Neal Stephenson and Beowulf

Neal Stephenson, one of my favorite authors, was interviewed by Slashdot. Stephenson is best known for his
SF, especially for Snowcrash and The
Diamond Age
. His recent work, including a mammoth trilogyThe
Baroque Cycle
, has brought him to the attention of people who might not ordinarily read SF. Stephenson has also written In the Beginning was the Command Line, a very readable treatise on the nature of computer interfaces.

In the Slashdot interview, Stephenson draws a distinction between two types of modern writers and, in an extended analogy, compares them with Dante, who had wealthy aristocratic patrons, and to the Beowulf poet.

Regarding the Beowulf poet Stephenson says:

But I doubt that Beowulf was written on commission. Probably there was a collection of
legends and tales that had been passed along in an oral tradition—which is just a fancy way of saying that lots of people liked those stories and wanted to hear them told. And at some point perhaps there was an especially well-liked storyteller who pulled a few such tales together and fashioned them into what we now know as Beowulf. Maybe there was a king or other wealthy patron who then caused the tale to be written down by a scribe. But I doubt it was created at the behest of a king. It was created at the behest of lots and lots of intoxicated Frisians sitting around the fire wanting to hear a yarn. And there was no grand purpose behind its creation, as there was with the painting of the Sistine Chapel.

I take Stephenson’s point about the difference between modern “commercially successful” fiction writers (Beowulf writers like Stephenson) and the Dante-like “literary fiction” writers who do something else to earn a living. But I think his underlying model is wrong—and Stephenson is definitely wrong about Beowulf.

The scop who first created the work in something like the form we have today was a professional poet. He composed for pay, in the form of beer, gold, horses, and a place by the fire. A lot of what he wrote would have been the kind of oral formulaic stuff that only the subject of the praise liked to hear; typical praise poems meant to honor a king or lord, like Widsith refers to. The
scribe who created British Library, Cotton Vitellius A.15 (the only Beowulf manuscript) was also a professional, though likely his
profession was that of a monastic scribe, and he copied an earlier manuscript, one we no longer have. The basic plot of Beowulf and his fights with Grendel, Grendel’s mom, and a dragon—sure, that’s the stuff of oral legend, but Beowulf is a lot more than that. In fact Beowulf was a lot more than that at least from the first time it was written down. Beowulf is a highly self conscious work for all its traditional memes and formulae.

Even if we ignore what we know of scribal practice and the function of the scop, and the transmission of tales oral and textual, and just look at Beowulf itself, Beowulf is a thematically coherent and carefully structured work, though it sometimes seems to have more in common with the modern anthology than the epic. Beowulf is not something “created at the behest of lots and lots of intoxicated Frisians sitting around the fire” for a number of reasons—among them the fact that the Frisians are the villains of the piece, and, that while the poem features Denmark and parts of the Netherlands, it was definitely composed for an Anglo-Saxon (English) audience.

I’d also take exception to Stephenson’s statement that “there was no grand purpose behind its creation,” since I suspect that there was, given the thematic constants. The poet is making a point about the nature of life and the idiocies of feuds. I should also probably point out that as much as I personally like Beowulf, we have no proof (other than the fact that someone wrote it down at least twice, a time consuming and expensive practice not engaged in lightly), that the poem was similarly valued by the Anglo-Saxons. We don’t really know what value the poem had to the scribe who first copied it, or the scop who created it. It may have been seen as arty, rather than “a good read,” though the two are not mutually incompatible—as Stephenson’s own work demonstrates. We only have one very damaged manuscript of Beowulf.

Stephenson’s analogy really doesn’t work if you think about it closely because it’s based on a flawed model. If you look at the poets who had patrons, they tended to have other sources of income. Chaucer was the Customs Inspector (and likely worked in various other secret capacities for the crown), yet had to send begging poems for payment. Gower was a wealthy property owner, trained in the law courts, with close ties to court. Lydgate was a monk at Bury St Edmunds. Spenser was a civil servant, and was given the paltry sum of 100 pounds for Fairy
, only after requesting the
promised payment a second time. Shakespeare, who would seem to have had patrons royal and monied, was primarily a business man; he was a part owner of the theater his plays were performed in, and a litigious landowner. The first professional writer I can think of was Christine de Pizan, who supported herself and her son by her writing after the death of her husband. In other words, Stephenson needs to look towards post-printing-press writers for his models—I’d suggest Dickens and Ruskin, perhaps. And I’d like to point out that the canon changes with time (and The Norton Anthology) so it’s likely that Stephenson will be in the 2050 edition, just as Dickens has been in all of them.

Shakespeare’s Quartos, Digitized

The British Library has digitized its collection of 93 copies of the 21 plays by Shakespeare printed in quarto before the theatres were closed in 1642. Shakespeare’s plays appear to have been first printed in 1594. Titus Andronicus was probably the first one. Eighteen of Shakespeare’s plays were published in quarto editions before he died in 1616. Quartos are small and very portable (think modern paperback) books that were made by folding a large sheet of paper into quarters. The first collected “official” printing of Shakespeare’s plays was the 1623 “first folio” edition of 36 plays by Shakespeare. The first folio was a production of Shakespeare’s friends, including actors from his company. The quartos are important because they’re typically the earliest, and hence presumably closest to Shakespeare’s own, versions of the plays. Some of them appear to have been versions that were edited for specific audiences, like the so-called “bad quartos” of Hamlet.


My review of John Matthews Taliesin: The Last Celtic Shaman is up at The Green Man Review. I’m not overly impressed with Matthews’ Taliesin as a scholarly work. I do think a case can be made for Celtic poets engaging in and writing about shamanic behaviors, and I’ve written about some of the standard scholarly sources regarding Taliesin here.

Medieval Comic Construction Kit

Metafilter brings us this Flash 6 driven “Historic Tale Construction Kit” which allows you to assemble comic style frame-by-frame stories with text and images, add them to a gallery to email them to friends. The images are taken from the Bayeux Tapestry, itself constructed to celebrate the victories of William the Conqueror at the Battle of Hastings in 1066.

Byatt on Modern Fantasy

In a New York Times piece, linked and commented on in Metafilter, author A. S. Byatt mourns the state of current fantasy literature, particularly Rowling’s Harry Potter books. Byatt refers to such books as “secondary secondary fantasy.” According to Byatt:

Ms. Rowling’s magic world has no place for the numinous. It is written for people whose imaginative lives are confined to TV cartoons, and the exaggerated (more exciting, not threatening) mirror-worlds of soaps, reality TV and celebrity gossip. Its values, and everything in it, are, as Gatsby said of his own world when the light had gone out of his dream, “only personal.” Nobody is trying to save or destroy anything beyond Harry Potter and his friends and family…. Ms. Rowling, I think, speaks to an adult generation that hasn’t known, and doesn’t care about, mystery. They are inhabitants of urban jungles, not of the real wild. They don’t have the skills to tell ersatz magic from the real thing, for as children they daily invested the ersatz with what imagination they had.

Essentially, what Byatt is saying, is that she doesn’t like Rowling’s books because they aren’t the sort of fantasy Byatt favors; she then uses her personal taste to bludgeon Rowling’s Harry Potter books, and the taste of those readers who do like them, condemning them as "secondary secondary" fantasy.

She’s missing something rather important. I too very much like Susan Cooper, Diana Wynne Jones (warning, Flash site), Tolkien—and a host of others like them, for instance, Patricia McKillip’s RiddleMaster of Hed, or Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain Chronicles . . . or, oh heck here’s a page I made. The books Byatt favors, and that I very much like, are derived from or influenced very strongly by medieval Celtic myth, and, in Tolkien’s case, Germanic and Finnish traditions.

Harry Potter is descended from an alternate tradition, that of Victorian children’s fantasy. The tradition includes the books of George MacDonald, E. Nesbit, and the "allegorical" member of the Inklings, C. S. Lewis. Victorian fantasy has as legitimate a pedigree as the Celtic stuff (which also has a Victorian heritage in the the Lady Charlotte Guest translation of the Mabinogion).

Were Byatt to compare Victorian fantasy to Victorian fantasy, she would do better to look to Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, or perhaps Garth Nix‘s Old Kingdom trilogy.

Tolkien on Beowulf

There’s a SlashDot story that links to a story about the discovery by Professor Michael Drout (yes, he of the Wormtalk blog) having brought to light an unpublished and hitherto unknown translation of Beowulf by Tolkien. Drout has already edited and published Beowulf and the Critics.

I can see, from the SlashDot story and other things I’ve seen on and off line about Tolkien and Lord of the Rings, in part because of the films, that I need to write an FAQ about Tolkien and languages, particularly the Celtic ones. Give me a couple of days, and I will.

Roman and Celtic Olfactory History

I’m working on my diss, and I notice that one of my citations lacks the publication date. I borrowed the book from a friend, and returned it long ago, so I decide to use Amazon to check the data. In the process I discover that there are, I kid you not, scratch and sniff history texts for kids. Like Roman Aromas, of which the publisher says:

Young readers will learn that smells have played a powerful role in our history with these often funny tours back in time

When the Romans arrived in Britain they soon showed the rampaging Celts the way to perfumed perfection. Poor old Celts–with their oils, and baths, and drains those Romans really got up their noses. Sample the splendors of the public baths and a fabulous feast, or suffer with the soldiers in the frozen latrines on Hadrian’s Wall in northern England. You won’t forget those Roman Aromas in a hurry.

There are others in the Smelly Old History series.

Speaking of Roman history, and things Celtic, Julius Caesar, invader of England and less than kind to the Celts, has his own Bloggus Caesari.