Tuesday, 29 November 2016

"Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" and Zemeckis's Beowulf

At a rather (extremely) basic level, Laura Mulvey's 1975 "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" argues that classical cinema casts the female figure as spectacle, as erotic object, and the male figure as narrative and spectator. Audiences are encouraged to identify with the protagonists of film, which, in classical Hollywood cinema (and arguably still today) are overwhelmingly male.

"Unchallenged, mainstream film coded the erotic into the language of the dominant patriarchal order" (835)

Women in classical cinema are looked at and displayed, and connote "to-be-looked-at-ness", while men are the "bearer of the look". Woman is spectacle, but her presence works against the development of the story, and therefore narrative, that which is propelled by the man.

Mulvey notes that the woman on display simultaneously acts as both erotic object for the characters within the film, but also those without, namely the spectator. The spectator often shares his view with the male in the film (see image above) but not always; the device of the show-girl "allows the two looks to be unified technically without any apparent break in the diegesis" (838). On top of this, "the male figure cannot bear the burden of sexual objectification", and so, he is most often the one who controls the narrative, and forwards the story. The male protagonist becomes the spectator's surrogate, and his appeal is related back to the perfect, powerful, complete "ideal ego conceived in the original moment of recognition in front of the mirror" (838). 

Because of this identification with the male star of the film, when the women eventually falls in love with the protagonist and possesses her, "the spectator can indirectly possess her too" (840). 

However, the female figure possesses, in psychoanalytical terms, a deeper problem in that she stirs up anxieties regarding castration due to her lack of a penis. In order to rid themselves of this anxiety, the protagonist must either control her (through demystifying her - devaluing her, punishing her, saving her) or through fetishising her (often through close ups and fragmentation of her - making her completely an object, and therefore powerless). Of course, the problem here lies in the Freudian theory that women are obsessed with the lack of a penis, which, I personally do not think is true (I don't dwell on it at least!). But, we can still view this in terms of power, cocks aside. 

So, where does Beowulf come into this? Well, with Grendel's mother of course. 

Looking at Zemeckis's Beowulf as a whole (as well as the Anglo-Saxon poem), the main story focuses on the titular character of Beowulf and his heroic deeds. Unlike the poem, however, Zemeckis's film introduces women as extremely sexualised figures, most notably Grendel's mother. While the 2007 film also introduces us to the character of Ursula (Beowulf's mistress, and seemingly another female figure for Beowulf to have sex with, as opposed to doing much in terms of narrative development), Grendel's mother is where we can really see Mulvey's theory in play. 

If the above image does not connote "to-be-looked-at-ness", then I don't know what it does. Everything about Grendel's mother's figure is spectacle (and spectacular), from the voluptuousness of the CGI'd body (which is actually the body of model Rachel Bernstein - adding an extra layer of objectification here) to the gold paint and the stiletto-ed feet (very Anglo-Saxon).

Grendel's mother acts as both erotic object for the male gaze within the film (Beowulf) and for that without - the audience, which is made up mostly of teenage boys (its target audience), begrudging Anglo-Saxon scholars, and students panicking the night before their Old English literature exams. As with Mulvey's show-girl conjuncture, these two views are unified when Jolie walks towards both Beowulf and the audience simultaneously (as in the above image). On top of the already-implemented threat that she poses, the extra anxiety of castration comes into play, and is played with in the film. While Mulvey puts forward two options of escape for the male; control or fetishisation, neither of these options appear in Beowulf. Rather, Beowulf gives in to Grendel's mother's temptation - it is obvious that she is the one in control - and this is further emphasised in the image of Beowulf's strategically placed sword and its melting, a sequence which can be understood as both ejaculation and castration. 

This castration motif brings to mind scenes from I Spit on Your Grave (1978), above, where the heroine, Jennifer, seduces one of her rapists and castrates him in the bathtub The only difference here (as well as in Litchenstein's 2007 Teeth) is that the protagonist is female, and the castration actually happens (severed penis and all in the case of the latter!). 

As the film plays out, we are reminded of the ultimate power being in the hands of Grendel's mother. However, she is still presented to us as an overtly sexualised figure, one which is no doubt meant to be an object of erotic desire for members of the audience. And while she is the ultimate winner here, she is not ever depicted as a positive figure, but rather manipulator, and as the big bad female seducer who will mess up your life and turn your children against you. In this way, she remains a sexual object and spectacle, but one which, as with Anita Sarkeesian's 'Evil Demon Seductress', may simultaneously be hated, and some of this hatred appears to come from the fact that the audience have identified with the wronged male protagonist. 

Monday, 9 May 2016

On nicera mere: This week on Room Raiders

Besides being in a perpetual state of terror over the IRC (which looks something like this), I am also coming to a close on the first chapter of my thesis. My current point of focus is the mere, and trying to articulate an argument that allows Grendel's mother to still be human while living here (because apparently it's not normal to live in a cave surrounded by sea-monsters??).

Firstly, I will start off by saying these are rather general musings - I will probably (hopefully) look back on these in a month's time and think "Christ...what rubbish", so do excuse the sloppy execution and rather basic arguments!

Anyway, we first receive an in-depth description of the mere by Hrothgar, where, in a semi-hysterical speech after the death of Æschere (before Beowulf is like "grow up, buddy - it is always better to avenge lost bros than to mourn them"), he says this: 

"They inhabit a hidden land - wolf-slopes, windy headlands, dangerous fen-paths - where a mountain stream flows downward beneath the cliff's mist. It is not far from here in miles that the mere lies. Over it hangs rind-covered groves - a wood held fast by its roots hangs over the water - there, each night, one may see a troubling wonder; fire on the flood, No living children of men know the bottom of that mere . . . That was not a pleasant place! From here, surging waves rise up dark against the clouds when the wind stirs up loathsome storms, until the sky darkens and the heavens weep" 
(1357-67, 1372-6, my own translation)

Virgil Burnett's depiction of the mere

It is a slightly confusing description - is this prime real estate by the sea (headlands, cliffs) or inland (in a forest in the mountains?). Well, it seems that where exactly the mere is, isn't necessarily the important thing, rather the nature of the mere. For one thing, if you invest in this property, you get your very own light show every night and you never have to worry about a hart jumping into your gaff. 

The description of the mere has often times been compared to Blickling Homily XVI, describing Saint Paul's vision of hell (which is also reminiscent of the IRC), which, to be fair, does have quite a few similarities, including a description of water flowing down, of frosty groves, of dark mists, and also the presence of nicras or 'nicors' (immature laugh), apparent sea-monsters.

Hieronymus Bosch's Christ in Limbo - Hell doesn't really look like this in the homilies, but I just love Bosch

It has been suggested that the mere in Beowulf has some borrowed content from this homily, or at least that they had a common source - it has also been argued by Carleton Brown, however, that the Homily borrowed from Beowulf  and the Visio S Pauli, as it shows shared elements from both of these, while Beowulf only shares elements with the Homily. It really depends on the dates of the two - the MS which the homilies appear in is dated to 971, while Beowulf...well, this is still and forever will be argued about, so let's not go down this fen-path. Either way, I think it is possible that Beowulf could have been a source for the homilies - it is, after all, generally agreed to be an oral poem, only written down later, so it seems conceivable that the homilist may have been influenced by the poem. 

Then again, it is also somewhat agreed on that elements of Beowulf would have been added into the poem, such as biblical references to Cain and the Flood and also of course to God. Whether we choose to view the description of the mere as a later addition... well... I guess that is something that is up for debate. 

A much more intriguing comparison, I think, can be made to Grettis saga Asmundarsonar, the story of a hard-ass Icelandic outlaw who loves to fight. I'll take him over Saint Paul any day!

Or...well...maybe not.

Anyway, while these Icelandic texts date to the 13th and 14th centuries, they are based on events which occurred a few centuries beforehand. So, Grettir gets up to all sorts of antics, but most important is what happens in Chapter 66; Grettir is hanging out one day when a troll-woman enters and starts fighting with him - she (like Grendel's mother) is really bloody strong and she gets away (after getting her arm chopped off...like Grendel) and disappears down a cliff. Grettir decides to follow her down. Grettir comes to a waterfall surrounded by cliffs, and he swims beneath the current to enter a cave. He then proceeds to fight a male troll, whom he kills, and whose guts flow out of the waterfall to make a lovely bloody mess (which reminds me of Chuck Palahniuk's short story Guts), which in turn makes the priest who has accompanied Grettir to think Grettir is dead (much in the same way that Grendel's blood which is said to bubble out of the mere makes Beowulf's thanes think he is dead). 

So...there seems to be an awful lot of comparisons here. Could the mere in Beowulf be a waterfall? The surging waves and the mist rising up to darken the sky could well be the mist rising from a waterfall. The churning waters which are described both when Grendel returns to the mere after his fatal fight with Beowulf and after his corpse is decapitated could merely (pun intended) be the churning waters of a waterfall. And similarly, Beowulf swims downwards to reach a dry cave - much like he would have to swim beneath a waterfall's current to reach behind (or you know, walk around or through the water as they do in films...). 

Of course, problems must also arise with this comparison, especially the countries of origin (Iceland vs England/Denmark) and the dating of these stories. It is possible that it is rather from  a common source or sources that these stories share their similarities. And this is something I am going to have to explore in more depth (pun intended).

Henry Justice Ford - Andrew Lang's Crimson Book of Fairy Stories

But what about the sea-monsters and the fyr on flode.....I'm going to end this one on a cliff-hanger (again, pun intended), and write about those things in a future post! 

Monday, 4 April 2016

Grendel - Caines cynne

It is time for another post on Grendel and his gigantism, yaaay.

In this post, I am going to explore Grendel's relation with Cain, and how this affects his gigantism and his monstrosity in general. While I already posted on Grendel and Cain TWO WHOLE YEARS AGO HOLY SHIT (existential crisis), that post was more focused on the Book of Enoch and antediluvian aspects of the Cain legend.

The lads as depicted in the Speculum Humanae Salvationis (15th C) 

We are told towards the start of Beowulf that from Cain sprang all those bad things, including ogres and elves and giants and orcs and alcohol and flesh-eating bacteria, and then specifically that Grendel is himself of Caines cynne (Cain's kin). In case we still don't get it, line 1256 tells us that after Abel's murder, "then awoke many a fateful spirit, one of which was Grendel". Because of this association with Cain, Grendel often assumed giant status, relating to the Old Testament narrative of the Nephilim in Genesis.

Calm down, it's a hoax

Basically (this plotline is mostly from the Book of Enoch), God decided he needed some angels to watch over the antics of the people down on earth. These angels, sleazebags that they were, soon began to lust for the women below, and with a little encouragement from Samyaza (their leader), they go ahead and impregnate the women, and thus they become fallen angels (God creates quite a few of these doesn't he?).
The Nephilim are a result of this union between the Watchers (the sons of God) and mortal women (daughters of men, descendants of Cain), and apparently angels and mortal women make rather ugly babies, or at least, that's how the legend goes - at least in Enoch. If you have seen Noah, you may notice that the Watchers here are depicted as big stone giants - I don't know where I was going with that, but we shall leave it there.

Paradise Lost - Gustave Doré

In Genesis however, the most info we get about these Nephilim, besides their ancestry, is that they are "mighty men of old, men of renown" - Whut? Aren't they big fuck-off cannibalistic giants? In Enoch, yeah, but in Genesis, not necessarily.

And again, there has been a tiny bit of debate surrounding the word Nephilim itself - נְפִילִים - there it is in the Hebrew. In his Concordance of Hebrew words in the Bible, Strong lists Nephilim's etymology to naphal, which means "to fall", and he notes that Nephilim is "properly, a feller" or one who makes someone else fall. So...not necessarily a giant, as it is so often translated. And well, I know absolute eff-all about Hebrew, so I can't really make a greatly informed analysis here, but it may be possible that these Nephilim were not giants - rather, being "mighty men of old, men of renown", they were "gigantic" in another sense - in the sense of power. 

Another thing about Cain, is that his descendants are supposed to bear his mark - is Grendel's "mark of Cain" his gigantism, if he is a giant? Or... is it even a physical mark? According to Augustine of Hippo, quite the influential figure for Anglo-Saxon Christianity, those marked by Cain were pretty much just...Jews. Yerp. Augustine also believed that if they renounced Judaism and went over to Christ, they would be grand.

So... this leaves the possibility that Grendel showed no physical mark (or at least not make him automatically monstrous) and that he could (if he so wanted) seek redemption.

Monday, 28 March 2016

Grendel the þyrs

The second part of my "Grendel's Gigantism" post is here already...despite concerns that it would take me a year to get my lazy ass to write it, Easter has proven so mind numbingly boring and awful that I may as well do it now.

I may as well also mention that, in my time spent holidaying (avoiding) from this blog, I have two published articles. And yes, I am totally just bragging here.

  1. The Grendel-kin: From Beowulf to the 21st Century - Boolean Journal, UCC, November 2015
  2. The Monster in the House: Grendel's Mother and the Victorian Ideal - Sibeal Feminist and Gender Studies Network, March 2016

Grendel by Charles Keeping

In my last post I spoke about Grendel's gigantism in relation to the term eoten, A second term used of Grendel is þyrs, once again, generally translated as "giant" or "ogre" or "demon" or bla bla bla. þyrs is generally agreed to be a pretty negative term, both in Old English, Old Norse, Old Saxon and Old High German sources. All these cognates appear to have descended from Proto-Germanic *þurisaz, which itself, according to the Etymological Dictionary of Proto-Germanic, was perhaps a God of war or sea-monster, as evidenced in the Iku-Turso or Turisas of Finnish folkore, a giant who appears to reside in the ocean. The Iku-Turso appears in The Kalevala, Finland's national saga.

Iku-Turso - Minna Sundberg

þyrs doesn't appear many times in the Old English corpus, which is pretty damn annoying when you want to develop some sort of in-depth understanding of its conception in Anglo-Saxon England. But saying that, the few examples that do exist are pretty clear-cut and damning. þyrs appears also in Maxims II to describe a creature which dwells alone in the fens - Ðyrs sceal on fenne gewunian ana innan lande, and again appears in Wright's Anglo-Saxon glossses to describe Cacus, Orcus and cyclopes . . . 

Hercules killing Cacus - Sebald Beham (1545)
Orcus Mouth 
Polyphemus, Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein, 1802

. . . all of which you can see, don't look like the most upstanding folks. Furtermore, if we look at Old Norse þurs, it only gets bloody worse. In two Rune Poems, the Icelandic and the Norwegian, the word þurs is associated with some very bad things indeed;
Þurs vældr kvinna kvillu; kátr værðr fár af illu, “Giant causes anguish to women: misfortune makes few men cheerful” (Norwegian Rune poem, Dickens 25)
þurs as kvenna kvöl ok kletta búi ok varðrúnar verr, “torture of women and cliff-dweller and husband of a giantess” (Icelandic Rune poem, Dickens 29) 

In general, it appears that they were associated with female anguish - perhaps rape? They are also associated with malevolent magic in the Poetic Edda's Skirnismal. As well as being a rune (þ) associated with hostile magic and woman-torture, the þursar also appear to be a race in mythology. Although often lumped together with the jotunn, it should be noted that the þursar had pretty much nothing going for them - they were a shower of bastards really, it seems. They were completely antagonistic towards the deities (especially Thor) and were also known for being a bit thick. Cleasby and Vigfusson, in their ON dictionary cite the phrase hár sem risi, sterkr sem jötunn, heimskr sem þurs, “tall as a risi, strong as a jötunn, stupid as a þurs” (498).

As with all mythological figures worth their while, they appear as a beer

While the OE þyrs isn't necessarily completely comparable to the ON þurs (we don't really know how much influence ON mythology and paganism had on Anglo-Saxon England, besides a few similarities like Woden and Odin), it still seems like a pretty shitty figure - even if we forget the ON sources, there is still its appearance in Maxims II - living alone in the fens is NEVER GOOD, and its connection to ancient Greek and Roman mythological baddies also does not help this term's case.

But...does this mean that Grendel is a giant? That he is a þyrs? Well, it is important to note that it is not the poet or the narrator who names Grendel as one of these creatures, but rather Beowulf, the lad himself. This may lead us to the possibility that maybe perhaps maybe not, it is not meant as a definitive term for Grendel - perhaps it is a means for Beowulf to belittle his foe. And as I noted in the last post, Robert E. Kaske believes eoten is used in this way of the Frisians in the Hildeburh passage. Similarly, Alexandra Hennessey Olsen believes that the use of þyrs changed to that of an insult for large, dim-witted men. Perhaps this really seems like grasping for straws, but it does seem to me to be a conceivable alternative (although this is coming from someone who thinks that doing a PhD in Old English will lead to job opportunities, harhar, kill me now please).

folio 139v, ðing wið þyrse

Friday, 25 March 2016

næfne he wæs mara þonne ænig man oðer

It has been too long (pretty sure I said that last time) - for the past few months a sense of guilt over not updating this thing has crept into my dreams and shadowed my life, resulting in an existence of anguish and marginality ... yeah, not really. But I was reminded that I do actually have this blog, so thought I really should get back to it, seen as it apparently helped me in forming ideas?

So, at the moment I am currently working on a paper that I will be delivering next month at Borderlines XX in Trinity College Dublin, dealing with Grendel (NOT GRENDEL'S MOTHER WHAAAT) and his gigantism. For this I am just going to talk about the word eoten, and will continue on with this topic in further blog posts (in like a year based on the rate I'm going).

Grendel by J.R Skelton

When people think about Grendel (as they often do), the images that come to mind are much like J.R Skelton's ape-like hula skirt Grendel shown above, or the Grendel of Zemeckis's 2007 work, which tends to remind me of some sort of whingy snot-covered ent from LOTR - ugh. Basically, Grendel is fugly, and generally sort of huge, and one of the terms which supposedly proves this, is eoten

Eoten itself is generally translated as "giant" or "troll", or something along those lines, when it comes to its reference to Grendel and also often in its appearance in the list of creatures who sprang from Cain - just sprang out of him. When reading a translation of the poem, which to be honest most people do, this is grand. But then you realise the Jutes who appear in the Hildeburh Fragment...well, they might not even be Jutes! They may be Frisians. Shit, they may even be god-damn GIANTS. The appearance of the word eoten in the Hildeburh Fragment has thus caused much debate - firstly cause, well, what the hell are the Jutes doing here, we thought this was a feud between the Danes and the Frisians? What. Secondly...well, if eoten means Jutes...how can it also mean giants? Did the Jutes spring from Cain? IS GRENDEL A JUTE (it seems like today is a regular all-caps day)?

Zemeckis's giant snot-monster

A few theories seem to stand out for this eoten problem:
  • R.W. Chambers is of the opinion that the scribe was just some dipshit who wrote down the wrong word - he meant to say eotnum, not eoten, the fool. So basically, in Chambers' mind, the Jutes are at the Battle of Finnsburg
  • R. E. Kaske says that the Jutes are not ever mentioned in this piece and the word eoten is actually just an insult for the Frisians - not one that means Jutes, but one that means "giant". Kaske refers to jotnaheiti, "giant-terms" being used in Old Norse as insults for ordinary men.
  • David Williams says that the word eoten is used as a reference to Cain and his murder of Abel, and that he is likening them to Finn and Hnæf - presumably he sees the eotenas as figures associated with Cain - possibly the giants of Genesis, the Nephilim. 
  • Signe M. Carlson, then, argues that eoten means neither Jute nor giant, but means "blood-thirsty one", a theory which I quite like!
Carlson argues that eoten is related to etan, "to eat" (which it also is in Proto-Indo-European), and so, rather than referring to height, is actually just a term referring to blood-lust. Grendel is blood thirsty, and so, you could say, are the Frisians; they kill the shit out of the Danes.

Arthur Rackham's Giants and Freyja

It may also be useful to look to Norse mythology and the jotunn, or jotnar, the giant-race prevalent in many myths. In general these lads are pretty hostile towards the gods, but it must be noted that this isn't always the case - some of them are related to the Gods, some are described as beautiful (Skaði), and importantly, some of them aren't tall. It may even be argued that the name jotunn is also related to Proto-Indo-European *etan, and refers rather to gluttony or blood-thirstiness as opposed to gigantism.

Lastly, we also the eoten appear in relation to the sword Beowulf uses to kill Grendel's mammy - okay, sure you may say Beowulf is a strong lad, he can pick up any sword he wants. But...Wiglaf and Eofor also have eotenisc swords, and they are never said to have superhuman strength as Beowulf is...unless there are shitloads of lads with superhuman strength running around Denmark, but this I doubt. If the swords are pretty easy for someone (granted, a warrior) to pick up, surely the eotenas must not have been of huge stature and strength either? Yes? No? 

Anyhow, those are my thoughts on the word eoten. I always find I start off strong with these posts and then gradually everything just goes so downhill the more fed up I get. Hopefully sometime in the next year I will write about þyrs and Grendel's connection  with the Nephilim and whether these also make him unnaturally large. Gōd-sped.