06 January 2014

"Outlander" Movie: A very odd homage to Beowulf

Last night, thanks to Netflix, I watched a 2008 film that I had never heard of, Outlander. Since I had no expectations of it or, if I did have any, they they were low, I was in the ideal frame of mind to be pleased when some aspect of the film was unexpectedly thoughtful, correct, or appropriate. Those moments came fairly often. The opinion I now hold on it is that this is the oddest homage to Beowulf that I have ever seen or heard of, and it was clearly written by people who knew and respected the original story.

The greatest oddness is the genre. This is a science-fiction action film with parallels with Alien, Predator, The Thing, and even Cowboys and Aliens. In fact, the film could have been appropriately named Vikings and Aliens. 

The story begins when a spacecraft crashes onto Earth with two survivors. One looks human and the other is, as far as humans are concerned, a monster with some dragon-like, some human-like qualities. The former alien becomes a Beowulf figure after he is captured by Scandinavians of some sort, is taken to Herot and meets king Hrothgar. He makes it his job to kill Grendel mère et fils.

Some of the actors are acclaimed at their craft. John Hurt plays Hrothgar; Ron Perlman is a rival king; the Beowulf surrogate is James Caviezel, who was Jesus in Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ.

The setting looks fairly realistic: some research obviously went into the helmets, buildings, ships, and language. (The alien's native language is Old Norse!) I half-expected some of the swords to have the name Ulfberht stamped onto the blades, but that would have been an anachronism, so perhaps they considered and rejected the idea. (I learned about the Ulfberht swords earlier this week from a Nova and National Geographic documentary. For those who are interested, here it is).

The reviews of the film are mixed, according to Rottentomatoes. This is often a sign that the film is directed at a specific audience which may not be all that big. You belong to that audience if
  1. You are familiar enough with the Beowulf story to appreciate the appearance of Unferth in Hrothgar's court and to wonder if Grendel will, sooner or later, lose an arm;
  2. You want to see a more believable Scandinavian kingly hall than was shown in the terrible Beowulf film (2007);
  3. You enjoyed watching Predator (1987) or Predators (2010);
  4. You are willing to enjoy a free adaptation of the source story.
It turns out that I belong to the film's target audience.

23 October 2013

Fitt 41, Part 1: The Battle of Swedes and Geats, Continued

This will not be (I hope) the final version, but it shows that progress is still being made in the translation. I hope you enjoy it.

“The bloody swathe that Swedes and Geats
“cut as they charged the killing ground
“could not be missed as they clashed together.
“Then Ongentheow, the old fighter,
“sadly retreated, taking his kin        2950
“to a hillfort built on higher ground.
“He had been told of Hygelac’s skill,
“the proud man’s power, and put no faith
“his strength could match the mariners’,
“foreign invaders, and defend the hoard,    2955
“women and children. He chose to withdraw,
“old behind earthworks. The enemy charged
“the Swedish horde. Hygelac’s banners
“swept up and swarmed the Swedes' redoubt
“when Hrethel’s army offered battle.”    2960

“Ongentheow was, by the edges of swords,
“white in his hair, held in his place,
“so the folk-king was forced to submit
“to Eofor’s judgement.”
              “Angrily he,
“Wulf, Wonred’s son, wielded his sword
“so streams of blood sprang from the blow
“beneath the hair. Not at all frightened,
“the wise Scylfing wasted no time,
“but gave as good as he got and better.”

“When the tribe-king turned to face him,
“Wonred’s brave son was not able
“to strike the old man with his arm’s full strength
“whose swing, instead, sliced through his helmet
“so, blood-stained, Wulf was forced to bow.
“He fell on the field, not finished yet;
“he recovered himself, though the cut was deep.”

27 July 2013

Fitt 40: The News Comes to Camp

 Hi, I'm back after working (yet again) on editing my book on poetry. I haven't given up this project...certainly not now when I have only 237 lines left to do!

An earlier version of the first lines appear in a posting below, but here's the whole fitt. 

I should explain the translation choices made in one section:
He beseiged the grove and the swords' leavings,
tired from their wounds. He trumpeted threats
to that wretched band the rest of the night.
That morning, he said, his sword's edges
would give one to the gods on the gallows tree,      2940
I'm following a particular point of view here, expressed in the notes on these lines on Ben Slade's site heorot.dk, which say this:
2937] sinherge is usually rendered 'with a vast army'; Tripp (277-8 & personal communication) recommends 'at the huge (sacred) grove', taking herge as a variant of hearg, hearh 'temple, altar, santuary, idol; grove' (Clark Hall). Compare with The Wife's Lament (in the Exeter Book), l. 15 'het mec hlaford min / herheard niman' ("my lord commanded me be taken to the grove/sanctuary"). See also n. 2941-2 below.

[2941] gétan here could related to agétan 'to waste, destroy'; or a form of géotan 'to pour, shed, gush', here meaning 'to cause to shed blood', or 'to sacrifice', as I translate it; or it could be an otherwise unattested verb with the meaning 'to cut, to pierce', judging from the context (cf. Christ and Satan 508b-9a (in Minor Poems ): 'beornas sticodon, / garum on galdum' ["the warriors pierced, with spears on the gallows(cross)"].

[2941-2: The Sacrifice in the Forest] As North (142), Tripp (277) and others point out, the fact that the Geats are in a forest called 'Raven's Wood', and especially if we take sinherge as 'at the huge sacred grove', then this passage may well allude to sacrifices to Woden.
So these lines could be translated differently. Seamus Heaney writes
His army surrounded the weary remnant
where they nursed their wounds; all through the night
he howled threats at those huddled survivors,
promised to axe their bodies open
when dawn broke, dangle them from gallows
to feed the birds.
Burton Raffel did them like this
With his mass of soldiers, circled around
The Geats who'd survived, who'd escaped him, calling
Threats and boasts at that wretched band
The whole night through. In the morning he'd hang
A few, he promised, to amuse the birds,
Then slaughter the rest.
The reference to "Othere's wise father" means Ongentheow.

He told them to tell the tidings of battle                          2892
at the clifftop camp where the company waited
sad in spirit through the slow morning,
the spearbearers expecting both
their king was killed or would come again,
beloved man. The messenger
left out little that lapsed in the battle
but told them all the honest truth.

Now the one who held the Weders’ hopes,
the lord of the Geats, lies on his death-bed,                      2900
stretched out like the dead by the dragon's strike.
He lies beside his lethal foe,
sick from saxe-wounds. No sword was able
to make a mark on that monstrous being
whatever the way. Wiglaf was sitting,
Weohstan's son, beside Beowulf,
a living lord along by the dead,
weary in mind, watching over
the loved and the loathed. Now our land must expect            2910
a time of war when the truth spreads
to Frisians, Franks, and far-off lands,
the king was killed. The conflict with the Hugas
was worked to hardness when Hygelac went
afloat with his fleet to Frisian land
where Hetwares warred against him.
There courage came with such crushing power
the armoured man was overwhelmed.
He fell in the front. No further treasures
could he offer his men. Ever since then,               2920
no mercy for us from the Meroving.
And I place no trust in peace or truce,
not with the Swedes, for news has spread
that Ongentheow had overthrown
Haethcyn himself, who was Hrethel's son,
at Ravenswood when, in their pride,
the Geats first went against War Scylfings.
Shortly after, Othere's wise father
turned to attack, terrible and old.
He ended the sea-dog, honoured his wife,             2930
his ancient companion, deprived of her gold,
Onela's mother and Otheres',
then was hard on the heels of his hated foes
who could scarcely escape from him,
to Ravenswood, robbed of their lord.
He beseiged the grove and the swords' leavings,
tired from their wounds. He trumpeted threats
to that wretched band the rest of the night.
That morning, he said, his sword's edges
would give one to the gods on the gallows tree,      2940
a ravens' toy. Relief returned
to those downcast men as day began
when they heard Hygelac's horn and trumpet
and knew his war-cry. That worthy came
" with seasoned soldiers swift on the path."               2945

28 June 2013

More Modern Verse in the Old English Style: Robert Skelton

In a book called The Poetry Gymnasium by Tom C. Hunley, I found a quotation from The Love Song by Robin Skelton.
I find I am framing                    My thoughts in a fashion
Long-lost and alien                   Today's language,
Yet somehow the sense of it,    Tense in each sentence,
Registers rhythms,                   Riding rough-shod...

22 February 2013

Better Living Through Beowulf

While checking through Google's Image Search for a good illustration of Beowulf's death, I noticed that one image was on a site called "betterlivingthroughbeowulf.com". This is quirky enough to give me a quick "HAH" of pleasure and a quick check on the site.

The site's tagline is "How Great Literature Can Change Your Life." Beowulf was highlighted in the site name because the author is also promoting his book, "How Beowulf Can Save America: An Epic Hero's Guide to Defeating the Politics of Rage." Here is the list of Beowulf-related postings on the blog. As an example of the category, here is a post called "Obama's Star, Beowulf's Sword" on the subject of President Obama's second Inaugural Speech.

I've also wondered from time to time what aspects of Beowulf's story are relevant these days, so full marks to Robin R. Bates for the titles of his blog and book. Not being American, I am not as deeply immersed in the push and pull of American politics as Bates is.

As for the illustration, there's this:

15 December 2012

Alliterative Verse Explanation

--> Here is an introduction to the rules of Alliterative verse taken from that chapter in my book on poetry. If you are interested to see more, visit my Author's Spotlight page on Lulu.com and make an order.


Alliterative Verse is the oldest form of poetry in English. It is sometimes called Anglo-Saxon Verse because of the people who first wrote it or Old English Verse because of the language it was first written in. After being forgotten for centuries, it found new popularity in the twentieth century. It offers poets and readers a middle path between the strictness of metrical poetry and the Wild West freedom of Free Verse. To appreciate or write it, you must understand the rules that govern its rhythm and its alliteration.

Normal Lines

The rhythm of any line of Alliterative Verse is governed by the number two. First, the line is divided into two half lines by a pause, called a caesura. Each half line, in turn, has two stressed syllables (called lifts). It also has two locations filled with unstressed syllables, called dips. You can think of the line as baskets into which the lifts and dips get tossed, like this.
 The smallest basket, the one at the beginning of a line, can hold an anacrusis, one or two unstressed syllables. Better yet, it can be left empty. Too many lines with anacrusis will weaken the strong beat of alliterative verse.

The remaining parts of a half line are the two large baskets followed by two smaller ones. Any of these baskets can take a lift or a normal, one-syllable dip. However, at least one of the big baskets must hold a lift, and a dip in one of the big baskets may hold up to five unstressed syllables instead of just one. The potential for such an extended dip is symbolized as dip(...) instead of just dip.

Let us toss the syllables of a line—“Secret meetings at the slaughterhouse”1—into the appropriate baskets to see its rhythm at work.

The caesura is between “Secret meetings” and “at the slaughterhouse.” Neither of the half lines has an anacrucis. The first half line clearly has the rhythm lift dip lift dip (SEcret MEETings), and I pronounce the second half line with the rhythm dip(...) lift lift dip (at the SLAUGH-TER house), though dip(...) lift dip lift (at the SLAUGH-ter HOUSE) is possible.

“Secret meetings,” then, has one of the three most common rhythms for a half line, the ones beginning with a lift.
  • Type A: lift dip(...) lift dip
  • Type D: lift lift dip dip
  • Type E: lift dip(...) dip lift
“At the slaughterhouse” has one of the two rarer rhythms that begin with a dip.
  • Type B: dip(...) lift dip lift
  • Type C: dip(...) lift lift dip
Specifically, “Secret meetings” is Type A, and “at the slaughterhouse” is either Type B or C. These patterns are called Sievers’ Types, after Eduard Sievers, who first noticed them.

It is usual for a line to have half lines of different types, for variety’s sake.

Hypermetric Lines

A poet might choose to make some longer lines, called hypermetric lines. In them, the first half line is preceded by an extra lift and dip(...) and the second by a dip(...). These lines do not occur by themselves, but in groups a few lines long, like this one from the poem Beowulf, lines 1160-1164.
                                                                 ...Béarers óffered
wíne from | wóndrous contáiners. || And then | Wéaltheow éntered,
góing in | a gólden tórc || to where | the twó góod ones
ídled | úncle and néphew || without | émnity yét,
éach one | trúe to the óther....2
Why the old poets used hypermetric lines, I cannot say, but you might find a use for them to slow up the action, describe a setting, or just add a little variety.


In the following advice from Beowulf, notice that the half lines have different rhythms, as defined by Sievers’ Types, but alliterating words unite the line.
Éach óne of us || wáits for the énd  (Types D and E; one and waits)
of mórtal lífe; || mán should then stríve for (Types B and A; mortal and man)
fáme before déath! || To a fíghter, thát, (Types E and B; fame and fighter)
when lífe clóses, || lásts as a cómfort. (Types C and A; life and lasts,
closes and comfort)
As in these lines, one or both lifts in the first half line always alliterate with the third lift of the line, which is sometimes called the pivot or the rhyme-giver. Alliteration on the first three lifts of a line was probably considered more emphatic than alliteration on only two. The fight scenes of Beowulf are consistently told in three-alliteration lines. For example,
He behéld in the háll || a hóst of soldiers,
a círcled assémbly || of sléeping kin,
a hórde of héroes. || His héart laughed then.
A rarer alternative is to have two pairs of alliterations binding the two half lines. For example,
Próud and déadly, || he púshed my dóor.
has lifts that begin with P and D, then P and D again: PDPD. Otherwise
Déadly and próud, || he púshed my dóor.
has lifts that begin with D and P, then P and D: DPPD. This is equally fine, but you would not usually find a line that alliterated all four lifts, like this:
And how dísmal the dáy || when I dánced with my déar.3
By the way, the Old English poets had a slightly different definition of alliteration than we do. It would look like this:

Alliteration means that the same letter sound begins the stressed syllables of two words, but all vowels alliterate with each other, and some consonant clusters (sc, sp, and st) only alliterate with identical consonant clusters.

Since all vowels alliterated, in Old English, the ea in eagle would alliterate with the ow in owl. This makes alliterating words much easier to find.

On the other hand, since some clusters of consonants alliterate only with an identical cluster, the sk in sky alliterates with the sc in score, but not the st in stop nor the sp in spot. This makes alliteration a little harder to manage.

In the end, the choice is yours: alliterate in the old way or the new, or in some mixture of the two.

1From W. H. Auden, “The Age of Anxiety.” In W.H. Auden, Collected Poems, edited by Edward Mendelson, Faber and Faber, London, 1976. pp. 345-371.
2Translations from Beowulf by Gareth Jones.
3From W. H. Auden, “The Age of Anxiety.” In W.H. Auden, Collected Poems, edited by Edward Mendelson, Faber and Faber, London, 1976. pp. 345-371.

11 October 2012

A Milestone Worth Mentioning

At this moment, the number of page views that this site has received is 10,003. Ten thousand views is a very large number to me, especially considering the narrow focus of this site. Not only that, but the number of visitors over just the last thirty days is almost 2,000. Several days have had over a hundred visitors a day.

I am surprised and gratified by the steady increase in the number of visitors. I'd like to thank all of you for your interest. If any of you are repeat visitors or even regular visitors, an especial "thank you" goes out to you.

Certain posts receive more attention than others. The star draws over the life of this blog, defined as the posts that get about 200 page views or more, are

  1. Second half of Fitt XXXVI: Beowulf gets bitten (732 page views)
  2. Smaug and the Hobbit Movie (322 page views)
  3. Eowyn's Lament (572 page views)
  4. Beowulf's Attitude to Crises, in Youth and Age (206 page views)
  5. XXV. Hrothgar's Sermon (196 page views)
  6. XXIII. Beowulf Finds Grendel's Mother (507 page views)
  7. The Beowulf Rap (454 page views)
  8. Sutton Hoo, Beowulf, and History (392 page views)
  9. Beowulf On-Line (522 page views)
As it turns out, this is also a special day for my other blog. It is just a hair away from receiving its 3,000th visit (2,983 right now) and has had over 1,000 visitors in just the last month. Given that it is a younger blog, I find these numbers equally impressive.