Thursday, January 2, 2014

For Those Who Hate Beowulf...

...and i am one of them. for several years after i began teaching "Literary Foundations," i  forced that dreary creature down my own throat and those of my students. what was interesting to me about the poem was  not the poem itself, but its nearly unique position in english lit.  but i ignored the nearly, and just dropped the beowulf, which worked quite well in one way: we left antiquity with the aenead and picked up the middle ages with the aenead-influenced inferno, with no nasty early medieval centuries in between to distract us.  then curiosity drove me to attend a lecture on the rest of the beowulf collection: some fragments and a possible non-fragment, a complete retelling of the story of the ancient biblical heroine judith.  i was entranced, and went home to bask in wikepedia and its links. the same great anglo-saxon rhythms and alliteration, probably written down by the same sort of monk who wrote down the epic beowulf. only here was a hero worth reading about!  no prissy good girl, our judith, but also no show-off warrior like beowulf. a job has to be done, and no one else is gonna do it, so it's up to her and her faithful handmaid.  she inserts herself into hateful holerfones' tent on the pretense of wanting the jews to surrender before they're all killed, because holerfones is such a great warrior.  the beastly boss is impressed with this show of intelligence, and invites her to come back and hang around together.  presuming  a sexual encounter,  he chases all his soldiers away. the virtuous virgin gets him drunk in anticipation of their night of lust, and when he's well soused, she chops his head off.  the joy of the monk writer blasts out of every syllable.  off go the ladies, freely through the camp of the enemy, carrying the basket in which they had brought goodies for the evening's enjoyment; it now carries past the soldiers the head of their dead leader.  now here's a tale.  it has its limits, of course. wholly judeo-christian, it has none of the blend of pagan and christian found in beowulf,  which makes the epic at least intellectually interesting. but 'judith' compensates with its constant motion, its emotional tone, and its competitively gory ambiance.  i still have to lecture about beowulf in the context of explaining the Judith manuscript, but i find beowulf  more interesting to talk about than to read.

judith is only one of the ways i have managed to get some female representation in the Great Works.  thought written by a man, it's a great picture of a woman, who is totally front and center.  the aenead too, in what is arguably is greatest section, offers an amazing female hero.  dido owns the first section of that amazing poem, and one of the most compelling things about her is that she never becomes only the woman who kills herself over her lover's abandonment.  she is that, no question.  but so much else! she is the only woman who could make a compatible mate for aeneas, and his sadness at his need to leave her is real, his argument sound. what forces him from her is just that. he cannot stay and help her build her city indefinitely; he must leave and found his own. neither can she leave with him; as she tells herself, that would destroy her carthage and leave it to its surrounding enemies.  her decision to commit suicide is one of the most amazing scenes in literature.  caught up in the fury and pain of his betrayal, she yet rationally considers all her possiblities.  goddess-driven, she has made a choice whose consequences leave no other way out.  had he stayed and been [as she sees it] her husband, they could rule carthage together, with both their armies.  his leaving loses her all credibility; she becomes,  simply, the alien's discarded whore.  she must die and leave her city to be ruled by other Carthaginians.  i can never read that scene without feeling her heartache and ecstasy.

later in the term, i again get to teach some cool women--and this time, as writers.  to understand the canterbury tales, you need to know a little at least of the decameron.  but the decameron has other followers, and to progress from the decameron through chaucer to the heptameron by maurguerite de neuvarre is sheer fun.  attempting to create 'the french decameron' 200 years after the original, she uses becaccio's  structure to invent a wholly different work, whose tale tellers are socially and personally deeply intertwined, and who stories relfect that.  and then there is the medieval woman who broke into the nasty 'querelle de femmes' to utter a fully female, almost proto-feminist retort in the  form of an imaginary city built  at the instruction of three women sent by the blessed virgin mary to the self-fictionalized christine de pizan.  the influence of the far superior writer dante is clear, as is that of baccaccio, but the result is a dazzling peice of propoganda, re-use of old myths, and wholly original work that became one of the first pieces of writing to be paid for in western history.

ah, mine is a tough  job......

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