Tuesday, November 25, 2008

After Elegy: or, Thinking Old English without Loss

[Image credit here]

by Mary Kate Hurley

This past Wednesday I gave a presentation on the beginnings of the second chapter of my dissertation. At present, this chapter appears to be the required Beowulf chapter. I’ve been re-reading the poem, and contemplating a re-translating, for a couple weeks now, and I’m still trying to make my ideas cohere.

Every once in awhile, though, an object gets launched into my orbit, usually precipitated by an event like Wednesday’s MaRGIN (Medieval and Renaissance Graduate Information Network -- run by graduate students at NYU) workshop, and I can’t quite decide if it’s a gift or a grenade, or usually both. Gifts make my arguments come together – like when one adviser told me that my interest in my MA Essay was temporality, not subjectivity, or when another told me my first chapter was about translation and temporality, and that I should really focus on that rather than writing my whole dissertation in one chapter. Grenades – well, they’re just like gifts, except they do so in a way that shifts everything I think I know, and turns it on its head.



My colleague Liza Blake, a frequent commenter here at ITM and a really impressive scholar of Renaissance literature at NYU (second year of grad school, after an MPhil at Cambridge), launched one such item – a gift-grenade, if you will—into my thought processes this past week, which I wanted to share with a wider audience as I begin to think through my second chapter.

In the last part of the poem Beowulf, our hero meets his final monster: the dragon. However, before he finds himself actually engaging the dragon in a fight, we’re given a glimpse of how the dragon comes into the story of the poem. Like many Old English stories, it’s one about loss – more specifically, the loss of kinsmen, the loss of a people. We’re treated to the lay of the last survivor, which, if memory serves, is often compared to other elegiac poems, like The Wanderer. You can see the text, and translation at this website. I’m not a fan of the translation, really, but I don’t have my own in front of me. I’ll be using my own on-the-fly translation through the rest of this post where I need it.

The dominant mood of the poem seems to be grief: “Hold you now earth, now that warriors are not allowed to, the possessions of lords!” The speaker catalogues what these objects are: the helm, the sword, the chain mail, the cup. There is no one, the speaker says, who will use these things – who will keep them from disintegrating now that “violent death” has “sent forth” many of men (ll.2265-2266).

What’s interesting, and what Liza pointed out, is that the hoard, useless, and finally, dangerous to the people of the Geats – didn’t belong to the last survivor any more than it did to the dragon, or to Beowulf. Rather, the history told by the lay of the last survivor speaks of it with these words: “Hwæt, hyt ær on ðe gode begeaton” (2248-9). Grammatically this is a bit dense. on, when used with a verb with a sense of “taking,” translates as “from”, and so the line translates roughly to “Lo, it before from you [good ones] obtained.” In short – the materials of this hoard were taken from the earth in former times (aer), and now, the last survivor returns them to the hruse from which it came.

The poem goes on to describe the actions of the last survivor: Swa giomor-mod giohðo mænde, / an æfter eallum (ll. 2265-66). Again, we can get tripped up by the grammar: “thus, sad-minded he mourned cares, / alone after/for all [of them].” Chickering’s translation (the one I tend to favor) is “Thus in his grief he mourned aloud, /alone, for them all.” æfter, as a preposition, has several meanings, and nearly always takes the dative. Given my druthers, I wouldn’t choose between the meanings – keeping, therefore, a sense of longing with the sense of temporal distancing which works so well for this final survivor of a people destroyed.

What Liza’s suggestion highlights is that – as a human being myself – I tend to sympathize, even empathize with the human loss which is voiced so eloquently by the last survivor’s words. But I do so to the exclusion of the poem’s exposition of the dragon’s function in the poem:
Hord-wynne fond / eald uht-sceaða opene standan, / se ðe byrnende biorgas seceð, / nacod nið draca, nihtes fleogeð / fyre befangan; hyne fold-buend / swiðe ondrædað. He gesecean sceall / hord on hrusan, þær he hæðen gold / warað wintrum frod; ne byð him wihte ðy sel.

He found hoard-joys, the old dawn-scather, to stand open, he who, burning, sought the hills, the naked malicious dragon, flies in the nights, encircled by fire; he the earth-dwellers widely dreaded. He shall seek hoards in the earth, there he heathen gold guards from ancient winters; it is not to him a bit of good.


What’s interesting here is what probably sounds familiar if you’ve any experience of the poem called the Old English Maxims (which essentially function as a kind of catalogue of knowledge of “the way things are”), the first line of which reads: Cyning sceal rice healdan (maxims II, l. 1). The King shall hold the kingdom. The dragon is doing, quite simply, what a dragon does. And – referring back to what has gone before in the poem – these treasures were taken out of the earth in the past, and now they simply return to the earth. Gold, taken in the form of metals (interesting role in OE for metals, if one thinks about them), is turned through human artifice into the materials that we think of as forming part of the social interactions of the Anglo-Saxon period. Rings, swords – all these things circulate in human society, and when there is no one left to keep this circulation in motion, the impulse is to mourn the loss to humans. But in essence, these things are simply returning to the earth from whence they came – no more useful to humans than it was when they first found it.

So my question, the one that’s been on my mind the past few days and will probably keep me thinking for awhile, is this: Can we think of Old English poetry and not think of “loss” as a part of what that poetry is describing? Is there a way to move beyond the idea of loss, to think an Anglo-Saxon poetry that portrays this complex interaction of human and non-human objects and materials in a way that doesn’t rely on metals – objects – or finally humans – being lost? What if they simply change form?

Could we ever be after elegy?

15 comments:

prehensel said...

Lots to sink one's teeth into here (dragon pun intended), and I hope that Karma sees this post as she's done much work on A-S material exchange concerns--much more than I. But as I read this, you (re)sparked my thinking, and I noticed 3 different kinds of loss in what you were talking about--to the past, to the individual, and to the earth/cosmos.

I sometimes wonder if the loss that we see in OE poetry may in part be created the way A-S England's been historically situated--slotted, as it is, between Roman Britain and the so-called High Middle Ages (which supposedly reached their fulfillment in the Early Modern period...not that it's not great, Liza). The narrative that's often created it the Dark Ages vs. the 12-century Renaissance, the waning of the epic vs. the flowering of the romance, Germanic values vs. Christian values. That's an oversimplification, of course, but I think it still informs our views of OE literature (and makes poems like "The Ruin," "The Wanderer," and the woman's lament at the end of Beowulf absolutely heartbreaking in their emotional impact). So in that sense, I think we'd have to work really, really hard to get to a point "after elegy," as you deftly put it.

But the idea of loss is, I think, foundational to a society that was based on exchange. Things--such as cups, plates, swords, armor, mead, and maybe even the mead benches become commodities. One doesn't collect goods to possess them, but to distribute them. Most items seem to be viewed through a lens of exchange value--and are, thus, obtained with that goal in mind. To me, that injects a sense of loss (of the item) even as it is gained. But that's loss to another individual (rather through rewarding/giving or pillaging/taking).

As far as loss to the earth/cosmos, I'm reminded of Jennifer Neville's book, Representations of the Natural World in Old English Poetry in which she essentially argues that the A-S world was divided up into "useful" and "not useful" categories. That's slightly reductive, too, but it seems to hold true--at least in poetry. We don't even get the sort of appreciation for spring as spring that is seen later in the General Prologue or Roman de la Rose. Those A-S were no-nonsense in their outlook--at least the glimpses we see in their poetry. So I'd venture to say that it's always loss because there's always an exchange (or symbolic) value attached to an object. That is, there doesn't seem to be an appreciation for a return to a "natural" place because it (like the character in Silvestris's Cosmographia) is subservient to the divine order and/or the use civilization (as an imitation of that order) makes of it. The A-Ss, it seems, wouldn't care whether or not a tree made a sound if it fell in the woods; they'd want to know what could be made out of it.

But all isn't loss in OE poetry. Maybe the only thing that isn't viewed with a sense of loss when it's gone is the human. Beowulf may be taken out of circulation, but sometimes (like with Bede's famous sparrow metaphor) death is a welcome respite from the long and difficult life they experienced.

Then again, maybe not.

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

That Liza, she is so annoying. I say this from long experience.

You cited the aphorism from Maxims II about the king and kingdom; what about the one on dragon and horded riches: "A dragon belongs in a burial mound, old and proud of its treasures"? There's a completeness to the dragon and his trove that all the humans lack, since they never seem able to discover any place or thing that will yield lasting satisfaction.

Except, perhaps, as Prehensel writes, a possibility of bliss in a world after death.

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

Another response: it is not as if the dragon is the Other of the hero Beowulf. They are intimately related creatures -- so much so that I think one could say that Beowulf has spent his life attempting NOT to become the dragon, only to find himself sealed into that identity at the end (interred in a mound forever, with a trove of useless treasure).

Liza Blake said...

in which I defend my honor.

JJC: hey now! I don't think the treasure is useless when it's in the earth, but neither do I think that the humans lack the completeness of the interred treasure that it achieves in the earth. See below, but in Latourian terms that you will perhaps like more: what if we asked instead what networks the gold could construct as a non-human actor?

prehensel, I think your distinction of losses is really useful; I think what needs to be "left behind" (lost to the past?) in the reading of the episode from Beowulf is the sense of loss to the individual. At the very least, I think loss to the individual shouldn't be the only kind of loss we see here. This can go two ways: thinking about it from Bataille's theories, and thinking about it from the earth's point of view.

Bataille first, since I think it's more apt as a response to your comment. Condensed in his essay on expenditure, but really the motivating drive of almost all of his theories (including his thinking on sovereignty), is Bataille's attempt to think through expenditure and loss as a radical positive practice. He draws on anthropological work to posit an idea of radical loss: you don't give a gift of gold rings in order to gain someone's loyalty, you give for the point of losing, expending, with no promise of return. Expenditure for Bataille is that which is not at all premised on production or gain. While I don't think that is what is happening in Anglo-Saxon works, I think that imagining a gain as balanced by a loss and vice-versa is not to think about loss at all; this is the value of the thought experiment that Bataille invites us to.

But I think the reason I lobbed my gift-grenade was much more simple; I was thinking about things from the earth's point of view. One category of uses of metal is, perhaps, to circulate, create social networks, reward warriors, and take the form of a cup to hold mead. But another is to rest in the ground. From the point of view of the warriors, and the guy burying the treasure, metal has a very specific purpose: to circulate and be exchanged. But from the point of view of the earth and of the dragon, the metal is doing precisely what it ought when it is buried in the ground. It seems to me that the poem posits a life-cycle for the gold, from earth to warrior and back to earth again: as such, the gold creates a larger network of exchange, one that draws connections between the ground on one hand and the kings on the other.

There are two directions I'd possibly take this next: first, to imagine the dragon, who performs the same function as the earth ("hoarding" metal, keeping it out of one network of exchange and circulation in which it functions to produce gains) as an animated extension or personification of the earth; second, to think about what it means that in the quasi-agon between use as circulation and use as hoarding in the poem, hoarding seems to win: both Beowulf and the gold return to the earth. Why does this have to be being sealed into an identity? What if he has entered another network entirely?

I'm not ready to say that there is no loss in Anglo-Saxon poetry, but based on the passage that MK presented to us in the MaRGIN panel, I think there is something much more sophisticated and interesting happening in the survivor's lament as he buries the treasure, one which opens up if we stop being so human.

prehensel said...

LB: A quick, quick Bynum-fueled response that does not speak to your call for us to be less human (which I find really compelling but cannot think very hard about b/c I'm trying to get my Oral Reading Lists together).

From "Why All the Fuss About the Body?":

"What difference does it make that we leave behind clothes, papers, a favorite brooch or mixing bowl, a corpse? In a sense the dead lover of Truly, Madly, Deeply returns because the heroine cannot let go of his cello. But do we ever easily let go of the cello? Do we not need transitional objects to cope with death as much as with our initial formation of self? And isn't their very 'stuffness' important?"

I wonder if the loss is there--at least after Beowulf's death--because there is no metaphorical cello for the population to hold on to and to represent the beneficence and strength of Beowulf.

Except, the earth is a system that in some instances has agency (Luke 19.40: dico vobis quia si hii tacuerint lapides clamabunt [I say to you if they remain silent, the stoned will cry out]). So you're right: it would be strange to completely excise it from the exchange equation...

prehensel said...

Oh, I should edit better: the stones cry out. (The stoned just eat Doritos and watch reruns of CSI: Miami).

prehensel said...

Looks like my comment didn't go through last time (but the stoner correction did...great). I'll try to re-create it.

LB: I have a Bynum-fueled response to your comment; it doesn't necessarily speak to your call for us to be less human, but it does speak to the loss that the Geats feel after Beowulf dies:

"What difference does it make that we leave behind clothes, papers, a favorite brooch or mixing bowl, a corpse? In a sense the dead lover of Truly, Madly, Deeply returns because the heroine cannot let go of his cello. But do we ever easily let go of the cello? Do we not need transitional objects to cope with death as much as with our initial formation of self? And isn't their very 'stuffness' important?" (from "Why All the Fuss about the Body?")

This seems to speak to the loss felt by the woman at the end of the poem and the messenger earlier on. There's very little left (Wiglaf's necklace) to re/present Beowulf's strength, generosity, Geatishness. They bury or burn most everything, and in the end there's nothing left of Beowulf.

But there is one thing...Luke 19.40, with which the Christian readers of the poem would have been familiar. "Dico vobis quia si hii tacuerint lapides clamabunt [I say to you, if they remain silent, then the stones will cry out]." This--despite what Neville claims in her book--does seem to give the earth some agency (at least in regards to glorifying God). Seems like as good a place as any to start thinking about the earth as a member of the exchange relationship instead of the site of it.

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

This is a great discussion. Liza, I am sorry that I called you annoying because we all value your exploding gifts so much. There's much to be said for adopting a Latourian nonanthropocentric point of view: speaking of networks of human and nonhuman agents makes so much sense when interpreting a culture addicted to prosopopoeia and speaking objects. Latour also has the benefit of allowing us a world in which nothing need be lost.

But, following Prehensel on historical situatedness and returning to part of MK's initial question ("Can we think of Old English poetry and not think of “loss” as a part of what that poetry is describing? Is there a way to move beyond the idea of loss...?") I would like to answer NO. If we are being fair to its ethos, then I think we have to say that OE poetry is predicated upon the lostness of the past. Another way of saying this is that much OE poetry performs the past as past, as lost, because it does not necessarily want that past to be intimate with the present. To return to the sparrow through the hall: there is much at stake in these poems in moving away from that hall (or in smashing its doors and burning its gables): the heroic age has ended, and we are supposed to live in its aftermath, not its enduring grip ... a more Christian and a deeply changed temporality, not a weird amalgam of times that refuse to be lost.

Yet another way of saying this: could it be that OE poetry is obsessed with loss, obsessed with mourning, inherently elegiac in order to convince its listeners that what they hear is well and truly over? OE poetry dreams of the stillness of gold in the earth, of the stillness of Beowulf in the earth, hoping to make that lifelessness come about. It does not, of course, succeed.

Eileen Joy said...

I am like a moth drawn to the flame of this conversation. As regards what does or does not lie "still" in the earth in this poem, let's recall, also, that while Beowulf expresses the emotion, while dying, that the sight of the dragon's hoard comforts him because he know it will be a boon to his people [implying that he believes his death has secured further cycles of exchanges of this specific treasure that will somehow act as a security for the Geats against the probable incursions of the Swedes, etc., while he also laments that he does not have a son upon whom to bestow his war-gear, implying that there is also a deadly problem of paternity here], nevertheless, Wiglaf [somewhat mysteriously] orders the treasure to be buried along with Beowulf, and I have always thought Wiglaf does this because of something he wants to believe, but which is not true, that, once buried, history itself will lie still--i.e., that somehow, the continual violence of their own intimate past and present can finally be put to rest when this treasure is "out of circulation," as it were.

This connects to Wiglaf's sending out of the herald who broadcasts the news something along the lines of "your king is dead and the treasure buried with him and what you have to look forward to is a kind of genocide in which the Swedes will wipe out every man, the ravens and wolves will pig out on their corpses, and the women will tread a foreign path, bereft of their treasures, as exiles." By burying the treasure Wiglaf chooses to opt out of the exchange system and is perfectly willing to let everyone else, in a sense, be buried along with it in the killing fields, out of which fields, if we follow certain invented genealogies, he somehow manages to stumble off as the "lone survivor."

But nothing really lies still, as Jeffrey suggests. My favorite line of Beowulf's in the poem, as he is dying, is "I can be here no longer," and yet, Beowulf is reawakened and put back to rest and converted to smoke and so on each time the poem is recited and read. The dead never really lie still and even the dragon will always be disturbed by someone--is his job really to sit and hoard, to brood, as it were, his tail in his mouth, the cave "closed," or is he always really waiting for that visitor? Does a cup really want to be returned to the earth from whence is supposedly comes, or, as a thing made by humans [and in this sense, it is irredeemably *human*], does it long to be retrieved and placed against the lips of the intoxicated warrior? Isn't it that, at the end of the day, that *things*--and their stuff-ness--matter *too* much? This is partly the point of that neck-ring, I really believe, which passes from Wealhthow to Beowulf to Hygelac, whose corpse, fallen in a sublimely unnecessary battle against the Frisians, we are not allowed to forget is adorned by it. Further, we are not allowed to forget the impossibility of Hrothgar's daughter's marriage to a Heathobard, Ingeld, because it will be the sight of a sword at the marriage dinner, forseen by Beowulf in a bizarre moment of prognostication, and which signifies, for the Heathobards, their defeat at the hands of the South-Danes [both literally on the battlefield and symbolically at the wedding feast], that will bring the whole feast to a bloody and fiery end. The demise of Heorot turns on the stuff-ness of that object, the sight of which is unbearable.

Things weigh heavily in this world, as they do in our own. Possession. Self-possession. This was the first sin and will be the last sin, the one we still wrestle with--what we think we own and is owed to us, how a thing [whether a body or a sword or a jeweled nacklace] stands in for our integrity and value and over which we are willing to maim and kill.

Can we ever be after elegy [?], especially with regard to Old English poetry or Anglo-Saxon England, which we might remind ourselves *invented* this poetry, not as an imitation of their present reality, necessarily [such that we could say, these people were always lamenting or saw the world clad in the hues of mourning], but rather as a vehicle for a certain *mediation* of past and present memories and trauma and even political *bids* [for we have to reflect that the Anglo-Saxons likely saw themselves as *moderns* reclaiming and reshaping particular pasts in their art and writings for particular ends], but I don't know if I believe, as Jeffrey surmises, that the Anglo-Saxons were, in a sense, trying to bury the past, and that they did not want to be too intimate with that past. The poem "Beowulf" itself is a poem about characters who are also trying to bury the past but who are also in love with that past, no matter the violence. A dragon's cave, in this scenario, is always the flame which no one can resist. It should remain closed, if history were to really progress, but there is always an opening, and no one can resist "going back in," as it were. And as Jeffrey also pointed out, and because the poet uses identical terms [aglaecan, wraecan] to describe both Beowulf and the dragon [and Beowulf and Sigemund, and Beowulf and Grendel, and Beowulf and Grendel's mother], all are outsiders and exiles and "terrible laws" unto themselves who, nevertheless, are on intimate terms with each other. But in writing "Beowulf" and in reading it, I do not think the Anglo-Saxons were trying to say, "this is truly over," but rather, staged a kind of melancholic repetition of a certain amorous grief for a lost love object, one we still mourn today: the idea that, in the worst of all situations, there are still heroes who will stage what Levinas called the "salto mortale"--the deadly jump into the abyss of history, and therefore, nothingness is impossible [or so we want desperately to believe].

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

Although I'm not persuaded that the poem is as recuperative or nostalgic as all that, I do agree with most of your eloquent comments, Eileen. I know this is too much of a blanket statement, but it does seem to me that much OE poetry -- like much OE meditation on the pastness of the past more generally -- is invested in making that history impossible, ended, gone. And yet the rites of interment themselves make past and present cohabitate. It's like what Grendel attempted in wanting to stuff Beowulf in a glove made of dragon skin: to make the hero realize his utter kinship with the thing he would disavow. Elegy brings temporalities close and keeps them close, even as it seems to open a chasm between them.

Eileen Joy said...

I've always liked what Jim Earl has written in his book "Thinking About Beowulf," and which I think speaks to what both Jeffrey and I are saying here:

"The question is often raised, why is _Beowulf_ an Anglo-Saxon epic at all, since it is set in Scandinavia and the hero does not belong to the English national past? It is no accident that Beowulf belongs to a tribe famous for its heroes but equally noteworthy for its complete disappearance from history long before the composition of the poem. This striking fact points to one of the chief themes of the poem, which does not so much describe and praise the heroic world generally as focus on its disappearance in particular. The collapse of Beowulf's world at the end of the poem is presented as an inescapable necessity, as ineluctable as death. _Beowulf_ begins and ends with funerals and is mournful throughout; when it is not meditating on the necessity of death, it is demonstrating it in a sequence of mourning figures--the Danish people, Hildeburh, Hrothgar, Hrethel, the old father, the last survivor, Wiglaf and the Geats. The poems ends with the passing of Beowulf, the passing of the nation, and the passing of the heroic world altogether, and mourns all these losses. It is a poem of mourning, an act of cultural mourning.
The distinctive psychology of mourning, with its blend of love, devotion, obsessive memory, guilt, self-mortification, anger, renunciation, and relief, might account for the poem's complex tone better than the more conventional theory of cultural nostalgia. The poem's ambivalence toward the past may be illogical, admiring it and renouncing it at the same time, but that is only typical of mourning. The destruction of the heroic world at the end of the poem represents a renunciation, but also an appropriate self-punishment, left hanging forever in the future, for the guilt such a loss inevitable inspires." [pp. 47-48]

Mary Kate Hurley said...

So much to comment on here, and no time to comment on them until I've had some rest! But there IS so much here that is helpful to this idea. To be fair to Liza (and OE poetry!) I suppose I should admit the hyperbole of the scenario or the "after elegy" idea I proposed. I just can't help wonder if "elegy" or even "loss" stands in the way of understanding what's really at stake. Hence the hyperbole -- what if we try to restructure our thinking. It's something I think you're after here, JJC:

OE poetry dreams of the stillness of gold in the earth, of the stillness of Beowulf in the earth, hoping to make that lifelessness come about. It does not, of course, succeed.

Beautifully put. I'll say something more intellectual soon.

Most of all, thanks to everyone for the thoughtful and thought provoking responses -- I want to hear more, and say more, and keep discussing!

Mary Kate Hurley said...

Prehensel> Interesting stuff on exchange there. I’ve not read the Neville book (though it’s now on the list!), but I could definitely see the “useful” v. “not-useful” distinction being made. The question that I’d naively ask is what happens with the past? The past is terribly useful in Anglo-Saxon England…which brings me to Jeffrey’s comment.

Jeffrey> really interesting reading of the dragon. And you’re right – the dragon isn’t the opposite of Beowulf, and resists the kind of categorization that we might want to put on him, in much the same way as Grendel and Grendel’s Mother. I’m curious about what you say here: could it be that OE poetry is obsessed with loss, obsessed with mourning, inherently elegiac in order to convince its listeners that what they hear is well and truly over? OE poetry dreams of the stillness of gold in the earth, of the stillness of Beowulf in the earth, hoping to make that lifelessness come about. It does not, of course, succeed.

Liza> I like what you say about Beowulf having entered another network entirely. I’d argue that the network into which he enters – that of the earth, and of its stillness (per what Jeffrey says above, to which I’ll return) – is a finality of sorts. Beowulf has been transferred, or rather, recognized for what the poem suggests he always was: an object of heroic poetry rather than the subject of heroic action. Hoarding wins because the past keeps both its secrets and its stories: after all, a sword that isn’t buried to decay with its owner precipitates (or so Beowulf imagines) the destruction of Hrothgar’s people after the marriage of Freawaru, because of a bizarre cycle of memory and the subsequent violence it precipitates.

I think that’s what’s really interesting about what you say, Jeffrey, about the dreaming of the stillness of Anglo-Saxon poetry. Trying to take the past out of circulation, while noting that there’s never really a way to do that. Because even when the past is past – think of the situation of Caines cynne in the section of the poem – it isn’t really gone, it still works in the present to create a future. It makes you wonder about the poetry, its purpose: after all, by voicing the past, by preserving it as past – the poetry demonstrates that the past endures, and has consequences that cannot be predicted.

As for Elegy: I don’t think it’s even that you can’t resist returning to the dragon’s cave, Eileen. Rather, you stumble into it, hiding from enemies – it finds you again, offers some kind of shelter from a present danger. It bewitches you and you steal a cup. And the cycle returns and continues.

I guess what I wonder, in thinking through a possibility of being “after elegy” isn’t whether we can think about being past an idea of loss; rather, if we read the poem against the grain of what we expect, what does it show us? And does the heroic world really die at the end of the poem? I understand the singularity of Beowulf, but doesn’t the poem recoup him into the poetic system of exchange? And Eileen, where you speak of possession and the first and last sin -- This was the first sin and will be the last sin, the one we still wrestle with--what we think we own and is owed to us, how a thing [whether a body or a sword or a jeweled nacklace] stands in for our integrity and value and over which we are willing to maim and kill. -- can we also insert there the poem? A poem we try to think through as an origin or an ending, a poem we use to exemplify and mourn a heroic past? To make, as Tolkien wanted, a poem about “our northern mythology” and “our northern skies”?

I’ve digressed. Wonderfully interesting discussion.

Alexander said...

Is that a picture of Takhisis on the top of the post and do you read Dragonlance Mary Kate?

-- Alex Cohen

Mary Kate Hurley said...

Alex> With many apologies for not responding until now -- I have absolutely no idea as to the identity of the dragon (though I'll do some google searching and try to find out for you!). And I have read Dragonlance in the past -- it's been awhile though.