The Armchair MA: Beowulf by Ælfric

I should probably start this whole Armchair MA series with a huge disclaimer: I’M THROWING OUT MY ENTIRE ANALYTICAL FRAMEWORK. By which I mean that I’m no longer going to use How to Read Literature like a Professor by Thomas Foster or Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose. Not because they aren’t great books with great ideas about how to analyze literature, but because I was trying to fit my ideas in to their boxes and it just wasn’t working! So now, I bring you my own attempt at unguided and wholly independent analysis: lets hope that English degree wasn’t totally useless! hehe 🙂 Anyway, on to the first installment EVER of the Armchair MA, talking about *drum roll*….. Beowulf!

Beowulf is considered to be the first great heroic poem, written sometime between the first half of the 8th century and the first half of the 11th century – oh, the joys of trying to time-frame ancient texts! It’s also assumed to be written by one or a very few number of Christian authors, assumed to be such because of the many frequent allusions to Christ and Christian expectations, despite the fact that the poem is set in the Pagan days of the ancient Danes. So what’s this poem epically about? The Geat hero Beowulf, who shows up in the Danish kingdom of king Hrothgar (yep. Hrothgar. If I didn’t want him to hate me forever, I would name my first child Hrothgar. Then his name would be Hrothgar Outlaw, and that’s just not a name you f*ck with). Anyway, Hrothgar is up to his very tall armpits in monster’s, and as Beowulf is the greatest hero anywhere around, he shows up to help. And Beowulf is seriously badass. He’s described as swimming to the bottom of the ocean and back in order to fight monsters. He’s also known to be a great leader (referred to as a “ring-king”, a kenning* for a king who is generous when dividing the spoils of war) and is very respected. So he shows up, the Danes party, and then the first monster shows up: Grendel. And Beowulf, as expected, kicks some major ass. He kills Grendel and the war party celebrates again, getting piss drunk and hanging the monster’s arm from the front of the lodge. But this is a bad idea, as Grendel has a mother, and now this mother is pissed. REAL pissed. So, she shows up and kills a whole bunch of passed out Danes (they were super drunk, remember?) before scampering back to her cave beneath a lake. But Hrothgar and Beowulf just can’t have this, so they chase her down. Beowulf makes his way to her lair and there, where he finds a sword that once belonged to the giants. Which, of course, because he’s Beowulf, he uses to slay Grendel’s mother. He then makes his way back to land, where he is celebrated and sent home, having rid Hrothgar’s kingdom of it’s monsters – the Danes and the Geats forever friends. FAST FORWARD FIFTY YEARS. Beowulf is back in Geatland, and a dragon is pissed. A slave stole a cup from the dragon’s treasure, and when the dragon finds out, he leaves his cave and starts burning everything in sight. Beowulf and the Geats can’t have that, so he takes his men with him to do battle. But, Beowulf will always be Beowulf and he tells his men to wait while he goes to fight the dragon alone in his cave. However, Beowulf isn’t a spring chicken anymore, and finds himself outmatched. Seeing their leader failing, Beowulf’s men desert him (dicks!) save one, Wiglaf (THESE POOR PEOPLE WITH THESE NAMES!!), who stays and see Beowulf defeat the dragon, although he is dealt a fatal blow in the process. Beowulf dies and is buried in Geatland.

GAH! Talk about your epic poem! However, summarizing and analyzing aren’t the same thing, so hold on to your hats while I try some REAL analyzing here:

Beowulf and Hrothgar: Hrothgar’s people find their lives revolving around their meadhall. It’s the only building we ever see while we’re with the Danes. This could be for any number of reasons, but my guess is that it has a lot to do with sustenance and the giving of gifts or the dividing of spoils – two things that would happen primarily in the mead hall. That’s why, when Grendel attacks the meadhall, it’s seen as an even greater affront to Hrothgar and his people. Speaking of Hrothgar, it would seem that he and Beowulf exemplify what it means to be a good king, and this primarily revolves around their willingness and fairness with the giving of gifts, which was a sign of devotion and meant to promote reciprocity between a lord and his lieges. It also indicates that both the Danes and the Geats were operating within a gift economy, where the gifts received are directly proportional to good done. Both men also participate in what (I gather to be) the proper amount of ‘flyting’, or formal, ritualized boasting that usually focuses on moral impropriety or weakness, which is then dis-proved by the other members of the boasting party (I hope that makes sense! It does in my head, I swear, so please let me know in the comments if I just totally lost you!)

Grendel (and his mom): Grendel is actually my favorite character in Beowulf. He’s described as being a monster descended from Cain (HELLO, CHRISTIANITY), who attacks Hrothgar’s kingdom for singing about Christianity, something he can never be a part of because he’s marked as the monster he is. He is truly an outcast, especially in this culture – this is a culture of tribes, and an importance was placed on having a lord to be loyal to, and without that, Grendel truly has no place he can belong. I feel there is a certain amount of pity in that, although I can’t say I ‘approve’ of his taking out this loneliness on the people of Hrothgar’s court. I also think that the fight with Grendel’s mother allows us to see a weaker side of Beowulf, as he gives a LARGE majority of lines to his fight with Grendel in comparison to the fight with Grendel’s mother, which I believe is because Grendel’s mother posed more of a challenge to Beowulf’s skill, thus challenging his masculinity and asserting a kind of powerful, albeit monsterly, female figure.

The Dragon: To wrap up this analysis, I want to give brief discussion to Beowulf’s fight with the dragon. This is for two reasons. One: the fight with the dragon, as Beowulf and his men march to face the beast, is when we’re given the history of the Geats, a history which deepens our understanding of Beowulf – they’re a people under a constant threat of war and fear of invasion. This helps us to understand not only why Beowulf has felt it necessary to be the hero he has been, but also why his soon-to-be-had demise is hinted at being so devastating. So, after the rest of Beowulf’s men flee, Wiglaf is the only one who remains. This is not only an indicator of his own nobility and a small spark of hope for the future of the Geats (Beowulf basically places this mantle of hope on the young soldier before he dies); this scene also indicates the darker side, however, as the fact that all of Beowulf’s supposedly great men fled, indicating a kind of loss of honor and bravery amongst men, which could be disastrous for a country described as the one above.

Well, folks, there you have it! My first ever go at the Armchair MA! And now I need your feedback, lovely readers! Was it too much summary versus too little analysis? This is something I really want to work on keeping in balance, as summarizing is so much easier than analysis! What about the analysis – I know I probably could have gone deeper, but was there something you felt was TRULY, like DANGEROUSLY lacking? I’m also thinking about adding a section for ‘discussion questions’ (like a real college class!) but I’m not sure how well this would go over, considering I’m not sure how many people would have read whatever given work…So yeah! Obviously, any help or comments or input would be much appreciated! Happy reading!

*kenning = poetic speaking in circular, used in place of metaphor or simile


Review: The Lexus and the Olive Tree

Please bear with me as I attempt to review a non-fiction book, something I’ve been telling myself for ages that I need to do more of, but never quite seem to get around to.

Tomas Friedman’s The Lexus and the Olive Tree: Understanding Globalization was a book required for my Sociology of Globalization class (understandably enough) and does, in my opinion, a wonderful job of outlying some of the key components of globalization, as well as how it differs from the old Cold War system. Friedman hits on such topics like the Electronic Herd (those millions and millions of unseen people moving money around on the internet, whether through banks, online shopping, hedge funds and other investments who have a not-to-be-underestimated power over the political and financial markets), the Long and Shorthorn Cattle of Investment (long horn being those companies who invest in state infrastructure and similar things that promise great dividends but require a time investment, rather than short-horns, who invest in things like the stock market and futures because of the promise of quick turn around with riskier dividends) and, most interestingly, his Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Resolution that says that no two countries that have a McDonald’s have ever gone to war with each other (this isn’t really a hard and fast rule but is more used by Friedman to show the politically stabilizing effect that the globalized economic force can have).

But this isn’t to say that I didn’t have some MAJOR problems with the arguments that Friedman made or, more rightly, the justification he has behind making these arguments. He presents good ways of understanding globalization, and he’s right to point out that globalization is an inevitable force, but he seems to forget that there is a large gap between the hypothetical and the light of reality. Friedman refers to the United States a number of times as the “benign Hegemon” (scary ties between this and the Orson Scott Card Ender books popped up immediately) and states clearly that tantamount to globalization is Americanization. He says these things as though they’re not a problem and perhaps for many they’re not, but just the idea that America somehow as the right or responsibility for the rest of the world rubs me the wrong way. Don’t misunderstand me – America can’t help but get involved and thus has a responsibility to clean up the messes it makes, I just wish it would stop making so many damn messes to begin with!

Another key issue I had with Friedman is that he basically ignores the existence of any kind of global third world or a population with the desire but not the ability to join the globalization race. He states in a number of chapters that one of the drawbacks of the globalization system is that it doesn’t do much but keep the rich richer and the poor poorer (sure, there is this idea of “the best to succeed will do so” and “the market is so huge, anyone can join”, but be honest – what chance does a poor, disconnected country really have of successfully cracking into the burgeoning global market) but, again, this doesn’t seem to bother him. He takes it as a part of globalization, and the only question that ran through my mind through most of the book was DOES IT HAVE TO BE THIS WAY?!?!?! Sure, globalization isn’t going anywhere any time soon. But there HAS TO BE some kind of happy medium between the full-on embracing of globalization and thus it’s lack of social conscience, and spurring it completely and giving up all hope at economic prosperity. Then again, if I knew the way there I’d already have my Nobel Prize in Economics.

If you’re looking for a book to outline some of the basics of the globalization system, Friedman’s metaphors really do a good job of putting everything into it’s proper scope and format. However, be forewarned that, like I outlined above. Friedman is pretty staunchly free-market capitalist and as such turns more of a blind eye to silly “leftist-psuedo-hippy-social-welfare”, as my darling grandfather likes to refer to social issues. The choice of politics is up to you, but it’s probably best to know where Friedman stands before you get ready to tussle with him!

Happy reading!

Review: Written on the Body

written-bodyJeanette Winterson’s Written on the Body was a book I picked up when Mary Renault’s book gets a little too historical fiction-y. You know, pages upon pages of descriptions of battle and who killed who and a whole bunch of other things I would probably care about more if I found military history at all intersting. Needless to say, Written on the Body was completely removed, and thus was a marvelous read at a marvelous time.

I should probably point out that the most original aspect of this book is that the gender and name of the narrator are ever given. The book chronicles the narrator’s experience with the women of his/her life, first their relationship with a woman named Jacqueline, who is then replaced by a woman named Louise as the narrator works pages and pages of heavily emotional descriptions of the passion he/she feels for both of these women. Winterson herself said that the reason the gender of the narrator is never given so that the maxims given can be applied to love of all kinds, not specifically hetero- or homosexual. And while I would say that this is definitely a lofty goal, and although this is generally the case, a lot of the time the phrases are just a bit to heavy-handed towards a kind of verbose sentimentality. Wonderful to read in short doses, but a bit too sacchrin for my taste after hundreds of pages (well, 190 pages to be exact). And while I would wildly recommend the book becaue of the way it reworks a possibly-cliche plot (narrator loves Lousie, Louise gets cancer, narrator gives her up so she can ‘have a better life’ with her wealthy husband who can pay for her medical treatment, narrator regrets decision) I do have to say that those with low tolerance for sentitmentality or rather gaudy word choice may want to take the book in smaller segments. Below are some favorite quotes:

“I can’t seem to get you out of my flesh. I think about your body day and night. When I try to read it’s you I’m reading.”

“Louise, in this single bed, between these garish sheets, I will find a map as likely as any treasure hunt. I will explore you and mine you and you will redraw me according to your will. We shall cross one another’s boundaries ad make ourselves one nation. Scoop me in your hands for I am good soil. Eat of men and let me be sweet.”

“On a molecular level success may mean discovering what synthetic structure, what cemical, will form a union with, say, the protein shape on a tumor cell…but molecules and the human beings they are a part of exist in a universe of possibility. We touch one another, bond and break, drift away on force-fields we don’t understand.”

“No-on can legislate love; it cannot be given orders or cajoled into service. Love belongs to itself, deaf to pleading and unmoved by violence. Love is not something you can negotiate. Love is one thing stronger that desire and the only proper reason to resist temptation.”

“I don’t want to be your sport nor you to be mine. I don’t want to punch you for the pleasure of it, tangling the clear lines that bind us, forcing you to your knees, dragging you up again. The public face of a life in chaos. I want the hoop around our hearts to be a guide not a terror. I don’t want to pull you tighter than you can bear. I don’t want the lines to slacken either, the thread playing out over the side, enough rope to hang ourselves.”

“Written on the body is a secret code only visible in certain lights; the accumulation of a lifetime gather there. In place the palimpset is so heavily worked that the letters feel like braille. I like to keep my body rolled up away from prying eyes. Never unfold too much, tell the whole story.”

“Dear Louise, I love you more than life itself. I have not known a happier time than with you. I did not know this much happiness was possible. Can love have texture? It is palpable to me, the feeling between us, I weigh it in my  hands the way I weighed your head in my hands. I hold on to love as a climber does a rope. I knew our path would be steep but I did not forsee the sheer rock face we have come to. We could ascend it, but it would be you who took the strain.
     I’m going away tonight. I don’t know where, all I know is I won’t come back…you are safe in my home, but not in my arms. If I stay it will be you who goes, in pain, without help. Our love was not meant to cost you your life. I can’t bear that. If it could be my life I would gladly give it…I shall think of you everyday, many times a day. Your hand prints are all over my body. Your flesh is my flesh. You deciphered me and now I plan to read. The message is a simple one; my love for you. I want you to live. Forgive my mistakes. Forgive me.”

“Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it. When then kills love? Only this: Neglect. Not to see you when you stand before me. Not to think of you in the little things. Not to make the road wide for you, the table spread for you. To choose you out of habit not desire, to pass the flower seller without a thought. To leave the dishes unwashed, the bed unmade, to ignore you in the mornings, make yse of you at night. To crave another while pecking your cheek. To say your name without hearing it, to assume it is mine to call.”

As you can see, Winterson does definitely have a way with words. I really, really did enjoy this book, despite the parts that seemed to make my head hurt with just too much…beauty, I guess. Dehibilitating metaphor, basically, I guess. I’ve already cracked open Orxy and Crake by Margaret Atwood, and I’m LOVING it (I seem to be on a roll in terms of finding nothing but good books lately!) which doesn’t surprise me considering how much I loved the Handmaid’s Tale. Other than that, it’s still plowing away at the Mary Renault and I finally picked up a copy of Rilke’s Letter to a Young Poet to read (although how said is it that I had to go to FIVE bookstores, two of which were local, before I found a copy? Why aren’t more people reading Rilke?!  :D) Anyway, I’m back to the Atwood and the absolutely gorgeous grey fall day! Happy reading!


Review: All’s Well That Ends Well

014071460xTitle: All’s Well That Ends Well

Author: William Shakespeare

Number of Pages: 192

Rating: 4 out of 5 bookmarks

All’s Well that Ends Well is a quasi-comedy of Shakespeare’s. I say quasi-comedy because, although it technically has a happy ending, the tone is definitely not keeping in line with the comic gener, especially Shakespeare’s comdey. The story is of the young maiden Helena. Helena’s father, a physician for the Count Rossillion, has just died and the King is ill. Helena goes to court to cure the king with a special sure her father possessed. At this same time, the Countess’s son Bertram (whose father has also just died) goes to court to enlist in the service of the king. When Helena cures the King, the king tells her to pick whomever she desires as a husband. Of course, Helena is in love with Bertram, and she picks Bertram for the kings offer. However, Bertram can’t stand Helenaso he goes away to war without consummating the marriage. Helena, realizing that he’s run away from her, follows him. Bertram has written Helena a letter saying he will only return to her when she can get the family ring off his finger (hard when he’s far away at war) and is pregnant with his child (hard when you haven’t slept together). Helena, with the help of her friend Diana, tricks Bertram at night and gets him to sleep with her and give her the ring from his finger. In the end, Bertram is still with Helena, Helena is pregnant with his child, and alls well that ends well.

I found Helena INCREDIBLY annoying. Like, really, really annoying. So much so that I wrote an entire paper about it for my Shakespeare class. First of all, she is ridiculously manipulative. Secondly, she’s headstrong to a fault. I don’t know how many times Bertram tells Helena that she wants nothing to do with her, but she just won’t take the hint. Furthermore, she goes through great lengths to force Bertram in to being with her. Its entrapment. I know quite a few people who disagree, who see Bertram as a foolish boy who is deliberately avoiding his responsibilities. However, I see him as an unfortunate man with his back against the wall and nowhere to go but into a marriage that he hates or run to a war he doesn’t particularly care to fight. It’s frustrating to watch him do all he can to deliver the message to a girl that refuses to hear it. True, a lot of times we champion the woman who knows what she wants and pursues her goals to whatever end possible. However, in the case of love, or, in the case of Helena’s love for Bertram, sometimes too much is too much. The only positive thing about the play was its explorations of questions about marriage, love, and what it takes to make a person recognize their faults. I would definitely recommend the play, but don’t necessarily expect that happiest of happy endings! Happy reading!