Appreciating a Transient World: Unavoidable Fate in Old English Poetry

Wyrd bið ful aræd! (Fate remains wholly inexorable)

The above quote is taken from the Old English poem The Wanderer, and in four words it manages to encapsulate the theme of transience, as found in Old English texts.  Fate, as Greg Delanty’s translation of the poem puts it, “dictates”.  The idea that fate is an unavoidable force, that it is indiscriminate and arbitrary, is a motif that occurs regularly in Old English poetry.  This motif provides a clear insight into the transitory world of the Anglo-Saxons.

Image

The Wanderer concerns a lonely “anhaga”, or solitary being, who while travelling as an exile begins to contemplate the past.  He remembers his time as a retainer and his glorious victories in battle before he starts deliberating on his present position as an exile.  He explains that fate has turned against him, casting him away from the happiness he once knew.  In doing so he becomes the “snottor on mode,” (the wise man) who has the ability to clearly judge the devastating effects of fate.  He is, in essence, the physical representation of transience.

Not only does the poet embody the transient world, he also has a keen respect and appreciation for it.  He remembers things as they were, and longs for their return.  The poet declares: “Hwær cwom mearg?  Hwær cwom mago?  Hwær cwom maþþumgyfa?,” (Where is the horse gone? Where the rider? Where the giver of treasure) which reiterates his sense of loss.  He comes to realise the transient nature of life.

The Wanderer is a complex poem that explores the theme of transience.  However, the poem only offers a metaphysical representation of transience.  For a more concrete view on the Anglo-Saxon depiction of the transient world, The Ruin places its concerns on the physical decay of the poet’s surroundings.

Wrætlic is þes wealstan, wyrde gebræcon;

Burgstede burston, brosnað enta geweorc.

(Wondrous is this stone wall, smashed by fate:

The buildings have crumbled, the works of giants decays.)

Again fate is aligned with the transitory nature of the world.  The Ruin is, as Fred C. Robinson points out “something of a ruin itself.”  Damage to the Exeter Book has rendered the first 12 lines of the poem obsolete.  Nevertheless, the poem manages to powerfully evoke the theme of transience through the striking imagery put forward by the poet.

Image The poet of The Ruin, like that of The Wanderer, reflects heavily on the past, as the sight of the crumbled ruin instigates a nostalgic response in him.  He visualises what the ruin would have looked like before it succumbed to the power of fate.  He thinks about everyday life; where tradesmen once worked, busily crafting their wares, where soldiers and retainers stood “brightly adorned,” and where hundreds of generations must have grown old and died.  All this existed until fate, “the mighty one,” destroyed everything.

The Ruin emits a clearer depiction of the theme of transience than the previous poem.  Not only is the poem more descriptive, it also avoids the narratorial ambiguity of The Wanderer.  The latter poem can either be read as “a single dramatic monologue spoken by a solitary person, or a narrated poem consisting of a monologue,” according to Elaine Treharne.  The former is a third person narrative, consisting for the most part of descriptions and images.  Therefore, The Ruin allows for a more concise portrayal of the theme of transience.

Together, both poems are physical and metaphoric remnants of a time that has long past, and in this manner, they exude a great appreciation of the transient world.

Translations

The Wanderer:  Delahunty, Greg.  The Word Exchange.  Ed. Greg Delahunty and Michael Matto.  New York: Norton Publishing, 2011.  Print.

The Ruin:  Treharne, Elaine.  Old and Middle English: An Anthology.  Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2010.  Print.

References

Mitchell, Bruce and Fred C. Robinson.  A Guide to Old English.  Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2010.  Print.

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Modernizing the Anglo-Saxon World: Beowulf in the Twenty-First Century

After recently watching two different film adaptions of the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf, I realised that there is something amiss in the way the poem is presented for modern audiences. The first of these films, Robert Zemeckis’s CGI 2007 adaptation of the same name, is incredibly removed, both thematically and historically, from the world of the poem. In an attempt to modernize Beowulf, the title character is provocatively given the role of a modern action hero, synonymous with the action genre of cinema. By doing this, the complexion of his character changes drastically. Although his physical attributes and his ability to fare well in battle remain intact, he is depicted as being of weak character and as a man who does not honour the heroic code associated with the culture of his time. This is evident when he allows himself to be seduced by Grendel’s mother. Instead of killing her as he does in the poem, he succumbs rather easily to her womanly charms. (Grendel’s mother takes the form of a woman in the film). A boy is then born as a result of their union. These are clearly not the actions of the heroic and brutish Beowulf that appears in the poem. The hero that is typical of Anglo-Saxon poetry in no way would be so familiar with a sworn enemy. The same can be seen with the portrayal of Hrothgar . In the canon of Anglo-Saxon texts, the role of kingship is essential to their culture and societal structure. When Hrothgar commits suicide in the film, the idea of why a good king is so important is completely diminished. The film manages to belittle the significance of kingship. Furthermore, Grendel’s mother is assigned the role of the femme fatale in the film. She is contrived and seductive. As far as the poem is concerned, the only tangible role of a woman is to look after the men. In depicting Grendel’s mother in this manner, the filmmakers have moulded her for the appreciation of a modern audience, (Grendel’s mother is “played” by Angelina Jolie), and have also misinformed their audience about the symbolic presence of Grendel’s mother in the poem.

(Dir. Robert Zemeckis. Warner Brothers, 2007.)

The second film adaptation, Beowulf and Grendel, initially showed more promise. It appeared that the plot would focus on Grendel’s character and portray the poem from his viewpoint. As the film progressed it strayed away from Grendel’s story and began to conflate many aspects of the poem. It became confusing and complicated. The introduction of an Irish monk converting the Geats to Christianity, along with the inclusion of a witch who often advised Beowulf on issues relating to battle, was incredibly strange to say the least. I can only assume that the monk’s appearance was an attempt by the director to explain the Beowulf poet’s Christian persuasion. Altogether, the allusions to both Christianity and the occult only lend a sense of eeriness to proceedings, and do nothing to further enhance the adaptation of the poem. The film is also full of elaborate battle scenes, which can only lead one to think that if half the budget that was allocated to these scenes was instead spent on researching the poem, then we would have a better film to watch!

(Dir. Sturla Gunnarsson. Starz, 2005.)

Both of these films fail to depict an accurate version of the epic poem. In modernizing the story and the characters, modern audiences are left with a false sense of the past. The texts are testament to Anglo-Saxon culture and society, and can educate and entertain on their own merit. So why do adapters feel the need to remove them so much from their origins? I guess fear is a huge motivator. Firstly, filmmakers fear that the original text will be lost on the modern cinema goer, resulting in a huge loss of money. After all, cinema is a business. Therefore, they alter the text to make it more applicable to a mass audience. Secondly, there may be technical issues, such as budget, mise en scene, and availability of locations, to be faced when adapting these old texts to another medium, particularly film. This is certainly true for the making of Beowulf and Grendel as it is live action, but there really is no excuse in this regard for Zemeckis’s Beowulf. I understand the need for modernization of these texts, but there is no need to misrepresent them completely either. In a perfect world, film adaptations would be able to modernize Anglo-Saxon texts and staying loyal to them at the same time.

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Welcome to my Blog…

This blog will mainly focus on my research interests in the areas of Old and Middle English, including the limitations of our ability to translate many of the themes central to Anglo-Saxon culture, along with modern interpretations of Old and Middle English texts.

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