In Which I Admit to Giving Up on the Huffington Post

****Slight Beowulf spoilers ahead****

So, in an effort to reaffirm my liberal credentials, I put the Huffington Post in my RSS reader.  That lasted all of five days.

What went wrong?

Beowulf.

I just could not stand reading one more story about how we’ve all been tortured into reading it while in high school and about whether this damn movie can save Beowulf from itself.

Listen, I’m very sure that the movie will be just fine.  But I’ve read enough reviews of the movie to tell you that it’s got two problems very difficult to surmount.

1.  Is that the writers (Our buddy Neil Gaiman and someone else whose name escapes me at the moment) decided that the poem had been ruined by monks’ stripping all the sex out if it.

and

2. Though they’ve decided Christians ruined the story, they seem to refuse to commit to a heathen worldview.

So, we end up with a movie in which Angelina Jolie plays Grendel’s mother and she ends up having sex with Beowulf and, as far as I can tell from the reviews, they end up having a relationship of sorts and he lets her live.

If you want to play up the Christian worldview, then maybe you can make Grendel somewhat sympathetic, worthy of redemption, but monstrous because of the curse of Cain.  And, in that case, it makes sense that Beowulf would not fight Grendel’s mother.  And maybe the main characters are haunted by a feeling of not being who others perceive them to be, after all, who, if not Jesus, is the literary prototype of the hero with a secret that leads to his death?

But, if you’ve decided that Christianity is a problem, then you’ve got to see that the issue between Grendel and Hrothgar in the poem is Grendel’s utter refusal to abide by societal conventions.  Sure, killing folks puts a damper on mealtime, but it’s that he refuses Hrothgar’s attempts to make things right between them that becomes the real issue–Grendel is a force of such social chaos that he single-handedly undermines Hrothgar’s ability to rule as king.

And then, let’s talk about the women.  One nice thing about Beowulf is that the women have power and are present.  Yes, their lives take up different spheres than the men, but here we have a story in which none of the women are just objects of desire.  Wealhtheow is a fine host and storyteller and is willing to vocally protect the interests of her children (and her own self-interests) even in the face of how pleased her husband is with Beowulf.  And, more importantly, Grendel’s mother is a real threat and, like a real threat, Beowulf must face her.  He doesn’t chase her down so that he can fuck her.  He chases her down to remove the real threat from the community he is protecting.  She’s a real villain, not a seductive witch using her cooter to lead men astray.

But, in the reviews I’ve read, the women are all, first, fuck-objects.

I think that’s a shame.

But what I think is a shame most of all is this idea that reading Beowulf sucks.

Is it easy?  No.  Not even Seamus Heaney’s  awesome translation is particularly easy.

But it doesn’t suck.

I mean, go ahead and read whatever summaries so that you know what happens.  Or here, I’ll tell you.  Beowulf fights Grendel.  Grendel dies.  Beowulf fights Grendel’s mom.  She dies.  Beowulf fights the dragon.  They both die.

It’s not about getting to the end of something.

It’s about, for a while, sitting yourself in the language of our ancestors (literally in some cases and linguistically in others) and putting yourself in a mindset that is both completely foreign and utterly familiar.  It’s about being there in the halls, hearing the stories of these men and, even more cool, hearing the stories they told each other.

If it’s boring, it’s only because you’ve been let down, either by your teachers, by long wintery nights with nothing more to amuse you than story telling, or by your own imagination.

I can’t bear to listen to people disparage Beowulf, as if it lacks something.  This is a gift, something so special that when our heathen ancestors gave it to our Christian ones, our Christian ancestors, rather than burning it or throwing it in the ocean and forgetting about it, disguised it a little and passed it down to us.

I mean, here’s one case (the Eddas being another) in which Christians are not the enemy of great literature, but instead its protector.  In a way, it’s like when two sides of the family who detest each other work together to get you the perfect Yuletide (wordplay intentional) gift.  Differences aside, it was important enough to them for you to have this that they brought it over 1000 years to you.

It offends me at a soul-deep level to see people disparage that gift.

And so that’s why I’ve stopped reading the Huffington Post.

***********

p.s.  Here’s Beowulf online.

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38 thoughts on “In Which I Admit to Giving Up on the Huffington Post

  1. the modern-english translation B linked to is good. but take a gander at the old english original at the same site, too; it’ll give you a notion that, to really understand this thing, you will have to actually work at it.

    it’s worth the effort, because you’ll learn a lot about how folks lived circa one to one and a half millennia ago. and yeah, if you’re raised in an anglo-european tradition, there’s a lot there that’ll be strangely familiar even though it’s totally alien. plus it can be a decent introduction to reading the Eddas, too. but it can’t be picked up from the cliff’s notes, and it can’t be brought across without some effort on your end; the world is too different for that, now.

  2. I’m looking at the translation now. I think I’d rather read a physical book, though, because looking at that narrow stream of text is hard on my eyes. Maybe I’ll borrow the book on tape my dad had… he seemed to enjoy that one, and it’ll give me something to do on my rides home.

    I think it’s interesting, seeing what people had to read and had to learn. My high school courses were, ah, rather narrow. We hardly read any full books to start with, and even then, they were relatively short. My teachers gave me a lot of extra reading to keep me occupied…. but that meant the Odyssey and Iliad and a lot of Zora Neale Hurston and science fiction.

    Then, of course, I went to the most greco-roman-centric college possibly anywhere. (No, seriously. You have to get to Hum 210 just to get out of Rome. There is one lecture in Hum 110 that mentions Egypt at all, and there’s no mention of anyone else being nearby or having any sort of historical influence at all.) So I’ve read my Homer and my pre-socratics, and I can talk about Hesiod and Herodotus and Thucydides (the middle being my favorite, though Hesiod was funny as all hell. Thucydides makes me want to throw things.), and I still have my copy of the complete works of Aristotle and most of everything Plato ever wrote. (Granted, that’s not all for Hum. A lot of that was from a Philosophy class, where the professor just happened to be an Aristotelian. But still. It fit very well into the overall thrust of the place.)

    But I’ve never read Beowulf, or much Nordic work at all. Our libraries (which I raided as a kid for everything even vaguely mythological that I could get my hands on) were/are very much slanted toward the Egyptian and Greco-Roman stuff, and my family gave me African/-American and pan-Asian stuff… but there’s an entire area that’s just kind of missing. (All the more funny because my high school mascot was the Vikings, and nobody knew anything at all about them.)

  3. Mag, if you’re looking for a book translation, I would recommend Heaney’s. I love to annoy the Butcher by reading it outloud to him, but the good thing about Heaney, as a poet, is that he gets that it should be fun to read, that you’re incanting as much as reciting.

    The other thing that’s cool about Beowulf is that, even though the poem is in old English, it’s about the Danes and the Geats and the Scyldings and folks that are all over Norse sagas and mythology. In a way, it’s like if you read a great deal of Tiny Cat Pants and then all of a sudden stumbled upon the blog of one of my cousins. There’d be a lot of new characters, some familiar faces, but with much smaller roles, and new stories.

    Plus Zora Neale Hurston (did Mack take you by where she lived when she lived here?) loved Norse mythology, according to her biography. And what woman doesn’t love Odin, once she meets him, I ask?

    As for the Old Norse stuff, I have both Hollander’s and Larrington’s translations of the Poetic Edda. Hollander is a better poet, but the mistakes he makes are teeth-grating. Larrington is more accurate, but how she treats names can be annoying. Some names are obvious words–like Gandalph is Wand-elf and so she’ll call a Wand-elf a wand-elf. But Hyndla, who is obviously “Bitch” in the female dog sense of the word stays Hyndla.

    If you just want stories with a little discussion about them almost anything by HR Davidson is a good place to start, as long as you keep in mind the years in which she’s writing.

    But shoot, woman, for a person who spends a lot of time playing video games, you’ll find getting to know Germanic mythologies a little like old home day.

  4. *laughs* That’s probably true. And definitely one of the things I love about the medium – there’s always something snuck in there for the sheer joy of going “hey, I know that!”

    Mmmm, new things to read. I’ve just been re-reading my easy-peasy stuff because it’s quick to toss in a bag and it doesn’t distract me too much if I read it on the drive home. (Yes, traffic is that slow….) Having something to read/listen to/think about that actually uses a few brain cells would be nice.

  5. And what woman doesn’t love Odin, once she meets him, I ask?

    dangit, that’s yet another thing about women that i’m just too male to really grok. or something.

    (no, “lovable” is not on my list of association-words to the name “Odin”. don’t think it ever will be. mileages seem to vary more than i thought they would…)

  6. Um, wasn’t Grendel a monstrous beast, i.e. Dragon?

    I know Angelina’s amazing, but how the hell did she spawn that?

    Signed,
    a confused medieval literature major

  7. Well, of course not, Nomen. Look at what happens to the men who come in contact with him, even the ones he likes. He’s all the time promising them victory and then killing them off or going to visit them and killing them off or sleeping with their sisters/daughters and killing them off or… well, I’m sure you see a pattern.

    I don’t think Odin is lovable in that no woman thinks she’s going to find him sitting at her kitchen table for the next twenty five years, groggy and still in his boxers, waiting for the coffee to kick in so that he can have his morning cigarette.

    But he clearly loves and desires women. He’s fucking them. He’s fighting with them. He’s sometimes bested by them, and, when that happens, he seems equal parts delighted and pissed. He’s sitting with them telling long stories. He’s learning magic from them. He’s calling them out of their graves to learn from them.

    There is little more attractive than having an incredibly powerful man seem genuinely delighted with you and curious about the things you know that he doesn’t.

  8. I’ve read it in both the Old English and the English translation, and I still don’t care for it, years later.

    It’s not the story so much as the bleakness. I’ll always mentally associate Beowulf with a winter that never ends.

    I am, however, seeing the movie tonight at the IMAX in rockin’ 3D

  9. Oh. We weren’t supposed to enjoy Beowulf? I am soooo screwed. My whole 10th-grade class is pretty screwed, now that I think about it. So HuffPo considers its readers to be lazy folks who don’t like anything much different from what they already know? If they’re going to take that tack, they may need to tone down their aspersions of some others who are a little uncomfortable with multiculturalism. I leave you with two comments on the movie, even though I know that means Akismet will eat my post: today’s NY Times, which assumes that some folks read and enjoyed the text, and a preview from my favorite funny medievalist blog, complete with tounge-in-cheek deconstruction and gratuitous reference to Lollards.

  10. I’ve never read it, and I was in Honors English classes in HS and five years at a Major State University. I only have the vaguest idea of what it is about.

    Is it like A Tale of Two Cities? Because even though I love Dickens, I still cannot make my way through that book again. I have tried.

    But I laughed out loud during parts of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ and ‘Great Expectations’ back then too, so…

    Should I read this Beowulf? I know there’s still a copy around here (I’m saving it for the NosePicker). I like to be well rounded, you know.

  11. Beowulf is much cooler than A Tale of Two Cities. And you’re supposed to laugh at A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

  12. If you’re not reading it for class, I think the best way to read it would be to get slightly drunk and act out the battles with/on your children…

    Just saying.

  13. Oh, holy shit. In one of the reviews NM links to, they reveal that Grendel is Hrothgar’s illegitimate son. Well, then, talk about completely misunderstanding of pre-Christian mores. How could Hrothgar arrange for the death of his own son and not be the villain of the movie?

  14. Yeah, BF, LLCoolCarl is the shit. Don’t skip the post about underwear and writing.

    B, I think Dargis in the Times makes a good case for why the film-makers haven’t even bothered pretending to understand anything. See Sarcastro’s comment above for confirmation.

  15. huh, i hadn’t even noticed the title of that medievalist blog until BF’s comment just now. which latter i misread as referring to Get Medieval, my favourite medievalist sci-fi webcomic.

    (Get Medieval’s been running for a bit over three years, but is scripted to finish within only a couple more months. click “first comic” in the sidebar on the left, and be ready to spend all night catching up.)

  16. I’ve read some of Beowulf in Old English and all of it in the modern translation. It’s a good story but like The Scarlet Letter, that fact is somewhat obscured by the writing, in my opinion.

    Has anyone read Grendel by John Gardner? It is one of my favorite books. I read it in high school along with Beowulf.

  17. Well…we saw the movie in all it’s 3D IMAX glory.

    Imagine my surprise to see the Epic turned into yet another daddy-issue movie.

    Well, daddy-issue and “no earthly woman is good enough for me” issue.

    I was flabbergasted.

  18. See, Coble, and on the one hand, I’m fine with that. Lord know that if you’re not going to try to get into the headspace of what it would be like for folks at that time, you’re left with ascribing to them motivations familiar to us.

    But don’t be playing it off like it’s better, like you’ve fixed the problems of Beowulf.

    I’m starting to agree with whoever said that The 13th Warrior is going to end up being the most satisfying take on the Beowulf legend made in our lifetime.

    Fair enough, I say. I can live with that, even if I cringe every time they see their ancestors standing in the halls of Vallhalla.

    Eh, but you know, I guess if we got to ATM machines, they can go to the halls of Vallhalla.

  19. Exador and I have long campaigned for the virtues of The 13th Warrior.

    Despite the glaring omission of naked CGI Angelina Jolie succubus, it is a fine, if flawed film.

    And yes, I realize that calling Ms. Jolie a succubus is just plain redundant.

  20. like a winter that never ends – well, that pretty much describes anglo-saxon territory type winters. The sky is heavy and gray today and we probably won’t see the sun again til April

  21. Sar, the nice thing about her being CGI is that there’s probably some computer nerd alive right now who can take her right out of Beowulf and drop her into 13th Warrior.

  22. In the McTiernan version, Wendol’s mother was an old crone. When Crichton reshot, he replaced her with the younger version.

    What’s one more cast change?

  23. See, that’s what I’m saying!

    On a side note, could you please go over and school those kids at Volunteer Voters on how one can be both mean and funny?

  24. The book Eaters of the Dead, which 13th Warrior was based on, is also excellent reading.

    I also love the idea that there were pockets of Neanderthal or other flavor of evolution, co-existing until the Vikings’ time.

  25. the Neanderthals were supposedly speciated, just not very far. every one of the characteristics that defined their (sub-)species can be found in at least some modern humans, just that no modern human has them all.

    which makes me really wonder which group of modern voters are casting their ballots the way a Neanderthal would have. (ba-dum ching!)

  26. For a roundup of other reviews, mostly mixed but not slams, mostly by academics, and a couple of them wickedly funny on the ways the movie does and doesn’t work as an interpretation of the poem, see Unlocked Wordhoard.

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