Monday, January 29, 2007

The Ruin Movie

Here's a marvelously beautiful six-minute film adaptation of The Ruin, with voice-over in Old English and subtitles in modern English. Good enough that I might just make my Brit Lit I students watch it as an assignment.

A Day Late and 99¢ Short

For those of you who are regular readers of this site, you might remember that on January 10th I engaged in a little bomb-throwing on the state of the field. Those bombs must have had long fuses, because I got not a single comment or e-mail on that post for ten days, until Eileen Joy posted taking Michael Drout and me to task. By the next day, I had received a few comments and e-mails urging me to respond. Unfortunately, as I posted, I had injured my hand a few days earlier, and so typing long posts was prohibitively painful. The blogosphere responded in generous fashion by moving the debate over to the Wordhoard, for which I am grateful.

Well, my hand isn’t at 100% yet, but it’s far enough along that I can sit and type longer things. Unfortunately, my recovery time took longer than the debate, which has since fizzled. I considered not re-opening the subject, but I did promise I would, so here’s my much-belated response:

It strikes me that there were several issues at play here. First was the role of history vis-à-vis that situatedness (for some reason, there wasn’t too much talk about philosophy, so I’ll let that drop). Second was the role of intentional in textual interpretation. Third was the situatedness of language. Finally was the über-question about the state of Anglo-Saxon studies. Let me divide these up and deal with them separately.

First, on the role of history in literary interpretation, whether Anglo-Saxon lit or otherwise, the use of history should be optional. Can history potentially tell us interesting things about the use of language? Sure – but language pre-dates history precisely because if anything is “situated” (more a little later on why this term has become tiresome), history is situated in language. Though I might disagree with some ways in which Eileen summarizes what I said, she does get this part right: “language study first, before anything else.”

Let us not over-state the case, though. History is a worthy object of study, and there are medieval historians who focus on Anglo-Saxon England whose work deserves our respect. I expect, however, that their mantra should be “history study first, before anything else” – after all, this is their task. Does this mean that they will never discover anything interesting about history from literature? Of course not – but at the end of the day, if historians do not focus on history, who will? By the same token, if language experts do not focus on language…?

Second is the issue of the role of intention. This is a little off-topic, I fear, leading me to twist Godwin’s Law into Nokes’s Law: “As an online discussion on literature grows longer, the probability of an argument about authorial intention approaches one.” I’ll not resurrect this subject here, except to point out that it isn’t really germane to the topic at hand.

Third is the situatedness of language, the place that Eileen Joy and I have the strongest disagreement. At one point, responding to something Drout wrote, she says, “[language] is situated in a human body, which is itself always situated somewhere, and that, my friend, is […] meaningful.” Well, it is meaningful in the non-bolded or italic way, but beyond that, not really.

Situated language is an old chestnut, every few years pretending to be exciting and new, when it really is not. Eileen is right about one thing – today how language is situated in the body is a hot topic, and no doubt gets current grad students all worked up in a lather. It may also be that metaphor works, in part, off of the way in which we negotiate our body’s position in the world.

But the situatedness of language is not really all that revealing. Critical schools argue, in large part, about how to situate that language. When I was in grad school, it was all “race, class, and gender,” which soon morphed into “race, class, gender, and sexual orientation” until we all decided that “gender” included sexual orientation anyway. The idea of the body as the locus of language was around in those days too, mostly in the Donna Haraway my-body-is-a-machine type of criticism. I participated in all that in the 90s as well, as the title of my paper “From the Spiritual to the Statistical: Changing Discourse about Human Sexuality” attests.

Slowly, though, I began to realize that all these examinations of contingencies and positionings weren’t really telling me anything. As I looked back at the various critical trends throughout the ages, I realized that everyone had always understood, in one way or another, that language was positioned. Marxists thought that it was best examined in its economic situation, feminists in gender, Freudians in psychology, etc. Even the ol’ fashioned types were all about situatedness – Eliot in the tradition, Pope in the classics, Aristotle in the genre, and so forth. Whether we use the ugly term “situatedness” to talk about canonicity, or aesthetics, or archetype, or genre, or manuscript context, we’re still talking about language vis-à-vis these contexts. Even “ars gratia artis” does not suggest that art exists in a vacuum, but rather that it is positioned among other works of art.

I’m not saying that we can learn nothing from the situatedness of language – but I am saying that the situatedness of language is seriously overrated for its ability to help us understand. Frankly, I’m much more interested in those elements of language that are not contingent upon situation, the things that used to be called “universals” (the word is so out-of-vogue that it seems quaint even to type it in scorn quotes).

The fourth issue is the state of Anglo-Saxon studies, and here we are on much less stable territory. Much of what I have argued above isn’t specific to Anglo-Saxon studies, and medievalists may actually be less-inclined to these excesses. When I think of the times theory specialists boasted to me that they didn’t read much (“I don’t do lit, I do theory”), not once was the person a medievalist. One medievalist once said to me (and I won’t out him here lest it infuriate his colleagues) that he felt we are better scholars than others in English departments, because “we actually have to know things” like dead languages and how to read a manuscript and whatnot. When he first said it, I dismissed it as ofermod, but I soon recalled an incident: A colleague, a very smart Americanist, asked me what my dissertation was about. When I gave her the 20 second spiel, she looked surprised and said, “oh, you’re actually doing real research!” Perhaps she and the ofermod medievalist were reacting to the same thing.

I’ve got no crystal ball to tell you with any certainty what the future of medieval literature will be (I take it for granted that Anglo-Saxon studies will be in the same broad situation as other medieval lit), but I’m pretty sure of three things:

1. It will be very different than today. Like language, scholarship evolves; it can’t help itself. An extremely prominent medievalist recently told me that he started his work Anglo-Saxon prose as a student because it interested him, not because he thought the field would turn to prose.

2. It will still be the odd man out in English departments (assuming they still exist). 20th Century Americanists can read and understand the work of 18th British scholars, who can read and understand the work of film scholars, but unless they can read Old English or Old Norse, or medieval Latin, or Old Whatever, there will always be a barrier between us and them. We can understand them, but they can’t understand us. The medievalists will just have to eat lunch with the Comparative Lit specialists, I guess.

3. New technologies will change the ways in which we perceive texts, which will change our field. How and why is a subject I’ve dealt with before in this space, but the changes may be profound.

In any case, with my injured hand it has taken me about three days to type this late response. I’ll try to post some much shorter items for the next few days.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Language and My Situated Human Body

I've been demoted to the level of lurker for the last few days because, as Eileen Joy points out here, language is "situated in a human body," and my human body injured its hand in a martial arts class on Thursday night. It's getting better (two days ago I couldn't capitalize because I couldn't hit the shift key and a letter simultaneously), but it's still not fully back. I can now type reasonably well, but only for very short periods of time before my wrist starts giving me trouble again.

In any case, I'm able to post in terms of short, pithy things, but not much beyond, so the rant I was planning about the Norton Anthology of Brit Lit will have to wait. For the many of you who have e-mailed me asking for a response to Eileen Joy's comments here, you'll just have to wait for a couple more days of healing. And, yes, I did notice the implication that (unlike Drout) I'm a "conservative troglodyte," but as the knuckles on my left hand are dragging to the ground a little lower than normal, I can't give the post the longish response it deserves at the moment.

Just a preview: For those of you hoping for a flame war, go off to the Daily Kos or somewhere else. I happen to like Eileen Joy's writing, and nice vigorous disagreement is part of the academic life. Besides, what I said that she's responding to is difficult, was posted in a seriously reduced form, and flies in the face of the conventional wisdom. When it gets a response, it won't be an "I hate that mean ol' Eileen," because I don't, and she's not mean (at least so far as I know).

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Grendel and The Wheel

After having said nasty things about the SciFi Channel's "Grendel," I thought I should post another film focusing on Grendel.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Sudden Surge of Subscribers

People must have really liked my post on "The Epic Badness of Grendel," because the number of subscribers to the Wordhoard has doubled in the last 24 hours. Of course, the number of visitors has spiked slightly too, but nothing like the number of new subscribers.

For those interested in subscribing, simply click here, fill out the form, and you should be approved in short order.

The Epic Badness of Grendel

I have now seen the SciFi Channel original movie, "Grendel." A team of therapists, after much debate, has reluctantly permitted me to write a review. If the writing of this review should kill me, please donate my body to religion.*

This is a bad movie. I have been trying to decide if it dethroned Christopher Lambert's futuristic "Beowulf" as the worst Beowulf adaptation ever, and I finally came to the decision that this movie is marginally ... very marginally ... better. This film has three things going for it:
  • First is the theme. "All we have are our stories" is the refrain, and there is a kind of Beowulfian call to glory found there. That's not a bad theme if you are going to be doing a Beowulf film. It's relatively close to the poem in terms of thematic elements.
  • The film follows the basic outline of the story. The Danes are attacked by Grendel, Beowulf and friends come to defeat him. After they kill him, they celebrate, only to find out that Grendel's mother (called by the name "Hag" in the film) isn't too happy, so they have to kill her as well.
  • There is a sly reference to Burton Raffel at the outset of the film. An old man is showing Beowulf a cave in which a giant snake lives, and as Beowulf goes on to kill the snake, he turns to one of his companions and warns them to keep an eye on "Raffel," because he does not trust him. I assume this is an homage to Burton Raffel -- perhaps they used his translation to write the screenplay.
Despite these things, the film manages to be awful. The acting is unbelievably bad, and the writing isn't much better. For example, we had this delightful line: "The monster's thirst of flesh is unquenchable." OK, Intro to Freshman Composition error here -- either the monster's thirst for blood is unquenchable, or the monster's hunger for flesh is insatiable, but the monster cannot have a thirst for flesh, unless he has a blender and makes flesh into protein shakes. Besides such lines, the movie never shows you something happening when it can offer dull exposition instead. When my wife asked me how the movie was, I told her it was bad. She then said, "How can it be bad? You are laughing so loud!", to which I had to reply, "I don't think I'm supposed to be laughing. It's funny only unintentionally."

The great badness of the film, though, was not the mixing of metaphors or the cue-card-reading acting; it was the "King's Weapon." Early in the film King Higlac gives a special weapon to Beowulf to use in defeating Grendel. The weapon looks like a crossbow with a rifle stock, three strings, and big Cadillac-looking fins/blades at the front. I started laughing as soon as I saw the thing, and nearly fell out of my chair when Beowulf took a practice shot at a wooden dingy, which exploded.

Yes, "the King's Weapon" is a crossbow that fires explosive bolts. Every time it seems like the action of the film might be slowing, the movie makes an excuse to whip out the Weapon and blow something up -- usually a tree. When Beowulf does kill Grendel, it is by shooting him with the weapon (which merely burns him, rather than killing him) before chopping his arm off with his sword "Nagling." No hand-to-hand combat here. This is, by the way, the third time Beowulf gets a point-blank shot at Grendel. Since the King's Weapon has a scope (no, I'm not kidding), we can only conclude that Beowulf is the world's worst shot.

The setting was strangely interesting. Heorot Hall was designed to look very Roman, and indeed Beowulf compares the Golden Age of Hrothgar's kingdom to that of Rome. The Viking ship seems to have been lifted from the set of a pirate movie. Rather than the cliche dragon-prowed ship, they go with a three-masted vessel that looks like it should have been sailing the Spanish Main. Wouldn't Jack Sparrow have been surprised to get a shot from the King's Weapon across his bow?

Some other interesting things to note:

Though IMDb lists Marina Sirtis as "Queen Wealhtheow," they change her name to "Queen Onela" in the film. They also transform her from a strong, politically-saavy woman into a madwoman with some limited prophetic powers. Her madness seems to disappear after the first quarter of the movie, though. Apparently Beowulf brought her some anti-schizophrenia medication.

Hrothgar has two sons, one named "Renn," and the other named "Unferth." Unferth has the characteristics of the person by that name in the poem (he gets into a drunken debate with Beowulf over the Brecca swimming contest, he has a partial rehabilitation by the end, etc.). When they were young men, Renn and Unferth went off to battle Grendel, but Unferth abandoned Renn and he was killed.

The film has a "dark secret" that is introduced and revealed near the end. The secret doesn't really make a lot of sense, and it unnecessarily besmirches the name of Shild Scheffing, so I suspect it is in there to make Hrothgar a more complicated figure.

Grendel and his mother look pretty good. Grendel looks more like a giant werwolf with a monkey tail than a troll. He has these things dangling from his elbows which at first appeared to be additional tails, but which I later took to be long tufts of hair. Grendel's mother, on the other hand, looks like a giant bat. Neither she nor Grendel is aquatic; Grendel lives in the woods and strings up his victims like a spider, and Hag (Grendel's mother) lives in a kind of canyon.

The King's Weapon, though it does wound Hag, is not the killing weapon. Instead there is a special sword in her lair (conveniently displayed, lest Beowulf miss it) which is named "Eotens."

One of Beowulf's companions is named "Finn," and he is Higlac's nephew. He and Unferth are the only interesting characters in the film, and indeed, by the end we realize it is Finn who has been telling the story. Finn's main job is to be our eyes and ears, as well as doing normal sidekick duty (e.g. getting captured to give the hero motivation to save the day).

So, in summary, Grendel is not quite as bad as Beowulf, but in the same league.

*I know the cliche is to donate one's body to science. Screw science. Once you're dead, what good is it to you? At that point, you'll need religious brownie points.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

More on the State of the Field

It's the first week of classes here, which explains the paucity of posting. Michael Drout has an interesting post responding to this post on Tiruncula about the state of Anglo-Saxon studies. Since I'm part of the "nest of Saxonists" online, I figure I ought to have something to say. Indeed, I have a lot to say, but not the time in which to say it.

So, let me instead make a couple of unsupported statements -- more a bit of bomb-throwing than actual argument.

It strikes me that the problem is that we have abandoned literature. Too often, the study of Anglo-Saxon literature is that it has been abandoned for the practice of philosophy-lite and history-lite.

First off, philosophy-lite. This problem is more pronounced in the rest of literary studies, the problem in which one can have semesters in grad school, getting degree in "English Literature," in which one spends more time talking about Kristeva and Spivak than one does talking about Milton and Austen. The trouble with this is that we already have people who do philosophy and do it better than those in English departments do it. We call these people "philosophers" and house them in philosophy departments.

History-lite is also found in the field at large, but Anglo-Saxon literary studies is especially prone to it. Besides (old) Historicism and New Historicism, darn near every faddish theory to come around "situating" everything wants to do so from a historical perspective, though often only implicitly. We seem to have forgotten that history is situated IN LANGUAGE, and that the discipline of history is itself situated in narrative storytelling (i.e. literature). In other words, history is the younger child of literature, not the other way around.

There you go. No argument, just bomb-throwing. Let the angry comments commence.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Grendel Comes Loping Toward Us

Sometimes I hate my life.

SciFi channel is premiering a movie entitled "Grendel" on January 13th. I'm going to have to watch it, despite the facts, which are:

  • All movies on SciFi stink, though they often have good series.
  • Marina Sirtis is in it.
  • It has a character named "Ingrid."
  • The promo video has both catapaults AND flaming crossbows.
  • It also has a giant snake. Perhaps it is meant to be a dragon.

I'm hoping for some kind of crisis Friday night, to save me from this fate -- or my wyrd, if you will.