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Studies in intimacy

Featuring essays from some of the most prominent voices in early medieval English studies, Dating Beowulf: studies in intimacy playfully redeploys the word ‘dating’, which usually heralds some of the most divisive critical impasses in the field, to provocatively phrase a set of new relationships with an Old English poem. This volume presents an argument for the relevance of the early Middle Ages to affect studies and vice versa, while offering a riposte to anti-feminist discourse and opening avenues for future work by specialists in the history of emotions, feminist criticism, literary theory, Old English literature, and medieval studies alike. To this end, the chapters embody a range of critical approaches, from queer theory to animal studies and ecocriticism to Actor-Network theory, all organized into clusters that articulate new modes of intimacy with the poem.

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Emotional connections to the young hero in Beowulf
Mary Dockray-Miller

This essay focuses on the audience’s emotional connections to Wiglaf, the young hero who helps Beowulf kill the dragon at the end of the Old English poem. Noting the surprisingly little attention that Wiglaf has received in the critical literature, Dockray-Miller uses lexical and connotative analysis to consider questions of gender and emotion around this character. As her chapter reveals, by the end of the poem, Wiglaf is no longer defined as young but has become lexically equivalent to Beowulf as an eorl (2908), completing his emotional growth and assuming the role of primary male in the world of the poem. Wiglaf enacts a traditional and cross-cultural ritual of mourning a (metaphorical) father, thus establishing himself as an archetypal figure with whom the audience can easily identify. This affective connection also endows Wiglaf with emotional attractiveness; his masculine appeal and social status are enhanced by his grief in such a way that Wiglaf's performance realigns the poem’s definition of heroic masculinity away from military stoicism and towards emotional association.

in Dating Beowulf
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Beowulf translations by Seamus Heaney and Thomas Meyer
David Hadbawnik

This chapter addresses questions about how well the dynamics of textual translation can speak to the dynamics of human intimacy, and how ‘extratextual’ intimacies determine or allow different modes of translation. The essay pairs two important Beowulf translations that at first glance appear among the most wildly divergent – those of Seamus Heaney and Thomas Meyer – teasing out a critique of customary critical and reviewing practices that (often tacitly) plot translations of Beowulf in terms of a false dilemma of ‘fidelity’ against ‘creativity’. Drawing on Leo Bersani, this essay views intimacy as ‘a process … that risks intense closeness and desire – all the feelings involved in an erotic relationship, without the actual sex – for the sake of discovery, revelation, and freedom’ that offers an alternative way to consider the relationships between source text, translation, and reader, that even translation theory innovators such as Lawrence Venuti tend to evaluate in terms of the source text alone.

in Dating Beowulf
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Agency in the Finnsburg episode
Mary Kate Hurley

Distinctly different from its counterparts among the digressions in Beowulf, the Finnsburg episode focuses on the experience and trauma of a single woman: Hildeburh. Her peace-weaving marriage into the Frisian court fails spectacularly, and the result is a proliferation of death and destruction, including the loss of both her brother and son. This essay utilizes Actor-Network theory to explore the ways in which the Finnsburg digression exposes human community-building impulses as fundamentally flawed and particularly challenging for women. The episode lays bare the ways in which human communities in Beowulf fail by foregrounding the relationship between human beings and non-human entities that are part of the wider collectivity in which humans are enmeshed. The essay thus reveals that Hildeburh herself, a subject-made-object in the logic of the poem, stands as a kind of witness to more than just the poem’s criticism of the heroic ethos. Rather, her suffering demonstrates the interconnectedness that is both the condition of humans in the poem and their tragedy.

in Dating Beowulf
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Daniel C. Remein and Erica Weaver

What would it mean to ‘date’ Beowulf? And what do we learn when we try? This playful pun on one of the more controversial terms in the scholarship on this poem allows a consideration of the range of intimacies generated by it as well as a conditioning of both the poem and its scholarship. Accordingly, this introductory chapter seeks to get intimate with Beowulf, drawing on critical discussions of affect, queer historiography, and contemporary literary theory in order to form a kind of dating profile that serves as a conceptual framework for the various modes of intimacy in and with the poem that emerge throughout the volume. Dating Beowulf coheres as a project in presenting a new set of readings – both critical and personal – that aim to generate new avenues of discussion for an Old English poem too often mired in critical impasses, and this opening essay frames the conversation accordingly, highlighting the various couplings and methodological approaches on display, while articulating the relevance of the early Middle Ages to affect studies and vice versa.

in Dating Beowulf
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Troubling race, ethnicity, and masculinity in Beowulf
Catalin Taranu

Sometimes we find the deepest intimacy not in sex, friendship, communal joy, or grief, but in shared anxiety. Drawing on a constellation of scholars of gender, Critical Race theory, and indigenous studies, this essay pursues an emotional archaeology by tracing anxieties around masculinity, ethnicity, and race that found their expression in Beowulf. Re-examining well-known scenes in Beowulf in dialogue with a variety of sources including The Laws of Ine, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, The Exeter Book Riddles, and Guthlac A, the essay argues that such anxieties – and the poem’s anticipation of such anxieties in its audiences – register the ways that the Welsh and the Danes are gendered and racialized in early medieval English literature. Demonstrating the importance of this intersectional focus and re-emphasizing Geraldine Heng’s arguments for the need to use the term ‘race’ in discussions of medieval literature, the essay argues that Grendel and his mother may have functioned as a focus for anxieties about Welsh indigeneity as well as Danish invasions.

in Dating Beowulf
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Robin Norris

Beowulf casts a long shadow over the extant Old English corpus, and the heroic verse through which we view the poem obscures a broader perspective on homosociality in early medieval Germanic cultures. Although Beowulf tells Hrothgar that it is better to avenge a friend than to mourn too much, the poem is full of mourning men, including Beowulf and Hrothgar themselves. This chapter rereads Beowulf with a focus on grief, masculinity, and the many sad men who grieve within the text: for example, when Hrothgar mourns for Æschere and bids Beowulf farewell, when Beowulf imagines a grieving father before his own death, and at each of the four funerals in the poem, especially that of the hero himself. The chapter then concludes that our obsession with emotional repression is an artefact of Victorian medievalism, rather than a reflection of early English heroic culture or masculinity, which privileged empathy. In this, Norris brings insights from Critical Race theory, especially from the work of Richard Delgado, to bear on the poem.

in Dating Beowulf
Animal language and the return of loss in Beowulf
Mo Pareles

Old English literature does not share the humanist narcissism that denies animals access to symbolic language. In Beowulf, Wiglaf’s messenger to the Geats comes close to translating avian speech in his conclusion to a harrowing series of predictions: ‘se wonna hrefn / … / earne secgan, hu him æt æte speow, / þenden he wið wulf wæl reafode’ (the dark raven … will tell the eagle how he surpassed him in eating, when he with the wolf laid waste to the slain) (3024–7). This boast is the only Old English ‘conversation’ among the beasts of battle, and only its outline reaches human ears, at the triple remove of space, time, and voice. Its explicit content eludes the messenger’s human audience, and its oscillating valences have vexed modern translators. This chapter examines the forms of interspecies connection that inhere in this shrouded moment, arguing that such intimacies – trafficking in the symbolic, never fully translatable to the human – can open up new ecocritical encounters with Beowulf and contribute to larger discourses of ecocriticism.

in Dating Beowulf
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An Excerpt from Bill V. Mullen’s New Biography, James Baldwin: Living in Fire, and an Interview with the Author
Bill V. Mullen

This excerpt from James Baldwin: Living in Fire details a key juncture in Baldwin’s life, 1957–59, when he was transformed by a visit to the South to write about the civil rights movement while grappling with the meaning of the Algerian Revolution. The excerpt shows Baldwin understanding black and Arab liberation struggles as simultaneous and parallel moments in the rise of Third World, anti-colonial and anti-racist U.S. politics. It also shows Baldwin’s emotional and psychological vulnerability to repressive state violence experienced by black and Arab citizens in the U.S., France, and Algiers.

James Baldwin Review
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James Baldwin’s Pragmatist Aesthetics
Rohan Ghatage

This essay establishes a philosophical connection between James Baldwin and the philosopher William James by investigating how the pragmatist protocol against “vicious intellectualism” offers Baldwin a key resource for thinking through how anti-black racism might be dismantled. While Richard Wright had earlier denounced pragmatism for privileging experience over knowledge, and thereby offering the black subject no means for redressing America’s constitutive hierarchies, uncovering the current of Jamesian thought that runs through Baldwin’s essays brings into view his attempt to move beyond epistemology as the primary framework for inaugurating a future unburdened by the problem of the color line. Although Baldwin indicts contemporaneous arrangements of knowledge for producing the most dehumanizing forms of racism, he does not simply attempt to rewrite the enervating meanings to which black subjects are given. Articulating a pragmatist sensibility at various stages of his career, Baldwin repeatedly suggests that the imagining and creation of a better world is predicated upon rethinking the normative value accorded to knowledge in the practice of politics. The provocative challenge that Baldwin issues for his reader is to cease the well-established privileging of knowledge, and to instead stage the struggle for freedom within an aesthetic, rather than epistemological, paradigm.

James Baldwin Review