Author Topic: A Trip Through English Lit  (Read 2507 times)

Junior

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Re: A Trip Through English Lit
« Reply #10 on: May 09, 2014, 06:04:42 PM »
The Dream of the Rood - Author Unknown (sometime between 600 and 900)

The provenance of this piece is a little hazy (to sound my best like an Antiques Roadshow appraiser). The earliest recorded version we have is a few lines on the Ruthwell Cross, which dates from the 8th century. Those lines may have been decades or centuries later. The first full version we have comes from the 10th century Vercelli Book, which collected similar poems. Some scholars believe that our old friend, Cdmon, is the original author, but I don't really buy it. Check the wikipedia for a few other ideas in that vein. Whichever way it pans out, it is another very early version of English Lit, written again in Old English which again deals with a lot of Christian ideas, the titular Rood being the cross upon which Jesus was crucified. It is called The Dream of the Rood because the author, whoever it was, recalls in it a dream he had where he has a nice sit down with the cross which involves several different considerations of what it means to be a cross, what it means to be that particular cross, and how the cross feels after all of the stuff had happened.

Read the poem here.

I liked this quite a bit more than Cdmon's Hymn, though I suspect that the length helps there. I read this poem at least once before, while I was in college, and reading it last night brought back a few interesting thoughts. Firstly, it's a really fascinating mix of pagan and Christian ideas. While the cross is a decidedly Christian symbol, giving it a voice and feelings matches closer to pagan ideas. Is this the first Disneyfication in English? Those thoughts and emotions are also interesting in their own right. The cross struggles with the fact that its existence is both holy and unholy, it is the instrument of Jesus' suffering and the symbol of his power and resurrection. The cross undergoes several changes, from being ripped out of the ground to being pierced by the same nails that held Jesus in place, to being glorified as the earthly reminder of all the things Jesus went through.

There's some great imagery as well, though again, translation makes this a little difficult to dole out credit for.
Quote from: lines 17-20
The Ruler's tree was worthily adorned
With gems; yet I could see beyond that gold
The ancient strife of wretched men, when first
Upon its right side it began to bleed.

I love that the cross is kind of high on this hill and called a tree as often as it is called anything else. Another pagan idea there, of roots and growth and renewal. I also really like the idea that the cross bears versions of the wounds doled out to Jesus.

Quote from: lines 48-55
I trembled as the warrior embraced me.
But still I dared not bend down to the earth,
Fall to the ground. Upright I had to stand.
A rood I was raised up; and I held high
The noble King, the Lord of heaven above.
I dared not stoop. They pierced me with dark nails;
The scars can still be clearly seen on me,
The open wounds of malice.

That's some fantastic work right there, giving the cross the human ability to think, rationalize, consider, and finally, decide to do its job alongside Jesus.

Ok, I think that's enough about that. What say you all? How does this strike those among us of the Christian persuasion?

Wikipedias: The Dream of the Rood, The Ruthwell Cross, the Vercelli Book
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oldkid

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Re: A Trip Through English Lit
« Reply #11 on: May 10, 2014, 09:47:18 AM »
It's nice to read a description of the cross before the all-encompassing theology of substitutionary atonement took over Christian imagination.  I like the personification of the cross, much like Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy or other works of the era in which conversation can be held with ideas. 
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oneaprilday

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Re: A Trip Through English Lit
« Reply #12 on: May 10, 2014, 11:57:37 AM »
I feel like my relationship with literature as an academic study (or as they called it in high school, English) has some parallels to my film writing. If you asked me to write a 5+ page essay talking about mise en scene and cross-cut editing and how it reinforces thematic points of the film, I would struggle. I don't talk about technical stuff like that almost at all, certainly not usefully at length. I'm sure I'm a better writer now than I was at that point of my education but even in grad school I always struggled with minimum page counts because I tend not to pad my writing. So to the degree that I could usefully pull out interesting thematic aspects (or comparisons in handling things between works...things I have on occasion done alright with films), I never did it at sufficient length to really impress. I did do quite well in English classes focused more on non-fiction reading/writing...can more easily expand on that then I ever could with fiction.
I'd be interesting if you could take a lit class again at some point since you have more experience now in writing about film; writing about film and writing about literature - those two kinds of writing - have a lot in common!

oneaprilday

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Re: A Trip Through English Lit
« Reply #13 on: May 10, 2014, 12:09:00 PM »
before the all-encompassing theology of substitutionary atonement took over Christian imagination.
You really think it's an all-encompassing theology today? I'd bet my bottom dollar most who call themselves Christians do not believe it nor do they know what it means! But that's by the by. Had I time this weekend, I'd most love to discuss why you think (or seem to imply) this doctrine is an imposition on the biblical text and not something gleaned/deduced from it - but, essays to grade today! :(  Also, we'd probably have to take it to the religion thread. :)



Jr., great thoughts/observations on this poem! Again, had I more time today, I'd love to dive into it more! I've always loved it though I've not studied it in much depth.



 

oldkid

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Re: A Trip Through English Lit
« Reply #14 on: May 10, 2014, 08:39:27 PM »
Well, we don't really need to get into all that, oad.  Atonement theory is a long conversation in which no one wins.  Sorry for pressing your buttons. I agree that most Christians don't believe it/understand it, I was actually speaking of the media about it, not the percentage of Christians.  Even atheists think this atonement theory is basically Christianity, when there are other options that old churches accept.
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oneaprilday

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Re: A Trip Through English Lit
« Reply #15 on: May 10, 2014, 09:02:47 PM »
No, no, no buttons pressed on my part! I shoulda put more smileys. :) I'd love to have a conversation about it and understand what you think at some point!

oldkid

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Re: A Trip Through English Lit
« Reply #16 on: May 10, 2014, 09:07:48 PM »
Oh, well, that's good. :)
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Junior

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Re: A Trip Through English Lit
« Reply #17 on: May 10, 2014, 09:25:48 PM »
I never knew it was called (substitutionary) atonement theory before. And yeah, that's kind of the general understanding I have of the whole situation. I'd be interested in hearing what you (oldkid or OAD) have to say about the other theories/ideas that are available based around the crucifixion.
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oldkid

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Re: A Trip Through English Lit
« Reply #18 on: May 11, 2014, 12:45:47 AM »
There are three theories that have been most popular over the years:

1. Ransom Theory
Satan holds all the world for ransom.  Jesus goaded Satan into killing him.  Satan's evil was then open and his place in heaven was set aside, freeing all humankind to be present with God.

2. Moral Theory
Jesus showed true love by dying on a cross, which provides the supreme example for all humanity to follow, and so obtain the rewards of that sacrifice, namely eternal life.

3. Subtitutionary Theory
In justice, God would have to destroy the world for their sin.  Jesus took the penalty of death upon himself, opening up the way for humanity to avoid death in Him.

Then there's my theory (which I give you gratis, because there might be interest):
God allows people to govern themselves unless a ruler/government proves to be oppressive to the innocent.  Jesus made himself available to be killed by the religious and empire rulers of his day, proving them unworthy to rule.  God raised Jesus from the dead, proving his innocence and made him king of the world due to his love and sacrifice.

There are many more, and I'll bet oad has a different version.  I like what C.S. Lewis says about atonement theory-- For it to work, we don't have to know how it works, only that it does.  So good Christians can disagree about how it works, as long as we agree that Jesus' death does give us eternal life.
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Re: A Trip Through English Lit
« Reply #19 on: May 12, 2014, 02:05:52 PM »
Very interesting stuff, Steve. I had never heard the Ransom Theory before. I wonder, in your theory, just how close some of today's governments might be to receiving a Jesus for their oppressive-ness?

Guys, gals, it's Beowulf time!

Beowulf - Unknown author (somewhere between the 8th and 11th century)

Beowulf is kind of the big dog of Old English lit. I'd guess a large part of that is to do with its length relative to the shorter poems we've seen so far here and the historical significance of the story (it is mostly fictional but it does contain a few references to actual events which are of interest). I'm here to argue for it's literary merit, though, because it's kind of awesome.

I've read Beowulf twice before but this was the first time I can say I really enjoyed it. Maybe those other times I had pushed it off to the point where I mostly had to skim it to cover my bases, who knows. It's not too long, coming in at a nice 3182 lines of pretty cool poetry which I read in about an hour and a half. Unfortunately, that dumb mo-cap movie from a few years back was constantly echoing in my head and I pictured the majority of the action as those kind of plastic-y looking figures instead of real people. Oh well, can't win 'em all.

The structure of Beowulf is one of the more interesting elements to me. We begin with a set up not of Beowulf's greatness but rather that of Hrothgar, king of the Danes. He's got this big mead hall thing that is the envy of kingdoms the world over. And he's got a terrible monster problem. I love monster movies and Grendel is one of the fathers of the genre. He's a big, ugly brute. I actually like the depiction of his "malignant" visage in the 2007 movie. He's a creature of anger, enraged by the noise of the nightly celebrations in the mead hall, but also one of fear. The author takes some time out to tell us that Grendel has spent his time amonst the other monsters that were "descendants of Cain," who he then explains were cast out of God's love. The author does this a few times in the poem, gets distracted by these weird tangents that relate whatever's happening in the story to the biblical precedent. The Norton preamble talks briefly about the mournful tone that the author tells the entire tale in because even these great people are all doomed to hell for their pagan ways. Elegiac is the word Norton uses and it fits. I was struck this time around at the pity I felt towards Grendel (this may also be due in part to my reading of John Gardner's Grendel, which I appreciated more than I enjoyed) and his condition. He's probably autistic - or at least on the spectrum - and, heck, I get annoyed at those dumb college kids that live down the road from me who party from Thursday night into Sunday morning nearly every weekend. Is Beowulf the forefather of Neighbors as well as Frankenstein?

Well, it doesn't really matter, because after Hrothgar sends out the call for warriors to fight this eternal evil we get our hero, Beowulf, answering it. He sails with some of his best fighter buddies and lands on the neighboring island where Hrothgar lives. There he goes through the first of several ceremonial introductions. How many times can he recount how great a hero he is and how happy the Ring-Danes should be that he has arrived. And everybody from the lookout on the beach to the king himself has to go through a lengthy speech about who they are and what they do and, after learning who Beowulf is and why he's there, how happy they are that he has arrived to save them from Grendel's cruelty. This repetition gets a little boring and probably violates the crap out of "show, don't tell," but with these old, potentially orally passed down stories (more on that later), I kind of like this stuff. It's a chorus, kind of, an echo in case you weren't paying enough attention the first time around. After the tenth time that the author tells us how great a king Hrothgar is, you kind of have to believe him.

And then the fight scene. Oh boy, Beowulf is a total badass. Grendel doesn't use any swords or shields so Beowulf decides he won't either. Some kind of honor thing. Of course, we discover later that mere swords can't do much to pure evil flesh, so Beowulf has stumbled into a good idea. And what does he do? HE RIPS GRENDEL'S FREAKING ARM OFF! AT THE SHOULDER! You try it. It's hard to do on even us puny humans. Grendel, demon, flesh eater, all around gross giant guy, well, he'd put up a bigger fight than you or I in the limb-rending department. But still, he runs off into the forest down a limb and Beowulf declares himself the victor. Because of course Grendel is going to be dead after all that, right? WRONG. GRENDEL IS A BEAST! He makes it at least back to his mommy's house and tells her how mean the other boys at the mead hall were to him. She gets her helicopter mom helmet on and goes back for revenge just as everybody is sleeping off the giant feast.

Before we talk about the second battle, let's talk a bit about the gift giving thing. It's another cultural touchstone that I find interesting in the general sense but gets very repetitive in practice. Here, have this kind of armor. Also this other kind, and this sword, and this other sword, and this shield, and this horse, and this horse armor, and some rings, and my eternal friendship. But each of those gets like five lines to cover just how great and generous Hrothgar is. And then it happens again when Beowulf defeats Grendel's mom. Gift-giving is a huge component of the Beowulf story and the ways people treated each other in the time, so I understand why they are given such a prominent place here, but maybe keep the after party a little shorter than the battle itself?

Anyways, Grendel's mom shows up to set the record straight. She eats a few more people and then runs away back to her underwater lair. And the author knows we've already had a nice big battle scene so he makes this one a little different in that IT TAKES PLACE ENTIRELY UNDERWATER! Beowulf has the lung capacity of a whale, methinks, because his original plan of attack (again, fighting Grendel's mom bare-handed) gets thrown out the window and he realizes the sword he has does no damage to her. But lo! There is a giant's sword in her underwater lair and he uses it to CUT HER FREAKING HEAD OFF! And you said poetry was boring. The whole battle takes so long that everybody thinks the blood that boils up to the surface of the water following the decapitation must be his and are halfway back to the mead-hall before they turn around to see that Beowulf is still alive. Again, gifts are given and Beowulf returns to his own lands.

Here is where the story gets a little squirrely. Upon his return to his own lands, Beowulf has to tell the whole story to his own king. That's a lot of repetition. This part is shorter than the actual events, but it's still there. And then there's an (out-of-order) history which tells how Beowulf became the king of the Geats himself, and then the dragon is introduced (but an important part of that has been destroyed in a fire, sadly). And then, an older but no less heroic Beowuf decides to attack the dragon that has been terrorizing his land almost bare handed. What is it with this guy? He brings along a shield, but wood against fire isn't really a fair fight there. This one goes a little differently, though, as the soldiers he brings along don't follow his orders to stay back and instead attack when they see Beowulf is about to die and provide enough of a distraction to give Beowulf an opening to stab and kill the dragon. But he gets poisoned in the process and dies. He's burried in a giant mound and then the end.

The dragon provides a number of interesting points of thematic intrigue. He hoards gold and stuff and is jealous of the thief who steals one of his cups. Sound familiar? It's a prototypical dragon trait, the attachment to shiny things. But the parallels with all of the shining gifts given between Beowulf and Hrothgar in the early goings are there. Is the author casting aspersions on the whole gift idea? He clearly cares more about their immortal souls than the worldly wonders they give each other. It's also interesting to note that by the end of the story Beowulf has probably killed as many people (and monsters) as the dragon, though he fought for his land and king rather than in revenge for a theft. But vengeance is vengeance, isn't it? The dragon's poison (wrath) gets him in the end.

Look for another post later today about whale-roads and translations and oral traditions.
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