Friday, October 23, 2009

Gone Fishin'

For the next week I will be pestering redfish and snook, collecting shells and looking at spoonbills and ibis.

I will have no internet access while I am doing these things. Bye.

Monday, October 19, 2009

The Homilies of Wulfstan on Angl0-Saxon Aloud

For the first time in 1000 years, the Homilies of Wulfstan are recorded and available on the internet. Take a listen and enjoy all the ranty goodness of Wulfstan.

I've recorded and posted all of the Old English homilies in Dorothy Bethurum's edition. All told there are about 60 podcasts, each of about 3 to 5 minutes, adding up to a whopping four hours of Wulfstan's sermons.

I started recording these homilies at the end of June, so I've been living with Wulfstan just about every weekday since then. It takes probably about 45 minutes total for each podcast. First I read over the homily and make a few marginal notes (for example, if a cluster of small words extends across a line break, I make sure I'll keep the intonation right. If there's a really long question coming up, I'll put a question mark at the beginning of the sentence, etc.). Then I record the homily in 100-line chunks. Although this only takes about 4 minutes or so to listen to, it takes longer to record, since I make mistakes. Then there's editing, which takes a while, and the actual posting, which is relatively quick.

I've learned a lot from recording these homilies. First, prose is harder than poetry. Much harder. In recording the poems, I found I didn't have to work very hard to get the intonation right: the natural rhythm of the lines took care of that (and having sentences end at the half-line was also helpful). In prose, intonation is very tricky and requires you mentally to read ahead and parse the sentence a bit before your speech gets there. We do this all the time when we read aloud, but it's very challenging in Old English, where my speech of comprehension is just not quite as quick as it is for Modern English.

Second, Wulfstan was a big man. At least I'm pretty sure he had to be. There are just too many sentences in which it would be very easy to run out of breath, especially if preaching without amplification. If Wulfstan delivered these sermons, he had to be a powerful speaker to get out some of the huge sentences in which the payoff is only at the end.

Third, Wulfstan used a lot of aural effects. He is very different from Ælfric in that his word pairs, rhythm, alliteration, paranomasia, etc., all seem (this is unscientific, of course) to be focused on what things sound like rather than what they look like on paper. Again, totally based on gut instinct, I think Wulfstan wrote these homilies with a very good sense of how they were going to sound to an audience.

I've learned a lot by doing this, and my oral comprehension of Anglo-Saxon prose has improved immensely as a result. I still don't think I could go back to Anglo-Saxon England and carry on a real conversation, but I think I might be able to serve as a translator from OE to ModE if the problem ever came up. I really can now translate out loud on the fly in real time and without pausing, which is something I can't do for any modern language.

I am going to take a break from Anglo-Saxon Aloud until Nov. 1. I haven't decided what to do next. Ælfric is pretty daunting, and, although I will do the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle at some point, I don't think I have the time right now to convert all the Roman numerals into Old English words (and, as I learned, this is something I can't quite do on the fly).

Any suggestions? What would you like to hear next on Anglo-Saxon Aloud? What would be most useful for your teaching or your learning?

P.S.: I'm not planning on creating a professionally produced CD-set of Wulfstan the way I did for Beowulf Aloud or Anglo-Saxon Aloud: Greatest Hits. I don't think there's enough demand, and it costs a lot of money to make the first fifty copies (not as much after that). But please contact me directly if for some reason you want to buy a 4-CD-set of Wulfstan and we'll figure something out.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

History Channel, Clash of the Gods: Thor -- time change

Just got an email from someone at the History Channel, Monday's Clash of the Gods episode, about Thor, will be show at 11:00 p.m. Eastern rather than 10:00 p.m. There's some special that is pushing it back.

(You know you are old when you think "There is no way I am staying up til midnight to watch something on television" and you are in the show that you don't want to stay up for).

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

History Channel, Clash of the Gods: The Lord of the Rings: analysis

I was wondering how the producers would get The Lord of the Rings to fit their thesis that mythological stories might have historical roots that can be explained by archeology and history. After all, Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings in the 20th century, so the "digging" is literary-historical rather than archeological.

When you work on one of these shows, you don't have a script. I did get a tip off from the producers a few days before about the questions they'd be asking and the general direction they were hoping to go, but that material wasn't fit into a larger structure. So when I answered questions about Tolkien's Roman Catholicism, for instance, I didn't know that they were going to fit those answers into the larger framework (I don't really object to the way it was done, but I didn't plan my answers with that framework in mind).

Thus I was pleased that the Indonesian "hobbit" fossils didn't make an appearance and instead the show basically tried to look at influences on Tolkien's work. At times I didn't agree with emphasis, and I would have put things somewhat differently in places. Also, just as with Beowulf, it was unfortunate that a few inaccuracies snuck in to both the narration and to some of the expert commentary (I mis-spoke by saying that Fr. Francis 'adopted' Tolkien; he was appointed guardian by Tolkien's mother. It's not a huge difference, but it is a difference). For example, one expert says that when the hobbits return to the Shire it is devastated and that there are steel machines everywhere. Huh? As far as I can tell from reading the text, there is one machinery-filled mill in the Shire whose sole purpose seems to be pollute the river. Bad enough, of course, but not "steel machines everywhere." This error is similar to the statement in the Beowulf episode that Grendel's mother kills all the thanes in the hall: story-telling drama is replacing fact, and that's not good, or necessary, especially because the actual text is pretty exciting anyway.

But it's also incredibly hard not to mis-speak in these kinds of situations, without notes and without a chance to correct over-statements, etc. Part of the training for Beowulf scholars is to be repeatedly smacked (rhetorically, of course) whenever you exaggerate or change the text for the purpose of making it sound more exciting or to fit it to your thesis. I've seen this in conference papers by graduate students, for instance, where a reasonably intelligent and well-trained person just got carried away with an interpretation of the dragon fight and added some swinging, parrying, and so forth that's not in the text. But that's hard training and it takes a while, and there isn't the same kind of cultural apparatus for Tolkien studies (yet).

However, I'll also put on my grumpy hat and note that for some reason, opining about Tolkien seems to generate critical errors. The distinguished prof. Catherine Stimpson, for example, wrote a book about Tolkien in which she criticized his style by saying that Tolkien would not write "they came to an island" but instead "to the eyot they came." Unfortunately for Stimpson, the line "to the eyot they came" never appears in The Lord of the Rings, and Stimpson never thought to check. Somehow JRRT is an error-magnet.

But be that as it may, the Clash of the Gods episode was not bad, particularly considering how the producers did not have a 300 million dollar budget and were, I think, trying to stay a little bit away from the Jacksonian interpretation of Tolkien. I didn't like all the visuals, but I'm not the target audience, and I think that target audience learned something, particularly in relation to the other episodes in the series.

Net week we'll see what they do with Thor.

Monday, October 05, 2009

Clash of the Gods: The Lord of the Rings

I have no idea how this episode is going to turn out. I looked over some of the prompting questions from my interviews, and I don't see an obvious way to keep up with the theme of the series: that there might be archeological or historical evidence behind various mythological stories. I'm guessing that the "hobbit" fossils found in Indonesia might make an appearance, but I don't have a clear idea of what else they are going to do. The questions that I answered were pretty straightforwardly about Tolkien and his work (at least if I remember correctly), so I don't have any insider knowledge here. It will be interesting to see how they apply the thesis of the series to a twentieth-century text.

Nothing to do but watch (10:00 p.m. Eastern) and see, I guess.

(I do hope my answer to "can you give us the plot of The Silmarillion in two minutes or less?" makes it into the episode, esp. because I don't remember how I phrased it).