Monday, July 30, 2007

Beowulf Fights Cancer!

In an earlier post, I asked if anyone knew anything about a film project called Beowulf: Prince of the Geats. When no response came, I decided to investigate on my own. What I found is a fascinating project.

According to Scott Wegener, the executive producer, Beowulf: Prince of the Geats is a two-hour long all-volunteer feature film for the benefit of the American Cancer Society. By "all volunteer," they mean that the film had no budget whatsoever. Everything was donated, from the time of the cast and crew to the airfare, food, lodging, boat rental ... everything. The film has already been shot (in Florida, Colorado, and Norway), and is now just in the editing phase. The plan from this point is to sell the broadcast rights to PBS, and try to time it so that it can be aired on PBS just before the Zemeckis/Gaiman Beowulf film is released this fall.

Wegener said he was going for authenticity in the film ... authentic clothing, eating utensils, religious practices, etc., that one might expect from a Viking culture like the Geats. The storyline is going to be as faithful as possible, and will include such oft-omitted scenes as the race with Breca, AND will also include the elderly-Beowulf fight with the dragon! That's right, folks, someone is actually going to do the last part of Beowulf straight up!*

One element, though, is going to be very different. The actor they got to play Beowulf is black. In order to work out how Beowulf could be black in a faithful adaptation, here's how they're doing it:

Beowulf's father is an African explorer who sets out to find the edge of the world. By the time he reaches Geatland, he decides he's traveled far enough, and settles down marrying into the local nobility. In other words, Beowulf and his father aren't just Waegmundings -- they are waaaaaaymundings, from waaaaaaay far away. Beowulf grows up and grows through his adventures. Unferth's partial rehabilitation in the section with Grendel's mother (known as "Helldam" in the film) continues on, and he returns to Geatland with Beowulf as an emissary. After Beowulf's death, Unferth takes his father's map and follows it back to Africa, where he tells of Beowulf's adventures.

Beowulf: Prince of the Geats will begin and end in Africa, with the familiar part of the story told in flashback form by Unferth. It strikes me as a rather elegant way to solve the race problem, and also allows the narration of the familiar story to do difficult things, such as jump ahead fifty years. Plus, I can't wait to read all the freshman essays by those who watched the movie rather than read the book.

At this point, it is too late for those interested to get involved with the production of the movie, but you can still contribute. If you have a loved one who is a cancer victim or survivor, you can donate $50 through B:PotG to the American Cancer Society, and your loved one's name will appear in a list of dedications in the closing credits.** It also strikes me that another way to get involved is to write about it on your web page. Also, if you are a computer-geek-type (and I know there are plenty among us medieval-geek-types), they could use some help with their website.

*And it's about dang time.
** The deadline for this is roughly the end of September, so if you want to get a dedication for your loved one, sooner is better than later. All proceeds go to the American Cancer Society.

Anglo-Saxon Demons

National Geographic is running a piece on Peter Dendle's Demon Possession in Anglo-Saxon England (which I've not yet read). I'm very interested in reading this book because it strikes me as totally wrong, so I'm wondering where Dendle's coming from.

First off, if their leechbooks are any indicator (and I'd say they are), the Anglo-Saxons certainly thought that evil or mischievous spirits caused sickness and madness. In addition to afflictions from being elfshot, people could suffer from "fiendsickness" or "devilsickness." Hagiography had examples of people being tormented by demons or devils, and of course the idea of demonic forces working in our world likely first came to England long before even the Anglo-Saxons did, with the conversion of the Britons. The only way I can see this working out is to have an extremely narrow definition of "possession."

Even then, I'm skeptical of this claim. Let's say that we define "demon" and "possession" very narrowly -- i.e. demon means "evil spirit in league with the Christian Satan" and possession means "absolute control over every element of a person's body." Even then, this is a startling claim to make from negative evidence. Let's say we have no extant examples of such demonic possession from Anglo-Saxon England (we may not under such a narrow definition) -- does this then mean that they did not have demonic possession? That's a pretty big claim to make for a period with limited manuscript evidence.

Furthermore, the article seems to indicate that we do have manuscript evidence of demonic possession, in this 50-year outbreak in Northumbria. It strikes me that this is less likely an "outbreak," and more likely simply one of the few records that survived the dissolution of the monasteries and the fire at the Cotton Library.

Maybe Dendle has some stronger evidence than was introduced in the article, such as Anglo-Saxons seeming to consider demon possession foreign or explicitly referring to it as "Irish" or "Merovingian." Dendle has done other work on demons and devils, so I'm betting he's got more powerful ammunition than this popular article shows us.

h/t Scribal Terror

Saturday, July 28, 2007

"Beowulf: Dragon Slayer" No. 3

Synopsis: After being told that he would have to get the Black Viper's venom and Zumak's ambrosia in order to defeat Grendel, Beowulf and a small party set out to sea to defeat the Black Viper. The party also includes the Shaper, Unferth, and the Silent One (Unferth's demon companion). They lose one of their party, and nearly lose Wiglaf as well, when they are attacked by a sea monster. Beowulf decides that he needs advice on how to defeat Satan, and so the Shaper summons Wyrd, the God of Fate, to advise him. Wyrd tells him to "fear neither man nor demon." The party sails an island in "The Darklands," where they split up to scout the island. Unferth summons a pixie-like demon named "Little Omen," who casts Beowulf, Nan-zee, Hondscio, and the Shaper into Nightmareland, where they float around re-living their nightmares. Finally, the Shaper commands Little Omen to free them, but almost as soon as they are freed the party is set upon by pygmy head-hunters. Meanwhile, Grendel is back in Daneland killing Satan's Man-Apes out of frustration because Satan won't let him confront Beowulf yet. Grendel vows that if Satan does not send Beowulf by the next full moon, he will enter Hell and rip Satan to pieces. Back in The Darklands, Beowulf manages to negotiate a peace with the pygmies, but they attack when they learn he's there to kill the Black Viper, which apparently their chief is a god. Beowulf is able to capture the chief and negotiate a peace. He then goes alone and weaponless, again the protests of Nan-zee, to fight the Black Viper. He manages to kill the Black Viper by standing in its jaw and pushing until it cracks the jaw (much like the image on the front cover, sans Nan-zee). He drinks the venom, and plans to go next to drink the ambrosia of Zumak.

This issue is a lot less silly than the previous one, though it often doesn't make sense -- e.g. the sea monster dies in a huge, mystical explosion, dumping the heroes in the sea, but in the next page their ship is fine. Beowulf switches back and forth between a sword and a spiked mace. The summoning of Wyrd doesn't really move the plot forward, and neither does the brief stint in Nightmareland -- I found myself wondering if the book was a few pages too short in the first draft, so perhaps they through in these episodes for length? Also, we have this strange idea that no one is really afraid of Satan, since in the previous book Beowulf sliced his ear, and in this one Grendel threatens him.

There are some interesting things, though. Beowulf goes to great lengths to negotiate with the pygmies, even though these are the least threatening foes they've faced thus far. This is very different from the Beowulf who attacked Satan in Hell -- suggesting an interesting ethic for Beowulf, that he only uses violence against foes who are his match or better, and tries to make peace with those who are weaker than him.

Also interesting was the personification of Wyrd as a god. Wyrd is described as

The omnipotent god of Fate, known by countless names throughout time -- an all-seeing spirit neither good nor evil, neither just nor merciless, who does what must be done and insures that that which is, is that which must be! He is the path of life and death! He is Destiny!

This is, at least on some level, faithful to the idea of wyrd in the poem, though one wonders why anyone would seek advice from such a god.

Also, on the Backwards-Magic-Words front, Wyrd is summoned with the phrase "Uoy taht si -- Iniduoh yrrah," and and Unferth summons Little Omen with "Yaccm ros niwot deta cided sisiht!" -- Winsor McCay apparently being a famous illustrator I'd never heard of before.

Previous posts in this series:

More reactions to the Beowulf movie trailer

More reactions to the Beowulf movie trailer can be found at Xoom, Highly Eccentric, and Point of No Return.

By the way, I'm just wondering -- if they can make a CGI character that looks just like Angelina Jolie, why don't they just hire a better actress to play her? How about Helen Mirren? Heck, theoretically you wouldn't even need a woman -- how about Omar Sharif? I just saw him in One Night with the King, and he's just as good as ever. Or one of my favorite actors, Peter Dinklage.

That's it ... Peter Dinklage as Angelina Jolie as Grendel's Mother. I'd pay cash money to see that.

Zombie Chaucer

This movie answers the age-old question: "What would it be like if Chaucer came back as a zombie with poor comic timing?" As a bonus, it also answers the question, "What would a Scottish Dante be like?"

OK, it's not a great movie, but it's just so odd, plus it has the great line, "Your pilgrimage for brains is over, Chaucer!" Now that's comedy!

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Prince of the Geats

Speaking of Beowulf film adaptations, do any of the Wordhoarders have inside information on Beowulf: Prince of the Geats (IMDb entry here)? The information on the website is pretty sketchy, but it looks like they are going to have the jump from young Beowulf to old. I'm assuming the character named "Helldam" is Grendel's mother. Also interesting is the choice to have a black Beowulf.

A part of me would be deeply satisfied if the best Beowulf adaptation of all time were a volunteer film used to raise money for charity.

Beowulf Movie Trailer

For those interested in seeing the Beowulf movie trailer, it's available here. We have a return to the reinvention of Grendel's mother as a seductress that seems to be popular in some fantasy adaptations, and was used to poor effect in the 1999 Beowulf movie.

I am getting the impression from comments in interviews, as well as a few of the shots in the trailer, that this film will also have the elderly Beowulf who fights the dragon. Unless memory fails, I think that might make it the ONLY Beowulf adaptation that has done this so far.

Also interesting is that none of the CGI characters look particularly like the actors who portray them (though you can see it a bit in their facial movements), with the exception of Angelina Jolie, who looks like, well, Angelina Jolie.

Promising? No, not really ... but then again, considering the many terrible adaptations of Beowulf in the past, the movie only has to be less completely dreadful in order to place it in the top half of Beowulf film adaptations. The hurdle isn't very high on that one.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

WSJ loves Conan

The Wall Street Journal ran this article today about Conan as a literary figure. I've never been a big Robert E. Howard fan, but I think his reputation is likely to rise, as is deserved.

Other than that, I have nothing to add except that last week I was discussing this very issue over lunch with a colleague. He's heard me say before the H.P. Lovecraft is a post-Darwinian author, and he added that Howard is "post-Nietzschean." Yes, that's what you'd hear if you overheard two English professors talking at Ruby Tuesdays.

So, without any other context,
  • H.P. Lovecraft = post-Darwinian
  • Robert E. Howard = post-Nietzschean

Live! Nude! Geats!

In recent months, I've learned that the Second Commandment of Medieval Blogging is "Thou shalt not suggest Neil Gaiman is a mere mortal."* Therefore, please PLEASE PLEASE, can we forego the requisite "but Neil Gaiman is involved and annoints all his projects with a holy touch" protests, and just proceed as if they have already been made and noted?

The LA Times ran a piece about the coming Beowulf movie, which included this very odd paragraph:
His knack for a good scrap is on show in one of the film's pivotal fight scenes when Beowulf battles Grendel in the nude, mano a beast-o. ("Bob asked if he had to be nude, but we said, 'It's in the poem,' " Gaiman explained.) So in a crafty bit of staging to allow a PG-13 rating, Beowulf's naughty bits are obfuscated by random objects in the foreground. It's more subtle and subdued, but shadows, swords, mead flagons and shoulders block all in a sequence not unlike the prankish cloaking device used in "Austin Powers" films.

Er, how's that? "Bob," I assume, is Robert Zemeckis, and the "he" is the CGI Beowulf. So Gaiman is insisting that Beowulf be nude in his battle with Grendel, because "It's in the poem?!"

Now, Gaiman has complained before that the reporting on Beowulf is less-than-accurate, specifically in the area of actor nudity, and this is the LA Times, so perhaps the report isn't quite right. Assuming for now, though, that it IS right, Gaiman's reading of the poem is that Beowulf fights Grendel nude?

Let me confess that the only Beowulf I have at home is the Seamus Heaney translation, and not a single copy in Old English unless I head into the office. I've looked through the Heaney translation to see where Gaiman is getting this homoerotic Beowulf from, and the only thing I can figure is that it is his reading of when Beowulf removes his armor and vows to fight Grendel weaponless. I even did a little Google search on the terms "Beowulf" and "nude" and "naked," to see if there was some tradition about a nude Beowulf that had somehow passed me by, and the only thing I found was this Rockwell Kent illustration from the 1930s.

Off the top of my head, the only appropriate OE word I can think of is "nacod," from which we obviously get our Modern English word "naked." Where's Gaiman getting this idea from ... and what the heck did he think actually was going on in that meadhall most nights? Heck, I'm not even sure that Grendel was naked, since he's of the troll-type.

Regardless, it is disconcerting how often the words "nude" and "naked" are being associated with this new Beowulf movie. If Hollywood is that desperate to have nudity in a canonical work of medieval literature, they might pick something out of the Decameron -- it gives lots of options.

h/t Old English in New York

*The First Commandment of Medieval Blogging being "Thou shalt not show insufficient zeal in thy praise of Tolkien."

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Medieval World, USA

About a week or so ago, Modern Medieval included a link in this post to Medieval World, USA, a theme park being built in Colorado. Though there is plenty of information on the site, I wasn't satisfied, and so decided to be a good little scholar and do research; i.e., I called them up on the phone and talked to Mr. Roger Gomez about this project.

Middle Age Productions isn't new to medievalism; they've been putting on the Colorado Medieval Festival for some time now. Many of the Renaissance Faires around the country are for-profit enterprises, and others are put together by groups such as the Society for Creative Anachronism, but this group is an independent not-for-profit, which is part of what makes their vision so bold.

That vision, according to Gomez, is to create a living history site based on the European Middle Ages. He compared it to Colonial Williamsburg in style. In order to create a more authentic atmosphere, the plan is to set it at a particular period, the Twelfth Century. Because they did not want the park to be restricted in terms of nationality, though, they are conceiving of it as a 12th-century trade center, a place where various cultures might come together to exchange goods and services. Their craftors will have period knowledge, and they even envision some type of apprenticeship programs.

At the moment, though, the park is still just a concept, as they still lack the most important element of all: land. The plan calls for 640 acres, 400 of which will be covered in crops typical of the Middle Ages, 35 acres for the castle and village, 60 acres for the tournament field, and 80 acres for parking. The idea is that a family in the US that might not have the time or resources to head to Europe might be able to get in the car, park in that 80 acres, and then immerse themselves in the 12th Century. Without that land, though, nothing can be developed. At the moment, that appears to be the first priority.

If you're interested in getting involved, or just want to find out more about the project, you can contact Medieval World, USA at

Monday, July 23, 2007

Slate and Cakes

Two unrelated items:

In a post over at A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe, the blogger* comments that most of the extant Visigothic charters are on slate. Now, he attributes this fact to them coming down to us from only two main caches, but it strikes me that it is just as likely the permanence of stone. In either case, I had no idea that such things as charters were ever written in/on stone. Does anyone out there know of other medieval cultures that did the same thing?

And, from Studenda Mira via Quid Plura?, this Sutton Hoo helmet cake was apparently featured on "Ace of Cakes," a show I've seen only once. Just in case anyone was wondering, my birthday is next month (*cough*cough*).

*I'm not sure whether he's supposed to be anonymous or not. I know the name, but it isn't on the blog, so I'll just call him "The Blogger." Sounds ominous, no?

Blogroll Policy Reform


As the online medievalist community continues to grow, my blogroll is growing longer and longer. Just today I added SCA Life to the roll, as well as to my Google Reader subscriptions. Two days ago I ran into a former student of mine who runs the website Alabama Democrat, which was on my blogroll for a long time, then was removed when it went defunct, and was just resurrected about a week ago.

All this has me thinking about updating my old unofficial blogroll policy. It can be boiled down to meeting any of these conditions:
  • If I already know the blogger personally (and it isn't a diary blog).
  • If the blog links to my blog.
  • If the blogger regularly posts on medieval matters.
  • If the blogger regularly posts on literary matters.
  • If the blogger regularly posts on academic matters.
  • If the blog updates regularly (at least once per month)
When I first started using this policy, my blogroll's secondary purpose was to act as my own personal "favorites" page. Nowadays, I rarely enter through my own blogroll; instead, I subscribe through Google Reader. In other words, my blogroll is now purely a service to my readers, a kind of suggestion of other sites you might like.

Over the last couple of years, the Unlocked Wordhoard has evolved from a general "let's talk about smart things" blog to a central clearinghouse for all things medievalist. Indeed, some months ago I silently made a policy to blog only on medieval topics,* and the result was that in a few months time my traffic on the site leaped up. This increase in traffic** suggests to me that there was a real need out there for what the Wordhoard has become.

Longtime Wordhoarders might have noticed a few other changes over the last year. I removed the section entitled "Famed Words from the Hoard" (basically a "Greatest Hits" roll) because little of that content was medieval. I've become as conscientious as possible about announcing new medieval bloggers when I find them, in order to support our community. The biggest thing that has not been transformed is my blogroll. Therefore, I am considering making changing my blogroll policy to the following:

Sites included on the blogroll must meet ALL of the following conditions:
  • A site must contain occasional-to-frequent medieval content.
  • A site must be updated regularly.
  • A site must not have been defunct for more than a few months.

Obviously, much of this is up to my own interpretation. What is "occasional-to-frequent?" My first impulse for "updated regularly" would be to say at least once per month, but it would depend. Also, "defunct" bears some interpretation, as a lot of my fellow bloggers are academics who blog infrequently over the summer. And, of course, there's the unofficial set of caveats -- for example, any site dedicated to medieval-themed pornography would not likely get a link.

Since the blogroll has long since become a public service, though, I don't want to change policy without hearing from the Wordhoarders. What do YOU think? Is this too restrictive? Is it a long-overdue change? While I'd prefer comments below, I also invite private e-mails to me on this matter if you have something to say that wouldn't be appropriate for public consumption. Please let me know what YOU think.

*Yes, I violate my own policy from time to time. Heck, if you can't break your own rules, whose CAN you break?
**By the way, for new bloggers out there, don't sweat the traffic issue. Too many bloggers see this as a contest. My original goal for the Wordhoard was to have 50 viewers per month. Now, while I have far exceeded that, I don't think 50 viewers per month is anything to be ashamed of. Don't think you have to blog on the latest celebrity gossip or political scandal just to get readers. Instead, focus on writing good things for the readers you DO have, and sending them to links you think will interest them. End of sermon.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

"Beowulf: Dragon Slayer" No. 2

Synopsis: After having been magically spiriting into a swamp by Unferth, Beowulf and his three companions (Nan-zee, Wiglaf, and Hondscio) are attacked by Swamp Men as they sink deeper into the quicksand. On Nan-zee's advice, they allow themselves to be pulled under. Meanwhile, Grendel and his mother talk about their origins, as descendants of Cain and "Grebnel." Though mental telepathy, Satan orders Grendel to kill any he will at the Castle Hrothgar except for the King, Queen, and Shaper. When we return to Beowulf and companions, we learn the the quicksand was a gateway to the underworld, so while they are safe from the Swamp Men, they are now in Hell. They are immediately set upon by "Medulus," Satan's three-headed watchdog, which Beowulf kills with his minotaur helmet. After sleeping (during which time Nan-zee teaches Beowulf "the art of softness without weakness"), they are attacked by various demons, until they come into the presence of Satan himself, who tells them that he has instigated all this trouble out of boredom, as a game. Beowulf kicks Satan in the ear, and Satan magically spirits them out of the underworld. Meanwhile, Grendel attacks Heorot mead hall at the Castle Hrothgar. Beowulf and friends rush up to find him, but just as Grendel prepares to ambush them, Satan orders him to return to the swamp. In the castle, Beowulf meets Hrothgar, Wealtheow, and Unferth. Unferth begins plotting more ways to kill Beowulf.

This issue is a lot sillier than the first one. For example, magic incantations are simply words spoken backwards, so in the first issue when Unferth magically sends Beowulf and company into the swamp, he says "Artsuh Taraz Hcarps Osla," "Also Sprach Zarathustra" backwards. Fair enough, I suppose ... but in the section issue, the Slave-Maiden of Satan issues forth her final magical curse, "Enoyna! Sinnet!" Yes, that's right, she curses them with the phrase "Tennis, anyone?" backwards. Oh, woe unto any who find themselves invited to a tennis match -- in HELL!

Then there are things that just don't seem to make any darn sense. For example, Beowulf fights the three-headed watchdog with his helmet after complaining that he doesn't have any way to sever the dog's heads. Apparently, his sword has gone missing, and it doesn't appear in any of the panels. Then, he suddenly has the sword again for the rest of the story. Also, there is the idea that they are saved from the Swamp Men by being sucked into Hell. Um, isn't Hell by definition worse than any swamp? At least in the swamp there were a finite number of Swamp Men, as opposed to an infinite number of troll-demons in Hell.

But the silliest moment of all is when Beowulf gets angry that Satan has described them as "toys," so he kicks him in the ear. Kind of makes the Harrowing of Hell seem a lot less difficult when you can wander into Hell and kick Satan in the ear. Please note, too, from the panel, that Satan is a whiner.

Also, disappointingly, the writers seem to have given up on alliteration for the Shaper, and instead have him speaking in rhyme:
They ride the tide of heroes' seas to free a shore of the oppressed!
Those cast aside unchain their pride and put them through death's
A spell is weaved, the die is cast, the battlers breathe their last!
A costly cost if all are lost, a blot on Daneland's past!
The previous alliterative poem was nothing great, but the meter here is terrible, and it gives us the wonderfully craptastic phrase, "costly cost." Yeesh! Let's hope they return to alliteration; they were better at it.
You can find the previous post in this series here.

Sea Stallion Update

News for Medievalists has an update on the Sea Stallion, a Viking longship replica journeying from Roskilde to Dublin, which apparently needs a tow at sea to get it to Orkney on time.

You can follow the Sea Stallion's progress on this interactive map.

"The Kingdom": Fantasy or Historical Fiction?

CBS won a bidding war for a TV series called "The Kingdom," still very early in development. In reading through various articles, it appears that it is still little more than a concept. In that oh-so-Hollywood way, it is being described in terms of other shows, such as a "medieval 'Entourage'" and "a sort of 'Princess Bride' meets 'Entourage.'" Jeff over at Quid Plura? is less than enthusiastic about the "Entourage" comparison, and Matthew over at Modern Medieval isn't getting his hopes up, but as I've never seen "Entourage," I can blithely go about my merry way. Two names have been connected with the project so far: Chad Hodge and Barry Sonnenfeld. I've never seen anything Hodge has been connected with, and Sonnenfeld's is a mixed bag, so I'm willing to hold out a little hope.

One interesting thing about the descriptions is that it is variously described as a "a Middle Ages drama set in Europe's world of castles, kings and typhoid fever" and a "fantasy drama." Now, the new king is named "King Lucas" -- and while I'm not a historian, I sure can't remember any "King Lucas" references in the literature. It seems, then, that the story will not be fiction based on historical events, but that the history itself will be fictionalized -- fine by me. When they describe it as "set in Europe" and the "Middle Ages," though, it implies that the setting will be historical even if the characters are not. When, on the other hand, they describe it as a "fantasy drama," and compare it to "The Princess Bride," it suggests that the setting itself will be fictionalized.

So, will the setting have magic and giants and dragons, or will it have Cistercians and trade guilds and trebuchets? From how early this is in the development phase, I'm not sure even the creators know yet.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Medieval Animatic

Here's a very short animated film on the dangers of infidelity. Or perhaps regicide. Or perhaps gluttony. Hat tip: Stan Cynedom (sorry, I can't get the accent marks in there)

Viking (non-word) Hoard

I really don't have anything to say about the find of the Harrogate Viking treasure hoard except to say this: Hey, look, they're displaying a Viking treasure hoard!

People who DO have something to say:

UPDATE: News for Medievalists has the text of three articles on the hoard.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Alfred's Meadhall and Wild West Show

I promised a couple of more posts about this article over at Modern Medieval, and this is the second. A few years before it closed, my wife and I stumbled upon the National United States Marshals Museum in Laramie, Wyoming.* We had no idea it was there, and noticed a sign as we were looking for somewhere to get gas and change diapers (my daughter was still quite young). It was a real jewel, hidden out there; we ended up spending the whole day. What really impressed me was the sheer numbers of locals who showed up to work at the thing on a volunteer basis. There were so many passionate volunteers that I assumed we had stumbled onto it during some sort of special event or festival, but when I asked around I learned that it was just a normal day.

Having had that experience, I completely understand why the fellow in this article finds Laramie to be a good site to build a meadhall. Even if the locals don't quite understand the whole meadhall thing, they at least get the basic impulse. For those of you who don't have the patience to read the article, a fellow by the name of Cyning Meadowcroft is building a two-story Anglo-Saxon meadhall in Laramie County, Wyoming, in order to honor Alfred the Great. The Billings Gazette includes this picture of the progress on Angelcynn Hall to date:

Next time I'm out that way, I'll have to go by to talk to this fellow a bit. The two big questions on my mind:

  1. How did you convince your ex-wife to move back to America so you could build a meadhall?
  2. Your name is "Cyning Meadowcroft?" Like, really? Did your parents name you that, or did you change your name?**

*According to the Department of Justice, it's moving to Arkansas.
** "Cyning" means "King" in Old English, and the pronounciation guide in the Billings Gazette article makes clear that he pronounces it in the OE way.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Mirror in the Smoke

One more thing before bed tonight...

I ran across a blog with occasional medieval content called Mirror in the Smoke, by an undergrad medieval studies major at the University of Sydney. The sun never sets on medievalism, my friends.

The Latest on the Beowulf Movie

LLCoolCarl has an update on the upcoming Beowulf movie, along with his trademark wit. I have to confess, I can't share in the messianic confidence Carl and many others place in Neil Gaiman. The only film I've seen with which he's been associated was the bland and overhyped Princess Mononoke. Comic books and novels aren't movies, so I see no reason to get all excited.

So, please, Wordhoarders, desist from telling me that the new movie won't suck because Neil Gaiman is involved. It might not suck, I desperately hope it doesn't suck, but that raspy sound you hear is me not holding my breath.

Disney Princess Legitimacy

You can tell it is summer and all the major medieval conferences are now over, because we seem to have entered the silly season of medievalism. Carolingian over at Medievalisms has a post about Disney princesses, in which she evaluates the relative claims of legitimacy of six princesses: Belle, Jasmine, Cinderella, Ariel, Aurora (Sleeping Beauty), and Snow White. According to her analysis, the strongest claim of legitimacy can be made by Aurora, "as she is royal by birth, by clear lawful marriage, and by the hinted production of a legitimate heir."

One thing I was confused about, though ... in her analysis, Snow White is in the list of "relatively economically disadvantaged women." Now, I haven't seen the movie for a looooong time, but in the Disney version, wasn't she the daughter of the king, with the villain playing dual roles of "evil stepmother" and "usurping regent?" Or have I conflated Sleeping Beauty and Snow White in my memory?

Idyllic Peasants Dancing 'round the Maypole (and probably playing hackysack, too)

Matthew Gabriele over at Modern Medieval had an interesting post yesterday that will probably garner THREE different posts in response, with this being the first. He unearthed an article about a fellow developing Oberkleinberg, "an environmentally, economically and socially sustainable community [...] looking like a medieval village but powered by cutting edge 'green' technology." In other words, he's trying to recreate the image of the Shire that drew so many hippies to The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings.

Gabriele laments the ways in which the medieval is characatured, both as violent and dirty ("There's some lovely filth over here, Dennis"), and as happy and fae. He's right, I think, to smash his head against his keyboard at the ridiculousness of it. Real people lived in the Middle Ages -- real people who lived lives very similar to our own. They were born, faced sibling rivalry, played sticks and dolls, hit puberty, fell in love, some days liked their work, some days hated their work, married, fought with their spouse, loved their spouse, had a brood of children, felt annoyance/pride in their children, began to feel the aches of old age setting in, married those children off, enjoyed their grandchildren, and died. Unlike Oberkleinberg, most of them didn't live in a community "with a constantly rotating population and built on top of a huge underground parking garage" -- though perhaps revolutionary archeological findings will prove me wrong on that point.

Still, let's not lose perspective. The medieval has "always already" been constucted in ahistorical terms. Even in the Middle Ages, the medieval wasn't particularly historically accurate. When I look at Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain, I see a text as much invested in mythology as history. The medieval is always the other, and as such acts either as a Golden Age utopia (like Camelot, the Shire, or Oberkleinberg), or as the demonic parody of the present. We construct visions of the medieval because we want to create a foundation for our visions about our present.

What is Oberkleinberg? It is a $56 million land development ... but the target consumer is the kind of person who has a lot of disposable income who feels guilty about it. Saavy consumers are accustomed to the cloying pandering to this market (think Ameriprise Financial commercials), so Oberkleinberg is knocked out of its contemporary context and made strange so that the consumers can experience this development without guilt. Consumers will be paying a premium to make their own ice cream and cobble their own shoes at their time share. What they are really paying for, though, is not the "medieval" experience -- they're paying for the feeling of political rectitude that they get, the same product being sold in the form of Priuses and carbon offsets. Do I think it is silly that people feel so guilty about spending their own money that they have to pretend to be some kind of time travellers to do it? Sure, I do -- but that doesn't change the fact that it is THEIR money, not mine, and if they want to live in The Village, they are welcome to it.

I guess I'm no more bothered by the happy-frolicking-around-the-maypole construction of the medieval than I am by the evil-inquisitor-torturing-a-poor-healing-woman-during-the-Crusades-while-simultaneously-dying-from-the-Black-Plague construction. And, hey, maybe when I retire I'll want to live in a place like Oberkleinberg ... but I'll wear store-bought shoes and eat store-bought ice cream.

Monday, July 16, 2007

A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

The blog A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe has apparently been up and running for about seven months, yet somehow I've missed it. Don't miss the page on Crusader motives.

hat tip About: Medieval History (thanks Melissa Snell!)

I see London, I see France, I see medieval underpants!

Lately the medieval blogosphere has seemed like it was run by 10-year-old boys, with lots of references to poop and underwear. I had resisted writing about the underwear issue because I did not go to Leeds and have not read the paper in question, but it has become so ubiquitous that it seems to need a smack.

For those not aware of what I'm talking about, apparently in a paper at the International Medieval Congress in Leeds, a scholar argued that the rise in literacy was helped along by the invention of underwear, since discarded underwear could be made into cheap paper. You can get more details from News for Medievalists, plus commentary from Modern Medieval, and a really thorough round-up of news reports from LLCoolCarl at Got Medieval.

Like I said, I haven't read the paper, and I suspect that in its original form, the author is probably much more careful about making such definite claims before a scholarly audience. So, let me offer the caveat here that I am criticizing the argument as it has been reported, not the scholarly paper.

This seems to me a rather backwards, like claiming that the spread of gas stations caused people to drive more, with the invention of the assembly line being of ancillary importance at best. It strikes me as far more reasonable to suggest that the printing press created a rise in literacy, which created a demand for more books, and that underwear was simply one of many sources of cheap rags for meeting this demand for books.

But enough being reasonable. This is the Unlocked Wordhoard, repository of everything absurd, so I want to suggest that the rise of underpants wearing was driven by a market in used underwear, so that the medieval person could say, "well, I'll invest in this underwear because I know I'll be able to recoup a small part of that investment later when I sell it to be made into books."

Yes, that the new meme! Increased literacy caused people to wear underpants, not visa-versa! And I already have proof: Paris Hilton, known non-underwearer, is also not a very literate person. I, on the other hand, read a great deal, and I wear underpants every day. Indeed, when my children were illiterate, they wore diapers, not underpants, but now that they are literate, they wear underpants.

Still not convinced? You are reading this, right? And you are wearing underpants, right? And you do not read blogs while showering (sans underpants), right? Aaaah, we now see that the argument can be taken even further: If you aren't wearing underwear, it is impossible to read! Oh, sure, you can sound out the directions on a shampoo bottle, but not real literacy. I can't remember the last time I read a novel and had no underwear on.

So, in conclusion: Underwear was invented by medieval readers to allow for the creation of longer works like novels. Support literacy: Wear your underwear!

Semper ubi sub ubi.

Friday, July 13, 2007

"Beowulf: Dragon Slayer" No.1


The monster Grendel rises from the swamps and attacks Castle Hrothgar, angry about the "sounds of life" coming from the men within. The scop (known also as "The Shaper") appears to Beowulf and through a cryptic prophecy tells him of the troubles at Castle Hrothgar. This same scop appears in Hrothgar's court and tells them of Beowulf's approach, just before Grendel's attack. Meanwhile, on the sea voyage to the Castle Hrothgar, Beowulf and his men encounter a beautiful siren luring them into the Underworld. Beowulf defeats the demons controlling the siren, and we learn that she is Nan-zee, a Swedish Scylfing warrior who is nearly Beowulf's match in battle. As Beowulf and his companions (including Nan-zee) approach the Castle Hrothgar, Unferth fears humiliation, and so he casts a spell that casts them into a swamp, where they are attacked by "Swamp Men -- Disciples of Satan!"

In this first comic, it appears that the writers are going to try to include some thematic elements from the Beowulf poem. "Wyrd" is referred to as "the God of Fate," Beowulf says that he will fight for "'lof,' or fame as some call it," and the scop appears to have some central role, though he becomes "The Shaper," rather than God. All that gets abandoned really quickly.

Beowulf himself appears as a sort of general barbarian figure, when we first see him, he is killing, and violence isn't just his main approach to any situation -- it's his ONLY approach. Consider the rather S&M way in which he woos the lovely Nan-zee:

Not exactly the method I'd use, but it appears to work for him. Hey, are you a 12-year-old boy confused about girls? Here's some advice from DC comics: When you meet a girl you like, make fun of her and her nationality, then punch her into the mud.* Chicks dig that.

The idea of a siren is our first hint that this whole series is going to be a mash-up, mostly with classical mythology. As the series progresses, Beowulf encounters a whole bunch of non-Beowulfian creatures and situations. Nan-zee herself is a mash-up, since she is an Amazon-type siren/warrior (classical Mediterranean) rescued by a Geatish warrior (medieval Germanic) from her enthrallment by demons of Satan (Judeo-Christian).

The character of Unferth doesn't make any sense. First of all, his garb is quite strange compared to that of others, making him look like he's dresses as a lizard at a costume party (just in case you missed it, this is called "Beowulf: Dragon Slayer," hint hint). On the one hand, he's supposed to be a some kind of tough guy, but on the other we are told he is "arthritic." His role appears to be the all-purpose bad guy in Hrothgar's court.

Interestingly, this first book seems to have literary pretensions. Though the notes at the end contrast it with "Classics Illustrated" comics, the writers do refer to it as "educational" and "an Epic in Comic-Book form." Also, the scop at one point suddenly launches into a speech that uses alliteration, kennings and oral formulae:

The world-candle burns as the life-sphere turns; To Beowulf, boon of the Geats!
He swings his sword -- his iron-killer lord! His might explodes across this
blue-orb Earth, as rosy-fingered dawn brings peace to the land of his birth!

OK, Caedmon meets Homer it ain't, but you can see what they are trying to do. I wonder how many kids tried writing book reports based on the comic?

*UPDATE: After posting this, I realized that the image was not clear enough to read the page. Here are the six panels in the image:

  1. Nan-zee stabs a bat-demon that was attacking Beowulf.
  2. Beowulf: "You saved my life! Why? Who are you? I thought--" Nan-zee: "You thought like the bull-headed male you are! My name is Nan-zee! I'm a Scylfing warrior who--"
  3. Beowulf: "You?!? A warrior? A woman a warrior? HA-HA-HA-HA-HA! And a Swede no less! HA-HA-HA-HA!"
  4. Nan-zee lays out Beowulf with a hard right to the chin. BOFF
  5. Nan-zee (as Beowulf hits the mud): "As I was saying -- I was caught in Satan's whirlpool when he destroyed my ship! Coming ashore here, I became possessed by his spirits and forced to guard this entrance into the underworld!
  6. Nan-zee: "Finally when --OH!" as Beowulf knocks her into the mud too, and says "Wench!"

Weekend Beowulf Blogging

I've been dormant on the blogosphere for more than a week now, for several reasons, the main ones being that I had a couple of tight deadlines dropped on me, I'm renovating my house, AND an old friend sent me a big stack of literature-inspired comic books, including DC's "Beowulf: Dragon Slayer" from the mid 70s, which I believe is complete in its six book run.

I've been reading these comics and laughing (I don't think I'm supposed to laugh, but I it's pretty silly), so I've decided to share the joy. For the next six weekends, I'll share one comic book with you.

Here's Joshua Carlson's assessment of the series.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Carmen Butcher & Grendel

One of the neat things about the Chronicle article is that medievalists I didn't know have been writing me or linking to me all day. I do my best to keep my blogroll updated, but new blogs pop up all the time, old ones fade, and blogs drift into and out of focus on the medieval. If you've got a medieval or website, please don't hesitate to send me a link.

A gem that I'd somehow missed is Carmen Acevedo Butcher's website and blog. Last time I was at Kalamazoo, the Digital Medievalist and I griped to one another that no medievalists were video podcasting. Apparently, we were wrong! Dr. Butcher has four video posts: three about Hildegard of Bingen, and one about Grendel. Here's the one on Grendel:

Monday, July 02, 2007

Sir Nokes, Knight of the Faculty Lounge

John Gravois at The Chronicle of Higher Education has a print article about popular medievalism among academics, paired with an audio report about just how darn fun the International Medieval Congress at Kalamazoo is. During my telephone interview with Gravois, I sensed that his visit to K'zoo really impressed on him just how lively the academic medieval world is. The word he used to describe medieval studies was "vitality" -- as good a word as any.

Gravois opens "Knights of the Faculty Lounge: From dragons to scholars, one man's journey through medieval studies" with this:

I had a fat chance of finding a Dungeons & Dragons game in Kalamazoo, they told me. It was a harebrained quest. But it was a quest, at least, and that seemed appropriate.

OK, I admit it. I was among the skeptics. I knew that a lot of medievalists had come to the field through RPGs, but I thought it would be their secret shame, one that would remain in the closet during the Congress.

I really should have known better. Just look at his brief (non-comprehensive) list of popular medievalist subcultures:

  • Lord of the Rings fans
  • The Society for Creative Anachronism
  • Renaissance Faires
  • World of Warcraft
  • Everquest
I've participated in all of the above with the exception of SCA -- and I'm attending my first SCA meeting tomorrow night. I should have known that I could be out-geeked by other medievalists.

In the two articles (though there is some overlap, the audio piece is an article in its own right, not just a reading of the print piece), I was struck by how much agreement there is among the scholars he spoke with. Dan Kline, Jeff Sypeck, JJ Cohen, Eileen Joy and I might often be in disagreement about a lot of things (often theoretical), but I found myself in total agreement with what they said here about popular medievalism, love of medievalism, and academic anxieties about that love.

I'm starting to think that the most juvenile part of our love is our denial of it. I'm not a grad student any more -- I can read dead languages, properly handle and transcribe medieval manuscripts, and measure my library by the pound rather than by numbers of books. Who are trying to impress here, anyway?

So, here's my unsurprising confession: I love this stuff. I love the high culture and the low. I love tweed-and-bowtie adorned lectures, and I love playing medievalist games. I love reading academic critiques of medieval lit, and I love reading Terry Pratchett. I love the medieval geek culture of academic conference, and I love the very different species of geek at fantasy conventions. And if you don't like it, you can eat the most famous artifact at the York Archaeological Resource Centre and die.

One clarification: At one point in the article, I refer to "the pseudo-medieval world." The quote is accurate, but I was using someone else's nomenclature. I prefer "popular medievalism" to such terms as "recreational medievalism," "quasi-medievalism," "pseudo-medievalism," and "neo-medievalism" -- but that's just a preference, not a point of angry contention. I do sometimes use the term "recreational medievalism" to refer to a sub-category of popular medievalism, i.e. anything that is for fun but cannot be considered art (such as books, film, etc), e.g. Renaissance Faires, SCA, etc.

Arts & Letters Daily (which I read every single day -- as you should) included the "Knights of the Faculty Lounge" article in their "Articles of Note" section for today. Also, Kate Laity of Wombat's World found a YouTube video from the K'zoo dance.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Speaking of Vikings ...

... they have apparently decided to give up on the Incas and go raiding on the Irish again. Some folks have build the Sea Stallion, a replica of a Viking longship, and they plan to launch it later today on a 1000 nautical mile trip from Roskilde to Dublin. The website looks pretty basic at first, but it has some neat stuff, such as the ability to follow the progress of the Sea Stallion on a map. You can also watch a video with English narration, but it's a little slow-loading. And, as if it weren't super-cool-awesome enough to be sailing around in a Viking longship, this woman will be going with them. Lumberjacks, blacksmiths, tar-makers, and one really cute biologist ... if a person could literally die from envy, I'd be in serious danger.

On a personal tangent, when I was in high school my great aunt gave me a book called The Sinbad Voyage, about a fellow who built a replica of the type of ship contemporary with the Sinbad myth, and sailed it around the various places found in the mythology. I let that book gather dust for a year or two, because it didn't seem too interesting when the first chapter was about fundraising and such. When I picked it up out of boredom later, though, I found it fascinating -- very cool, very educated, and very macho. I remember seeing the picture of these Sinbad-geeks passing around AK-47s for target practice in case they got attacked by (real) pirates, and I thought that was absolutely the coolest thing ever. Heck, I still think it's absolutely the coolest thing ever.

The only question remaining regarding the Viking voyage is this: Will the value of the Lloyd's Bank turd be diminished by the collective dookies of the Sea Stallion's crew?

h/t Muhlberger's Early History