Wednesday, December 12, 2007


Friday, December 07, 2007

Things I Said in Anglo-Saxon Literature

One of my students in Anglo-Saxon Literature this semester kept a list of things I said that he found amusing. Maybe you will as well.

On false impressions of the Middle Ages) Well, you tell Prof. Mulholland [specialist in 18th-C] that everyone in the Eighteenth Century had syphilis.

(In Yoda voice): Told you I did. Listen you did not. Now screwed we all shall be. There. I just showed you why natural languages don't use VSO order and summarized the Star Wars I-III.

The Finnish language looks like someone threw some vowels on a plate and shook it real hard.

I went through grammar school in the 70's and 80's when they didn't teach us any actual content--we just expressed ourselves all the time.

(On bloodletting) You get a nice slash from a dirty lancet, and you'll feet better--until you get festering gangrene.

It's a happy day when you have vowels. Otherwise it's like speaking Eastern European languages that only have consonants.

I definitely get the impression that Dutch and Finnish used up all the vowels and so there were none left when the other languages got to pick.

(On the wolf in The Passion of St. Edmund) "I am in ur woodz, garding ma haid."

(On circumcision and conversion) "I have to cut off what? I'll stay pagan, thanks."

(On why Athelstan's not having children does not mean he was gay) There were plenty of European rulers who were gay and had children... they just closed their eyes and thought of England for a few minutes.

I've always said that Beowulf should have beaten Grendel with the arm after he ripped it off while yelling at the monster "Why are you hitting yourself? Why are you hitting yourself, huh?" -- Yes, I have a little brother. Why do you ask?

If you want to know what a gusla sounds like, imagine a cat being fed through a wood-chipper.

(Repeatedly) We in medieval studies often make a fuss about how intellectually studly we are.

Unless you are Nathaniel Hawthorne, you don't need to use the word "sepulcher." And if you are Nathaniel Hawthorne, you use it every six lines.

It's always good to have a talk about cannibalism. Plus, it's in the Vercelli Book, so Score! I'm all set.

Athelthryth -- I can't imagine why that name hasn't made a comeback.

Anglo-Saxon fun: "Let's go drink a lot. And: let's bring weapons!"

My Anglo-Saxon class this year is more intelligent and motivated than my Anglo-Saxon class eight years ago. Don't pat yourself on the back -- I'm still going to make you suffer.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

More on Anglo-Saxon Aloud, Singing, etc.

I wanted to thank everyone who has made suggestions and given me kind words about the project. I think I will be ready to record the Paris Psalter in at least a very simplified form of singing when the time comes this spring. I've got a lot to listen to now, and two excellent students who are interested in the project, and now a Music professor who wants to help, as well as folks like Derek on line, so it's just a matter of finding time and learning how to do it right.

So now I'm going to be working through the Minor Poems volume of the ASPR. Yesterday it was Finnsburh, today it's Waldere, and tomorrow through Friday it will be Maldon, a poem which seems to me more artful and more poignant each time I read it.

Unfortunately, I won't be talking about Anglo-Saxon Aloud at Kalamazoo, because that abstract just got rejected. I was a little surprised, but the session it was for got cancelled, and I guess it just wasn't a fit with anything else. I guess it's some kind of karma re-balance for the crap papers I gave at Kalamazoo when I was in graduate school.

I am not going to end up doing an entire set of recording of the Bibliothek der angelsachisen Prosa, but I think I will perhaps do a few of those works that lend themselves to oral delivery, like the Sermo Lupic. Brendan makes some good suggestions, though right now I can't imagine myself reading the entire Ecclesiastical History. Maybe the Chronicle day by day, though (I'd have to calculate how long that would take to record and edit, though), and I was going to ask for suggestions for shorter homilies to give readers a taste "rhythmical prose" by Ælfric or Wulfstan's prose besides the Sermo Lupi.

As for plans for the project: As long as Wheaton will keep the server up, I plan on keeping the project going. If I were to sell it as a CD-set (like Beowulf Aloud, it would end up being about 20 disks long, and I don't know if anyone is going to pay me for what it would cost to make that (i.e., the covers, etc.). Maybe I can load the entire thing onto a cheap iPod Shuffle off of eBay and sell it that way if people don't want to have to keep downloading.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Paris Psalter Singing

Well, thanks to some good suggestions by Derek the Ænglican (including a pointer to the really interesting Chantblog), and the work of one of my students (a brilliant English/Music double major with a minor in Medieval and Renaissance Studies), I now know what I need to do in order to chant the Paris Psalter at Anglo-Saxon Aloud. Unfortunately, I also know that I'm not ready to do it. I need to listen to more chant, particularly monophonic chant, and get the patterns in my head so that I can improvise around the natural Old English rhythm of the lines. This is going to take some practice and some work. So while I do that, I am going to post volume 6 of the Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records, The Anglo-Saxon Minor Poems. That's often considered a silly title for a volume that includes the Battle of Maldon, the Battle of Brunanburh, The Fight at Finnsburh, and Cædmon's Hymn, which are certainly not "minor" in the sense of being trivial or less important. So I hope you'll enjoy those "minor" poem for the next few weeks. Then, when I've gotten to the "fragments of Psalms" in the Minor Poems volume, I should be up to the task of singing those and then the Paris Psalter. And I'll conclude the project, honor of my friend Joel Relihan, with the Meters of Boethius.

I'm hoping this will be done by Kalamazoo, so that I can give my paper on the project (assuming it is accepted). And then I hope to add some other things (like female voices for female-narrated poems) and harmony singing for some of the Psalms (I have two double majors in Voice and English who have taken Anglo-Saxon and are taking Beowulf in the spring). Then maybe a few of the more popular prose texts, like the Sermo Lupi. Suggestions are always welcome.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Judith Complete at Anglo-Saxon Aloud

I've now posted the last bit of Judith over at Anglo-Saxon Aloud, which completes the first four volumes of the Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records (Junius Manuscript, Vercelli Book, Exeter Book, Beowulf Manuscript [Nowell Codex]).

I hadn't gone over Judith in OE (except for the Holofernes in hell part that seems to have Old Norse analogues) for some time, and it really is a pretty excellent poem. I would put Judith's Braveheart-esque speech up there with Maldon in terms of inspirational battle oratory in the Anglo-Saxon corpus. And it seems to me that Judith, despite it being about a victory rather than a defeat, is a lot more like Maldon than Brunanburh in tone and "feel," more in touch with some tradition of living poetry and less a pseudo-pangyric for the purpose of politics (just wanted to get the alliteration in there).

Tomorrow I'll make my first post from the Paris Psalter. I'd really appreciate comments, because, although I've done some reading, etc., I really know nothing about medieval music and don't know if what I've produced is acceptable. If it turns out that the Psalter is too hard to do right now, I may skip ahead to the Minor Poems and then come back to the Psalter. Your comments tomorrow will really help.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Review of Beowulf (the film)

My favorite part of the Beowulf film (which I saw in 3D on Sunday) was the moment when, in her watery lair, Angelina Jolie shows herself and starts speaking to our hero:

"Are you the one they call Beowulf?" She asks. "The wolf of the bees? The bear?

At that particular moment I wanted to jump up in the theater and yell:

Angelina Jolie is doing philology!!! Angelina Jolie is doing philology naked!!!

(Does it get any better than that?)

And then I thought, wouldn't it be great if Beowulf replied:

"You'd think that, wouldn't you?" Beowulf said, clutching Unferth's sword. "But actually it means 'Woodpecker'(as Grimm and Skeat guessed)-- and there's a good reason for that." [cue dumb sexual puns on "Woodpecker].

[The above is probably a good explanation of why I haven't won any awards for film scripts].

But the opportunity to make insider-jokes about philology is just one of the many opportunities lost in this movie, which is a weird cross between a serious attempt to envision the Northern early medieval past and "Ye Olde Medieval Worlde" of Shrek. Although I had at least moderately high hopes going in becaues Neil Gaiman was one of the screenwriters, I was pretty disappointed with how it came out.

There are a number of good visual moments in the film: Grendel is the most horrifyingly disgusting monster that has ever appeared on screeen, the sword Hrunting dissolving into little mercury blobs was great, Angelina Jolie's "tail" being her hair was a good choice, and Heorot beseiged by the elements worked very well. But there were also too large a number of absolutely false notes: Hrothgar's drunkenness and absolute lack of dignity, Wealhtheow's cold shoulder both to Hrothgar and Beowulf in public venues, the Beowulf vs. Finn confrontation, Hrothgar's suicide, the introduction of a young girl, Ursa, and the tedious and predictable use of visual and situational cliches with her and Wealhtheow (falling off of collapsing bridges only to be grabbed by the strong hand of Wiglaf, etc.).

But I think I was most disappointed by the theme of the film, which is nothing like the theme of the poem (which is fine), but which was a tedious cliche. I think that people are giving the film way too much credit when they say that it is about unreliable storytelling. Or, rather, they are mistaken in thinking that making Beowulf into a film about unreliable storytelling is anything new, interesting or important. The problem is that there are two many different levels of truth and falsity to make the twists work: On the one hand, we have to believe that everyone is lying when they tell their stories. On the other, there really are Grendel monsters, lamias and dragons. The whole "here is what really happened" approach just doesn't work very well when there really are monsters in the world of the film. I think the combination of these two pieces—the "explanation" of Beowulf's ripping off Grendel's arm with the chain pulley system [which was used in Shrek I] with the "sense of the marvellous" of living monsters (not just confusions about Neanderthals or T.Rexes or whatever)—simply injects some postmodern cynicism without doing anything interesting with it.

Secondly, I wonder if Hollywood directors all have very serious Daddy issues. So the great sin of Hrothgar is that he cheated on Mommy? There are more, and more important sins in the world, and this particular sin is so completely brought into the contemporary socio-psychological context that the story, dialogue and acting could have been out of American Beauty and not from a poem that deals with kings and queens and dynasties--Hrothgar, Wealtheow, Beowulf and Ursula live, for this part of the film, on Wysteria Lane, not in Heorot. If we are in the heroic world or the 6th-century historical world, then the idea that Wealhtheow is being cold to Hrothgar and refusing his sexual advances both in public and for the long term, is absolutely ridiculous. So instead, for those elements of the story, we are in a modern, post-psychological world even though we have dragons, monsters, dynasties, magic drinking cups, etc. Having written at least one bad fantasy novel that tried to take this approach, I think it is doomed to failure.

There is a core of an interesting interpretation that could be centered around Beowulf making a bargain with Grendel's mother for the fame and success that he has later on: he would then be seen as not having earned it, and the film could be an examination of that bargain and its pitfalls (which could have worked if Grendel's mother was the dragon, rather than the dragon being Beowulf's son). Set against the dishonesty that Beowulf would have exhibited in making this bargain would have been the 50 years of peace and prosperity (no mean thing) he gave his kingdom: the failed raids by the Frisians in the film should have been seen as being good: it means that the Frisians are not able to burn, rape, pillage and murder Beowulf's people. Who cares if they are slaughtered on the beach of a country that they are invading? But that's not the film we have, which is focused almost exclusively on the "Daddy cheated on Mommy" sin. This sin might have been made more interesting if Hrothgar and Beowulf had refused to acknowledge their mutant offspring in some way (I don't know how you'd do it), which could then do the (tedious; but a lot of people seem to like it) John Gardner turn-around that Grendel really does have some kind of grievance. But that's not in this film, either.

The back-stories and connections of Beowulf are even more complicated than those of The Godfather, and there are all kinds of opportunities to work on the other sins that can be found in Beowulf (though note in the poem that Beowulf himself, as John Hill points out, is remarkably free of these sins, which is why he is so appealing -- but he is only so appealing in that context of all the other scheming, murdering and manipulating people in the background and the tradition. Hollywood does know how to do stories about pride, ambition and the net of fate woven by early promises, but for some reason when it comes to the fantasy genre, all of that goes out the window. The villains have to be all straight-out-of-Central-Casting: Saruman as generic "Eeville Wizard" or Denethor stuffing grapes in his mouth and slavering or Hrothgar's drunken ineptitude. There's no subtlety of the kind we get with Vito and Michael Corleone or the Martin Sheen character in Apocalypse Now or any number of complex, somewhat compelling villains or flawed men. I wish Hollywood would take a chance on respecting the audience in the fantasy genre. Or, just make pure, escapist fantasy (which I like very much; and I'll note that the 80's film Dragonslayer was better than Beowulf in this regard -- kudos to Vinny A for pointing this out to me).

There is also the problem of narrative 'tighness' vs. 'slackness'. The poem Beowulf has a loose feel that is lost in the film (the suicide of Hrothgar and Beowulf picking up the kingdom of the Danes right there is another example of "tightness" that makes a viewer/reader lose the "feel" of Beowulf). The Lord of the Rings book has this same kind of slackness, with characters appearing out of nowhere, the introduction of new plot points or problems that are not anticipated at the beginning, etc., and it was significantly tightened in the film versions. The radical simplification of Beowulf thus may have been necessary for the tightening of the narrative (no Geatland, no Hygelac, strictly tight connection between all monsters) and may be a demand of the genre. But 'tightness' is not in itself necessarily a virtue, and many of us who love Tolkien or love the old materials (Beowulf, Sagas), love exactly that leisurely and loose feel of the narrative). And all this, in a very round-about way, brings me to a general comment about the film.

Different genres and different time periods have different sets of aesthetic expectations. My major criticism of this Beowulf film is that it bounced from the comic-book-heroic, fight-by-wire, visual-cliches everywhere action-movie aesthetic to the post-modern, psychologized, we-all-know-that-heroes-aren't-reallyheroes cynical aesthetic. I think a film or even an adapted story that couldn't find a Hollywood audience could find some interesting middle ground to occupy, but this film did not reach that ground. And if we are to have cliches, visual or narrative, I would prefer the old cliches of Beowulf (and there are plenty, probably more than we recognize) than the newer cliches of late 20th-century visual media, middle-brow psychologizing narrative, and superficial and cynical ideology.

Posts whose citation I should have worked into this main post, but didn't:

Dr. Virago.
Scott Nokes.
John Walter.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The Exeter Book is Complete at Anglo-Saxon Aloud

Dear compiler of the Exeter Book,

There are simply too many riddles. Please remove some.

Thank you.

I started posting recordings of the poems of the Exeter Book on June 25, and although I did have a short vacation in there, I've pretty much kept it up at approximately 100 lines per weekday for nearly five months. Today I finally posted Riddle 95, so the Exeter Book is done. You can download an mp3 of any of your favorite Exeter Book poems by going to Anglo-Saxon Aloud. [Update: I did a little checking as part of a back-up, and the entire Exeter Book is 7.6 hours of poetry, or more than twice as long as Beowulf. It takes 8 CDs to store it in regular aiff format. If I ever sell Anglo-Saxon Aloud, it looks like it will have to be about a 20-24 CD set. Maybe I'll just load the entire thing onto an iPod shuffle and sell it that way].

Later I'll probably post one more excerpt from Beowulf Aloud to celebrate what has been "Beowulf Week" on the internet.

Next: On to Judith (which should be done by the end of next week), and then the Paris Psalter. Any Psalm experts out there want to give me tips on the best ways to record the OE Psalms?

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Out of the mouths of babes...

[For this story to make sense, you really should watch this brilliant video, which is for the song "Mandelbrot Set" by Jonathan Coulton].

It's a song about fractals and the Mandelbrot set, which were the topic last week in our Math/Science Fiction course. Great sections include:

I hate the Peano Space and the Koch Curve
I fear the Cantor Ternary Set
The Sierpinsky Gasket makes me want to cry.

But there's a small problem with having your kids learn the song:

Mandelbrot set
You're a Rorschach Test on fire
You're a day-glo pterodactyl
You're a heart-shaped box of springs and wires
You're one bad-ass #$%!!@#ing fractal.

I taught my kids to sing that last line "bad-ass monkey fractal." So that problem is temporarily solved (hey, I knew a kid in Boy Scouts who insisted that "Life in the Fast Lane" was actually a song about fishing (!): "Life in the Bass Cage." It took us weeks of making fun of him to show him he had heard it wrong).

But yesterday my 3-year-old son wanted to bring the CD to his school.

Me: I can't let you do that, big guy. There is a bad word in that song.

Him: And I can't say bad words at school, right?

Me: Right. You can't say bad words at school. You'd get in trouble and your teachers would be upset.

Him: Ok Daddy. I promise not to say Sierpinski Gasket.

I swear I am not making this up. I laughed on and off for the rest of the day.

(Am working on that Beowulf review but am trying to process lots of other commentary in other places).

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Susan Cooper

I'll be posting my Beowulf review tomorrow, but what happened on Saturday was better than any movie could be: I got to meet an author I've idolized for (almost exactly) 30 years: Susan Cooper, who wrote The Dark is Rising books.

Cooper was doing a book signing at our amazing local bookstore here in the Dedham, The Blue Bunny, and we arrived early. She ended up chatting for almost half an hour with my family and me, she signed my old, falling-apart copies of The Dark is Rising and the The Grey King, and laughed when I pointed out that I'd found an inconsistency in The Dark is Rising (she said I was only the second person in the world who had noticed it).

Even more happily, she confirmed that the town I had identified as the setting for The Dark is Rising is in fact the one I thought it was (I am saving this for a publication) and that certain landmarks are still standing.

But best of all, she was one of the first famous writers I have ever met who was not disappointing (Stephen J. Gould was the other). Instead, she was charming, funny and genuinely kind.

Thank you, Ms. Cooper, for the many years of joy you've given me (and now my daughter, and soon my son) through your writing, and for the wonderful time we had on Saturday speaking to you.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Beowulf, Aloud (Wiglaf and the Dragon Fight)

To celebrate Beowulf's fifteen minutes of pop-culture fame, this week I am posting excerpts from Beowulf Aloud over at Anglo-Saxon Aloud.

Here is the final excerpt, Beowulf and Wiglaf fight with the dragon.

You can purchase the entire 3-CD set of the poem over at Beowulf Aloud (it is $25.00, including North American shipping) or email me at mdrout -at- wheatoncollege dot edu.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Dating of Beowulf in the Newspaper: 3 sentences or less

"I have seen friendships lost over this," said Michael Drout, professor of English at Wheaton College. "I have seen people raise their voices at conferences. I think the reason is there really is a right answer. But no one knows what it is."
"Beowulf" was written sometime between 515 AD and 1025 AD, said Drout. Some argue for earlier dates, for reasons such as language and references to ancient Germanic peoples, according to Drout.Others believe it was written later because of the date of the manuscript and the possible influence of Latin Christian literature.Either way, the poem describes events that took place in sixth century. So what difference does a few hundred years make?
"A lot of the things in the poem would mean very different things depending on the cultural context," said Drout.
For example, he said, "'Most eager for fame' (which is describing Beowulf in the poem), is that a good thing or a bad thing? If it's a late Christian poem, then probably 'most eager for fame' is a criticism. If it's an early warrior poem, then probably 'most eager for fame' is a good thing."

The bolded sentences are the three I refered to in this laugh-producing post
Beowulf in the Newspaper: Maybe nobody bothered to write down the happy things

This is a link to Megan Scott's story Life was Tough Back in Ye Olde Beowulf Days.

The me: The time has traditionally been known as the Dark Ages, or the early Middle Ages, because it follows the fall of the Roman Empire. The overall economy in Europe collapsed, said Michael Drout, English professor at Wheaton College in Norton, Mass."There was much less writing, much less trade, the population declined from plague," said Drout. "So there was a lower level of technology and economic activity."

More me: People also drank mead, a fermented honey drink, from hollowed out cows' horns that couldn't be set down once they were filled "so you either had to empty your horn in one drink or pass it around to others," Drout said. [W00T. I am chosen as excerpt on drinking. Insteand cred with students...]

Concluding me: "There was still a great deal of beauty and joy," Drout said. "It just seems that literature is filled with tragedy and disaster. Maybe because no one bothered to write down the happy things."

Monday, November 12, 2007

Beowulf, Aloud

To celebrate Beowulf's fifteen minutes of pop-culture fame, this week I am posting excerpts from Beowulf Aloud over at Anglo-Saxon Aloud.

The first excerpt, lines 115-164 (Grendel's first attacks on Heorot), can be found here.

You can purchase the entire 3-CD set of the poem over at Beowulf Aloud (it is $25.00, including North American shipping) or email me at mdrout -at- wheatoncollege dot edu.

Friday, November 09, 2007

The Ultimate Beowulf Question

From a reporter today:

"Is it possible in three sentences to sum up the debate over when Beowulf was written?"

(she knew I would start maniacally laughing at this point)

You know, I used to be a journalist, so I took up the challenge. I'm hoping that the reporter (who is very good and thorough and, and who had actually read this entire series of posts about the dating of Beowulf) will be able to polish my answer and that it will make the article.

But I had a student in the office when the email came in, and I showed it to her, and she laughed and laughed...

(Today in Anglo-Saxon we descended into "Philological Hell" based on a few comment on the runes on the Ruthwell Cross. That led to different European writing systems of the early Middle Ages, which led to questions about why the Anglo-Saxons used thorn and eth instead of th, used sc to indicate the sh phoneme, and used the rune wyn for w. That led us to the Merovingians in Beowulf and Shippey's excellent article. We also got deletion of intervocalic h, loss of w -- or the difficulty Latin scribes had with the Germanic w phoneme and their various ways of representing it--and finally, that Alcuin's name should be pronounced "Alc-win" but never will be. Really, really fun. Monday we do some corpus work on Maldon and ofermod.)

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Beowulf Popularity

We've just completed registration for Spring 08 classes at Wheaton, and I'm happy to report that nearly half of my Anglo-Saxon students were brave enough to decide to continue on and study Beowulf with me this spring. Beowulf is the only course in the Wheaton English department that has a true pre-req --you just can't survive it without having had Anglo-Saxon, so a yield of 14 students isn't bad, particularly when at least five of the class are going away for Junior Year Abroad next semester and another four are seniors who have student teaching in the spring.

I am not attributing this largest-ever-at-Wheaton Beowulf class to the film, however. Instead, I give the students all the credit. They have worked amazingly hard this semester and are plowing through The Dream of the Rood right now. One student, who forgot to bring her translation to class, sight-translated a good long sentence and got it mostly right. (Unfortunately, she is going off Junior Year Abroad next year). All of a sudden the idea of working through all of Beowulf is exciting for them rather than daunting. Exactly as I had hoped, they are now proud of their technical and linguistic mastery and want to expand it. Watering down Beowulf never works for me. Making the technical and detailed interesting always does, whether for junior high and high school students at a lecture at a local library, for inner-city kids from Brockton, or for my own students with richer academic backgrounds. We need not fear the technical and the detailed: it's what makes us special.
(Of course we'll see how they feel when we spend at least 30 minutes of discussion on line 6a, is it reall the Heruli? Who are the Heruli? What about the loss of initial H...heh, heh, heh.

Unfortunately, getting through Beowulf in one semester can eat up a whole lot of class time, so I need to think about how to reconfigure the course for a larger number of students. I want to take some time to teach them paleography (and that means speedball pens, ink and learning to write hands -- I teach paleography the old-fashioned way of learning by doing), and the course is linked to the "Computing for Poets" course (as are the Anglo-Saxon and JRRT courses), which has also filled up, so we will need to spend some time on corpus searching, etc.

It should be great: in the spring I'll be teaching Beowulf and the second half of the Math/SciencFiction (and now also First Year Seminar and FYS course) that I teach with Bill Goldbloom Bloch, so it will be a very technical, mathematical semester in the classroom. And, unfortunately, another semester of being department Chair. But the teaching can make up for that, I hope.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Dating Beowulf, Part IV
(or, no really, it's very comfortable up here on this fence)

In previous posts I noted the possible range of dates for Beowulf (515-1025) and gave the arguments, pro and con, for a date of composition in each of the centuries of the Anglo-Saxon period: Migration Period, Conversion Era, "Golden Age," Viking Raids, Reform, Anglo-Danish Rule. Every time-frame has problems and every time-period has something to recommend it. In this last post I will bring up the more complicated "composite-Beowulf theories and then try to come to some tentative conclusions.

Composite Beowulf

Although this approach is not popular now, the idea that Beowulf as we have it is not a unitary poem from a single author has a long and distinguished pedigree. German scholars in the nineteenth century believed that it was possible to dissect a long poem into the component lays (this approach was called Liedertheorie) that had, they assumed, been gathered together to make that poem. The foremost of these scholars was Karl Müllenhoff, who separated Beowulf into various parts, some made by the original poet, others by a later poet, and still others (and the stitching of the whole together) by an interpolator.

Other scholars were less ambitious than Müllenhoff and divided Beowulf differently, but they too saw the poem as a composite structure made up of shorter poems put together. Others saw Beowulf as having the core of a pagan, Germanic poem onto which had been grafted some unsightly Christian excresences (usually lines 175-188 and Hrothgar's "sermon" later in the poem).

A composite structure for Beowulf solves -- by defining out of existence -- some of the problems that we have discussed above. For example, most of the examples of consistency with "Kaluza's Law" occur in passages about war and battle which to some scholars seem to have a very "traditional" feel and could thus be old or traditional passages that were drawn on by a later Beowulf poet. Or, the Christian references could be grafted on later to an older poem.

After the excesses of Müllenhoff and others, there was a reaction against the "dissectors" -- Tolkien, although he thought that a few lines might be a later composition -- argued very strongly for the unity of the poem, and most criticism since 1936 has assumed a unity of authorship and poem (albeit with a wide variety of different structures). Thus even though there are some appealing aspects of a composite authorship, and although medieval authors and scribes had very different ideas of literary "ownership" and authorship than we do, theories of Beowulfbeing written in more than one century have not found much favor with recent critics.


The German word "zussamenhang" means "hanging together," and is to my mind the test of nearly any theory in the "historical sciences," (like paleontology), history and literature. The theory that accounts for the greatest number of significant facts should be the right one. But there is a major weasel-word in that last sentence: which facts are the most "significant" ones? One school of thought would say that "objective" tests are important. Other schools are quite comfortable with "subjective" judgments in matters of literature.

The linguists and metricists point out that their tests are repeatable and objective: scan the lines, tabulate the spellings, etc., and the data either support one theory or another. I have a lot of sympathy for this approach, and I also accept the critique that the linguists make that at least a fair number of the "lit" people are simply not capable (because they haven't learned the linguistics) of judging the technical arguments. However, there is at least some disagreement among the metricists and linguists (although I would say that, on balance, they tend to support an early date -- the key words not to be skipped in that sentence are "on balance" and "tend.")

It is also important not to confuse things that are completely objective with those that are only partially objective or subjective. For instance, when linguistic tests rely on many emendations to the poem, we end up with layers of subjective (to one degree or another) judgment underlying the apparently objective test. In addition, matters of opinion and interpretations can be stealthily converted into seemingly objective interpretations. Take, for example, the matter of the poem's audience. Dorothy Whitelock, one of the greatest historians of Anglo-Saxon England, makes the argument that an English audience would not tolerate praise for Danes in any period after the sack of Lindisfarne. Her immense authority has led others to take the audience claim as historical (rather than literary) and thus at least somewhat more objective than judgments of style or degree of Christianity. But let us imagine a scholar from 1000 years in the future trying to figure out some enigmatic piece of American fiction from somewhere in the 20th century (say, 1983 or 1954 or 1908). That future scholar could argue "the poem speaks of Germans as friends, and praises them, but we know that America fought two horrible wars against Germany, so the poem must come from the 21st, not the 20th century." Obviously that scholar would be in error (replace "Germany" with "Russia" or put both in place to expand the thought experiment). And individual writers do not always reflect the consciousness of the nation, even in early times.

The manuscript date is another quasi-objective fact. The manuscript does indeed date from late in the 10th or very early 11th. But what does this fact mean? A late manuscript does not necessarily tell us about the text it contains (although this is less true in manuscript culture than it is in print culture, where accurate reproduction is a matter of course). And because the manuscript must be a copy of something, we are left with at least some doubt about how much we want to let the date of the copy influence our thinking about the underlying text. The literary-theoretical problem is very significant and has not, to my knowledge, ever been solved: what are the differences in the ways we interpret texts based where they were created or where they were received or where they were modified?

Drout's View

I was for a while a "late" dater, in large part, I'm afraid, because such a date was congenial to some of my other hypotheses about the poem. In the past few years, however, many arguments for the early date have come to seem much more reasonable to me. The linguistic and metrical tests do, I think, have a different evidentiary status than literary interpretation or speculation about audience, but so does the manuscript. It is easy to say (and I've said it) that "we know that Beowulf was received in the tenth century, and that's enough for me," but much harder to separate out what that means for interpretation: for instance, how much weight can we put, for example, on the depiction of Heremod in the poem (which one scholar whom I respect a lot argues is a key to understanding the characterization of Beowulf), if this is just something that a tenth-century poet inherited without knowing how the story fit in the whole web of Germanic myth and literature?

Let me give an example closer to home: in Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Rappaccini's Daughter," we read of Giovanni's feelings about Beatrice: "Least of all, while avoiding her sight, ought Giovanni to have remained so near this extraordinary being that the proximity and possibility even of intercourse should give a kind of substance and reality to the wild vagaries which his imagination ran riot continually in producing" The date of the production of the text is very significant for our interpretation of the meaning of "intercourse" in this sentence, and we might interpret that passage very differently if we thought that a 20th-century reviser/editor/copyist would have felt free to change Hawthorne's text for one purpose or another.

In 2008 I'll have been studying Beowulf for fifteen years, probably not nearly enough time to have a real opinion on all the evidence. But the more I read and study, the more I move from "definitely late" to "maybe early." And so (and this is where I get in trouble with 90% of my colleagues), I'm very tempted to say "both": an originally early poem, written down when the tradition was still alive, that is re-worked by another artist later on. Am not advocating Liedertheories, but rather a discussion of the modification of wholes: a whole poem being written in the 8th century (or earlier) and then a whole poem being copied and revised/refreshed at other times. The poem is a whole now, and it was a whole in the tenth century, and whatever the tenth-century poet inherited was a whole, each in its own way. I think there are both dissection planes and adhesions, and it may not be possible to separate them absolutely clearly, but the underlying structure is there, and that Kaluza's law, common word pairings, influences of Latin rhetoric, Germanic history, onomastics, etc., will help in figuring it out. But very likely my opinion will change as I read more scholarship, re-read the poem, teach the poem in both translation and OE (next semester) and listen to my colleagues.

Why do people care so much?

When was Beowulf written? is a straightforward question that has a correct answer. Even if the poem was reworked over multiple centuries, it has one true history. But that history is lost (for now; maybe sheep DNA will provide an answer). And there is so much evidence that it can be assembled and re-assembled in new forms, supporting different conclusions. I think the combination of a right answer (somewhere) with the conflicting and confusing evidence of the poem generates the strong emotions. A scholar starts to learn about the evidence and thinks "Hey, I can sort this all out." You come in with an open mind (you think), try to sort out conflicting claims, and all of a sudden you are a "late dater" or an "early dater" with a theory and an opinion. Then you get to enjoy fighting your corner. That is probably reason enough to explain the vast enterprise of Beowulf scholarship.

But Beowulf is also a great poem, an important literary monument and a part of cultural history. When we don't have some kind of historical context in which to put the poem, we lose out on many opportunities for understanding. Simply to thow up our hands and say "Too complicated!" or "TLDNR" (which is what I'm sure people are thinking about this post) is to take a short cut. An a-historical Beowulf is a deliberate choice to ignore important information (the problems is, we don't know which information is important) and I think an abdication of scholarship. And more importantly, if you do this, you miss out on a lot of scholarly fun.

And the body of technical Beowulf scholarship is a beautiful thing, a monument of learning. Reading through the papers collected by Tom Shippey and Andreas Haarder in Beowulf: The Critical Heritage is a genuine pleasure (and that only covers criticism before Tolkien). Tolkien and others have on occasion mocked this tradition, but it is, I think, a great human accomplishment, in some ways as great an accomplishment as the poem itself. To contribute even a little to that long tradition is a great privilege. Just to study it is a great joy.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Dating Beowulf Part III: Late Beowulf
(Do I contradict myself? Well then I contadict mys— er... sorry about that.)

Previously, on "Dating Beowulf": we discussed the range of possible dates (514-1025) and then examined the arguments for an "early" date in the 500's, 600's or 700's.

Now we turn to the arguments for a "late" Beowulf, those which support a date for the composition of the poem in the 800's, 900's and early 1000's. Note that many of the arguments for dating Beowulf late are the same as the "problems" for dating it early, and vice versa. So, for example, the observance of Kaluza's law is both evidence for an early date and against a late date, but I am not going to repeat the arguments from Part II in their contrapositive form in Part III, so it may seem like Part III is less fully argued than Part II. Although the contrasting length of the two posts may make it seem so, I am not trying to give short shrift to the arguments for the late dating.

The Viking Era (800-900)

Support: Scandinavian raiders began attacking England in the very late eighth century (Lindisfarne was sacked in 793) and the size and frequency of the attacks increased into the ninth century. Eventually, Viking armies began staying in England over the winter rather than returning to Scandinavia, and large portions of England came under Viking rule. By the time of King Alfred's successful defense of Wessex at the end of the ninth century, much of England had been ravaged at one time or another, but Danes had also settled into peaceful and prosperous living alongside (and intermarried with) their English neighbors. Stories celebrating Scandinavian heroes could thus have become part of the cultural background of an English-speaking poet, explaining both why Beowulf was in English and why it celebrates (in its own way) Danes and Geatas. King Alfred's program of vernacular literacy, Alfred's interest in Anglo-Saxon poetry, and the peace treaties he negotiated with the Danes have suggested to some that the Alfredian period might be a good home for Beowulf. At least one scholar attributes the poem to Alfred's priest Æthelstan, and another suggests locating Beowulf at the court of King Alfred or of the Mercian king Wiglaf who came to the throne in 827.

Problems: Although I do not agree that the Danes are the unqualified heroes of the poem, they aren't the bad guys, either. Given that the Danes (and other Scandinavians) had spent this century ravaging England, murdering its people, plundering its resources and taking over a significant portion of its lands, we might be surprised to find a sympathetic portrayal of Scandinavian people in a poem written in English. Dorothy Whitelock argued that a poet would not want to have recited the opening lines of Beowulf, which proclaim the greatness of the Danes, in England after the beginning of the ninth century and thus the poem should be dated earlier.

The Reform Period (900-1000)

Support: The Benedictine Reform really begins with the coronation of Æthelstan in 926 and it reaches its high point in the 970's during the rule of King Edgar. During this time period, Alfred's program of vernacular literacy came into its own. A rebirth of Latin learning was led by Dunstan and Æthelwold, but texts in English were produced and copied in significant numbers. All of the major poetic manuscripts (Junius Manuscript, Exeter Book, Beowulf Manuscript, Vercelli Book) were copied during this time period.

We also have a charter from Wiltshire dating to 931 which includes the places "Beowan hamm" (Beowa's home) and "Grendeles mere" (Grendels' mere) in the boundary clause, suggesting that stories of Beowulf might be circulating in England during this period. There is also a much-discussed parallel between Blickling Homily XVI and the description of Grendel's mere that many scholars have concluded shows that the Beowulf poet knew the homily. The Blickling Homily manuscript dates from around 971, thus indicating that Beowulf would have to have been written after this point.

The combination of vernacular literacy, cultural revival, English national pride (seen in the Benedictine reformers' emphasis on Pope Gregory being particularly concerned about England, for example) combined with the amalgamation of Scandinavian and English people into a single nation under King Edgar, a major patron of the Reform, and the "imperial" practices under Edgar could be a possible environment for Beowulf. We also know that the poem was copied and thus was at least received if not created during the tenth century (though see below for dissent).
In addition, there are at least some passage of the poem, most famously lines 175-188, which read very much like later (10th century) Christian, homiletic material (Hrothgar's "sermon" is another passage, and I would add that line 1864 "feels" more like Latin-inspired, balanced rhetoric to me). Tolkien solved the problem by arguing that 181-88 were probably a later interpolation on top of an original poem. But other scholarship has found word pairs or formulae throughout Beowulf that are only found elsewhere in later, Christian, homiletic texts.

Problems: Most of the arguments against a late date have already been given as arguments for an early date, so I won't rehearse them here at length, but the standard "Anglo-Saxons, speaking English, would not have liked a poem about the greatness of marauding Danes" apply to the tenth century, particularly after Danish attacks resumed during the reign of Æthelræd. Also, finding bits of Beowulf in later, Christian materials could support an 8th-century date as well, if those phrases had antecedents in that time period in now-lost texts (this is the problem with having so many of our texts in 10th-century copies). The parallels with the Blickling Homily are interesting, but it is only one small passage and the two passages may have a common origin. The Wiltshire charter only shows that there were some tales with versions of the names in Beowulf floating around; place names are very conservative, so this could just be evidence for earlier circulation of the stories that only got recorded in the tenth century.

Anglo-Danish Rule (1000-1025)

Support: The manuscript dates from between 975 and 1025, but that date is a creation of the average date of the two hands (Scribe A and Scribe B). Scribe A, who copies the first part of Beowulf and the prose texts in the manuscript, would probably in isolation be dated to the early part of the 11th century. Scribe B, taken in isolation, would be dated to the end of the tenth century. Taking the later date would date Beowulf to early in the 11th century.
One page of the manuscript is a palimpsest: the text has been scraped off the leaf and then re-written. Kevin Kiernan thinks that in this re-writing we see the work of the poet, who is also Scribe B, very carefully and artfully combining two pre-existing poems and joining them at exactly this point.
Kiernan thinks that the layout of the manuscript (ruled for 20 lines per page and laid out so that the manuscript pages match the hair sides and flesh sides of the leaves for each open folio -- therefore the color of the underlying membrane for the pages that face each other is the same) and the fact that the manuscript is written in two different hands (like the Blickling Homily manuscript), shows that Beowulf comes from the same scriptorium (if this is true, however, it could also support merely a generic "late" date).
The reign of King Cnut, who was Danish, would be an opportune time to "publish" a poem in which the Danes and other Scandinavians (Geats) were portrayed heroically or at least sympathetically. Some of my students like this "sucking up to Cnut" thesis a great deal. Cnut's reputation is that he tried to be more English than the English, but he was of course still a Dane. So an English poem about Scandinavians seems like it might have appeal in his court.

Problems: Dating the manuscript to 1016 is definitely pushing the envelope for possible dates based on handwriting. Even scribe B, who corrects the entire manuscript and is under this theory the poet seems to have trouble with the Merovingians passage, and I think the Modthryth passage also looks like the scribe may not have entirely understood that Modthryth was a personal name until after he wrote it (wacky Drout theory; feel free to ignore). The palimpsest page is so difficult to read that much of the interpretation has to rely on conjecture, and different scholars make different conjectures.

General arguments that apply to all "late" datings:

The meter of Beowulf seems much "tighter" than that of the dateably late poems, such as The Battle of Maldon (which obviously cannot date from before the 10th century). There are also a variety of linguistic tests that have been devised to attempt to date poems, the specifics of which I am leaving out due to their technical nature. Almost all of these tests (and all of them are disputed) seem to point to an early rather than a late date (I should note that the linguistic and metrical tests are often considered to be more reliable than evidence of, say, verbal parallels, but the applicability of any specific linguistic or metrical test is hotly debated).

Additionally, a number of scholars, including J.R.R. Tolkien (whose unargued hunches are worth taking very seriously) think Beowulf is more like the poem Exodus than it is any other Old English poem (this is obviously subjective), even though Andreas actually has a number of lines or formulae that are also found in Beowulf. Exodus is usually considered, on the basis of language and meter, to be an "old" poem (even though it too exists only in a 10th-century manuscript). It also seems as if the Exodus scribe was having great difficulty understanding his exemplar. This difficulty could be explained if the exemplar for Exodus was in an older form of the language, unfamiliar to the 10th-century scribe of Exodus (on the other hand, Emily Thornbury has recently argued that Christ and Satanalso in the Junius manuscript, might be the mess it is due to a poet copying from a damaged exemplar). So even if we do not accept the linguistic-chronology tests (like Kaluza's Law or various rules about spelling) as giving us accurate information about what century a manuscript was copied, we could perhaps use general, holistic comparison. There are obvious problems with this approach (hunches are hunches and guesses are guesses), but it is also the case that we are dealing with a literary artifact, so that intuition and holistic analysis may count for something.

Finally, the strongest support for late dating always seems to revolve around the manuscript. We do know when it was copied (within 50 years), and, if we do not want to accept some kind of composite authorship (i.e., parts of Beowulf are early and parts are late), we keep coming back to the manuscript, as it is, and its obvious relationships (which are with tenth-century texts). The problem here is that the vast majority of Anglo-Saxon manuscripts were copied in the tenth century, and we know for certain that many of these are copies or translations of much earlier texts, so a tenth-century copy does not prove a tenth-century date of composition.

In the next post I will try to tie all of this together, disclose my own biases, and lay the whole issue to rest (ha!).

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Dating Beowulf Part III Delayed

My colleague just had surgery (he is doing well, thank God), so I have to teach a Hawthorne seminar, which means re-reading chunks of Hawthorne for the first time since my M.A. exam fifteen years ago (does anyone else think that old Nathaniel is a major stylistic source for H.P. Lovecraft? Maybe a better way to put that is that Lovecraft was trying to sound like Hawthorne in places). My son as a 103 fever and vomited at the orthodontist's office, where my daughter was getting a bracket replaced on her braces. It was ballet night and we had parent/teacher conferences at my daughter's school. I just collected 30 grammar and translation exams and the essay portion comes in on Friday. I had to develop, by yesterday, a tentative plan for our department's teaching of English 101, replacements for sabbaticals and future hiring needs for the next five years.

Jane! Stop this crazy thing!

I'll finish up part III of dating Beowulf in a day or two.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Dating Beowulf, Part II: Early Beowulf
(or, in summarizing arguments I convince myself and then unconvince myself)

Previously, in " Dating Beowulf:the mini-series" we discussed the possible range of dates (515-1025) for the poem, broke them into centuries, and examined the arguments for a date in the Migration Period (500-600).

The Conversion Era

Although there had been Christians in the British Isles for centuries and although some Anglo-Saxons were Christian at the time of his arrival, it is conventional (and basically reasonable) to date the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity as beginning with the arrival of Saint Augustine of Canterbury in Kent in 597. King Ethelbert's wife was already Christian and Ethelbert allowed Augustine to preach Christianity. The religion spread throughout Anglo-Saxon England quickly and (remarkably) without bloodshed. The last pagan kingdom, Sussex, converted to Christianity in the 660's.

Aldhelm and Malmesbury
The figure of greatest learning and literary accomplishment in this period is Aldhelm of Malmesbury, eventually the Bishop of Sherbourne. Aldhelm was the foremost Latin poet of the Anglo-Saxon age, writing incredibly difficult and complex meters in a very learned form of Latin with many Greicisms, words taken from glossaries and other signs of learned scholarship. We still possess a significant portion of Aldhelm's poetry and prose (in Latin). But his vernacular works (if they ever existed) are lost to us--probably.
But we do know that Aldhelm composed works in Old English. Supposedly he would stand on a bridge and sing Anglo-Saxon poetry as people were passing by in order to gather a crowd and bring these people to church. King Alfred supposedly named Aldhelm the best of all vernacular poets. Could Beowulf be by Aldhelm?
There is at least some support for this argument. First, Malmesbury Abbey is thought to have possessed a Liber Monstrorum (Book of Monsters). The Beowulf manuscript contains several texts with a strong focus on monsters: Alexander's Letter to Aristotle, the Wonders of the East, and the Life of St Christopher (although these texts have also been dated to later rather than earlier periods), so the idea is that it is perhaps linked to or copied from that Malmesbury Liber Monstrorum.
Second, Michael Lapidge has argued that a large group of obvious errors in the Beowulf manuscript (the confusion of d for the letter eth) would only be possible if Beowulf had an exemplar in an early script in which it was easy to make those particular confusions (and others as well). Thus he would date Beowulf to the later part of the Conversion era or the early part of the "Golden Age," and some scholars (including Mechthild Gretsch, who is the living Anglo-Saxonist I most admire) would even guess that Beowulf might have been written by Aldhelm or someone in his circle.

Metrics: Kaluza's Law
But the biggest support for an "early" date (though it also could be in the Conversion period or the "Golden Age" is a metrical test called "Kaluza's Law." The "law" is too intricate to do justice to here, but the basic idea is that there are certain phonological distinctions made in Beowulf that were not present in Old English after around 685: the Beowulf poet, in this line of argument, can be seen distinguishing between a final e that is long and a final e that is short -- he adjusts his meter accordingly -- but in later Old English all of these final e's would be the same and there would be no way, unless the poet were an immensely accomplished historical phonologist, for him to make that distinction.

Problems: I'll try to be both brief and fair. The argument for the Beowulf manuscript as a Liber Monstrorum runs into difficulty with Judith (although Andy Orchard has an interesting argument as to why this is not a problem). The confusion of d for eth and the other confusions Lapidge notes are found in Beowulf but also in a very wide range of texts from many other times. Critics of Kaluza's law claim that the metricists themselves cannot agree exactly on it and that in any event if parts of the poem consist of memorized or quasi-memorized traditional formulas, they could both be "late" and obey Kaluza's Law.

The "Golden Age"

After the conversion of Christianity in the seventh century, monasticism and its linked Latin learning spread throughout England. By the eighth century, monasteries were rich and powerful and the English institution of the "double monastery" (a house of monks linked to but separate from a house of nuns, all ruled over by an Abbess) had helped to raise English writing, scholarship and book production to a very high level--the Venerable Bede, for instance, was the leading scholar in Europe.

This was the consensus dating for Beowulf until around 1980 (the legend that everything changed at one conference in Toronto is somewhat misleading, since most of the participants in that conference had formulated their ideas and published them in previous years). Tolkien was sure that Beowulf came from the "Age of Bede."

Support: The eighth century is seen as a high point of culture and development for Anglo-Saxon England. One strand of the argument (though it is not often stated explicitly any more) is that before the 8th century England was not developed enough to produce a complex written work like Beowulf and after the 8th century it had fallen to a lower level of development due to the destruction of the Viking raids of the 9th century. Albert S. Cook thought this about Cynewulf: you need peace and prosperity to write good poetry, so you have to look for places and times that have peace and prosperity. Again, I don't know any scholars who explicitly state this theory, but it seems like some would like to place Beowulf in the greatest courts with the most powerful kings (i.e, the court of Offa or the court of Cnut). Also, after the start of the ninth century, when the Viking were ravaging everything in sight, it would be highly unlikely (thought Dorothy Whitelock) that an Anglo-Saxon poet, writing in Old English, would find an appreciative audience for a poem about Danes and other Scandinavians treated both sympathetically and as heroes. Therefore the poem would more likely to have been written before the 790's, when the raids began.

Support: The "Looking Back on Pagan Ancestors" Theory
The clear and rhetorically convincing presentation of this theory was one of Tolkien's great contributions to Beowulf scholarship. Tolkien argues that the poet was a Christian with a deep fondness for his ancestors and their stories but also an awareness that, because they were heathen, those ancestors were doomed not to just to failure in this world, but hell in the next. The sadness that comes with this position informs the entire poem, the theme being "that man, each man and all men and all their works shall die."
For the purposes of dating, having a Christian poet looking back on his pagan ancestors only works if a) the poet is Christian and b) the remembered ancestors were pagan. Therefore, scholars reason, Beowulf needs to be written after the conversion but not too long after the conversion. Thus the "Age of Bede," circa 720-750, works well for this argument.

Problems: 720-750 is a long time after a battle of 515 to be looking back on your pagan ancestors (i.e., if the poet actually knew he was setting Beowulf in a specific time by including Hygelac's raid). The argument that the poem has to be written soon after a conversion is interesting, but there was in fact two conversions in Anglo-Saxon history: the original one, in the 600's, and a later, re-conversion in the 10th century of many Danes who had settled in England and then became Anglo-Saxons and Christians.

Support: The "Sucking up to Offa" Theory
There is a section of Beowulf,around lines 1925-1962, where there is a discussion of a great king named Offa, who "tamed" the evil (assuming she is evil) queen Modthryth (assuming this is her name and not some kind of abstract quality). Many scholars find these lines an intrusion in the flow of the poem at that point and also find the reference to Offa unnecessary. They theorize that the poet is bringing up an ancestor of (also named Offa) of King Offa of Mercia, who ruled from 757-796 (so at the end of the "Golden Age." This passage is seen as the same kind of currying favor with the king that we see in the parade of Stuart Kings in Shakespeare's MacBeth. Offa was also the greatest king of England before Æthelstan in the tenth century, so the unstated argument that you need a great court for a great poem applies to him.

Problems: If the story, about the older Offa, is just one more story that the poet knows, then it might be in the poem not for sucking up purposes, but simply because it is a useful story at that point in the narrative. At least some scholars believe that the poet is here contrasting a bad queen with a good queen and so goes back to his word-hord of stories about bad queens, find the story of Modthryth, and brings in Offa entirely because he is part of the Modthryth story.

Support: The Merovingians
One anomaly in Beowulf occurs at the end of the poem, after Beowulf is dead. A messenger comes to tell his people about the death and starts predicting the (bad) future of the Geatas. The Franks and Frisians and Swedes will attack them for sure, he says, and also the Merovingians. Well, it is not that simple. The manuscript reads "mere wio ingasmilts" and it is only through much philological work that we can get "Merovingian" out of that (the difficulty of the line suggests that the scribe was pretty confused about what his exemplar said at this point). The basic idea in the argument is that the Carolingians, who deposed the Merovingians, tried to eliminate the use of the name and that it was forgotten. Thus if the Beowulf poet used "Merovingian" then he must be writing early, possibly before the Carolingians took over in 751. Tom Shippey argues, with much more detail that I can provide here, that the spelling of Merovingian in the Anglo-Saxon form (with the w) and the poet's use of the term in general can most simply be explained if a Merovingian was actually a king of the Franks when the poem was written. The poet would not need any specific detailed historical knowledge: he only had to know who was king of a neighboring country. If this is true, Beowulf would have been written before 751.

Problems: The Carolingians certainly did try to damn the memory of the Merovingians, but they did not completely succeed. The Merovingians were indeed famous and would usually be linked with the Franks, as they are in the poem. So the poet may just be passing on some traditional or historical knowledge.

Support: The Names of Characters Theory
Related to Shippey's point about the spelling of Merovingians (with the Anglo-Saxon w) is Patrick Wormald's long-standing argument that the names of the more minor characters in Beowulf are all in the forms one would expect if the poem had been written in eighth century. Wormald notes that in lists of names, such as the Durham Liber Vitae, where we can date the names, the forms used in the early period are much closer to those used in Beowulf than are the forms used in the later period. Wormald argued that the poet would not have been scouring historical documents for names for his minor characters but would instead have used 'normal' names in 'normal' spellings from his own time period.

Problems: The strength of this argument is that it is directional: if scribes updated names into current forms, we couldn't tell much about the date of the text from those forms (i.e., if someone reading "Eadweard" in an exemplar changes it to "Edward," and all we have is the "Edward", we don't know when the text was written; but if he writes "Eadweard," we're more likely to believe that he's copying the older text exactly). However, if the poet is deliberately using "old fashioned" names, he could be writing at a later date.

Conclusions for "Earlier" Dating

As you can see, there are a variety of arguments that can be used to support an "early" (7th or 8th century) date. They also have the benefit of being not all mutually exclusive and may in fact hang together, each supporting the other to one degree or another. However, I should note that I have left out some of the best arguments "against" at this point because those are better presented as arguments "for" the "late" datings. I will present those arguments in the next section of the discussion, Part III: Late Beowulf.

I should also note again that I am in many ways grossly oversimplifying, (and I hope I am not making any egregious errors, particularly as I am writing almost all of this from memory and without having recourse to my books right now). I think also, when this is done, if scholars write in with serious objections I will bring them up out of the comments and into a post or two (or three or four...).

Monday, October 15, 2007

Dating Beowulf, Part I
(or, smacking an academic hornets' nest with a stick for fun and [no] profit)

A few years ago I was a last-minute replacement to teach in the summer H.E.R.O. program, which takes promising kids from inner-city high schools and gives them a chance to live on campus and have a college experience in the summer after sophomore year. The students live on campus for two weeks, taking classes, and then they have another two weeks of classes at their high schools, with the professors coming to teach them there. In another post I'll talk about how people were shocked that I would choose to teach Beowulf to kids from inner-city Brockton, how some people were sure that the kids would never enjoy the material, and how it all came together (n.b.: a poem about violence and the price of revenge is particularly relevant during a summer with an epidemic of drive-by shootings). But right now I'll just point out that the single issue that got the students most excited was, believe it or not, the dating of Beowulf. We held a hour-long debate on the topic and the class ended up divided into thirds arguing for a) "Golden Age" Beowulf; b) Reform era Beowulf, and c) Late Beowulf (the Kiernan "Age of Cnut" argument). We never settled anything, but I think they felt very much like scholars for a while.

I got to thinking about that Brockton class and their excitement about the problem of the date because I have done a few interviews lately and the reporters seems always a bit perplexed when I mention that the dating of Beowulf is such an emotionally charged problem that friendships have been lost and beer spilled over it (and see the latest issue of Speculum, which I'll talk more about later). At the end of this post I'll speculate as to why this is, but here I thought I would try (as a useful exercise for myself, if for no one else) to lay out the problem as fairly as I can. I'll disclose right up front that I still haven't made up my mind about the date or, rather, that I've made up my mind several times and changed it just as often. A tenth-century Beowulf would be ideal for my own work (which is why I accepted that date for my dissertation), but I was never particularly confident about that date and am even less so now. On even-numbered days, then, I'm an early dater, but on odd-numbered days I tend to be a late-dater, so in this summary I'll try not to grind any axes and will perhaps end up being equally unfair to everyone. (I anticipate that this will be series of four or five posts, though I may be able to cram it all into three)

The Range of Dates

We start with the manuscript, the unique copy of Beowulf that is known by its library shelfmark, London, British Library, Cotton Vitellius A. xv (the "Cotton Vitelllius" part means that it comes from the collection of Sir Robert Cotton and that in his library it was in the bookcase that had the bust of the Roman emperor Vitellius on it. The "A.xv" means it was on the first shelf down, the 15th manuscript over). From examining the handwriting of the manuscript and comparing it to other manuscripts that we do know the date of (some charters and writs and wills have dates on them, other manuscripts mention things happening and we know these dates), we can determine that the manuscript was copied somewhere around the year 1000 (say, between 975 and 1025). Thus the very youngest Beowulf can be is 1025, because the poem can't be written after the manuscript. A date this late would mean that the person who copied part of Beowulf (because in fact two scribes were involved) would have been the author, not just the scribe. I'll discuss this theory more below.

Most manuscripts that we have are copies, and many are copies of copies of copies of copies. And many (but not all) scholars think that Beowulf is in fact a copy (Tolkien thought that it was at least a copy of a copy) and thus could have been composed some time before the manuscript was copied. For the sake of argument, let's temporarily accept the idea that the poem itself is older than the manuscript (after all, I have a copy of The Lord of the Rings on my shelf that was printed in 2007, but we know that the book was written more than 50 years before that copy). How old, then, could Beowulf possibly be?

One of the events mentioned in the second half of Beowulf is a disastrous raid by Beowulf's uncle Hygelac, the king of the Geats, Beowulf's people. Many years ago the scholar N.F.S. Grundtvig noticed that there is a passage in a work by Gregory of Tours, Historia Francorum (the History of the Franks), that describes how a king named Chlochilaichus led a disastrous raid on his he was killed. Grundtvig noted that "Hygelac" and "Chlochilaichus" are the same name in two different languages (in the same way that "John," "Jean," "Juan" and "Ivan" are all the same name). He concluded that these two raids were the same event, that they must have been historical, and that therefore Beowulf cannot have been written before that raid took place (because otherwise the poem wouldn't be able to mention the raid), around the year 515.

So we now have a range of possible dates for Beowulf: 515-1025, basically 500 years! Longer than the amount of time between Shakespeare and ourselves. No wonder scholars would like to narrow this range down.

Century by Century

If we break those 500 years up into centuries and are willing to be a little fuzzy about the boundaries and grossly overgeneralize, we get this exceedingly rough sketch of Anglo-Saxon history:

500-600: Migration
600-700: Conversion
700-800: "Golden Age"
800-900: Viking Raids
900-1000: Reform
1000-1025: Danish Rule

(A good, pop-culture mnemonic is: MCGiVeReD -- thanks to John Walsh)

There are arguments for seeing Beowulf as having been composed in any one of these centuries, although the two most popular time-frames are the "Golden Age" of 700-800 (this was the consensus for about 75 years) and the post-Viking Raid, Reform era of 900-1000. There are also problems with each century, and nothing is completely conclusive.

The Migration Period

Support: Hygelac's raid happened in 515, so the poem depicts at least one historical event during this time period. The "cultural world" of the poem (to mis-appropriate John Hill's term) appears to be from this period. No character in the poem is Christian, details of armour and weapons are consistent with migration-period artifacts (but also could be consistent with the conversion period). Names of tribes and peoples are consistent with what little we know about the migration period.

Problems: Although no characters in the poem are Christian, the poet / narrator seems to be (he mentions Cain and Abel, for instance, though "Cain" is mis-spelled as "Cam" both times) as well as the Flood and the destruction of the giants. It is not clear how much vernacular literacy there was during the migration period, so the problem how the poem would have come to be written down and transmitted is a difficult one. Also, although the language of Beowulf appears to be 'old' in terms of the body of Old English poetry, it doesn't seem to be that old.

Tentative Conclusion: There is something to be said for locating Beowulf in the time-frame in which at least one episode does happen, and we should ask why the poet would bother to set something in a sixth-century context if he was writing at a much later time period (it is not as if Hygelalc's raid was a major historical incident, well-known centuries later; quite the opposite, in fact). But there is not much other evidence that directly supports the idea of a very, very old Beowulf somehow preserved and transmitted from the sixth century, and I do not know any contemporary scholars who believe that the poems as we have it was written in the migration period.

[tomorrow: the Conversion and the "Golden Age" of Bede and Offa of Mercia]

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Me and Theory
(down at the Burgess Shale...?)

A little while back I read this post at my friend Ecce Equus Pallidus' blog. And laughed when I read:
That's not to say I can't think of examples of theory used, and used truly well, truly creatively, by medievalists. Michael Drout's paper at Kalamazoo this past May is, I think, an example of exactly this. How frequently, though, is this sort of approach employed?
I was being used as an example of someone using Theory!!! (chortle, chortle).

Then today, my new course from Recorded Books came out: A Way with Words Part II: Aproaches to Literature, which is, in fact, a course on literary theory and interpretation, as you can see from the list of lectures:
Lecture 1 Understanding Literature: Some Big Questions
Lecture 2 Language
Lecture 3 The Text
Lecture 4 The Author
Lecture 5 The Audience
Lecture 6 Genres
Lecture 7 Formalism and Forms: Primarily Poetry
Lecture 8 Form, Pattern, and Symbol: Prose
Lecture 9 Literature and the Mind
Lecture 10 What Is Postmodernism and Why Are People Saying Such Horrible Things About It?
Lecture 11 Identity Politics
Lecture 12 Culture and Cultural Production
Lecture 13 The Literary Canon
Lecture 14 What Do We Talk About When We Talk About Literature?

More chortling, because at one point in my department it was decided (mostly, I think, by people who have now since retired) that it was important to keep me away from the students in our English 298: Approaches to Literature course because I was a theory skeptic. Now I'm being used as an example of someone who uses Theory and I've written a short book on it for the course. What's going on? Have I sold out and given up my skepticism?

Not hardly (which is why this is so funny to me). My skepticism towards French post-structuralist theory (the dominant mode when I was coming through undergraduate) is not merely undiminished. I even more firmly believe that huge edifices of work based on Lacan and Derrida* are flat wrong in great part because these thinkers and their followers got Saussure so incredibly wrong and tried to build too much on -- or deconstruct too much away from -- linguistic structuralism. And, to beat my favorite dead horse, these fundamental errors arose because people did not know their linguistics. In particular, they did not know, and certainly did not understand, Chomsky (despite some hand-waving in the direction of "deep structure"), so they did not understand how he had shown that Saussurean structural linguistics was inadequate to explain the workings of language -- you need at least transformational generative grammar (even if that hasn't worked out quite as well as, I think, people thought it would in the 1960s).

So I am anti-Theory in the sense that if someone quotes Derrida or Lacan as an authority, I am inclined to say "hogwash" or, more politely, "interesting idea, but lacks logical consistency and plausible mechanism" or, "you'd be much better off with cognitive neuroscience than with Lacan."

But, I do agree that you need some kind of theory (just not capital-T French Theory) when reading literature. Because there are a whole host of very complicated, inter-related problems (which, by the way, are far more evident and easy-to-teach in medieval literature than in the 20th-century texts that are usually used to teach them) about which a scholar needs to have some kind of coherent opinion. For example, if you're going to talk about the apparent psychology of characters, you need to have some kind of psychological theory (I'd recommend Piaget over Lacan any day, if we have to stay French). But I think it is a mistake, hemming you in and forever making you dependent upon things argued 40 years ago and long since ossified, to believe in French post-structuralist Theory. You can use it, if you're callous about it, by saying "hey, this thinker can jump from A to L to Q to Y. Now I need to go back and try to figure out how to get to that interesting Y insight by explaining how to get from A to B to C to D to E... Y." But you shouldn't buy into it. It's either wrong, or it doesn't rise to the dignity of being able to be wrong (yes, I hang out with scientists).

So you should use theory, but you should go looking for it outside the traditions of Theory. I have had great luck with the Anglo-American philosophers (Dennett, Searle) the linguists (Chomsky, Labov) the biologists (Dawkins, Mayr), the neuroscientists (Kandel, Kosslyn and Koenig) and the social scientists (Sperber, Roehner and Syme, Douglas, Boyer). You can find really useful theories there, and they have the benefit of a) not being done to death by English professors and graduate students b) having a better chance of being right than eloquent speculations of 20 and 30 years ago; c) being beautifully written and a pleasure to read (I was going to say 'even the philosophers,' but instead I'll say 'especially the philosophers').

Or, even better, you should read How Tradition Works and then use that theory (which is mine -- apologies to Anne Elk, Miss) or adapt it for your own needs.

[btw, this all came up because today I did a faculty lunch talk entitled "Rules, Adaptation and Stasis: 10th-Century Benedictine Monasticism as a Model System for Cultural Evolution. It was a revised and updated version of the seminar I gave at the Santa Fe Institute this summer. More on this when I have a chance.]

*What about Foucault? You ask. What about Barthes? Foucault is a weird one. He is almost always wrong when he makes historical claims, noting as he did that almost every phenomenon in which he is interested arose in the French classical period. This is also never true: you can find medieval antecdents for most of Foucault's putatively later operations of power. So in the one sense his entire historical argument fails: these institutions and practices don't just arise when he says they do, and that blasts a huge hole in his larger theory. But, Foucault's insights into these practices almost always hold up even when applied back to medieval texts and practices that his theory says should not be influenced by them (just to give one example, the Anglo-Saxon penitentials). So I find Foucault very useful at times. Barthes is more difficult. On the one hand, his "bourgeoise values are bad, bad, bad, and look at the culture enforcing them" is unbelievably tedious. But Barthes had more literary sensibility than any of the other big guns of Theory and actually took time to learn some underlying linguistics, though his semiology collapses as the science he originally wanted for it because he did not understand how Saussure is explaining the phoneme.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Beowulf Basics

I've been fielding a lot of questions about Beowulf lately (which is a very good thing), and thought that it would be useful to put together a sort of primer on the basics of Beowulf. (Nota: Every one of these comments should probably be equivocated six ways from Sunday, but I'm going to leave them simple. Then you can send me emails that say "You know, you over-simplified that situation," and I'll have to agree).

What is Beowulf?

Beowulf is long a poem (3182 lines) written in Old English (also called Anglo-Saxon), the ancestor of the Modern English that we now speak (if you want to hear spoken Old English, go to The poem survived the Middle Ages in a single manuscript, which was copied some time relatively close to the year 1000. But many scholars think that the poem itself was written significantly earlier than the manuscript: some believe it was written around 750, others in the 800s or 900s. There is no real agreement.
At least a few of the events mentioned in Beowulf appear to be historical, and if so, they occured around the year 515, so the poem could be seen as being set in this time period or a more general, mythical "heroic age."

What is the story in the poem (as distinct from the story in the film)?

Hrothgar, the king of the Danes has continued his family's project of subjugating all enemies. He builds a giant hall, named Heorot, to showcase his power. But a monster, Grendel, invades Heorot and eats Hrothgar's warriors. None of them are able to stop Grendel, and eventually they are forced to abandon sleeping in Heorot.

Far away in Geatland (which may be in southern Sweden) a young hero named Beowulf hears of Hrothgar's monster and resolves to go and kill it (Hrothgar once helped his father). Beowulf leads his men to Heorot and, after some effective diplomacy and a verbal confrontation with one of Hrothgar's men, he is given permission to remain in the hall to try to fight the monster. Grendel attacks and kills one of Beowulf's men, but then Beowulf seizes the monster and eventually wrenches off his arm. Grendel retreats to his swampy lair, leaving a trail of blood.

The next day there is great rejoicing. The Danes hang up the severed arm in the hall and Hrothgar richly rewards Beowulf. But that night, Grendel's mother enters the hall, seizes one of Hrothgar's men and the severed arm, and flees. The next morning Beowulf pursues her to her underwater cave. She grabs him and almost kills him with a knife, but he luckily finds a giant sword hanging on the wall of the cave and uses it to kill her and then decapitate the already dead Grendel who is lying there. Hrothgar's men, seeing the welling of blood in the water, given Beowulf up for dead, but his own men stay by the water. Beowulf comes to the surface with Grendel's head and the hilt of the giant sword. They all return to Heorot, where there is more rejoicing.

Beowulf eventually leaves Denmark with rich prizes. When he reaches his homeland, he gives all his won treasure to his uncle Hygelac, the king. Hygelac then rewards Beowulf with enormous wealth and power. Many years later, after the death of Hygelac and of Hygelac's son, Beowulf becomes king. All enemies fear him and he presides over a period of peace and prosperity. Then, a slave or servant, hoping to avoid punishment, sneaks into a dragon's barrow and steals a cup. The dragon is enraged, and he flies out and burns down Beowulf's hall. Beowulf resolves to kill the dragon. He tells his closest retainers to remain hiding in the woods while he fights the beast.

The battle does not go well, and Beowulf is losing, when one of his retainers, Wiglaf, decides he cannot stand by while his lord is killed. He rushes to Beowulf's aid, and the two heroes manage to kill the dragon (Wiglaf's stroke puts out its fire and then Beowulf finishes it off). But Beowulf has been poisoned by the dragon bite, and he dies, bequeathing his personal possessions (but not, apparently his kingship) to Wiglaf. Wiglaf berates the cowardly retainers and we learn that with Beowulf now gone, his people will be defeated and enslaved by their enemies. The poem ends with the funeral of Beowulf and the lament of the Geats.

[I have left out an enormous amount of the detail and background and Germanic material that makes the poem great]

What was life like in the period in which Beowulf is set/ was written?

After the collapse of the Roman empire, northern Europe was more chaotic and violent than in the past. Various peoples strove rather continuously with each other over land, treasure and prestige. Most people worked in agriculture, but the ones we read about were noble and spent most of their time fighting and ruling. There was both trading and raiding, but most wealth was tied specifically to the argricultural products of land. There was an enormous amount of physical insecurity in this time period because there was no central authority and no clear balance of power, thus enabling a great deal of war. However, it was not an entirely "dark" age: there was Latin learning in monasteries and rather steady technological projects in some fields, particularly agriculture. Certainly the art of poetry thrived in many contexts.

Why are people still interested in Beowulf?

First of all, it's a great story, with much to debate (was Beowulf too eager for fame? Did he put his men and people in danger in pursuit of personal glory?) and study. Also, the problems with the manuscript (there are clear errors, and there is also damage, as the manuscript caught on fire in 1731 and was only barely saved) make for interesting literary-detective work. There are also a plethora of allusions, most of which are controversial, and we think we may be getting a peek into the legendary world of the North as well as the traditional and political culture of the time (which is not recorded very well elsewhere). So even though we have been studying Beowulf for nearly 200 years (the first edition was published in 1815), we still have a lot to learn.

How can I read Beowulf if it is written in this Old English/Anglo-Saxon Language?

There are many, many, many translations of Beowulf, each a product of its own time. The most "poetic" is that by Seamus Heaney. One of the most accurate is by Roy Liuzza (and his has the added benefit of being inexpensive and providing a great many interesting parallels to the poem). One that tries very hard to get the feel of the style of Beowulf is by Frederick Rebsamen. A new one seems to come out every year.

You can also learn to read Old English for yourself and then read Beowulf. My on-line grammar King Alfred's Grammar, is available for free. When I teach Beowulf (I'm teaching a class this spring), it requires a class in the fall on Old English language, which we learn from the grammar book and from translating the poems in John C. Pope's Eight Old English Poems.

What About J.R.R. Tolkien's translation of Beowulf?

It is not going forward right now, but there's always hope that that will change.

Prof. Drout, have you made a translation of Beowulf?

I think every Anglo-Saxonist has made a translation of Beowulf. I'm an Anglo-Saxonist.

Where can I go for more information?

To you neighborhood Anglo-Saxonist (any respectable college will have one on the English faculty; you should be very skeptical about any English department that does not have at least one). On the web, I am very fond of, which is an amazingly good resource. Also Scott Nokes' "Unlocked-Wordhoard" is a central clearing house for all things medieval. I also highly recommend Benjamin Bagby's performance of the first third of Beowulf. Modesty forbids me from saying anything beyond mentioning my reading of the entire poem, available at Beowulf Aloud.

Will you read Beowulf in Old English for me / my class / my story / my podcast / my newscast ?

Certainly, and I plan to post an excerpt or two at Anglo-Saxon Aloud. Maybe if you are really nice I'll sing the Finnsburg episode (or maybe people will band together to pay me not to sing).

Are you going to see the film?

Absolutely. In fact, I'm hoping that the genius students from my Fall 2006 Senior Seminar are going to come to Wheaton for a reunion and that we will all see Beowulf together before dinner at my house [hear that Tradition seminar?]. Other genius students from other classes are, of course, free to suggest a similar event.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Beowulf and Narrative "Tightness"

John Walter, over at Machina Memorialis figures out from the trailers the most significant plot change in the Beowulf film:"Keeping in mind, as I argued on ANSAXNET, trailers are often deceptive these days, I think we finally have a trailer that’s revealing exactly how Gaiman and Avery rewrote the story: Grendel’s mother is the dragon."

It's well worth reading the entire post, but the basic idea, which I think is right, is that Grendel's mother is the dragon, Beowulf lies about killing her due to greed for treasure, and also that Beowulf himself is the "thief" who steals the cup from the dragon, setting off the final confrontation. John links this approach up with the story of Fafnir and talks about Tolkien's dramatization of "dragon sickness" (a point developed in other contexts by Shippey). John says that
In other words, if what we’ve got are echoes of Tolkien here, Gaiman (and Avery) reinscribe Germanic mythology/tradition back onto Beowulf through the lens of modern Fantasy (Tolkien) in much the same way as Terry Pratchett and Tom Holt reinscribe the Victorian conception of the Old North back on to itself through the lens of that other major figure in 20th century fantasy, Robert E. Howard.

I think, without having yet seen the film, that this is a reasonable way of approaching what we know of the adaptation. But I would also add that there's another way to look at the adaptation aside from linking it specifically to Gaiman/Pratchett's tendencies, and that is the idea of "tightness" in narrrative.

Because mass-culture films cannot be much long than 2.5 hours, and because having audience members turn to each other and ask "what just happened?" or "Who is this guy?" Hollywood films tend to increase narrative tightness by reducing the numbers of characters and giving these fewer people more plot duties. In Creative Writing pedagogy we always went over the line from Checkhov, that if someone picks up a gun in Act 1, somebody needs to get shot by Act 5. Although there are of course exceptions, film, written as it usually is by committee and created under the watchful eye of a continuity director, is very good at taking loose threads and weaving them more tightly into the story.

This is fine as it goes for film, and such narrative tightness is also evident in a lot of literature as well: it's a cliche of Dickins criticism that you just need to spot the right very minor character in the first two chapters to know how the whole complicated mess of the plot is going to be solved.

What's particularly interesting to me is how different this aesthetic is from medieval epic (particularly Beowulf) and its direct 20th-century descendents (Tolkienian fantasy), and how the film adaptations of Beowulf and The Lord of the Rings really point out this contrast. One of the things I complained about when seeing the Peter Jackson LotR films was how small they made Middle-earth: and I meant that both physically (you can stand on Orthanc and see Caradhras; you can take a quick jaunt from Henneth Annun to Osgiliath and back to Cirith Ungol) and socially (everyone knows who everybody else is even before they've met).

For example, in Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, Strider and the hobbits are aided by Glorfindel, a powerful elf-lord who is seen at the Council of Elrond and then never really discussed again. In the Ralph Bakshe version of The Fellowship of the Ring, Glorfindel is replaced by Legolas, tightening the narrative in one way (not as many elves). In Jackson's version, the hobbits and Strider are helped by Arwen, thus introducing her into the main narrative and setting up the Aragorn/Arwen love story which is not a main element of Tolkien's story until "Many Partings" (though in hindsight you can figure out bits at the end of "Many Meetings" and with the delivery of the standard to Aragorn).

I think we see this same tightening in the Beowulf movie by making all three monsters closely related and having the action in Geatland be directly motivated by the action in Denmark.

I've already argued as to why the Hollywood film prizes such narrative tightness, but it's just as a big a question as to why medieval epic does not. One answer could be found in John Miles Foley's approach: the audience already knows who all of these characters are, so there's no need in any given instantiation to tie them so tightly together. The entire epic world and its many sub-plots are immanent in the minds of the audience. Therefore to them Beowulf is basically tight already: they know who Unferth, Ingeld, Freawaru and Hrothulf are and how their stories fit together.

Tolkien himself seems to have had a somewhat different view, chalking up at least some inconsistencies (which I will take as lack of tightness, though that is somewhat problematic and would require a much longer argument than I have time for here to really lock it down). In Beowulf and the Critics in which Tolkien writes:

It is extraordinarily difficult, even in a newly invented tale of any length, to avoid minor discrepancies; more so still in re-handling old and oft-told tales. Critics would seem seldom themselves to have experienced the difficulties of narration. The points they fix on in the study, with a copy that can be turned back and forth for reference, are usually such as may easily escape an author, and still more easily an audience. Let us think, say, of Malory, were all his sources lost beyond recall. (B&C 140 n.1)

I think Tolkien started to go even beyond this point, however, but dropped it. If you refer to the Textual Notes for that page, you'll read:
even in a newly invented tale, of any length,

Critics would seem seldom ^themselves to have experienced

beyond recall. I have now ?? ?? ?? ?? in which the heroine's very name changed from Edith to Ethel 170.

You can see why a change from Edith to Ethel would have jumped out at him. I wonder if there would ever be a way to track down what book he was reading that did this (there's a similar minor inconsistency in Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising).

I extrapolate from these quotes and from other things Tolkien wrote to suggest that he recognized--though not naming it--that the work of the critic in the study who can flip back and forth between different texts is fundamentally different from that of the storyteller who has to compose in real time or even who is writing a long tale. To use Ong's terminology, there is a different noetic at play in each case, just as Hollywood films and medieval epics operate under different noetic conventions.

But in writing his works, even though they were conceived in the study where an author can turn back and forth for reference, Tolkien adopted the style -- i.e., the narrative slack -- of the medieval epic. The "Great Chain of Reading" that Gergely Nagy discusses is part of this style, but there is also Tolkien's willingness to introduce entirely new characters -- Gildor, Glorfindel, Farmer Maggot, Erkenbrand, Elfhelm, Quickbeam--and not always tie them neatly into the final action the way they would all have to wrap up neatly in a Dickens novel or a Hollywood film. Narrative slackness is a big part of the aesthetic effect of both Beowulf and The Lord of the Rings (my favorite part in Beowulf being: "Oh, never bothered to mention the second monster until now that she's attacked the hall, stolen the arm and killed Æschere--oops").

I would submit that one of the great gulfs between those who get aesthetic pleasure from Beowulf and LotR in their original forms and those who prefer the film adaptations is likely to be the degree to which the aesthetic of narrative tightness has been internalized. And it's really important, as I keep telling my students, to keep remembering that modernist aesthetics are not universal (i.e., there's no outside standard that proves that "tight" writing is good and "slack" is bad) but matters of habit, preference and tradition.