the original or at least an accurate copy? While common sense might suggest that such truths, regardless of their context, are immutable, and therefore, worth studying for themselves, the quest for answers may be the function of the modern reader’s need to ensure the legitimacy of the message.
Walter Benjamin, in The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, says, “Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be. [. . .] The presence of the original is the prerequisite of the concept of authenticity. [. . .] The authenticity of a thing is the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning, ranging from its substantive duration to its testimony to the history which it has experienced. Since the historical testimony rests on the authenticity, the former, too, is jeopardized by reproduction when substantive duration ceases to matter. And what is really jeopardized when the historical testimony is affected is the authority of the object.”
Consequently, the modern reader wants assurance that the noble ideals that he or she is preparing to embrace from reading Beowulf spring from a truthful author, from a text written under honorable circumstances, and from a text that remains unaltered (for personal or political gain) over time. As the modern reader learns to sort fact from fiction in the glut of information he or she receives and ultimately accepts or rejects, his or her demand for assurances of authenticity and subsequent authority of the text will only increase. Beowulf will always be questioned; the stakes are too high for the modern reader who too often has been duped into accepting lies packaged as noble truths.
The issues of authenticity raises another interesting question: what if somehow it was determined that Beowulf was written to honor individuals who had actually committed gross atrocities, or that the poem had been altered to serve some sort of political or religious purpose that was considered totally dishonorable? These are judgments made routinely in an increasingly pluralistic world. Would the poem be banished from the Western canon to the first ring of the inferno? Or, would it receive a qualifying asterisk and continue to be studied? My question then is can a work, particularly its origins, be studied too much?
J. Olson on R.M. Liuzza, "On the Dating of Beowulf":
Liuzza ends his article, “On the Dating of Beowulf,” with the claim that the dating of Beowulf reflects the “philosophical foundations of our discipline” (Liuzza 295). Now if the discipline is literature, I am not exactly sure how the date of Beowulf could be consider essential to its philosophical foundations. When Liuzza says at the beginning of the article, “Few would nowadays consider the branch of Beowulf studies concerned with dating to be ‘most clearly serviceable to criticism’” (Liuzza 281), I believe this to be the end of the matter of the dating of Beowulf. But, he continues to reflect upon the dating methods and the inability to date the text, and then proclaims its necessity. He writes, “Without a doubt, the date of Beowulf matters; imagine the confusion that would result if some critic placed Paradise Lost in the late seventeenth century, others in the early sixteenth, still others in the middle of the nineteenth” (Liuzza 283). This specific example is tainted with understanding and knowledge. He is right to point out the misunderstandings that may arise out of the incorrect dating of Paradise Lost, but let me stress, Paradise Lost is not Beowulf. The scholars of today have an enormous amount of information about Paradise Lost, the time it was written and the social context into which it fits. We also know much about the surrounding centuries of its completion. This amount of knowledge is lacking in relation to Beowulf. Thus, the fact that the date of Beowulf is unfixed, varying within three centuries, has very different implications than if Paradise Lost was wrongly dated. If we had a complete picture of 8th to 10th century England, the dating of Beowulf would also be as important as that of Paradise Lost; but the simple matter of fact is that we do not.
Another issue that makes the dating of Beowulf secondary is the problem of measurement. Neither Liuzza nor Bjork attempt to talk about the philosophical nature of this problem. For any measurement to occur, (the dating of a text is a type of measurement) one must be able to fix one element upon which to measure the other. The problem is apparent in Quantum Mechanics. One cannot know the position while fully knowing the momentum of a quantum particle. If one does not know the momentum or the position, one cannot know the where the particle is, and thus cannot measure it. Measurement requires an “artificial” fixing of one element, on which to judge the other. In relation to the issue at hand, dating, time must be fixed. Usually, this fixing is not a problem because knowledge of chronological events makes it easy for one to do. But in relation to Beowulf, the knowledge is missing, thus the chronology is shady. Liuzza, in his analysis of the methods of dating and their drawbacks, always comes to this problem, but instead he does not attempt to think about it an abstract manner; he does not extract the philosophical problems, but instead names the concrete phenomena that occur. For example, he talks about the metrical analysis of the dating of Beowulf, and concludes that editorial acts of Anglo-Saxon scribes destroy the ability to date the text via metrical analysis.
The most problematic method of dating which Liuzza brings up is the “external evidence of historical context both in explicit references to historical events and implicit attitudes towards man and society” (284). Within historical methods of dating, the problem of measurement is most apparent. One who uses historical methods of dating engages in a circular reasoning. One of the main reasons to fix the date of Beowulf is to be able to extract an understanding of the historical and social context which the poem was written in and responding to. But if one uses outside knowledge of the historical happenings of 8th -10th century Anglo-Saxon England to date the poem, one is also prescribing the historical implications which will be drawn from the text. In other words, one wants to establish a fixed date to understand the content and implications of a text, but uses historical context as a method to attempt to date it. The activity invalidates itself. Liuzza mentions this, “Literary and cultural historians in increasing numbers have come to realize that there is often, sometimes inevitably, a circularity in historical argument when it comes to literary subjects” (285).
The solution to this problem, as it appears to me, is to look at Beowulf’s date in a general way. Why isn’t the current state of uncertainty satisfactory? Are we not drawing many interesting conclusions and doing much scholarly work within the limits of uncertainty? Does not uncertainty give Beowulf dominance as a piece of scholarly literature? Knowing the general date of Beowulf gives much room for interpretation and exploration—that is, it gives it scholarly motivation and perpetuation. And, what will we finally learn from fixing the date that we have not already hypothesized and obliquely considered?
P. Heyen on Beowulf and the "Dating Controversy":
When I read Tolkien’s “Beowulf: The Monsters and The Critics” last week, I was at once impressed by what seemed to me the particularly well-placed position of this article in the reading syllabus, and at the same time, gratified that someone was actually putting into words the feeling I had had since first beginning study of Beowulf. While the various articles were interesting of themselves, the entire time I perused them I wondered why everyone wanted to discuss the poem as history rather than poetry and consequently, felt an immediate affinity with Tolkien. While I understand the historical significance of a rare medieval document to historians, the questions always in my mind are why literary scholars would place so much emphasis on the dating, the author, and the provenance of this work of literature and how any of these can be definitively decided in the absence of all.
The more I read about the research that has been done to determine date, author, and provenance, the more I believe that the task is impossible. After reading Prescott’s and Kiernan’s descriptions of the digital processes involved in creating the The Electronic Beowulf, I recognize the significance of the project in preserving the document and helping to improve its legibility. (Although I have to confess that the project seems an exorbitant expenditure of time and money for an infinitesimal gain in knowledge. After all, the enhanced images are still indefinite and open to interpretation.) Liuzza makes some excellent points as to the relevance in having a historical background from which to analyze the poem and in knowing the various methods by which scholars have attempted to provide a date for Beowulf. (I use the term loosely in respect for Liuzza’s argument as to the ambiguity concerning “what we mean when we speak of Beowulf.”) His discussion of the problems with the methods and the ambiguity of the results e.g. analysis drawn from shaky information such as reconstructed language rules and metrical measures that may indicate a specific time period or simply a poet’s use of creative license suggest that the effort is moot. Likewise, the contradictory theories explained by Bjork & Obermeier and the seemingly weak foundations on which some of them are based, such as Walter Goffart’s assessment of a late date for the poem based on the appearance of two words (Hetware and Hugas) in the text, increase my sense of the futility of a historical pursuit of the poem’s origins. If few written works exist from this period, is it possible to make the assured determination that these terms were not used prior to a certain date? That these issues have been studied and debated for almost two hundred years with relatively no conclusive results makes me think that establishing a specific time and place for Beowulf is a dragon against whom, like Beowulf, the persistent scholar will meet “his inevitable overthrow in Time” (Tolkien 67). I just wonder if it would be more productive to ask questions such as, What can Beowulf teach us about the human condition at any time rather than, What can Beowulf teach us about the human condition at such and such a time? I also wonder if this opinion makes me a poor student of Beowulf?
S. Kollbaum on Beowulf and the "Dating Controversy":
I am absolutely sure I am not alone in my reaction of “wow” when reading all the different theories that exist for the date, provenance, author, and audience of Beowulf that Bjork and Obermeier provide so amply in Chapter 2 of The Beowulf Handbook. I do not doubt the impossibility of the task of correctly identifying these elements; I understand very clearly why scholars arrive “at a cautious and necessary incertitude,” and yet I am still in awe of the number of theories present (33). While intrigued by so many of the theories that Bjork and Obermeier share, I find myself captivated the most by the question of audience for two reasons.
First, I too question Baum’s two audience prerequisites of having “an interest in the ‘exploits of a heathen hero’ and in Germanic history and lore and must be attentive enough to comprehend and enjoy a difficult and often cryptic narrative” that disqualify a lay audience (31). Like Mitchell, I wonder why an audience would need “specialized knowledge” to recognize heroics. Perhaps an audience would need background to recognize historical references but not necessarily all historical references depending on who the audience in fact was. It seems that a lay audience would have more stake in the meaning of the Beowulf story than a monastic audience because of the ideas of honor, loyalty, and courage that the story fosters. The second reason for my interest in the audience questions stems from Bjork and Obermeier’s concluding statement concerning audience: “The question of audience, even in the presence of a firm grasp of who wrote the poem and when, is in the end exceedingly slippery, the most difficult of all such questions to answer” (33). Obviously, as they have related earlier the authorship and dating are impossible tasks facing Beowulf scholars, but I am confused as to why audience would be the “most difficult” question facing scholars. Would not the firm grasp of the author and the date aid the scholars in determining the existing audience then as the scholars would understand the world in which Beowulf was written? I am just wondering if I am missing something there.
J. Bosomworth on R.M. Liuzza, "On the Dating of Beowulf":
The first thing I found interesting about this work was the author's way of pointing out that Beowulf's considered composition date of some time from the 8th to the 11th century is ironic in that "the most historically-minded branch of English literary studies cannot place its most important poetic text more securely than in a range of three centuries" (283). This problem of finding an accepted date and the flaws in the main types of dating methods are the subject of this work.
According to Liuzza, there are problems raised even by trying to date the poem. What, for example, do we mean when we speak of Beowulf? Who was it written for? What, specifically, was the writer's main purpose for writing the poem down? For me, I think this is a key point. As was mentioned in class, it's not a standard epic as it doesn't really describe the foundation of anything. Indeed, it is arguably more similar to an elegy or tragedy, as it describes the eventual downfall of a noble man and race. If it was written as history, should it be critiqued along with literature? Does it even matter if it includes historical facts? Is it a classic because it defies classification, enabling endless discussion of its merits/faults due to these questions?
Liuzza writes that there are two main methods used to date the poem: "beauty of inflections," which focuses on internal evidence of meter and language, and "beauty of innuendoes," which focuses on external evidence in historical context using references in the poem to historical events and social attitudes. He refutes the argument by Ritchie Garvin that as Beowulf is an English work, there must be something in it that will give away its origin date, arguing that this would be accurate only if it was a typical poem, not one that is considered to have been written by a more worldly, educated person. He also points out that dating it from historical context clues is faulty, especially for those who date it prior to the Viking raids due to its praise of the Danes. This, he describes, is as much prejudice as fact, and says that there is no reason to believe that a person who lived through Viking raids, especially an educated person, would be unable to think of them reverently. Liuzza mentions that there were still Englishmen who accepted the talents of Beethoven and Goethe even during WWII. In the United States, this example could be expanded to say that in the distant future, a book such as Gone With the Wind could logically be thought of as 19th century literature, just because it speaks glowingly of southern culture in a specific, cultural era (not something I think most of us would find acceptable).
Liuzza also describes the problems inherent in linguistic methods used in trying to date Beowulf by word usage and metrical evidence. He describes the problems as stemming from the debate on when certain patterns first appeared, then to questions regarding rules of Old English meter and the chronology of Old English sound changes. Unfortunately, he points out, unlike other peoples, the "Anglo-Saxons left no text . . . to help us understand their poetry" (286). Even if they had, the propensity of writers to not always follow strict guidelines would make it problematic. What if it was a writer who was ahead of his time, or one who was intentionally trying to write in an antiquarian style? Another problem develops when a critic considers that the poem was originally performed orally, then was eventually written down, passed along, and rewritten. As described here, it is logical to assume that stuctural (metrical, etc.) and content changes were made as it went from an oral to a written work. Still more changes would have been made as it was recopied (he mentions a number of known mass-copied works which have variations ranging from minor to fairly major) and are being made today as it is interpreted by translators. Because of all of this corruption to the text, as well as questions regarding who its main audience was it what its main point likely was, it is unlikely that the debate over the date Beowulf was written in will end soon.
J. Moy on The Electronic Beowulf:
I found the article by Andrew Prescott, “The Electronic Beowulf and Digital Restoration,” as well as the article by Kevin Kiernan, “Digital Image Processing and the Beowulf Manuscript” to be both interesting and thought provoking in their assessment of the impact that digital image processing has had and will continue to have on the legibility and long term preservation of the Beowulf manuscript. In particular, Andrew Prescott’s article lays out both a brief historical overview of the Beowulf manuscript as well as the different attempts made over the years to decipher and restore the aging work. The focus of the article is the process of digital imaging as done by Kevin Kiernan beginning in 1993. Most interesting about Kiernan’s work was his use of the digital camera to identify images “in areas of damaged and obscure text.” His original intent in this process was to hopefully clarify mistaken letters, identify lost faded lettering, and minutely scrutinize severely damaged areas with this special imaging technique in hopes of finding traces of text or font. Kiernan was able to fulfill some of these tasks, but unfortunately his primary hope of being able to “establish [an exact] text of Beowulf” had to be discarded. Nonetheless, the advantages to this system are numerous and as Kiernan notes: “the possibilities of digital restoration may yet bear larger […] fruit than […] hitherto […] imagined.”
I was impressed by Kiernan’s concept, his dream of any person being able to take the text of Beowulf and view it alongside the “later transcript by Thorkelin, as well as the collations by Conybeare and Madden.” Not only does this make perfect sense for anyone wishing to analyze the Beowulf text historically or linguistically, but in addition it is also a wonderful way of conserving all of these related text in one location. Perusing the detail that Kiernan uses to describe the painstaking process required to photograph just one frame, it is astounding that he has achieved such a phenomenal task. The importance of this work will only become more magnified over time as the Beowulf manuscript itself continues to disintegrate.
Remarkably, even as early as the 1880’s the idea of photographing the Beowulf transcript as a means of identifying obscured parts of the text had already been established. Over the years the technological advances in both lighting techniques and photography equipment has aided tremendously in the greater exploration of Beowulf. As a supporter of the view that the Beowulf manuscript is, in fact, the original text, both written and composed by the same person as opposed to an older piece that had experienced numerous additions and changes, Kiernan has found some satisfaction in noting that certain areas, once thought to be water damaged, under the high-resolution lens of the digital camera appear now to be multiple erasures, and in some instances overwritten text of the same hand. And now the principal question that obviously comes to mind is: if this newly discovered evidence lends support to Kiernan’s theory that indeed the Beowulf manuscript was written by one man without numerous additions and changes, then does this necessarily change the dating of Beowulf to a later time period, making it a more contemporary piece than previously imagined? I believe only with improved technology and intense research, will an answer to this question possibly surface. It does now appear to Kiernan that even with technological advances, the hopes of ever fully recovering the whole and unchanged text of Beowulf are lost along with the fringed edges of the manuscript that turned to dust on the floor of the British Museum. Nevertheless, we can still hope that with further technological advances researchers will continue in their search for a more historically correct Beowulf translation and bring us toward a more nuanced understanding of the text.
E. Joy's thoughts re: students' comments on "Dating Controversy":
Bill raises an interesting point viz. the quotation from Walter Benjamin's "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction"--that many scholars (and perhaps readers like us, too) are very interested in getting at what might be called the "authenticity" of Beowulf as an "original" work of art: we want to believe that there is such a thing as "the ORIGINAL, unaltered Beowulf," because such an "animal" would give us a kind of window into, or mirror of, some kind of unadulterated culture, or *mind*, that might have produced a work such as Beowulf. It's a little bit like discovering a "dead sea scroll" that begins, "I, Jesus, here commit my teachings to writing," as opposed to having a gospel written by someone *purporting* to have walked around with Jesus and later written down, from memory, what Jesus purportedly said and taught. [And obviously, for scholars of Christianity, the quest has always been to "discover or "deduce" what Jesus *really* said from the mass of written documents that exist, many of which are copies of copies of copies, and even the earliest Gospels were written a certain number of years after Jesus's death.] There is a kind of mysticism, then, that attaches to the idea that we could have in front of us an "original" manuscript, untouched by the ravages of time or the inkwells of monk-copyists and editors. If only we had this "original" with us today (an oral song, perhaps, or the "first first first first" version of the written poem), then we could better understand what the text was intended to "say" to us, before history got a hold of it and took words away here and there (fire, water damage, crumbling edges of manuscript before it was re-bound in 19th century), and added other words (the emendations--suggested text--of textual scholars and editors, and maybe even the added language of monk-copyists).
I should note here that, increasingly, contemporary literary studies have been putting a heavy emphasis on the "historicism" of literary texts as a mechanism for interpreting those texts' possible meanings (this is sometimes called "new historicism," a sub-field of literary theory whose most visible proponent is the Renaissance literature and Shakespeare scholar, Stephen Greenblatt; see his book Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From Shakespeare to More, and go here, also, for a general explanation of the basic tenets of "new historicism"). Basically, "new historicism" (which shares some precepts with the kind of "historicism" practiced by early Beowulf scholars that Tolkien derides and criticizes in his essay), believes that the "expressive content" of a work of art cannot be separated from the "material history/culture" in which it is originally "embedded." Basically, you cannot really understand a work of art, this theory dictates, unless you understand how it functioned/"performed" within a specific historical context. Further, there is no such thing as a work of art that could possibly express "unchanging truths" or certain ideas about a transcendental "human nature"--in other words, works of art do NOT possess "universal meanings." They can really only express (or, reveal) the social, cultural, and political dynamics ("networks of power," so to speak) of the time periods in which they were originally produced and re-produced. One example of how this might work in Renaissance literary studies would be to look at how a particular performance of Shakespeare's Richard II played a part in the Earl of Essex's rebellion against Queen Elizabeth in 1601, and then to extrapolate the play's possible meanings within this specific historical context (since today, Feb. 7th, is the anniversary of the rebellion, the example is somehow apropos; go here for Salon.com's description of the event in their "Literary Daybook"). This kind of scholarship owes an obvious debt to the French philosopher Michel Foucault (go here for a really cool site on Foucault that will also introduce you to his ideas in a way that you can glean a "basic" understanding).
But wait a minute--am I saying you *have* to adopt this viewpoint when thinking about Beowulf's possible meanings and/or value for us today? Absolutely not (although we *will* read examples of this type of criticism when we get to Frantzen, Howes, and Niles). Several of you raised concern about what you see as the "reductivism" inherent in what might be called the scholarly obsession in determining Beowulf's supposedly "original" provenance, date, audience, etc. As Jim points out, perhaps Beowulf endures somehow, as a "classic," precisely because it defies generic categorization and precise historical dating. Therefore, its very historical elusiveness helps it to escape the possible "trap" of historicizing that would reduce the poem to nothing more than the "emblem" of an age (and I loved Jim's example of how Gone With the Wind might be viewed, later on, when we're all long gone, in this scenario). Sara K. points out that almost *any* audience can recognize the "heroic" story in Beowulf (although this does beg the question of whether or not what is "heroic" is defined radically differently in different times and places--for the characters in the poem itself, Grendel is not "heroic" even though he is basically Beowulf's only true "match" as a fighter, and when his mother kills thanes, she does so out of a need to revenge her child's death, but still, she is not a "hero," but Beowulf, in seeking her out in her own territory/home and killing her, *is* a hero; further; who is a "hero" today: is a Chechen suicide bomber a hero? an American soldier in Iraq? an Iraqi Republican Guard insurgent who lobs a grenade at American soldiers? the firemen who rushed, heedlessly, into the Twin Towers on Sep. 11th and didn't come back out? the workers sitting at their desks in the Twin Towers that day? the German men, women, and children killed in the fire-bombing of Dresden during World War II? the Allied Forces pilots who dropped the bombs on Dresden? etc. etc.). Patti writes (rather beautifully and lucidly, I think), "That these issues have been studied and debated for almost two hundred years with relatively no conclusive results makes me think that establishing a specific time and place for Beowulf is a dragon against whom, like Beowulf, the persistent scholar will meet 'his inevitable overthrow in Time' (Tolkien 67). I just wonder if it would be more productive to ask questions such as, What can Beowulf teach us about the human condition at any time rather than, What can Beowulf teach us about the human condition at such and such a time?" What an excellent question. Joanne also raises the point that the very "uncertainty" surrounding Beowulf's date of composition has given rise to much rich scholarship that ponders all the different possibilities for different meanings. How true, I think. I also want all of you to know that you stand in very good company, as "New Historicism" has not been without its critics, who have raised these, among other, critical points:
- That it tends to reduce literature to a footnote of history, and neglects the uniquely literary qualities of the work in question.
- Frederick Jameson argues that much New Historicist criticism lacks a theory of history. That history, to paraphrase the bumper sticker, "just happens," without explaining why it happens in the way that it does and who is affected.
- At its worst, New Historicism's emphasis on connecting literature to politics can resemble what Eve Sedgwick calls "good dog/ bad dog" criticism, where critics praise artists for their progressive views and chastise them for reactionary ones, instead of accepting that cultures have problems, those problems are complicated, and we can learn from how artists tried to grapple with those problems without giving them a grade card.
9 Feb. 2004
B. Rable on the narrator of Beowulf:
Why does the poet refer to himself/herself at all? It seems unnecessary, for example, "I never heard ...", "I have heard"? What does saying this add to the poem?
Eileen Joy's response to B. Rable:
Bill raises an interesting question regarding what the purposes might be behind the narrator of Beowulf occasionally using the first-person perspective ("I have heard," etc.), a question to which I cannot give a pat answer, because it raises complex questions, like: what might an 8th, 9th, or 10th-century author have seen in the 4th to 6th-century past that he thought was somehow relevant to his times? What is the attitude of this author to the characters in the poem? Does he admire them, feel they are justly damned, regret their damnation, etc.? By inserting the "I" of himself into the poem, we have a "narrator"/"author" who adds extra layers of socio-cultural/psychological/historical perspective to the narrative, and makes the poem that much more interesting. Which also raises the question: are the author and narrator to be automatically assumed as being one and the same person? Is there an author, say, in a 10th-century monastery somewhere inventing a narrative persona (i.e. a "mask") for himself as, say, "one of the gang" of the world of the poem (after all, the poem begins, "Listen! We have heard . . .", etc.)? Or perhaps, his persona is that of one of the supposed descendants of the "gang" of the world of the poem. Or, perhaps that "we" he invokes includes everyone in his present, contemporary culture as those who have "inherited" and already "know" (or should know) this story--therefore, his narrative persona is saying, "listen everyone, we've heard about these people before, but let me tell you, again, why it's important to remember this story." Where do we, in the "present present" stand in relation to this "we" the narrator invokes (?)--this, too, is an interesting question: is its message still relevant to us, and do you think the author was looking to the future at all? Further, what if the person who either "wrote" or merely "copied" (or maybe "wrote/added" while "copying") this poem believed that he was mainly preserving an earlier narrator's "voice"/"persona," and how does that complicate out understanding of the author's relationship, as it were, to the subject matter of the poem (when we understand the "author" to be separate from the "narrator")? In other words, imagine a 10th-century writer imagining an earlier oral poet "speaking/singing" the poem, and in his writing/copying, he is trying to preserve this earlier, oral culture that he believes is embedded, somehow, in the writing (the author, therefore, might have believed he was invoking what this poem would have sounded like when it was being "sung" in the beer halls of the heroic past, and he mainly thinks of himself, therefore, not so much as an author as a preservationist-curator). The poem itself, is filled with singers ("scops") who also say to characters within the poem, "Listen! We have heard . . .," etc. Ultimately, the poem contains multiple layers of "narration" and "voice" that complicate our understanding of what we probably would like to believe is the main perspective, or point of view. For an interesting reading related to all this, go here for a summary of Michel Foucault's famous essay, "What is An Author?"
S. Bédard on Beowulf in Quebec City:
So your students wonder why francophone students in Laval would want to study Beowulf? I never felt like being a French Canadian would prevent me from learning about any other language or culture. My origins are so diverse, there’s no reason to favour one over the others (I’m part French, Irish, Scot, and Native). English literature is not all that interests me; I admit I am fond of Japanese literature also. Some would say that’s distinctly Canadian, all this mix of cultures and having no culture maybe to call your own except for that very excellent confusion. Although at this point you can think there’s no sense in trying to understand any of that, I still found some sensible reasons to explain why I’m interested in Beowulf.
Every student of English literature knows what a haiku is, even if only vaguely. Chaucer was familiar with works from Dante or Jean de Meun and they were Italian and French. Learning about the literature of another culture or of a different time helps to get a fuller picture of what can be literature. Many are probably familiar with Latin or Greek authors already and do not find that unusual. It should not be any more unusual that people would study ancient texts in Chinese, Japanese, Anglo-Saxon, Sanskrit, or the like. It is not because some people consider a few works “classics,” and seem to extend this quality to languages or cultures; that this should become a bias and prevent others from reading works from other cultures. You say Beowulf is culture; isn’t it rather a blend of cultures? As for culture and origins, if some people think Beowulf is part of their origins, I think it is a question of just how far people want to look back in time; the English, the French and the Sanskrit language share a common past after all.
For my part, I have found a new reason to study Beowulf since classes started. Because French is my mother tongue, I have one more reason to study it. I know people who can not read books in English, people who can only read English literature in French, even if what they know of English literature is Lord of the Rings. I realised this because of my father who shows a surprising interest in Beowulf and tries to relate it to other works that he knows. Once I told him perhaps I should not tell him too much, in case he would like to read it, and he had to remind me he would never be able to read it. Language should not hinder learning and inquiry; Beowulf not only deserves a good, readable and enjoyable translation in Modern English, it deserves one in many modern languages. And studying Beowulf is the first step to making a good translation.
Here I guess you can add many of the reasons you have for studying it too. I noticed the words “culture and war” in your course title, also that you question the heroism of Beowulf with respect to terrorism and that you try to relate Beowulf to our time, “our” culture, to provoke a debate that can have more meaning for people now? Isn’t this a way to find more reasons to study Beowulf yourselves?
Best regards from Quebec, Sonia Bédard
Eileen Joy's response to S. Bédard:
Sonia raises a very interesting point, I think, when she writes, "As for culture and origins, if some people think Beowulf is part of their origins, I think it is a question of just how far people want to look back in time; the English, the French and the Sanskrit language share a common past after all." Sonia emphasizes, a little earlier, that she is interested in all types of literature, not just those literatures that come from traditions closest to what might be called her "ethnic" background (which she describes as "French, Irish, Scot, and Native"), and therefore she is naturally interested in Beowulf, just as she might also be naturally interested in Chinese poetry or The Song of Roland (a medieval French epic). This is true, I think, for SIU-Edwardsville students as well, although we would have to be honest and also admit that ours is a department of "English Language & Literature," and for us, that usually means we mainly study the "canonical" texts of American and British literature, beginning with the medieval period and extending to the contemporary period (and if we go back further, it is usually to read "classic" Western texts, such as the Bible or the plays of Sophocles, which we believe important English texts "speak to" or "draw upon"--i.e. Milton's Paradise Lost, by employing classical epic forms, refers itself, rather purposefully and explicitly, to Vergil's Aeneid and Homer's Iliad, and it also draws, obviously, upon the Bible as an "authoritative" foundational text), and therefore, we are really reading and studying, as it were, within what I would call a "closed cultural system"--a system, moreover, that assumes there is important value in a "shared heritage," as that "shared heritage" is expressed in art and literature. Keep in mind, too, that this "shared heritage" can often be contested, such that, at various times in its history, the text of Beowulf has been claimed as an "authentic" cultural document by the Germans, the Dutch, and the British.
Which brings me to Sonia's important point, I think--aren't our ideas about what constitutes, say, an "authentic," "original," "English" culture somewhat tied to "how far back" (as Sonia puts it) we are willing to look? And I would add to this that the very notion of how we LOOK at things, period, shapes what we see. Therefore, a Danish scholar sees only what is "Danish" in Beowulf (its Northern geography, for example, and its Nordic spiritual allusions to Wyrd/Fate and to heathen idols) and a British scholar sees only what is "English" (the language in which the poem is written, for example, and the inescapable fact that the text was found in an English library and was likely written in an English monastery). Ultimately, for me, the really intriguing question is why determining cultural origins is so important to so many people, and why it is that whole programs of study at colleges and universities are often pre-determined by national culture--therefore, at most American universities and colleges, you will find countless departments of "English," but you won't find many departments of "Literature" (and when you do, "Literature" often denotes Western literature only). Programs devoted to "comparative literature" are far and few between. Why do we value what is "native" over what is "non-native"? Why do we value the teaching of a "shared literary heritage" as an integral component in a liberal arts curriculum over the teaching of "different" and "foreign" literary heritages? What do we mean, really, when we use the word "foreign"? Isn't "foreign" a word whose meaning derives, partly, as Sonia points out, from how we "look" at the past, and where we think we come from in that past? How do we ultimately determine our "borders"--linguistic, cultural, historical, as well as those lines we draw on maps? Think of what is happening right now in Iraq where the U.S. government has put together a council to decide Iraq's future as a country (a country, moreover, whose present borders were demarcated by European countries in the 1950s), and how different ethnic groups within Iraq are jockeying for a voice in this process, and are also highly suspicious of one another. How one defines what it means to live in an "authentic Iraq" will have a lot to do with where one is standing when "looking" at this question: am I Shi'ite, Sunni, or Kurdish, and how does that affect my answer? How will American understanding (or lack of understanding) of these cultural issues affect the outcome of this debate, and even, the future of a country (which is also the future of the different "cultures" that make up that supposedly "one country")? If recent work in anthropology is to be trusted, we all have one common ancestor, her nickname is "Eve," and the remains of her "collective corpse" have been dug up in Africa. [If you are interested in this subject, see the recent article in American Scientist, "We Are All Africans."]
I am not going to answer any of the questions I am raising here (that wouldn't be any fun), but what I am going to do is leave you with some words from the eminent professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago, Martha C. Nussbaum, from her recent (and I think, important) book, Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education (Harvard University Press, 1997):
"In ethics, in historical knowledge, in knowledge of politics, in literary, artistic, and musical learning, we are inclined to be parochial, taking our own habits for that which defines humanity. In these areas as in the case of language, it is reasonable to immerse oneself in a single tradition at an early age. But even then it is well to become acquainted with facts of cultural variety . . . . As education progresses, a more sophisticated grasp of human variety can show students that what is theirs is not better simply because it is familiar" (62).
"The study of non-Western cultures is extremely challenging. Cultures are not monolithic or static. They contain many strands; they contain conflict and rebellion; they evolve over time and incorporate new ideas, sometimes from other cultures. It is not surprising, then, that many difficult questions should arise when we add the study of other cultures to the curriculum. When we decide to teach 'Chinese values' in a course in comparative philosophy, what should we be studying? The Confucian tradition? The Marxist critique of that tradition? The values of contemporary Chinese feminists, who criticize both Confucianism and Marxism (often by appeal to John Stuart Mill, whose The Subjection of Women was translated into Chinese early in the century)? Much depends on our purposes, in the course in question. But we should not fail to ask these questions. To make things still more complex, we must remember that even 'the Confucian tradition' was itself not monolithic . . . that much of what we now think of as the 'traditions' of ancient China (and ancient Athens) was really the work of subversive antitraditional intellectuals, engaged in argument with their surrounding societies. Similarly . . . be aware of the radical challenge posed by Buddhism to people's everyday ways of thinking and speaking about the self. . . . Non-Western cultures are complex mixtures, often incorporating elements originally foreign. This is true of our own traditions as well . . . . Cultural influence does not flow only, or even primarily, in a single direction" (117).
B. Rable on Overing and Osborne, "Mapping Beowulf":
In “Mapping Beowulf,” Gillian Overing describes her efforts to “reinvent” Beowulf’s voyage. She explains her aims as attempts “to locate the poem in our imagination” and “to act out and through conceptual maps.” But what is most interesting about this essay is the unstated, and perhaps unconscious, purpose of her journey. Indicative of her intention, and crucial to our understanding of her quest, is her selection of the words of Claude Gandelman: “All the great narratives of world literature contain maps, maps that we can read.”
In his book Reading Pictures, Viewing Texts, Gandelman discusses the links between viewing and touching. Janez Strehavoc, writing in the journal Afterimage, notes that Gandelman "invokes the figurative interpretation of this relationship in important symbols of the sixteenth century, drawing particular attention to Julius Wilhelm Zincgref’s Renaissance emblem Emblematicum Ethico-Politorum, which depicts an eye that is laid into an open palm. Here we are witnessing a unique eye-embodiment in the form of its insertion into touch, symbolizing the hand’s active role in the conception of discernible objects. On this subject Gandelman wrote the following: ‘In the emblem, the eye is merely a pilot guiding the hand toward its objectives.’"
I think that Overing’s endeavor to reinvent Beowulf’s adventure, to see and to touch what the poet describes, is an attempt to reify the poem, that is, to convert the abstraction of the poem into something concrete, something to grasp and hold on to despite its fiction. In effect, to read the map, not create the map, of Beowulf. We see this time and again in her “travelogue,” which seems to slip in and out of wistful musings of places visited or inhabited by monsters and kings as if they really existed.
An additional motivation behind Overing’s mapping effort might be connected to the basic human need to order an environment in order to make sense of it or, as in Overing’s case, to map a theory of the poem. David Turnbull, in his book Maps AreTerritories: Science Is an Atlas, discusses a map as a metaphor for a theory, but cautions, “There is no clear understanding amongst scientists, philosophers or cartographers as to what either a theory or a map is.” I think Overing is caught up in the vagaries of trying to make sense of a fictional narrative with a technique that itself is, in this case, fictional. On the other hand, it could be argued that Overing is merely employing another tool to try to understand the poem. Turnbull quotes Harley and Woodward: “Maps are graphic representations that facilitate a spatial understanding of thin concepts, conditions, processes, or events in the human world.” In support of Overing’s argument, we might add, “and events in but not of the human world.”
C. Liu on Overing and Osborne, "Mapping Beowulf":
It really shocks me a lot whenever people not only take Beowulf as a “literary work” but also as “history,” though Tolkien says it is the least thing related to Beowulf. Scholars try their best to figure out where Beowulf is from and how he sails to Heorot. For me, it is also the “imaginary dream” of scholars, for they believe there should be some factual history in the poem. But I just wonder why it can’t be merely a tale, without any historical background. For instance, when Sutton Hoo was first discovered, many scholars abruptly related Beowulf to Sutton Hoo, although this relation is not acknowledged fact anymore. Why do people always assume there is “ONE” fact or truth in the world? Why can’t it be an imaginary creation of the poet? Though the poem, to some extent, shows similarities to history, yet I still think there is probably no distinct answer to it. . . . In ancient China, we had a history official who would write everything about the present dynasty he was in. In doing so, lots of literary works can be proved to belong to a certain dynasty and its historical remains can be proved by the official history books.
P. Heyen on Overing and Osborne, "Mapping Beowulf":
“Mapping Beowulf” turned out to be nothing like I expected. Judging from the title and length of the essay, I anticipated another article exploring the critical landmarks of what seems to me the incredibly vast territory of Beowulf. Instead, I discovered a somewhat whimsical recreation of Beowulf’s voyage from Geatland to Heorot. I liked the idea of getting a feel for the land and establishing a connection between the real world now, the real world then, and the poet’s fictional world, but I found myself thinking that the project seemed a little frivolous, academically speaking. It wasn’t until I reached the section in which the writers acknowledge E.G. Stanley’s admonishing reminder that literature is not fact, while offering a valid retort with the Huck Finn analogy, that I could actually appreciate the venture they had undergone. This analogy had a personal impact on me because, although I have never traced Huck’s journey myself, I have done so second-hand through the lecture and slide presentation of a man who has canoed it. That presentation gave me a better understanding of Twain’s descriptions, making the geography more “real.” Thus, the Huck reference enabled me to recognize the value in the Beowulf expedition.
E. Joy's thoughts re: "enduring aspects of basic human condition":
In an earlier posting, Bill wrote that "Beowulf treats many enduring aspects of the basic human condition, such as the concepts of honor, courage, loyalty, and immortality, not to mention the constant struggle of good versus evil." For some reason, I'm returning to this now (partly because I think it's a sentiment we all might share and have even expressed in different contexts), partly to play the devil's advocate, and partly because I think ruminating on this statement a bit might also help us to continue thinking about how we finally judge Overing's and Osborn's trip up and down those Northern waters and territories in their "quest," as it were, to "map" Beowulf's imaginary voyage (and therefore, although they are very smart scholars, they also want to believe that something somehow endures in that landscape that they could see