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.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Dudes, we're a franchise!

Over on ANSAX-net (the Anglo-Saxonist's listserv) and in a few other places, there has been discussion about the trailer for the upcoming Beowulf movie.

One of the big questions that keeps popping up is why the movie has to take such liberties with the story. There's been some fairly predictable (at least to me, if only because of the eternal arguments about the Peter Jackson The Lord of the Rings films) debate about how the adaptation is inferior to the original versus the idea that stories need to be updated to fit the times in which they are performed.

I go two ways on this. On the one hand, no one is giving me a hundred million dollars or so to make a Hollywood movie (although if any readers want to do this, don't think I'm ruling it out), and so, because there is a lot of money for a lot of people on the line, I'm inclined to give the benefit of the doubt to people who think they know what their audience wants. On the other hand, I think that Hollywood films (which are, remember, made by committee no matter whose name is on the box-top) tend to think that the lowest common denominator is lower than it has to be. My take (and remember, I haven't had a chance to lose a few million on an unsuccessful movie) is that when Hollywood takes risks and respects the audience, things work out for the better. One of the biggests risks in both Beowulf and The Lord of the Rings would be sticking very closely to the story, but such a risk can pay off commerically. For example, the Narnia movie deviated very little from the original text and was very commercially successful.

The big question, though, is: why make a Beowulf movie and then not follow the story? As Johnny Cochrane said on South Park, "It does not makes sense." Want to make a film with Angelina Jolie as a naked snake-woman, and a character beating beating a monster with its own severed arm (I think every time he whacks Grendel with the arm he should say "Why are you hitting yourself? Huh? Why are you hitting yourself?" -- now you can tell I have a younger brother), and dragon rodeo? Why not just make a move with those things in it? But no, you add those things and you still call it Beowulf.

The only answer that makes sense to me is that the film-makers and their financial and marketing people thought that the Beowulf name was worth something. Otherwise there's no reason to use it if you are changing the story. That means that Beowulf, rather than being interpreted in the culture as something boring and tedious (i.e., Woody Allen's "never take a class in which you have to read Beowulf"), is being interpreted as something exciting and worth paying attention to.

That means that to some degree all of our work over the past twenty years or so has succeeded. Many, many of us have been preaching and teaching the joys of Beowulf, and we've helped bring about a cultural change. That's a very big deal, and a very good thing for Beowulf studies, Anglo-Saxon and medieval literature in general. Dudes, we're part of a franchise.

[now, in my next post, I try to tie this in to my recent experience in my Anglo-Saxon class, where students were extremely interested in the Indo-European language tree, ablaut and umlaut. Really. They were. I'm not making it up.]

Monday, September 24, 2007

A Job in Film Studies in the Wheaton English Department

This year the English department here at Wheaton will be searching for a tenure-track, Assistant Professor in Film Studies: World Cinema. The ad mostly speaks for itself, but I can elaborate on a couple of things. First, we already have a specialist in Hollywood film and want to expand our offerings to meet student demand, so our new colleague will not have to invent a film program at Wheaton or introduce it to a department. Second, every professor in the department, at every rank, teaches English 101, so the successful applicant should make it clear in the cover letter how he or she will do this. Finally, Wheaton is a small liberal arts college where teaching is valued very, very highly. Write accordingly.
We will be interviewing at MLA. I won't be part of the interviewing committee, but the entire department reads all the applications, so I'll be reading them.

[This last bit is personal from me rather than anything the department has discussed. You know the job letter in the smallest possible font with the smallest possible spacing and the eyelash-thin margins on each side? I hate that. Remember that your readers are poring over at least 100 other applications. If you make it difficult to read by cramming in everything and the kitchen sink and playing buzzword bingo, your letter is just a blur and readers are unlikely to remember it. You have a much better chance of standing out from the competition if your letter is pithy, clear and absolutely free of buzzwords].

Assistant Professor of Film – World Cinema
The English Department at Wheaton College, in Massachusetts, invites applications for a tenure track position in film at the level of Assistant Professor. Ph.D. in film, English or a related discipline and teaching experience required. We are seeking to add a scholar with primary research and teaching interests in the fields of World Cinemas, Third Cinema, or the aesthetics and cultural history of cinematic traditions outside Europe and the United States. The candidate will also be expected to contribute to introductory courses in film and to teach first-year writing. All members of the department teach courses outside their primary specializations, and we look forward to hearing how the range of your interests can further enrich our program. Areas of additional specialization might include but are not limited to film and literature, comparative film studies, the globalization of cinema and multi-ethnic approaches to film. Wheaton is a liberal arts college in New England with a standard teaching load of 3-2. Wheaton continues its dedication to hiring a diverse faculty and encourages applications from women and people of color. Send letter, vita, dissertation abstract and self-addressed postcard for acknowledgement, postmarked by November 15, to Michael Drout, Chair, Dept. of English, Wheaton College, 26 E. Main St., Norton, MA, 02766. AA/EOE -

Monday, September 17, 2007

Why I Heart Walter W. Skeat

I've been reading Principles of English Etymology, by the Rev. Walter W. Skeat, Litt.D., Elrington and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon in the University of Cambridge (because that's the kind of person I am). I find Skeat's explanation of sound changes better than the more recent ones (as I discussed in this post), and I am just thoroughly enjoying the book.

But I think what I like most is Skeat's persona coming through in the writing in a way that contemporary academic writing doesn't allow. He's even crabbier than Tolkien! (And I see the antecedents of some of Tolkien's academic writing in Skeat, but I'll write that up in a more formal context later).

Skeat is obviously very frustrated with dilettante etymologists who do not understand vergleichende Philologie (maybe that's why I love him so), and he lets these people have it with both barrels on many occasions.

Here is one of my favorites:

If we say that E. foot is derived from the G. Fuss (as is actually said by many), we are then talking nonsense, and contradicting all history; if we say that the G. Fuss is derived from the E. foot (as is never said by any, because Englishmen dare not say so and Germans know better), we are talking a trifle more sensibly and contradicting history a little less. We must, however, use neither phrase; we must drop the term 'derived' altogether, and employ the term 'cognate.'

Ah, "because Englishmen dare not say so and Germans know better." I laughed out loud while sitting watching my daughter to gymnastics. "We are talking a trifle more sensibly and contradicting history a little less." Why can't people write like that, simply and clearly and with a real wit and personality showing through, in academic books in English (the discipline)?

The book is filled with such mordant gems as that above. Skeat, for example, does battle time and again with the notion that English bite is derived from German beissen, and on the third or fourth time gives a footnote which reads "I feel obliged to continue to protest against this childish error because I find, by experience, that it is deeply rooted, widely spread, and extremely mischievous."

Obviously I have found a kindred spirit.

Walter W. Skeat, Henry Sweet, Albert S. Cook: Shippey is right when he says that we have a long way to go before contemporary English studies has advanced to the level of, say, the 1890s.

At that time, in the first rush to learn and use vergleichende Philologie in the English-speaking world, the subject of English was held in the highest esteem, both among the public and in the universities. Now our beloved subject is less respected than it has ever been.


[* Let me add that there are problems in Skeat, particularly in terminology. He uses "Teutonic" for "Germanic," "Aryan" for "Indo-European" and "Icelandic" for "Old Norse" ("Old Icelandic" is a compromise). Skeat gives good explanations for why he uses the terms he does, but coming across them now is disturbing, illustrating how words change through events external to their phonetic history. No matter what "Aryan" meant to Skeat, it does not mean only that now, and we read the past through the built-up layers of our own history and inheritances.]

Thursday, September 13, 2007


Wormtalk and Slugspeak: Where medieval geekery meets idiotic internet trends.

This is quite possibly the dorkiest thing I have ever posted. And that is saying a lot.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Teaching Old English Vocab and Vowel Changes

My, there's and exciting title for a post!

At some point soon I will write a post about how great it is to be Department Chair (hint: think of the smallest amount of great you can picture. Then divide it in half. Then divide it in half again. Then divide it in half again... [with apologies to the Mathemagician]).

But now I want to discuss a method I've been testing out for teaching Old English vocabulary and vowel changes.

This weekend I was reading Walter Skeat's Principles of English Etymology (yes, that's the kind of thing I do for my few hours of "fun" on the weekend), and I noticed the way he clusters together a whole variety of words that exhibit the same vowel changes from Old English to Modern English. When he does this, you get pairs of words, like wa = woe, na = no, ga = go. You'll notice that all the words on the left side of the equals sign rhyme with each other and all the words on the right rhyme with each other.

So, I'm sitting on a lawn chair, reading Skeat and watching my son water a bunch of rocks with the hose, and my daughter comes over to ask me what I'm reading. I started reciting: "wa, woe; na, no; ga, go" and then I said "ta" and she said "toe." I tried again with "da" and she said "doe" (I guess it could have been "dough" or "doh!", but it sounded like "doe" to me).

And I realized that if it worked for a 7-year-old, it just might work for college students.

I did try it a bit with college students the next day, and they seemed to get it. So now I'm preparing lists of words for each vowel for them go to over. I'm hoping that they will then have an easier time figuring out Modern English forms in OE words and thus spend less time with the Clark Hall Dictionary (though for most of the class they either use my King Alfred glossary or the glossary in Eight Old English Poems).

My questions:

I don't remember this approach being used in other grammar books, but did I miss one where it was?

This seems like it might be a more effective approach for learning vocabulary than Barney's Word Hoard, which has words in semantic clusters rather than simply in terms of vowels (rhyme).

Do you think this approach will work in the long run?

Below is a list of a few of the words for a few vowels. Feel free to use (after all, I pulled them from Mr. Skeat).

la = lo!
wa = woe
na = no
ga = go
da = doe
ta = toe

swa = so

hwa = who
twa = two

hal = whole
mal = mole

†rawan = to throw
sawan = to sow
mawan = to mow
crawan = to crow
cnawan = to know

ham = home
lam = loam
fam = foam

ac = oak
stracian = stroke
spaca = spoke

rad = road
gad = goad
tad = toad
abad = abode

wrat = wrote
gat = goat
bat = boat

rap = rope
sape = soap
grapian = grope

Papa = Pope
(Pronounced "Pap - a", not like "Poppa"; explains why we say “Pope” but “Papacy,” “Papal.”)[more detail in comments]

he = he
∂e = thee
we = we
me = me

hedan = to heed
redan = to read
steda = steed
sped = speed
fedan = to feed
ned = need
bredan = to breed
bledan = to bleed
creda = creed

swete = sweet
scet = sheet
fet = feet
metan = meet
gretan = greet
bete = beet

wepan = to weep

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Out of the Mouths of Babes...

My Department Chair duties have recently been pretty demanding, and getting the semester started has also taken its toll, so blogging has suffered. So in place of anything substantive, I have a little story:

My son, who is a little over three years old, has decided that the biggest insult in the world is to say that someone or something "poops in his pants." When he's playing with his cars and wants Lightning to say something mean to Snotrod, he says "You poop in your pants." When he was offered some food he didn't like I asked him: "Why don't you like lima beans?" Answer: "Lima beans poop in their pants." "Why are you afraid of spiders?" "Spiders poop in your pants." You get the idea.

My son is also an absolutely fanatical Red Sox fan. He knows every player by sight and can remember what they each did in previous games. He also recognizes players on other teams. And when he dislikes a player, you can guess what he says that player does in his pants.

Today he was going through his list of players he does not like (hint: they all come from a certain team in New York): "Derek Jeter poops in his pants." "Hideki Matsui poops in his pants." "Jorge Posada poops in his pants." Then he said "A-Rod." And stopped. So, of course, I asked him: "Does Alex Rodriguez poop in his pants?" To my surprise, my son said "No." Then he started laughing. "What? Doesn't A-Rod poop in his pants?" I asked. "No." Hysterical giggles. "A-Rod poops in Derek Jeter's pants."

While laughing along with him I realized that at some deep level I will always be a three-year-old.