Wednesday, December 03, 2014

The Tomato Soup Can Stops with Grendel

Does anyone know of an adaptation or version of Beowulf where Beowulf kills the dragon by throwing a bee hive in its mouth? A student in the mythology class I'm taking asked the teacher if that's what happens in the original poem and she said yes. I just reread the ending--Seamus Heaney translation--and saw nothing about bees. Then I looked at another translation on Project Gutenberg and did a word search for "bee" and "hive" and for the former I got lots of "been" and "beer" but no bees. For the latter, "shivered" several times but no hive. I mean, I didn't remember a bee hive from the times I've read Beowulf or listened to Seamus Heaney's audiobook or watched any film adaptation . . . but the teacher said it with such confidence.

We were discussing Beowulf because one of the assigned readings for the class is the novel Grendel by John Gardner, which I finished reading a few minutes ago. It's told from the perspective of Grendel and it's been compared to Catcher In the Rye, an apt comparison for Grendel's youthful disillusionment. I enjoyed the portrait of Grendel as outsider, who's pushed further away by the dreams humans weave for themselves to give meaning and structure to their society. According to the Wikipedia entry, Gardner intended Grendel's viewpoint to be precisely that of Sartre. It's just as well that this never comes out explicitly in the novel for while Grendel certainly has an existential viewpoint, I don't think Sartre would have condoned murder because there's no God. The novel works better from an emotional standpoint than an intellectual one. Grendel actually more closely resembles Raskolnikov from Crime and Punishment who saw reality as his to create and committed murder as an assertive measure to do so. Unlike Dostoevsky, though, Gardner evidently feels there is an underlying, objective reality to God, as evidenced by his portrayal of Wealtheow's beauty calming Grendel and an otherworldly quality possessed by Beowulf.

Gardner was a professor of Anglo-Saxon, which makes me wonder why the novel feels so poorly researched. He refers twice to Hrothgar's people eating potatoes when no-one had heard of a potato in Europe in the time Beowulf was set. There's a generally contemporary feel to a lot of the dialogue that doesn't come from Beowulf to the point of outright post-modernism. Probably because Gardner intended the novel to be more like a philosophical thought experiment than an attempt to create a true fantasy world.

I certainly don't think this is good assigned reading for a mythology class. But it's par for the course regarding what I don't like about the class--the teacher approaches mythology like a mathematics problem, everything is a symbol that must be swapped out for a reality explained. She keeps repeating a quote by Joseph Campbell about getting "lost in the metaphor" as if she's worried we'll turn into jihadists after reading myths. I don't know, maybe you can't be too careful when more and more people these days believe the world was created in seven days.

Twitter Sonnet #692

Refund allegories reverse bird flight.
Dominance lingers on the toga tongue.
Loafers vanish at a prodigious height.
Reclined planets of phone line banjos sung.
Star dress recovery curtain clots slide.
Filed dust catalogues the skin's his'try.
In oaks bearing maple babes dreams abide.
A thin termite suggests a wooden tea.
Loud dolphin ordeals ordain the bottle.
A compass compress guides the bandage map.
Loose pilot pivots plunder the throttle.
Mice gallop guitar chords race every trap.
Real dragons are puzzled by angry bees.
A confirmed dream crosses the icy seas.

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