Monday, December 17, 2012

New Audio Course on the Vikings

Just in time for Christmas, my latest audio course is out from Recorded Books as part of the Modern Scholar series.

The Norsemen: Understanding Vikings and their Culture

I'm pretty pleased at how this one came out. Come for the atrocities, stay for the poetry and literature.  I'm afraid I'll never be as comfortable in reading Old Norse our loud as I am with Anglo-Saxon, but I did get a fair bit of the poetry in there.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Hobbit Film Radio Interview

My interview on WBUR National Public Radio will be aired at 12:49. You can listen live here:

After 2:00 p.m. it will be archived at

The First Hobbit Film: Some Thoughts


Utterly consistent with the previous Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings films, The Hobbit has the same strengths and the same weaknesses as those movies. It is visually stunning from the large scale to the small. The landscape is lush and beautiful, and so perfectly rendered in the 3d format that it often feels as if you are looking out of a window rather than at a film, and the details of sets, costumes and make-up are remarkable. The CGI material is seamlessly integrated, making it almost impossible to find the boundary between the computer-generated and the traditionally made. Casting is excellent. The characters look right, and the acting is extremely well done within the limits of the script and the directing. Ian Holm, Andy Serkis, Ian McKellen, Kate Blanchette are as good as they were in The Lord of the Rings, and Martin Freeman (Bilbo) and  Richard Armitage (Thorin) interpret their characters well. Balin the dwarf is kind and warm-hearted as he should be, and the decision to give each dwarf bizarre and distinctive facial hair and other ornaments was a good one (but there are still a lot of dwarves to keep track of, and I don’t think I ever did get it entirely clear which ones were Oin, Gloin, Nori, Ori, and Bofur).

It’s hard to over-emphasize how important the sets and the landscape are to the film, and how Jackson’s A+ in these areas compensates for weaknesses in others. One thing that makes Tolkien’s works different from almost all the other literature of the 20th century is the deep desire it stirs in readers to go there. Whatever else there is to criticize Peter Jackson about, he’s helped bring this wish true for many readers, and that is no small feat. It’s important to give him credit for really making the film beautiful and not trying to get away with cheap back-lot images and effects because the Tolkien name would have brought in a certain number of viewers no matter what.

That said, I had some issues. These are all more in sorrow than in anger, because I think Jackson had the opportunity to make a great film but missed it—in part because of the lowest-common-denominator needs of global Hollywood, but also in part because he and screenwriter Philippa Boyens didn’t entirely understand their material or trust their audience.

The problems come from the script and the directing, and they are the same problems of the first trilogy of films. But before I get to these, I want to address what I think it a misguided criticism, leveled in Variety and elsewhere: the idea that The Hobbit should be a light-hearted children’s story and played more for laughs than epic seriousness. If we accept the governing conceit of The Lord of the Rings (both book and films) that we are playing it straight, that these particular events really did happen to these characters, then there’s nothing wrong with treating them as serious and important. What Bilbo ended up doing—in the world of the text—really was epic and heroic, but when (in the conceit of the Red Book of Westmarch frame narrative) he told about it afterwards, he made it comic, a children’s story. There’s nothing wrong with showing “what really happened” rather than sticking to the way The Hobbit treats the events, and ironically Tolkien himself started to do something similar. In 1960 he began a revision of The Hobbit intended to make it consistent in both content and style to The Lord of the Rings. He let a friend see this revised version, and got the reply that the new version was nice, “but it’s not The Hobbit,” and so abandoned it. But Jackson need not apologize for treating the events without irony, as if they are true, and keeping the serious, epic tone of The Lord of the Rings.

What he should apologize for is a script with a fair number of false notes, missed opportunities and unnecessary changes. Tolkien’s text is not a film script, and there’s nothing wrong with adapting the story to fit the constraints of audience attention. Some of the changes are clever and effective and help illuminate the characters or the plot. For example, in the text, Tolkien makes little of the exiled dwarves’ wish to return to what was once their home: the driving emotion is “the desire of the hearts of dwarves” for gold and things made by craft, or for revenge against the dragon. Jackson effectively goes beyond the book when he depicts the dwarves as suffering from homesickness and longing. But at other times Hollywood schlock oozes up, and in others Jackson’s own playful (or goofy) tendencies—which can work very well in some places, such as most of the troll scene—should have been reined in in the interest of a more effective film.

The first false note is a small but telling script blunder. At the very beginning, in an overview of the history of Erebor, the narrator says that Thror, King of the Dwarves, “ruled as if by divine right.” This line is utterly irrelevant to everything that happens later, and it is jarring for no good reason. There are no references to God or religion in Middle-earth, so to invoke, through one of the top ten ideas of 1643 is incomprehensible and totally unnecessary.  You could, if you wanted, make some reference to Tolkien lore at this point, and there are innumerable other ways to say that Thror was arrogant or entitled. The film-makers took infinite pains over hundreds of tiny details, but they left a fair number of little turds like this one in the script: making Erebor the “greatest kingdom in Middle-earth”—why? Because an amazing dwarf kingdom under a mountain that is attacked by a dragon in a visually remarkable sequence isn’t enough? We have to be told it’s huge? Jackson should have trusted his visuals to say enough.

The largest plot-related flaw is the way the War of the Dwarves and Orcs is handled. This is material from the Appendix A that is brought into the main narrative, and the review from the Associated Press is wrong in saying that this material is “bloat” to stretch The Hobbit into three films. The quest of Thorin and Company needed to interface with the epic storyline of The Lord of the Rings, and the War of the Dwarves and Orcs is a good way to do that. But the way the script handles this (excellent and exciting) material is weak. On the one hand, everything is personalized: the war seems like it is primarily a feud between Thorin and Azog, the Albino Orc. But at the same time, Jackson operates on the theory that each battle in the film series has to be bigger than the last, so there are about 144,000 dwarves and orcs, so we care about none of them. There’s elaborate choreography, but no emotion in what should be a very emotional scene. I think if Jackson had followed the appendix text, made the beginnings of the battle small and extremely personal (the desecration of Thror’s corpse, Thrain sitting shiva and then saying “this cannot be borne” in a laconic tone), he would have made us care about the battle and the characters far more than the pure spectacle does.

Moby Orc, er, Azog (he should be Bolg if we follow the Lore even a little) is the most fake-looking monster in the entire film, and really doesn’t do much to add tension to the story. It’s a repeat of the major unforced error from the first set of films of making Middle-earth too small (Saruman standing on Orthanc can see over to the Redhorn pass; elves can trot over from Lothlorien to Helm’s Deep in a few minutes). Azog is just sitting there on his Bengal-tiger-sized warg, waiting for Thorin to pass by. Jackson’s Middle-earth has New Zealand’s remarkable scenery all stuffed into a place the size of Disney World or maybe Rhode Island.

The other important sub-plot—the return of evil to Mirkwood and the rise of Sauron—is less effective, though to be fair, it looks to be more developed in the subsequent films. Unfortunately this sub-plot is entangled with the portrayal of the wizard Radagast the Brown.  Radagast is played for laughs, but it’s not particularly funny (or original; Radagast is visually T.H. White’s Merlin from The Once and Future King, even to the bird nesting under his hat and leaving droppings). The sled pulled by giant rabbits is remarkably stupid in conception, but, surprisingly, not as awful as I first thought it would be (and to be fair, one of the funniest and nerdiest lines in the film comes from Radagast. Gandalf warns him “Those are Gundobad Wargs. They’ll catch and eat you,” Radagast replies “These are Rhosgobel Rabbits. I’d like to see them try.”). But the entire Necromancer-in-Mirkwood sub-plot is terribly done. Dol Guldur isn’t particularly good visually, and, in a place where there was plenty of actual lore to use, Jackson invents spurious lore about a magic tomb in the mountains or something that is difficult to follow and does not make much sense. Have the characters think the Necromancer is the Lord of the Nazgul, work in the prophesy that he will not fall by the hand of any living man (as a wink to the audience that has seen The Lord of the Rings), and then have it turn out to be Sauron himself. Much easier than this mess.

Related to the failure of the Necromancer sub-plot is that flaw that just keeps on giving: Elrond. Hugo Weaving is by all accounts a solid actor. He was scary and believable in The Matrix, so the problem isn’t with him, but with the direction and the terrible script he has been given.  I understand that you have to move rapidly through the explication scenes and get to the fights, and that you need drama rather than reasoned debate, but honestly, Elrond is supposed to be 6000 years old and has seen anything that is to be seen (countless defeats and countless fruitless victories). His mother was a seagull and  his father lives in a flying boat! Yet the only thing he can do in debate is rant angrily, glare out from under his eyebrows, and criticize. First of all, he is never right and second of all nobody ever listens to him.  You’d think he would have learned how to be persuasive after all this time. So it’s a great idea to think “let’s dramatize the dissention on the White Council” but it’s terrible execution to have it turn into a stupid lowest-common-denominator yelling match like the Council of Elrond in The Fellowship of the Ring film. You’ve got good enough actors that they don’t always have to be turned up to eleven.

Other weaknesses are more forgivable, if only because we can’t ask Jackson to go against powerful tides of Hollywood culture, and, well, with the good that he does by filming what he likes to film (beautiful scenery, perfect props and sets), we have to take the bad of him following certain less artistic obsessions. Peter Jackson likes to film rocks flying through the air and things tipping over. A lot. In slow motion. And he does in this film. A lot. In slow motion. It gets boring rapidly and sucks the narrative tension out of later scenes. We know that Bilbo isn’t really going to fall off the cliff and die when the Stone Giants come out in the storm, but it makes us care less that he might fall off of various other tall and teetering things later. Too many times we see something that is visually cool but emotionally empty, a soon-to-be-built amusement park ride at Disney World (swinging back and forth on ropes, plunging through tunnels) rather than a real moment of danger or wonder. The battle with the wargs and goblins in the trees at the end was almost ruined by this weakness in Jackson. It’s an unforced error, since the scene in the book has much more emotional tension in it: the dwarves are chased up the trees by the wargs. The trees don’t fall over, but the dwarves are trapped. Then Gandalf tries the burning pine-cone trick, and the wolves are being burned, chased away, etc., but the forest as a whole starts to catch on fire, and then the goblins arrive, take charge of the situation, and start fires at the bases of each tree. The tension escalates, the goblins jeer and sing, and at the last minute, the eagles come.  No tipping over trees, falling dwarves, etc., but a great deal more emotional impact (this scene is partially saved by the excellence of the eagles vs. wargs battle). 

Emotional impact is also lost due to Jackson’s tendency to let Hollywood convention overpower character and story development. The dwarves should not have attacked the trolls with weapons—save that for later.  And although the trolls sequence actually works reasonably well, the dwarves tied to a roasting spit so high above the fire that they would never have been cooked is just too goofy: put them in the sacks and let the trolls argue while standing over them, boiling water, building up the fire, etc.. Even more importantly, Bilbo should not have fought against an anonymous goblin with Sting or against Azog, either. Save that moment for his great triumph against the spiders (and speaking of the spiders, why on earth does Jackson telegraph that move? Save them and make their horror that much more of a surprise). Bilbo’s character development is weakened by him simply picking up the sword and fighting, and the bounds of plausibility are unnecessarily stretched when he does effective ninja-style sword fighting against experienced and much larger foes. Let him clutch his sword and be in the back or off to the side until the time comes (in the next film) for him to be heroic in that way.

But despite all these flaws, in overall assessment The Hobbit is a good, fun film (I’ll go see it again, and I never thought that about The Two Towers). Films are, after all, primarily a visual medium, and when the visuals are so good we can forgive other things (things that books will always do better, anyway). I was a little surprised at how precisely some of Jackson’s images match The Lord of the Rings On-line computer game: Goblin Town is an almost perfect rip-off (and as both are different from anything in the books, I have to wonder if someone on the production team sneaked a peak), dwarvish architecture is also awfully consistent with the MMO, as are particular features in Rivendell. But perhaps great minds do think alike.

And give Jackson the credit he deserves: Bag End is perfect, the unexpected party legitimately funny and over all far better than I would have predicted (only a few minor flaws—note to directors: I lived in fraternity house for four years; no one ever dumps good beer down his face. It’s a stupid Hollywood convention that can be dropped). Bilbo himself is played note-perfect, as is Balin, and Thorin for the most part, and Gandalf remains the real Gandalf. The opening sequence of the dragon’s attack on Erebor and Dale is stunning, with the brilliant idea of making the fire more liquid in its behavior than any on-screen fire I’ve ever seen: it is all the more terrifying. The Great Goblin is the most hideous monster in film history. Galadriel is what she should have been in The Fellowship, naturally glowing and beautiful and fundamentally strange, but without any obvious, cheesy special effects. And Andy Serkis’ Gollum may actually have gotten better: Riddles in the Dark is very well done indeed, though again, Jackson couldn’t resist a silly effect of having the Ring bounce up into the air and land perfectly on Biblo’s finger. And though there are a few times when his facial expressions didn’t seem to match what he was saying, Richard Armitage creates a Thorin that the audience believes and cares about: can a dwarf king be as big a heartthrob and action hero as Aragorn? Surprisingly, yes. (I predict that a certain anticipated scene at the end of the third Hobbit film will be one of the biggest tear-jerkers in cinematic history).

So overall The Hobbit is what you would expect from a Peter Jackson film: flawed by a weak script but saved by visual genius and, most importantly, by its source, J.R.R. Tolkien, who had the secret key to the hidden door of our imaginations. 

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Lecture in NJ on Monday, Dec. 10

I'm giving a talk on Tolkien and The Hobbit at Brookdale Community College on Monday, December 10th, at 7:00 p.m. in the Performing Arts Center.  It's open to the public, and I hope I'll see some of my NJ friends while I'm there.  Fun to be giving a lecture at a place where I took classes.

Here's a link to the full information on the talk.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Book Title

The title for the new book is now official:

Tradition and Influence in Anglo-Saxon Literature: A Cognitivist, Evolutionary Approach

It will be out, I'm guessing, at the end of spring or beginning of summer.

(still accepting bids for the film and merchandising rights...)

Friday, November 16, 2012

Fun with Lexomics (and you can have some, too)

I've been remiss in posting, mostly because I've had so many other things to do for, well, the past couple of years.  The lexomics project, which really started as a way for Mark LeBlanc and I to connect his introductory Computer Science course with my Anglo-Saxon and Tolkien courses, has just kept growing and growing. We got two NEH grants and made some discoveries.

Then this summer everything took off. In the most remarkable intellectual experience of my academic career, a group of Wheaton students and faculty, visiting undergrads and visiting faculty started producing new discoveries and uncovering interesting problems so rapidly that we could not keep up writing about them.  A project that was supposed to run from May 25-July 1 ended up going from May 15 through August 28.  Students were showing up at the lab at 8:00 a.m. and leaving at 6:30 and working over night. At one point a visiting professor just started laughing when three people at once called out "Professor Drout! Come see this!" None of us could wait to get into the lab and tackle new problems. It was more fun than I would have ever thought possible to have doing research (and I think research is pretty fun).

At one point Wheaton's communications firm, Generation, came and made a film.  It captures some of the excitement (but the real thing was much better). 

Sunday, November 11, 2012

A Successful Scholarly Sojourn

Come on a Sojourn with me.

This past summer, I gave in to urging from an old friend and agreed to be the scholarly presence on one of the "sojourns" put together by his new company, which is, not surprisingly, called Scholarly Sojourns, and whose slogan is "Think INSIDE the Vacation."

Although skeptical at first, I agreed to be part of an intrepid group of travelers who were seeking the places, the artifacts, the books and the stories of Anglo-Saxon Britain. We gathered in the north of England, in a lovely old hotel in Durham, and began to get to know each other at a delicious meal. The "students" weren't expecting an assignment right away, but, well, if you've brought a professor on your expedition, you might as well use him. So the smart and energetic students (some the same age as my Wheaton students, others older, one who should have been my department chair) began their first assignment: to memorize Cædmon's Hymn in Anglo-Saxon.  We might have started tentatively, but by the end of the evening--they have good beer and wine in Durham--we sounded quite Anglo-Saxon (and very loud!).

We then traveled to Bede's old monastery, Monkwearmouth Jarrow, and held some pieces of stained glass from his time.  I think Bede would have appreciated our studies and our practice of Cædmon's Hymn. Then it was off to the Holy Island of Lindisfarne to communicate with St Cuthbert and keep our eyes peeled for approaching Viking Sails (they must have taken the weekend off).  By this point, we gotten to know each other amidst beautiful scenery of historically vital places, so the learning--and the friendship and joviality of the group--carried us along on our explorations of York, Whitby Abbey and then Whitby Village. After another excellent dinner and some sleep, we toured the Parker Library at Cambridge, the reconstructed Anglo-Saxon village at West Stowe, and then took a trip to the sites of the Battle of Maldon, Bury-St-Edmunds, and in the end, Canterbury Cathedral, where were able to wander freely because we were staying inside the Cathedral Close. The next day brought Battle Abbey, the site of the Battle of Hastings and the death of King Harald. Then a trip to Winchester for an amazingly delicious and very fun meal (We discovered the summertime British drink, Pimms). I was truly sad for the trip to end and the students to separate back into their regular life.  But they'll always have Caedmon's Hymn, some great memories, and, I hope, a joy at the accomplishments of the Anglo-Saxon culture that built so much of the culture of England.

We hope to repeat this sojourn next year, and two others:  One on J.R.R. Tolkien's world (scroll to the bottom left), and the other on the Vikings, to be held in Iceland.  Keep a eye on the Scholarly Sojourns website for more detail.  It would be a great chance to meet you, and all of us can better understand Anglo-Saxon culture if we're occupying their spaces and, perhaps just a little, feeling what they felt.

Thursday, July 05, 2012


12:00:01 July 1, 2012

Dear English Department,

I am no longer your b*tch. 



[UPDATE: To clarify: this just means I have completed my term as Chair of the English department, which sounds like it is a position of power, but is actually being at the beck and call of everyone from students to faculty to administrators to the geese in the pond.   I haven't left Wheaton, haven't quit academia, am not living in a yurt.  Sheesh.]

Friday, May 25, 2012

In Memory of Professor John Miles Foley, my first teacher of Old English

In Honor of John Miles Foley
“Traditions: Oral and Beyond”
International Medieval Congress, 2012

Back in 1991-93, when I was John’s M.A. student at Mizzou, I used to glom on to him during the walk back from the Arts and Sciences building to Tate Hall. Or I would trail along with him over to the Center for Studies in Oral Tradition, and other times he and I would arrive at the parking garage at the same time and I would walk along with him to class.  I must have been incredibly annoying, and it’s testament to John’s kindness and generosity that he never said “would you just leave me alone to walk to class without jabbering at me.” 

And I’m so glad he didn’t, because I learned an awful lot in those walks.  In particular, two things stand out, which are related to my contribution today on the theme of  Tradition: Oral and Beyond. 

The first thing that I learned on those walks was how important the comparative method was to John. I know when we look at his immense accomplishments that this point seems totally obvious, and I was certainly a bit of dullard, but it took me a long time to really understand all of what John was teaching and how important comparanda were to everything we would talk about.  I had some crazy project in mind where I would go to Finland and collect tales (setting aside that Elias Lonnrot had already done this more than a century before, that I didn’t speak the language, and that a multitude of Finnish scholars were already way ahead of where I could hope to be). John didn’t laugh out loud at the project—which collapsed due to my inability to grasp 16 noun cases in the grammatical structure of Finnish—but instead just said quietly “not enough students realize that they really need to go somewhere and listen to oral works in their own cultural situation.” Although I never did go to Finland, I took in the core of that comment, which has two parts.  The first, and the obvious, is that at some stage of your investigation you try to understand the work in the context of the situation in which a particular human being produced it, one of its many immediate cultural matrices. The second, which is less obvious but connected to my theme, is that to be a great scholar you need to stretch yourself, to go beyond what is right in front of you, to try to compare your object of study with others that might have something in common with it—because oral artforms share certain forms and dynamics—and to recognize that verbal artforms are different and particular because individual traditions have specific rules, what John identifies as tradition dependence.  You can’t figure these things out without being a comparatist.

The second important thing I learned on those walks was the sheer intellectual power of the oral-traditional approach, which is really in some important ways now (though he would disavow this label) the John Foley approach. John often quoted a line from Albert Lord’s The Singer of Tales: “Oral’ tells us how, but ‘traditional’ tells us ‘what’ and even more ‘of what kind’ and ‘of what force.’” The “oral” component of oral tradition was vitally important to John not only because, as he was fond of pointing the vast, vast majority of all verbal artforms produced in human history have been oral (yet we spend all our time studying texts), but also because John simply loved oral performances.  He made us memorize and recite Caedmon’s Hymn before we could translate it, and its still his voice I hear in my head when I in turn teach it to my students this way.  But oral is just a particular kind of tradition. John was particularly interested in the constellation of features and the particular constraints that came from the oral context, but anaphora, traditional referentiality, immanence, the influence of the performance arena and other phenomena he both documented and explained were relevant not only to the gigantic corpus of oral artforms, but to those in writing, non-verbal music, visual art and behavior as well. What I learned from John, tagging along with him back to Tate Hall, asking annoying questions about Old English and Beowulf and oral tradition, was that you could take the insights that John had into oral and oral-derived texts and use them to explain other traditional phenomena, and that traditions of all sorts had an awful lot of features in common.  John at least once told me that these were just easier to see in oral traditions—but I think they were just easier to see because we had John pointing them out.

So when I say “oral and beyond” in my title for this appreciation, I want to call attention to the incredible value of John’s work for understanding how human cultures work.  Because traditions are everywhere, and they operate in strikingly similar ways, and we understand them because John took the time to be comparative, to understand the poems and the texts in their own terms and in terms of the universal phenomena embodied in them.  That is the genius of the comparative method, and of John’s work: learning more and more about South Slavic or Anglo-Saxon or Ancient Greek traditions, becoming as fully disciplinary in those fields as possible—learning the languages and the scholarship and forming opinions on the disputed questions—gives you insight into the way the world works.  And the beauty of this approach is the wide range of insights we get into the ways these processes work themselves out in disparate traditions throughout the world.

I don’t know if I ever talked with John about Darwinian approaches to culture when he was my teacher, though in editing my first article for Oral Tradition he pushed me very hard—as perhaps only a beloved teacher and mentor can— to cut, to clarify, to justify, and he made that article what it is.  But, whether or not John and I ever talked about Darwinian cultural evolution, there is a quotation from Darwin that, to me, captures not only what has been important in John’s work, but where it may lead us. This is from the very end of The Origin of Species:

It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us.

John celebrated both the particular forms, endless and most beautiful, and the ways they were produced, with a joy in both the things he studied and the work that he did. The world is a greater place for his contributions, but a much lesser place without him in it. I will try to live up to the example he set as a scholar, a teacher, and a friend. 

Thursday, March 08, 2012

How big was the dragon's head, anyway? 

At the end of Beowulf

[ Warning: Spoilers ]

                                     , the dragon attacks the hero and Wiglaf for the third time.  Hot and grim in battle, but apparently not spewing as many flames as it had in the previous two attacks (because then the heroes had to crouch behind an iron shield), it rushes on Beowulf and seizes him around his neck with bitter teeth (literally " with bones," which we reasonably take as "with teeth" and some translators use "with tusks").   Blood wells out of Beowulf's wounds.

But Wiglaf and Beowulf work together to kill the dragon: Wiglaf stabs it in the belly, which reduces the fire, and Beowulf cuts or pierces it in the middle to finish it off.

Unfortunately, the dragon turns out to have had poison venom, and so Beowulf's wound swells and swells some more, and the poison enters into the king of Geats and eventually kills him.

So my question is: How big was the dragon's head, and how long were it's teeth?  Because I'm having trouble picturing a 50-foot long dragon (we learn of this length when the Geats tip its body over the cliff ) that can get its teeth near someone's neck without just taking the head right off.

The largest Tyrannosauras rex ever found is 42 feet long.  So this dragon is longer than a full-grown T. rex. Picture the head: how do  you put a couple of teeth into Beowulf's neck and not--even by accident--just gobble him up?  The teeth are the size of bananas: if they are touching his neck, his head is coming off.

So we can conclude that the dragon must have a much smaller head and much shorter teeth.  I'm picturing something like a really large python, like the dead one in this video:

Pythons have short, needly little teeth for gripping rather than killing, so if the dragon had teeth like a python, it could latch on to Beowulf's neck without taking his head off.  My guess is that the venom must have been delivered not by injection through a hollow fang (like snakes in the families Viperidae or Elapidae), but through abrasion of the skin allowing the entry of venomous saliva (as is done by the Colubridae, most of which have back fangs and often don't inject venom but just cut the skin with sharp teeth--which is why of all the colubrids--about 67% of all snake species--only the boomslang regular kills humans).

It's still difficult to picture a 50-foot long creature that can bite a neck and not sever a head, and it makes me wonder how clear a picture the poet had in mind when he was creating the scene.

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Can Grendel Talk? Does he have Pockets?

This isn't as obvious a question as it might at first appear (I assume the obvious answer would be "No, or he'd say something in the poem"), because, if Grendel can't talk, how can he put a spell on weapons so that they won't bite him? 

Now I'm not suggesting that all spells require words. In not even sure that what Grendel has done in line 804b-805a is necessarily a spell. 

But see for  yourself.  The poet says: þone synscaðan ænig ofter eorþan irenna cyst, guðbilla nan, gretan nolde, ac he sigewæpnum forsworen hæfde ecga gehwycre."

Not one of the war-swords on the earth, made of the choicest of iron, was able to greet the enemy, for he had *forsworen* victory-weapons, each of edges." 

What does this mean, exactly?

Almost every other place it appears in Anglo-Saxon,  "forsworen" means "renounced" or "gave up," so at first it's tempting to find an analogy to Beowulf, who has given up his weapons to fight Grendel.  But the problem, then, is to explain why the swords of the Geats aren't able to strike ("gretan") the monster.

Editors have solved this problem by taking "forsworen" not as "renounced," but as "enchanted with magic" or "cursed." There aren't a lot of unambiguous examples in the corpus, however, where the word works this way. In fact, the whole argument seems to be based on the context and one instance where the word glosses "devotabat" (put a spell on, cursed). But ok, let's go with "put a spell on."  How did Grendel do it? Words? Hand gestures? A magic staff? Tarot cards? 

Everywhere else in the corpus that I've had a chance to look at, when it's not obviously giving up or renouncing something (and even many times when it is), "forswor" is some kind of verbal action: I haven't yet found a single instance where the word means something physical or mental.

Hence my question about whether or not Grendel can speak: if he's casting some kind of spell that is described by "forsworen," then it seems he would have to talk in some way.

Perhaps similarly, I always wonder about the assertion by the poet that Grendel won't pay compensation for the men he killed.  Did someone ask him to?  Does he have money to pay with? Where does he keep it? We know he has a dragon-skin bag, for bringing victims back to his underwater lair, but it seems unlikely that he uses it as a purse and carries his gold with him when he goes to visit Heorot.  I can never decide if this point is a joke by the poet: he chews up and swallows people, slaughters many, wrecks the hall... oh, and he won't even pay a wergeld for it (because you know if he did, then we could all be friends...).

Reading that line as litotes help explain the lack of wergeld payment, but it doesn't bring us closer to understanding whether or not Grendel can talk. One way to read the whole situation is to say that the poet deliberately wants to make Grendel more human than his original trollish conception might have been.  That's somewhat consistent with current monster theory, which immediately makes me think it is wrong (I try to use Diax's Rake as much as possible nowadays; thanks, Neal Stephenson).

But I think I can see a way that we can deal with the "can Grendel talk problem" and the "wouldn't pay wergeld."  The latter can be a litotes.  The former could be a form of berserkr behavior. 

I was just teaching Egil's Saga, and my students noticed that in one battle King Harald has Thorolf in the prow of his ship with Brand, but the sides of the vessel are manned by the king's twelve berserks.  After the battle, Brand is mortally wounded and Thorolf is badly hurt, but the saga author (Snorri?) tells us, that all twelve berserks were unharmed, "because no iron could strike them when they were in their battle frenzy." 

Hmmmmmm.  Maybe to get into that berserkr battle frenzy, one has to give up armor (though not weapons), and then when you do, you become impervious to weapons.  Could something like this be the idea behind Grendel's having "forsworen" weapons? By giving them up, he makes himself immune to their blows, and the audience might expect this if they already had an idea that berserks could do something similar.  Then we could dispense with talking Grendel and not worry about whether or not he had pockets.

(Though I still do worry about these things). 

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Come Work with Me in a 2-Year Post-Doc in Applied Linguistics Here at Wheaton

You can apply at

Mellon Post-Doctoral Fellowship in Applied Linguistics  

Duration: 2 years
Teaching Load: 3 courses per year
Salary: $50,000 + benefits + research stipend.

Wheaton College, a highly selective liberal arts college in Norton, Massachusetts, invites applications for a two-year Andrew W. Mellon Post-Doctoral Fellowship in Applied Linguistics, to begin Fall, 2012. We seek a colleague with a PhD in Linguistics or a related field who is interested in joining the English department of a small liberal arts college and who can enrich our curriculum with contemporary perspectives and new research.
Over the two-year appointment the Mellon Fellow will teach two sections of first-year writing and four linguistics courses (3 courses per year).One course, which will be taught both years, will be on Global Englishes. The others may be on Structure and Grammar of English, the History of the English Language, or other topics in applied linguistics that will help our students develop as scholars, writers and teachers of writing. The design of individual courses is left to the Fellow, although the department mentor can assist with course development. Fellows are expected to participate in the life of the department and are encouraged both to make connections across the curriculum and to participate in trans-disciplinary research that links English, Mathematics, Computer Science, Psychology, Anthropology and Modern Languages.
Fellows are allocated salaries of $50,000 with full benefits and additional research funds as well as inter- and intra-departmental mentoring.  
Individuals must possess these knowledges, skills and abilities or be able to explain and demonstrate that the individual can perform the essential functions of the job, with or without reasonable accommodation, using some other combination of skills and abilities.  
Curriculum Vitae
Letter of Application  
Inquiries may be sent to Professor Lisa Lebduska, Director of College Writing, at  
Applications are due by March 15, 2012; early applications are encouraged. We anticipate that interviews will be conducted via Skype.  

Friday, January 20, 2012

Tolkien Aloud

As the previous post suggests, we do a lot of reading aloud in our house even though both children like to read on the own. My daughter may be 11-going-on-17, but if you are wise, you won't mess with her bedtime reading, and my son likewise thinks it doesn't matter what else has gone on that night, where we've gone or how tired he is: if he doesn't get reading, something is wrong.  I hope we can hold on to this family tradition as they continue to grow up.

A while back I published a piece in the journal Silver Leaves about reading The Lord of the Rings aloud to a four-year-old. That was my daughter, and we read the books again when she was six. Since then she's wanted to read other things (unlike me, who would force my father to start right in again on The Hobbit as soon as we got to the end of Return of the King), and we've done a lot of fantasy and science fiction. Over the past two years we've read Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising; Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea books (just the original trilogy. I'm not reading Tehanu to my daughter, well, ever); the Anne McCaffrey Harper Hall dragonrider books; the Lloyd Alexander Chronicles of Prydain (she loved these more than anything else); some of the Heinlein "juveniles"; and the first two Hitchhiker's Guide books by Douglas Adams.

My son wasn't interested in The Lord of the Rings books when he was four, though he did like The Hobbit and we read it a couple of times, but last year, after he turned seven, we started on Fellowship and are now to the very end of The Two Towers.

So I've read Tolkien's work aloud two and a half times, plus probably four times for The Hobbit, and have a pretty good comparison group of other writers. Tolkien is by far, massively by far, the easiest of the major fantasy and SF authors to read aloud and the one whose work gains the most from oral presentation (Lloyd Alexander would probably be a fairly distant second).

Now that's the kind of evaluative statement that needs something to back it up. But one of the problems with trying to defend such an evaluation is that we have no agreed-upon metric, and so people end up quoting particular passages, pointing, and saying "See!  See how great that is!" But often passages that are great out loud are also great when read silently, so the argument is hard to make in detail.

I think, though, that I've come across one minor technique in Tolkien that really makes a difference, and I think this aspect of his work arises from his having read so much of The Lord of the Rings to the Inklings: you never, when reading Tolkien, are in any doubt about who is talking in dialogue. There is always some kind of information, either in the set-up, the dialogue itself or the description, so that you never have the experience of reading a block of text and then realizing "Wait! That's Eomer talking, not Gandalf."

In contrast we might look at Frank Herbert's Dune.  I just finished reading this out loud to my daughter, and almost every night there would be some large passage of dialogue that I'd start reading, thinking it was one character, and then, after it was finished, you'd get a bit of description or a "said X" that showed  that it was an entirely different character speaking.

I'm particularly sensitive to this because I do "voices" for most of the characters in a text, and so when you start a passage thinking that it's in Gurney Hallek's accent, and it turns out to be Duke Leto or Stilgar, you have to go back and re-read the whole thing in the correct accent.  Many of these passages in Dune are too long to scan to the end and find out who is speaking without losing focus on the part being read and drifting.

But this disorientation never happens in Tolkien, even in minor works like Farmer Giles. It's always easy to read his texts aloud, not only because you know who is talking, but because the writing--even the description of landscape--has a rhythm to it, and rise and fall that keeps you from having to stay at one pitch and speed all the time.  There are rushing passages, but then also slower, more graceful ones.

Perhaps this orality (both in terms of oral roots and ease of oral presentation) is another aspect of Tolkien's work that makes it appealing to such a wide range of readers and draws people back to re-read the books over the courses of their lives.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Actual Dialogue at the Drout House This Evening

Dad: Time for bedtime reading.

Daughter: Now we can start Life, the Universe, and Everything. It's going to be awesome.

Dad: Yes, well, about that, sweetie: the print in Life, the Universe, and Everything is really small.

Daughter: So?

Dad: I can't find my reading glasses. We'll have to read the Iliad until they turn up.

Daughter: This is so not fair...

Dad: Sing in me, O Muse, the wrath of Achilles...

Sunday, January 08, 2012

Tolkien and the Nobel Prize

Many of my friends are talking about the revelation that C.S. Lewis nominated Tolkien for the Nobel Prize for Literature and that JRRT was rejected in part because a jury member argued that The Lord of the Rings "has not in any way measured up to storytelling of the highest quality."

Many people are getting a good laugh at the "storytelling" critique, and deservedly so. Tom Shippey has long documented the ability of Tolkien's work to cause supposedly intelligent critics to make fools of themselves. There's a long list of names and examples in Author of the Century, and you can tell that Tom enjoys finding obvious contradictions between what the critics say is good writing in other contexts and how they judge Tolkien.

But although we can just laugh at close-minded, self-contradictory critics, it's also useful to try figure out where people are coming from. Although I have never agreed with the idea that Tolkien's prose is bad, I think it is important not to deny that it is different from what mainstream literary taste and scholarship thought was good in the 1950s. Here my critical approach goes in a different direction than Tom's. He is saying "here's what you said is good literature according to your theory, and Tolkien fulfills every one of those qualities on the checklist, so you should admit that it's good literature." This is rhetorically very effective, and I'm grateful that Tom has done it, but I have less faith in mainstream theories of literary greatness.  In the end, I think the contradictions do not show so much that Tolkien is great literature, but that the abstract theories of "what makes good literature" are pretty much useless.

The style of Tolkien's prose isn't bad.  It's merely discontinuous (mostly) with the stylistic conventions that were in place at the middle of the twentieth century.  Modernist were trying to make their prose seem new and different--the meta-instruction for all Modernist prose could be conceived of as: "never write a sentence that has previously existed. Try not even to use pre-existing phrases.  If you must use a pre-existing collocation, only do so ironically." Tolkien was attempting to make his prose connected to long traditions in English.  High-culture Modernists just don't understand Tolkien because he violates that fundamental convention. The irony is that Tolkien is discontinuous from Modernism in the same way that Modernism was attempting to become discontinuous from the pre-existing tradition.

Modernism wants a reader to feel that there is no tradition, no pre-existing set of conventions and cliches (though there is, as you can easily see by reading a bunch of second-tier mid-century Modernist works). Tolkien was quite deliberately linking with the traditions of English literature (particularly medieval literature), resurrecting popular poetic forms (i.e., no blank verse, almost no pentameter in his poems), and making his text appear as if it is part of a long-standing tradition. The aesthetics are completely different, and it's hard to see the Nobel committee being willing--or able--to get beyond their comfort zone in the Modernist style.

The great contribution of the "Theory Wars" was to cast doubt on the pronouncements of the literary establishment and even on the wisdom of taking that establishment very seriously.  The drawback is that political interpretations end up colonizing all analysis of texts because politics is a lowest common denominator for criticism: you don't have to analyze in much detail if all you are talking about is politics and ideology. Political analysis is easy compared to aesthetic analysis when aesthetics are divorced from "this is what my friends and I like," an ideology that is, unfortunately, quite well enough established in literary studies to maintain its hegemony over the ever-shrinking field.

Friday, January 06, 2012

A Return to Blogging (?)

I started this blog in June of 2002, nine and half years ago, and for the first few years it was great fun. The "blogsphere" itself was a lot of fun then, much like USENET back in the late 1980s: although a lot of people were participating, there was an intimacy to discussions and the trolls, spammers and hustlers hadn't yet taken over. Surprising people would reply to posts and the debates we got into could be quite interesting. I derived a lot of intellectual energy from Wormtalk.

But as time went on blogging became less fun. The advent of group blogs and monetized blogs and then group monetized blogs made individual blogs less personal.  The movement from blogging to FB and Twitter reduced the number of interactions that happened on the blog itself, and the further development of coterie blogs with their hierarchies and cross-linked promotions further reduced the element of spontaneity that had been so much fun.  Sometime in 2008 or 2009 I found myself dreading posting to Wormtalk and that, coupled with the effort that Anglo-Saxon Aloud required, saw me significantly reduce my posting of new material. Then came the economic crisis, when pretty much all my energies department chair energy was spent trying to shuffle around resources so that no one's jobs (we were successful, but at great cost of time and effort). I thought I would get back to blogging when I was on sabbatical, but during that time I ended up teaching anyway (we gave up the funding for a replacement for me in order to keep a colleague in a different time period) and sabbatical turned out to be more work than regular teaching. Simultaneously Scott Nokes stopped regularly updating his Unlocked-Wordhoard,  which had become a significant source on inspiration, and I got some push-back from people about blogging while a department chair. Then in August 2010 the "Terrible Events" happened to members of my extended family (P.S.: At that time I de-friended pretty much every academic I know on Facebook.  It was nothing personal. I just didn't want family things spreading all over the place, and didn't trust myself not to slip in managing different FB privacy levels for different groups of people). So in 2011 I posted a total of 3 times. Wormtalk was effectively defunct.

But although I find that I dislike, a lot, many things about the internet circa 2012, I miss sharing ideas in the more immediate form of blogging (as opposed to journal articles that take two years to appear and four to see a response).  So I am going to give Wormtalk another whirl and see if I can get back some of the immediacy, energy and pleasure that was so apparent in the "Golden Age of Blogging" from 2003-2007. I plan to talk about Anglo-Saxon, Tolkien, our Lexomics research, the job market, graduate school, teaching and learning.  We'll see what happens.