Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Clash of the Gods: Beowulf Evaluation

An excerpt from the Beowulf episode of Clash of the Gods is now up on YouTube, and I've embedded it below [UPDATE: it was pulled down for copyright violation. That was quick!]. Overall I'm reasonably happy with how it all came out. I didn't say anything obviously idiotic, which is a relief.

I was most pleased by the way the producers worked in archeological work and material culture into the discussion, even going so far as to bring in the battle between the Geats and the Swedes (though they cut my attempted explanation of who Eadgils was -- maybe too many names in too short a time) and showing the reconstruction of one of the halls at Lejre. Since I think it's really important for us to change our view of Beowulf as being entirely set in fantasy land, as opposed to the "named lands of the North," I'm very happy to think that a wide audience heard part of the case for this view.

But the handling of the story elements wasn't quite as good. There were a few modifications of the story for the sake of drama that I think went too far: In the poem Grendel's mother drags off one thane instead of slaying many; the sword Hrunting comes not for Beowulf's men but from Hrothgar's retainer, etc. I don't think there was any intention to distort the story, but instead a game of "telephone," where one person read a translation, wrote a synopsis, listened to an 'expert,' etc., and the events of the poem end up being changed, perhaps even unconsciously, so that they more easily fit a particular storyline. Beowulf isn't a perfect fit for contemporary storytelling (which is one reason I and many others love it so).

But overall it was nicely done, though a little bloody for my kids to watch (though I do like the fact that I'm doing background narration in a scene where there is decapitation). Also happy that the 'dragons come from people seeing dinosaur skeletons' theory was given some play. In the end, I'm not sure I buy the premise that Beowulf himself was likely to have been historical: he is the part of Beowulf who for me lives in fantasy land as much as the Grendels and the dragon. It's everything around him that lives in the partially remembered world of the North. Still, very fun. I'm now very interested to see how the Lord of the Rings episode turns out, and to see if they used my answer to the question "can you summarize The Silmarillion in two minutes?" (I am not making that up).

Monday, September 28, 2009

Tonight on The History Channel: Clash of the Gods -- Beowulf

Tonight we will finally find out how my talking-head performance went. It's time for Clash of the Gods: Beowulf. It airs at 10:00 p.m. Eastern Time on the History Channel.

I haven't seen the episode, but I'm hopeful that my attempt to explain the battle on the ice at Lake Vanern and the relevance of Eadgils (among other things) got picked up.

I didn't do as much for this episode as I did for The Lord of the Rings (next week) and Thor. but I answered a fair number of questions.

So it's not quite as exciting as the Staffordshire Hoard, but tomorrow (actually Tuesday, when the kids get to watch the recording) will be a fun day at the Drout homestead.

//Below I'm pasting in a repeat of a post for the benefit of people who are googling for Clash of the Gods.//

Welcome, History Channel Clash of the Gods Viewers

Thanks for dropping by. It was a real pleasure to work with The History Channel on the series. I contributed to the episodes on Beowulf (Sept. 28), The Lord of the Rings (Oct 5), and Beowulf (Oct. 12). All the shows air at 10 p.m. on Mondays on The History Channel. I myself haven't seen them yet, so I don't know how they'll come out, but the producers asked good questions and listened to my answers, so I'm pretty hopeful that the episodes will be good.

I'm Professor of English at Wheaton College in Massachusetts, where I teach Old English (also called Anglo-Saxon), Middle English (what Chaucer spoke), fantasy, science fiction and courses on J.R.R. Tolkien. This year I am on research leave and trying to finish four different books (on tradition, Tolkien, grammar and philology; in retrospect, I probably should have worked on one at a time), but I am giving some talks away from campus, including at Bowdoin College in Maine (Oct. 1 & 2) and Washington College in Maryland (April). I'll also be participating in one or more Scholarly Sojourns (more info to follow).

While you're here, look around the archives, or check out some things that may be of interest:

If you want to hear Anglo-Saxon, the language of Beowulf (and J.R.R. Tolkien's academic specialization), you can go to Angl0-Saxon Aloud, where I've posted a podcast of every poem in Anglo-Saxon (there are a lot). Some of the favorites are The Wanderer, The Seafarer, The Dream of the Rood, and excerpts from Beowulf.(just ignore the dialogue box; you don't need to give any info). Currently I'm recording and posting the homilies of Wulfstan, who would definitely have had a Sunday morning television show if he were alive today.

If you like Anglo-Saxon Aloud, you can buy the Anglo-Saxon Aloud: Greatest Hits, which is a two-CD set. This includes the most popular poems both in Old English and Modern English as well as introductory discussions of each poem.

Or, if you like both Anglo-Saxon and Beowulf, I also sell Beowulf Aloud, a 3-CD set that includes the entire poem of Beowulf plus an introductory lecture.

If you'd like to learn to read Anglo-Saxon, you can use my on-line grammar book, King Alfred's Grammar. The book is designed to walk you through Old English and does not assume that you already know a lot about grammar.

My edition of J.R.R. Tolkien's Beowulf and the Critics is temporarily out of print, but a new edition is at the publisher, so I'm hopeful that will be available soon. My book How Tradition Works is more technical, but, I think, interesting to those who like Anglo-Saxon literature and theories of cultural evolution.

My latest course on CD, The Anglo-Saxon World, should be out from Recorded Books' Modern Scholar series any day now. Until that comes out, I have a number of other courses available in the series, including those on Chaucer, Fantasy Literature, Science Fiction, The History of the English Language, Writing and Rhetoric, Approaches to Literature, Grammar (this is actually a really fun course) and Understanding Poetry.

Again, thanks for stopping by, and I appreciate any comments, suggestions or criticism. I'm also trying to convince The History Channel that they should do a whole series (or at least a longer show) on Beowulf and/or Anglo-Saxon. If you think that is a good idea, please let them know.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Staffordshire Hoard

The largest Anglo-Saxon gold hoard ever discovered was unearthed this July in Staffordshire by an amateur treasure hunter. The website is here and a gallery of images on Flikr is here.

The hoard seems to be a "trophy hoard," a collection of items, possibly taken in warfare, that were then buried for safekeeping. They are not part of a funeral or offering, at least as far as we can tell. Many of the items are decorative parts of sword hilts and other military gear.

One of the most intriguing finds is a strip of gold inscribed with Latin: [.] I R G E : D N E : D I S E P E N T U // [.] F I N I M I C I T U I [:] E/T
[.] U G E N T Q U I O D E R U N // T T E A F A C I E T [U] A

Elizabeth Okasha takes the inscription as being:

[.]irge domine disepentu[r] inimici tui et [f]ugent qui oderunt te a facie t[u]a

which is a quotation from Numbers 10:35, though probably taken directly from Psalm 67:2, where it is also used. Translated, it means “Rise up, Lord, and may your enemies be dispersed and those who hate you be driven from your face.”

It has not yet been determined what the inscribed strip is, though it may have been part of a shield or helmet. Michelle Brown (annoying name-dropping: she's my friend!) dates the script to the eighth or ninth century. There is already some speculation that the hoard could be part the immense treasure supposedly paid to King Penda of Mercia by King Oswiu of Northumbria, but there really isn't any specific evidence at this stage.

Anglo-Saxonist websites and facebook pages are all abuzz right now. It is an incredibly exciting find, mostly because it is so beautiful, but also because of the potential to shed new light on Anglo-Saxon culture. And it's really wonderful to think that such a find could be made in 2009: what else is buried at the edges of old fields or in areas that for a long time were marginal but are now plowed or developed?

Friday, September 18, 2009

New Course: The Anglo-Saxon World (and an update on Clash of the Gods schedule)

My ninth course for Recorded Books, The Anglo-Saxon World, is now available. I'm really happy with the way it came out: as always, the Recorded Books people did an amazing job with the design and production.

It can be tricky teaching in your direct specialty. My student evaluations in Anglo-Saxon used to be consistently a little lower than in my English 101 or Chaucer courses, and this was incredibly frustrating. Anglo-Saxon is, after all, my baby. But looking back over those early evaluations, I saw that I sometimes lost The Big Picture because I was so invested in certain technical questions. I now make a special effort to make sure that even as I dive into fun, technical arguments, I keep them connected to the major points of the course. I think this worked in The Anglo-Saxon World, where I have a full lecture devoted to Anglo-Saxon from the Conquest to the Renaissance and another that goes from Thomas Jefferson to Angelina Jolie. I also used more archeology in this course that I have done in the past, in part because recent work by John Hines, John Blair and Christina Lee showed me how to integrate archeological findings with other kinds of material.

The course also has a website, The Anglo-Saxon World, which right now just includes the full translations of some of the poems I discuss--some of these were too long to fit in the course book. Recorded Books also has a blog now.

If you want more Anglo-Saxon (and who doesn't, really?) you can go to Angl0-Saxon Aloud, where I've posted recordings of the entire Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records and am finishing up the homilies of Wulfstan, and, as always, I have for sale Beowulf Aloud and Anglo-Saxon Aloud: Greatest Hits.

And this is a reasonable segue to Clash of the Gods on The History Channel. I just spoke to one of the producers--they were doing final voice-over work on the Lord of the Rings episode and needed pronunciation advice--and the schedule for the series has been revised, so that the Thor episode will now be last (I hope that means an even cooler cgi Midgard Serpent) and Beowulf will be the first of my episode to air, on September 28. That's different from what the website says (some maybe you should watch on Sept 21, too, just in case), but here's the schedule they gave me over the phone:

Sept. 28: Beowulf
Oct. 5: The Lord of the Rings
"Last": Thor (I think that would be Oct 19, because Minotaur would have to be Oct 12, but I may have lost track).

[One quick story about a reason I'm so happy about the way the course came out. A number of years ago I very publicly said that we should put a fifteen-year moratorium on Anglo-Saxon books with the Sutton Hoo helmet on the cover. So of course when Recorded Books sent me the proofs of The Anglo-Saxon World, our old pal the helmet, the most overused image in medieval studies, was on the cover (very nicely done, but still...). Part of my publishing agreement is that I don't have final say over covers, marketing, etc., so if that's what they wanted to do, I was just going to have to live it with it. But all praise to Recorded Books in that they made a new cover, using an image of Bede's Life of Cuthbert from the Digby MS. So I avoid eating crow and the cover is beautful. Win!]

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

FMyLife, Academic Version

Months ago:
Snippy review criticizes my edition of Beowulf and the Critics for not discussing Haber's A Comparative Study of Beowulf and the ├ćneid and Bertha Phillpotts' article on "Wyrd and Providence." I get all worried. I go and re-read the book and the articles wondering why I would be so stupid to leave out something so obvious. Turns out there was a reason: the stuff was completely irrelevant.

Anonymous referee writes: "Drout should look at Title of Book." Remarkably boring, Title of Book is almost entirely irrelevant to my paper. I spent today reading it. All 400 pages. All of today. Hey, I've got a new footnote.

Clearly I am incapable of learning from my mistakes. FMAcademicL.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Beowulf and the Moops

Right now on ANSAX-L, the Anglo-Saxonists' listserv, there is an argument raging about the historicity of Beowulf (Yes, some things never change).

One part of the argument goes like this:

Witega 1: We have a poem in a manuscript from the 10th century. Read that poem. As it is. Don't try to reconstruct an earlier version.

Witega 2: But there are things in the manuscript that make no sense. You've got to emend them, and when you do, you reconstruct an earlier version of the poem.

Witega 1: What you think is a mistake may not be, but if it is, it may just be the equivalent of the typo and does not give you license to go creating ancestral versions of Beowulf.

Witega 2: But the scribes of Beowulf consistently get names of people and places bollixed up. The scribes don't have any idea who the Merovingians are, or the Heruli, or Eomer, or Heardred, but the poet did. So "read the poem we have" is impossible.

Witega 1: No it's not.

Witega 2: Yes it is.

And then things quickly devolve into the Argument Sketch

or, sometimes, the Fish-slapping Dance.

Perhaps Seinfeld has something to say that might be useful. The end of the famous "Bubble Boy" episode turns on a Trivial Pursuit card. The question reads "Who invaded Spain in the 8th Century?" The Bubble Boy answers "The Moors," but on the card is printed "The Moops," and so George holds that "The Moors" is wrong. Hilarity ensues.

I think reading Beowulf 'as we have it' is like insisting upon "The Moops." George may be technically correct within the rules of the game (that what is printed on the card has final within-game authority), but he is obviously incorrect in any reasonable, meaningful sense. Likewise, I think, no one really believes that the error of "dryhten wereda" for "dryhten Wedera" or "hea rede" for "Heardred" or the complete botch the scribe made of "Merovingian" reflects what the poet wrote or what the audience of Beowulf ever heard or read or even what a scribe had in front of him. And in fact, the scholars who say "read the poem we have" don't actually keep those obvious errors in their readings, because if you keep the manuscript readings as they are, you can't actually read the poem.

So the argument is really about how much to emend, and that's a reasonable and important argument to have. Should we be reconstructing possibly lost names of tribes when the philology is inconclusive, as in "egsode eorl" at the very beginning of the poem? The safe emendation is to "eorlas," though accepting that emendation implies that the scribe made a huge and obvious grammatical blunder in the sixth line of the poem; the other alternative, that the poet made a reference to the tribe of the Heruli (exemplar something like "eorle") requires us to import a lot of meaning into a place where it's not obvious from context. Where we draw the line between an error that is "obvious" and an over-clever re-writing of the poem is a very difficult question, and we need to keep debating it.

But using "read the poem as we have it" is really more rhetoric than anything else, and if you say "read the poem as we have it," you would probably, for consistency's sake, have to agree that the Moops invaded Spain in the 8th century.

[When everyone really knows that it was Bayonne, NJ, not Spain, that was invade by the Moops, and it happened in 1926]