Why was this week quiet?

Beowulf fights Grendel as depicted by Santiago Garcia and David Rubin's graphic novel adaptation of Beowulf.

Beowulf battles Grendel in Santiago Garcia and David Rubin’s Beowulf. Image from http://bit.ly/2jVrgOn.

So, you might have noticed that I missed both posts this week. Even the promised translation post. Sorry about that.

The reason why I missed posting here at all this week is a combination of work being incredibly busy and a lingering cold taking root in my throat and chest. Thankfully, work will slow down this coming week, and I’m feeling better already. So, I can’t quite promise two posts this coming week (I’ll have to do something big when the news post comes back — maybe check out Beowulf’s appearance in Once Upon a Time to see how he’s been adapted 😉 ), but I will be trying to get a translation post out. I have roughly another 800 lines to post up here, and they aren’t going to post themselves!

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Beowulf: Musical theatre as character exploration

Currently out from writer/director Aaron Sawyer at the Red Theatre is a musical simply (and a little confusingly) called Beowulf. The trailer on the show’s website grabbed my attention as tightly as a man with the strength of 30 could. But, not being able to jet down to Chicago and watch it myself, I’m only able to write about it based on reviews from Third Coast Reviews and The Chicago Reader.

Sawyer’s adaptation of Beowulf is quite an original take, though its focus isn’t anything too new. The basic premise is that Beowulf and Grendel’s mother have been trapped together for all time by Odin. Simple enough. But their past together has not been erased. Grendel’s mother grieves for the loss of her son, and Beowulf questions his heroism as the two become romantically entangled.

These details make this show sound like quite a romp indeed, but it’s definitely playing off of themes that exist in the original poem.

Grendel’s mother is definitely charged with sexual energy in the poem itself. After all, she is the controller of dangerous femininity (giving birth to monsters, wielding a concealed dagger, overpowering Beowulf and landing on top of him (almost fatally)). And she’s certainly contrasted with the much more socially constrained queen Wealhtheow. Wealhtheow is portrayed as nothing but demure, though there are hints of her own desires for Beowulf but she never acts on them.

Grendel’s mother on the other hand acts on her desires for Beowulf so vehemently that she comes very close to killing him. I mean, she pounces on him and then tries to stab him with a dagger. An act of fury, to be sure, but it’s hard for me to not see the symbolism in what she does while on top of him. The dagger she pulls out is pretty phallic as a symbol. Stabbing is a form of penetration. And a female stabbing a male while on top of him seems (at least to me) like a pretty clear metaphor for male rape; a thing no doubt circled by shame and sorrow in the Anglo-Saxon society from whence Beowulf came.

But, interestingly enough, (and maybe this is where Sawyer got the idea for making Grendel’s mother the focus of his play and Tolkien got the idea for having fewer women in the Lord of the Rings trilogy than you could count on both hands), Beowulf never shows much interest in Grendel’s mother.

In fact, he never really shows much interest in any woman. He’s just concerned with glory and heroism (as he is in that trailer).

But maybe Beowulf’s apparent asexuality is part of the bigger picture of the poem. In keeping with medieval ideas of males somehow being closer to god than females, perhaps part of Beowulf’s manly virtue is that he’s beyond all that icky sex stuff. Even when we see him rule his own people there’s no real indication that he’s ever been married or had children. There’s not even any explicit mention or clear implication that he had some kind of mistress.

Ultimately, it sounds like Sawyer’s Beowulf is one that, though it strays pretty far from the source material in terms of story, keeps very close to its characterization of Beowulf and of Grendel’s mother. As goofy and incoherent as Jack Helbig of the Chicago Reader says it is, I think those elements are built into Sawyer’s premise. How else but farce could locking Grendel’s mother and Beowulf in a room turn out? As such, I think this take on Beowulf would be worth seeing just to get a glimpse of two of Beowulf‘s most interesting characters.

The changing words of Beowulf (and language, too)

This is the first page from the Beowulf manuscript, in Old English.

The first page of the original Beowulf manuscript, in Old English. Image from http://bit.ly/2jdxSdW.

After I told people I was studying English in university a strange change came over them. They would start listening to me a little more closely. They would hang on my every word for a few minutes after learning that fact. And they would point out any grammatical mistakes I’d make while speaking.

Sometimes these corrections would take me aback. But I can’t say that I blame those who would, jokingly, jump down my throat when my verbs and subjects didn’t agree or I threw an “ain’t” into what I was saying to blend in with the people around me. When I was in university I was the person those who learned of my major became. I was a grammar Nazi.

That is, until I learned about things like Old English and Middle English, and the joy of learning to read languages that were different enough from Modern English to be unintelligible at first look, but that were familiar enough to grasp with a mix of knowledge and intuition. Exposure to these things, and even to the idea that the Latin ancient people spoke changed over time, really made me realize that spoken English doesn’t need to be “perfect”. Neither does written English.

In fact, correctness just comes down to authorial intent and audience. After all, language is most correct when it’s a medium for clear communication between people, so knowing your audience and tailoring your language to make your meaning as clear as possible for that audience is the best way to make it “correct”.

Anyway, the fact that languages change is something that’s pretty well known in general. As Tristin Hopper points out in this article from The National Post, things written around the second world war have totally different uses of words like “queer” and “ejaculate”. Underscoring the article’s point that all languages adapt to what modern speakers need to say about modern life, even the word “humbled” has changed from something with negative connotations to something that gets paired with “honoured”.

Where Beowulf fits in with all of this is that it stands as a marker of the starting point for English. But, it’s also something that even now is constantly changing since our understanding of it is based on best guesses rather than the insight that a native speaker could bring to it. I was pretty shocked to learn that the first word of the poem “Hwaet!” may mean “How” rather than my dearly enjoyed “Listen!” as I read Hopper’s piece.

Ultimately, if you like a language, no matter what your age, you should definitely study it. Even if it’s a dead language like Latin or Old English, there’s likely still more for us to find out about them, and there are still useful insights to pull out of old stories and poems and expression. I’d say this is especially true if the stories and written expression of today don’t speak to you. After all, one of the reasons I went into English after finishing high school was to learn more of the medieval stories that were in seriously short supply throughout my high school run.

If you could learn any language, which language would you want to learn? Why?

When Beowulf tackled supercomputer tech

A Beowulf cluster supercomputer at McGill  University

Image from http://bit.ly/2j1HN7N. Copyrighted free use.

In my searching for a Beowulf story to cover this week, I discovered one of the ways in which the poem carries on in secret. Through a simple search for “Beowulf” I came across the website for Project Beowulf. On the “History” page of this site, it’s explained that the company specializes in multi-node computing, particularly the kind known as “Beowulf Clusters”. Multi-node computing refers to the connection of two or more commercial grade computers to create a single virtual supercomputer, and these are called “Beowulf clusters” when connected in a community-sourced, and DIY way (as defined by Wikipedia).

Reading deeper into this matter, I discovered that this style of virtual supercomputer construction was invented by Thomas Sterling and Donald Becker, in 1994 while the two were working for NASA. After that point in his career, Becker went on to found Scyld Computing Corporation, a company that specializes in Linux-based Beowulf supercomputing.

Despite the fact that Becker’s company is another reference to Old English culture (a “scyld” was a bard or poet of the time), according to Becker in this interview with Joab Jackson of GCN.com, it was actually Thomas Sterling who came up with the name. In his own words, Sterling was something of an Anglophile, and the line ‘Because my heart is pure, I have the strength of a thousand men.’ This line only appears in some translations, but it resonated with what the two wanted to do: create a supercomputer that anyone could build, and which would therefore lead to the formation of a community around its further development. So “Beowulf” fit.

I find this connection to Beowulf especially interesting because it’s a subtle way in which the poem’s legacy carries on. Sterling may have been a fan of Beowulf, but it doesn’t seem that it was just enthusiasm that led them to the name.

Like the heroic protagonist of the poem’s having the strength of 30 men, Beowulf clusters contain the power of several individual processors. They’re also able to undertake heroic feats of scientific computing, answering questions that science conjures up just as Beowulf was able to destroy the monsters which the actions of humanity stirred to life.

Beowulf is a great name for such supercomputers, and a fantastic reference that gives the ancient poem a subtle presence in our lives. After all, back in 2005 Beowulf clusters made up over half of the supercomputers on the annual list of the top 500 supercomputers. Even more recently, the ease of these clusters’ creation has allowed at least one person to build a supercomputer out of inexpensive raspberry pi processors, and Thomas Sterling, the co-creator of the Beowulf cluster is still working with it to push the boundaries of High Performance Computing (HPC).

Although I’m not much of a tech guy, and really only know a thing or two about simple programming languages like HTML, this connection between Beowulf and the modern world might just be my favourite to date. It feels like an in-joke that I can easily smirk at when it’s tossed across the cafeteria table even if I wasn’t there when it happened.

What do you think of naming modern inventions after ancient characters and stories? What’s your favourite example of a new thing having an old name?

Spanish Beowulf Graphic Novel Gets Translation

Beowulf fights Grendel as depicted by Santiago Garcia and David Rubin's graphic novel adaptation of Beowulf.

Beowulf battles Grendel in Santiago Garcia and David Rubin’s Beowulf. Image from http://bit.ly/2jVrgOn.

It’s not often that I get to post about things as they’re happening on this blog. After all, that’s just not what you come to expect when you write about a poem from over 1000 years ago. But I’ve just lucked out.

Late last year I came across mention of a new graphic novel adaptation of Beowulf. It was touted as the work of writer and translator Santiago Garcia and artist David Rubin. But that short teaser-style mention didn’t say anything about this new graphic novel being a translation. However, that fact is what made it possible for me to post about it on the day that this “new” graphic novel comes out.

At least, according to Amazon. So if you’re reading this today or later, the English translation of this Beowulf adaptation is now available!

Unfortunately though this seems to be the least publicized graphic novel that I’ve come across (is that common for translations in the comics world? Let me know!). The most informative piece I could find about it was from 2014.

In this Comics and Cola article by Zainab, we’re told that this adaptation is a straight retelling of the Beowulf story with modern comics techniques. Also, it’s not just a retelling of the often covered Beowulf vs. Grendel section of the poem, but all three sections are retold. What’s more, along with the violent and at times brutish art style, Zainab suggests (via a Google-translated description of the comic from an unnamed source) that Santiago and Rubin have brought the melancholic resonances of the poem to their version as well.

The last full graphic novel adaptation of Beowulf that I’d seen was Gareth Hinds’ three part retelling. In that version, Hinds did a decent job focussing on Beowulf himself, but the Santiago and Rubin effort seems like it’s got more of a focus on the broader themes of the story while also drawing distinct characters.

José Luis del Río Fortich echoes that sense of the Santiago and Rubin adaptation in his article on bleedingcool.com. Unfortunately, though, the biggest difference between his coverage and Zainab’s is mostly in the different panels that he showcases (aside from a direct comparison between the graphic novel’s violence with Quentin Tarantino and Sam Peckinpah’s movies).

Nonetheless, despite the lack of information about it, the Santiago and Rubin Beowulf adaptation is something that I want to see more of. The words of the poem convey its melancholy and energy quite easily, but seeing those words rendered mostly into dialogue (which the original is relatively scant on) and the monsters and their lairs imagined in full colour is always a treat.

What’s more important to you in a graphic novel: Story or art style? Let me know in comments.

Beowulf and the Creationist: A lesson in critical thinking

Maybe it’s possible that, ceolocanth-like, one or two species of dinosaur lived on into the ancient Greek world. Maybe one even made it far enough to meet a knight or medieval king. Although, if the stories are to be taken literally, any dinosaur in such a situation would be summarily slain.

As an explanation for the dragon in fiction, the idea that some giant lizard from a long lost age doesn’t seem too far fetched if you limit it to the stories that early sailors no doubt told about giant sea serpents. These kinds of stories could have easily inspired the the water-based dragons of stories like Perseus and Andromeda. From there, poets and artists could have easily added their own twist to the terrible monster of the deep by bringing it onto land, letting it breathe fire, and having it fly on enormous leathery wings.

But to think that the flying dragon of medieval Europe was itself a dinosaur is a little too much. And claiming that the dragon that terrorizes the Geats in the last third of Beowulf is an eye-witness account of a dinosaur is downright dumb. Yet, according to this article, that’s exactly what geologist Andrew Snelling claimed when reporter Charles Wolford asked about the matter.

Now, Snelling is a staunch creationist. Wolford caught up with him at the Noah’s Ark theme park in Williamstown, Kentucky. So Snelling’s understanding of the world’s history is necessarily compressed. But to think that a dragon’s being in Beowulf is eye-witness proof is problematic on two levels.

First, there are no fossils (as far as I know) for a dinosaur that’s long and serpentine like a Chinese dragon but that also has wings like the dragon on the Welsh flag. Even setting that aside in the “physical evidence category,” I also know of now dinosaur which paleontologists believe could breathe fire. There are a lot of “what if” books about this point of dragon physiology, and many of them try to be as “scientific” as possible. But these books, like Beowulf, are fiction.

Which brings me to my second point. The use of Beowulf‘s dragon as evidence that humans and dinosaurs lived together at some point in the past is a fantastic example of people picking and choosing what they want to get out of a story. Because if the dragon is a real monster, then so too must Grendel and Grendel’s mother be based on real monsters.

Now, I’ve spent a lot of time making the case that Grendel and Grendel’s mother are sympathetic characters, maybe even the remnants of a displaced clan of people. But even if they were inspired by such, the details that we’re given about them in the poem are far from being based in reality.

Grendel is immune to weapons made of iron. But I can guarantee that 10 out of 10 people who try to nick themselves with an iron knife will bleed – humans are not iron resistant.

Along similar lines, Grendel’s blood melted the blade of an ancient sword. I’m guessing that most people who are reading this have bled before, and probably didn’t have the bandage or tissue they used to staunch the bleeding melt away as the red stuff spilled out onto these pads.

So if people like Snelling want to say that Beowulf is proof that humans and dinosaurs co-existed, then they must also believe that there are humanoids on earth that bleed a kind of acid and who are immune to iron weapons.

Now, I feel like I’ve come down a little hard on Snelling. And I kind of mean to.

After all, I think that there is some truth both philosophical and historical in Beowulf.

The prevalence of trolls and dragons in stories suggests that they were popular for a reason, though I don’t think that it’s because they were ever real in the way that ancestral swords were. I understand Beowulf as being historically reflective of tropes and metaphors and ideas that were popular when it was written.

It’s one thing to say that, for example, Beowulf took on the people of early Sweden and died in a pyrrhic victory, but it’s much more interesting and hardcore to say that he fought a dragon that was terrorizing his people and died doing so. Making a battle with a dragon the climax of a story about a man whose power makes him as monstrous as the monsters he fights is just far more suiting than saying that he died fighting some war.

Likewise, let’s say that there’s a historical analogy for the first two thirds of the poem. If so, then it’s much more heroic and exciting to read about a man defeating two monsters that no one has even got close to scratching for twelve years than to read about a bully from Geatland coming in and killing off the last two of a tribe of people who have an ancestral claim to the lands where Heorot stands.

Part of the power of fiction is embellishment, and when we forget that, we leave ourselves open to looking very foolish indeed.

But that’s also what makes knowing the difference between fiction and fact and knowing how fiction can be given the sheen of fact (think fake news) that makes thinking critically about what we read incredibly important. And what Snelling’s interpretation of Beowulf teaches us here is that it’s important to think just as critically about what gets written today as what was written 1000 and more years ago.

The book that changed Beowulf’s course in pop culture

The cover for the 1989 edition of John Gardner's Beowulf-inspired Grendel.

The cover for the 1989 edition of John Gardner’s Grendel. Image from http://amzn.to/2gZcPqK

I first read John Gardner’s novel Grendel while studying for my master’s degree at the University of Victoria. The same copy I read then now sits on my shelf, begging for a reread. And it’s deserving of one, I think. I remember the novel being a complex web of meanings and interpretations, though the meaning that was front and centre was a straightforward critique of human society through the eyes of Grendel.

Yes, as the book’s title suggests, it focuses on Grendel and what he gets up to between bouts of terrorizing Heorot. But it’s not all loping around the moors, scaring animals and feasting on his victims. The humans intrigue him as they build Heorot and celebrate its beauty and light. But he also sees and feels just how different he is from the Danes. And when Grendel first sees Beowulf he has this eerie feeling that his days are numbered.

It’s a good read, and from Gardner’s flipping of the original poem’s focus, to his social commentary through the monster’s eyes, to his use of zodiac symbolism, there’s a lot to its 174 pages. If you have the chance you should check it out!

But what brought Gardner’s book to mind today was my discovery of this extract from an article that centres around Gardner’s Grendel.

The extract explains how the pop culture scholars Michael Livingstone and John William Sutton argue that though the 20th century is full of adaptations of Beowulf, Gardner’s Grendel marks a turning point in these works. Whereas those that came before the novel are usually just retellings of Beowulf tailored to suit various genres and audiences, those that came after it share in Gardner’s use of the poem and of Grendel to generate social commentary on specific figures, incidents, or observed traits of the human condition.

If you’re interested in reading their article in full, you can find it here.

Along with Livingston and Sutton’s main thesis, the article is a treasure trove of adaptations that I never even knew existed. So if you’re interested in reading historical fiction based around Beowulf, or tracking down a rock musical in which Grendel’s a punk rocker, check out that article for some extra details.

Why do you think the Beowulf story is so widely adapted? What is it about the story and its characters that make it so flexible?