Sunday, January 05, 2003

What Does a Beowulf Scholar Do All Day?

Andrea Harris links to and discusses my earlier post about academia vs. intelligent non-academics on the internet. A.C. Douglas (with whom I'm still going to disagree about myth. Writes a nice post in response to some of my comments.

The "Town / Gown" problem is long standing and not resolvable on an obscure blog (or even in Andrea's), but I thought it might be useful to talk about what exactly we scholars do besides grade [and I am not making this up] a stack of papers that was 27 inches high, every single one of which I read and commented on, though, sadly, less than 30% of the students will pick them up.

One of the things that makes Beowulf (and other medieval literature) so interesting is that it takes up some of the more standard tropes of postmodernism and shows how they really might work. Let's take the famous "indeterminacy of the text" that Derrida is so fond of. Derrida and others would like you to believe that "reading is impossible" because there is no way to fix a meaning to a given text, dictionaries notwithstanding. This critique (which is philosophical in nature) falls on deaf ears because people see themselves reading and think "this French stuff is a load of BS"). But a text like Beowulf is truly indeterminate. First of all there are errors, manifest errors, in the manuscript. But because we know there are some errors, we can't be sure about others. For instance, in 1731 a fire at the ironically named Ashburnham House damaged the Beowulf manuscript. Subsequent use in the 18th century led to a gradual loss of letters around the edges of the page. Fortunately many of these can reconstructed by the transcripts made by Grim Jonsson Thorkelin and a scribe the hired. But the two transcripts do not agree with eachother, and at times they disagree with the manuscript. So, for example, in line 1382, the manuscript reads "wundmi." This is not a possible word in Old English, so editors have tended to emend it. The Thorkelin B transcription reads "wundini," which would be the only example of an archaic (i.e., before the Age of Bede) spelling in the manuscript. However what is in the manuscript can be read as "wundun" (I'll show why below), which would be a regular, late West-Saxon dative/instrumental. All of a sudden the evidence of an early 8th century date disappears, sort of.

The reason this is so confusing is that all of the various words are construced similarly in the script that the scribe is using. wundimi would be "wundiiii," with the i's "ligatured" into "mi" (note that there are four minims, which I've represented by "i" in the form. Then note that "wundini" would be "wundiiii" -- same number of minims, just ligatured differently. Likewise "wundun" would be "wundiiii" -- again note 4 minims with different ligatures.

I like to throw 1382 in the face of scholars who prattle on about the indeterminacy of the text. Yes, such you have in James Joyce, but not anywhere to the degree in Beowulf, where we must constantly struggle with the mediation between manuscript and editors. Which conjectures will you accepts, and which will you throw out. Do you dare to emend yourself (I haven't emended Beowulf yet, but I've emended a few lines in the poem The Fortunes of Men. I'll explain why in another post.

But to return to the original topic: I think that a lot of students and intersted individuals, particularly scientists and engineers, would be less hostile to English if they knew that a lot of what we are doing (at least among the medievalists) is attempting to do logical detective work to figure out what the text is in front of us before we read it. Of course we can't be 100 % logical in prospects; we use creativity. We then try to use logic to justify our conjecture. And, to end which Tolkien, which is all anyone who reads this blog really cares about, Tolkien's genius was that he was able to combine, without sacrificing either, the hard-core linguistic analytical ability with a wide-ranging historical knowledge and a true poet's sensibility toward literature. He could thus put together widely separated pieces of data and use it to reconstruct lost history and culture. But that's another post.

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