Tuesday, 30 September 2014

The Victorians and the ides aglæcwif (and I delve into the murky mere of tutoring)

I have (just about) survived my first week of tutoring Old English to second years, and....well, let's just say, I had expected university students to be a bit more communicative. Instead, it appears to be a "who can hold off responding the longest" competition. Am I just paranoid?....am I just stoned? If only I could go back to the times when listening to a Green Day album was the most productive thing I did in a day.

Whilst trying to maintain my sanity, the rest of my life must go on (my life being thesis, sleep, painting, thesis, sleep, staring into space, thesis). And the other thing my life appears to revolve around...Grendel's mother. Again?! Yes, again.

grendles modor ides aglæcwif

Today, I ask 'why'. Why has Grendel's mother been turned into the "monstrous ogress" with the "talons" and the wolfish ways and the gold paint and the scales and the everything?

I have pretty much established that she was not demonised by the poet himself, not even her actions (see previous posts!). Not even Beowulf and Hrothgar think she's doing something terrible. The only people who do think that, are the translators and scholars who decided secg means "warrior" for Beowulf, but shit, look, it's also used for Grendel's mother... eh, it probably means "creature" in that instance. Just put down "creature"...or I know, I know, "monster". Yeah, that's as accurate as we're gonna get here.

So, I recently started delving into this a bit deeper, wondering who the hell is the bane of my existence (and at the same time the reason I'm doing a PhD in this subject...thank you), and, well, I guess there's a few possible reasons.

The most obvious of these is that, firstly, she is the mother of Grendel, and is therefore assumed to be monstrous. Whether or not Grendel is as monstrous as he is assumed to be, this is not enough proof for his mother to be monstrous. Secondly, she is an antagonist, therefore is bound to get the short end of the stick (is that the phrase?? Hard end of the stick? The ugly stick?) when it comes to translating her.

Berit Åström argues that the reason for her characterisation, and for other women's dismissal, lies in the fact that in the 1800's (when Beowulf was first given much attention), history was viewed in a linear fashion - meaning that, in their opinion, the centuries got progressively more civilised. The Anglo-Saxon era then, must have been all about power, glory, and manstuff, meaning that female figures in history got ignored because they were presumably unimportant to the Anglo-Saxons. 

I think Åström was on the right track here - after all, for a period that treated women so horrendously, of course women were treated even worse by the Anglo-Saxons. I can picture a Victorian scholar musing over how much they'd progressed in their treatment of women in that 800 year gap. "Sure at least we're not as bad as those old Anglo-Saxons! Edith, get me some tea, woman!"

But there's most likely more to it than that. After all, the Victorian era was pretty renowned for its sexism, its lack of women's rights, and its strict confines to what femaleness meant.
Being a time of staunch Christian belief and conservative morals (carried on from the Middle Ages), the bible was a pretty big reference book on how to behave. Unfortunately for women, the bible is also a pretty misogynistic text.

Which are you?

And basically, when it comes to the bible, really only two kinds of women are prevalent. You can choose to emulate the Virgin Mary, submissive, willing to carry God's child (even though they hadn't even gone on one date yet - sluuuut) or you could emulate Eve, the one who overstepped the boundary and went against God's will (the patriarchy, man!). You can only be one or the other. You're either all good, or you're a FUCKING WHORE.

For the Victorians, this Virgin-Whore, Madonna-Eve complex was present, especially for middle and higher class women (while the working class made shit in factories and spoke in strong cockney accents according to TV). But it was probably more present in an angel-demon dichotomy. For some strange reason, in the 1800's, the ideal woman started to be seen as an angel - whereas before this, angels were muscled, androgynous figures with spears (or freakishly muscular babies). The ideal woman's role revolved around marriage and childbirth and the homestead and shutting the fuck up. And somewhere along the line, the terms 'angel' and 'domesticity' seemed to become almost synonymous, as Auerbach argues (in Woman as Demon). This possibly started with Coventry Patmore's poem "The Angel in the House", which was basically “a convenient shorthand for the selfless paragon all women were exhorted to be, enveloped in family life and seeking no identity beyond the roles of daughter, wife, and mother” (Auerbach, 69).

And so, those women who were not the ideal, who were not submissive and domestic, were often to be seen as monstrous (not necessarily Alien or those terrifying things from The Descent (shiver) type monstrous) or often were described with imagery harking back to the Fall, categorising them as snake-like. Basically, unfeminine actions like physical exertion and having an opinion made you monstrous.

Furthermore, a 'discipline' that was very popular in the Victorian era was that of physiognomy - basically, the assessment of someone's character by their outward appearance. Fierce scientific stuff, really! Yet its impact appears throughout Victorian literature (and still somewhat today), in works of Dickens, Brontë, Wilde, Austen, and more, and was also influential on art. Even if you look at old illustrations of suffragettes, they are often characterised as ugly women (who probably couldn't get a man anyway - why does this sound familiar! Still!). Bad guys were, and still are, often made to look like bad guys. And women who did not fit the ideal of the angel in the house (prostitutes, spinsters, feminists, female authors, fallen women), were often illustrated as ugly

Physiognomy in 19th century illustration - maybe the guy on the left has a fiery temper, harhar.

So...what the hell did these moral crusaders do when it came to Grendel's mother and translating her for a modern audience? Well, they could not have that blasphemy going unchecked (A woman? Fighting? Killing? Never!), so the easiest way to deal with it is *BAM*, tell everyone she's a monster and make her reaaaallly ugly!
Who knows if she was actively changed or subconsciously believed to be representative of a monster anyway? Perhaps a bit of both? Don't ask me anyway.

This is something I hope to immerse myself more in, and at the end of the day, it's all a bit of guessing and a bit of speculation. Any other opinions (opposing or otherwise) are very welcome.

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Wife of Cain

Okay, first of all, the suggestion that Grendel's mother is Cain's wife is a ridiculous one (but hey, what can we expect from yahoo answers), but I have decided that if in the very unlikely event I start a death metal band, it will be called Wife of Cain. WIFE OF CAAAAIN.

And yes, I downloaded a font to make my dreams more solid. It's a slow study day. It's almost as illegible as some Anglo-Saxon manuscripts. 

Back to the issue at hand then... well first things first, Cain is obviously not Grendel's wife because...well...time. For us measly human beings, we perceive time as linear, and Cain could not have existed both for numerous generations before the Flood and the many many years after the Flood that Beowulf is set. Cain, you are NOT the father! If that's not a condescending paragraph then I don't know what is! Please accept it as the lowest form of humour. But you must admit, that would make for a great Jeremy Kyle episode, eh? I think it could even push for a two hour Christmas special.

*facepalm* Cain by Henri Vidal

As a side note, do you know how hard it is to find a decent artistic depiction of Cain where he's not bating the shite out of Abel or walking into exile? 

Now, to start taking things a bit more seriously. The issue on the table today is Grendel's relationship to Cain, and whether or not she is descended from him as Grendel is. 
Firstly, Grendel's mother is never described with such devilish language as Grendel is. Grendel, throughout the poem, is called Godes andsaca ("God's adversary"), a feond on helle ("enemy from hell"), he is fag wið God (not what you're thinking, but "hostile with God"), he is helle hæfton (a "captive of hell"), and when he finally dies, him hel onfeng ("hell received him"). I mean, he has a pretty strong connection with hell here, and it seems he's not on the very best of terms with God (although I imagine raping and pillaging put the Danes not too far down the naughty list also). Grendel is a bad guy, he commits serial murder for no exact reason, except that he was possibly feeling a bit left out or the scop's mainstream music choices just weren't to his taste, but basically he is like Historic Denmark's high school shooting perpetrator. 

The story of a mother's struggle to control her son, spawn of Cain, eotan

On the other hand (not Grendel's other hand anyway, harharr), such language is never used of Grendel's mother - she is called sinnige ("sinful, guilty"), sure, but that's about as far as the narrator calls her that has any relevance to God. She doesn't commit rampant murder like her son does, and her only crime is to avenge him...which in Old Norse society was not a crime - she follows the rules of wergild, an eye for an eye sorta thing - but that's about it. 

As to her relation to Cain...well, we know Grendel is related, because it is said twice in the poem, and referenced once more. Whereas Grendel's mother, although we are told se þe wæteregesan wunian scolde cealde streamas siþðan camp him wearð to ecgbanan angan breþer fæderenmaege ("She who dwelt in terrible waters and cold streams since Cain raised the sword against his brother, his father's kin"), once Cain is mentioned, the narrator says þanon woc fela geosceaftgasta wæs þaera Grendel sum ("from him awoke many spirits, Grendel among them"). Edward B. Irving argues, “the total effect of this passage, illogical as it may seem, is to suggest that Grendel is a lineal and faithful descendent of Cain in a way that his mother is not . . . she appears in no theological context” (Rereading Beowulf 71). Of course, this is up for speculation, but it does seem rather odd that the poet says Grendel was among his descendants, yet doesn't say his mother is. 

Again on line 1352, when we are told that the Danes knew about two figures mooning about the marshes, Hrothgar tells us of Grendel's mother, then of Grendel, and only says Grendel walked in the tracks of the exile (Cain). If he meant for Grendel's mother to be related to Cain, could he not have just said so, the way he is constantly telling us that Grendel is? Come on, man, stop beating around the god-damn bush!

Sticking to this paragraph, WHY THE HELL DID HROTHGAR FAIL TO MENTION ABOUT GRENDEL'S MOTHER? Well...one possibility is because she was not a monster and therefore not a threat to Heorot. Either that or Hrothgar is a fucking dope. But I am going with the former, because hey, let's give him a bit of credit. Sure, the poem is full of some unbelievable things, but I think Hrothgar's a guy I could trust.

So....how is Grendel related to Cain? Well...there's quite the possibility that there is a father. I mean, that's how reproduction works right? And seen as all the evidence (in my humble opinion) points towards Grendel's mother being human, then I don't see how there couldn't be a father....except...if...wait.. maybe it's an immaculate conception... and Grendel is Christ, and Beowulf represents the Jews. Oh god, I think I'm definitely onto something here, shove over Frederick Klaeber. On a more serious note... no, she isn't analogous to the Virgin Mary, and no, I don't think she impregnated herself (unless she's a komodo dragon). So yes, I think there's quite the possibility that a father exists. I know Seamus Heaney calls them "fatherless creatures" whose "ancestry is hidden in a past of demons and ghosts", but if there's one thing I try to express in my blog-posts it's "ixnay on the anslatorstray", because what is said is:
no hie fæder cunnon, hwæþer him ænig wæs acenned dyrna gasta
Which I will now use my super translating skills (yep, don't trust me either, I'm one of them *theme music to The Twilight Zone*) as "They do not know the [or 'a'] father, or whether any mysterious spirits were born before him". So, it's possible. This, coupled with the fact that Grendel's mother is never explicitly mentioned in any theological contexts, suggests that a paternal link to Cain could well exist.

See, Grendel has a hunk of a daddy in Gunnarsson's adaptation

Then, on top of all that (yes, even more is coming, God hilpeþ þu), there's the whole thing about the melting of the giant-sword. Well, it only melts after Beowulf beheads Grendel. It could have just conveniently been waiting for him to behead him before Grendel's mother's blood decided to set in, but...no. No? 
On top of this, after Grendel is beheaded, the water in the mere goes a bit 2012 apocalyptic on us - the water turns bloody and turbulent - ". . .the turbulent water saw blood drifting up, a churning foam; the spreading stain was dark, lake-wide" (Chickering) - much like a scene from Jaws. And yes, this is sometimes attributed to Grendel's mother's death also, but good woman herself, M.W Hennequin notes that the mere does the same thing the night Grendel returns home to die“There the lake water boiled with blood, terrible surgings, a murky swirl of hot dark ooze, deep sword-blood". 

And one last thing (I promise....for any of ye still left reading...ie, nobody), she is never described as an eoten ("giant", or possibility of "blood-thirsty one" - see Signe Carlson). Both her and Grendel are called micle, "large" or "great" (literal or metaphorical), yet a few lines later Grendel is described as being the one who is "bigger than any other man" and "misshapen/ wretched-looking" and it is only about Grendel that it is wondered hwæþer him ænig wæs acenned dyrna gasta. 

Just saying.

Saturday, 2 August 2014

In which I continue to defend the mihtige grundwyrgen

Grendel's mother by Virgil Burnett

Yes, I'm back at it, back to defend Grendel's mother's glory - DEATH BEFORE DISHONOR.

In my last defence of Grendel's mother I didn't go into very much detail about a number of terms (partly because of mid-post fatigue and partly because I probably didn't have that much evidence - yet in my heart I knew, I knew, I was right (this is up for speculation of course)).

In general the only scholars who have really looked into Grendel's mother's character and questioned her monstrosity and some of the outlandishly wrong translations that were applied to her (such as "most evil monster" for secg (warrior/hero) by Crossley-Holland - like, wut?), are limited to Christine Alfano, M.W Hennequin, and Signe M Carlson (although she (/he? - someone please confirm this for me!) focuses more on Grendel's character). Sherman Kuhn in his study of aglæca also helped to clear up issues surrounding the monster/hero/formidable one/blahblah disaster there (something I wish to return to again, despite the fact that it has been DONE TO DEATH). 

Anyway, a few terms haven't really been given so much attention as brimwylf, grundwyrgenne and secg so I kind of wanted to return to those words and try make a convincing case for how they are not monstrous terms, despite what translators keep telling us (BTW I found three translators who translated  aglæcwif as it should be - George Jack, Dobbie and Wrenn - unfortunately, all these are glossaries and not full translations - booo). 

I will begin at the point where I began to slack off in this blog post with . . .

wif unhyre (2120) - A few examples of this terms translations are as follows: "ghastly dam" (Heaney), "monstrous woman" (Chickering), "the gruesome she" (Alexander), and "inhuman troll-wife" (Tolkien). Inhuman troll-wife? Really, Tolkien? Not that his dismissal of her is very surprising seen as he completely forgets about her in Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics. 
But if we look at wif unhyre and split it up, we have wif, which is “i. woman, a female person . . . iii. a married woman, a wife . . . iv. a female” (Bosworth-Toller). Of course this dictionary also adds a separate entrance for wif , "a being in the form of a woman", under which we find Grendel's mother as an example, along with a reference to Bald's Leechbook for the charm "For a Sudden Stitch". These wif however, are not actually physical beings, but metaphorical wif. I don't think Grendel's mother really belongs in the same category as beings that don't even have a physical form, and more so beings that do not even exist except in a cute "oh sure that sudden stitch you have is just some little women throwing spears at you", especially when there's not enough evidence for her being something other than human (in mine own opinion). 

Anyway, if we take wif as what it means for every other sense of the word (ie WOMAN), we can move on to unhyre, which is shit tons more complicated. 
It is often used in this case (and other cases) to imply monstrosity, but I believe it actually means "terribleness" or "cruelty" or "ferocity". Because there are many instances where it just would not make sense if it were to mean "monstrous". Unhyre appears in Genesis A to describe Ishmael - Se bið unhyre, orlæggifre, wiðerbreca wera cneorissum – “He shall be rough, warlike, hostile to the races of men” (2287 Mason), or alternatively “He shall be fierce, battle-greedy, and an enemy to the men of his generation, his own kin” (Hostetter). Wouldn't it be fierce feckin' odd if the author of Genesis A was to describe Ishmael as monstrous or ghastly or inhuman or gruesome? Eh, yeaah, it would. 
Aaand, it appears in An Old English Martyrology as unhyran cwelres, cwelres beaing "executioner" - Cruel, terrible, grim, (anything besides monstrous) fits way better here. Unless they were a very open-minded culture and perhaps hired a panotti or maybe even a sciopod. Because yes, although it could mean "monstrous" in the sense that murderers are monstrous, then that also applies for Grendel's mammy. 
Again, the word appears in The Meters of Boethius in Meter 29 – on wintres tid, weder unhiore, “in time of winter, when fierce is weather” (61), as it is translated by Sedgefield. Again, rough, fierce, terrible makes much more sense here.

A page from the OE Genesis in the Junius MS 

It is also handy to look at Icelandic and Old Norse and all the languages that share similarities with Old English, and the Icelandic word uhyrr stands out as a possible relative, itself meaning "frowning" or "unfriendly looking". 
And it's also great to look at its possible antonym, heoru, hyre, or heora, defined as "pleasant gentle or mild" (B-T). It appears in Beowulf on line 1372 (Nis ðæt heoru stow – “that was not a pleasant place”), in Genesis A (Culufre fotum stop on beam hyre – “the gentle bird stepped with her feet on a tree” (Hostetter)). Surely the antonym of "pleasant" or "gentle" would be "unpleasant", "cruel", "awful", "grim" and not "monstrous". 

I think I wrote enough there to last at least however long it takes me to build up the motivation for another post. 'Til then, here are some great medieval manuscript images


Sunday, 8 June 2014

From Eald to New - University College Cork, June 2014

It is with a hangover and a huge lack of sleep that I want to express what a wonderful time I had at my first conference.

I was somehow roped in to speaking at the From Eald to New conference ("and he never forgave, and he never forgot") which took place at the weekend and spent months before having "Oh christ, no" thoughts whenever it came to mind. However, as of yesterday morning, I don't have to panic again (until the next time).

It was a brilliant experience, I got to meet Hugh Magennis, Heather O'Donoghue and Rory McTurk told me they really liked my paper and I made an eejit of myself in front of Chris Jones! Everyone was absolutely lovely, and I don't think I've spent so much time laughing in a long while, especially at Greg Delanty (a true Cork man), at Niamh's and mine Beowulf fan fiction ideas (Beowulf loves Grendel) and at terribly bad and funny jokes in Tom Barry's and stumbling in my front door at 7am. There was wonderful poetry and equally wonderful papers (even if half of it did just go over my head) and a really great translation workshop by Greg Delanty, Michael Matto and Lahney Preston-Matto, where I realised I have not a poetic atom in my body.

My paper went surprisingly okay (it didn't go according to my dream the night before at least!), and I am now glad (yet also very sad) that it's all over. But at least we have decided to go to Kalamazoo next year (and not just because of the swinging that we hear goes on).

Monday, 28 April 2014

Ancient Equines

File:Odin rides to Hel.jpg
Odin Rides to Hel - W.G Collingwood (1908)

I've loved horses my whole life, and from a young age I was writing pretty class poems about them ("Big horse, little pony, fast trot, slow walk" - literary genius) and they are pretty much the inspiration for 99% of things I draw/paint, so why has it taken me so long to write a post about them?! They are wonderful, beautiful animals, they are extremely powerful, and most of them are extremely willing, they have fluffy ears and the softest loveliest noses, and they are afraid of silly things (gutters, leaves, things that weren't there yesterday), and they can mess you up if they want, and they can be complete assholes sometimes, and they make your life so much better. Respect, yo.

So, did the Ancient Everybodies love and respect horses as much as many people do today (I stress many, because there's too many who don't)? Today, there are still stories of horses from the ancient world and ancient mythologies, which seem to show that back in the day, horses mattered. Well, of course they did - they were handy for transport and war and keeping the lawn trimmed. But besides that, I want to look at some more famous horses.

Let's start with Bucephalus, who was the horse of Alexander the Great. Plutarch tells the story of how Philonicus the Thessalian brought the horse to Alexander's father Philip, but when they went to catch him, they found that he was batshit crazy and decided he was useless. Alexander, 13 at the time, noticed that he was a fine horse and said he would tame Bucephalus, to which everyone sniggered and muttered "lolz, ya rite", and if he failed, he would pay the full price for the horse: 
Alexander ran to the horse, and laying hold on the bridle, turned him to the sun; for he had observed, it seems, that the shadow which fell before the horse, and continually moved as he moved, greatly disturbed him. While his fierceness and fury abated, he kept speaking to him softly and stroking him; after which he gently let fall his mantle, leaped lightly upon his back, and got his seat very safe. Then, without pulling the reins too hard, or using either whip or spur, he set him a-going (Lanhornes' translation)
Alexander comes to us as some sort of Ancient horse whisperer of sorts. Seeing his son's taming of Bucephalus, Philip exclaims that Macedonia is too little for his son. And he was right, wasn't he - by the time he was 30 he had one of the biggest empires in the world.

Bucephalus is said to have been a huge, jet black horse, with a white star on his forhead, no doubt an inspiration to Anna Sewell when she wrote Black Beauty, and an obvious influence on Walter Farley's The Black Stallion, which tells of a boy, Alec, taming a black stallion (durr) on an island.
Bucephalus apparently died at the age of 30, which is a ripe old age even for horses these days, perhaps at battle. After the death of his beloved horse, Alexander founded the city Bucephala, in modern day Pakistan, to keep his memory alive. Unfortunately, it didn't remain as Bucephala, so so much for that.

One of my favourite people in history to read about is the Roman emperor Caligula, because he was pretty crazy (a bad crazy), but he was also crazy about his horse, Incitatus.... also perhaps a bad crazy. Caligula was so enamoured by his grey horse that he apparently had a stable made out of marble, a manger made of ivory, and a headcollar made from precious stones. Dio Cassius claimed that the horse had its own servants and was fed oats mixed with gold flakes. That's why I feel like Incitatus every time I drink goldshlager. It is also rumoured that Caligula planned to make Incitatus consul. However, it is disputed whether this was down to Caligula's insanity or his way of making a satire of the men in government. There is all sort of stories concerning Incitatus, some saying he was a racehorse from Spain, some saying he had his own house and gardens and that he held dinners for dignitaries. It is debated whether his treatment of his horse is accurate, or whether those who wrote about his life were exaggerating his folly in order with Clau-Clau-Claudius' (who succeeded him, also his uncle) regime. To which I would recommend reading I, Claudius by Robert Graves - a great book full of debauchery and so many characters that its hard to keep up.

Prince on horseback, possibly Caligula, Rome, 1 - 50 AD

I'll finish off with two mythological horses, the first of which is Pegasus - we couldn't leave him out! Pegasus's birth is a bit of a strange one, firstly because he is the son of Medusa (out of her union (possibly rape) with Poseidon), and was born at the same time as his brother Chrysaor. Even stranger again is that the two brothers were born when Perseus beheaded Medusa, and they somehow sprung out of her neck. Here is a depiction of it on an ancient Greek thing (although it leaves out Chrysaor):

Birth of Pegasus from the neck of Medusa | Greek vase, Athenian black figure white-ground lekythos

Pegasus is usually depicted as a pure white stallion (the horse world is still debating whether white horses actually exist, but well give him this, seen as he's mythological to begin with), his most important feature being his wings and his ability to fly. He was captured by Bellerophon with the help of Athena and Poseidon, and flew the hero to defeat the Chimera. Bellerophon is said to have fallen off Pegasus when Zeus sent a fly to sting him (the horse) - it hurts bad enough falling off a horse that can't fly, so I can only imagine. Pegasus then flew to Olympus where he was used as a pack horse to carry Zeus' thunderbolts. Noble ending, eh? Because of his loyalty, he was honoured with the legacy of becoming a constellation. 

Last, but not least, is the surprisingly not so famous Sleipnir, horse of Odin. Sleipnir has an even weirder birth and lineage than Pegasus, leading to many humorous Mother's Day Cards. Anyway, how did Sleipnir come about - a builder offered the gods to build a fortification to keep out invaders in exchange for Freyja, the sun, and the moon. The Gods agree, but only if the builder can build it within three seasons, with the help of no other men. He requests help from his horse Svaðilfari, and this is allowed, under the persuasion of Loki. The stallion turns out to be extremely strong and the Gods begin to panic, as the builder made fast progress. Three days before he is to finish the work, the gods gather around and point the finger at Loki and threaten him with death if he cannot find a way out of this. Basically the Gods are awful unfair cheaters. 

So...this is where it gets weird - Loki decides to turn into a mare, and seductively neighs to Svaðilfari, who being a stallion, cannot control himself and runs off with the mare and they frolic about for the night, causing the builder to fail in his challenge. A few months later, Loki gives birth to a lovely grey foal with eight legs (the kind of incident that would result in talks about genetic mutation and pollution and weird worship in modern times), described as the best horse among the gods and men.

File:Loki and Svadilfari by Hardy.jpg

Sleipnir is described numerous times as visiting Hel, with Odin and with Hermóðr. In the Prose Edda, Odin rides Sleipnir to Jötunheimr, land of the giants, where he encounters Hrungnir, who despite admitting that Sleipnir looks like a fine horse, that his own horse Gullfaxi (meaning "golden mane", no doubt an influence on Tolkiens Shadowfax), is much faster. Intending to attack Odin, he gallops after the two, only to find that he has chased the faster Sleipnir into the gates of Asgard.

File:Odin and Sleipnir - John Bauer.jpg
Odin and Sleipnir by John Bauer

Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be any famous horses from the Anglo-Saxon era. There were numerous different words for "horse", basically describing their different roles. It's unfortunate that there is no records of any famous horses, but a horse burial was found by Sutton Hoo, where a man was buried with his harnessed horse, who had a bucket of food by its head. Which is somewhat heart-warming. 

Monday, 7 April 2014

Female power in Vikings Season 2

#vikings-shieldmaiden:  #Lagertha's career as a warrior began when Frø, king of Sweden, invaded #Norway and killed the Norwegian king Siward. F...

It is now half way through the second season of Vikings (for those who live in Canada or the US and for those who have few qualms regarding downloading). Obviously there will be spoilers, especially for those of you who are resigned to watching it in RTE 2! Suckers.

As she was in the first season, Lagertha is still my favourite character. This season also has a few more female characters of a bit more importance, most notably Aslaug, and it appears that the girl who Bjorn has his eye on may have a bigger role soon (But I can't help but be reminded of that absolute disaster The Legend of Hercules whenever I see her. Horrid flashbacks!). There are a few noteworthy moments involving the women of Vikings so far in the season:

Firstly, is Lagertha's decision to leave Ragnar, as Aslaug arrives on their doorstep with a bellyful of children. She has the dignity to walk away from Ragnar and start a new life with no drama involved, which is a nice change to the usual catfighting women screaming at one another over a man (even if he is as wonderful as Ragnar). In the actual mythology, Ragnar divorces Lagertha and there is a different woman, Þóra borgarhjörtr, in between her and Aslaug, but to be honest, that would make him look a bit too bad!

Four years later we see Lagertha with a new husband, Earl Sigvard, who is frankly, a bit of a dick. She stands up to his advances and his attempt to rape her and shows him where to shove it. As always, she does as she pleases, and returns to help Ragnar to reclaim Kattegat from Jarl Borg (as also happens in the myth - she comes to his aid with 120 ships, and saves his ass). 

In the last episode so far (episode 6), Lagertha returns to her second husband, despite still being in love with Ragnar (who is unwilling to choose just one wife). After getting his men to brutally beat her during the night, he attempts to publicly shame her by trying to show everyone at the table what lovely breasts she has. Unfortunately for him, she grabs a knife and turns around to stick it in his eye. Hell yeah! He is then beheaded by one of his own men (who I don't trust either...). In the myth, she is also responsible for her second husband's death; "the presumptious and self-indulgent woman would rather rule without her husband than share the glory with him" (Saxo Grammaticus). As you can see, the television series views her somewhat more sympathetically! Of course, this is as far as the mythology surrounding Lagertha appears to go, from what I can find, so its up to the series now! 

Another important scene takes place in Wessex in England (where attempts at speaking Old English are made...I understood cyning . . . so proud!) with Athelstan, the hot monk taken as a slave (and later made a free-man by Ragnar, and later captured by the people of Wessex), in episode 5. When a woman who is beaten because her husband thinks she has been unfaithful to him comes to King Ecgbert for counsel, the King asks him what the craic is with the pagans in such situations - Athelstan says that "if she was a free-woman, they would believe her word, and make judgement on her behalf". Ecgbert replies thinking that "surely her husband has every right over her, surely she belongs to him, to do with as he sees fit." Well, not according to the pagans! The open-minded Ecgbert (Athelstan has heard he is like Ragnar...and unlike the misogynistic Anglo-Saxons it would seem!) follows this pagan law and goes in the woman's favour. 

In general it would seem that the vast majority of main characters are somewhat "feminist" characters...to an extent. The Norse peoples, or as Ecgbert would say, the "pagans" have a more equal society than the Anglo-Saxons, allowing women to partake in raids and battle, and seemingly allowing them equal judgement in the eyes of the law. Of course, this didn't stop the vikings raping all around when they were on their raids, but this may also be seen as a "weapon of war" against the men, as much as it is seen as an act of violence against the women.

With regards to Aslaug, I am happy that this season is making a bit more of an attempt to flesh out her character, althoug it is not enough. Aslaug's character in mythology is pretty interesting - she is the daughter of Sigurd (who killed the dragon Fafnir) and Brynhildr, the shield-maiden, who I wrote a post on a few months back. As a child she was taken care of by a foster father, Heimer, and hid in a giant harp. Her next foster parents Ake and Grima, who killed Heimer as they thought there were valuables in the harp, found her hiding inside and raised her as their own, covering her in tar to hide her beauty (and therefore her noble birth). It is at this point that she meets Ragnar Lodbrok.
    Interestingly, Ragnar proposes to her, but she refuses him until he accomplished his mission in Norway. It is also, only after giving him three sons, that she reveals her true noble blood to him (after she hears that he has planned to marry Ingeborg), and promises to give birth to a child that bore a snake's eye, Sigurd Snake-In-The-Eye!

In the series, although she is not so much the "Other Woman" as she was at the end of season one, she is still portrayed as a bit of a princess, complaining about dirt and playing the jealous wife when Ragnar speaks to other girls. Hopefully we will get a more rounded character as we go along.


Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Can translation ever convey the original adequately?

My simple answer is....no!

I think the whole range of translations, along with the articles about these translations, even for Beowulf alone, is proof enough of this. Of course, nobody ever knows when it's a language like Old English, and until someone invents a time machine and returns to the Anglo-Saxon era, then we never will, and even then, it would still be impossible to truly convey the exact meaning and feel of the original. And who knows how much you'd even learn when the most readily available drinking source was ale.

When reading translations of modern literature, like Haruki Murakami or Mikhail Bulgakov, I actually spend a lot of time thinking how I will never know if this is how the author wanted to convey it exactly (so deep)...and I know it can never be perfect, for the simple reason that languages are different and have different sounds, and cultures are different and have different meanings and values. The English translation of Norwegian Wood, for example, is beautifully written, but it's not going to sound anything like the Japanese. How can I know myself, that that is what Murakami wanted to convey exactly. This is especially true for works that put a lot of emphasis on words and use particularly poetic language - yes, we can recreate the alliteration, but then we lose the exact meaning - so which do we pick - we lose something in the end. When I read translations, I often think that yes, this is so-and-so's ideas and story, but it's not necessarily their language. Does that ruin these books for me? Not really, but it is something that is in the back of my mind. First world problems, eh?

As Jay Rubin, the translator of Murakami's English publications states: "When you read Haruki Murakami, you're reading me, at least ninety-five percent of the time". And at that, Rubin has the advantage of being able to discuss translating with the author, whereas for things like Beowulf, we can't exactly phone up the scribe and ask him "what exactly did you mean on line 1294? Oh, is that so? Cheers lad, nice one". Imagine how more accurate Beowulf translations would be if the author was still alive? And yet it would still not be able to accurately convey everything because, at the end of the day, if we can't accurately translate a godamn author who is alive and living in the 21st century (even if it is Japan, and we all know how weird Japan is), then what hope do we have? Nada. And at least if we want to read the 'most accurate' translation of Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita or Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, we can look up the hundreds of threads and blog posts about it, and yet, even when that language is still in use today, we can still never be satisfied.

The much awaited Tolkien translation, to be released this May. Yipee

Some translators of Beowulf may decide that taking the route that recreates the metre and the alliteration is the best, most accurate way to go, others will decide that a literal prose translation is the best way to go. Others may try to find a middle-ground. But in the end, nobody is really going to give us Beowulf as it was received by the Anglo-Saxons.

No matter what way someone goes about it, there's always going to be some criticism of something being lost in the process. It can't be faithful in every single way - it cannot maintain all alliteration, all metrical idiosyncracies, all syntax etc, while still maintaining the most accurate and literal translation of the language itself. As a French critic once said, translations are like women, they can be beautiful or faithful, but not both (certainly, he was full of crap). As a female, I like to think of beautiful but unfaithful translations as the Jude Law's of translation.

And even if there was some way of doing this, we still cannot understand the poem how Anglo-Saxons would have. We simply don't have the same culture or beliefs anymore (although maybe if you lived in one of those modern day Viking communes in Norway you might have a better understanding!). A good example, as John D. Niles points out, is the problem of the word cuþ, "known". He asks "how can a translator express the emotive force" that this word had "for an Old English speaker, who seems to have viewed the unknown as something terrifying and who placed exceptional value on the comforts of familiar surroundings". For a culture that (most likely)believed in dragons and panotti and blemmyae, the "known" had a completely different significance!

Even if we think of this issue from an Irish point of view and look at Irish writers like Flann O'Brien (Brian O'Nolan) for instance, whose writing has a particularly Irish feel about it (the syntax, the humour). Is it possible for another culture to 'get' it as much as an Irish person would 'get' it? I'm not so convinced. 

Good feckin' luck to ya

Niles, John D. “Rewriting Beowulf: The task of Translation.” College English 55.8 (1993): 858-878. Print.

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Grendel's Mother: Warrior Princess!

Unlike most of my friends, I wasn't very much a television child, and so I missed out on Xena: Warrior Princess (along with Saved by the Bell, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, and Friends - which apparently makes me a freak of nature, causing people to gasp when I admit to these facts). But, little did I know that when I was doing my MA I would be faced with the program which I associated so much with strange costumes and even stranger shouting.

I am in China now? Whut? I share your confusion, Xena.

Anyway, strangely enough, Xena appears to be one of the very few out of the many adaptations that presents Grendel's Mother to us in an explicitly positive light. Even when she looks like the giant cockroach from Men in Black, we still think she's pretty okay. 

So, Grendel's Mother appears in three episodes of Xena from 2000 - "The Rheingold", "The Ring" and "Return of the Valkyries". She appears as Grinhilda, chief of the valkyries and lover of Odin. Beowulf and Grendel (who appears as Grindl) also appear in these three episodes but don't really have much importance...cause...well, it's Xena

At the start of "The Rheingold" we see Grinhilda through a flashback, where she appears as the extremely powerful giant turd/cockroach fighting Xena for possession of the Rheingold (a magical ring from Richard Wagner's 19th century opera, Das Rheingold, itself influenced by Norse and Germanic mythology - the Rhine gold can be made into a ring which will let its bearer rule the world, so long as he or she has renounced love). 


Xena and Grinhilda have a bit of a tussle before Xena manages to lock Grinhilda in a cave. We are then taken to the present day, where the story of Grinhilda is recited by the character Brunhilda (prepare yourselves for a long-winded and probably confusing retelling of these episodes): 
Back in what is known as Xena's "dark days" (try not to laugh), Xena is chosen by Odin as a valkyrie. Unlike the peaceful Grinhilda, Xena is absolutely gagging for some fightin' and blood spill. In her attempt to gain more power, Xena visits the three Rhein maidens and steals the Rheingold from them, and smelts it into a ring (as the dwarf Alberich does in Wagner's Ring Cycle). Grinhilda, being a good girl, tries to stop Xena from using the ring, and so, places it on her own finger, where we see her transformed into the monster she has become, for she has not forsaken love. The ring destroys that which is most loved by the wearer - in this case, it is Grinhilda's own beauty and humanity. 

Grindl - and what a handsome boy he is

We are then brought back to the present day, where Xena and Beowulf (who has called on her help) are seen fighting a monster who is revealed to be Grindl (Grendel - and presumably Odin's son). They manage to kill him and we are shown Grinhilda mourning his death, and presumably intent on revenge (who would Grendel's Mother be without revenge?), and she then shows up, along with Odin, to fight Xena. Xena then places the ring of power on her finger, but, surprise surprise, it turns out the Xena has not forsaken love either, and loses her memory. 

The next episode presents to us the amnesiac Xena who is now known as 'Wealthea' (an obvious reference to Wealhtheow) and is marrying Hrothgar. Thankfully, Beowulf shows up and reminds her who she really is, and she can go back to fighting Grinhilda. Rather than fighting with her however, she convinces Grinhilda of her former humanity, and she is transformed back into her good old self. Funnily enough, with this, all is forgiven (even Xena's killing of her son...) and Grinhilda returns to her former valkyrie job. 

So! That's that. A rather confusing retelling, interlaced with a lot of Norse and Germanic Mythology and obviously influenced very much by Wagner's opera. But... it must be said, it's original, if a bit silly at times - but then again, it is Xena. It is very much like Parke Godwin's Tower of Beowulf, with its strong threads of Norse mythology as well as a very complex Grendel's Mother,, but that is for another day.

I'm going to focus more on Grendel's Mother as she is depicted here. I know I said she was explicitly positive in this, and then went on to talk about how she was a giant turd-monster, BUT, this is a positive retelling of her character, because it's not her fault that she turns into a monster (it's actually Xena's fault), and her extreme humanity and noble background are very much pushed in this. She is physically cursed and turned into a monster, very much like critics and translators have turned the Grendel's Mother of Beowulf into a monster (I'm getting deep here). Also important, is the fact that unlike Zemickis's or Baker's adaptations, her human form is not capitalised upon, and she is not overly sexualised.

And what about Grendel's Mother as a valkyrie, one of the "choosers of the slain"? Although it seems like a bit of an unorthodox view, and simply another norsification of the story, it's not an unfounded view, as Helen Damico (in "The Valkyrie Reflex in Old English Literature") argues that the valkyries were "half-mortal, half-supernatural beings called idisi in Old High German, ides in Old English and dis in Old Norse". Damico believes that the Beowulf poet is characterising Grendel's Mother as one of these "deadly battle demon[s]". She is after all, called an ides aglæcwif and a wælgæst wæfre, which Damico translates as "roaming slaughter-spirit". Damico also suggests that Grendel's Mother's protective covering may relate to the helm and byrnie of the valkyries. 

Although I'm not necessarily agreeing with this view of Grendel's Mother as a valkyrie, I am pointing it out as a possible influence on Xena's depictions of her, as, I feel, many adaptations, especially film or television adaptations, are often not given credit for researching their sources or the scholarship surrounding them. Of course, the writers of Xena may not have even heard of Helen Damico, but I will give them the benefit of the doubt, and either way, such depictions, whether or not based on an already established theory, can offer new possibilities and new ways of viewing the original poem. 

Overall, for once, Grendel's Mother plays a pretty important role, one more important than both her son and Beowulf. In general, Xena (along with shows like Buffy) is one of those shows that differs from the rest, in that its centred on female figures, but as well as that, it's characters rely less on their sexuality (as so many unfortunately do) than on their physical strength and cunning - they are some of the few accessible feminist role models available in mainstream culture (Girl Culture). And there is nothing bad about that, no matter how cringey Xena may be.

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Raping the darkness, d-d-death by his side

So I have had the misfortune to hear Marillion's SEVENTEEN minute long song 'Grendel'. About one minute in I couldn't help but be reminded of Spinal Tap's 'Stonehenge' (except at least that's actually good). Apologies in advance to any Marillion fans. Let's agree to disagree.


I. Heorot's plea and Grendel's awakening 

Midnight suns bid moors farewell, retreats from charging dusk 
Mountain echo, curfews bell, signal ending tasks 
They place their faith in oaken doors, cower in candlelight 
The panic seeps through bloodstained floors as Grendel stalks the night 

Earth rim walker seeks his meals 
Prepare the funeral pyres 
The shaper's songs no longer heal the fear 
Within their eyes, their eyes 

Wooden figures, pagan gods, stare blindly cross the sea 
Appeal for help from ocean fogs, for savior born of dreams 
They know their lives are forfeit now, priestly head they bow in shame 
They cannot face the trembling crowd that flinch in Grendel's name 

Earth rim walker seeks his meals 
Prepare the funeral pyres 
The shaper's songs no longer heal the fear 
Within their eyes, their eyes 

As Grendel leaves his mossy home beneath the stagnant mere 
Along the forest path he roams to Hrothgar's hall so clear 
He knows that victory is secured, his charm will testify 
His claws will drip with mortal blood as moonbeams haunt the sky 

Earth rim walker seeks his meals 
Prepare the funeral pyres 
The shaper's songs no longer heal the fear 
Within their eyes, their eyes 

II. Grendel's Journey 

Silken membranes span his path, fingerprints in dew 
Denizens of twilight lands humbly beg him through 
Mother nature's bastard child shunned by leaf and stream 
An alien in an alien land seeks solace within dreams 
The shaper's lies his poisoned tongue malign with mocking harp 
Beguiling queen her innocence offends his icy heart 

III. Lurker at the Threshold 

Hounds freeze in silence bewitched by the reptile spell 
Sulphurous essence pervades round the grassy dell 
Heorot awaits him like lamb to the butcher's knife 
Stellular heavens ignore even children's cries 

Screams are his music, lightning his guide 
Raping the darkness, death by his side 
Chants rise in terror, free round the oaken beams 
Flickering firelight portraying the grisly scene 

Warriors advance, prepare for the nightmare foe 
Futile their sacrifice as even their hearts must know 
Heroes delusion, with feet in the grave 
Lurker at the threshold, he cares not for the brave, he cares not for the brave 

So you thought that your bolts and your locks would keep me out 
You should have known better after all this time 
You're gonna pay in blood for all your vicious slander 
With your ugly pale skins and your putrid blue eyes 

Why should I feel pity when you kill your own and feel no shame 
God's on my side, sure as hell, I'm gonna take no blame 
I'm gonna take no blame, I'm gonna take no blame 
So you say you believe in all of Mother Nature's laws 

You lust for gold with your sharpened knives 
Oh when your hoards are gathered and your enemies left to rot 
You pray with your bloodstained hands at the feet of your pagan gods 
Then you try to place the killer's blade in my hand 

You call for justice and distort the truth 
Well I've had enough of all your pretty pretty speeches 
Receive your punishment, Expose your throats to my righteous claws 
And let the blood flow, and let the blood flow, flow, flow, flow

And there you have it. I'm not sure what makes me more embarrassed; the picture chosen for the video, the comments that say things like "Most unique, beautiful, fantasy, heroic song ever" or "Breath taking. gasping for air!" or the awful lyrics.
I feel bad for being so critical of this, but it really is awful. Apologies again to Marillion fans (as if any exist). On a good note however, the song is obviously influenced by Gardner's Grendel and some of the lyrics (despite their cheesiness) are....thought provoking? The last section of the song at least. 

Unfortunately for Grendel, his name hasn't had much look in the music industry, with the likes of this. It's also of little surprise that there's a Finnish power metal band also named Grendel. Those Finnish lads are crazy anyway. Whereas at least Grendel's Mother gets a good song, which I previously posted about. 

I think this explains everything

This is the kind of stuff you're driven to listen to (and write about) when you're supposed to be doing an assignment. But hey, at least I'm not doing something completely irrelevant.