Beowulf translations by Seamus Heaney and Thomas Meyer
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.
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.
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.
Troubling race, ethnicity, and masculinity in Beowulf
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.
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.
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.
This chapter considers early modern academic drama performed at St John’s
College, Oxford. Dutton begins by describing the college household materials
on which such performances drew, adopting a productively broad definition of
this category that includes the people working, studying, and teaching at St
John’s, as well as their immediate neighbours in town; the college’s
domestic furnishings, such as tables, paintings, and candles; the matter
covered there in lectures; and the university’s own medieval foundations.
Working first from a text now known as The Christmas Prince, a richly
informative but often overlooked account of the 1607–1608 Christmas
festivities at St John’s, Dutton describes the financing of the St John’s
plays as well as the practicalities associated with their staging and
rehearsal and with the sourcing of actors. In the productions performed as
part of the Christmas Prince celebrations as well as in the earlier and
later examples of St John’s college drama that Dutton examines, the college
play emerges as a means of reaffirming and celebrating the local, collegiate
culture as well as constituting an interface with the outside world across
which people and ideas might move both into and out of the college
This chapter examines the rhyme scheme of a tantalising but little studied Middle English romance, Amis and Amiloun. The poem is composed in twelve-line stanzas, rhymed AAB AAB CCB DDB, with a metrical scheme of four, four and three stresses corresponding to the rhyme. This chapter argues that view, the AAB rhyme scheme of the Middle English poem operates on both a semantic and a semiotic axis. Semantically, it designates the names of the three main characters; semiotically, it represents the relationship among those characters: two men paired (AA) but one of them also linked with the woman. This chapter also examines genre and history, and their importance for the text.
Western culture has always treated the eating of human flesh as taboo. Reluctant or not, cannibals evoke fear, loathing or, at best, horrified pity. No fourteenth-century English cook is known to have prepared for consumption the flesh of a real Turk, yet the Turk's Head, a sweet-and- sour meat pie shaped and decorated to resemble the outlandish features of a stereotyped Saracen, was a familiar late medieval dish. Richard Coeur de Lion, a romance whose medieval popularity is well attested, arrests modern readers with the spectacle of its man-eating king. Duped into mistaking a cooked Saracen for pork, the ailing Richard devours a dish of boiled flesh, faster than his steward can carve, and gnaws on the bones.
In the debate concerning precisely what constitutes a medieval ‘romance’, the Siege of Melayne occupies a special position. This poem participates in the conventions both of romance and of hagiography. The focus of such cross-generic readings is usually the character of Archbishop Turpin who has ‘as much of the saint as of the soldier in his nature’. This chapter explicates the religious content of the Siege of Melayne, exploring how hagiographic, devotional, and eucharistic themes are used to depict a Christian community characterised by strength in the face of adversity, and wholeness in the face of efforts to fragment the community. The body of Turpin, the image of the crucified Christ, and the Host each represent the Corpus Christi, the body of Christ which stands for the community of Christian souls.