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1173Re: New Beowulf

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  • David S. Bratman
    Mar 3, 2000
      On Tue, 29 Feb 2000, Ted Sherman wrote:

      > Why wouldn't a retelling of a Bible story
      > count? Genesis B contains material based on Genesis, but it also
      > contains material that John Milton likely used in Paradise Lost. It's as
      > literary as one can get. Refashioning earlier texts was common
      > throughout the Anglo-Saxon period--and later.

      I expect because it's not fully naturalized, as Tolkien said of the
      Arthurian material. Whether it's a re-telling doesn't count. You'd have
      to ask Tolkien, really; he, not I, was the one who originally said there
      was no real Anglo-Saxon mythology, and surely these major OE texts didn't
      just slip his mind.

      > > He felt there was a pure Anglo-Saxon strain which
      > > he wished to isolate. As Americans, with our melting pot, we're used to
      > > things being naturalized as soon as they step off the boat. Many
      > > Europeans view things differently (one reason for the xenophobic politics
      > > that look so strange to us). "How many years does it take to make a
      > > steward a king, if the king return not?" "Few years, maybe, in other
      > > lands. In Gondor ten thousand years would not suffice."
      > >
      > Frankly, I don't see the point of the latter quotations. JRRT might have
      > wished to isolate a "pure Anglo-Saxon strain" but he needn't have tried.
      > There wasn't one. Just when the "English" did begin to develop into
      > their own people and own country, they would be disturbed from Outside.
      > Those disturbances came from the Vikings, the Normans, and later the
      > Flemish, Italians, Dutch, etc., from the late Middle Ages on. King
      > Alfred was probably the closest one could come to a "pure Anglo-Saxon"
      > but his entire life--almost--was spent confronting the Danes.

      The point of the quotation is that, by analogy, mere residence in a
      country doesn't make one part of an ethnic group. What you say shows
      that there was no time when the Anglo-Saxons had Britain quietly all to
      themselves. This is reflected in LOTR when Frodo bristles at the notion
      of the Nazgul wandering around in his own Shire. "But it is not your own
      Shire," says Gildor. "Others dwelt here before hobbits were; and others
      will dwell here again when hobbits are no more. The wide world is all
      about you: you can fence yourselves in, but you cannot for ever fence it
      out."

      So you can't write about hobbits without including their relationship
      with other peoples, and indeed Tolkien doesn't. But that doesn't make
      hobbits any less of an individual, separable people with their own
      traditions and their own customs. And the same is true of the
      Anglo-Saxons. However much time they spent interacting with French and
      Germans, and however many Celts and Vikings were also occupying Britain,
      the Anglo-Saxons were their own people with their own ethnic identity (as
      we'd say today), and the heart of England, the land Tolkien loved, was
      their own country, even though it hadn't always been, and even though
      others might also claim it as their own. (It's not incompatible.)

      > > A fairly clear break, I think, as far as creative literature is concerned,
      > > there being a long gap without much except the Ancrene Wisse, which I
      > > believe is clearly ME, though certainly early ME. As for the Latin
      > > stuff, precisely because it's in Latin it's not OE literature in the
      > > language sense, except insofar as the translations are literature.
      > > (Which they are: after all, King Alfred translated Boethius, who wasn't
      > > English by nationality let alone language, and that's considered a
      > > masterpiece of OE literature.)
      > >
      > No, not really. There is much early creative material, it's just not
      > very popular today, nor is it studied or read much because of its
      > didactic and hagiographic elements. There are early ballads and lyrics,
      > and a few of the romances (Havelock the Dane comes to mind) are rather
      > early. Alfred's Boethius is considered a masterpiece of OE literature
      > precisely because Alfred rendered it into English. Just as Bede's
      > History is a masterpiece. There are also the riddles, chronicles,
      > saints' lives and numerous other works that were translated into OE that
      > are masterpieces of OE prose and/or poetry.

      But they're not major works of the _native OE creative imagination_ the
      way that Beowulf is (even if what we have is a retelling). That's the
      difference. I wouldn't allow my love for the Silmarillion, or the
      History of Middle-earth, or Farmer Giles of Ham, to blind me to the fact
      that LOTR is Tolkien's single outstanding masterpiece; nor does this
      other stuff take away from Beowulf's unique status.

      > BTW, when I mentioned the break between OE and ME, I was referring more
      > to the language. Parts of the island probably retained OE well into the
      > late 12th century, if not the early 13th. The earliest datable document
      > in ME is the entry for the year 1135 in the Peterborough Chronicle of
      > the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

      No language break is is perfectly sharp, either chronologically or
      geographically, but those between OE and ME, and ME and Modern English,
      are sharper than most. In any case the OE/ME evolution was long over
      before the 14th century which was the time of all the major ME literary
      masterpieces. (Yes, I know there was plenty of other literature. I'm
      talking about outstanding masterpieces.)

      > But copies were being made in the ME period; just look at one of the
      > volumes in the Index of Middle English Verse to see how many works were
      > copied. There are numerous copies of Monmouth's History, and they were
      > all copied in the ME period. There are redactions and redactions of
      > numerous works, making the lives of us textual editors interesting.
      > Again, while numerous manuscripts and tales/poetry undoubtedly were
      > destroyed during the centuries, it is quite amazing, really, that we
      > have the number of manuscripts that do survive from the OE and ME
      > periods.

      The glass is half-full! No, the glass is half-empty!

      It would be a lot fuller if the OE literary, linguistic and ecclesiastical
      traditions hadn't been so severely disrupted by the Normans. We can be
      delighted with what we have, and still note there could have been a lot
      more. In particular, as Tolkien noted, there are many OE legendary
      figures (Wayland the Smith comes to mind) of whom we know nothing but
      their names and a few scraps, but of whom mighty epics were perhaps once
      told. No way to be sure.

      If there's any distinctively native English mythology that Tolkien
      ignored when he made his complaint, it's Robin Hood. But not only is
      Robin Hood ME and not OE (thus irrelevant to Lisa's original comment),
      but the literature consisted of ballads and other short works, didn't
      receive any full-scale treatments until the 19C, and unless you count
      Howard Pyle still lacks IMHO a good one.

      David Bratman
      - not responsible for the following advertisement -
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