Thursday, May 14, 2015

Beowulf Readalong, Week II

I didn't get to focus on Beowulf as much as I would have liked to this week, but I just finished the section.  It covers the celebrations after Beowulf's defeat of Grendel.

These celebrations are highly ceremonious, with rich gifts and fancy speeches (Hrothgar: "Thank heaven for our deliverance!" Beowulf: "Yep, I won.  I sure wish I'd done it better, though; I wanted to give you Grendel's whole body." Queen Wealhtheow: "Here are some gifts!").  Everybody has a feast in a freshly cleaned and decorated hall. 

But the most space is taken up with Hrothgar's bard, who tells two tales suited to the occasion: that of Sigemund and Fitela, and that of Hengest and the sons of Finn.  Each of these tales is only partial, being extremely well-known to the whole audience, so the Beowulf poet only puts in the bits that he wants to.  The Sigemund story appears to be an earlier version than any that has survived to the modern day; Tolkien points out that Sigemund is cast as the dragon-slayer rather than his son.  (This story is found in The Song of the Volsungs, and I have a lovely new copy ready to read when I finish Beowulf.)  I found the Hengest story quite hard to follow, since it assumes that I know a lot about it already.

Anyway, everybody is about feasted out and they all go to sleep...as an even worse danger lurks.  Uh-oh.



Everybody's favorite ronin
One of Tolkien's big notes for this section focuses on the word wrecca and its double meaning. In time, wrecca turned into wretch in English and Rocke (valiant knight, hero) in German.  In Old English, JRRT says, both meanings were used.  A wrecca was a man without household, an exile, someone who had left home for some reason.  That might be because of a crime or some other bad circumstance, or because he was looking for new opportunities.  Beowulf is a wrecca, but he's a hero; you could, at the same time, call an unfortunate drifter a wrecca.  There was a romanticized version and an unhappy version, and it seems to me we have similar ideas today.  Think of how we see a "drifter" in a movie; he might well come in to a terrible situation and save the day.  We love to tell stories about the heroic lone wanderer.  At the same time, most real drifters we meet make us nervous and may be perceived as a threat.  And think of our romanticized ideas about wandering samurai, the ronin, versus how actual ronin usually lived.                  





1 comment:

cleopatra said...

Your comment about "wecca" got me thinking ....... We have conflicting views of Beowulf in that at the beginning of the story, he is lauded for his courage, etc. yet when he returns to Geatland, it is mentioned that he wasn't thought much of. Also with Unferth, he is quite obviously looked down upon for killing his family, yet it is mentioned that he is looked favourably upon by the Shieldings and that he is a type of sage or advisor. Both views are rather confusing but perhaps it is a translation problem?????

Thanks for posting this and if you come across any other gems from Tolkien, please let us know!