MY BEOWULF: SUBTEXT EDITION

A crude drawing? Yes, but the subtext it describes is also crude.

A crude drawing? Yes, but the subtext it describes is also crude.

I suppose we all have our burdens, right?

I would be willing to suggest that one of the burdens of being an English major (besides having to come up with creative answers to the inevitable “What are you going to do with that major?” questions) is that those of us who have been drilled in hardcore textual analysis often lose the ability to lose ourselves in mindless entertainment. Nope. We are too busy reading the subtext of whatever media we’re consuming.

(For a really humorous example of reading subtext, check out one English major’s take on James Comey’s resignation letter here.)

Merriam-Webster online defines subtext as “the implicit or metaphorical meaning (as of a literary text).”

Naturally, a movie or television show can also have a subtext. There’s the main story, and then there’s all the other stuff going on under the surface. Take the BBC’s Luther. Great show! What a performance from Idris Elba, right?? Such interesting characters! Look at these relationships forming, and breaking, and reforming, and rebreaking. (And on, and on.) But wait. What if we dig a little deeper? There’s…something else here. Oh my god, yes, WTF IS THIS SHOW’S PROBLEM WITH MENTAL ILLNESS??!! In the Luther universe, having a mental illness seems to mean that you are going to murder a lot of people in interesting, gruesome, and I dare say innovative ways.

Or take the subtext of almost every cop show ever: Your damned civil liberties are preventing us cops from doing our job! The fact is, in our show, episode after countless episode, it is our disregard for your pesky civil liberties that ultimately allows us to snag the (truly) guilty party. So stop complaining!

But I digress. Because really, there is a Beowulf tie-in here.

Here it is: I watched The 13th Warrior. The thing is, I watched it again. The embarrassing fact is I’ve seen this movie many times, and I am always left feeling somewhat entertained. That being said, part of the entertainment factor, for me, is imagining what Michael Crichton & Co.—Michael Crichton wrote The Eaters of the Dead, which the movie is based on and had a big role in the film’s production, even taking over directorial duties at one point—were ever thinking in their ever living minds. Like, did they think their gross, misogynistic subtext would go unnoticed?? Because it didn’t. I am on the case.

Let me lay this out for you, reader.

The 13th Warrior has a few things going for it. In a nice twist on the white savior film, an Arab man goes north and plays a pretty big role in saving Hrothgar’s kingdom from the evil that plagues it. Antonio Banderas (okay, not an Arab, a Spaniard) plays a version of Ahmed Ibn Fadlan (a real life diplomat and chronicler who met up with some Vikings in the tenth century and wrote about both their hygiene practices and gruesome funeral rites), and this 13th Warrior Ibn Fadlan brings his wits along. In fact, it’s this character’s smarts that save the day, in the end. In The 13th Warrior, Ibn Fadlan is constantly figuring things out first, things that save other people’s lives. So, the Northmen may have one up on him in terms of pure brawn, but Ibn Fadlan is the one who actually gets shit done.

Also, Beowulf. And the Wealhtheow character is pretty fierce.

Buuuuuut…the movie kind of goes full-throttle misogyny after that.

So. Hrothgar’s kingdom is under attack. There are these somewhat mythical life forms who come and kill people and gnaw on their dead bodies. Get it? They are cannibals. Gross! Well, it turns out, their whole society is organized around some sort of worship and/or adoration of a female figure. How do we know this? I will tell you. The Northmen are checking out the aftermath of one of these grisly murder scenes. The cannibalism is established. Again, yuck. But just who are these folks who are doing these awful things?? Ibn Fadlan finds an important clue. This is where it all begins to go wrong for me.

Turns out that one of the people-eating marauders has inadvertently left something behind. What might that be, you are probably asking. Okay. It is a figurine that happens to look just like the Venus of Willendorf figurine (except maybe without the head, it’s hard to see…also the figurine in the movie appears to be made of darker stone). But it’s basically the same shape. You know. The roundedness. The breasts. Okay, I am thinking by now. Sweet Jesus, I am also thinking. Because because. But no, my eyes are not deceiving me. The film is really doing this. They are going there.

Yada yada yada. A lot happens. Turns out the people-eaters are just normal human men who live in a big cave under the earth. (EARTH!! My god, the femininity of this. The subtext continues its subtextual horror show. And yes, I know, Beowulf went down into the mere. Still. This is all really too much.) The Northmen, and Ibn Fadlan, go in those caves, and find, among other things, a HUGE version of the female figurine, as well as a murderous high priestess or something who leads the cannibalistic mother-worshiping evil-doers all in their people-eating perversion and must be killed!! Also, just in case I, the hapless viewer, am somehow unaware that this character is BAD and EVIL, she is wearing a snake. I guess snakes are bad. I guess because Eve, in our Western imagination. But have no fear, the Beowulf character does indeed dispatch her. But not without being scratched with poison first, which will ultimately lead to his death. (Poison. Such a woman’s way to murder.) In the end, the über-male Northmen, along with Ibn Fadlan, save the day, although not without losing some comrades.

Hmmm.

Okay. Maybe you are like, calm down, Jenny Drai. Because you are all like, in the original Beowulf, our hero goes and fights Grendel’s dam, and she’s female. So there’s some basis for this in the poem. Why do you have to read so much into everything?

Aaaaaaaargh because I was an English major, I would respond. Again, with those super heavy burdens making my life super-difficult.

Besides, I wouldn’t say that the dam is the brains behind the operation in the poem, whereas this mother-type figure in The 13th Warrior really is. In fact, as Jane Chance points out in Woman as Hero in Anglo-Saxon Literature, Grendel’s dam is portrayed as weaker and more cowardly than Grendel. Her real monstrousness, to an Anglo-Saxon audience, may have also had a lot to do with her usurpation of traditionally masculine roles. (Again, I’m getting this from Jane Chance.) Instead of keeping the peace, Grendel’s mother runs off and avenges her son’s death. Tsk. Tsk.

But whatever.

Okay. So, basically, my eyes are burning holes into my head the whole time I am watching this movie, but I am also really having a good chuckle. Again, this weird subtext is all too much. Like, it is not really a subtext, is it? On the other hand, maybe subtlety would be more dangerous.

Later.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

MY BEOWULF, PART TWO…OKAY TWO DUDES, WHERE HAVE YOU HIDDEN THE LADIES????? (YES, THERE ARE LADIES IN BEOWULF)

Aaaaugh!! Why, two dudes, whyyyyyyyyy?

Aaaaugh!! Why, two dudes, whyyyyyyyyy?

I read, and write, a lot, to the point that my vision starts to blur, and I get migraines. The actual pain isn’t terrible, but the headaches are draining all the same.

So. I just have these days.

On one such afternoon, I decided to spend some time in my recliner with Beowulf, the  graphic novel by Santiago García and David Rubín, published in late 2016 by Image Comics. The book is a big hardcover, with glossy color pages, and I had just received it, per post, earlier that day.

What better way, I thought, to unwind, than to look at some pictures? To sink into what may be my favorite story of all time, told, this time, in highly sensory, saturated drawings instead of in the usual blocks of black text crawling across a white page.

I will give this to the two dudes who created this particular version of the Anglo-Saxon epic. The artwork is pretty cool. But then I started to notice a peculiar absence of anything female.

Here’s the thing.

Hrothgar, King of the Danes and lord of Heorot, has a queen. Her name is Wealhtheow. (As a reminder, it is to Hrothgar’s aid that Beowulf comes when he kills Grendel.) Wealhtheow doesn’t have the biggest role to play, but she serves mead in the hall, in her capacity as a queen. According to my understanding (and I’m nothing close to an Anglo-Saxonist, so hopefully I’m getting this right), this is an important, vital role. A queen, after all, was a peace-weaver in Anglo-Saxon society. The order in which she served the mead, to the thanes in the hall, served a purpose. Just the fact of her marriage cemented a bond between tribes. (Peace, in other words, or, at least the hope of peace.)

But there’s no Wealhtheow in this version.

Uh-oh, wait, my bad. There’s a very young looking blonde lady in a few frames, standing next to Hrothgar. She says nothing. Does nothing. Go figure.

This erasure wasn’t exactly helping my headache. But I kept turning the pages.

(Later, in the poem, after Beowulf and his men return home triumphantly, it’s Hygd’s turn to shine. Hygd is Hygelac’s queen. Hygelac is Beowulf’s uncle. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Hygd also fails to make an appearance in this graphic novel, created by two individuals who I, I think, I am going to keep referring to as the two dudes.)

Okay. Where was I? Right. I had a headache, and at this point, I was also feeling slightly annoyed. But, whatever, right?

Not whatever, as it turns out.

The erasure gets really real, really fast, when everybody is hanging out in Heorot, drinking and celebrating the demise of Grendel. Again, the artwork is pretty cool. The two dudes had me hooked, at least in this manner.

Here comes the scop! (A sort of poet/bard in Anglo-Saxon culture.) Great, I’m thinking. I figured the scop was going to tell the story of Hildeburh. That's what the scop does in the poem. This is one of my favorite, albeit saddest, parts of the original text. (Hildeburh is, I guess, a failed queen. Her marriage didn’t create any sort of lasting peace, and her brother, son, and husband all die.)

Meghan Purvis, whose creative and highly original translation of Beowulf won the Times Stephen Spender Prize in 2011, does the best job out there, I think, of portraying Hildeburh’s story. (I’ll spend an entire future post discussing the Purvis translation. In the meantime, you can look it up here.)

Soooo…no Hildeburh. But there is a scop in the 2016 graphic novel, and that scop does tell the story….of….wait for it….Siegfried and the Dragon.

By this time, my temples were kind of throbbing. Being erased is bad for the soul.

Okay, you might be wondering. What’s so terrible about bringing in Siegfried? After all, you might point out, isn’t there a dragon in Beowulf?

Yeah, there’s a dragon. Sure, there’s a dragon. (BUT THERE ARE ALSO LADIES!!)

All the same, Siegfried feels kind of random to me. And though I’m no linguist, the name ‘Siegfried’ itself feels too medieval German for this Anglo-Saxon poem.

Siegfried, you see, is one of the stars of the Nibelung poem, a poem, I might add, that was first written down in the thirteenth century. (So, a few centuries after Beowulf.) The Nibelung poem is also associated mostly with the Burgundian tribe, who, sure, were some sort of Germanic people, but…I don’t know. It all seems so far-fetched to me. I mean, are women so terrible, or so meaningless, that all traces of their lives, and their concerns, have to be taken out of an epic poem and replaced with allusions to a completely separate literary work?

(Speaking of those Burgundians. I’ll write more about them in a future post. I had a manic episode that revolved heavily around my reading of the Lex Gundobada, their law code. And, I don’t know. Stories about manic episodes that involve dark age legal tracts are probably worth telling.)

Okay. Back to the lady-effacing graphic novel in question. At this point, my eyebrows were raised, despite the physical pain this was causing me. I just could not with the two dudes. Could. Not.

Onward.

The final (missing) lady I will discuss (and I'm skipping over a number of ladies mentioned in the poem, for sake of space) is the anonymous Geat woman at the end of the poem.

In the poem, Beowulf dies after defeating a dragon, leaving the Geats defenseless to outsiders. It is the anonymous woman in the poem who voices their fears. The fears of an entire people. The fear, among others, of being enslaved.

The two dudes could not possibly have changed the ending, right? Oh, well, they kind of did. Sure, the sentiments are expressed, but Wiglaf (a male kinsman of Beowulf) gets to say them. You know, instead of having a human woman in the adaptation.

Wow, you might be thinking. Impressive. Considering that women make up half the world’s population, getting through a whole story without any must be quite a feat.

It must have been. It must have been.

OH BUT WAIT I AM TOTALLY JOKING BECAUSE THERE IS A LADY IN THE TWO DUDES’ BEOWULF. HOW COULD I HAVE FAILED TO MENTION HER?? IT IS THE LADY, WHO IS NOT IN THE POEM, THAT BEOWULF HAS SEX WITH. SHE DOESN’T SAY ANY WORDS THOUGH.

Don’t get me wrong, I am sure that Beowulf, had he lived, would have been sexually active. And in the poem, he spends a night away from Heorot. In fact, the two dudes’ Beowulf would not be the first Beowulf adaptation that has turned that little fact into sex for my favorite epic hero.

But here’s the thing.

It’s not the sex that bothers me. Sex is great!

It’s this. No way ever ever should two dudes cut out pretty much all traces of the many female presences from an original work of literature, while at the same time inserting into their adaptation a little bedroom fun in the form of a dark age one-night stand for the (male) main character.

With a faceless, nameless woman, no less.

(Whoops. Perhaps I misspoke earlier. Looks like we have an anonymous woman here after all!)

By crafting their (admittedly very well-drawn) story this way, the two dudes are promoting the narrative that providing bedroom fun for brawny heroes is the tippy-top purpose that a lady can serve.

Guess what? It’s not!!!!

Seriously, male earthlings. Please don’t do stuff like this. Please help my headaches go away. Or, at least don’t make them worse.

Thank you. That is all. See you next week.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

MY BEOWULF, PART ONE OF PROBABLY A GAZILLION

The Seamus Heaney version of Beowulf has a cool cover. A chainmail hood. This Beowulf has no face. Maybe that’s why I snapped up the book shortly after it came out in hard cover in 2000. I was working at a Barnes and Noble, having returned from a two year post-collegiate adventure in Germany, and was feeling massively depressed about living with my mother.

Faceless, I probably thought. I got that. I put the book on my bookshelf and promptly neglected to read it.

I read, and write, about the same things, over and over, and though Beowulf has become one of those things, I came slowly to the poem itself. At some point, I read a pretty listless prose translation—maybe I thought the Heaney translation, which I owned by this time, would be difficult to comprehend? I was preparing for some sort of literature subject test, and feeling panicked about closing the massive gaps in my knowledge. I was reading a lot of canonical stuff, and quickly, and the Beowulf prose translation, for its part, was boring me to tears. Around the same time, I read the Cliff Notes for the poem, and was bored by them as well. From the Cliff Notes, I learned the usual basic stuff. The poem can be divided neatly into three parts, blah blah blah. The poem was written by an anonymous Christian poet about a pagan society, blah blah blah. Stuff like that.

Meanwhile, I had no real life. No real face. I did not understand how to come back from the unusual, how to reinsert myself into the humdrum of everyday life.

Years passed, as they do. I ended up living halfway across the country in Oakland, California, in a cheap rented room, after two failed relationships and lots of insanity. I was on a number of meds, and I honestly cannot say they were helping all that much.

Again, I was working at a bookstore. On one particular year, the high strung, whirlwind retail Christmas season came upon me, and I thus found myself alone on the day itself. With only the one day off, it was impossible to travel back to Illinois to see family. Quite honestly, I was okay with that.

I like being alone. I made coffee. I curled up in bed, under my knitted afghans, with my cat at my side. He’s a very trusty sidekick.

That morning, I started reading Beowulf, the Heaney version, with the chainmail hood cover shining dull, cool silver against a plain, black, depthless background.

So. That’s how the Heaney’s version starts. I was sold. Somehow, along the way, I must have picked up that hwæt, the first word of the poem, is often translated as lo, and that harkening never worked for me. Lo is intricate, and ornate. Very lofty, at least to my ear. So, on the other hand, spills over with flesh, and blood, and bone. So is living and breathing.

So is how people actually talk.

So. A talking, faceless man, written down into posterity by an unknown poet. (I decided this conundrum was part of the epic.)

For a long time, I had no face, or, I did, but I didn’t like that face, at all, so facelessness appealed to me. Like I said, the meds weren’t really helping. I was battling a lot of my own monsters, and I was losing those battles, in spectacular, often highly-destructive ways.

So.

With that one word, I embarked on a journey to find a new face, although I didn’t know, at the time, that this was what I was doing. I didn’t know that my engagement with what is essentially the ur-epic of English literature was going to become, among other things, kind of therapeutic. (More on this at some future date.)

More years pass, many of them. I’ve slain some monsters along the way. By this point, I’ve reached a certain level of geekiness when it comes to this poem. I now collect translations, versions, graphic novels, and movie adaptations. I’ll unpack my various reactions to some of these in future blog posts.

What I also know is that I am not the only person who feels drawn to Beowulf. The April 2017 online issue of The Atlantic features an article entitled “Beowulf Is Back!” The subtitle, however, does a better job of describing the actual content of the article. “What’s behind the running pop-culture engagement with the epic poem?” the subtitle asks, which, I think, belies the title. The truth is, Beowulf has not come back from anywhere. No. The truth is, Beowulf never left.