Wednesday, March 11, 2009


Triple Nerd Score!
In which I connect Beowulf, the Rev. Walter Skeat and ornithology

In Beowulf: The Critical Heritage, Tom Shippey and Andreas Haarder quote the Rev. Walter W. Skeat on one of my favorite Beowulf controversies: does the hero's name mean "bear" or "woodpecker"?  (As I said before, the Angelina Jolie "naked philology" scene might have been even more amusing if, after she asked him if he was the "wolf of the bees, the bear," he had answered "no, the woodpecker").  

Skeat comes down on the side of "woodpecker" (first proposed by Jacob Grimm in 1836 (though Skeat didn't know it when he wrote this piece in 1877).  He writes: 

I wish to draw attention to the fact that the Old Dutch biewolf, according to Kilian, was a woodpecker.  I read that the great black woodpecker is common in Norway and Sweden, and that its food consists of the larvae of wasps, bees, and other insects.  Also, that the green woodpecker, found in most countries of Europe, has been known to take bees from a hive.  The question remains, why should the woodpecker be selected as the type of a hero?  The answer is simple -- viz., because of its indomitable nature; it is a bird that fights to the death.  Wilson says of an ivory-billed woodpecker whom he put into a cage, that he did not survive his captivity more than three days, during which he manifested and unconquerable spirit, and refused all sustenance.  This bird severely wounded Wilson while he was sketching him, and died with unabated spirit.  'This unconquerable courage, most probably gave the head and bill of the bird so much value in the eyes of the Indians.'

Shippey notes: "I have been unable to trace Skeat's reference, 'English Cyclop. Nat. Hist.' IV, 345.   'Wilson' is probably John Marius Wilson, a zoologist who produced two other 'Cyclopedias' between 1847 and 1867."

But because I'm a bird nerd, I can trace Skeat's reference, or, rather I found  his source (his specific reference remains a mystery): the great ornithologist Alexander Wilson (1766-1813), who wrote the great nine-volume American Ornithology and whose meeting with Audubon in 1810 inspired Audubon to start his great work. Reading anything about birds and "Wilson" in the same paragraph immediately made me think of that Wilson, but the European references at the beginning of the Skeat quote at first threw me off.  However, a quick check of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's page on encounters with the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker finds the section Skeat is referring to: 
Like many naturalists and painters of the day, Wilson shot his subjects, not with a camera but with a gun, in order to paint them from life (or rather, death). Wilson wrote of shooting and slightly wounding an Ivory-billed Woodpecker a few miles from Wilmington, North Carolina. He decided to keep the bird as a pet so he could study and illustrate it at his leisure. Upon capture, the woodpecker "uttered a loudly reiterated and most piteous note, exactly resembling the violent crying of a young child, which terrified my horse so as to nearly cost me my life."

Wilson took the bird to an inn in Wilmington, where he left the bird loose in his room while he took care of his horse. When he returned to the room, less than an hour later, the bird had nearly destroyed one wall of the room and part of the ceiling in its effort to escape.

Leaving the room again to search for grubs for the bird, Wilson decided to tether the bird to the leg of a mahogany table. Upon his return he "heard him again hard at work, [and] on entering, had the mortification to perceive that he had almost entirely ruined the mahogany table to which he was fastened, and on which he had wreaked his whole vengeance."

The ivory-bill died a few days later, much to Alexander Wilson's dismay. It "displayed such a noble and unconquerable spirit, that I was frequently tempted to restore him to his native woods," he wrote. "He lived with me for three days, but refused all sustenance, and I witnessed his death with regret."
I have two other connections with Wilson (which is probably why I got the idea that he was the source). First, my colleague John Kricher has been the president of the Wilson Society, the great American ornithological group.  Second, I own a print of Audubon's painting of a Wilson's Warbler (and if you'd like to buy an Amsterdam Audubon print of the Wilson's Warbler, let me know).  

It's a small world, the connections are everywhere (and still the best tool for finding them is your brain armed with a wide variety of experiences).

P.S.:  It's been a very birdy week.  Yesterday, my son and I spotted a mature bald eagle not 100 feet away from us at the Norton Reservoir, right near Wheaton.  Today there were both hooded and common mergansers in Mother Brook in Dedham (the first artificial waterway in America and a really short walk from my house). 

3 comments:

Travis said...

I read in a bee keeping book the other day that some European bee keepers refer to hornets as "bee wolves." It didn't say where in Europe though.

Gorm Azrider said...

Wood pecker can also be seen as wood eater, reference to fire, is what crossed my mind.

I was actually brought to your site by searching norse mythology reference to your studies on tolkien. The link "Toliken studies" on your blog however appears to be down.

Vellum said...

Could your 'English Cyclop. Nat. Hist.' IV, 345. Refer to volume 4 of Charles Knight's "English Cyclopedia"? I believe there were 12 volumes in all, in four "divisions" - the second of which was Natural History. Published in London in the mid 1850s, I believe.