A Dream of the Cross

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One for Good Friday. A (free) translation I made some years ago (and am still tinkering with) of the anonymous Old English poem. Known today from a tenth-century manuscript, it appears to date from around the seventh century, from the fact that phrases from it are seemingly quoted in the runic inscriptions on the magnificent Ruthwell Cross.

Old English poetry, and writing in general, often gave a first-person voice to a range of inanimate objects, in a way which suggests (to me at least) a vestige of an old mythic way of looking at the world, in a way which saw pretty much everything in the cosmos as sentient, or at least endowed with personhood in some form (cf. this previous post on myth). The inscription on the famous Alfred jewel reads “Alfred had me made,” and the Exeter Book famously preserves a hundred or so riddles, derived ultimately from classical Latin models, in which various non-human phenomena speak in the first person to tantalise the reader/listener with cryptic and defamiliarised accounts of their own nature. The Exeter Book riddles are fully achieved poems, and not mere guessing games; in some of them, the answer is obvious, and the implied requirement to guess it seems beside the point. The idea of narrating the central Christian myth of the Atonement through the imagined eyes of the central sacrificial weapon itself – and then giving the cross a voice of compassionate piety – is a stroke of genius which builds on a long legacy of learning and a complex poetic tradition.

By these means, the Dream of the Cross (often termed “The Dream of the Rood,” which means the same thing, bearing in mind that the poem has no title at all in the manuscript) testifies to a potent but ambivalent fascination with the figure of Christ, which scholars such as Tolkien have long discerned in Old English literature. On the one hand, the English poets were Christians. They believed in the Atonement and they knew that Jesus could hardly have achieved it by fighting back against his enemies or striving for worldly glory. They knew that he was meek, mild, humble, a lover and forgiver of his enemies, and so forth. Like good medieval Christians, they praised the many saints who took their emulation of Christ’s example to commensurately self-destructive extremes. On the other hand, they inherited a culture and tradition which had celebrated warlike virtues time out of mind, according to which fighting back against one’s enemies and striving for worldly glory were highly commendable. Old English religious literature is the record of various attempts to wrestle with the resulting contradiction, which, seemingly, was never finally resolved. Anglo-Saxon monks persisted in the bad habit of listening to heroic poetry and storytelling, and were famously rebuked by their superiors for doing so. Even the accounts of military campaigns in the early days of English Christianity, and the use of Christian symbols on weapons and armour, all suggest that the Christian God was worshipped at least partly because he was seen as an effective war-god – a view which the Christian Old Testament, and the contemporary expectation of a Last Judgment, would, of course, have corroborated. The fact that the paradox endured in Anglo-Saxon culture inspired some truly breathtaking art and poetry – as John Keats might have predicted it would.

In the Dream of the Cross, it has been suggested, the paradox leads the poet to tell the mythic story of the Crucifixion and Resurrection, and the legend of the loss and rediscovery of the Cross by St Helena, in the genre conventions developed for praise-poetry about the legendary feats of warrior heroes, pointedly adapted to flag up the paradox of a hero who emerges triumphant in his very refusal to fight. Behind the pious Christian sentiments, and underneath the rich and sonorous verse, and vivid imagery and storytelling (which of themselves are enough to justify the study of the poem) one can discern a living mind, veritably boggling. Whose mind it was that boggled, we will never know. But perhaps that doesn’t really matter. The Dream of the Cross records a vision of awe before ineffable reality which is compelling in its conviction and cosmic in its scope.

I was working on this translation for many years before I read the Golden Legend of Jacobus de Voragine, and learned the complete legend of the Cross and its rediscovery – a vast and fascinating story in its own right, and a centrepiece of British legend, although referenced only in passing here.

 

Now I bring news of the brightest dream

that ever I met in the midst of night

when the wit of the world lies wound up in sleep.

I thought I saw the cross of Christ

raised high in splendour, wreathed round with light.

The beam, as I saw, was bright as a beacon,

gilded with gold: its jewelled foundation

was rooted in earth, with a five-fold jewel

clustered close at its core; so might the king

of heaven have seemed, on earth. That was no mere

gibbet, truly, for angels in hosts adored it,

and every mortal and well-made thing, this

marvel beyond measure; and I – mired as I was in my sins,

wounded and wicked at heart – I saw the same bright beam

so glad and joyful with glistening gold,

so worked and adorned and worthily woven,

the wood of God with glorious jewels inlaid –

but there upon it, for all its beauty,

were marks of old evil: before my sight

its side sweated blood. And I sorrowed.

Afraid for this fair thing, I saw its light, its fire

turning, adorned with garlands, drenched with blood by turns

and soaked with dripping streams, by turns clustered with gems.

So I stood for a long time, and I

watched the turning cross with anguished care

until time loosed the tree’s tongue

and, solid wood as it was, it began to speak:

“Long years ago – yet still I remember –

ground axe hewed me by greenwood side,

razed me at root; rough hands seized me.

Foes mocked me, forced me to hang their thieves,

hauled me off on their shoulders, shored me up high on a hill;

foes enough to fasten me there! Then the son of the Father

hurried to meet me with heart full and free.

And then indeed for fear I never dared

shudder or bend, though the whole world

shook before me. I could have easily

felled them all. But I stood fast.

He gathered himself up – that was God almighty,

stern, strong-minded: he walked out to the gallows,

proud before all people, to pay their lives’ ransom.

I trembled as he touched me. I dared not bow down

or fall to the ground. I was forced to stand fast.

Then I was raised, the cross, and I raised up the king,

the lord of the heights; and I dared not falter,

though black nails drove through me, and death hung on me,

and wide, hateful wounds which I could not even avenge.

They mocked my lord then, and me – soaked as I was in blood

that ran from his side, as his soul went out of him.

High on the hill I heard harsh speech,

hateful utterances; I shared the lord of hosts’

suffering and sorrow. The black of night

covered the body of God in shadow,

his bright shining body: the darkness came

with its wan weather; all the world wept

for the fallen king. Christ was crucified.

Good people came from far off, in haste

to that high lord – I knew it all

with the weight of grief, and I bowed down low to their hands,

humbled, but full. They took the lord

and carried him away, and the proud people left me

there to stand, still blood-drenched, torn with iron.

Wearily they laid him down, and kept watch at his head,

looked down on the lord as he lay there at rest,

worn out with his work. They made him a tomb;

carved it before me, a crypt of bright stone;

there they laid him in glory, and lifted their voices,

sang out their sorrow at sunset, set their foot to the road

outward, left none to keep him company.

We trees – we kept to our places. But we wept then,

wept our own tears, and our cries, too, went up,

our own mast and mould of grief at the slow cooling

of the shining flesh. And then we were all cut down,

hacked down to earth. That was a hard thing to bear.

We were buried deep. Then, later, the lord’s people

found me; his followers unearthed me,

then decked me out with gold and silver –

and now you have heard, my dearest of friends,

the way I have weathered the work of the wicked,

suffered its sorrows: and now, now is the time

to announce my honour, both near and far

among all mortal and well-made things,

to light their prayers. Since upon me, long ago,

the son of God suffered a little while,

I am raised to heaven, with glory and healing

for all who find it in them to fear me.

Before, I was thought the worst of all deaths,

most vile to look on, before I unlocked

the right road of life to the whole of the world.

But now the king of glory has crowned me

great in the green wood, heaven’s great keeper,

just as he made Mary his mother

worthiest among all womankind

before all men, almighty God!

And now I urge you, dearest of friends:

tell out the truth as I tell it you now!

Speak in plain speech of the one tree

that bore all the grief of almighty God,

for all the world and its measureless sins,

the evil things old Adam awoke.

Death was buried here. God has broken his grave

in his greatness of strength, for sinners’ rescue

and, risen to heaven now, he cannot help

but search you all out, all over the earth

on the day of judgment – the lord of dread,

almighty God, all his angels with him –

and to repay, as ruler of all,

each one of you, as here before

you have all earned in the loan of your lives;

none shall go free, unfettered by fear

of the right answer God will then give;

in sight of all nations, he will speak well with those

who suffered for him the bitter

taste of the death which he suffered on me.

All shall be afraid, and none will know

how to approach the all-wielding Christ –

but none need ever fear that hour of ordeal

if they bear my weight as the brightest beam in their breast;

through me, through the cross, to the kingdom each soul shall come

who has wandered the wide ways of earth

with trust and hope in the healer on high.”

I bowed to the cross in gladness of mind

and fullness of heart, alone as I was,

none other beside me. My longing awoke

for the journey before me, just as it has

times since beyond number: and now my hope

is only to reach that tree in its splendour

alone, more often than any other

to honour its worth. My will is fast

and firm to that goal: my shield and protection

is set in the cross: and no firm friend

have I in the world but those who have already gone

out beyond the world’s joys to the king of glory,

found home in heaven with the high father,

haven of wonder. So too, with longing

each day I wait for the saviour’s cross

which here in the world I met with once,

to bear me out from the loan of my life

and bring me back to the fullness of joy,

the vastness of heaven, the lord’s host

arrayed in harmony, rapture incalculable,

living with him forever and ever,

established in splendour among the saints,

knowing all good things. God be my friend –

God who here on earth once suffered such grief

as God on the gallows for all the godless!

For he forgave us, he gave us life

and heavenly home. Hope was replenished,

drunk up with delight by the dead of Hell,

when his son returned, steadfast, exulting,

mighty, most powerful, lord of multitudes,

leading lost souls to the house of God,

the ruler of all, the rapture of angels

and all the saints who stand in the heavens

fixed in splendour, since first their saviour,

God almighty, came back to his home.

The Secret Life of … Beowulf

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Introduction

Beowulf is an epic poem from Anglo-Saxon England: at 3,182 lines, it is the longest extant Old English poem, and – in effect – the oldest major work in the canon of English literature. It is composed in the famous Old English alliterative metre, which modern translators often imitate. It was composed a few generations prior to the Norman conquest, some time roughly around 1000 AD. It tells a story which has been dated to around five centuries previous to its date of composition, around 500 AD. Its setting is not England, but the other side of the North Sea, in the southern Baltic – that is, the ancestral homeland of the poem’s original Anglo-Saxon audience; we might picture the tenth-century English audience looking back to the story of Beowulf in rather the way that modern Americans look back across the Atlantic to tales of Robin Hood.

The basic plot is well-known. A Danish king called Hrothgar (a name still current in English, in the form Roger; it means “spear of fame”) builds a magnificent feasting hall called Heorot (“The Hart”). The hall is haunted by a nocturnal, man-eating monster, Grendel (“The Grinder”). A young warrior of a neighbouring tribe hears of the opportunity for glory. His name is Beowulf, a name which sounds like it means bee-wolf, which would be a typically roundabout Anglo-Saxon way of referring to the animal which behaves like a thief (a “wolf”) towards bees, namely by stealing their honey. So Beowulf’s name means Bear, just like the modern name Björn/Bjørn (“the brown one”), and he certainly has the bearlike characteristics of immense strength and skill at wrestling and swimming. Beowulf visits Heorot in order to confront Grendel, which he does in a late-night hand-to-hand duel. Beowulf rips Grendel’s arm off with his bare hands. Grendel crawls off, mortally wounded. But the nightly attacks on Heorot continue. Beowulf then has to face a second showdown with Grendel’s mother, in her lair at the bottom of a marshy lake. Beowulf leaves the Danish court and returns home triumphant, having killed both monsters.

Years pass. Beowulf becomes king of his own people, when his own king, Hygelac, and his successor, are both killed. (The real Hygelac’s death was touted, originally by N.F.S. Grundtvig, as the poem’s one corroborated historical fact, courtesy of Gregory of Tours – but this argument may convince you otherwise). Beowulf rules well for many years. Then, in old age, he has to face a third and final showdown, with a dragon which has been inadvertently woken up by a runaway slave. Beowulf and the dragon kill each other, and the poem ends with an account of the hero’s funeral.

Beowulf, in essence, then, is the story of three heroic fights with three monsters, and this is how the story is usually told by modern film-makers and graphic artists. But – if this needs saying – Beowulf was never as crude or simple a story as this summary might imply. The monsters are not simple fight-fodder, but complex and ambivalent entities, or symbols. Also, the three climatic fight-stories are embedded, like the prodigies of Greek tragedy, within intricate, realistic stories of war and dynastic politics, like three chunky pillars supporting the tracery of a vaulted ceiling, and, like the tales of Robin Hood, these parallel plots seem to be based loosely on real events. Beowulf’s own people, the Geats, are a relatively humble tribe, constantly looking over the shoulder towards their powerful rivals and feud-enemies, the neighbouring Swedes. And history bears out this sense of foreboding: the Geats did lose out eventually, and their territory is now part of Sweden. Meanwhile, Lejre, in modern Denmark, has been proposed as the location of the real Heorot (as a historic nucleus of the Danish kingdom). And this burial mound was even suggested as the grave of the real Beowulf, by the archaeologist Birger Nerman.

All this is well known and often discussed, and while I’m no expert on Beowulf, I have loved the poem for years. The combination of poetic form, subject matter, narrative power and the sheer flavour of the language is unique and indescribable. Whoever composed it was a genius and the master of an extraordinarily subtle and powerful form of narrative art. What is less often told is the fascinating story of how and why we know about Beowulf at all. We very nearly didn’t. This story of survival and rediscovery is exactly the kind of story which belongs on this blog.

And it is quite a story – although much about it remains a matter of conjecture. But, like its hero, the manuscript of Beowulf has had an adventurous life, physically speaking, involving war in the southern Baltic; fire and water; a late but triumphant emergence from obscurity; and other adventures. It got caught up in the upheavals of the Protestant Reformation. It fell into the hands of Elizabethan spymasters. It is still singed around the edges from a house-fire. It was one of the first great literary texts to be nationalised (so to speak), and it took an Act of Parliament to do it. A century later, the story it records was rescued from obscurity by a scholar who has been accused of being a fraud, whose notes, he claimed, were bombed to ashes by British warships; then, a century after that, it was rescued from highbrow condescension by the bestselling author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Despite its atavistic roots, then, Beowulf has quietly spent three centuries near the forefront of intellectual life and popular culture. The gatekeepers of highbrow art have perhaps been less enthusiastic about admitting it to their canons; but that’s hardly the sort of thing to bother us on this blog. So let’s have a closer look at the secret life of this oldest, most ambitious, and most quietly enduring and resonant of English stories.

The Mysterious Manuscript

There is only one Beowulf manuscript. It just turned up, as if out of nowhere, in the 1560s, by which point it was about five hundred years old. About these first five centuries, we can only make deductions on the basis of clues contained within the document itself, and this is hard, because the document was badly damaged in the ensuing centuries.

Beowulf is written on parchment. It is about seventy pages long, but it is part of a longer document of about a hundred pages, containing four other poems besides, of a similar date and content. As far as we know they have always been bound together in a single volume. It is not a big book physically: the pages are about 195mm x 115-130mm, roughly the same dimensions as a DVD case, or an A5 sheet of paper.  The language of the poem is a late and quite literary form of Old English, which rapidly fell out of use in élite circles following the Norman conquest. Whoever wrote it was using letter-forms which originated late in the first millennium AD and spread to England from the continent. These details are hard to fake, and conclusively suggest a date around 1000 AD. The handwriting changes halfway through (just at the point in the story when Beowulf has arrived back home from the Danish court), so the original text of Beowulf is regarded as the work of two scribes.

Where these scribes got their subject-matter from, and in what form they got it, are matters of speculation, and the speculation revolves around several stubborn riddles relating to the poem’s discernible form and subject matter.

Firstly, there is the issue of orality. The Anglo-Saxons seemingly lacked a written language entirely when they first took power in Britain, between 400 and 600 AD. By the time the Beowulf manuscript was being written, the English were a highly literate people. Beowulf is clearly oral-derived – that is, a text with some sort of root in an older oral tradition. Oral tradition and literacy – including classical literature – must all have played at least some part in the poem’s formation. There is also the question of the manuscript tradition: whether the poem we have was copied from older, lost manuscripts, and, if so, how many, and how.

Secondly, there is the issue of religion. The Anglo-Saxons were pagans in 400 AD, but they coverted to Christianity from around 600 AD, and were a Christian society from the mid-seventh century onwards. Whoever composed Beowulf was clearly a Christian poet with some Biblical knowledge, looking back to the pagan heritage of his own forebears. This is clear from the text.

Thirdly, and finally, there is the politics of the text. Beowulf heaps praise on some of its heroes, and this praise may have had contemporary political implications for the poem’s original audience – assuming this audience included powerful people who may have regarded the poem’s characters as their own illustrious forebears. Did these powerful audience-descendants exist, and, if they did, who were they? We don’t know, but there are many possible candidates. Anglo-Saxon England in its earliest form was a patchwork quilt of petty kingdoms in the control of local dynasties. The kingdom was gradually (and violently) centralised. By 1066, England was a single, unified kingdom, but a succession of English and Danish dynasts were still fighting over it.

So, in order to interpret the poem and understand its origins, one must do one’s best to place it along several sliding scales, between orality and literacy, Christianity and paganism, and so forth. In a nutshell, then, the more oral, pagan, and provincial in outlook Beowulf is, then the older it probably is – or, at least, the more conservative. Concomitantly, the more literary, Christian, and metropolitan it is, then the later its origin would seem to be. And these are matters of interpretation, so, over the years, scholars have drawn a range of conclusions. Sam Newton argued that the poem is East Anglian in its politics; J.R.R. Tolkien argued that it is Christian, but quite close to paganism in its sympathies; Francis P. Magoun thought it was old and oral, whereas Kevin Kiernan thinks it is late and literary; and so forth. It is hard for the non-specialist to follow the details of this debate, but it is very easy to sum up the state of our knowledge about the exact origins of Beowulf: nobody really knows what they are.

A Miserable State of Cremation: Beowulf in the Libraries (1)

For three centuries after the manuscript comes to light, hardly anyone knew it existed at all, apart from a few very bookish experts. Those experts gradually came to an acute awareness of the text’s significance, but they failed to protect it from some serious damage.

The hundred-page Old English manuscript which contains Beowulf was labelled the “Nowell Codex” by Kemp Malone, and the name has stuck. Codex is simply a precise technical term for what we would think of simply as a book: the document format consisting of multiple pages joined at a spine, which, in the west, mostly superseded the rolled scroll in the early Middle Ages. Nowell is the name of the book’s first known owner, Lawrence Nowell, who wrote his name on the first page where it can still be read today, spelling it Laurence Nouell, and adding a year, which is usually read as 1563.

Lawrence Nowell was a protegé of William Cecil, the leading Tudor statesman and intimate of queen Elizabeth I. Cecil was one of the queen’s senior fixers, right-hand men, spymasters, and general getter-of-things-done. Nowell was one of Cecil’s regular staffers; one of his jobs was to make pocket maps for Cecil’s daily use, and he was in the habit of drawing wistful portraits of himself with an empty purse in the corners of these maps, as a tactful reminder to his patron to pay up.

Nor is it surprising that a man like Nowell would have take an interest in Anglo-Saxon manuscripts. Nowell was one of the first people to compile a dictionary of Old English – a language which sounds (mostly) unintelligible to us, as it would have done to the Elizabethans. In the sixteenth century, there was an upsurge of interest in what people at the time called antiquities: the tangible evidence for what we would now call the early history, prehistory, and folklore of Britain. Scholars and enthusiasts, who called themselves antiquarians, made serious attempts to interpret old manuscripts, inscriptions, archaeological sites, vernacular cultural traditions, and other evidence of the distant past. This had to do with the sudden political imperative of proving that the roots of Christianity in Britain were independent of the Roman Church – something which a British Protestant would naturally want to believe.

But it also had to do with the sudden and related wealth of available evidence. Thirty years before Nowell acquired the Beowulf manuscript, queen Elizabeth’s father, king Henry VIII, broke up the monasteries of medieval Catholic England, as part of the same Protestant Reformation which piqued the interest of people like Nowell in Britain’s early history. The contents of the monastic libraries – a vast and priceless hoard of medieval manuscripts – came flooding onto the open market. It seems a fairly safe bet that the Beowulf manuscript fell into Nowell’s hands as part of this tidal wave of erudite Reformation plunder, and had spent its five previous centuries in one or more of the monastery libraries of medieval England.

Nowell seems to have left his volume, along with his other ancient manuscripts, to his own protegé, William Lambarde (1536 – 1601). Shortly thereafter, somehow, it turns up in the possession of another well-connected antiquarian, a younger contemporary of Lambarde’s called Robert Bruce Cotton (1571 – 1631). Cotton was another of the leading manuscript collectors of his day. He had dealings on his own account with William Cecil; with great antiquarians like John Dee and William Camden; with Thomas Bodley, the man who founded the Bodleian Library; and others. Once he had possession of the Nowell codex, it remained in the Cotton family, and was bequeathed, along with the rest of Cotton’s gigantic collection of manuscripts, to his grandson John.

The Cottons had the Nowell codex rebound with another early manuscript, which Kemp Malone called the “Southwick Codex” – since it has a footnote which seems to connect it to the library of Southwick Priory in Hampshire. It has been speculated that Cotton had the two codices bound together because they came from the same library. Bound together, they made a single volume of around two hundred pages. This larger volume still exists, and is still known as British Library Cotton Vitellius A XV (or A 15). This snappy title records the fact that, in the Cotton library, it was the fifteenth book on shelf A in the bookcase that had a bust of the Roman emperor Vitellius on it. That was how the Cottons catalogued their collection: if you didn’t know your Roman emperors (or Roman numerals), you didn’t have much chance of finding your way round the their library. Despite the impression which this may leave us with, the Cottons were actually more worried than most about widening access to learning, for when John Cotton died in 1701, he bequeathed the library to the nation, and the whole collection became Parliament’s responsibility – the Cottons’ house was practically next door to the Houses of Parliament, so it was conveniently placed for the purpose. The idea of publicly owned treasuries of art and culture was cutting-edge stuff, and it took a 1702 Act of Parliament to ratify the acceptance of the bequest. But, already, in 1702, Beowulf had been liberated, by one man’s generosity and foresight, from the hoards of the comfortably-ensconced monks, monarchs and plutocrats which infect English history. Beowulf already belonged to you and me.

On its initial receipt into public ownership, the collection was temporarily housed in Essex House, and then in Ashburnham House, Westminster, close to Westminster School. Ashburnham House was the residence of a Biblical scholar, called Bentley.

And there, on the night of 23rd October 1731, disaster struck. Ashburnham House burned down, with a large collection of publicly owned manuscripts still inside it, including the Cotton library – including Vitellius A XV, including the only copy of Beowulf then in existence.

The fire has been described as “the greatest bibliographical disaster of modern times in Britain.” Water-pumps were applied, as rescuers abandoned the printed books and rushed to save the irreplaceable manuscripts. Contemporary letters record the spectacle of Mr Bentley himself, rushing out of the house in wig and nightgown, a thick volume under his arm. All that night charred fragments of texts fell like snow. In the morning, the schoolboys from Westminster School picked them up off the pavements as souvenirs.

Between burning and soaking, many priceless volumes were destroyed (mostly those on the bookshelves with busts of the emperors from Tiberius to Otho). However, most of the manuscripts were moved to the School, where they were to be stored in fairly makeshift conditions in the boys’ dormitories for the next twenty years. The Cotton collection did not find a permanent home until 1753, when the British Museum was founded by a bequest from Hans Sloane, and the Cotton collection was moved to a new premises in Montagu House on Great Russell Street. The Library was moved to the new Museum building in 1827, where it remained until it was moved to the new St Pancras building in 1997, reflecting the fact that the British Museum and British Library had become separate institutions. If you walk west down Euston Road from Kings Cross Station, you pass within a stone’s throw of Beowulf‘s current home.

For the Beowulf-book – Cotton Vitellius A XV – was not destroyed in the 1731 fire. It was singed around the edges, and left very fragile, desiccated and brittle. This was ominous, and reading the story of the ensuing decades feels a bit like watching a time-lapse movie of the Beowulf-book crumbling to dust before one’s very eyes. In 1794, the Museum’s Keeper of Manuscripts, Joseph Planta, was ordered by Parliament to restore and catalogue the manuscripts – a job involving over eight hundred volumes, including 105 damaged books, including the Beowulf-book, which Planta seems to have had rebound in the 1790s. He worked on the project until 1802, but appears to have botched the job, and further damaged the book. Throughout the first half of the nineteenth century, readers and Museum staff alike had more or less unrestricted access to the manuscript, and it crumbled even further under their hands.

It is a relief to read that in 1845 a general restoration programme of the Cotton manuscripts began, under the auspices of Frederic Madden, another Keeper of Manuscripts, and the restorer Henry Gough. As part of this programme, Madden and Gough finally had the Beowulf-book inlaid – that is, mounted in an album. The album mountings consigned some letters at the edges of the crumbling pages to oblivion under layers of paper and glue, but the text was protected from further damage, and remains today in more or less the same physical condition as it was in in 1845.

Unnoticed and Untouched? Beowulf in the Libraries (2)

By this point, the text of Beowulf was receiving serious scholarly attention. The first public hint that it existed came in 1705, when the pioneering scholar Humfrey Wanley published a catalogue description of the poem, and a transcript of a few lines, in which he mistakenly described Beowulf as a Danish king – a pardonable error, based on a misreading of the poem’s opening lines. But much good came of Wanley’s mistake later in the century, for his catalogue caught the eye of Danish scholars interested in their own country’s early history. Easily the most significant of these was Grímur Jónsson Thorkelin (1752-1829), Professor of Antiquities at Copenhagen University, and Danish state archivist.

Thorkelin (who was of Icelandic extraction, and who seems to have Latinised his name from the more Icelandic Thorkelsson) received regular funding from the Danish monarchy to scour Europe for Danish antiquities, and he was abroad most of the time between 1786 and 1791. In the course of his field trips, he came to London, and, drawn by Wanley’s catalogue, he appears to have paid the Museum to make a copy Beowulf for him. This copy must have raised his eyebrows, because he returned to the Museum and made another copy himself. The Museum copy – known today as Thorkelin A, and possibly written up by a Museum employee called James Matthews – looks rather like any old written document of the time, but Thorkelin’s own transcript – known as Thorkelin B – was as close as he could get, freehand, to an exact facsimile of the original. Both are now essential reading, since they preserve bits of the original text which were destroyed in the early nineteenth century. Thorkelin’s work is so important that, ironically, some of his mistakes have misled generations of scholars.

Armed with his two transcripts, Thorkelin went home to Copenhagen, and began to prepare Beowulf for publication. He was not quite the first person to publish any text from Beowulf: that honour goes to one Sharon Turner, a pioneer historian (and – please note – a male) who translated an extract in 1805 for his History of the Anglo-Saxons, a bestseller in its day which introduced the whole swathe of Anglo-Saxon history to a reading public who hardly knew anything about it. Turner was the writer who described the poem as “untouched and unnoticed” until he worked on it. This is an exaggeration, but not much of one. Turner, incidentally, was the first person to call the poem Beowulf, which he seems to have done in 1803.

But it was Thorkelin published the first complete printed text, and the first full translation (into Latin). It took him a conspicuously long time. The story he tells is that his edition was finished by 1807; then disaster struck again. In the course of the Napoleonic Wars, despite Denmark’s neutrality, the British invaded Denmark, mainly in order to stop Napoleon from doing something similar. The British navy bombarded Copenhagen,  causing thousands of civilian deaths, and extensive damage to infrastructure. The small Danish army presented itself to be outgunned by the Duke of Wellington’s troops with the same David-versus-Goliath spirit with which they confronted the Nazis over a century later. Thorkelin claimed that his manuscript edition was lost in the bombardment, forcing him to start all over from scratch, with his two original transcripts. We only have his word for this, but it seems plausible.

Thorkelin gave Beowulf its first ever print publication, in 1815 – the year the Grimm brothers completed publication the first edition of their seminal Children’s and Household Tales. The Grimms, of course, were also pioneering scholars and linguists in their own right. But Thorkelin’s work on Beowulf was full of mistakes, and he was criticised in his own time by experts such as Grundtvig. Thorkelin has even been dismissed as a fraud. At any rate, the poem was finally available to the public, and other scholars and editors quickly began to make good the deficiencies of his work. In the following years, English scholars, including John Conybeare and a young Frederic Madden, published other versions. After that, the cat was out of the bag, and the history of Beowulf textual scholarship from the mid-nineteenth century to today is an ever more complex interweave of diplomatic editions, facsimiles, restorations and emendations. There are many more high points in this story, including Julius Zupitza’s 1882 autotype of the manuscript (available for free download as a PDF), or Friedrich Klaeber’s monumental edition of the poem, first published in 1922. But the point for us is that Beowulf was now, finally, well and truly in the public domain – at least as a text of interest to scholars.

Poetry so powerful: Beowulf in the Public Domain

I used to think that nobody at all read Beowulf for pleasure until J.R.R. Tolkien revolutionised Beowulf studies by making a killer argument for the poem’s serious artistic value in his famous lecture of 1936, later published as Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics.

People say this, but I’m not convinced it was quite that simple: one can readily imagine that Beowulf would have gone down well with a later nineteenth-century audience, with tastes attuned to Wagner and early Yeats. An intelligible Beowulf was indeed already making its presence felt in art and popular culture. Translations and accessible versions of the poem had been in publication for nearly a century. Translations began to appear within a couple of years of Thorkelin’s first printed edition; the first complete translation (apart from Thorkelin’s Latin version) was Grundtvig’s Danish Bjovulfs Drape. Famous poets such as Tennyson and Longfellow attempted versions of bits of it, but the most influential complete translation was John Kemble’s of 1837. William Morris could hardly have failed to give a poem like this a try, and he did, in 1895. But intellectual fashions changed. Early twentieth century critics tended to approach the poem purely as a historical source; as a work of art or literature, it struck them as – well, as something out of the Dark Ages. Among a general readership, the poem’s profile seems always to have been low.

In 1936, there were reasons why Tolkien would want to revolutionise Beowulf studies. Many universities had a policy of making all English undergraduates study Beowulf as a way of learning Old English – whether or not it was the sort of thing they wanted to study. Generations of English students with no affinity whatsoever for heroic Anglo-Saxon legend were forced to acquire an intimate loathing of it. This might help to explain why so many expert literary critics of 1936 were quick to dismiss this tale of monsters and dragons.

Tolkien, however, insisted that it should be taken seriously. He found Beowulf “so interesting as poetry, in places poetry so powerful, that this quite overshadows the historical content, and is largely independent even of the most important facts … that research has discovered.” More to the point, he argued that the poem was a successful work of art precisely because of the monsters and dragons which were then so intellectually unrespectable. Tolkien argued that the monsters “are essential, fundamentally allied to the underlying ideas of the poem, which give it its lofty tone and high seriousness.” Specifically, he thought they were poetic devices enabling the poet to address the problem of evil and suffering, in a sophisticated and ambivalent way which reconciled the poet’s own Christianity with his knowledge that his ancestors were pagans.

As usual, Tolkien’s contribution involved democratising the artistic works he prized, by ripping some rather snobbish-seeming blinkers off his fellow-intellectuals. In making this argument, Tolkien was, in effect, speaking up for a Beowulf which was genuinely meaningful for readers, including contemporary ones.

In time, a large general public came to agree, in their own way, that Tolkien had a point. Beowulf‘s breakout into popular culture was under way as early as the 1940s, when it appeared as a comic strip in Italy. The experts caught up eventually, and after the Second World War, highly esteemed poets such as W. H. Auden and J. L. Borges began to take Beowulf seriously, although, tellingly, the tone of Borges’ poem about Beowulf seems hesitant: it involves the poet encountering Beowulf and saying to himself, in effect, “Hang on a minute. I actually like this stuff. I’d best explain myself,” and the explanation he offers is not particularly upbeat: he comments that learning Anglo-Saxon is an appropriate undertaking for his declining faculties towards the end of life. Towards the latter end of the twentieth century, other literary heavyweights felt less need to account for their esteem for the poem at all – let alone in such apologetic, downbeat terms. This period was Beowulf‘s boom period as a story for a general and informed audience, just as the later nineteenth century had been its boom years as an academic text for specialists. The volume of Beowulf-related output spiralled exponentially from about 1990, ranging in register from the popular appeal of several fantasy-style movies, to the highbrow kitemark of Seamus Heaney’s award-winning translation of 1999 – as recited by the poet himself, here.

Today, although some of the old ambivalence still seems to cling to contemporary receptions of Beowulf, the poem’s stock is high in both scholarship and culture. The state of the art in terms of scholarship seems to be represented by Kevin Kiernan’s electronic editions of Beowulf. These are ground-breaking in several ways. Firstly, they provide high-resolution images of the whole manuscripts, using backlit photography, UV imaging and other new technologies to read letters, words and passages that have long been illegible – including those hidden under Madden’s protective mountings. Secondly, they cross-reference the text to equally high-resolution images of Thorkelin’s transcripts and other important modern versions of the text. Also, they are stuffed with user-friendly electronic dictionaries, indexes, translations and other forms of support. Finally, they make all this widely accessible in digital and online formats. Today’s students and interested readers have a level of access to the original text of which the most privileged scholars of previous generations could only have dreamed.

They also live in an intellectual and cultural climate which – on the whole – seems markedly friendlier to the study of Beowulf than it was in Tolkien’s day. Recognised expert critics and arbiters of taste are certainly less confident about dismissals of popular and vernacular culture. Representations of the magic and supernatural are also somewhat in vogue again. One critically acclaimed series of novels, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, seems to consist of a rather forced attempt to reclaim the realm of magic for the cause of secular rationalism – rather than dismiss it – and it is a telling sign of the times when Gradgrind comes knocking on the door disguised as Dumbledore. Another well-received (and much better) novel for young people, A Monster Calls, exactly mirrors Beowulf‘s strategy of narrating an encounter with a monster within and alongside a real, complex human tragedy. There is an impressive range of encyclopaedic Beowulf websites by scholars and enthusiasts – like this one and this one. Meanwhile, Nobel Prize-winning poets agonise word by word over their translations of the poem, and Robert Zemeckis produces a movie Beowulf in which the plot revolves around Grendel’s mother, drastically reconfigured as a seductive succubus, played by a seemingly butt-naked, digitally enhanced Angelina Jolie. Beowulf this certainly ain’t – or, at least, not in any sense that would be recognised by the poet – but such an eclectic range of register must constitute at least some evidence of major success, for a medieval poem preserved in a lone manuscript which languished in obscurity for half a millennium and nearly disappeared in a house fire a century before almost anyone even knew it existed.

The Secret Life of … Homer

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The two Homeric poems – the Iliad and the Odyssey – are unusual in that, in the west at least, they never needed to be discovered, or rediscovered. They have enjoyed pre-eminence from the time they were first written down. Compare this with the fate of comparable oral and oral-derived epics from other times and cultures, and we can see how the west has tended to favour anything Greek over anything else. Gilgamesh (see elsewhere on this blog) was buried, quite forgotten, in lost cities under sand-dunes, for two thousand years. The Finnish Kalevala probably has prehistoric roots, but it first made it to print in the 1840s. The very existence of the west African Sundiata epic was more or less flatly denied outright by scholarly experts like Ruth Finnegan as late as the 1960s. The central Asian Manas epos is still virtually unknown in the west, despite clocking in as the biggest oral epic tradition ever, at a round million lines per poem, and enjoying a post-Soviet revival. And so forth.

The Iliad and Odyssey are both oral epics, or, more strictly, oral-derived epics: in their original form they were composed and transmitted orally. Since, as texts, both are around 12,000 lines long, oral composition is quite an achievement, and it took scholars centuries to even begin to work out how it was done.

Maybe I’ll tell that story one day, but it’s been told many times. For the moment, I’m more interested in answering the less frequently asked question of how the texts of the poems, once created, were themselves transmitted over two thousand years to the present day, in a world which (for the most part) had no printing presses, no damp-proofing, no fire-extinguishers, and little else that would increase the average manuscript’s chances of long-term survival. How have we managed to keep hold of readable texts of the poems over two millennia? How close are today’s texts to what ‘Homer’ – whoever that was – sang?

The poems deal with the Greek view of the Trojan war, which was itself a later episode in a very long, substantial, essentially legendary history, which ultimately ran straight back, through the stories of well-known Greek heroes such as Jason, Theseus, Perseus and Oedipus, and stories of the Great Flood, to mythic accounts of the creation of humanity and the world. Although these Greek traditions have oral roots, Greeks had begun to adopt the older civilisations’ pictographic writing systems, and by the mid-8th century BCE they were already using alphabetic scripts which they had borrowed from the neighbouring Phoenicians (whose Semitic language and culture connects them with the Israelites’ alphabetic Bible, emerging in the same centuries). This adapted Phoenician script is still the Greek alphabet of today.

The Greeks at this early point in their history, were a relatively marginal people, living in small, competing city-states, under conditions of political fragmentation, offset by a growing sense of unity or Panhellenism (“all-of-Greece-ism”). This developed in opposition to a great and expanding centre of civilisation to the east: the Persian empire. Nowadays, Persia is Iran. In the first millennium BC, and for several centuries afterwards until the Arab Muslims conquered it, it was the centre of a large empire and a civilisation of global standing, the major centre of settled culture between Europe and India. Greece was a backwater on the Persian margins, and Greek unity developed in resistance to the huge threat of Persian conquest.

Prominent among Panhellenic institutions was the Panathenaic festivals at Athens. Throughout this period and beyond, performing poets known as rhapsodes continued to keep Homeric tradition alive, either reciting a fixed text from memory or creating their own versions of well-known stories. Prominent among the rhapsodes were an order known as the Homeridai or “sons of Homer,” who claimed a special authority with regard to the poet’s legacy. Hard evidence is rather skimpy, but the two great poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey, are traditionally said to have been first written down, possibly by direct dictation from single performances, in an attempt to iron out discrepancies in local dialects and narrative traditions, and establish a text for recitation at these festivals which would be authoritative within the whole Greek culture area. But there is no hard evidence for written texts of the poems from this period.

As ancient Greek history proceeded along its course, these two early poems were – apparently – rewritten and copied, and orally recited in an ongoing tradition, and continued to enjoy unrivalled high standing in these forms. They inspired an enormous volume of comment and imitation, much of it now lost, over the next few centuries, as the Greeks beat the odds by seeing off an attempted Persian invasion, and used their new writing system to create and record all of what we think of as the great works of classical Greek literature, poetry and philosophy. They were then forced into political unity by one of their own marginal peoples, the northern Macedonians. The Macedonians then went on, under Alexander (probably Homer’s most famous fan), to occupy and establish a large empire including Greece, Egypt, Persia, parts of central Asia, and most of the Middle East as far as the Indus river-valley in modern Pakistan. This empire quickly fragmented, and the pieces were slowly picked off piecemeal by the Romans in the west and the revived Persians in the east. But this was not before Greek language and culture had made a more lasting mark across the whole area. It is from this late and fluid period, in the mid-3rd century BCE, that we find, at last, our earliest hard evidence for the two Homeric poems as written texts, in the surviving records of the great Greek library at Alexandria, a new Greek city in Greek-occupied Egypt, where a few of the many versions circulating at the time were edited and deposited.

We know that there were complete texts of the poems in the library at Alexandria, but none of them have survived. The oldest surviving complete text of the Iliad only surfaces in the early 10th century, in Byzantium, in the archives of the surviving eastern half of the Roman empire, which had half-collapsed under the three-pronged assault of Germanic, Turkic and Arab invaders. Named by scholars Venetus A, it now rests in the Public Library of St. Mark, in Venice, and is being scanned for free online public access, by Harvard University. It will be available here. It looks like this: heavily annotated, with scholarly apparatus stretching back to the lost editions of Alexandria. That’s Alexandria for you. When an Alexandrian librarian annotated a text, the text stayed annotated. Some Alexandrian footnotes have lasted longer than other people’s entire civilisations.

So the rest, as they say, is history. Homer continued to influence both Christian and Muslim scholars and writers through the medieval and modern periods, and copies and citations of the poems are relatively plentiful thereafter.

Throughout this complex history, numerous written and spoken versions of the two basic stories continued to circulate and affect each other. The upshot is that we cannot be sure if and how our present-day Iliad and Odyssey are really oral epics at all, in the sense of being things which one or more singers composed and performed without the help of writing. They are almost certainly hybrids: literate texts which are fairly close to the old oral epic tradition.

But we cannot know how close: Homer’s voice, of course, fell silent many centuries before the poem in Venetus A was copied down.

The Secret Life of … Gilgamesh

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If, for some reason, you wanted to pinpoint the exact starting-point of all western literature, the ancient Mesopotamian epic of Gilgamesh would have a reasonable claim to be it. It follows the legendary career of an irrepressible demi-god, king of the city-state of ancient Uruk, as he fights monsters (such as the entrail-faced demon Huwawa), engages gods and goddesses in battles of wit and will, and finds true friendship with a wild man, Enkidu, who has been tamed and brought into the city. Most famously, when Enkidu dies, the grief-stricken Gilgamesh goes on a world-spanning search for immortality – and finds it (perhaps). Short though it may be relative to some other epics, the story of Gilgamesh, written by an Assyrian scribe on twelve clay tablets in Biblical times, deals authoritatively with themes of life, death, love, grief, growing up, the nature of the world, and the place of human society in it. It is one of the most ambitious and complete works of narrative art in existence.

Gilgamesh himself is a kingly hero on the old legendary pattern, but there is an appealingly tricksterish quality to his naivety and boundless energy. The story begins with an appetising description of the magnificent city of Uruk, the kingdom of Gilgamesh, the son of the human king Lugulbanda and of the cow-goddess Ninsun. The basic problem is that Gilgamesh is so invincible that he is causing trouble around Uruk, randomly bullying all the men and seducing all the women. The chief mother-goddess Aruru (or Ninhursag) creates a wild man, Enkidu, who wanders the countryside outside Uruk, keeping company with the wild beasts, until a humble hunter spots him. Word comes to Gilgamesh, who sends Shamhat, a priestess of the goddess Ishtar, to tame the wild man by sleeping with him. Since Ishtar is one of the patron-gods of Uruk itself, her priestess, by implication, is the channel of the core values and wisdom of the civilisation, and after seven nights’ lovemaking, Enkidu has indeed acquired human wisdom, and, seemingly in consequence, the wild animals are beginning to give him a wide berth. Enkidu is far from happy, but recognising his changed state, from beastlike to fully human, he asks Shamhat to take him to Uruk. She does so, and, in fulfilment of Gilgamesh’s own prophetic dream, he and Gilgamesh meet and become the closest of friends.

Gilgamesh and Enkidu now form one of the oldest buddy double-acts in recorded world literature, and proceed to tackle and kill a series of monsters, including the forest-demon Humbaba (Huwawa in the older Sumerian). All goes well enough until Gilgamesh refuses a marriage-proposal from the goddess Ishtar, rather tactlessly pointing out the misfortune which she has always ended up inflicting on her previous lovers. Rejected and furious, Ishtar runs to her father, the sun-god Anu, who reluctantly releases one more monster, the Bull of Heaven, into her keeping. As if to prove Gilgamesh right, the vengeful Ishtar unleashes the Bull of Heaven at Gilgamesh and Enkidu, but they manage to kill it as they have killed all the other monsters. Affronted at the slaughter of the symbol of their surpreme power, the gods decide on another attempt to rein in the irrepressible Gilgamesh, and decree that either he or Enkidu must die.

At this point the tone of the epic changes. Up till now everything has gone Gilgamesh’s way, but now he is increasingly powerless, the plaything of terrible events and forces beyond his control, and the story becomes, not one of his heroic triumph over adversity, but his growing realisation of his own tragic helplessness in the face of it. Enkidu and Gilgamesh have premonitions of disaster, and Enkidu curses the priestess Shamhat, presumably for tangling him up in the fate of civilised humanity. But the gods point out the positive side of his experiences, and Enkidu resigns himself to the inevitable, blesses Shamhat, falls sick, and dies.

The suddenly terrified and grief-stricken Gilgamesh has an image made of his dead friend, but when this fails to console him, he resolves to seek out the immortal sage Ut-napishtim in order to prevent his own death. Ut-napishtim is the supremely good and wise survivor of the Great Flood, related in storytelling tradition to the Noah of the Bible, and although he has been gifted with immortality by the gods, he lives in the land of the dead. Gilgamesh sets out to find him. He meets with Siduri, the innkeeper along the road to the land of the dead, and Ur-shanabi, the ferryman who sails across the river of death, and advises him how to cross it. Finally, Gilgamesh comes to Utnapishtim, who advises him not to seek to avoid death, and tells him the story of the Flood to illustrate his point. Gilgamesh insists, and Utnapishtim tells him that to avoid death he must go seven nights without sleep. He fails. Utnapishtim gives him a second chance, telling him of a herb which confers immortality. Gilgamesh scours the cosmic ocean for this herb, and finds it. Returning jubilantly to Uruk with the herb, he stops to wash himself in a pool, and a snake eats the herb. Gilgamesh observes the snake shedding its skin as it slithers away, and realises that his quest has been in vain. He consoles himself with boasting to Urshanabi the ferryman about the strength and beauty of the walls of Uruk, and so the whole story ends where it began – with a vision of the magnificence of humanity and its achievements – but seasoned with the bittersweet hindsight which tells us that no-one, not even the invincible Gilgamesh, can cheat death.

The standard text of Gilgamesh has a very chequered prehistory. As we have seen, the real Gilgamesh was a king of Uruk (Biblical Erech – that is, Warka in modern Iraq), an important city-state, cult centre and centre of literacy around the very beginning of the oldest historical period, around 2800 – 2500 BCE. There is no contemporary written evidence for his existence. However, very early illustrations appear to show episodes from his adventures, and written evidence dating from soon after his death indicates that he was already being worshipped as a god, in the way many ancient kings were (including Egyptian pharaohs and the much later Greek and Roman emperors). He, his “father” Lugulbanda and grandfather Enmerkar are the three major figures of the later Mesopotamian king-lists and story-collections, in exactly the same way that Israelite kings such as David and Solomon came to feature in the compendious “begats” and narrative episodes of the Hebrew Bible. So there was a Gilgamesh, in all probability. Gilgamesh may have actually been Lugulbanda’s biological son, but it is possible that their relationship was one of political “adoption” designed to secure a legally robust succession to the throne of Uruk. The two men may even have been rivals.

The earliest surviving Gilgamesh stories are found across a wide area of the Middle East and are written in cuneiform script in various languages, chiefly Akkadian. They date from after 2150 BCE, by which point Akkadian was replacing Sumerian as the official language, under the increasing influence of neighbouring Akkad, with its capital Babylon, over the original centre of literate civilisation in Sumer. These tablets are mostly short single episodes or adventures, apparently existing in multiple variants in various parallel traditions, presumably rooted, at least ultimately, in orality. But by 1700 BCE there was already an early or “Old Babylonian” version of the single epic of Gilgamesh. Around 1200 BCE, various texts were collated and translated into the version we now regard as standard, and, unusually for so ancient a literary text, we may know the name of the author from later Mesopotamian tradition. He is supposed to have been called Sin-leqe-unnini. Unlike the Sumerian and Akkadian empires which ultimately spawned it, the standard version of the epic survived the turbulent Dark Age around 1000 BCE, for the surviving copy dates from around the 8th or 7th century BCE and was lodged in the library at Nineveh, the capital of a young Mesopotamian empire, that of Assyria. The default version of the Gilgamesh epic thus dates from what Europeans would call Old Testament times, by which point the Gilgamesh tradition was as old as Beowulf or the oldest Arthurian material is today.

Nineveh in turn was destroyed in 612 BCE by a new imperial regime based on the old centre of Babylon, which then fell to the Persians, then the Greeks, and there is evidence that Gilgamesh stories, or at least their basic plot elements and motifs, continued to circulate in text form as late as the Greek times and beyond. Odysseus’ encounter with Calypso, for example, seems to echo Gilgamesh’s encounter with Siduri. But ecological and political disaster had overcome the urban centres of the Middle East, and the whole area had become the desert it is today. The vast written records were lost amid the ruins and their very existence was forgotten until the nineteenth-century explosion of text-based research caught up with them. In 1844, an English traveller, Austen Henry Layard, began excavations around modern Mosul and was staggered to discover the ruins of the Biblical Nineveh, including tens of thousands of then-unreadable cunieform tablets. Within a decade, cuneiform script had been deciphered. Many of the tablets turned out to be relatively humdrum: accounts, records of payment, and the like. Then, in 1872, George Smith, a British Muesum curator, realised that the tablet he was reading contained a Flood myth similar to the one he knew from the Bible. Smith, of course, had stumbled on what we now know as the dialogue between Gilgamesh and Utnapishtim. Although he knew nothing else of the Gilgamesh story (because nobody did), Smith was immediately so overwhelmed by this discovery that he laid the tablet down on the table, stripped off, and ran, seemingly half-naked, around the room, much to the astonishment of his fellow-scholars.

By the turn of the nineteenth century the epic of Gilgamesh was available in translation to general readers, and was being hailed as a classic of world literature by heavyweights such as Rainer Maria Rilke, who described the poem as “stupendous … one of the greatest things that could happen to a person.”

And so, in one sense, it is. Check this out for some modern images which I think really capture the spirit of the story, courtesy of the wonderful Mythstories museum.

And – of course – I’ve helped do Gilgamesh as a commission for Huddersfield Literature Festival, at the kind invitation of the commissionee, my friend and collaborator Tim Ralphs. So if you want me to tell you in person how Gilgamesh and Enkidu first met, click here and go to 1:43.