The Wanderer by Jane Holland

This, according to the blurb, is a ‘controversial reworking’ of the famous Anglo-Saxon poem of the same name*. ‘Controversial’ and ‘famous’ are both relative terms here, of course.

Flying in the same direction

I assume the controversy mainly arose because the poem is given a female narrator. To quote the introduction:

I also transformed the male ‘Wanderer’ of the poem’s title into a female figure and focused on that narrator alone, even though the original poem seems occasionally to suggest two distinct speakers. (A point on which some academics disagree.) This rather drastic change was made for two reasons. Firstly, the traditional male-male relationship of the lord and his faithful retainer takes on a strongly homoerotic charge when read with a modern sensibility and, writing as a female poet, this posited relationship lacked authenticity in my early drafts. Secondly, I originally undertook this translation to provide a centrepiece to my third poetry collection, Camper Van Blues, which is itself themed around the concept of a lone female traveller.

I think the change works well. The themes of exile and loss take on a slightly different flavour but work just as well with a female narrator. It makes it a different poem, but it’s not as radical a change as you might imagine.

There are two other notable tweaks to the poem. The first is to strip out the Christian imagery. Holland reads The Wanderer as an essentially secular poem with ‘artificially imposed religious overtones’, which is certainly an entirely plausible reading; others have found it to be deeply infused with a Christian sensibility.

The third change, which I thought was perhaps more striking than either of those, was the inclusion of a few modern references. Not that many of them, but for example in the description of men lost in battle, she writes [every other line is supposed to be indented]:

Some fell there in the line of duty,
caught off-guard in the crossfire; others
were blasted to bits at the roadside
or picked off by snipers

The Wanderer deals with that essential Anglo-Saxon theme of a world in decline, and living among the evidence former glory. Taking that idea and setting it in a modern world gives the poem a remarkable post-apocalyptic feel. I’d never made that connection before, between Anglo-Saxon poetry and, say, Mad Max; but actually it’s surprisingly apt.

Anyway, I’m generally in favour of people doing interesting reinterpretations of the classics, and I think this is completely successful. It does bring something new, but it also captures the gloomy beauty of the original.

* My awful pedantic soul (it’s a terrible affliction) requires me to point out: I’m pretty sure the title is a modern addition, like all the titles we give Anglo-Saxon poems.

» The photo is Flying in the same direction, © Susanne Nilsson and used under a CC by-sa licence.

Pulp Beowulf

A link from C. Dale Young sent me to this article which is rather unflattering about a scheme to promote poetry in Seattle. What got me going, though, was this, from someone defending the scheme in the comments:

On comprehending poetry: you say “Poetry, by its very definition, is a difficult thing to write and to comprehend.” Certainly you can’t mean this, or perhaps you are simply uninformed. Since Mallarmé and especially since TS Eliot, perhaps, poetry’s hallmark is to be difficult, but again this is recent history given the history of bards: the Odyssey was the equivalent of a pulp fiction bestseller or action-adventure flick, ditto Beowulf and the Eddas. The Canterbury Tales, the Divine Comedy and Paradise Lost were intended to be blockbusters, not PhD theses. Shakespeare was not looking to mystify the objects of his love sonnets, nor is the work of Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, William Carlos Williams, Langston Hughes, Adrienne Rich, Carlos Drummond de Andrade, Ntozake Shange, Sharon Olds, Saul Williams, Li-Young Lee or in fact most poets worth their salt supposed to be incomprehensible or even that difficult.

Now I agree with the basic point that difficulty is not an essential quality of poetry. But as someone with an interest in Anglo-Saxon poetry, I notice references in the media, so I have encountered this idea before, that Beowulf ‘was the equivalent of a pulp fiction bestseller or action-adventure flick’.

It is a fucking ridiculous comparison.

One version of it is based, as far as I can tell, simply on the kind of story it is: Beowulf is about a buff warrior-hero type who goes out and fights monsters, so it must be the Dark Ages version of Die Hard or Independence Day.  Now I happen to believe this is a profound misreading of the poem, at least until someone makes a version of Die Hard which concerns itself deeply with the fragility, briefness and futility of human existence, or a version of Independence Day where the aliens win at the end.

But to properly try to refute that argument would be a difficult exercise, hedged around with qualifiers and uncertainty, because anyone who claims to know why Beowulf was written, who it was written for, how it was received or what kind of place it had in the culture is talking out of their arse.

Do you know how many surviving copies there are of long narrative Anglo-Saxon poems on non-Christian mythological themes? One. Beowulf. We assume that it is the only survivor from a rich oral culture of similar poems that were either never written down or have been lost — but we don’t know. And we certainly don’t know if Beowulf is a typical example, or how much it was changed when it was written down… or anything much at all, really.

And as for the statement that ‘the Canterbury Tales, the Divine Comedy and Paradise Lost were intended to be blockbusters, not PhD theses’: Jesus wept.

I mean Chaucer, maybe sorta kinda; Dante I don’t know much about, although even in C14th Florence there must have been more populist options available than the theological epic; but Milton? Seriously? He’s your example of poetry not having to be difficult? There aren’t many poems in English more self-consciously literary, less populist and more stubbornly unwilling to make life easy for the reader than Paradise Lost.

I think what annoys me so much isn’t the inaccuracy of these comparisons: it’s the fact that anyone wants to make them at all. I understand the wish to resist the ghettoisation of poetry as an recondite and überliterary artform. And it’s true that there is a long and valuable tradition of popular, accessible poetry, much of it ephemeral but some of real merit. But to compare Homer and Beowulf to action movies, or call the Divine Comedy a blockbuster, and think you’re doing them a favour… I just don’t get it.

Hwaet?

A big-budget Hollywood version of Beowulf is obviously going to either be a travesty of the poem or commercial suicide.

When you hear that Angelina Jolie is embarrassed about her nude scenes in the movie, I think it’s pretty clear which one.

Anglo-Saxon names

Teju has a couple of great posts about names and what they mean (1, 2), specifically relating to Yoruba. Which set me thinking about Anglo-Saxon naming.

bit of the Anglo-Saxon chronicle

I have no idea exactly what relationship the Saxons had with their names, and I don’t know what academic work has been done on it—I’m just going on the impression I get from the names themselves—but the names are often easily parseable into combinations of words. Rather than take them from a literary source like Beowulf, here’s a list of names found in a poem which was about fairly contemporary events, The Battle of Maldon. The spellings are adapted somewhat to be closer to modern English pronunciation; i.e. ‘Æscferð’ becomes ‘Ashferth’, ‘Æþeric’ becomes ‘Atherich’.

Offa, Eadrich, Byrhtnoth, Athelred, Wulfstan, Ceola, Maccus, Alfere, Byrhtelm, Wulfmar, Alfnoth, Godrich, Godwin, Godwig, Alfwin, Alfrich, Ealhelm, Leofsunu, Dunnere, Edglaf, Ashferth, Atherich, Sibirht, Gad, Wistan, Thurstan, Wigelm, Oswold, Eadwold, Athelgar.

Now if I say that athel* means ‘noble’ and gar means ‘spear’, it looks an awful lot like ‘Athelgar’ means ‘noble spear’. Here are some other bits of A-S vocab so you can pay along at home:

ash – ash (the type of tree)
byrht – bright
ead – rich, blessed, happy
edg – edge, sword
ferth – soul, spirit, mind
god – good, God
helm – helmet
leof – desirable, pleasant, loved, a friend, a loved one
laf – what is left, remnant
noth – boldness
rich – power or powerful
sunu – son
stan – stone
wulf – wolf

So what happened to all these meaning-full names? Well, the Norman Conquest, basically. Skip forward a couple of centuries and despite English remaining in continuous use, very few of the old English names hung around. A few, mainly associated with saints and kings, are used to this day: Alfred, Edward, Edmund, Harold and Oswald must be the most common, but you occasionally meet a Godwin, Cuthbert or Dunstan.

By the 16th century, about 30% of men were called John, with another 40% called Thomas, William, Richard or Robert. And I believe they were generally named after their godparent, so there wasn’t much room for creativity there. And of the top 50 mens’ names from the 1560s and 1570s on this page, only two, Edward and Edmund, are of English origin rather than French or biblical.

Actually, it’s quite interesting that the Anglo-Saxons didn’t use Bible names; they’d been Christian for several hundred years by the time of the Battle of Maldon.

I doubt if we’re going to have a revival of these names any time soon; most of them sound distinctly harsh to the modern ear. I rather like Ælfric (i.e. Alfrich); apart from the sound of it, there was a man called Ælfric who was a grammarian, translator and hagiographer. According to Bosworth and Toller, ælf is ‘elf, genius, incubus’, so ‘Aelfric’ must be something like ‘elf-power’. Powered by elves? With the power of an elf?

And since ræd means ‘advice, counsel’, Alfred means ‘elf-advised’. That’s the joke in the name Ethelred the Unready, of course. He was Æthelræd Unræd— his name, Æthelræd, means ‘advised by princes’ or ‘noble advice’ and unræd means ‘ill-advised’. So called because it was on his watch that the Danes took over half of England.

*again, strictly speaking that would be æðel. I’m not going to footnote my spelling every time, but similar tweaks apply throughout.

Anglo-Saxon literature

I was lying awake last night, unable to sleep because of the heat, and wondering whether translating a bit of Anglo-Saxon poetry would get me out of my lengthening barren spell. I think the majority of people who did my degree resented having to spend such a lot of time on Anglo-Saxon, but I always liked it.

I think what sticks with me about A-S verse is a mood more than anything. I remember hearing a documentary on Radio 4 a few years ago about different conversational styles across Europe. Apparently in Finland they have a culture of only speaking if they’ve got something important to say, with the result that for long periods at Finnish dinner parties, everyone is just sitting eating in silence. And then when they do speak, they speak slowly and deliberately. I suspect that the Anglo-Saxons had something of the same serious-minded taciturnity, laced with a mix of testosterone and pessimism. If that’s right, they probably looked on linguistic virtuosity with some suspicion. But I find that quality of seriousness makes up for any lack of verbal fireworks. It’s like the appeal of plainsong.

They were a gloomy bunch, of course. The most famous image in A-S literature is probably from Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People. King Edwin of Northumbria is considering whether to convert to Christianity, and one of his advisors says

The present life of man, O king, seems to me, in comparison of that time which is unknown to us, like to the swift flight of a sparrow through the hall where you sit at supper in winter, with your commanders and ministers, and a good fire in the midst, while the storms of rain and snow rage outside; the sparrow, I say, flying in at one door, and immediately out at another, while he is inside, is safe from the wintry storm; but after a short space of fair weather, he immediately vanishes out of your sight, into the dark winter from which he had emerged. So this life of man appears for a short space, but of what went before, or what is to follow, we are utterly ignorant. If, therefore, this new doctrine contains something more certain, it seems justly to deserve to be followed.

Feasting in the hall was the image of the good things in life for the Anglo-Saxons, but as in that passage, there’s always a sense of it as a refuge from the hostility of the world. That’s why exile is such a key theme, and why Grendel taking people from Heorot is so traumatic; because the hall is, above all, a safe haven.

And Anglo-Saxon pessimism goes beyond believing that the world is hostile; they believed that the world was in decline. They weren’t fools; they knew about the Romans and lived among Roman ruins. Archeologial evidence suggests that the Saxons in London held their folkmoots in the old Roman amphitheatre. They would have known that they were living the remnants of a more powerful, sophisticated, and technologically advanced culture than their own, and they foresaw humanity continuing its downward spiral. That adds to the foreignness. The last thousand years of European history have seen continuous growth in wealth, technology and knowledge, and however much people worry about the environment or nuclear annihilation or a clash of civilisations, deep down we believe that’s the norm.

All that pessimism created a literature in a minor key. The plot of Beowulf – heroism, treasure and dragonslaying – makes it easy to caricature it as a kind of C8th action movie. And in a sense that’s true. There’s no great psychological complexity to the characters. Even Arnie might just about be able to pull off the role of Beowulf, as long as the dialogue was kept to a minimum. What gives the poem substance isn’t so much the plot but the mood and context. Beowulf doesn’t save the world, he just holds back the inevitable for a while, and at the end he dies and his country collapses. If Predator had been directed by Ingmar Bergman it might have been something like Beowulf.

In Praise of Shadows

‘Modern man, in his well-lit house, knows nothing of the beauty of gold…’

From Junichirō Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows, an essay from 1933 discussing the importance of lighting in traditional Japanese aesthetics. The gold, the lacquer, Nō theatre, even Japanese make-up are all, he suggests, dependent for their effect on low, indirect lighting; bright light makes them look garish.

He contrasts this with a Western ideal of brightly-lit rooms, but I’m sure the same applies. We have an inherited reverence for gold and diamonds, but do they really look anything special under electric light? When I read Anglo-Saxon poetry, I imagine the gold glowing by fire and lamplight.

Beowulf as a chiefdom-based society

I’m just reading Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny by Robert Wright, a book which argues that there is in fact a good theoretical basis (from game-theory) for seeing the development of human societies as directional. I believe the book later goes onto biological systems as well, but I haven’t got to that bit. Anyway, it got me thinking about Beowulf again.

Beowulf, and other A-S poetry, always read as curiously foreign. Obviously, even the date of the manuscript – C11th – *is* a very distant and foreign culture, and if you accept the C8th date for the poem, that pushes it back further. The action of the poem is dateable to around 516 (the death of Hygelac), although assuming much continuity between the events and the writing of the poem, let alone in its surviving copy, seems unwise.

Still, even given the distance between the poem and ourselves, it always seems surprisingly foreign; much more so than Roman literature, and more so, or at least very differently so, than later medieval literature as well. The insight I may or may not have gained from the Wright book is that part of that difference is because of a major shift in the very structure of the society. He traces out a sequence of societal structures, apparently as used by archeologists (from memory): family groups -> Big Man societies (i.e. a village or two loosely organised around a charismatic leader) -> chiefdoms (groups of villages lead by a powerfully authoritarian leader who often claims divine authority) -> states (centralised bureaucracy, well-defined legal structures).

The relevance of all this is that the world of Beowulf seems to fit more into the chiefdoms stage, which was characterised by, for example, one central village growing in authority and size amongst others around it, and tellingly for the Beowulf comparison, the increasingly lavish burial ceremonies surrounding the deaths of chiefs. Wright mentions the megalithic cultures in pre-Roman Britain as an example; obviously, the ship burial and the barrow burial in Beowulf seem like the same thing. Another key feature – both the Big Man cultures and chiefdoms are often characterised by the throwing of great feasts by the leader as a way of both redistributing wealth and establishing their own status, and feasting is obviously a very A-S obsession. The directness of the relationship between the ‘king’ in A-S poetry and his duguth/geoguth, and the gift culture, also feel like part of a rather smaller social unit than what we normally think of as a ‘kingdom’ (although chiefdoms could be quite big – and is it so different from the emphasis on feasting in ME poetry? And the Tudor court?).

It’s not the first time I’ve thought about this. I was struck, some years ago, by something (in Guns, Germs and Steel, maybe?) which said that the first thing Papuan tribesmen do when they encounter someone they don’t know is have a long discussion about who their relatives are – because if they can find a relationship to each other, they probably won’t need to fight. That reminded me forcefully of sequence of rather cagey encounters B has – initially with the watchman, then a courtier, then the king (I think) – when he first arrives at Heorot as a stranger. And reading the Haida poetry recently, the image of the big houses with a central firepit and a poet/storyteller/scop telling stories that could last for hours, was also reminiscent of A-S poetry.

I don’t suppose any of this would come as news to an anthropologist, but then such is academic territoriality, everything I read about Beowulf at uni was written by literary critics – or sometimes historians. And what does it matter anyway? Well, it changes the way I visualise the poem, at least. The vocabulary, of kings and earls and thanes, never quite matched to the action, but it’s so seductive that somehow it’s hard to get away from it. To think of Hrothgar as a tribal chief, and Heorot as something closer to a longhouse than a palace, carries a severe risk of going too far in the other direction – they may have had simpler political units, but they weren’t exactly hunter-gatherers. Still, it’s a useful imaginative antidote to all the baggage carried by the word ‘king’.

All of which assumes that the poem is somehow a true reflection of society in Northern Europe in the 6th? 8th? century. And since it was written down in the C11th by a Christian scribe, probably from a copy of a copy, that may be a mistake. How much of what’s in the poem is more modern stuff that’s been imposed? And it’s quite likely that the late Anglo-Saxons had a romanticised view of their forebears anyway. The Morte D’Arthur tells you more about the C15th century, when it was written, than the pre-Roman society where it was nominally set; or perhaps the C15th’s romantic view of an earlier medieval period.

Anyway. Enough.

Close Menu