Archive for August, 2013

File:SeamusHeaneyLowRes.jpgSeamus Heaney, Nobel Prize winning poet and a translator of Beowulf, has passed. His translation of Beowulf came out right around the time that I studied the poem and the Old English language for the first time at UCSB with Carol Pasternack (I would later go through Beowulf again with the late Nicholas Howe at Berkeley). I believe this was my first encounter with Heaney, and have enjoyed digging into his poetry every now and then over the last decade. Speaking of digging, his poem of the same name is available to be read at the Poetry Foundation. Just reread this a few minutes ago, and I love the tension as the poet contemplates the concrete bodies and practices of his family/heritage while sitting, (gun? spade?) pen in hand, in a very different field. Maybe every (aspiring) poet faces this sense of disjunction (or are there many poets whose parents and grandparents were poets?). While not made explicit, the “cool hardness” of potatoes in hand seems to find such a clear echo in the hardness of pen-in-hand. In contrast to the pervasive physicality of his father’s work, the poet has material tools, but immaterial produce–no cool, hard poem to hold in hand. Well, I don’t know whether Heaney was making that connection or not, but it stands out to me, as the poem starts and ends with the grip of the pen but is filled up in between with the “honest work” of tilling the soil. You can find a more specific analysis of the “digging” of this poem, as well as that of Heaney’s poems on the bog bodies, in the chapter “Erotic Digging” in Karin Sanders’ Bodies in the Bog (a great book by a member of my dissertation committee, which I will hopefully get around to reviewing in more detail one day).

File:Heaneys.jpgI believe the only collection of Heaney’s work that I own is Electric Light, but it seems to have been misplaced along with half of my books of poetry in the course of my move back from Minnesota, so I can’t share any favorite poems from it at the moment. Several of his poems are available online at the Poetry Foundation, along with a biographical essay and links to many other essays about him (and I expect that their publication Poetry Magazine will feature an obituary in their next issue). Being a fan of sonnets, I especially enjoyed The Glanmore Sonnets, and will point out that you can find this translator of ancient Germanic poetry making contemporary use of kennings (intentionally derivative of the Beowulf poem) in sonnet # 7.

IMG_1854Heaney’s verse translation of Beowulf is rightly praised, and I especially enjoy having the Old English text facing the verse translation in the bilingual edition. I last took a course on Beowulf in the original (well, in Klaeber) with the late Nicholas Howe, who appreciated Heaney’s translation, but felt (if I remember correctly) that it could not adequately get across the appositive style of the poem (an aspect of the poem which Howe’s own advisor had worked on). As our “crib” we instead used Howe’s edition of Donaldson’s prose translation, which may lose the poetic flavor of Heaney’s, but translates a bit more directly (but it has been a while since I’ve worked through Beowulf in the original, so I will reserve judgement myself–but it is about time I worked through my new edition of Klaeber…)–it also includes a variety of academic articles, mostly fairly accessible, at the end, so I’ve used Howe’s edition for the most part when teaching undergraduates.

IMG_1856I especially like that we have an Irish poet translating the Beowulf poem, as that poem is itself so exemplary of the centuries of cultural contact and mish-mash throughout the North Atlantic (with an early and persistent presence in Ireland) before, during, and after the Viking Age. The poem is, of course, implicitly English in the fact that it is written in Anglo-Saxon… but it starts by saying “Listen up! We’ve heard about the deeds of the Spear-Danes (=the Scandinavians).” Why do we have an English poem celebrating a Scandinavian hero of the Migration period???  The poem as we have it was written down near the end of what we label as the “Viking Age,” so we would expect folks in England to be not-OK with poetry celebrating these pirates, right? Well, the situation was a bit more complex, and exactly what Scandinavian connection you see may depend on how far back you think the poem goes (in either oral or literary history)–is some early form of the poem an inheritance from the migration period, not so distant from the Anglo-Saxon’s own continental origins? was it composed initially to cater to new Viking lords in the Danelaw, from more the middle of the Viking Age? is it a result of the pan-Scandinavian kingdom of Knut/Canute the Great? Whatever the earlier history of the poem (though I do tend to understand it in its final form/combination as a primarily literary text in emulation of oral style), I like Nicholas Howe’s interpretation, which ties well into the Cultural Memory studies that I’ve been working in lately. If I remember correctly (it’s been a while), Nick argues that the Anglo-Saxons (in their Archive, or literate production) understood/articulated their own history, in particular their passage from Paganism to Christianity, as an Exodus on the model of the Old Testament story, crossing their own Red Sea from Southern Scandinavia/Northern Germany into England, the site of their eventual conversion. The portrayal of the heroic migration-era culture of Beowulf recovers the martial heritage of the past for the Christian present (a concern common to medieval Scandinavia as well) via (in part, at least) the Noble Heathen (to appropriate Lönnroth’s term) Beowulf, who, whether we are to understand him as a role model, a tragic figure, or something else, seems at once to embody the abstract ideals of the pagan heroic period while either relying entirely on his own strength (as opposed to the strength of the gods–this repudiation of the pagan gods is common among protagonists in the sagas), or else articulating what seem at times to be very Christian thoughts (the narrator is quite explicit in his Christian commentary). OK, the main point of all this: The poem, and the main figure, can serve as a mythic-heroic representative of the (for medieval Christians) more admirable aspects of the pagan past, recovering those ideals for a late-Viking Age Anglo-Saxon elite because they understand themselves as having come from that same place–the poem is not so much representing some cultural Other, but a primordial origin for the martial aristocracy of the present, as well as a chapter in the grand narrative of their progress from pagan the christian.

Heaney of course does a similar thing with his translation, revisiting this classic to enrich the present. Our obsession with the poem, and with any ancient “classic,” is to some degree a move of Cultural Memory (Mikhael Gronas even takes the assertion that Canon is Cultural Memory so far as to emphasize the ways in which it is an actual mnemonic system)–we turn to these texts (Beowulf, Homer, Shakespeare) because we believe there is something primordial to them, something foundational in them to who we are now. I’ve already written more than I intended, so I’ll leave it there, but if you feel like listening to Heaney read his translation, it looks like a recording is (for the moment) available here.

And now I think I will go dig up some potatoes. Or something.

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I recently enjoyed watching this Nova documentary on Viking swords, in particular the Ulfberht swords, which were of surprisingly good quality, given the state of metallurgy in Europe at the time (good enough that they even inspired poor quality imitations with a misspelled Ulfberht signature, most likely sold in dark alleyways by sleazy men in trench coats). I’d heard of the Ulfberht swords before, but I am not an archaeologist and have never really worked with swords inside or outside of literature before, so learned a lot about these swords that I hadn’t expected. I loved the idea of swords as a teenager of course (and still think they are pretty awesome, though I don’t really care for what they were made for), and my dissertation dealt with their counterparts, shields (hm, maybe time for a new research project…). I would go through my brother’s Museum Replicas catalog (never bought anything), where, incidentally, you can buy your own replica of the Ulfberht, and would hang out at the blacksmith’s booth those few times I made it to a Renaissance Faire. Actually, I was really into blacksmithing for a while, as a result of reading Michael Scott Rohan‘s The Anvil of Ice back in 6th grade (the magic in the series is closely tied to blacksmithing and other crafts), and after reading that found Bealer’s The Art of Blacksmithing. Despite being the son of a carpenter, I’m afraid I have never actually been much of a handy man, and my plans of learning to blacksmith in my free time came to naught–but I did enjoy reading all about pattern welding and forges and cool stuff like that, and incorporated a lot of that (way too much) into a never-finished fantasy novel in high school.

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Swords were aristocratic weapons during the Viking age (less wealthy freemen would have to do their work with axes and spears), but of course we hear most about them in the sagas and myths (and still obsess with them today) because those stories that were written down deal, naturally, with the aristocracy that wrote them down, or at least with those they understood as their historical or mythical predecessors. Famous, old named swords come up here and there throughout the literature–but wait, you say, why would old swords be so prominent? Wouldn’t people want brand-spanking-new swords when they go into battle? Well, as my advisor once pointed out, in a world where the quality of the metal is more or less up to chance, one recognizes a good sword by the fact that it survives–so the age of a sword is going to be an indicator of its quality, and will give it a chance to acquire a reputation and a name. So no wonder Hervör travels all the way to the distant grave of her berserkr father Angantyr to talk his ghost into giving her his sword Tyrfing! The combination of oldness and quality, as well as the typically aristocratic connotations of the sword as a weapon, all come into the opening chapter of Gísla saga Súrssonar, in which a slave, of all people (it is the fact that he is  a slave who has a sword that tells us something odd is going on), possesses a special sword which allows the aristocratic ancestors of our protagonists to defeat a berserkr. When the sword is not returned to him, he and the namesake of our eventual hero kill each other, and sword is broken (but can only be broken on the head of the slave whose it was–otherwise, the person using it always wins), until it is reforged as a spear and used as the murder weapon in a killing within an extended family (in other words, it lines up pretty well as a cursed treasure story, and as I argued in my very first conference paper ever, it follows the same pattern that we see in a few other significant places in Old Norse literature).

Fun as the History channel and the Discovery channel are, the “documentaries” they run are for the most part just entertainment, capitalizing on the idea of their topics rather than really trying to “get” a topic, and I don’t particularly recommend them if your priority is actually learning something (you may want to see some of my notes on the first episode of the History Channel’s Vikings Miniseries). Nova documentaries are still about entertainment as well, sure, but generally do a better job of getting across something about what scholars are actually learning, even if they dramatize that a bit. I’ve also enjoyed Nova’s special on the Vinland map, which primarily approaches the issue from the perspective of materials science, something I’m obviously less familiar with. The full Viking Sword documentary is viewable online, though I don’t know whether it will stay that way or not.

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Can’t help reblogging this interview w/ one of my favorite artists (of the last couple years), Pascal Campion. I also recommend Fishinkblog‘s Blog, which features various interesting artists from around the web. I’ve enjoyed checking out The Art of Animation tumblr for a year or two now for inspiration and pleasure, and am glad to have found another art blog to keep up with in Fish Ink. I’ve been collecting a few “favorite artists” to inspire me as I attempt (occasionally) to get my own artwork out there a bit more often. Eunjung June Kim is another artist I’ve discovered (much more recently) who, like Pascal Campion, seems to have a knack for capturing everyday moments, domestic bliss, cozy romantic scenes, etc–all things a sap like me can really enjoy. Been thinking about my own influences art-wise lately, so maybe one of these days I’ll get around to doing one of these influence maps. Anyway, enjoy, and fingers crossed that I’ll get around to more of my own artwork sometime soon (or barring that, maybe Pascal or Eunjung can start doing Viking pictures as well…).

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Pascal Campion is what I would call a keen observational illustrator.  He manages to not only capture an emotion so completely, but he also silently narrates the story behind the image to our subconscious at the same time.  Thus allowing us to bond with his images immediately and feel at one with what his characters are feeling. I contacted Pascal and asked a few searching questions, you can find his thoughtful and honest replies below.

What is your earliest memory, of an emotion ? 
That’s a good question… I remember a feeling of security as a young kid, I must’ve been about two or so… and everything felt warm and secure. I remember the night was starting to fall, it was warm inside, the TV was on, and I was having some cinammon cookies or some kind. More a feeling than an emotion I think, but that’s one of my earliest memories. Does…

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