Saturday, February 28, 2009

Morning Medieval Miscellany

Karma here, with a quick miscellany as I take a break from grading and staring out the window, flabbergasted that it's snowing right now. In Georgia.

In no particular order:

Thursday, February 26, 2009

What Are Barnacle Geese?

Barnacle geese are interesting creatures of medieval folklore, and although there is apparently an actual type of bird called a "barnacle goose," according to medieval folklore they literally grow on trees. When they are ripe, they fall from the tree, and if they hit the water they are fine, but if they hit the land, they die.

In The History and Topography of Ireland, Gerald of Wales* claims to have actually seen them:
I have myself seen many times with my own eyes more than a thousand of these small bird-like creatures hanging from a single log upon the sea shore.

Other accounts rely on other authorities, but Gerald says he saw them with his own two eyes "many times." Assuming he isn't lying (and since he has a lot more interesting creatures, why lie about this one?), are there any modern theories about what exactly Gerald was looking at to cause him to think these geese grow out of barnacles on trees?

*By the way, Wikipedia, in all its glory, refers to Gerald of Wales as "a contemporary English author." I wonder if they thought his last name was "of Wales?" Heck, since he was half-Welsh and half-Norman, he'd no doubt have taken that as a double insult.

Stop Slandering Robin Hood!

We've been through this before, but it bears repeating. Every once in a while, someone demonstrates they they either don't know medieval folklore, or can't figure out how to use metaphor properly in the use of Robin Hood.

One paragraph of the article reads
“It’s a clear repudiation of Bush’s policy,” said Peter Morici, an economist at the University of Maryland in College Park. “It’s more Obama Robin Hood.”

Uh, no. Robin Hood stole from the rich and gave to the poor because of high taxes. Arguably, lowering taxes might make someone Robin Hood, but even then the metaphor doesn't work, because Robin Hood wasn't really in charge of tax policies -- he stole taxes from the state and returned them to the people.

I keep trying to find some way to fit the metaphor into the situation here, and the closest I can come is that Obama is Prince John, raising taxes ostensibly to pay for King Richard's (Bush's) war in the Middle East, while the Sheriff of Nottingham (Tim Geitner) gives a wink and a nod to the ruling class, letting them know that they won't really have to pay their taxes; those will have to be paid by all the peasants without government connections.

The most depressing part of correcting the above metaphor? No Robin Hood to be found.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Ago a Long Time, There Lived Havelock and Guy...

According to Podictionary, the word ago comes from the tale of Guy of Warwick (something I did not know). And, if you think Guy of Warwick seems a lot of Havelock the Dane, you aren't the first one to think that.

We've always loved the Horatio Alger myth. Be virtuous and hardworking, and you'll get to marry the princess.

I'm finally finding time to blog again! I've missed it!

Auden's Grip & Large Canon

This isn't even slightly medieval, but one of my colleagues and I had a long Beavis-and-Butthead laugh about this review on Auden's Collected Poems:
"Auden, who gripped me in my teens, has a large canon..."

What do you think? Intentional double-entendre or not?

My Arcite

Here's a high school film version of Chaucer's The Knight's Tale. Arcite is one of my students now (Eric Anderson), and a pretty good writer himself. As this film shows, he's not a bad actor, either.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Review: Beowulf, Prince of the Geats

I’ve written about Beowulf: Prince of the Geats several times before in this space, and have an article coming out in the Old English Newsletter about nationalist reaction to it. I’ve spoken in public forums about it, and am scheduled to speak on it at the International Medieval Congress this year, as well as the Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association meeting.

All that being said, I still had not seen the actual film until just recently. I had a copy of the script, access to their Yahoo group, the run of their e-mail archives, etc., but none of that is quite the same as seeing the film. So, here’s my review, at long last.

Let’s start off with the basics – B:PotG is a no-budget film. Not a low-budget film, a no-budget film. The filmmakers wanted to raise money for the American Cancer Society, so the entire thing was done for free. Everything was donated, and no one got paid.

The film has garnered some controversy because Jayshan Jackson, a black actor, was cast as the young Beowulf (I give more details of how that came to be in my other posts and upcoming article). In order to explain this, the story of Beowulf is sandwiched between a narrative about how Beowulf’s father was an African explorer who wandered up to Geatland, and how Unferth used his old maps to sail back down to Africa, to tell his tribe the story of Beowulf – essentially, the story we know today.

In terms of the story itself, the film is relatively faithful to the poem. Though the dialogue isn’t taken from the poem, it runs through the narrative basically scene-by-scene. There are a few little oddities – such as the references to the Freawaru digression – where you can see places the filmmakers are trying to draw in even more of the poem. I appreciated the effort, but didn’t really feel like they worked. Actually, the African-explorer frame narrative worked better, I thought.

Grendel and his mother (referred to as “Helldam” in the film) stick closely to the troll image that Beowulf & Grendel got right, and the Zemeckis Beowulf got oh-so-wrong. While I liked the tall, buff Christian Boeving as Grendel, Joe Thomas (who plays Eglac) is so huge, Grendel looked a little diminished. Still, this is one of the few Beowulf film adaptations in which Beowulf actually rips off Grendel’s arm (instead of blowing it off, or grabbing it in a chain, or whatever) – a scene that worked for me.

Deborah Smith Ford’s Helldam is fast, very fast – which unfortunately means we don’t see much of her on the screen. She’s mostly a blur, and although it meant we don’t get much of DS Ford, I think the general notion that where Grendel is preternaturally strong, his mother is fast, works for explaining how she is just as deadly. Unfortunately, Helldam is also in the scene that I think works the least: the skiing scene. Yes, skiing. I’d have preferred a slightly slower, less manic Helldam, and more Ford.

Ah, yes, the dragon! Why does everyone always leave out the dragon? Fortunately, B:PotG does not make this mistake, and we have the dragon scene very much like it runs in the poem. One notable addition is the character Nils, who is a young usurper-type with a plan to kill the dragon with a trebuchet. Normally, I’d have found that addition annoying, but the authentic trebuchet (not a model) appealed so strongly to the medieval geek in me that I kind of wanted Nils to win, just to see a dragon killed by a trebuchet.

Beowulf is depicted as a warrior driven primarily by his own insecurities. He is clearly an outsider (though born of a Geatish mother and raised among the Geats), but his greatest fear is that his weakness will make him a danger to the tribe. In the flashback, it isn’t exactly clear what happened to cause him to fear this, but he is certainly motivated by some childhood trauma. We end up with a Beowulf who is so powerful that he can tear the arm off a troll, but is still human enough that he vomits after the fight. He’s more Batman than Superman.

The most interesting character was Unferth. In a poem of mostly static characters, he is the one who undergoes the greatest change, and the film reflects this. He is also sent off with Beowulf at the end of the Grendel’s Mother episode, so Unferth acts as eyewitness to all the events of Beowulf’s life, eventually becoming Beowulf’s best friend. Too often Unferth is played off as a straight villain; it was nice to see him portrayed more as Saul/Paul than Judas. I especially liked Bob Elkins’s performance as the older Unferth.

Aristotle might have dismissed spectacle as the least important part of tragedy, but film-watchers today expect a high-gloss production. It is here that Beowulf: Prince of the Geats may disappoint some of its younger viewers. No budget is just that – NO BUDGET. As a result, you’re definitely going to see the seams in the special effects. Very often, the green-screen is very obvious, the models are clearly models, etc.

I wasn’t put off by that, however. Actually, I found it a little charming. It reminded me of a combination of Land of the Lost, and the old Ray Harryhausen films, and community theatre. I felt like the shots were better, and the acting better showcased, where it was staged like a theatrical production, without vast vistas – the exception being the scene on the boat in the rain, which looked very good and convincing. Younger people who don’t remember watching Ultraman and Spectreman might find the cheap spectacle off-putting, but old, er, more mature people like me will probably view it like the shows from our childhood.

Frankly, the spectacle gets at exactly the problem with so many Beowulf productions – money, but no passion. Here, we had passion, but no money. Some of the actors were no doubt cast because of their passion for the project. The sets were all produced on donated materials and labor, and in some cases, it shows. The same is true for the models, and the computer FX seems at least a generation out of date. All those criticisms aside – how slick a production can one reasonably expect for no budget? Considering that constraint, the film is a small miracle, and a welcome antidote to the slick-but-stupid Zemeckis Beowulf.

One more thing: The DVD extras has a bit about “Viking Camp.” I really want to go to Viking camp! You can buy the DVD here.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Dragon's Blood and Christianity

After reading The Saga of the Volsungs and The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki, I was struck by the role of dragons' blood in the two tales. Here are excerpts from the two sagas:
The old man [Odin] responded, "That is ill-advised. Dig several ditches for the
blood to run into; then you sit in one of them and thrust at the heart of the
worm [Fafnir the dragon]." [....] And when the serpent crawled over the pit,
Sigurd plunged the sword up over the left shoulder, so that it sank to the hilt.
Then Sigurd lept out of the ditch, and drew the sword out of the serpent.
His arms were all bloody to the shoulder. (Volsungs, trans. Jesse L. Byock)

Sitting in the ditch and letting the dragon's blood flow all over you? That sounds a bit like baptism to me. Then we go to Bodvar and Hott's fight with the dragon in Hrolf Kraki, in which Bodvar makes the cowardly Hott drink the blood and eat the heart of a dragon they have defeated, thus tranforming Hott into a courageous warrior.

In each of these, the dragon is clearly the bad guy: Fafnir is a transformed greedy human, and Bodvar's is a periodic scourge on the land. While both sagas are written (in their current form) during the Christian era, Hrolf Kraki is particularly Christian, with the narrator occasionally called Odin an "evil spirit" and whatnot.

So, what gives? It seems surprising to me that the iconography of a Satanic baptism and Satanic eucharist would be lost on these audiences. Is Sigurd perhaps being perceived as a Christ figure? Perhaps someone out there knows of some contempory reactions to one of these sagas.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Morning Medieval Miscellany

Karma here. This time I started at the bottom of the blogroll and worked my way up. I've missed tons of things, but here's a taste of the medieval-themed blogosphere over the last week or so.
  • The Lost Fort has pictures of Pembroke in southern Wales. Somehow I never want to be where I am when I read this blog...
  • Michael Drout has done it - the entire corpus of Old English poetry is now online. He's also posted a bit about the "genealogy" of Anglo Saxon pronunciation amongst medievalists, which is something I was discussing with an early modernist in my cohort last semester when we were both in the 'Brit Lit pre-1600' trenches, as part of a larger discussion of the genealogy of Anglo-Saxonists in general. (I joked that we must know our lineages, and that if I didn't get up to snuff on the Psalms soon, my advisor would disown me, I would not receive the heriot, and I would be doomed because my name would never alliterate. I think it was funnier if you were there. Or maybe it was just funny if you were, er, me.) In any case, Michael Drout's accomplishment is formidable, and invaluable. Congratulations!

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Where Did You Go, Oh Nokes?

I'm still here ... I've just been caught up in a lot of non-academic stuff that's seriously drained all my time and energy.

There's a review of Beowulf: Prince of the Geats coming soon. Really. I mean, I've written half of it already! I'm even going to talk about the DVD extras.

So, contrary to rumor, I haven't fallen into a well. I'm still here, and still have stuff to blog about -- I just haven't had time to do it of late.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Morning Medieval Miscellany

Karma here, with a tardy miscellany (in no particular order) for your skimming pleasure... (I don't know why I bother linking to my blog - I never post anything. Oh, for this last semester of coursework to come to a [happy] end....)

  • Wormtalk and Slugspeak explains why you -- yes, you -- need to think about sheep DNA more often.
  • Dame Eleanor Hull is going to the beach. I know this isn't exactly medieval news, but I'm cold, I'm tired of coursework, and I have forgotten what sunshine looks like, so I just felt a pang of jealousy when reading this.

Well, I am no longer in the mood to sit in front of the monitor after that. I'll catch you guys up on what the rest of the blogroll is up to soon. Now close your eyes and imagine the margaritas...