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.