Sunday, December 14, 2008

Beowulf Aloud: Why so Popular?

[update: I've heard back from the studio, and "The Tickle Me Elmo" of 2008" (thanks, Tom), Beowulf Aloud, will be available again in two weeks, so you won't be able to get on in time for Christmas, but it will make a great New Year's present]

I guess this speaks to the enduring popularity of Beowulf, but there has been a run on copies of Beowulf Aloud lately. Of course I'm grateful, but I hadn't expected it, so I am now temporarily out of copies until I can get new ones made (probably a week or so).

But what is so surprising to me is that Beowulf Aloud is more popular than Anglo-Saxon Aloud: Greatest Hits, even though Beowulf Aloud has been out a lot longer and, it would seem, is less accessible. Anglo-Saxon Aloud: Greatest Hits has both Old and Modern English and is only 2 CDs, not 3. Any yed, I continue to sell twice as many Beowulf Alouds. Weird.

However, if you are looking for some Old English to charm your significant other this holiday season, then you should order Anglo-Saxon Aloud: Greatest Hits, because, although I am rushing the Beowulf Aloud masters to Boston tomorrow, I'm not sure if I'll have them ready by Christmas.

[I am also planning on working with CD-Baby to put Beowulf Aloud and Anglo-Saxon Aloud: Greatest Hits for sale on iTunes, but having to write and record a 14-lecture course, The Anglo-Saxon World, for Recorded Books (by Wednesday, when I have to go down to Manhattan and record) and having a pile of papers to grade so large that the papers at the bottom are starting to turn into diamond is slowing me down there.]

Friday, December 12, 2008

Beowulf and the Critics

The other day I got a tip that copies of Beowulf and the Critics are selling at used book sites for well over $100.00. 'What's up with that?' I thought. I bought a few copies in September and sold them at A Long-Expected Party. Now I wish I had some extra ones in the basement to sell.

It turns out that even the super-expanded print run we did of Beowulf and the Critics has finally sold out. So the book is right now out of print. Hence the high prices (and those of you who bought B&C at ALEP -- whatta bahgain!).

But I've been in touch with the publisher, and we are going to reprint, so don't worry. The question we're working on right now is whether or not to do a paperback and whether or not to do a revised edition. I have discovered some errors that it would be good to correct, and there's a little new scholarship available (some by me, much more by Wayne Hammond and Christina Scull) that could be relevant.

So only pay those ridiculous prices if you need the book for research in the next few months. Though I guess that if we do a new edition, that will make those old ones a more collectible first editions (there are two printings; the first print run was only 300 copies, and there are two different covers, one with a little banner). Argh! Why didn't I keep more than my personal copy and one in the display case at work?

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Miracles of Medicine

To everyone, especially my students, whose emails I haven't returned. I'm really sorry, and I'll try to catch up, but my four-year-old son has been very sick (vomiting for 12 hours straight) and we had to take him to the Emergency Room last night for IV fluids. He's now doing much better, but it was (obviously) very tough for him and for the family.

Very sobering to think that 50 years ago, or at least 100 years ago, a bad bout of stomach flu could mean a dead child. It certainly makes one grateful for the years of science and engineering and medicine that goes into having an IV line with a peristaltic pump and sterile saline solution and the miracle drug of zofran and the ability to check blood electrolytes in less than an hour. And most of all, I'm grateful for the training and kindness of every single person we encountered in the ER. My little guy went from a limp, glassy-eyed rag doll to a somewhat contented child munching on popsicles and watching Bob the Builder in only a few hours. Thanks to you all, and to the long, long line of giants upon whose shoulders we all stand. May our own efforts be worthy of theirs and give as much to the people of the future as they have given to us.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Good Rhetoric = Bad Argument?

In a post a while back I talked about pushing the metaphor until it breaks as a way of really testing whether a metaphor is a useful heuristic, whether it illuminates what you are discussing or obscures it. I argued that "imbricated discourses" is a bad metaphor and thus just a piece of jargon intended to show that you are a member of a certain clerisy (and I just wanted to put the boot in on "imbricated discourses" yet again since this blog is now the #3 google search for "imbricated," so hopefully people will see how stupid "imbricated" is and will stop using it outside of contexts in which the metaphor, overlapping shingles on a roof, is really descriptive. If I can help make the use of "imbricated discourses" the sign of sloppy thinking and a second-rate mind, I'll be a happy person).

On the last day of classes, I was discussing Smith of Wootton Major with the students in my J.R.R. Tolkien class and gave them the famous quote by Roger Lancelyn Green that seeking meaning in Smith is to "cut open the ball in search of its bounce."

When I was giving my talk in Norway, I mentioned another nice bit of rhetoric, by Maurice Bloch, who, in criticizing meme-based theories of culture, stated that “the culture of an individual, or of a group, is not a collection of bits, traits or memes, acquired from here and there, any more than a squirrel is a collection of hazelnuts.”

Now both of these pieces of rhetoric are quite effective in that they always get a laugh and do a lot to move the audience to the "side" of the speaker. But the more I analyze them, especially as metaphors, the more I think they are fundamentally wrong and that they are a kind of sophistry that is very counterproductive to understanding the world.

The rhetorical stance of both metaphors implies that the speaker is being sensible and arguing for some kind of holistic or integrated approach that the "dissectors" (to steal a term from Tolkien's "Beowulf:The Monsters and the Critics") are missing. The metaphor is supposed to show how dumb such an approach would be: What kind of an idiot would cut open the ball to try to find the bounce? Ha, ha! There's no bounce in there. Who would dissect a squirrel to find all the hazelnuts that make it up? Only a total bozo--like you, who is using this approach.

That's an effective stance in many cases, but I think it is sophistry. Because the point is that the metaphor is supposed to fail, and fail easily, and from the failure of the metaphor, we are supposed to see the failure of the larger argument to which it refers.

But in both of these cases, I don't think the metaphor actually fails, and thus the rhetorical device, when examined carefully, actually does the opposite of what the speakers intend.

Let's take the ball and the bounce. Setting aside the danger of cutting open a golf ball and having the radioactive goo inside that makes it bounce so far leak out (I believed this as a child, at least for a while), you can in fact "find" the bounce if you cut open a ball. First, after cutting it open, you examine its internal structure and determine the physical construction of the ball--solid rubber, twine wrapped around a core, air under pressure, solid wood. Then you examine those materials in more detail, perhaps producing micrographs to determine physical structure, grain boundaries in rubbers or plastics, for instance. Then you do some chemistry to figure out how the molecules of the material are arranged, noting, for example, long chains of polymers and whether they are cross-linked or not and to what degree. At a certain point, when you understand the forces of tension and compression, stored energy, etc., you have "found" the bounce; you understand why the ball behaves the way it does.

If you have never cut open the ball, you might be talking about abstract qualities of "bounce-ness," but you really would not understand it. So the rhetorical attack, which relies on the metaphor failing, actually fails itself, because the metaphor succeeds.

Likewise with the squirrel and the hazelnuts, though in a different way. A squirrel that eats hazelnuts is in fact composed of hazelnuts, but to understand how, we need to break down the hazelnuts into their component parts (proteins, carbohydrates, lipids, etc.) and then understand the biochemical property by which the squirrel changes hazelnut into squirrel. Bloch has mis-identified the level of analysis of meme-based approaches, which are really working at the biochemical level but which he insists on seeing at the hazelnut level. (To be technical for just a moment, Bloch's "hazelnuts" are very large, co-adapted meme-plexes, but meme-based theory is much more interested in separating out much, much smaller memes, analogous to the complex chemicals in the hazelnuts. The structure of the hazelnuts also has something to tell us about the squirrel, as do their production, digestions, etc., etc.). So this metaphor also fails to fail in the way the device assumes it will for all right-thinking people.

When I discussed this with my students, I pointed out that they should get particularly suspicious when the metaphor seems to work too well in one way or the other. That is, a beautiful metaphor should be pushed until it breaks and then the pieces examined (or, if it does not break, then its robustness will be demonstrated). And the metaphor designed to fail should be treated as if it might actually work.

The worst intellectual failures happen when things people want to hear get put into a pleasing form. The rhetorical techniques illustrated by Green and Bloch encourage such failings. And "imbricated discourses" is still a useless bit of annoying jargon and people will think you're a doofus if you use the phrase.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

The 'Canterbury Charm'?

[See below for updates]

Help! I have to do a TV taping tomorrow in New York, and the producers just provided me with a gigantic list of questions they want to ask. One set of the questions is about "The Canterbury Charm," which supposedly mentions Thor.

The problem: I know nothing about "The Canterbury Charm." I did some research, and I can find almost nothing. So I plead with my readers to help me.

Here's what I have figured out:

Wikipedia thinks there is such a thing as the Canterbury Charm and other, possibly questionable sites say:

171. Canterbury Charm:

kuril sarþuara far þu nu funtin is tu þur uigi þik þ(u)rsa trutin kuril sarþuara uiþr aþrauari
Kuril wound-causer, go now, you are found. Thor hallow you, Lord of Troll, Kuril wound-causer. Againstblood-vessel pus.
Since Thor hallows with his hammer, the ‘Thor hallow you’ must be understood as ‘Thor strike you with hishammer!’, which makes sense in this curse against a sickness.

Supposedly the charm is found in the margin of a 1073 manuscript. Another site says it is in Cotton Caligula A.xv., which indeed dates in part to 1073.


There is no mention in Ker's Catalogue of such a charm.

Searching on the strings of words in the DOE corpus produces nothing (trying sar Taura, sarTaura, funtin, trutin, etc.)

The charm is supposedly written in runes, but there is no mention of it that I can find in Ray Page's An Introduction to English Runes

These problems could be explained if the charm is considered Old Norse. C.f., the inscription on the Glavendrup stone, "þor uiki þasi runar" (Thor bless these runes). But there is no mention of it in Heather O'Donoghue's excellent intro to Old Norse/Icelandic, and it's not familiar to my go-to person on charms, magic and medicine in Anglo-Saxon England, either.

Guillame Schiltz presented a paper at ISAS in 2003 in Arizona on the charm (The Canterbury Charm: Evidence for Mutual Exchange During Conversion?), and later there was this publication:

Schiltz, G. (2004) Der Canterburyspruch oder "wie finden dänische Runen und englische Komputistik zusammen?" Ein Beitrag zur historischen Textlinguistik. In: Th. Honegger (ed.): 'Riddles, Knights and Cross-dressing Saints: Essays on Medieval English Language and Literature' (Collection Variations). Bern: Lang, p.115-138.

I don't have a copy of Stanley's The Search for Anglo-Saxon Paganism anywhere close, so I can't check if he mentions it.

So, dear readers, so much better informed than I am:

Does anyone know the full context of the charm?
Is the use of "Thor" an example of a Scandinavian deity being invoked in an A-S manuscript?
Why isn't the Canterbury charm in the OE corpus?

Thank you!!


[UPDATE: See John Cowan's comments below, which pretty much answer most of my questions. Far better internet search skills than I possess. And K.A. Laity via Scott Nokes sent this link, where Alaric Hall mentions it on page 4. So the charm is legit. and not just something that got dumped into Wikipedia.

I conclude that the charm isn't in Ker or Page or the DOE corpus because it is Old Norse (I guess it says something about my glacially improving ON that I just read the charm and it didn't really register what language it was in), and that it really does say something about Thor. That will have to do for the crazy TV shoot tomorrow. Thank you all!!]