Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Tis the season to....drink as much as possible before you pass out on the couch

We're all going to heaven, lads, waheeey. Source

Happy Christmas (or should I say Happy Yule?) to all and to all a Happy Christmas. Tis the eve of the New Year, hopefully one that will be filled with a lot more motivation (I got my PhD!), a lot more exercise, a lot more painting, a lot more reading, and a lot less drinking!

Since I have basically spent my Christmas forcing as much drink into myself as possible (and equally telling myself that I am never ever touching drink again, whilst simultaneously pouring myself another glass (sure one won't hurt!)), I think it is a good time to write a post on alcohol and its history in Anglo-Saxon England, and other areas of interest!

So, back in the good old days, there were a few main types of alcoholic beverages drank by the Anglo-Saxons - mead, ale, beer and wine (fortunately for them they never had to experience Tesco Value Vodka) - medu, ealu, beor and win. It is unknown still whether these drinks were pretty much the same as the equivalents of today, and some believe that what the Anglo-Saxons referred to as beor, was in fact cider.

Anglo-Saxon drinking horn

Like us today, the Anglo-Saxons were obviously fond of the few scoops, as evidence from words like gebeorscipe, meaning "drinking party", and the fact that they had what we call "mead-halls". Furthermore, vessels like drinking-horns are mentioned in Beowulf (the Danes drink mead) and fittings for drinking-horns were discovered at Sutton Hoo.

It seems that wine wasn't much of a drink for the masses (or well...it was, but not those masses). Before the ninth-or-so century (this differs with sources), it seems that the climate wasn't suitable for cultivating wine, and so, before this, wine was imported from warmer climates, and so, was only really used for religious purposes and by the few who could afford to pay for it. Even so, after the climate improved, wine was really only left for the upper classes of society, while the rest of the dregs got pissed on ale and beor.

What we mostly seem to think of when we think of alcohol in these times is mead. In Norse Mythology, it's the drink that seems to be what you will be drinking for the rest of your life once you reach Valhalla, and os the source of Odin's strength as he suckled it froma goat as an infant. This however, is actually a foreign drink, the term medu coming from Proto-Indo-European médu, and similar drinks from the same (or earlier) period can be found all over the world, from the Slavic (med or miod), Baltic (midus) Sanskrit (madhu), and appears with different names all over the world, including Africa and Northern China (where the first possible traces of the making of mead are found). So, it's not an exclusively Anglo-Saxon or even Norse or Germanic, or even Western European, drink! 

I enjoy some mead in the coolest pub in Stockholm

That is all for now. Hope you have a great New Year!

Sunday, 15 December 2013

Beowulf: An Unexpected Journey

Having went to see The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug the other night, and only recently returning from the country of Tolkien's birth, I guess it's only natural that this post should concern him and The Hobbit's links with Beowulf. I have previously mentioned some things in a previous post, but let's make another one, sure why not lads.

Despite some dodgy CGI at times (I really can't understand how they can create such an amazing dragon, yet at times the horses look like they are taken out of Zemickis's Beowulf (see what I did there!)), and despite the fact that it will never be as great as Lord of the Rings, the film was really good. Surprisingly, I even liked the introduction of Tauriel to try and somewhat lessen the sausage-fest that The Hobbit is. And Kili, the obligatory exceedingly attractive dwarf (Ireland, I'm proud of you!). I enjoyed that part too.

An illustration which would suit either Beowulf or The Hobbit.
It's actually from a Beowulf book by Anke Eissmann

The most obvious link between The Hobbit and Beowulf is of course the dragon! In a way the dragon scenes are climaxes of both stories (although The Hobbit ends with a huge battle, it's fair to say that the dragon is the big thing in the story). Most notable, I think is the fact that the dragon is woken by the theft of a cup, by Bilbo in The Hobbit, and by some other eejit in Beowulf. As well as this, both dragons' lairs are entered by a secret passage: in Beowulf "there was a hidden passage, unknown to men" (Heaney's translation), whilst in The Hobbit, the dwarves (I guess you could extend this entrance as being "unknown to men" also, seen as dwarves technically aren't men) enter by the secret passage, revealed only at a certain time - the last light of Durin's Day. After the theft of treasure from both dragons' barrows, they both go absolutely ape and enact revenge on the surrounding land - from this, we can deduce that dragons have the emotional capacity of a 5 year old child. As in Beowulf, it is not the protagonist that kills the dragon in The Hobbit, but a relatively minor (but very honourable) character - Bard. Both dragons end up in a pretty similar grave also - "they pitched the dragon over the cliff-top, let tide's flow and backwash take the treasure-minder" (Beowulf), and for Smaug; "he would never again return to his golden bed, but was stretched cold as stone, twisted upon the floor of the shallows". Sleep with the fishies.  

Another thing, which I was thinking of, is The Hobbit's influence on Beowulf adaptations - it is possible that the dragon from John Gardner's Grendel was made with considerable influence from Smaug, who unlike the Beowulf dragon, actually speaks, and appears to be able to hold a pretty decent conversation!

Grendel, by John Howe

Although a bit sketchy, there has been some comparisons between Grendel and Gollum. Although Gollum has a shit ton more brains and charisma than Grendel does, it is interesting to note some similarities. In Beowulf it is said that Grendel is a "grim demon", dwelling "among the banished monsters", a descendent of Cain (from Cain also sprang ogres (orcs?), giants (perhaps our friend, the cave-troll, from the Mines of Moria?), and elves...although it's pretty clear that Tolkien's elves aren't seen as Cain's clan - nobody as pretty as Legolas could be!). It is clear from both stories that both Grendel and Gollum are outcasts, both live in caves and both are pretty ugly. The point about Cain is also very interesting, because, as we learn in Lord of the Rings, Gollum, back when he was still known as Sméagol, killed Déagol (his relative) in order to take the ring. And while we know Gollum was once, many many years beforehand, a hobbit of sorts, there is also perhaps a human link for Grendel in his connection with Cain. 

Numerous other links exists between both stories

  • Beorn as a reworking of Beowulf himself. Perhaps? Perhaps. Both are proud and strong. And as seems to be happening all the time in Beowulf (isn't it a surprise he had time to do all his killing!), Beorn's home is full of feasting and story-telling. Futhermore, the name Beorn can have two different meanings - "man" or "warrior" from the Old English beorn, or "bear" from the Old Norse björn. On the other hand "Beowulf", means "bee-wolf", which is a kenning for "bear"! 

Beorn, by John Howe

  • As in Beowulf with Hrunting, the swords in The Hobbit are given names, like Sting, Glamdring, and Orcrist, depending on their history. 
  • As mentioned in this blog, a parallel can be seen when the dwarves are awaiting Bilbo's escape from the goblins' cave, and Beowulf's thanes awaiting his return from Grendel's Mother's mere.
  • Beowulf has 14 companions (so 15 in all). In The Hobbit, there are 13 dwarves, Bilbo Baggins making the 14th member. And Gandalf can be considered a 15th. 

Thursday, 24 October 2013


Seen as it's almost Halloween, I'm gonna write a post on the figure I'm dressing up as (and putting an embarrassing amount of effort into)! So everybody knows about Medusa...well...you should know anyway. The snake-headed hag who can turn you to stone with one glance (maybe this is where my aversion to looking people in the eye originates). As a Grendel's Mother fan, it's probably unsurprising that I have quite an interest and soft-spot for Medusa too. It wasn't until recently though, that I started looking into her myth a bit further, and I realised it's a lot more complex than I had originally thought. Which means this post is not going to show every version. Partly because that would make this even more boring than it already is, and partly because I'm lazy.

So, despite general conceptions, Medusa did not actually originate in Greece, but rather was imported from other cultures, most likely from the Amazons in Libya and other North African countries, where she was the destroyer aspect, Anath (Athene) of the Great Triple Goddess
The Greek take on Medusa is sometimes associated with the vanquishing of the goddess religions for those associated with male Gods (namely Zeus and Jupiter), sometimes associated with Apollo's killing of Python, the son of Gaia the Earth Goddess. Consequently, former peaceful goddesses were turned into monstrous figures, and replaced by the warrior type gods of Olympus.This is just a theory of course!


And so, Medusa was turned into a monster! However, even the Ancient Greek myth is not known by many people, and in fact there seems to be a few variations of the myth.

The most popular myth of Medusa tells of a girl who was renowned for her beauty, wanted by every man around, and the subject of many bitching sessions by those who were jealous of her. Medusa, however, being a priestess of Athena/Minerva, could not get married, and was expected to stay chaste for her life. Unfortunately, this did not stop Poseidon, God of the Sea, who raped Medusa in the temple of Athena. If this wasn't bad enough, the fact that Medusa was taken advantage of in a place of worship, made Athena a very unhappy bunny. Athena was so angry that she turned Medusa's hair to serpents, and made her face so hideous that anybody unlucky enough to look at it would be turned into their very own Greek statue. Which, in my opinion, kind of makes Athena (and of course Poseidon) out to be the bad guy? No? 

Thomas More's translation from Ovid's Metamorphoses:

Beyond all others she  
was famed for beauty, and the envious hope  
of many suitors. Words would fail to tell  
the glory of her hair, most wonderful  
of all her charms--A friend declared to me  
he saw its lovely splendour. Fame declares  
the Sovereign of the Sea attained her love  
in chaste Minerva's temple. While enraged  
she turned her head away and held her shield  
before her eyes. To punish that great crime  
Minerva changed the Gorgon's splendid hair  
to serpents horrible. And now to strike  
her foes with fear, she wears upon her breast  
those awful vipers--creatures of her rage. 

Other versions of the Medusa myth do exist - some say Medusa was born a gorgon, some say she wasn't raped, but took Poseidon willingly, others say Athena was just jealous of Medusa's beauty.

In the vast majority of retellings, Medusa is beheaded by Perseus, because her eyes still have the power to turn people (or krakens, as Sam Worthington and Harry Hamlin kindly show us in both versions of Clash of the Titans) to stone. As the story goes, Perseus used a mirrored shield to see Medusa without looking her in the eyes, clever fella that he was, and managed to chop her head off. As well as having a headful of snakes, it turned out that Medusa had a wombful of pretty unique children too - Pegasus, the winged horse, and Chrysaor, a sword-wielding giant. As ya do. And these children supposedly sprung from her blood-spurting neck. I'm not sure how exactly that would look, but according to Edward Burne Jones, it looked something like this:

According to Ovid, Persues then flew around a bit with his handy new sandals from Hermes, where he turned quite a number of individuals to stone, including the Titan Atlas, Cetus (who was about to Andromeda alive), and Phineus, whom Andromeda was promised to before Perseus flew in on his golden winged sandals (or on Pegasus in more western takes on the myth) and impressed the hell out of her. Last, but not least, Perseus flew to Seriphos where he rescued his mother from her forced marriage to King Polydectes (sounds like some sort of pterodactyl), who had sent Perseus for Medusa's head in the first place.

Also, while Medusa was dead, she still managed to spawn some more offspring, namely Amphisbaena, a serpent with a head on both ends, as her blood dripped onto the Libyan desert (where her myth originated, and in a way ended)! How nice.

An Amphisbaena in the Aberdeen Bestiary

Perseus by Aubrey Beardsley

Sunday, 15 September 2013

A Realistic Beowulf

On the whole, Beowulf isn't exactly a very realistic story....There's (apparent) sea monsters, a dragon, monsters (that depends on your stance on Grendel and his mommy), and various displays of superhuman strength and endurance. So, it's pretty interesting to find a retelling of Beowulf's adventures that are realistic (to an extent!).

Michael Crichton is known for his rational approach to fantastical stories, most notably in his 1990 novel that was made into the best film ever, Jurassic Park, where Richard Attenborough fills in the incomplete dinosaur DNA with amphibian DNA (unfortunately/fortunately this won't actually work).

Before Crichton was escalating the hopes of dinosaur fanatics, he was exploring Beowulf and coming up with ways in which it could really be explained...well...probably not really, as despite the ideas in his book being rational, they are still rather far-fetched. 

In 1976 Crichton released Eaters of the Dead: The Manuscript of Ibn Fadlan, Relating His Experiences with the Northmen in A.D. 922 (later made into The 13th Warrior, starring Puss in Boots). Crichton constructs the novel so that it imitates a real historical document, professing to be the chronicled expedition of Ibn Fadlan, who was an actual 10th Century Arabic explorer, known for his descriptions of the Volga Vikings. 

Parts of Ibn Fadlan's actual chronicles are present in the first few chapters of Eaters of the Dead, and in general it stays pretty close to his manuscript (or so I have read! I do not profess to know much about Ibn Fadlan's actual antics) up until chapter 4, where the story gradually turns into a retelling of Beowulf, and where Fadlan, who is originally sent to the king of the Volga Bulgars, is persuaded into joining a mad (aren't they always) group of Northmen, led by Buliwyf (an obvious play on Beowulf). Their quest is to destroy a "dread and nameless terror, which all the people are powerless to oppose". This terror, turns out to be a cannibalistic tribe known as the Wendol. 

Wendol, is surely both a reference to Grendel and to the Vandals, an early East Germanic tribe - nicely done, Michael, nicely done. The Wendol are described in Ibn as being "manlike in every respect, but not as any man upon the face of the earth". They are "short...broad and squat, and hairy on all parts of their bodies save their palms, the soles of their feet, and their faces" They had large prominent jaws, with large heads. Now, at the end of Cricthon's book, there is a fake appendix, fake footnotes, and fake sources, all to add to the idea of this being an actual real account (but a fictional real account...). So, at the end of the novel, these fake researchers are trying to explain Ibn Fadlan's accounts. So, we are given a realistic explanation for the Wendol. The Appendix describes them as being "suggestive of Neanderthal anatomy", which although should have vanished 30-40,000 years prior to Ibn Fadlan's accounts, were still in existence. In another one of these fake reports, "Goodrich", a "paleontologist" describes Ibn Fadlan's tendency to overstate facts and differences, suggesting that the Wendol may just have been uncivilized Homo Sapiens, whose cultural differences were interpreted as physical differences. Well...that was confusing!

An image from the beautifully illustrated version of the novel

The next "monster" we come across is the "Korgon", or the dragon, later revealed to be Wendol carrying flames on horseback. Here, we are also told of a figure on horseback who had the head of a bear - perhaps a suggestion that the Wendol were berserkr (translated as "bearskin"), a type of Norse Warrior known for their war frenzy, their animal-skin attire and their general tomfoolery. Of course, it must be noted that our trust in Ibn Fadlan's accounts and descriptions is to be taken with a pinch of salt, as earlier in the novel, he describes "sea monsters" (a nice reference to those that Beowulf fights) that pass their boat, "spitting a fountain, and raising a giant tail split in two". Of course, we say "Duhhh, it's a whale, idiot!", but we must remember, this is an account of an Arab explorer, set in the 10th century, and although it's unlikely that they hadn't heard of whales, it is a nice touch to make us wary of Ibn's accounts. 

One of the Wendol, in The 13th Warrior

And now we come to my favourite bit....the bit where we talk about Grendel's Mother (AWWWW YEAAAH)! For the majority of the novel her existence is only hinted upon. One scene shows the discovery of a stone figure resembling a woman's torso - "there was no head, no arms, and no legs; only the torso with a great swollen belly and, above that, two pendulous swollen breasts", a "crude and ugly" figure which causes the Norsemen to physically puke violently (Breasts? Bleurggh!). Of course, this is an obvious reference to both the Venus of Hohle Fels and the Willendorf Venus, which are both associated with prehistoric times, and are therefore hinting at the humane although primitive nature of the Wendol. 

Venus of Hohle Fels and the Willendorf Venus

When we do get to finally meet the Mother of the Wendol Ibn Fadlan assumes she is female "but if she was female, [he] saw no sign, for she was old to the point of being sexless". She is described as being surrounded by snakes (perhaps a reference to Medusa, a figure often associated with Grendel's Mother and dangerous women in general). Unlike in the original poem she does not appear to have abnormal strength, and instead uses a poisoned pin on Buliwyf. 

Unlike many other adaptations, the Wendol here are not shown with any sympathy. The Wendol's Mother shows no anger over the death of her numerous kin, and it is implied that it is her who has been instigating these attacks on King Rothgar's people. The matriarchal society is seen as threatening and vomit-inducing, compared to the Scandinavians patriarchal society in which the women are seen as caretakers and consorts. Some Kristevan themes can be seen throughout the novel: Through the worship of the female mother, the Wendol are left barbaric and uncivilized, while the Northmen, who have pushed the maternal away have evolved into more refined civilians. Julia Kristeva suggests that in order to acquire language and align itself with the symbolic system, the subject must push the mother and the maternal body away. Similar themes can be seen in John Gadner's Grendel, where Grendel only finds language through pushing away from his mother and her primitive state.

Hopefully that wasn't so confusing! Goodbye, I am off to watch Channing Tatum.

Sunday, 25 August 2013

What do Praying Mantises and Angelina Jolie have in common?

I think it's about time we sit down and talk about the elephant in the room - the elephant in question being Angelina Jolie. Anyone who has read Beowulf (or those who sat in lectures pretending to have read it - I'll admit, I was one of them. And now look at me!), and who was expecting the sea-hag-witch-of-the-sea-demon (I was also once one of these people), was probably thinking "Really? Did these assholes even read the godamn poem?"...It would have been a lot more fitting if Angelina Jolie and Brendan Gleeson's roles were switched, right?

Well, as it turned out, I was wrong. Well...sort of anyway. Angelina Jolie is actually a lot more suited to play Grendel's Mother than any CGI monsters! However, it must be stated that this Grendel's Mother also raises other issues, which we will get to.

Before we continue with Angelina Jolie, I think it's good to look at one of the most cringy adaptations of Beowulf ever made. You may know it from the techno soundtrack, Beowulf's peroxide locks (it was the 90's, and Beowulf wasn't getting left behind with the fashion!), the extremely high rate of back flips, and its impressively low 3.8 IMDb rating.

I'm bringing up this embarrassment of a film because of its very own Grendel's Mother...Layla Roberts. Who knows what Graham Baker was thinking when he decided "Yes, a playboy bunny, that is exactly who I need to play Grendel's Mother! And you know, hey, seen as she is involved in that whole industry, we may as well add in some soft porn scenes!". They even crimped her hair, to make sure that in years to come we could look at this film and shout "the nineties!". And yet, this film seemed to be a huge influence on Zemickis's 2007 version - with regards to nudity and storyline. Danél Griffin thought that many scenes in the film seemed "so absurd and outlandish that we wonder if the writers, Mark Leahy and David Chappe, have even read the poem." I'm with you there, man.

Hrothgar, you dog!

Despite all the negativity directed at this film, this, along with Zemickis's version, gives Grendel's Mother a much larger role - she gets a god amount of screen time and she can speak! She doesn't appear to us as an irrational beast, like in Grendel, Grendel, Grendel or Outlander, or in Beowulf and Grendel (to a slightly lesser extent) - she appears as intellectually powerful, even if it is in a manipulative manner. A big thing for me was that she appeared to us in a human form (me being with the "Grendel's Mother is a Human too" campaign), but alas, this is too good to be true, and she is revealed to be a giant praying mantis (in Baker's) and that Alien-esque style creature in Zemickis's.

I don't think it's any mistake that Layla Roberts turns into a praying mantis - the praying mantis, along with the black widow spider and the Venus fly-trap plant, and poison ivy etc etc etc, are often associated with the 'seductress' woman, and sometimes with women more generally. Anita Sarkeesian argues that these insects and plants have become "the inspiration for a whole trope of sexy female characters", seemingly stemming from a misconception about female praying mantises biting their male counterparts heads off - as it turned out, this was indeed a misconception, yet unfortunately the myth lived on in the belief that sexually powerful women are dangerous. Sarkeesian calls this trope the:
evil demon seductress... a supernatural creature usually a demon, robot, alien, vampire most often disguised as a sexy human female. She uses her sexuality and sexual wiles to manipulate, seduce, and kill, and often eat, poor hapless men, by luring them into her evil web ("Tropes vs. Women #4)

Layla Roberts really pulling off a praying mantis

In both films, Grendel's Mother fits this description. She seduced Hrothgar, most likely for producing a son who will later attack Heorot and be the rightful king. In the 2007 version, this is taken a step further, and Angelina and Ray Winstone give birth to a beautiful baby dragon. So, despite the good news that Grendel's Mother gets more airtime, the films have the extra issue of demonising women. These films portray women as manipulative and controlling, using sex to fulfill ulterior motives. The use of Layla Roberts or Angelina Jolie only adds to the sexism - as Sarkeesian states, "when an evil demon seductress is on screen, men get ot objectify her while having these sexist preconceived notions that women are in fact manipulative and deceitful", and as Bill Schipper tells it, "nothing terrifies a male audience more than a physically and sexually powerful woman"

David Marshall states that Beowulf (2007) attempts to criticise the masculine power system and its inability to control desire. Both Hrothgar and Beowulf cannot resist Angelina Jolie's golden breasts. Furthermore, Heorot appears to us as some sort of Anglo-Saxon frat-boy party house, where Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins) encourages "fornication" and praises Unferth (John Malkovich) as "violator of virgins". All the men appear to act on physical whims, whereas the women of the film, like Grendel's Mother and Wealhtheow act on reason. Unfortunately, the film kind of fails in this criticism when they decided to turn Grendel's Mother into a digitally enhanced, naked, golden Angelina Jolie, whose body "caters to the same hyper-sexualised function of masculine desire that drives Beowulf in Zemickis's film" (Marshall). In the end, the only character who gains our respect is Wealhtheow, who also preserves her chastity, whilst Grendel's Mother's powerful sexuality is made unnatural and monstrous. 

In the writing of this post I also found out that someone on Youtube has a pet praying mantis named Angelina Jolie. I wonder if they realise the depth of that choice.

Monday, 12 August 2013

Freaky Freydís

It is generally assumed that all Viking raiders and warriors were men (lazy archaeology?), but that's not actually the case - quite a large percentage (up to half in some cases) were actually women, Freydís Eiríksdóttir being one of the more notable (and absolutely mental) ones, as the following picture accurately conveys:

Here is a lovely wax figure of the woman herself in Reykjavik. Smashing stuff.

Daughter of Erik the Red, who was a (most likely) Norwegian fella who founded the first Norse settlement in Greenland (who the hell would want to live there is what I ask), Freydís is generally known to have been involved in the Norse exploration of North America around 1,000AD or so (quite a bit before 1492 I may add) along with her brother Leifr. 

Freydís appears in two sagas; the Saga of Erik the Red, and the Grœnlendinga Saga, both believed to be composed in the 13th century. Events from an expedition to Vinland (in North America) are described in the first of these sagas - during this visit to America, the Vikings traded with what they called the Skrælingjar, the peoples from around North America and Greenland. 

Vinland on the left. This map is reputedly pre-Colombian, although possibly a forge

    As the story goes, trading all went well until the Vikings ran out of everything except cow's milk. The Skrælingjar turned out to be lactose intolerant, of course, and thought they were being poisoned. This, along with a rather uneasy encounter with a bull ("what in god's name is that devil-beast?"), made, as one can imagine, things a bit tense, and the shit hit the fan.
    Freydís, who was heavily pregnant at this time, and therefore less agile than a hippo on stilts, found herself abandoned by her spineless crew, who were starting to set sail. Seeing them flee she shouted after them: "Why run you away from such worthless creatures, stout men that ye are [...] Let me but have a weapon, I think I could fight better than any of you." And so, she proceeded to find the sword of one of her dead companions, and when the Skrælingjar came upon her, she bared her breasts and beat the sword against them, letting out a battle-cry. Needless to say, they fled in terror, and so would you, had you encountered that wax figure above or this orangutan below:

So, she sounds cool, right?! I'm sorry, but your dreams of a new idol are about to be smashed into tiny pieces. Read on.

Obviously thrilled by this exhilarating experience (who doesn't like to act out King Kong?), Freydís decided to make a deal with some poor Icelandic feckers, Helgi and Finnbogi, and returned to Vinland, after agreeing to split the goods half and half with the brothers. Being the snake in the grass that she was, Freydís snuck a few extra men onto her ship (she also convinced the two brothers to let her take the bigger of the ships). Due to differences of opinion, by the time they arrived in Vinland, two camps were set up. Later on, Freydís told her husband that the two lads had assaulted her, and ordered them and their crew killed. The orders were followed, but her men refused to kill the unarmed women - Freydís saw to them herself, chopping off the five of their heads, no bother at all to her. 

Not wanting to be seen as batshit crazy back home, she ordered silence on the matter for their return to Greenland. Her brother Leifr, obviously being a bit suspicious that the crew has magically shrunk by bloody half, resorted to torturing the truth out of some of the men. Being the just man that he was, he did....absolutely nothing, and Freydís got away with it all. I suffer more repercussions if I forget to hang the godanm washing out!

Leif Erikson, an all too forgiving brother

So, unfortunately, Freydis turned out to be a pretty horrible, greedy, merciless, thundering bitch, but either way, she is an interesting figure - a strong willed, courageous woman, but certainly not one to look up to or follow after - unless you fancy being secured in a psychiatric ward of a prison.

Thursday, 8 August 2013

Grendel, Grendel, Grendel's Mother

This has to be one of the coolest book covers around

Another Grendel's Mother post, yaaaay! Today I'm going to write about John Gardner's novel Grendel, and the animated film adaptation, Grendel, Grendel, Grendel. That's a lot of 'Grendel's in one sentence.

Grendel was one of the first (and most popular) adaptations of Beowulf, being written in 1971, and is known for its sympathetic treatment of Grendel. The story is told from Grendel's point of view, with very little focus on Beowulf (he isn't ever named, and we only meet him at the very end). As Alexander Stitt's film narrates, "it is told "through twentieth century eyes, where one is more likely to see the humanity in a monster" - yeah, well, not for Grendel's Mother.

This retelling of the Beowulf story, features one of the most monstrous and animal-like Grendel's Mother around, and although the story is seen through Grendel's eyes, even less of his mother is seen than in the original poem. And although it is a different view of her, it's not necessarily anyway less monstrous than any translations of the poem. She is described as a "life-bloated, baffled, long-suffering hag", a "horrible, humpbacked, carp-toothed creature", with "strange eyes" and "bristly fur". Can you feel the love that he feels for his mum? She is obviously not human-like at all...well, I guess you could find some people who fit those descriptions, but anyway...

Even more notable than appearance, is Grendel and his Mother's intelligence - where Grendel is portrayed as intelligent, rational, and quite philosophical (along with the dragon), ad even has an upper class British accent in the film, while his mother has no voice at all - "she'd forgotten language long ago, or maybe had never known it" - she cannot even comprehend what Grendel says.

Despite all this, there is a small amount of sympathy for Grendel's Mother - perhaps she is not all that monstrous - "I was, in her eyes some meaning I could never know and might not care to know", "she would have given her life to end my suffering". And although we know how it pans out in the original poem, we can only presume that she avenges her son after the novel ends. This love for her son of course, isn't necessarily a human trait, but could rather be an animal's maternal instinct - I mean, shit, the Moorwen in Outlander was almost more human-like than this Grendel's Mother!

Brian Froud's depiction of Grendel

So, despite being a book that was great for Grendel, it's not exactly great for his mother. It is a good book however, and worth a read if you're into Beowulf. Sure fuckit, aren't we all. And this is where I realise I'm turning into one of those people...those people who write blogs on academic stuff. Goodbye childhood.

Grendel, Grendel, Grendel can be found here! It's worth watching especially for the part at the start.

And now I'm off to London. Goodbye, suckers!

Sunday, 28 July 2013

Rape and abduction in Anglo-Saxon England

Source: progressivepatriots.com

I'm sure most people will remember that pretty controversial and outrageous statement that Republican (aren't they always!) Todd Akin said about rape victims being able to avoid pregnancy -
"If it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down". 
Yes, Todd, I'm sure you got an A in Biology. Funnily enough, with the pro-life folk always talking about abortion being something from the Dark Ages, this view that raped women can somehow prevent pregnancy is in fact from the Dark Ages! Maybe that's why many are considered to be White Anglo-Saxon Protestants.

According to Julia Coleman, in her chapter "Rape in Anglo-Saxon England", the earliest definition of rape in the Anglo-Saxon period can be found in the ninth century laws of King Alfred (remember, the guy who let the cakes burn). Here are some facts:
  • The rape of a non-virgin wasn't treated to be as serious as the rape of a virgin
  • Because marital sex was seen as a dutiful act to a spouse, it is likely that non-consnsual sex in a marriage wasn't seen as rape - unfortuantely many people still think this way
  • Abduction, elopement and adultery are also lumped in with rape
And what was the punishment for what was then considered rape? Well, mostly just a fine to the victim or her husband or father, but it could be as serious as castration in the case of a rape by a slave.

From another source, there is the likelihood that compensation was offered to the victims (or their "owners"), "ranging from 5s for seizing her by the breast to 60s for rape [...] The fine for removing a nun from a nunnery is also 120s, divided between the king and the ecclesiastical authorities [...] Compensation for rape is reduced by half if the victim was not a virgin " (Early English Laws). All this is presumably in shillings (20 shillings to a pound). Some other sources give different amounts for compensation. 

A screen shot from Corine Saunders' Rape and Ravishment in the Literature of Medieval England

In post-conquest England, after the Norman invasion, it is notable that there appears to be no mention of the victim's or the rapist's social class - whether you were a slave or a Lord, your genitals were getting the chop!

"Sausies for din-dins!"

As Coleman states, it wasn't only the woman's dignity that was affected - it also affected the men in her life's pride, as they feel lessened by the fact that they were unable to protect her. This can also be seen on a larger scale, with reports from Ancient Greece up until present day - rape is a pretty common consequence of warfare. "War rape" is more than just about the physical act, and goes beyond the terrorising of the woman (or man) who is being victimised. As Susan Brownmiller says:

(R)ape by a conqueror is compelling evidence of the conquered's status of masculine impotence. Defense of women has long been a hallmark of masculine pride, as possession of women has been a hallmark of masculine success. Rape by a conquering soldier destroys all remaining illusions of power and property for men of the defeated side.

Anglo-Saxon England, being a realm which was involved in regular conflict with the Danes and later the Normans, is no exception to this, and unfortunately women were often used as a tool to demonstrate the taking of the country to the men.

Rape in Anglo-Saxon England
Rape and Ravishment in the Literature of Medieval England
The Semiotics of Rape in Renaissance English Literature

Monday, 22 July 2013

Brynhildr - a Norse rom-com (minus the comedy... and much of the romance)

Brynhildr, depicted by Robert Engels in 1919

We've already talked about one (official) shieldmaiden, Lagertha, so I think it's time we talk about some more kickass Norse wimmins.

Interestingly enough (maybe? Is it? I dunno), there is a connection between Lagertha and the more famous shieldmaiden we are going to talk about today - Brynhildr. You may recall that Ragnar Lodbrok took Brynhildr's daughter, Aslaug, as his third wife, after divorcing Lagertha (I'm still a bit butt hurt over this). Brynhildr also has a connection to another figure, Gudrun/Kriemhild, who I want to discuss more in the future (she does pop up here quite a bit). Shit, she even has a connection to Grendel's Mother in Xena: Warrior Princess (Grinhilda)! Basically, Brynhildr gets around!

DISCLAIMER: There will be a whole lot of name repetitions - you will never want to hear the name Brynhildr again! Brynhildr Brynhildr Brynhildr!

The character of Brynhildr may be famous from Wagner's Ring Cycle, Der Ring des Nibelungen, but she started out as a figure in Norse mythology (and possibly even before this as Brunhilda of Austrasia, a real life Visigothic princess). Although, to be completely honest, most people will have heard the name Brynhildr/Brunhilde/blablabla etc, from things like Xena, various video games, World of Warcraft, Django Unchained, and by the looks of it, some softcore manga...what the...

Eh, anyway. Brynhildr appears in the Völsunga saga, a 13th century Icelandic text and some Eddic poems. In the Völsunga saga, she is condemned by Odin to live life as a mortal woman and imprisoned in a ring of fire until a man rescues and marries her. The lucky man to come and rescue Brynhildr was Sigurðr Sigmundson, hero of the Volsung saga, and needless to say, the two of them fall madly in love, ending with Sigurðr's offer of the ring Andvaranaut (which is likely to be an influence for the one ring in LOTR) as a proposal. Sigurðr, who needs to run off on important business, promises to return to make Brynhildr his bride. In the meantime, Gudrun comes over for a cup of tea and to ask for some help in interpreting a dream, which coincidentally enough foretells Sigurðr's betrayal of Brynhildr and his marriage to Gudrun - forget Freud, these guys really knew their dreams!

The man himself . Killing Fafnir.

So, at this stage, Sigurðr is off with Gjuki, the King of Burgundy. Gjuki's wife, Grimhild, who happens to be Gudrun's mother dearest AND a sorceress (how unlucky), prepares a magic potion so that Sigurðr will forget about Brynhildr. And alas, the potion does its job, and he marries Gudrun instead. In some strange series of events, Gjuki's wife then decides to marry her son Gunnar to Brynhildr (what a terrible mother-in-law she would have been). However, Gunnar finds that he can't get through this ring of flames, and so, Sigurðr offers to exchange shapes with him, and enters to claim her hand. So Sigurðr, disguised as Gunnar, stays with Brynhildr for three nights, putting a sword in between them so she will retain her virginity (imagine if they couldn't find a sword - close one!) and then takes the One Ring to Rule Them All from her finger to later give to Gudrun (oh no he didn't!). Sigurðr and Gunnar return to their true forms and Gunnar is married to Brynhildr.

And this is where shit gets real. Gudrun and Brynhildr start arguing about who has the better husband, where Brynhildr starts bragging about how brave her Gunnar was to ride through the flames to get her, causing Gudrun to drop the bombshell that it was actually Sigurðr. As you can imagine, Brynhildr goes ape, and Sigurðr starts to remember the truth, but fails to console her. So, Brunhildr tries to urge Gunnar to kill him, telling him that Sigurðr slept with her - Gunnar, being too scared to kill Sigurðr himself, gives his little brother a potion that enrages him, causing him to kill Sigurðr. Brynhildr then kills Sigurðr's son, and during Sigurðr's funeral, throws herself on his funeral pyre, thus entering into Hel with him - a somewhat romantic ending...in a rather messed up way.

Brünnhilde throws herself on the flames. By Arthur Rackham for Wagner's Ring Cycle

Have you died of boredom yet? There are differences in other versions of the story found in a few Eddic poems (eg Aslaug is Brynhildr's and Sigurðr's daughter), but honestly, ain't nobody got time fo' that.

The story of Brynhildr can then be found in the Nibelungenlied, a Middle High German epic poem about Siegfried (Sigurðr). There are quite a few differences regarding her tale in this version - Brunhild is the queen of Iceland, and with Siegfried's help (who is hidden under an invisibility claok that he got off Albus Dumbledore), Gunther (Gunnar) wins Brunhild in a series of rather warlike games. There doesn't appear to be any suggestion that Siegfried had proposed (or even known) Brunhild before this.

Brunhild, who is suspicious of Siegfried (as Gunther introduced him as a vassal, although he was actually royalty), denies Gunther her virginity until he tells her the truth. Gunther tries to take her by force, but Brunhild merely pushes away his advances as if he were a tiny kitten and ties him to the ceiling. 

Gunther's Wedding Night by Johann Heinrich Füssli

The next day, Gunther, being a little bit put out at not getting the ride, tells Siegfried what happened, so Siegfried enters their bed chamber that night under cover of the invisibility cloak, and holds Brunhild down until she submits to Gunther's will - a bit rapey if you ask me. In this version of the story, this is when Siegfried takes "a ring" from her finger (along with a girdle), which is later shown to her  y Kriemhild (Gudrun) during their "my husband is better than yours" argument - thus giving away the game. Hagen, Brunhild's vassal, promising to take revenge on the wrongdoer then kills Siegfried. So, as you can see, this version has a lot less romance, and a lot less sympathy for Siegfried/Sigurðr. 

Some other time I will discuss Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen, because this post is about forty-two times longer than I'd intended it to be. It's time for me to go watch Wrath of the Titans and see if it's as class....I mean....crap.... as Clash of the Titans (whose tagline was "Titans will Clash" - I never tire of telling people this).

Thursday, 18 July 2013

Space Grendels

In the very few cases that people have asked me what my favourite Beowulf film is (most likely it's me telling them against their will when I'm shitfaced), I have to answer with Outlander. Funnily enough, it's only very vaguely got anything to do with Beowulf, and Grendel's Mother is the most monstrous that you'll probably ever see her. But all that aside, I think it's a pretty good film (but then again, I'm into all that kinda crap). And as well as its similarities to things like Clash of the Titans (I had to start calling this a guilty pleasure when I found out that it's not cool to like it) and 300, which I just can't get enough of, I think another reason I like this film is because of a certain viking....

So, I'm really gonna sell this movie to you now - basically, a man from another planet crashlands in 8th century Norway, unfortunately bringing along a 'Moorwen' which seems to have hitchhiked in his spaceship without consent. So, this fella, Kainan (played by Jim Caviezel, whoever the hell he is), then comes across King Hrothgar (John Hurt - a nod to Alien? minus chest-bursters) and his people, and the Moorwen starts attacking everybody, and the rest can be guessed from there. SOUNDS GREAT RIGHT? Yes, yes, I know, thank me later.

Outlander was made in 2008 by Howard McCain, and unsurprisingly nobody I know has ever heard of it, and it's one of those films that seems to get played on the Syfy channel sometimes (no way as good as such cinematic masterpieces like Mega Shark vs Giant Octopus and The Human Centipede of course). Anyway, as the story goes, McCain always wanted to make a Beowulf adaptation, but his agent told him that "everybody hates Beowulf" (how wrong could he be?!...actually, he was probably right...), so he decided to title it Outlander and made a few character changes....a few drastic ones. 

I'm going to concentrate on the Moorwen from here on in, because this monster beor appears to be some sort of re-imagining of Grendel's Mother. It's kind of hard to discern this Moorwen's gender, because as you'll see....

....yes, what the fuck is that?! It looks like some sort of warg-tyrannosaurus-komodo dragon-angler fish. So, according to Google Search, not many people seem to agree with my view that this is Grendel's Mother (in fact, only two results show up, neither of which actually says that the Moorwen is Grendel's Mother), but rather that the Moorwen is Grendel. But, if any of these people had paid attention, the Moorwen GIVES BIRTH to another one and then goes ape when her offspring is killed....sounds kind of like....yes, you got it, Grendel's Mother! 

Of course, like most films these days, Outlander makes us feel sympathy for the monster, and Kainan tells the Vikings about how his race of people thoughtlessly wiped out the Moorwen population in order to expand their own civilisation, and this last survivor of the species is just trying to exact revenge (and later on revenge for her dead offspring) - there seems to be a warning of urban expansion in there somewhere, but this is kind of undermined when they then proceed to "go kill this thing", seemingly losing their sympathy in a rush of adrenaline and human nature. At the very end, this vague sense of sympathy returns, just as the monster is about the die, but at the end of the day, she is just seen as a beast, and everybody can go back to drinking mead and running about on top of shields in peace, and Kainan gets the girl. Durrr.

But....saying all that, because I know it sounded very critical...I do like this film. It definitely beat watching a bleach-headed Beowulf do multiple back-flips to a soundtrack of techno, and it also beat watching Ray Winstone and Brendan Gleeson with their CGI'd abs looking like they're about to jump aboard the Polar Express. And I'll take an out-and-out monster over a porn star who turns into a praying mantis any day too! And it's worth watching it just for Wulfric. 

Sweet dreams

And, also, here is an amazing (and completely off topic) song that I feel I must spread to everyone and anyone who will listen.

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

The wenches of Westeros

So, for the last few days this image has been floating about the interwebs, adding to the list of kickass responses to the stupid "wtf man, why is there intelligent/interesting women in your show/books/film?". So, I thought I would write a post concerning the female characters in the Song of Ice and Fire series, and the tv series of Game of Thrones too. I know this isn't exactly on topic, but there are some influences from mythology and the Anglo-Saxon period (the seven kingdoms of Westeros can be compared to the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of what is now England). Or at least that's my excucse, so deal with it.

Although the series has many boobs flying about (reeling in the viewers I guess? - and the rate of boobs per episode has greatly subsided in the last two seasons), it's plain to see that there are a lot of really strong female characters in GoT (we're just going to shorten it to that cause I'm lazy). Now, I am only on book four (A Feast for Crows), so, firstly, I'm a bit behind, and secondly, please don't spoil anything for me or I will find you and I will kill you. Which reminds me, SPOILER ALERT PROBABLY. 

Source: pandawhale.com

So, much like how myself and many people would imagine the Middle Ages to be, life for a woman isn't exactly the most liberating experience in the world, and it's much like that in George R.R. Martin's universe that he has created, whatever exactly it's called (what is it called?). But that doesn't stop the female characters from trying to break free from expected roles and fortified castles and the hands of The Hound, and becoming some of the most interesting and complex characters in the books and series.

One of my favourite characters in GoT (with strong competition from Tyrion Lannister) is Daenerys Targaryen, because she has developed from that unsure little girl/weeping newlywed with that queynte of a brother, into a no-shit-taking Queen, and she gets some of the coolest parts in the series (for example the "You speak Valyrian?!?!" scene). We've all found ourselves not being taken seriously, or presumed incapable of certain qualities, and it feels good to prove people wrong, but we can only wish that we could do it with the same dramatic effect (and fire) that Dany does. And although a lot of her rise to power relied on the men around her (much of this was taken away with Khal Drogo's death however), I feel that she is becoming more and more independent of them as the series progresses. I truly hope that she isn't killed off before the end!

This scene made me fist pump in my mind

A character that is utterly despicable, yet quite....admirable (this isn't exactly the word I'm trying to think of) is Cersei Lannister. She really is a horrible person (with added incest), but one can't help but be impressed by her willingness to do anything or kill anyone to stay on top, and I think there are definitely times when one can feel sympathetic towards her character too (when we learn more of her disappointing marriage to Robert for example). Her character is also important with regards to gender issues, as she speaks herself of how she didn't understand how when her and Jaime reached a certain age, despite being identical in all ways, she was taught to be a lady, while her brother was given a sword, and how when she would dress in her brither's clothes, people would treat her differently. Of course, she doesn't dispute the patriarchal belief that men should rule the world, merely resents the fact that she was born a woman. 

Another character who it wouldn't do to leave out is, of course, Brienne of Tarth. Unusually, she is given a traditionally male role in the story, first becoming Catelyn's protector of sorts, and later filling the traditional role of the male knight searching for the beautiful lost maiden - except for Brienne is a woman, and does not look to gain from her rescuing of Sansa (like marriage or gold). Perhaps there is some critique in there of knights rescuing maidens purely for the motive of "getting the girl". But then again, Brienne has a lot more honour than most of the other knights in the series. 

What is also refreshing is the fact that she is not made into some sexy warrior girl who chooses to fight half naked, which for many films, seems to be the only acceptable way for a female fighter to be, but is described as being quite ugly and masculine, and most of the time she is seen wearing armour. When we see her onscreen, her fight scenes come across as really credible - we're not sitting here thinking "yeah right, like a woman could fight off that many men at once". And in another way Brienne's character defies another typical female role, in that, despite being butch and masculine, she is not a lesbian, as many probably expect her to be.

Anyway, Brienne is a great character, and I'm looking forward to seeing how her story progresses. 

There are many more impressive ladies in GoT; Arya Stark (durrr), Sansa Stark (despite my hatred of her at the start, I have come to like her), Margery Tyrell, the Queen of Thorns, Asha Greyjoy (Yara in the tv series), Osha, Ygritte, Catelyn Stark, and so on. But this is enough for today.