Wednesday, August 27, 2008

retconning beowulf

This is a cross post from my research blog, Gemæcce.

I've been reading Beowulf again, this time Crossley-Holland's translation. I'm struck by its similarity to episodic television drama. (Radio drama too, of course, but apart from Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy, radio serials were before my time.)

For example, halfway through, around line 1270, we get a recap, a Previously on Beowulf the Grendel Slayer moment: of them, Grendel
that hateful outcast, was surprised in the hall
by a vigilant warrior spoiling for a fight.
Grendel gripped and grabbed him there,
but the Geat remembered his vast strength,
[...] thus he overcame
the envoy of hell...

In daytime soaps characters often announce things the other characters already know. So we'd get something like, 'Hello Susan, identical twin to my amnesiac foster mother'. In Beowulf, starting around line 1335, we have:

...she has avenged her son
whom you savaged yesterday with vice-like holds
because he had impoverished and killed my people
for many long years...

Why does Beowulf need to be told what he did yesterday? He was there. This is for the audience, because some of them might have missed the earlier installment.

But the biggest swerve of all, for me, was the retconning of Grendel. (Retconning is a fan term, meaning 'retroactive continuity'. It's putting a sudden new spin on the information we thought we had about a character, or event, in a long-running series.) Think of all the daytime soaps you've ever watched (or just read about--because none of us have ever stooped to that rubbish, oh no), or that moment in Tootsie where Dustin Hoffman's character pauses dramatically and announces 'the hospital administrator you thought was a nice girl actually turns out to be A MAN!' In Beowulf we find that our good old-fashioned monster like any other turns out to be THE OFFSPRING OF CAIN!

I'm not a scholar. I haven't studied Beowulf at any level. Perhaps this is all old hat to the literary historians out there. But it's new to me, and extremely interesting. I've been under the impression that Beowulf was meant to be an epic, one-night performance, like an uncut Shakespearean play, but clearly it's an episodic drama. Why else would the scop put in reminders, rewinds and retcons? (Yes, I know the Anglo-Saxons drank a lot but, really, so much they couldn't follow one poem over the course of an evening...?) It's pretty clear to me that this piece was designed to be performed over several nights--Yule, perhaps, or during the multi-day visit of the king or ealdorman.





  1. I think that stories in the oral tradition like the Odessy, Beowulf, and even the Old Testament of the Bible repeated a lot so people could remember the plot. They could'nt go look it up. However, I'll also buy the heavy drinking hypothesis.

  2. I'm trying to remember the Iliad (always disliked the Odyssey) and whether it has recaps and rewinds. I don't recall any retcons...

  3. I hold not a shard of belief that I can comment on such a literary work with any scholarly basis. I have always loved the story of Beowulf-even before Xena and The Ring Trilogy. :)

    Two things come to mind. One, the question, how many people in the time in which it was written would have been literate enough to READ the poem? My thought is, but few who then ORALLY retold it to others who retold it to others.

    Secondly, I think that it would have perhaps been intentionally written for entertainment, to be told in "installments" over a period of communal "kick backs." I think people would have been too busy with labors to sit during the course of daily activities and listen to the epic. Although perhaps the story was shared while working together in a common labor.

    I see the "night", in a tavern setting, and visualize the orator and his well juiced audience hanging on every word and coming back again for more.

    My thought is this- all of us, from the earliest times until now, need myth,legend, adventure to counter balance the reality of the lives we expend everyday. Soap operas not with standing my whole conjecture.

    I will admit,however, that I was very ill about two years ago and was home for nearly three months. My retired sister and I shared watching, by telephone, One Life to Live. I am currently healthy, have since shaken that noontime addiction, and now I am Soap free, she grins.

  4. I admit I haven't read Beowulf since college and that was 2... well. Many Years Ago. I quite like the story but never met a TV version I liked...

    Drinking. Yeah, it's always a good excuse for forgetting stuff. But the episodic thing works, too. Think of soldiers on the road, settling in around the fire at night, exhausted, and falling asleep to Beowulf...

  5. linda, well, 'when it was written' has been the subject of huge debate over the years. It used to be that scholars thought it was first formulated orally (not written down) in the 5th or 6th C by pagan Anglo-Saxons, and the Christian stuff was tacked on. Then people decided, nope, it was consciously composed in the 11th C by a Christian harking back to ancient traditions. Now people espouse a bewildering numbers of combinations of the two theories. I think it was definitely written by a Christian and consciously employs heroic, pre-Christian motifs. I think it does this with two agendas. One, to entertain. Two, ethnogenesis, that is, to help a bunch o' ethnically disparate peoples (Saxons, Angles, Danes) feel a commonality. I think the poem is much later than it seems--closer to 11th C than 5th. But, in the end, it doesn't matter. It's a seriously cool poem.

    ssas, I just don't imagine this poem being performed on the road. I think it's much more an in-hall kind of experience. And it's much too rousing to fall asleep to. IMO.

  6. First, the poem in the original performance (don't ask me for a date--there's a new scholarly debate about whether the poem as composed predates the ms. or not--and then there's the fact that there are two scribes involved in the ms. . . . I know of two long-term friendships, and one marriage, that were destroyed re: the dating argument. I'm' not gonna play. Read Michael Drout here:

    Dating Beowulf 1

    Dating Beowulf 2

    Dating Beowulf 3

    Dating Beowulf 4)

    But--even reading it aloud takes hours, if you read it at a proper speed. And "back then," remember, the scop would stop for beer/money, before going on to the next bit.

    There are indications in the ms. that there may be built in pauses, too. Plus, done live, you'd have people saying "Scyld was my mother's mother's great uncle, " or whatever. Which, by the way, the do in Iceland when you talk Old Norse saga--they'll refer to the character's (who were mostly historical) in terms of their living or deceased kin.

    And yeah, the repetition, and new data is in all epic poetry, Germanic, Celtic, Greek, Slavic, and Sanskrit.

    Now on the Recon, and Cain--I'm in the middle of packing books to move, so I'm looking at my digital images of the ms. instead of a proper edition.

    it's right there in around the first 135 lines, right after the bit about hall joy and the creation song pissing off Grendel.

    Do get the Howell D. Chickering facing page translation--it's not poetic, but it's closer in terms of what the text actually says than the other two readily available facing page OE/Modern English translations.

    And do get Michael Drout's Audio CD of a straight reading. There's a DVD too by another OE prof, I'm supposed to review for Greenman, Benjamen Bagly, but I've not yet seen it.

    I'm not a fan of Seamus Heaney's translation, which, while it's a lovely poem and a wonderful retelling of the story, it's a Celticized Beowulf, and he's mucked about a bit too much for my tastes.

  7. What an interesting post and discussion. Thank you, all.

    I'll be starting a class next week and the reading list puzzled me until today: Beowulf, Grendel, Buffy The Vampire Slayer (the show plus graphic novels), Battlestar Galactica (show plus book adaptations, original novels, comic books and video games). I couldn't understand how Beowulf/Grendel fit into the group. Nicola, it looks like you aren't the only one reading traits of episodic drama into the poem.

    I can't comment beyond that, since I've never read Beowulf before. I've got much to catch up on as far as English required reading goes. Imagine, I only got my eyes on Dune for the first time six months ago. I know my Iberoamerican authors well, but still...

    I'll revisit this post in three more months and chip in more substantially. Or ask my soon-to-be teacher to stop by.

  8. lisa, wow, this is *excellent*, thank you. Yes, there it is at the beginning of the poem: Grendel is the seed of Cain. I missed it. I always miss it, because I'm always chucking at the notion of Grendel being infuriated at his noisy neighbours spoiling the peace at night.

    And that's a great point about the scop having to stop and eat/drink/rest. As is the notion of the audience nodding their heads and pointing out their own ancestral links to the hero to the person sitting next to them.

    Many thanks, this is a great help.

    Nope, I'm not a huge fan of Heaney's translation, either, but I'll search out the refs you mention.

    I hope your move goes well.

  9. karina, I hope you blog about your course--sounds interesting.

    So how was it to read Dune for the first time as an adult? I've read it many times, but because I fell in love with it as a teenager, I can overlook it's many faults.

  10. I just finished reading World Without End, the sequel to Pillars of the Earth and noticed in later parts of the book (about 1000 pages)he often did that recap thing, which frankly I was greatful for. He often did this when bringing back a minor character that hadn't been seen since much earlier in the book. Since I'm bad with names, i often have to go back and figure out 'who is that'? Where did I see that character before? I sometimes keep a cheet sheet where I write down characters names and brief connection so that I can easily reference it while reading. I've also seen some books add an appendix with a list of characters. To think that beowulf was written to tell over several sessions makes so much sense and your listening group may have changed slightly from the previous session as well, so it allows the new listeners to keep up in the telling.

  11. alisa, how was World Without End? I read Pillars of the Earth and enjoyed it (though found it rather, hmmn, superficial; emotionally about one molecule deep) but have heard WWE isn't as good.

  12. There's another thing, too, about epics, wherein the audience knows all the stories, all the in-jokes, and allusions and references. They already know that Scyld arrives in a boat--and that when he dies he is returned to one. They know about Brecc and Beowulf, and that Unferth "not peace," is a kin-slayer. They know about the fate of Hidleburh and the battle at Finnsburg, and would see a parallel to the eventual life and death of Hrothgar's daughter Frewaru.

  13. lisa, yes, I imagine it's like a modern audience watching horror movies: don't go in the basement! And rolling our eyes when a young couple has sex out in the woods; we know what's coming next. We expect it. We hope the storyteller will twist in some small, satisfying way.

    I love the Unferth bits; I always get the urge to hiss and boo, as though I'm at a pantomime. Love that bit where Beowulf gives Hrunting back and says, without saying, this is a useless piece of crap, heirloom my ass! Though perhaps I'm reading too much into it :)

  14. Reading Dune as an adult was great. But if you see my shelves right now, you'd think I'm in my teens.

    I'm a sucker for anything grand. I cried during the scene in The Time Machine remake where Earth is evolving in ultra-mega-fast-forward motion. I felt overwhelmed with joy at being able to watch one day in the life of a planet thanks to computer graphics and, of course, the author's original creation. Reading Dune offered me many such moments of awe and tears.

    I think what won me over right away in Dune was planet-as-major-character. This was also present in your Ammonite. That love affair a protagonist can sustain with a planet so odd, seemingly hostile and fear-inspiring makes me want to skydive. Or something.

    If I let the critic in me take a go at Dune, I can probably come up with some of it's faults. I tried to get into Dune Messiah and uh-uh, that didn't work out too well. I found the stiffness of the characters annoying, along with much of the dialogue. Sort of preachy. I put the novel back on the shelf.

    I'm sure all that was present in the first book, but I found myself so completely sucked into Arrakis I couldn't care less. I just wanted to keep getting closer to its core, to evaporate and give it all my water, if that was what it needed. I wanted to ride a sandworm, find a desert woman to fall in love with and look into her Spice-tinted blue eyes. Yes, I wanted to overdose on Spice and contemplate the web of choices around my life. I wanted everything Arrakis was, I wanted it all and I wanted it badly.

    I'll give Messiah another try in a couple more months and let you know how it goes.

  15. Just discovered your blog and saw this blog post today.

    The title "retconning Beowulf" reminded me of "Gamol-léac," a fanfic I saw last year that was a crossover between Beowulf and those Old Spice Guy videos on YouTube. Enjoy!