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
Queen
, 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.

Bookmark the permalink.