Friday, November 30, 2007

Armitage vs. Borroff at Krystmasse

As many of you know, British poet Simon Armitage has just published a new translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Many are hoping Armitage does for SGGK what Seamus Heaney did for Beowulf: Drive the poem back to the top of best seller lists for the first time in centuries. Indeed, the facing-page edition (Middle English on left sided pages, Modern English on the right, or if you prefer, ME verso, ModE recto) being published in America by WW Norton has a blurb in praise of Armitage's translation by Heaney, just in case anyone was missing the connection.

It is a beautiful translation, but how does it stack up to Marie Borroff's translation? I use Borroff's because it is probably the most taught translation, is also published by WW Norton, and is sold in a dirt-cheap paperback volume friendly to undergraduate budgets. In fact, it is so common that Amazon lists it new for $5.45, but is also selling more than a dozed used copies for $.01.

In the spirit of Christmas, I offer here a line-by-line comparision of Armitage and Borroff's translation of the Christmas celebration at Camelot. The Middle English is in black, Armitage in red, and Borroff in green.

[Christmas in Camelot]

Þis kyng lay at Camylot vpon Krystmasse
This king lay at Camelot at Christmastide;
It was Christmas at Camelot - King Arthur's court,

With mony luflych lorde, ledez of þe best,
Many good knights and gay his guests were there,
where the great and the good of the land had gathered,

Rekenly of þe Rounde Table alle þo rich breþer,
Arrayed of the Round Table rightful brothers,
all the righteous lords of the ranks of the Round Table

With rych reuel oryȝt and rechles merþes.
With feasting and fellowship and carefree mirth.
quite properly carousing and reveling in pleasure.

Þer tournayed tulkes by tymez ful mony,
There true men contended in tournaments many,
Time after time, in tournaments of joust,

Justed ful jolilé þise gentyle kniȝtes,
Joined there in jousting these gentle knights,
they had lunged at each other with leveled lances

Syþen kayred to þe court caroles to make.
Then came to the court for carol-dancing,
then returned to the castle to carry on their caroling,

For þer þe fest watz ilyche ful fiften dayes,
For the feast was in force full fifteen days,
for the feasting lasted a full fortnight and one day,

With alle þe mete and þe mirþe þat men couþe avyse;
With all the meat and the mirth that men could devise,
with more food and drink than a fellow could dream of.

Such glaum ande gle glorious to here,
Such gaiety and gless, glorious to hear,
The hubbub of their humor was heavenly to hear:

Dere dyn vpon day, daunsyng on nyȝtes,
Brave din by day, dancing by night.
pleasant dialogue by day and dancing after dusk,

Al watz hap vpon heȝe in hallez and chambrez
High were their hearts in halls and chambers,
so the house and its hall were lit with happiness

With lordez and ladies, as leuest him þoȝt.
These lords and these ladies, for life was sweet.
and lords and ladies were luminous with joy.

With all þe wele of þe worlde þay woned þer samen
In peerless pleasures passed they their days,
Such a coming together of the gracious and the glad:

Þe most kyd knyȝtez vnder Krystes seluen,
The most noble knights known under Christ,
the most chivalrous and courteous knights known to Christendom;

And þe louelokkest ladies þat euer lif haden,
And the loveliest ladies that lived on earth ever,
the most wonderful women to have walked in this world;

And he þe comlokest kyng þat þe court haldes;
And he the comeliest king, that that court holds,
the handsomest king to be crowned at court.

For al watz þis fayre folk in her first age,
For all this fair folk in their first age
Fine folk with their futures before them, there in

on sille,
were still.
that hall.

Þe hapnest vnder heuen,
Happiest of mortal kind,
Their highly honored king

Kyng hyȝest mon of wylle;
King noblest framed of will;
was happiest of all:

Hit were now gret nye to neuen
You would now go far to find
no nobler knights had come

So hardy a here on hille.
So hardy a host on a hill.
within a castle's wall.

Wyle Nw Ȝer watz so ȝep þat hit watz nwe cummen,
While the New Year was new, but yesternight come,
With New Year so young it still yawned and stretched

Þat day doubble on þe dece watz þe douth serued.
This fair folk at feast the two-fold was served,
helpings were doubled on the dais that day.

Fro þe kyng watz cummen with knyȝtes into þe halle,
When the king and his company were come in together,
And as king and company were coming to the hall

Þe chauntré of þe chapel cheued to an ende,
The chanting in chapel achieved and ended.
the choir in the chapel fell suddenly quiet,

Loude crye watz þer kest of clerkez and oþer,
Clerics and all teh court acclaimed the glad season,
then a chorus erupted from the courtiers and clerks:

Nowel nayted onewe, neuened ful ofte;
Cried Noel anew, good news to men;
"Noel," they cheered, then "Noel, Noel,"

And syþen riche forth runnen to reche hondeselle,
Then gallants gather gaily, hand-gifts to make,
"New Year Gifts!" the knights cried next

Ȝeȝed ȝeres-ȝiftes on hiȝ, ȝelde hem bi hond,
Called them out clearly, claimed them by hand,
as they pressed forwards to offer their presents,

Debated busyly aboute þo giftes;
Bickered long and busily about those gifts.
teasing with fivolous favors and forfeits,

Ladies laȝed ful loude, þoȝ þay lost haden,
Ladies laughed aloud, though losers they were,
till those ladies who lost couldn't help but laugh,

And he þat wan watz not wrothe, þat may ȝe wel trawe.
And he that won was not angered, as well you will know.
and the undefeated were far from forlorn.

Alle þis mirþe þay maden to þe mete tyme;
All this mirth they made until meat was served;
Their merrymaking rolled on in this manner until mealtime,

When þay had waschen worþyly þay wenten to sete,
When they had washed them worthily, they went to their seats,
when, washed and worthy, they went to the table,

Þe best burne ay abof, as hit best semed,
The best seated above, as best it is beseemed,
and were seated in order of honor as was apt,

Whene Guenore, ful gay, grayþed in þe myddes,
Guenevere the goodly queen gay in the midst
with Guinevere in their gathering, gloriously framed

Dressed on þe dere des, dubbed al aboute,
On a dais well-decked and duly arrayed
at her place on the platform, pricelessly curtained

Smal sendal bisides, a selure hir ouer
With costly silk curtains, a canopy over,
by silk to each side, and canopied across

Of tryed tolouse, and tars tapites innoghe,
Of Toulouse and Turkestan tapestries rich,
with French weave and fine tapestry from the far east

Þat were enbrawded and beten wyth þe best gemmes
All broidered and bordered with the best gems
studded with stones and stunning gems.

Þat myȝt be preued of prys wyth penyes to bye,
Ever brought into Britain, with bright pennies
Pearls beyond pocket. Pearls beyond purchace

in daye.
to pay.
or price.

Þe comlokest to discrye
Fair queen, without a flaw,
But not one stone outshone

Þer glent with yȝen gray,
She glanced with eyes of grey.
the quartz of the queen's eyes;

A semloker þat euer he syȝe
A seemlier that once he saw,
with hand on heart, no one

Soth moȝt no mon say.
In truth, no man could say.
could argue otherwise.

Bot Arthure wolde not ete til al were serued,
But Arthur would not eat till all were served;
But Arthur would not eat until all were served.

He watz so joly of his joyfnes, and sumquat childgered:
So light was his lordly heart, and a little boyish;
He brimmed with ebullience, being almost boyish

His lif liked hym lyȝt, he louied þe lasse
His life he liked lively - the less he cared
in his love of life, and what he liked the least

Auþer to longe lye or to longe sitte,
To be lying for long, or long to sit,
was to sit still watching the seasons slip by.

So bisied him his ȝonge blod and his brayn wylde.
So busy his young blood, his brain so wild.
His blood was busy and he buzzed with thoughts,

And also an oþer maner meued him eke
And also a point of pride pricked him in heart,
and the matter which played on his mind at that moment

Þat he þurȝ nobelay had nomen, he wolde neuer ete
For he nobly had willed, he would never eat
was his pledge to take no portion from his plate

Vpon such a dere day er hym deuised were
On so high a holiday, till he had heard first
on such a special day until a story was told:

Of sum auenturus þyng an vncouþe tale,
Of some fair feat or fray some far-borne tale,
some far-fetched yarn or outrageous fable,

Of sum mayn meruayle, þat he myȝt trawe,
Of some marvel of might, that he might trust,
the tallest of tales, yet one ringing with truth,

Of alderes, of armes, of oþer auenturus,
By champions of chivalry achieved in arms,
like the action-packed epics of men-at-arms.

Oþer sum segg hym bisoȝt of sum siker knyȝt
Or some suppliant came seeking some single knight
Or till some chancer had challenged his chosen knight,

To joyne wyth hym in iustyng, in jopardé to lay,
To join with him in jousting, in jeopardy each
dared him, with a lance, to lay life on the line,

Lede, lif for lyf, leue vchon oþer,
To lay life for life, and leave it to fortune
to stare death face-to-face and accept defeat

As fortune wolde fulsun hom, þe fayrer to haue.
To afford him on field fair hap or other.
should fortune or fate smile more favorably on his foe.

Þis watz þe kynges countenaunce where he in court were,
Such is the king's custom, when his court he holds
Within Camelot's castle this was the custom,

At vch farand fest among his fre meny
At each far-famed feast amid his fair host
and at feasts and festivals when the fellowship

in halle.
so dear.
would meet.

Þerfore of face so fere
The stout king stands in state
With features proud and fine

He stiȝtlez stif in stalle,
Till a wonder shall appear;
he stood there tall and straight,

Ful ȝep in þat Nw Ȝere
He leads, with heart elate,
a king at Christmastime

Much mirthe he mas withalle
High mirth in the New Year.
amid great merriment.

I'll probably have some comments to make later; right now I present it for Wordhoarders to read without being prejudiced by my reading.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

The Left Hand of Beowulf

It's an allegory for the Bush Administration! Well, sort of. Well, not really at all. I guess "'Beowulf': War Porn Wrapped in a Chippendale Dancer's Body" is the article you write if you work for Alternet. Note that it is found in the "Sex and Relationships" section of the website, not in the culture section. It's the kind of lazy writing you find when you combine three ingredients: A tight deadline, a writer with nothing particular to say, and an editorial board whose raison d'etre is to hate Bush. Take subject area, mix in equal parts recent pop culture phenomenon and Bushbashing, blend. h/t Gypsy Scholar.

By the way, following that link, I found this article (which was originally a blog post, I think) from Queer Universe, arguing that Beowulf is not homoerotic. I finished the article more convinced that it is than I was before, but maybe some of you will be persuaded.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Being Beowulf

In this article, Dean Barnett argues that Fred Thompson's problem is that he is like Beowulf. That's Beowulf the film, not Beowulf the character. Regardless of what you think of the politics, he's right on the money in discussing the problem with the animation of the film.

And in this new book, Beowulf for Business (which has been discussed in so many circles that I can't cite them all), we discover that to be Beowulf is a good thing ... or at least a profitable thing.

So, to recap: Politicians being Beowulf, bad. Businessmen being Beowulf, good.


About two weeks ago, I spoke with Dr. Scott Gwara of the University of South Carolina's English Department about an exhibit he is curating, called “Heroicons: Fantasy Illustrations of Beowulf and the Monsters” (I previously mentioned it in passing here). The exhibit will be on display through December at the Thomas Cooper Library.

According to Gwara, he hatched this idea about a year ago. He worried that after the release of the Zemeckis Beowulf film, it would be difficult to imagine the monsters in Beowulf without envisioning those images -- much as many people now see Bilbo Baggins as looking like this, not like this. Gwara wanted to capture time before the film, when the imagination of the individual artist was more important than a shared cultural image.

Gwara began collecting images from Beowulf, particularly images of Beowulf, Grendel, and Grendel's Mother. He currently has about 40 items on display at the library, his favorite of which are the Henry C. Pitz illustrations. Pitz's illustrations were included in the 1033 Stafford Riggs book The Story of Beowulf. The exhibit describes it:
Pitz’s stylized Art Deco illustrations of Beowulf are among the most famous ever produced. In this scene Beowulf kills a much smaller dragon than the fifty-foot specimen in the poem, but the scene is full of dramatic energy: the dragon’s wings folded within the frame and its leaping posture, the hero’s open stance, the thrust of the sword, and the suggestion of flame radiating from the dragon’s mouth.

His absolute favorites are ones that he couldn't get for the exhibit, mostly because they are either unavailable or too expensive. One is a palm-sized children's book called Brave Beowulf, that recently sold for about $180 on e-Bay. The others are in a book called Early Myths of the British Race by Rosemary Sutcliff (though he does have illustrations from other Sutcliff books in exhibit). If any Wordhoarders happen to have these images and would send them to me, I'd be happy to post them.

Gwara's own preference is for images that are more like illustrations, and less like artwork. After about the 1950s or '60s artists began to favor line drawings and woodcuts, which he considers the low point of Beowulf illustration. His own favorite illustrators are from the comic books, especially from DC Comics and Gareth Hinds.

Though it isn't Gwara's page, you can find an online collection of Beowulf art here.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Modern Medieval: Call for Contributors

Do you hate the Unlocked Wordhoard, and think you could do a better job? Do you find yourself constantly commenting on the medievalist blogs of others, but your own blog is either nonexistent or devoted to pictures of your cat? Would you like to start your own medievalist blog, but don't think you have enough to say to post semi-daily? Well, here's your chance!

Matthew Gabriele over at Modern Medieval has posted a call for contributors. As he describes the role:
[T]he interested party (or parties) would post irregularly to [Modern Medieval] on topics related to its main themes. Ideally, contributor(s) would be fellow professional medievalists, although that would include those in grad school or others who have advanced training but aren't currently academics.

Many of you regular Wordhoarders would be perfect for this. Give it a try, contribute a post or two, and see how it goes. The more of us chattering away in our community, the better.

When Ideas Hit

Have you ever wondered why some ideas hit, and some don't? When you're doing a steady stream of research, you get lots and lots of ideas. A few see print, slightly larger number are blogged, and a slightly larger number than that find their way into lectures as deadend asides -- but the vast majority die an ignominious death in the back of the mind.

Since the scholar's life is short and learning long, we can be very stingy with what ideas we invest our time on. Usually, I only develop an idea into print if it fulfills one of two criteria (and often both):
  1. I have to believe the idea will hit, and will influence other scholars.
  2. A friend or scholar I respect has asked me to develop the idea into an article.
Of course, there are still lots that fulfill these requirements but do not see print. For example, I've had an idea for a book on Anglo-Saxon charms in my head for about six years now that will likely never see print, because to research it adequately I would have to spend several months bumping around Europe looking at manuscripts (held libraries in five different countries, as I recall) ... research that my current employer cannot bear either in direct travel costs or in indirect costs of giving a junior faculty member 1-2 semesters off.

Of all the articles I have written, the one for which I've gotten the most requests for offprints is “The Several Compilers of Bald’s Leechbook".* I'm not surprised, since the article is published in the prestigious annual Anglo-Saxon England, since it is the most thorough study of the manuscript context of the charms, and since it is often highly technical stuff that most people would rather someone else did. Actually, I also have a companion piece on the Lacnunga manuscript (Harley 585) that I've still not published for a variety of reasons, even though I have strong reason to suspect that too would "hit."

Here's the surprise, though. The article for which I've received the second greatest number of requests is “Teaching Grendel as a Villain in a Post-Modern Age.”** Why does that surprise me? The history of that piece is unusual. Back in 2003, as a brand-new faculty member, I was asked to present a paper at a student symposium. Now, at this point in my career, I've done enough public speaking to general audiences that I could simply print out an old lecture and give it 10 minutes later, but at that time I had to write one up. Knowing that this would barely be one step above classroom lecture, I took an idea that had been in my mind for a while and wrote it up as a 20-minute presentation.

I thought that would be the end of it, but then a colleague asked me to submit it to Alabama English, a journal with a circulation that isn't exactly in the millions. Well, Alabama English needed good articles, and I hadn't planned to do anything more with this paper than let it rot on my hard drive, so I sent it in to them with only the slightest revisions, they published it, and I thought that would be the end of it.

I think I received my first request for an offprint of that article before it actually appeared in print, from someone who had seen it in the "Forthcoming" section of my CV. I sent it off with a long letter of apology: The piece was written to be presented orally, and for that reason had fewer than a half-dozen citations, and those weren't very scholarly. Then came another request. Then another, and another ... and now I think it is my second most-requested article.

If I had realized the idea was going to hit, I would have spent a lot more time researching it, and I probably would have given Alabama English a different article. No doubt one of the reasons "Teaching Grendel" is requested so often is that it's very difficult to lay hands on a copy of Alabama English outside of, well, Alabama. Still another reason is that it deals with pedagogical difficulties with a commonly-taught text ... though the requests are usually from college instructors, rather than high school teachers.

I suppose every scholar must have an article or two like that. Most of us probably have an article that we think is great, but no one seems to take notice. Hey! Look at this great article! Look at my wonderful turn of a phrase here! Look at how I've completely revolutionized our way of looking at this issue! Can't you all see how brilliant it is?!?!?! On the other hand, we've probably also each got an article that hits for no discernible reason. Huh? You like that article? Well, yeah, I mean, I took the time to write it, so obviously I think it's good, but it's hardly my best work.

So, here as a public service to all the scholars out there, I want to offer this chance for shameless self-promotion. In the comment thread below, feel free to post the title of that one medieval article of yours that no one seems to notice despite its painfully-obvious genius. If it's in print, give us the MLA citation for it. If it hasn't seen print, give us the title and a one-sentence description of the contents. Maybe we can light a lamp, sweep the house, and recover a lost pearl of great price.***

*“The Several Compilers of Bald’s Leechbook,” Anglo-Saxon England 33. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2005: 51-76.
** “Teaching Grendel as a Villain in a Post-Modern Age.” Alabama English 14 (2004): 6-17.
***Yes, I know I'm mixing two different parables, dangit.

WMAM: The Catoblepas

Weird Medieval Animal Monday continues with the Catoblepas and a discussion of crypto-grammar in Dungeons and Dragons.

Catoblepas? Catoblepi? Catoblepae? Catoblepases? Catoblepice? Catoblepren?

A Medieval Christmas

'Tis the season for Christmas-y medievalia, and News for Medievalists starts us off with two stories: A Guide to Cathedrals in the UK (with emphasis on Christmas events), and an announcement of a Victorian-style Christmas fair at Bury St. Edmunds.

One More Installment of BeoMania

You might wonder why I haven't been blogging regularly of late. It's because I'm sick of Beowulf, and have to work up the energy to post about it. Yesterday I kept my World Lit class in stitches by accidentally referring to Othello as Beowulf (and once MacBeth as Beowulf) over and over. I've got Beo on the brain.

Still, here are some reviews and review-esque links that you shouldn't miss:

Friday, November 23, 2007

Post-Thanksgiving Catch-Up

After having spent 36 hours cooking and another 12 hours eating, I'm a bit behind in my e-mails, including two that asked me to send information before Thanksgiving. Jeff Sypeck brought a bottle of mead to my house many months ago, and although we stayed up into the wee hours, we neglected to drink it. I'm delighted to say that my wife and I cracked it open yesterday and celebrated Thanksgiving Heorot-style. Thanks, Jeff!

Here are some things you might have missed in your turkey-induced coma:

Carnivalesque XXXIII at Blogenspiel

The Ancient/Medieval Carnivalesque XXXIII is up at Blogenspiel, filled with all sorts of linky goodness.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Big Beowulf Bash

I'd mentioned the Big Beowulf Bash several times here, but I've neglected to report on how it went, mostly because I've been so busy.

For those who missed it, on Saturday the MediEvolution Project (i.e., me and my popular medieval outreach) and Sigma Tau Delta (the English honor society) hosted the Big Beowulf Bash. We started with a public discussion of Beowulf, including the history of the poem, the manuscript, and popular adaptations, which is a nice way of saying I gave a lecture. That was followed by a Beowulf Quiz Bowl competition between two teams from the Charles Henderson High School AP English class, in which the girls dominated and trounced the boys' team. Next, we had a dramatic reading competition -- here, one of the CHHS boys redeemed their honor by leaping up on the table and thrusting a wooden sword in the air during his reading -- Đæt wæs god scop! Finally, we had a trivia contest for the whole audience, and then a 12-and-under trivia contest.

My Honor Guard

The event was a roaring success. We had seating for 50, and 70 showed up, so we had to get extra chairs. Everyone really got into the readings, and even the lecture was well-received. Someone even commented that it was a fun way to spend a Saturday night. Let me reinterate -- a university student commented that going to a lecture, poetry reading, and trivia event was a fun way to spend a Saturday night!
Ryan Jones, who swept the kids' trivia contest
The only disappointment was that I asked my daughter to take pictures, then forgot and left my camera in my pocket, so I have no images from the event itself, only from afterwards. I would like to thank the following:

Our sponsors...
Also, our unofficial sponsors, who kindly provided millions of dollars in television commercials and product tie-ins to publicize my event, and who even went to far as to produce a feature-length film in anticipation of the Big Beowulf Bash...
  • Robert Zemeckis
  • Neil Gaiman
  • Roger Avary
And others who helped ...
  • Professor Jim Davis, who helped write questions and judge the event
  • Ashley Davis (no relation), who organized the CHHS students
  • Kristina Vise, who twisted arms at Sigma Tau Delta and ran my PowerPoint
  • Amber Richards, who selected the excerpts for the dramatic readings
  • Various Sigma Tau Deltans, who hauled chairs, moved tables, judged events, and just generally helped wherever needed
  • Daniel Weeks, who kept score during the competition
  • Roxanna Nokes, who made the silver coins for the dragon's hoard to give away prizes
  • Orion Nokes, who highlighted and stapled papers, and didn't whine too much about taking a Saturday afternoon to go to school
... and other people I'm sure I'm forgetting. It was a great event!

Beowulf groupies

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

I'm No Scholar

That statement will come as no surprise to some of you; indeed, some will see it as the belated acknowledgement of the painfully obvious. I had thought of myself as a scholar, but apparently I was wrong. This review of the Zemeckis Beowulf film in Christianity Today reads:
Scholars agree that when Beowulf was originally written, it was a distinctly pagan document later embroidered with Christian symbolism by the monks responsible for its duplication.

They do? Apparently I wasn't invited to the big meeting at Kalamazoo where all the scholars agreed on that. Heck, I wasn't even invited to the meeting when we agreed on the century in which it was originally written.

The only possible conclusion: I'm no scholar. I hang my head in shame.

Seriously, though, let's turn this thread into a collection of the biggest groaners about Beowulf you've seen in the press. Feel free to add wrong-headed quotes from other reviews.

Beowulf on Geekerati

For those masochists out there who can't get enough of me, you can hear me pontificate at length on the Geekerati episode, "Beowulf: From Campus to Comics to Cinema."

I'll probably be appearing on Geekerati again next month to talk about Tolkien. More details on that later.

SCAD Professor and Me

For those who aren't sick of me yet, I'm quoted quite a bit in the Savannah Morning News article, "SCAD Professor Helps Re-Interpret Beowulf." No, I'm not the SCAD professor -- I'm the other guy. I should also note that my comments in the article come before I had seen the film, though I had seen various adaptations of the script in comic book form and whatnot.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Beowulf, a Half-Century Later

What would make a good topic for a comparison paper, my students ask? Why, comparing Time magazine's coverage of Beowulf from 1952 to 2000. A great post by Jeff Sypeck, lost in the noise of the new Beowulf movie.

Beowulf Review Round-Up, Part II: Wiglaf's Revenge

We've have enough new reviews of Beowulf that I decided to create a new post, rather than updating the old.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Beowulf Review Round-Up

Yes, of course, Rotten Tomatoes already acts as a round-up of popular reviews, but I'm talking reviews of actual medievalists -- you know, non-stupid reviews.

*In this article, Gaiman "said it's probably a good thing he and Avary opted against subtitles for Grendel, who speaks barely comprehensible Old English, because 'This way we give them [scholars] one thing that they can be happy about because if you really want to understand everything in that film you are going to have to take an Anglo-Saxon scholar along to translate for you.'" Um, I for one could barely understand them (particularly Grendel's whispering), and I happen to be an Anglo-Saxon scholar. I was kind of wishing for subtitles.

Beowulf Movie Review

Friday night I saw the Zemeckis Beowulf (in 2D) and, while it wasn't terrible, neither was it very good. All Beowulf films can be divided into two categories: the bad, and the mediocre. We still await the version that breaks beyond the mediocre. Once the breathless hype is over, this film will be remembered as one of the mediocre group.



Let's start with spectacle. When looking at all the reviews before the movie, a number of them said something along the lines of "brainless movie with great special effects." While I must confess I did not see it in 3D, I cannot agree with that assessment. The film is not entirely brainless, but the special effects do not work to the net good of the film.

I'm not a fan of 3D movies, mostly because I don't like the ways in which the shots are put together. In order to have scenes in which things appear to fly off the screen, the films require lots of shots with stark perspective, which just gets annoying after a while. The gimmick, to my eye, spoils the look of the movie -- doubly so when you see it in 2D as I did, or as DVD viewers will.

On the other hand, I am a big fan of motion-capture CGI. I like the way that the actors can still practice their craft. Used properly, motion-capture is a painterly way to make a film, essentially using computers to paint the costumes on the actors. Indeed, very complex latex and foam traditional costuming can be more restrictive on the actor than CGI.

That being said, for all his excitement about these technologies, Zemeckis has once again shown that they master him, rather than the reverse. Most of this film could have -- and should have -- been live action. Watching this film is a little like watching your friend play World of Warcraft ... unless you are playing yourself, it just looks stiff and boring. The worst was Wealtheow, who appeared to have a face carved out of wood.

The only two characters for whom this technology worked were Grendel's Mother and the dragon. In the case of Grendel's Mother, it works best when she's in her cave. When she's in the sunlight, she's even more flat-looking than Wealtheow. The animation allows Angelina Jolie to appear as close to nudity as one could possibly get without actually being nude. It also allows her look to be, shall we say, "enhanced." Probably the best visual choice made in the entire film is the look of her braid. At first she appears to have a long, serpentine, prehensile tail, but it turns out to be a long, serpentine, prehensile braid, recalling the braid of Jolie's most famous character, Lara Croft. A lot of time on the Tomb Raider video game is spent staring at Lara Croft's braid and butt ... ditto here.

With the dragon, the CGI allows for a near photo-realistic look (unlike the sea monsters and Grendel, who look cartoonish). Fortunately, the dragon comes at the climactic ending of film, so viewers will be rewarded for waiting around. As for the look of the dragon, I rather liked its wyvern-like connection of wings with "arms," as well as its tail that spreads out into a tailfin for the underwater scenes.

Zemeckis has to learn to use CGI when it is appropriate, rather than at every opportunity. Polar Express just looked creepy, and this one just looks like a video game. Also, if you want to get Sean Bean to play Beowulf, you should cast Sean Bean in the role, rather than having Ray Winstone play it and then pasting Sean Bean's image on top of him.


I just want to get this section out of the way. The dialogue is absolutely terrible. Audience members were laughing at it ... and not just the parts that were supposed to be funny. By the second half, people in my section were groaning every time the line "I am Beowulf" was repeated. I heard someone say, "that was the worst movie I've ever seen in my life," after which time he mockingly repeated the "I am Beowulf" line. Now, while it's not the worst movie ever (nor even a particularly bad movie), that line did become unbearably tedious.


Yes, I know dialogue is connected to the plot, but there is such a disparity that I thought they should be separated. The film has a weird kind of unity of place, which I think works as a corrective to the disunity of time in the story. One of the problems of adapting Beowulf is that big 50-year jump in time. Here, the writers keep that jump in time, but they shrink the world of Beowulf down into about 5 square miles. Except for Beowulf's journey there by sea, a flashback to his swimming race with Brecca, and a single scene of battle with the Frisians, the entire film takes place close enough to see (and hear) Heorot Hall. It cuts back on the potential for epic sweep in the film, but it keeps that 50-year gap from seeming like a disjuncture. Instead, it allows for the plotline to be cyclical, connecting Beowulf back with Hrothgar, the king/father he replaced.

The theme of the plot seems to be the unreliability of storytelling. Every time someone tells a story there's something life out ... a lie of omission, a carefully-crafted parsing of words, or an exaggeration. By the end of the film, we expect stories to be unreliable. When the scop (annoyingly mis-pronounced /skop/) finally tells the tale of Beowulf, the only geniune inclusion of the language of the poem in the film, we are left to understand that his version is wrong. After Beowulf has an encounter with a Frisian who wants to kill him, Beowulf broods a bit, humiliates the Frisian, then sends him on his way, saying that the man now has a story to tell -- the understanding is that the man will lie and exaggerate.

When I read the comic book adaptation of the screenplay, I thought it worked, but I didn't like it -- mostly because I didn't like the snotty way in which it called the poem into question, while leaving its own telling above suspicion. I'm happy that the original screenplay clarifies a few points (or perhaps mystifies them) to make it much more palatable. The best example is the account of Beowulf's fight with the sea monsters. Beowulf lies, and tells them that the reason he lost was that he had to fight all those monsters -- but the movie shows us in a flashback that Beowulf might still have won, except that he stopped to have sex with a mermaid (one that has a very similar tail to the dragon at the end, incidentally). When Unferth scoffingly asks if it was 20 sea monsters, Beowulf says that it was nine. At that point, Wiglaf mutters that the last time he told the story, it was only three. What is interesting here isn't just that we learn that Beowulf likes to embellish his stories, but also that in the flashback it was more than three. Did he fight three sea monsters? Nine? Did he even fight any, or did he just stop to sleep with the mermaid? Or is the entire story a lie? We can't be certain. In other words, the supposely-reliable flashback itself is called into question. It's not Rashomon, but it's a clever postmodern undermining of its own tale.

The plot does has some weaknesses. For example, we understand that Grendel is angry because his hearing is hypersensitive, and the parties at Heorot hurt his ears. Now, I don't like the explanation that Grendel is only mad because the Danes are loud neighbors, but it has some mythic resonance, as when the gods get mad at all the noise humanity it making in Gilgamesh and the Popol Vuh. Let's accept that change, though -- Grendel does a LOT of screaming for someone with hyper-sensitive hearing. He was giving me a headache, and my hearing is in the normal human range. If I had his hearing, I wouldn't go into the noisy area and start shrieking. Then, when his eardrum is punctured, he shrinks -- first down to normal human size, then eventually to fetal size (though, interestingly, when his arm is hanging on the wall later, it is huge, even though he lost it after he shrunk). So ... his size is in his ear? Huh?

Also, when Hrothgar commits suicide, I didn't buy it. Why then? He certainly had the motivation to kill himself earlier, but now that the curse had been lifted from him, and he knew it had passed on to Beowulf, he was relieved of his shame. It struck me as just a plot device to get him out of the picture, not a natural development of his character.

The thing that worked best in the movie is Beowulf's self-mutilation to kill the dragon. It combined the cyclicality of the plot with the association of Beowulf himself with a kind of monstrousness. I've been annoyed by recent Beowulf adaptations that don't allow Beowulf to kill Grendel by cutting off his arm -- such as Beowulf & Grendel, in which Grendel's mortal wound is an act of self-mutilation, and Grendel, in which Grendel is blown up by explosive crossbow bolts. Here, not only does Beowulf remove Grendel's arm, but he takes his own as well. A nice touch, and one that moved the film from "bad, not terrible, but bad" into "mediocre" for me.

Other tiny points:
  • If the dragon is attacking the bridge you are standing on, get off it.
  • How could a heart that size pump blood through the huge dragon body?
  • The Christian/pagan thing never quite got worked out well. I was under the impression that the film was trying to be anti-Christian, but it never really came to thematic fruition.
  • So, Cain was the slave who stole the cup, and a symbol of those abused by Christians. So the dragon attacked because, what, Christians are evil, and Cain is good?
  • Beowulf's son was the Silver Surfer, just gold-colored?
  • The shot of the dragons on the kings crown was a nice transition in time.
  • Heorot Hall really needed guard rails.
  • People spent a lot of time pointlessly nude or in briefs for a film set in a northern climate. No wonder they didn't do live action -- the actors would have died of pnuemonia.
  • There's a LOT of Freud here. A lot. If you don't like Oedipal / Electra themes, this isn't the movie for you.

So, the upshot -- I'm still waiting for the Great Beowulf Film.

My Review is Coming, Dangit!

To the many, many people who have asked where my Beowulf review is, here is my recent schedule:
  • Friday, 6:30 -- Arrive at theater
  • Friday, 7:00 -- Watch film
  • Friday, 9:00 -- Arrive at office to prepare for Big Beowulf Bash
  • Friday, Midnight -- Arrive home, go to bed
  • Saturday, 7:00 -- Wake up, have wife say I look exhausted, go back to bed.
  • Saturday, 9:30 -- Get up, do various morning activities
  • Saturday, 11:00 -- Begin writing Beowulf review
  • Saturday, 11:00 through noon -- Have various people call me to ask what I think of Beowulf
  • Saturday, noon -- Feed the children lunch.
  • Saturday, 12:30 -- Begin working on review again
  • Saturday, 12:30 through 3:00 -- have various people call me to ask what I think of Beowulf
  • Saturday, 3:00 -- Go to set up Big Beowulf Bash
  • Saturday, 4:00 -- Big Beowulf Bash
  • Saturday, 6:00 -- Go out for dinner with some faculty who came to BBB
  • Saturday, 8:30 -- Return home, discover that daughter is ill
  • Saturday, 8:30 -- Sit and watch two Greatest American Hero episodes with sick daughter
  • Saturday, 10:30 -- Exhausted, go to bed
  • Sunday, A Few Minutes Ago -- Check e-mail to find that everyone is wondering where my Beowulf review is.
I'm working on it! I'm working on it! It might not be ready until after church, but it's coming!

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Geekfight: Beowulf vs. Conan

Looking for something else, I found this old thread over at the Robert E. Howard (creator of Conan) forums: A debate over who would win in a fight, Beowulf or Conan.

Personally, I'd prefer a debate over who'd win a three-way swimming contest: Beowulf, Conan, or Brecca. My money's on Brecca.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Beowulf Movie Getting Positive Reviews

... well, sort of. Rotten Tomatoes finally has a round-up of reviews of the new Beowulf movie, and it comes out "Fresh" with a rating of 67% at the moment. Unfortunately, there are only six reviews in, and anyone with a basic understanding of statistics will know how much a small sample size can skew the data. Still, it beats the Christopher Lambert Beowulf, which boasted a perfect 0% positive reviews.

Rood and Ruthwell

I completely forgot to post it when I got the e-mail a week or so ago, but fortunately Larry Swain reminded me.

Alexander M. Bruce has posted "Rood and Ruthwell: The Poem and the Cross," a basic introduction to the Ruthwell Cross and the "Dream of the Rood." For those who don't know, "Rood" means "Cross." The famous poem "The Dream of the Rood" is an Anglo-Saxon poem about the crucifixion of Christ told from the perspective of the Cross itself (or the "Rood"). Lines from this famous poem can be found on the Ruthwell Cross.

"The Dream of the Rood" is hauntingly beautiful. I have a (non-medievalist) colleague who wept the first time he read it. You can find Bruce's translation (only 156 lines, so a short read) here.

Ye Olde Times and Chaucer the Scab

In Hollywood news, Geoffrey Chaucer has returned to his blog and has apparently crossed the picket lines of the Hollywood writers' strike.

Also, next year the comedy Ye Olde Times is slated for release, about rival medieval shows at a Renaissance Faire.

Steven Muhlberger: Noble Warrior and Good Soldier

Sometimes it is a thing I don't have a private plane, or I might be tempted to cancel class tomorrow and fly up to Nipissing U to see this:
Steven Muhlberger, Department of History will speak on "Noble Warriors or Good Soldiers: Conflicting Views of the Role of the 14th-century Man-at-arms."
Date: Wednesday, November 14
Time: 1:00 – 2:00pm
Room: A222

If you're in that area of Ontario, head on out there and report back to the Wordhoard.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Beowulf News

You might be surprised to find out that before it was a big-budget Hollywood movie, novelization, comic book, and series of action figures, Beowulf was an actual medieval poem. I'm not making this up; it really was!

Here are some other things about Beowulf floating around the Beo-sphere:
  • News for Medievalists has two movie-inspired articles, one from The Indepedent, and one from the Malay Mail.
  • University of South Carolina will host an exhibit of Beowulf paraphenalia, including books, manuscripts, comic books, and games. If any Wordhoarders get a chance to see this, write in about it.
  • Jeffery Hodges has a report from MEMESAK that includes an excerpt from Sung-Il Lee's translation of Beowulf. HJH agrees with my assessment that Lee's translation is more beautiful than Heaney's. I've seen it in various drafts, and have heard Dr. Lee read from it several times, and I think that the final product may end up being the most beautiful translation of Beowulf into Modern English. All that remains to be seen is the apparatus of the final version once it is published.

Medieval Bees

Today's Weird Medieval Animal is the bee. Interestingly, Jennifer Lynn Jordan assumes that the bees are "freakishly large" in the image she includes, but isn't it just as likely that the beekeeper is freakishly small? Those letters in the manuscript are as big as his head!

Bees were pretty important to the Anglo-Saxons and other northern Europeans (and I assume they were valued further south, but I'm no expert as we get closer to the Mediterranean). I've given a lot of thought to why this might be, and I think the main reason might be that it was one of the few sources of sugar in Europe before the discovery of the New World. No sugar cane, no chocolate, no vanilla ... heck, not even any tobacco! It seems that the only material pleasures left would be sex, wine, salted pork, and honey. Combine the three, and you've got Heorot Hall on a weekend.
For those interested, here's a beekeeper's charm, along with a few others.

The Big Beowulf (Aloud) Bash

Michael Drout, over at Wormtalk and Slugspeak, is selling his 3-CD set of Beowulf Aloud for $25. Or, you could get one for free, since he generously donated a copy for the Big Beowulf Bash this Saturday. Show up as a master of Beo-trivia, and get a set of CDs.

I'm going to produce the sequel, "Beowulf Quietly." It'll be the same thing, just in sotto voce.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Lambert's Beowulf

I'm growing so weary of writing about the Zemeckis Beowulf movie coming out in a week that I offer this brief interlude: a delightful tongue-in-cheek review of the older adaptation of Beowulf starring Christopher Lambert as everyone's favorite Geat.

By the way, Rotten Tomatoes still doesn't have any reviews of the film up, and it opens in a week (though it does have a couple of breathless reviews of the trailers). Generally, that's a bad sign, suggesting that the studio would prefer to keep critics away from the film for as long as possible. Still, I hold out hope. A fool's hope, perhaps, but hope nonetheless.


This weekend is the Medieval and Early Modern English Studies Association of Korea (MEMESAK) Conference, and I'm missing it. I used to go almost every year as a grad student, but the travel money flows less freely now.

Most medieval scholars have never even heard of MEMESAK, and that's a pity. Korea has some really fine scholars, and the annual MEMESAK conference is rapidly become the center of medieval studies in Asia. I've made an effort to support scholarly exchange between Asian and Western medievalists, mostly through attending that conference, publishing in their journal, and specially inviting them to submit papers for things I have edited. So, medieval scholars, take a look at the work the Asian medievalists are doing ... there's a lot of good stuff there.

Here's an image from last year's Conference. I'm the incredibly sexy bald gentleman on the left with his back to you. It's no wonder someone posted a picture of me from behind!

Beowulf Movie Comic Book

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Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Big Beowulf Bash

Here's the press release for my Big Beowulf Bash:
Troy University English Department’s MediEvolution Project and Sigma Tau Delta are proud to announce the “Big Beowulf Bash,” coming to HAL Hall of Honor on Saturday, November 17th at 4PM. The event will include a public discussion of Beowulf in literature, movies, television, and comic books. It will also include other fun events such as a trivia contest and prizes. The event is suitable for all ages and is open to the public.

Basically, the event will open with a public discussion (all PowerPointy and non-boring) by me about the history of Beowulf adaptations in popular culture. After that, we'll have a college-bowl style competition between two local schools (if I can nail down firm commitments from them), followed by some fun contests -- probably a dramatic reading contest and a trivia contest. So far, we've had prizes donated by WW Norton and Alexis Fajardo of Kid Beowulf, and I'm hoping to get a little something from another company as well. If anyone out there has Beowulf-themed merchandise they are trying to promote, send me your free stuff before the event and I'll give you a plug when we're giving out your prizes.

Yes, Neil Gaiman, you're invited. We don't have funding for airfare, but you're welcome to crash in my guest room.

Weasels and their Love Lives

Got a basilisk infestation? No worries -- just get yourself a weasel!

Back, and as Charming as Ever

I've be out of town for the last day-and-a-half, but I'm back now, just in time to see that Highly Eccentric has been doing work on Anglo-Saxon charms -- a subject I just happen to know a little bit about, having written a dissertation on the subject.

I would have liked to refer her to the book Curing Elf-shot and Other Mysterious Maladies: New Scholarship on Old English Charms, edited by K.A. Laity and yours truly, except that a certain publisher (who will go unnamed) is holding on to the dang thing, so it's not yet in print. Dangnabit.

FYI, oh Unnamed Publisher -- I took another book from conception to print (well, it will soon be in print, anyway) in the time since we completed rough editing this first book.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Guest Review: Kid Beowulf

Since Kid Beowulf is aimed at the whole family, I thought I would invite my daughter to read the comic book and write a review. What follows is the guest review written by Roxanna Nokes, 7th grade. -- RSN

I suggest reading Kid Beowulf because it relates to the mischief kids get into (especially middle and high schoolers), like spying and getting girls. My favorite character was Hrothgar because he really related to the kids nowadays too. My favorite part was the ending, when Hrothgar has the baby but he doesn’t know why it turned out so ugly.

I think that some parts were a little confusing. For example, when he was saying “Hel” I thought it was a misspelled swear word because it was sometimes used in a way a swear word was used. Also in the middle of the comic when it jumps ahead 3 years it was a little confusing because I didn’t know how the time went by so fast, but the blood oath was easy to understand.

I think Kid Beowulf is good for middle schoolers. Like I said before, we can relate to the mischief Hrothgar gets into. It isn’t too violent, and the language isn’t too hard. Though I’ve never read Beowulf, I’m planning to read it now.

More on Kid Beowulf

I had a chance to talk to Kid Beowulf creator Alexis Fajardo the other day, and his publicist sent me the first third of the first issue in the series, "Kid Beowulf and the Blood-Bound Oath" -- that is, the first 50 pages or so.

Kid Beowulf is a much more ambitious and literary project than it might appear to be at first glance. The name and concept ("What was Beowulf like as a kid?") could very well have been a Muppet Babies or Flintstone Kids approach. Instead, Fajardo is using a low-brow medium to play with high-brow literary ideas (averaging out into a medium-brow, I suppose). The treatment opens with a quote from Heraclitus -- "Character is destiny" -- that acts as a theme in the part I read, though it is never explicitly quoted in the text.

According to Fajardo, though he only has three books slated with his current publisher, he envisions a story arc 12 books long. The series begins before the action of the poem, starting with Hrothgar as a teen / young man in "Blood-Bound Oath." The three sections of the first issue (which will run at approx. 170 pages) essentially give the origins of Beowulf and Grendel. Not only are Beowulf and Grendel kids in this series, they are also twin brothers who are the grandchildren of Hrothgar. "Blood-Bound Oath" tells us how it could have happened that Hrothgar is the father of Grendel's Mother, and how it could be that Beowulf and Grendel are brothers. Add to the mix that the dragon is also the father of Grendel's Mother (don't worry, this makes sense in the story), and the Beowulf tale becomes as much a family drama as a story about heroism.

After this first book, future books will essentially be a road story about Beowulf and Grendel traveling around, meeting various characters from epic poetry, and growing up in the process. "Kid Beowulf and the Song of Roland" is slated for 2009, in which Beowulf goes to France to learn to fence and get involved in other adventures. Some of the other characters/epics that Fajardo plans to have Kid Beowulf encounter through the series include El Cid, Romulus & Remus, Gilgamesh, the Nibelungenlied, Troy, the Labyrinth, and the Green Knight.

Both Fajardo and Allison Collins (his publicist) expressed the hope that the material would have an eductational purpose as well -- to entice readers to want to read the original source material, both Beowulf and whatever text he's encountering that issue. It is written, then, to be accessible to audiences of all ages regardless of whether they have read Beowulf or not. Fajardo and Collins both mentioned concerns about age-appropriate violence, but I don't think that's a problem. I was fine in letting my eight-year-old son read it, though he struggled a great deal with the names (like "Hrothgar"), which were difficult to pronounce. My concern was more with the language -- though it is mostly kid friendly, there's a "damned" in the part I read, and kids won't get the pun in Fajardo's use of Hel in phrases such as "What the Hel?" For those reasons, I would say that Kid Beowulf is probably more appropriate for middle school age than elementary school.

All-in-all, I found the preview I received very promising. Unlike the sucktastic DC Comics Beowulf of the 1970s, the mash-up elements of Kid Beowulf are carefully considered, and promise to be more than cameo appearances, dealing with the broader themes of the featured work of literature. As for whether or not it will entice kids to want to read the source material, I hope to have a guest reviewer address that issue later.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Beowulf, Footwear, and Footnotes

LLCoolCarl has some (a)musings on the new Beowulf film that are not to be missed.* Once can measure the quality of a post over at Got Medieval by the number of footnotes; in this case, LLCoolCarl has six, making it one of the greatest posts in the history of the galaxy.**

*Note for my comp students: See? I used negative and passive voice together, quite intentionally. If you know what you're doing, it can work. If you don't, it just stinks.
**Now he's got me doing it ... that's two gratuitous footnotes in a post that doesn't require any.

Virgin Territory

Jennifer Lynn Jordan has hit the Early Warning System big red button about another medieval film being released this winter (December), Virgin Territory, which appears to be a Decameron adaptation.

I've mused more than once to my students that I'm surprised there aren't more films based from Decameron tales, since, unlike Beowulf, if you were to claim that the sex is in the original text, you'd actually be telling the truth! If the trailer is any indication, though, it won't be a very faithful adaptation. It looks like they're just going to sex up the frame text -- but I can always hope for brief interludes of some favorite tales.

In any case, I've saved it for my Netflix cue.

Unlocked Wordhoard aligns with National Standards in English

So. I too received the Beowulf movie poster Dr. Virago talks about in this post, but unlike her, I was so naive about it that I thought the materials on the back were just an advertisement for the "Study Guide." I called the telephone number to request the actual study guide, only to realize that it was the group sales number. As I searched for the actual number or e-mail to order the study guide, I realized that the glossly ads for the film on the back of the poster were the study guide. Oh.

After realizing how stupid I had been, I was horrified to realize what the claim "This program aligns with National Standards in English for grades 9-12" implied. It means that we have some sort of national standards that are met by these materials. Let's just see how high our national standards must be if this material meets them. We'll examine "Activity Three."

Activity Three is called "Monsters: A Case Study." The students are supposed to pick a non-Beowulfian monster and compare it to Grendel by examining these attributes: name origin, home, appearance, special powers, weaknesses, motivation, friends/family, why feared, and fate. Let's put aside for the moment the assumption that listing these attributes of a monster will somehow help students learn something, let's examine the validity of the claims made by these materials.
  • Name: Grendel. OK, so far so good.
  • Origin: son of King Hrothgar and a succubus, a woman mostly human in appearance but with demonic characteristics. Um, that's entirely in the film, not in the poem ... or as the study guide calls it, "this modern portrayal of an ancient monster." So, studying the film monster to the exclusion of the poem monster meets national standards?
  • Home: a dark cave littered with bleached bones and rotting carcasses with a black pool teeming with moray eels. OK, a little embellished, but I'll buy that.
  • Appearance: large, hairless, misshapen body covered with scars, scabs, and open sores; eyes flecked with gold; exposed eardrum membranes; retractable claws; nearly impenetrable skin. Is this supposed to be a description of Grendel, or Wolverine with mange?
  • Special Powers: extraordinary strength, speed, and agility; ability to vault himself across great distances. Or maybe instead of Wolverine, he's supposed to be the Incredible Hulk?
  • Weaknesses: loud noises, especially the sounds of celebration coming from Hrothgar's palace, cause him excruciating pain and drive him into a fury; not intelligent; emotionally sensitive. See, it wasn't that Grendel bore God's wrath, and attacked because the Scop sang of creation, it's that the Danes were inconsiderate neighbors -- and you know how emotionally sensitive poor Grendel is.
  • Motivation: Wants to stop the noise of Hrothgar's celebration; enjoys tormenting his victims. Enjoys tormenting his victims? What happened to the Alan Alda Mr. Sensitive Grendel?
  • Friends/Family: loving mother, "pet" moray eels. Well, they sure got the first part right.
  • Why Feared: dismembers and devours heroes in their sleep. Huzzah! A statement I can support without hesitation!
  • Fate: looses [sic] his arm in a clash with Beowulf and runs back to his cave to die. Also correct!
If these are our national standards, I'm thinking of moving to another nation. Perhaps one on another planet.

Can't get enough of these activities? You can download all the materials (in PDF) for yourself here!