Pulp Appeal: Beowulf (Guest Post by Sara Codair)

(Editors’ Note: Sara Codair lives in a world of words. Writing is like breathing; they can’t live without it. Sara teaches and tutors writing at a Northern Essex Community College. They live with a cat named Goose who likes to “edit” their work by deleting entire pages and a dog who limits their screen time. Their short stories were published in places like Unnerving Magazine, Broadswords and Blasters, Alternative Truths, and Once Upon a Rainbow II. Their debut novel, Power Surge, will be published by NineStar Press on Oct. 1, 2018. Find Sara online at https://saracodair.com/. Twitter: @shatteredsmoothFacebook: https://www.facebook.com/saracodair1)

Hwæt!”

It’s time to unlock my word-hoard and take “Pulp Appeal” back to the days of the mead halls and scops.

proxy.duckduckgo.com

Editors’ Note: The Heaney translation is editor and poet Cameron Mount’s favorite, but even so it doesn’t hold a candle to the way the original sounds. Check the Youtube video below.

When I put Beowulf and “Pulp Appeal” in one thought, I don’t think of the 1970’s comics, Seamus Heaney, J. R. R. Tolkien, or the 2007 movie. I think about a bunch of smelly drunk people huddled around fires drinking mead while the scop sings a story of heroics and gore.

When I had the luxury of ignoring practicality and studying whatever I wanted, I signed up for Special Topics in Literature: Beowulf, or as my classmates and I called it, Beowulf Seminar.

Yes. I took a semester long class on Beowulf and I do not regret it.

Beowulf is ancient, written in a form of English so old it’s foreign, filled with cathartic words and terribly confusing grammar. What made Beowulf Seminar special wasn’t seeing the text in its original language but hearing and speaking it.

Beowulf (the character) is a bad ass right from the beginning. Before the hero of the Geats even gets to the Danes to learn about the monster they want him to kill, he swims across a narrow stretch of ocean and battles sea monsters with his bare hands.

No boat. No scuba gear. Just Beowulf and the sea monsters duking it out on whale road.

Speaking of whale road, I love the poetic conventions, kennings, and alliteration, that show up in Anglo-Saxon poems. Contemporary publishing pros just don’t appreciate them enough these days.

I get chills when I think of Beowulf finally meeting up with the Grendel-plagued Danes. I could try to look up the lines, either in or out of translation, that paint a picture of this dark, lonely hall full of scared warriors hiding shattered egos behind bravado, but I suspect I could look and look and never find it.

Ancient, translated stories are fluid. They grow and squirm and define binaries. They change with every telling, whether it is by a scop on a dark night in medieval England, a 20th century poet’s translation published and force-fed to high school students, or a circle of nerdy English majors reading aloud and translating under the watchful eye of a well-loved professor. Pen and vellum, the printing press, and the Internet may have “immortalized” Beowulf, but they don’t bind it.

So when I remember being swept up in the tension of Beowulf grappling Grendel, an enemy he didn’t really know or understand before literally ripping his arm off, it may not be the same scene in my head as it is in someone else’s.

After a break with some mead and talking, we get to my favorite part of the story – the problematic one I wrote a 20-page paper about in graduate school. One semester of Beowulf just wasn’t enough.

For me, the battle with Grendel’s mother conjured images of slimy monsters, the kind of murky water my dogs love wallowing in, and the stench of decay. Here, Beowulf isn’t so heroic. He’s hunting down the mother of the being he murdered, propagating a never-ending circle of murder and revenge.

This is the first time Beowulf the Badass has any real trouble. The man who swam through monster-infested seas like I cross streets is almost defeated, only saved by a deus-ex-machina discovery of a magic sword.

I like magic swords, especially if they conveniently appear when they’re needed most, but contemporary publishing pros like that even less than alliteration.

The final battle of Beowulf is probably the one that would receive the least hate were it to wind up in someone’s slush pile (assuming the reader made it that far).

When I pull myself out of my stream of indie press ARC’s and instead read books from publishing houses that make a lot of money, I notice they like authors who torture their characters.

Miscommunication. Bad Decisions. Oversight. These things lead to the death of many of my favorite characters in newish speculative fiction, so I think the editors would like how one little thief who angers a dragon (sound familiar?) ends Beowulf’s life fifty years after he defeated Grendel’s mother.

In that final scene, when Beowulf faces the fierce fiery dragon, all but one of his men abandon him. Only the wise and faithful Wiglaf remains at his side.

There is no HEA or HFN[1] though I bet I could write a pretty good sequel for Wiglaf. No one is stopping me from doing that, and no one is stopping me from writing Beowulf with more gender diversity and a better ending. I could call it fan-fiction or a retelling, but the truth would be that it’s just Beowulf being Beowulf. It’s the story growing and evolving as it is meant to do.

Without a time machine capable of bringing me back to a hall or camp where a scop sings a version of it, I can’t ever truly know what any of the original tellings of Beowulf were like.

If I did have one? I wouldn’t want to travel to an era where personal hygiene was non-existent, where it was safer to drink alcohol than water, where women were property, and murder was punishable with a fine instead of prison time.

The Middle Ages can stay in the past.

If I had that time machine, I’d go back to my classmates and convince one who was twenty-one to buy us some mead. Out in the woods with our libation, fire, and textbooks, we’d be witches, summoning the spirit of Beowulf to the modern world by shouting mispronounced words of a dead language.

(Editors’ Note:  Interested in writing a Pulp Appeal article for Broadswords and Blasters? Drop us a line through our contact page and let us know what you’re interested in contributing.)


[1] Happily Ever After or Happy for Now. The editors had to look this one up ourselves…

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6 Responses to Pulp Appeal: Beowulf (Guest Post by Sara Codair)

  1. Sara says:

    Reblogged this on Sara Codair and commented:
    An article I wrote for Pulp Appeal:

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  2. daveallen says:

    I received this version for Christmas a few years back. I found the English translation dry – it seemed to be written by an academic with more concern for accuracy than keeping reader interest. To be fair, I probably shouldn’t have expected to hold it to the same standard as a Stephen King or Neil Gaiman novel. I’d like to revisit it again one day, perhaps in a classroom or book club setting.

    Like

    • That’s funny to me because Seamus Heaney is not an academic and did his best to actually keep the poetic feel rather than adhere to slavish verbatim translation. I think the Tolkien version is far drier by comparison.

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  3. Heaney’s version is gorgeous, but it’s very much his own thing that he has built upon the original. It’s distinctly Irish in its language, mood, and character. It erases so much of the Anglo-Saxon roots that though he’s closely following the story beats it’s not quite really Beowulf anymore. (It’s almost The Magnificent Seven to Seven Samurai—both excellent, but I wouldn’t tell you to just watch The Magnificent Seven if you were looking to understand Seven Samurai on its own terms.)

    Tolkien’s translation is extremely dry and academic. His chapter “The King of the Golden Hall” in The Two Towers is a much more evocative and honest translation of Beowulf than his actual Beowulf translation is.

    After my disappointment with these two, I’ve been meaning to go back and explore others to see if I’ve missed one that hits the balance more successfully. (Whatever translations we read in school were forgettable—the text didn’t really come alive for me until I took a similar Beowulf seminar to Sara’s and we tackled it in Anglo-Saxon.)

    I’m desperately dreaming of someone taking on Beowulf the way Emily Wilson has taken on The Odyssey—a very contemporary, fresh, and witty take based on a deep linguistic analysis of the original text. (Her new Odyssey translation is outstanding and I highly recommend it.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think the Kurosawa/Leone comparison is a great simile here. I don’t have the same sense of disappointment with Heaney as you, but I can certainly see where you’re coming from.

      For me, Beowulf has not really come alive in the same way that Chaucer did for me in grad school. I think that’s because Middle English is recognizably English and I don’t need a translation to understand it, but it could be partly because I enjoy Chaucer’s sense of humor, bawdy and irreverent, whereas Beowulf often feels like the antecedent to current generation grimdark, which can be grating when taken in too much at once. And I say that as someone who happens to like grimdark. Perhaps a better retelling, like you describe for the Odyssey (I’ll have to check out that translation for sure), would alleviate some of that.

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