Monday, June 22, 2009

Beowulf and the Card Catalog

Dear Edgar Allan Poe,

I wanted to talk with you about the bust of Pallas. You and your Ravenian protagonist were men of books. He had, once upon a midnight dreary, while he pondered, weak and weary over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore, vainly sought to borrow from his books surcease of sorrow -- sorrow for the lost Lenore who, unfortunately, remains currently nameless.

But, sore as we all may be for our friend's sorrow, I just want to talk about the bust, the one of Pallas above the chamber door. I am trying to track down a factoid about busts and books. Now you, Poe, said, in the voice of our sad friend,

Open here I flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter,
In there stepped a stately Raven of the saintly days of yore;
Not the least obeisance made he; not a minute stopped or stayed he;
But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door
--Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door--
Perched, and sat, and nothing more.

Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore,
"Though thy crest be shorn and shaven, thou," I said, "art sure no
Ghastly grim and ancient Raven wandering from the Nightly shore--
Tell me what thy lordly name is on the Night's Plutonian shore!"
Quoth the Raven, "Nevermore.

Now the fact of the matter is that I am not studying your work right now, but it was playing in my head as I have been studying (and a long overdue study it is) the work of that great author Anonymous and the much ado-ed Beowulf. In the course of this study I stumbled upon J.R.R. Tolkien, for heavens sake, and not in Hobbiton for once. He, apparently was renowned for his knowledge of Beowulf. Well it certainly makes sense, when you think of all the gum stretching names he uses throughout his fantasies. Eomer, Hama, Helmings, are found in both pieces of literature, and even Beorn from the Ring trilogy is reminicent of the hero Beowulf himself. I think though, that it is the tone of the books that call to mind the sounds and poetry of Beowulf. But I digress.

I have tried, formerly, to wade my way through the Haethains, Hrethels, and Herebealds of Old English, and only concluded that the language was a Grendl whose lair was one I could not enter. It felt too much like hand to hand combat. So I have been surprised that now I am a fan, not of Beowulf as Nordic Superhero, but of Beowulf as Aged Contemplative.

Perhaps the only thing I knew of the Beowulf story was:

  1. It was one of the first pieces of true English literature.

  2. Beowulf fights and kills the monster Grendl (which, some say, is the template for the orcs of Tolkieniana)

  3. Grendl had a lair.
Come to find out, there is much more of poetry to this than epic and it contains fascinating contemplations about the values of life and the pain of episodes in life that are beyond our control.

I'm meaning to write a letter to J.R.R. about these things, but first I wanted to find out something from you about library cataloguing. Were you thinking of a room, in the Raven, as one with busts on top of every shelf? Did the gentleman in your poem enter the room and say, "I believe I'll read Sir Galwain, that would be 'Nero A.x.' Go to the bust of Nero, top shelf (denoted by A) and then the tenth book? According to a little book I'm reading about Beowulf, Robert Cotton, who preserved the original Beowulf manuscript organized his bookshelves that way and I thought that perhaps you did too, at least in your imaginings.

How beautiful it would be to enter a classic library and find one's books in such an artful way. Supposedly the great Beowulf manuscript is still kept in the British Library under the bust of Vitellius. My guess is that the public doesn't have free access. Ah to wander a library, unfettered, and see these amazing things. Wouldn't that be terrific? We do have great digital access, and I should be satisfied with that I suppose, but I would love to see the analog version. But, to quote the raven, "Nevermore."



cadh 8 said...

Interesting thoughts on all of this. :)
I personally really enjoyed Beowulf. It was a high school read, so the details are fuzzy. But I liked its epic scale.
I also read a book called Grendel, which is the same story from the perspective of the beast. He was sort of an adolescent male whose mother treated him like a child even after he was old enough to have grown into a man...or at least a full grown monster. Well the story went on like that. It was interesting, but nothing like Beowulf.
Did you ever see the movie the 13th Warrior? It was sort of a Beowulf wannabe. But a great movie!

brd said...

JRR's books, Monsters and Their Critics has a bit of a defense of the importance of monsters. He compares the Greek and Nordic epic or myth and notes the difference that in the Greek tale, the gods create the monsters and kind of sic them on humans, where in the Northern stories, the monsters are of a more human origin and the other humans join with God or the gods to defeat the monsters. This is, I think a difference of great importance.

Cate said...

More intriguing is the need of humans for monsters, no?

brd said...

Obviously, we need monsters in some way or other. Is it that we need them for entertainment or is it that we need a safe way to express our perception of the things that scare us in life, things that are psychologically too big to put a handle or hand on. Perhaps Perotsky would have some thoughts on that.

Cate said...

I will take it up with Perotsky, but I think the monsters are us. Our shadows. An enemy to fight in the name of self-preservation. Eros and Thanatos in the duel.

Anne G G said...

This is a wonderful little letter, a wonderful little reflection on Beowulf - and such strange connections you make between the famous works of English literature. Thanks for sharing it.

You haven't letter-ed in a while - hope it means your busy with sooo many fun things that you don't have time (like the beach, which I know took up some of your time!).

brd said...

Thanks for your comment Anne GG. The strangest thing is that the connections really are there.

brd said...

Thanks for your comment Anne GG. The strangest thing is that the connections really are there.