Monthly Archives: October 2023

Beowulf – 5 The remarkable revival

The ancient story of Beowulf has had a remarkable revival. 

Beowulf’s story was composed around the 6th or 7th centuries, written down in the 10th or 11th centuries, and has survived for about 1500 years. The manuscript is long, about 3000 lines in Old English, and is kept in the British Library. How and why the manuscript was created is not known. Who composed it is not known. Whether it was composed by one artist or several is not known.

Originally the story would probably have been told or sung in three parts over three evenings, in a great hall, much like the one featured in the story. There is no evidence that anyone called Beowulf ever existed. Except of course he does, in countless translations, adaptations, films and retellings. 

Beowulf is a Geat and a hero. His story tells of his defeat of Grendel and of Grendel’s mother, and a treasure-loving dragon. Grendel was terrorising the Danish mead hall, the pride and joy of its builder the king. After defeating Grendel, the monster’s mother came seeking revenge and there was another epic battle, this time underwater, but again Beowulf prevailed. Much later in life, when he was a king himself, Beowulf took on a dragon who guarded the most fabulous pile of treasure, and although the dragon died, so did Beowulf to the dismay and misery of his people.

As far as I am aware, the revival of Beowulf’s story is a recent phenomenon.

Why is Beowulf so popular today?

It’s a good story. It’s the story of good triumphing over evil and with a couple of twists. Just when Beowulf and his admirers think he has solved the problem of the attacks on the Danish mead hall, along comes another monster for him to dispatch. Later he becomes a king and does the kingly thing of defending his people, even at the cost of his own life. 

Beowulf appeals to children as well as adults. The plot can be simplified, omitting the genealogies, back stories, and sub plots. The hero defeats three monsters. He is brave. He is young and one of a gang at the start of the story and becomes king in his mature years. 

Beowulf is a hero. Superheroes are all the rage at the moment. His power, his superpower, is to have the strength of 30 men in one of his arms. He is more than a human. He finds a magic sword and has the ability to fight for hours underwater. He fits right in with the spidermen, supermen, and other film heroes.

We like a little of the supernatural in our fiction. The powers of the hero and of his defeated monsters and dragon are all supernatural. They don’t quite belong in our world, so we can return from ancient Denmark and feel happy at the outcome, and relieved that such things do not exist in our world. 

The antagonists are sympathetic. Both Grendel and his mother have been made the focus of novels: by JohnGardner and Maria Dahvana Headley respectively. Maria Dahvana Headley updated the story not only to interpret it through feminist eyes, but also to place it in a modern context, which seriously challenges the goodness of Beowulf. John Gardner views the story from the eyes of Beowulf’s first victim, who might even be a human of sorts, seriously challenged by the bragging Danes in the mead hall, and much misunderstood by the other characters and by the original storyteller of course. 

Other times, other places. There is also the mystery and attraction of this being a very old story, capable of retelling in ways that say something about the teller and their context and time. I have not yet read Edwin Morgan’s version, but I note that he says this about his original version published in 1952.

The translation, which was begun shortly after I came out of the army at the end of the Second World Wat, was in a sense my unwritten war poem, I would not want to alter [in a new edition] the expression I gave to its themes of conflict and danger, voyaging and displacement, loyalty and loss. Inter arma musae tacent (“In time of conflict the Muses are silent”) but they are not sleeping. (Preface to 2021 edition)

These themes are timeless, conflict and danger, voyaging and displacement, loyalty and loss and just as Edwin Morgan experienced them in the Second World War, so do we today.

The mystery of the text. The story of the survival of the version of Beowulf that we have is fascinating, not least because it is so ancient, and the language in which it was written is obscure to most readers, despite being a version of very old English. It is not clear whether it is written by more than one scribe or composed by more than one poet. We know that the poet and the scribe cannot be the same person, for the poem predates the written version by some centuries. Survival of texts and arguments about versions and who wrote what and authenticity are the very stuff of fascination. For example, Shakespeare’s plays have been subjected to a huge amount of scholarly examination in the various versions that still exist. I have looked at the versions listed below, which include prose, and poetry, adaptations and translations. No doubt there are others, and in different genres, perhaps a computer game, anime or film. Whatever version Beowulf is in, the story will be read into the late twenty-first century. Not bad for a text that started as a spoken or sung poem fifteen centuries ago.

Pile in order 2

Versions of Beowulf discussed in this series

Dragon Slayer: the story of Beowulf by Rosemary Sutcliff, (1961) reissued by Puffin in 1966.

Beowulf by Michael Morpurgo, (2006) by Walker Books.

Beowulf, translated and introduced by Kevin Crossley Holland (1987) Phoebe editions

Beowulf by Charles Keeping & Kevin Crossley-Holland, (1982) Oxford University Press.

Beowulf by Michael Alexander (1973) Penguin Classics

Beowulf by Seamus Heaney, (1999) Faber

Beowulf by Maria Dahvana Headley (2021) Scribe. 

The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley (2018) Scribe. 

Grendel by John Gardner, (1971) Picador. This edition contains the illustrations by Emil Antonucci.

Beowulf by Edwin Morgan (1952) republished by Carcanet (2002)

Links to previous posts in the Beowulf series

Beowulf 1 Some versions February 2021

Beowulf 2 in which he meets a feminist July 2021

Beowulf 3 – Grendel by John Gardner March 2022

Beowulf 4 – Charles Keeping’s Illustrations December 2022

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Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver

It seemed to happen a great deal in the ‘70s and ‘80s. A book would capture the attention of readers, especially women readers, and the question people asked was ‘have you read it yet?’ That doesn’t happen so often nowadays, but here is a book that I find all my reader-friends have read or are planning to read. I overheard two women talking, last week. ‘I’m reading that book.,’ said one. Her friend replied, ‘Oh yes, that Demon book. I wanted to read it in my book group, but they said it was too long. Their loss. How far have you got?’ ‘Only about halfway. Don’t tell me what happens. It’s so good though. I’m enjoying it so much.’

I am puzzled by a book group that resist reading a prizewinning novel, and one that so many people are talking about, ‘because it’s too long.’ As she said, ‘their loss’. I look back through other recent novels, and I think that another winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction caused a similar sensation: Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo. It too was long (453 pages).

It’s taken me a little time to read Demon Copperhead. And to put my reactions into a post for the blog. It is a long book. But I wonder what there is new or different for me to say. As usual I’ll say what I think. You can add your thoughts or differ with mine in the comments.

Demon Copperhead

First, it is very Dickensian. Of course it is, Barbara Kingsolver acknowledges her debt to the Victorian writer.

I’m grateful to Charles Dickens for writing David Copperfield, his impassioned critique of institutional poverty and its damaging effects on children in his society. Those problems are still with us. In adapting his novel to my own place and time, working for years with his outrage, inventiveness, and empathy at my elbow, I’ve come to think of him as my genius friend. (547)

So it is Dickensian, first by being an adaptation of the story of a disadvantaged boy, and a brilliant one, to her context. More than that, she matches his ability to tell stories, conjure characters, keep a plot alive. And by matching Dickens’s outrage at society’s failure to care for children who slip through the cracks, who are not well treated by social services, and who are preyed upon by opportunists and others who should know and do better. The social injustice permeates this story. Dickens showed novelists how to do this.

Second, despite adapting David Copperfield for her novel, Demon Copperhead stands in its own right. You do not need to have read Dickens’ novel to follow the plot. And if you have read it, you do not need to spend too much time identifying the parallels between the two. One or two are a bit clunky: the upside-down boat for example. But mostly the original story is so strong that Barbara Kingsolver’s adaptation lightly makes the connections. I found Coach to be the least convincing character in Demon Copperfield, and I can’t think from which original character he would have been adapted.

Having said that, I found that for the most part she created authentic characters, many with great quirkinesses. Mr Dick is a joy. U-Haul is suitably creepy and oily as Uriah Heep. The Peggot family are as warm and embracing as you could wish. The belief by Mr McCobb that something will turn up is as misguided as in the original. And so on. The main joys of this novel are the characters, their influence on Demon and the interlacing of their stories with his. 

Third, it’s a story worth telling. It is told by a boy who wants to make the best of himself, but life keeps knocking him down: born into poverty, in a rural setting where the mining industry has collapsed, Appalachian Mountains, to a single mother who cannot cope without alcohol; he is looked after by the state’s social services which means his labour is swapped for accommodation and payment, on a deadbeat farm, and then with a struggling family. He learns much from this degrading treatment, but it is only when he takes his destiny in his own hands – running away to find the truth about his father – that things slowly begin to get better. He is knocked down many times before he finds true love and happiness.

Meanwhile we have seen the damage caused by the opioid epidemic, neglectful social services, and greedy individuals in a brutal and raw story. Here she is, at her most outspoken, describing an evening on the farm where the foster carer relied upon children’s labour.

A ten-year-old getting high on pills. Foolish children. This is what we are meant to say. Look at their choices, leading to a life of ruin. But lives are getting lived right now, this hour, down in the dirty cracks between the toothbrushed nighty-nights and the full grocery carts, where those words don’t pertain. Children, choices. Ruin, that was the labor and materials we were given to work with. An older boy who never knew safety himself, trying to make us feel safe. We had the moon in the window to smile on us for a minute and tell us the world was ours. Because all the adults had gone off somewhere and left everything in our hands. (76-77)

Blame disadvantaged and deprived children for making bad choices and then go off somewhere and leave them to it. 

Don’t be put off by the American setting – it has a great deal to say to us in the UK as our public services collapse. And don’t be put off by its length. There is a huge amount to enjoy and to think about in this novel. I’m not surprised it won so many prizes and has been so highly praised. Have you read it yet?

Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver, published in 2022 by Faber. Winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2023. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. 548pp

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Returning to Judenplatz, Vienna

This is my 801st post on Bookword. For some of this week I am in Vienna and to celebrate being here and so many posts, I am recycling one of my very first. Just over ten years ago I visited this city and was profoundly moved by the Judenplatz, Jewish Square. I plan to revisit this moving place on my current visit. Here is what I wrote ten years ago.

From Bookword March 2013

It is a Catholic city on a Sunday morning, but Vienna was quiet and without church bells. The Judenplatz (Jewish Square) was calm. The metal ring of the horses pulling the tourist carriages could be heard from the surrounding streets. The churches were emptying, and families were returning home after mass, bundled into coats and scarves against the spring cold. As they greeted their neighbours or stopped to talk their voices rebounded from the genteel walls of the buildings, five storeys high, painted in white or palest cream and with tall, elegant windows.

In the centre of the square is a statue of Lessing, an Enlightenment figure, hated by the Nazis who destroyed the original. The replacement was made after the war and at certain angles the head appears to be out of proportion and awkward. Mozart lived for a while in a house on the corner. There is a plaque commemorating this on its wall.

Near Mozart’s house is a second plaque, brass with Latin lettering, celebrating the cleansing of the city of its Jewish population in 1421. Above it is a little vignette, an angel witnesses a cleansing. The story goes that the Jews were burned at the stake and to save others from such a death the Rabbi himself killed many of his congregation.

A heavily built young man came into the square while we pondered the celebration of this barbarity. He was in his early 20s and a little overweight.  He wore a t-shirt, faded gingham shorts and moccasins. He took off his shoes and placed a small pile of short candles and a rose bud on the floor. He lit the candles and lay beside them on the concrete. After about ten minutes he replaced his moccasins and loped off over the cobbles and disappeared, leaving the candles to burn. 

They guttered in a pool of wax in front of the library door. This is Rachel Whiteread’s Holocaust Memorial for the 65,000 Austrian Jews killed by the Nazis in the Second World War. Around the base of the monument are listed in alphabetical order the names of the 45 places where the Austrian Jews were murdered, from Auschwitz to Zamosc. It is a library, but you cannot enter. There are no handles on the doors. It is made of concrete, resembles a bunker. The external walls of the library are made from books, cast in concrete, their spines facing inwards. They are closed books. We can never read their stories.

We stand and contemplate this grey structure, such a contrast to the other public memorials and statues in this city, most of which are decorated with gold. In the fashionable Graben shopping street (think Bond Street), for example, stands the Pestsaule, which celebrates the departure of the plague from Vienna in 1692. Even this writhing column is topped with golden tangled figures. The Holocaust Memorial was unveiled in October 2000. It is monumental yet understated, absorbed into its surroundings yet unmissable, calming yet shocking, moving yet without human figures.

I think these contradictions arise because of the books. The idea of a concrete book is one from which we recoil and then return. The library represents what could have been, what should not have been and what, having been imagined and realised, must be chronicled and not forgotten; and from which we must learn. And the Jews are the people of the book. 

Later that we day, after we had witnessed Don Giovanni taken down to hell at the Opera House, we passed through Judenplatz again. Evening was turning to night and easing the contradictions of the memorials in the square. The exquisite beauty of Mozart’s music could coexist with the horrors of the Fifteenth and Twentieth centuries. It was possible to fancy a hubbub of conversation, laughter and words among the library stacks and the unwritten books.

NOTE

Since that visit I have also been to Auschwitz and wrote about my visit and some bookish connections on this blog. You can find that post here

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Struwwelpeter: Merry Stories and Funny Pictures 

Sorting through more of the books that came to me from my mother, I found a copy of Struwwelpeter. It seems to have been given to one or more of us children in the 1950s by ‘Grandpop’ my father’s father. I have two other editions, an earlier one, perhaps from the ‘20s or ‘30s and a more modern one, published in 1972. 

Struwwelpeter can be translated as shock-haired Peter. It is available today from bookshops, including with joint German/English text. Older editions sell for three figures on the second-hand websites. And an e-book is available on-line from Gutenberg editions.

The History of Struwwelpeter

The oldest of my editions has a page by the author, Dr Heinrich Hoffman, translated as the stories in the book are by an unknown translator. In this introductory note Dr Hoffman describes how the book came to be written. He wanted to find an appropriate picture book for his 3-year-old son for Christmas in 1844. He was very unhappy with what he found in the shops.

Long tales, stupid collections of pictures, moralizing stories, beginning and ending with admonitions like: “the good child must be truthful”, or “children must keep clean”, etc.

At the time Dr Hoffman was the medical man at the lunatic asylum, and often had to see children. He was aware that doctors and chimney sweeps were often used as bogeymen by mothers when they admonish and threaten their children. So to allay their fears he would produce little rhymes and pictures for the children. 

A story, such as you find written here, invented on the spur of the moment, illustrated with a few touches of the pencil and humorously related, will calm the little antagonist, dry his tears and allow the medical man to do his duty.

The ‘pretty stories’ found an instant readership, including in Great Britain. 

The Stories in Struwwelpeter

Each of my three editions contains 12 stories, with titles such as 

  • Cruel Frederick: Fred is bitten by a dog that he was tormenting
  • The Dreadful story of Harriet and the Matches: Harriet played with forbidden matches and was burned to a cinder, leaving only her red shoes
  • The Story of the Inky Boys: the boys who were taunting a ‘Black-a-moor’ got dipped in ink 
  • The Story of the Man that went out Shooting: the man who went shooting found the gun turned on him by the hares

In all these stories naughty people get their comeuppance: the hunter should not have fallen asleep; Harriet didn’t listen to the cats that warned her and so on. 

But the story that freaked me out as a child was The Story of Little Suck-a-Thumb. Guess what? I was a thumb-sucker all through my childhood. I was in constant fear of the ‘great tall tailor’ with the huge scissors.

One day Mamma said “Conrad dear,
I must go out now and leave you here.
But mind now, Conrad, what I say,
Don’t suck your thumb while I’m away.
The great tall tailor always comes
To little boys who suck their thumbs;
And ere they dream what he’s about,
He takes his great sharp scissors out,
And cuts their thumbs clean off – and then,
You know, they never grow again.”

She leaves, Conrad sucks his thumbs, the great tall tailor comes and ‘Snip! Snap! Snip!’ his thumbs are cut off. His mother returns and finds Conrad looking ‘quite sad’.

“Ah!” said Mamma, “I knew he’d come
To naughty little Suck-a-Thumb.”

Today I am shocked that a mother would go out, knowing her son would suffer this fate, and return and say to the thumbless boy a version of “I told you so!”

Some of the other stories are as moralizing, but with exaggeration, as The Story of Little Suck-a-Thumb. But few have outcomes as frightening.

  • The Story of Johnny Head-in-Air: although he falls in the river, he ultimately only loses his writing-book
  • Flying Robert: he fails to stay at home in the rain and is blown away with his umbrella, never to be seen again 
  • The Story of Fidgety Philip: he manages to bring the tablecloth, the meal and his own chair down onto the floor, spoiling the family dinner

I was relieved that there was no story about a nail-biter.

While every child likes to see other children getting their just deserts, the spectre of the tailor and his scissors haunted me. As did the exhortation to always be good!

When the children have been good,
That is, be it understood,
Good at meal-times, good at play
Good all night and good all day – 
They shall have the pretty things
Merry Christmas always brings.
Naughty, romping girls and boys
Tear their clothes and make a noise,
Spoil their pinafores and frocks,
And deserve no Christmas-box.
Such as these shall never look
At this pretty Picture-book.

And …

Dr Hoffman may have provided some humour and merriness into these stories, but to me they were awfully cruel. I think Dr Hoffman was disingenuous to claim that his stories weren’t moralising, for the sins of these children are just those that annoy their parents and get them nagging their children: thumb-sucking, playing with matches, tormenting animals, laughing at Black children, fidgeting, and not paying attention. I am sure there were other children than me who believed in the fate of these wrong-doers.

I worry that I inflicted this on my daughter. For the newest of my editions was published when she was 4 and I may have bought it for her. She too sucked her thumb, but I never minded, or threatened her with the great tall tailor and his scissors.

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