Some Ideas to Think About for Week 1
Students often mention the notion of the "evolution" of the English language as reflected in its literature. The Darwinian comparison is interesting. The remaining texts are our "fossil record," and they help us construct "lineages" of paternal and maternal descent of one work from another. The weird part is that a long "dead" work can still give birth to new ones when a contemporary writer is influenced by it, and the old "dead" works can be reborn if we learn to read them in a sufficiently new and persuasive way. For instance, J. R. R. Tolkien's essay, "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics," published one year before the English first edition of The Hobbit and two years before its American editio princeps, revolutionized readings of the poem's supernatural elements (Grendel, Grendel's mother, and the dragon) by arguing for their centrality to the poet's vision of the poem's world. Earlier critics had lamented their "contamination" of a "great historical poem" with unfortunately "childish" fairy tale material. Long before Claude Levi-Strauss taught anthropologists to accept the possibility that ancient peoples had great minds that perceived and reflected their worlds differently from our own, Tolkien established the Beowulf poet as one whose world included the possible interaction between his superior but mortal hero and the exotic but rule-following creatures that we have been taught by historians to call "imaginary." Tolkien remarked that Beowulf's dragon possessed true draconitas, Latin for "dragon-ness," the essence of that kind of creature's identity. In this, he recognized that works of fiction are "real" in the sense that they live in our imaginations, and in that hallowed space they influence us as much, or more, than historical events, many of which we may ignore. How else would we know what dragons were like if poets like the Beowulf poet, or Tolkien, did not teach us? We can transmute the dragon to a symbol (Satan, greed, etc.) but in so doing we tame it to our own weak vision. To see it as the poets saw it, rising up in rage to burn and destroy those who despoiled its hoard, is to inhabit the mentality of Beowulf and his readers. In "Wanderer," "Wife's Lament," "Battle of Maldon," and "Beowulf," we have the opportunity, even through translation's cloudy lens, to view the landscape of England through the transforming vision of a culture and mentality far different from our own. What do these people value? What do they hate? What do they fear? What do they love? How do they insult and praise each other? What do they think worth noticing and (by omission) what do they ignore? To the degree that we share any of those values, hates, attentions, etc., we share their cultural inheritance as their "descendents." To the degree that we do not, perhaps we are "disinherited" by some cultural interference that cut us off from them, but which we can overcome, much as an orphan can reconstruct a lost parent's identity from traces in old letters and, by that reconstruction, her/his own identity becomes enriched.