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.


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