Friday, August 10, 2007

Eating Harts: Blurton Chapter II

Blurton's second chapter considers Beowulf within the alimentary logic and wonders of the whole of its manuscript, Cotton Vitellius A. XV, whose contents, as our Anglo-Saxonists surely know, include "part of a life of Saint Christopher, a version of the Wonders of the East, The Letter of Alexander to Aristotle, and an Old English redaction of the Book of Judith" (37). I loved meeting Donestres, Cynocephali, and other old friends in this chapter, and also enjoyed Blurton's discussion of the problem word eoten. It's a word whose meaning is clear enough during Grendel's assault on Heorot "cannibal/anthropophage/maneater/whatever" (not Blurton's translation there, folks), but in the other five instances, for example, during the Fight at Finnsburg episode, it "seems to connote..a group of people rather than a group of giants or other monsters" (52). Blurton argues the word should be translated consistently as having to do with cannibals and cannibalism, not, for instance, as "monster." As she points out, Grendel is a threat not so much because of his size as because of his dietary habits, and also the Finnsburg fight is, like Grendel's assault on Heorot, about a metaphoric threat "of cannibalistic incorporation" and a quite literal threat to the body politic (55). In sum, she argues that "The Beowulf-poet weaves the word [eoten] through the narrative to stress [the] theme of the conceptual link between the cannibalizing of the human body and the cannibalizing of the social body" (55).

I'm highlighting this argument, first, because I enjoy a good linguistic crux, especially one that leads to conclusions as surprising as these, and second, because I'm not an Anglo-Saxonist, so I don't know what to make of her reading. In other words, I've love for some of my co-bloggers who know their way around Beowulf (in other words, the ones who aren't me), as well as some other Anglo-Saxonists (Richard Scott Nokes and Mary Kate Hurley for example) to weigh in on this matter.

My second observation on this chapter is also--I hope not characteristically--minor, but I wanted, as I did in my previous post, to add a little something from my own reading to Blurton's work. Inspired in part by the description of Grendel stepping through the "mouth" of Heorot, Blurton suggests that "Heorot is also a body of a kind. Heorot is itself metonymy for the body politic of the Danes" (36). You can see how this resonates with the interpretation I describe in the paragraph above. Now, Heorot is not just a kind of body; Heorot is in fact a very particular kind of body, namely (and obviously if you have Anglo-Saxon: which I don't), that of a hart. A few months back, I read William Perry Marvin's Hunting Law and Ritual in Medieval English Literature, where Marvin makes much of the hall's strange name (why not call it "Hrothgar's Place"?). In his chapter on Beowulf, Marvin describes two opposed modes of hunting: one in which killing an animal made the animal your property, and the other in which killing the animal made a claim to territory (he describes a third one as well, which I won't get into here). Hrothgar has taken land and gains retainers by sharing out booty. As Marvin puts it, Grendel's invasion of the Hart is an assault on Hrothgar's "gifting prerogative" to force "the parting out of pieces of the body of the Hart--literally, Scylding warriors in the flesh" (43). Marvin's political reading is a nice counterpart to Blurton's: e.g, "Grendel's actions appear regressive because he cannot stomach dynastic appropriation--an intolerance that is perfectly compatible with the most hard-bitten frontier egalitarianism of the migration and viking ages" (42). But what I also like about Marvin is that he doesn't lose sight of the fleshy materiality of either anthropophagy or the eating of harts. By contrast, Blurton's reading is emphatically metaphorical, and there's no foul there: certainly anthropophagy is symbolically charged.

My Kzoo paper on anthropophagy (auto-horn-tooting) tried to answer why it should be so charged, but it also tried to keep in mind its fleshiness. So here I end with a different sort of question, meant for those of you in an answering mood: how might a fleshy reading of some of Blurton's cannibalism texts--Beowulf for example--work? How might this enhance or alter her readings?

I'll check in periodically over the weekend--I'm following my wife as she takes a quick worktrip to San Francisco--but I trust my fellow bloggers to keep things humming here.


Brandon H. said...

Karl, your question about fleshiness interests me, because I have been wondering (since reading Blurton's second chapter) about the connection between monstrosity, cannibalism, and sexuality. I have read several works that touch on Beowulf and sexuality--the foremost in my mind is Jane Chance's article, "The Structural Unity of Beowulf: The Problem of Grendel's Mother"--and a friend of mine wrote a thesis this past semester wherein she discussed the sexuality of Judith. That said, if Judith and Beowulf are linked with each other and with the rest of the Cotton Vitellius A.XV manuscript because of their aspects of mirabilia texts--especially concerning cannibalism--then could sexuality also factor into this? Obviously, sexuality (I mean the act of sex here) is a deeply fleshy thing (also spiritual/metaphorical in many ways, too, of course). In the case of Judith, Holofernes is seen as a monster especially because of his lust and monstrous attitudes toward Judith's womanhood. In the case of Beowulf, Grendel's mother (in her battle with the hero) may be seen as sexually encountering Beowulf (as Chance reads it). In a way, sexuality can be seen as a part of mirabilia because of the mystery of the union (from a Christian-spiritual reading), but could it also relate to concepts of monstrosity and even cannibalism (i.e. rape as monstrosity, even a type of "devouring" the body)? Further, Burton says that "The theme of political expansion runs as a connecting thread through the five texts of the manuscript" (43), and she argues that this makes a deeper thread of connection with cannibalism and identity--perhaps a similar argument (also connected with cannibalism and political expansion) could be made for a connection with sexuality, too. Blurton does touch on sexuality (briefly throughout the chapter, but I don't have a specific passage to point to), but perhaps such a reading could be drawn out. Maybe it already has been done, and I'm just not widely read enough to know it.

I don't know much about the rest of the manuscript texts, but perhaps there are other intersections of sexuality/monstrosity that connect with this idea of cannibalism--and even deeper threads of fleshiness. These have been pretty disconnected thoughts, I'm afraid, but I'd love to know others' (more experienced) thoughts on these ideas.

sylvia huot said...

I hope people won’t mind if I throw in a few (rather long-winded) comments despite not having read Blurton or any of the other texts under discussion (well, Beowulf, but that was in translation and many years ago). I’m a little disturbed by the ease with which some people stress the similarities between various ‘monsters’ and the European Christian readers of the texts, and the assumption that this invites (at some level—I know no one thinks it is the main overt point of the texts) sympathy and identification with said monsters. I wonder if the opposite might really be true. Yeah, they are kinda like us, but in a monstrous way that we can rest assured makes them actually nothing like us (phew!). Consider the analogy of modern science fiction, where often there are aliens that are incredibly intelligent and utterly rational and disciplined, so that they are an unstoppable force with which you can’t bargain, you can’t fool them, you can’t bribe them or appeal to their sense of pity, you can’t catch them napping… wouldn’t it be great if we could be more like that? Aren’t those our values? Often they resemble us humans in many ways. BUT the real point always seems to be that it’s our very ‘flaws’ that make us, in the end, superior. Sure, we value discipline and rationality, but we humans always seem to end up beating the aliens because we can exploit our own capacity for irrational behaviour, our occasional unwillingness to sacrifice a loved one for the higher cause, etc. (or if the aliens win, we see it as terrifying and tragic).

Same thing in, e.g., certain WWII movies or TV shows, where a couple of gum-chewing, tune-humming American guys in tennis shoes are able to sneak in and assassinate an extremely disciplined and highly accomplished SS officer and all his cohorts, because they break all the rules. How annoying that those Germans are better soldiers and better citizens than we are. Oh no, wait, what a relief that they are better at all that than we are, because actually, the important thing is knowing when NOT to be like that!!

So could it be that similarly, a race of monsters seems to embody the values of a European warrior society, including a capacity to sacrifice the weaker members for the greater good, a selflessness that makes a father willing to offer up his own son as a meal for the community, an unstoppable aggressivity. BUT the point is, we humans are actually better because our warrior ferocity and our sense of subordinating ourselves to the greater good, are limited by other emotions, such as a capacity for pity and compassion, love for our friends and families, etc. We might, in fact, eat our own children if driven to do so by famine under siege, and we might even be comforted that both our feudal and our heavenly Lords will forgive us for doing so, but we don’t exactly welcome that prospect, and we might even prefer to think that we could also be forgiven if we gave up the fight or accepted death so as not to have to eat our kids.

So rather than inviting some kind of sympathy for the monsters, might these texts actually be using them as a way of showing how horrible it would be if we let a certain set of values get carried to the extreme, and congratulating ourselves on the happy knowledge that we would never actually turn into something like that, because we are human, and Christian?

As for the Eucharist, isn’t it important that not only is it not ordinary human flesh, but rather the flesh of someone who was also God—but also, that we don’t eat it in the form of human flesh at all anyway, but in the form of bread? If you’re a medieval Christian, the Host is really the body of Christ, but it’s not human flesh. He can embody himself in any form he likes—a human body was one form he took, and bread and wine are another form he takes. So we can eat his body without it being anything LIKE cannibalism. When the occasional saint has a visionary experience of taking Communion and having it taste like raw flesh and blood in their mouth, surely that, too, is a bit of a ‘horror movie’ touch to reassure us that of course that experience—like pretty much everything that happens to saints—is NOT something that we will ever have to do.

Dr. Richard Scott Nokes said...

My response to your tag got way too long, so I dropped it onto the Unlocked Wordhoard at:

Mary Kate Hurley said...

Karl, you tagged me on this ages ago but I'm only just now getting to sit down to it. I did a quick word-wheel search on the corpus (the Dictionary of OE has a great search function -- I think your institution has to be subscribed), and had a bit of an interesting result -- for the most part, eoten in the Beowulfian sense Blurton's interested in seems to be relatively rare in the corpus. It occurs in Beowulf and then also in some glosses. That is, of course, not counting everybody's favorite giants (the entas of the enta geweorc). I'd have to do some poking around to see what the connection is between eot- and ent-.

Interesting in all of this is the one thing that nobody's mentioned yet: The Jutes. I bring it up, of course, because Eota land is Jutland. The library's still being a bit bothersome about the Blurton book (i.e., still won't let me check it out for reasons, as yet, undisclosed) so I've still not seen her argument -- does she bring the Jutes into it at all? Because I'd be more than a little interested to see a text interested in monsters and borderlands, in the same codex as at least one other text interested in monsters and borderlands (Wonders), that's also making some kind of oblique reference to Jutes when it's talking about a specific monster.

If indeed "The Beowulf-poet weaves the word [eoten] through the narrative to stress [the] theme of the conceptual link between the cannibalizing of the human body and the cannibalizing of the social body" (55), as Blurton argues, I wonder if there's not also a little bit of a jab at the real Eotenas -- and what that means to a conceptual map of the "Englisc" world in the period...

Just some random thoughts, thrown together in the midst of reading Troilus and Criseyde....