Friday, June 15, 2007

Hey, scholars like dismemberment, too!

No, this isn't another silly zombie post.

The NY Times Book Review has a review by Charles McGrath of two new and one year-old adaptations of Beowulf for children and young adults. They sound pretty cool and if I get to teach a graduate seminar on the original poem and its adaptations and translations, I may add these books.

But what inspire the post's title is the opening paragraph of the review (bold mine):

"Beowulf," a 3,000-line epic poem composed early in the eighth century, is the first significant text written in English, or in what eventually became English. What interests scholars about the story is its place in our linguistic development, and also the way it blends both Christian and pagan details. But what recommends “Beowulf” to children — and to older readers who haven’t lost a child’s delight in stories that are both scary and gory — is that it’s also a first-rate horror yarn, featuring slaughter, dismemberment and underwater sword fights.
OK, first of all, that "What interests scholars..." sentence should be in the past tense; that's what interested scholars half a century ago and more. But more important: what's with the false dichotomy between scholars on the one hand and "older readers who haven't lost a child's delight in stories that are both scar and gory" on the other? Doesn't he realize that's precisely why many of us became medieval scholars?


But the books sound pretty cool. Surely they have to be better than Beowulf & Grendel or that Grendel movie on SciFi that Dr. Nokes so hilariously skewered.


Karl Steel said...

blends both Christian and pagan details

I have to say that this is a pretty boring way to think of things, too. It's more interesting (while being a standard move in interpretation) to think of these elements as fundamentally incompatible and yet both present. Perhaps it's more interesting to refuse to think of either one of these categories as pure: think instead of a pagan-inflected Xianity and vice-versa. Then, why not, push past the notion of synthesis and get to a new, more complex notion of fundamental conflict in the text? For example: discover fundamental conflicts within rather than between Xianity and "Paganism" (and really they should both be in quotation marks). But do I expect anything complex from the Times, especially from their Book Review section? No.

Steve Muhlberger said...

Too many scholars still give the impression that they aren't interested in the aspects of the past that interest everybody else. And if you modify your language and approach to appeal to a wider public, there will be no lack of scholars to look down their noses at you.

This is probably something that can never be overcome entirely, but there's plenty of room for improvement. Scholars, or at least many of them, have got to go out and engage with the dismemberment-loving public.