So Many Words, So Many Meanings

Joshua A.C. Newman at work on Beowulf

Frickin’ Beowulf is frickin’ 162 pages already. By the end, it’s gonna be fucking huge. Like, seriously, 250 pages.

It’s got the full text of the poem (Grummere translation — 1.0 may be a different translation if I can convince myself to typeset it again), an explanation by Dr. Michael Drout of the “Situation” (in Big Model terms) of Beowulf (Guess what! It’s about sex, families, and power!), a summary of the events of the poem, and a 27-page appendix explaining the various ways of dating the poem that come down to the reason I’m including the essay:

Let me give an example closer to home: in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” we read of Giovanni’s feelings about Beatrice: “Least of all, while avoiding her sight, ought Giovanni to have remained so near this extraordinary being that the proximity and possibility even of intercourse should give a kind of substance and reality to the wild vagaries which his imagination ran riot continually in producing.” The date of the production of the text is very significant for our interpretation of the meaning of “intercourse” in this sentence, and we might interpret that passage very differently if we thought that a 20th-century reviser/editor/copyist would have felt free to change Hawthorne’s text for one purpose or another.

That is, the inclinations of the reader — traditionally, a single, horny dude with a political mandate in a scriptorium — matter at least as much as the putative intentions of the poet himself. In this case, it’s the intentions of the player, not our ideas about history; our own moral stance, not the “what would a 6th century dude think,” that makes a difference.

Because when you draw from the Runes, and they tell you, “A young woman, rune-rich, vying for glory despite her sex.” you’re going to read it with your Postmodern eyes, through a Feminist filter, through a filter that forces us to wonder what “glory” is to us, through eyes that see the word “hero” used speciously to describe anyone who was killed for the acts of their government.

Far as I can tell, Beowulf is only about ten degrees deeper than Conan, but because of the incredible history of the text, it makes an excellent canvas upon which we can cast our tale of blood, glory, and remarkable circumstance. And all the questions we ask when we experience such a tale.

Leave a Reply