Beowulf Means Bear

bayeaux_tapestry

Bayeaux Tapestry

In an ancient incarnation I taught english composition to college freshmen and sophomores at Lassen College.  I had all kinds of theories about how to deliver the information, how to haze these kids into communicating information by means of pen and paper, and the mere thoughts in their head–and how to do it well.  I started each semester by trying to explain to them that languages are living things, that they evolve, like the course of rivers in flood or drouth, or the shape of a mountain, and that how we understand things is pinioned to the language we use when describing them.

I gave a short course on history and the movements of people, and the effects of migration and war and politics on the fluidity of languages.  A very short course indeed.  And I would wrap this up, praying to the almighty hoevens that I was getting their attention, by asking how many of them had read Beowulf.  Most had, which was a rare victory for public schooling and western civilization, even if they couldn’t remember what it was about or had actually taken much from it.

So I would write Beowulf on the chalkboard and ask them to tell me what it meant.  The guesses were wild and fun where they weren’t just bored and compelled, but since I had learned early to teach to the middle of the class, holding desperately onto the edges and outliers, I’d write the guesses up on the wall and use the word to illustrate, I hoped, how languages change.

And in case you didn’t know, I’ll do it here:

Beo=bee

Wulf=wolf

And what is a bee wolf?  It’s a bear, every fan of Winnie the Pooh knows this.

I could do this all day, largely because I am a language nerd but also because it is revealing and interesting and maybe parts the curtains slightly for a look out into the ancient past and where we have come from.  And when you get in the habit of doing that, parting those curtains, the temptation is always to jump through the window entirely.  So.

Occasionally something comes along that is so good, so fresh, so evolutionary it punches right through the hard bars of institutional inertia, that aery and invisible cage that settles softly around our collective body, so softly we may not even notice it except where we try to squeeze through and just don’t fit.  That’s a flowery way to get to my point, which is that Paul Kingsnorth has written a book, The Wake, which breaks every conceivable rule of writing and publishing and shatters the cage entirely, and magnificently, and perhaps without peer.

He has created his own language in this book, a rough conglomeration of Old English reckonings and patois and spelling, of historical accuracy and speculation, and brought it together in a story of Buccmaster of holland, a farmer on the edge of the holt in the aftermath of 1066, and the Norman invasion.

It is a difficult book, not for sissies.  In other words, it takes some work to earn its magic, to learn and to feel the language, but the magic is real and intense and the payoff is experiential in a way that books seldom are.  It is also cinematic.  The book is so good, so powerful, it is likely to ruin my sleep pattern for a while, as I sit up late into the night occupying the mind and visions of a man from our ancient past who is struggling with the loss of everything he has known.  Here is Mark Rylance, whose turn as Cromwell in the PBS series Wolf Hall was an epic of perfection in itself, reading from the opening lines:

And all of this put me in the mind of the 13th Warrior, which contains a scene where the exiled Arab ambassador, who has encountered and joined with the Northmen, learns to speak their language.

So that’s it.  The languages are out there for us to learn, and Kingsnorth’s novel is so good, its demands so fair and the payoff so large, in my humble estimation, it is very much a “Wrecker of Mead Benches,” as Seamus Heaney translates the ancient description of the dragon in Beowulf.  And I mean that in the best possible connotation, because the book shows us what is still possible with our language if we tear it apart and rebuild it, or if we are willing to do just a very little work and learn something new about it.  And so the question for us:  where do we take it from here?

  1. Got a powerful jolt of frisson across my shoulders and down my arms as I read this. I know what that means. Thank you for this.

    Like

    Reply

    1. “…he cnawan before what was cumin and in sleep i was sean such things as has never been seen and it was only later that i cnawan what i was sean and why i was ceosan to see it.” Buccmaster of holland

      Like

      Reply

  2. christine DeForest February 29, 2016 at 3:16 pm

    Is he using Old English, a form of it, or his own creation, or combination of both? You certainly are a word nerd, more honestly though, a word connoisseur. It would have been an honor to have had you as my “son” Professor for our Chaucer class.

    Like

    Reply

    1. It is a combination of both, and closer to middle english, really. He creates certain rhythms and cadences that help round out the language and inhabit the mind of Buccmaster.

      Like

      Reply

  3. You had me at the tapestry as Bayeaux is one my favourite places. But then the question of language entrapped me…how much of our very being is shaped by the language we are taught. A slight alteration in translation and a person’s religion or lack of alters also. No other species on earth has as variable a language as humans and that may be the cause of all our problems.

    Like

    Reply

    1. I think most of how we understand our world, or think we do, is shaped by our language. That vocabulary either limits or expands our ability to understand things, describe them, and share our thoughts. I don’t have a particular skill for picking up other languages–I took french for 6 years and can’t speak it. I can read it at a mid to low level. So I’m stuck with english, and it just keeps being fascinating in its forms and evolutions.

      Like

      Reply

  4. Eorl Rullman has raided my holdfast, torched my reading plans and sent me fleeing into the greenwood.

    Like

    Reply

    1. dont forget to bring your scramasax. the holt is full of green men.

      Like

      Reply

  5. If you’re ever in Northern France, it’s worth a trip to Bayeux to visit the wonderful museum that was built around the Bayeux Tapestry. The tapestry has had a harrowing and eventful past over the last 900+ years, but now is front and center at the museum, perfectly repaired and displayed. The carry-along commentary in any number of languages moves the visitor on a little faster than desirable, as the subtle, often humorous commentary on the edges of the tapestry are as magical and noteworthy as the story of William’s invasion of England.

    http://www.bayeuxmuseum.com/en/la_tapisserie_de_bayeux_en.html

    Like

    Reply

    1. Thanks for this. I hope to get there before too many years go by. Thanks for this!

      Like

      Reply

      1. Glad to hear you are planning to go to Normandy. Bayeux is a perfect place to stay while visiting the D Day beaches. We stayed at the Hotel Churchill. All the shops have signs that say “Welcome to our liberators.”
        In reference to your comment about studying French in college but never speaking it…that was my story, too and it is the reason I joined a French conversation class 14 years ago. We meet once a week for 90 mins….read and discuss novels, magazine articles, and life in general. While I won’t apply to be a U.N. translator, I am fairly fluent. It makes travel so much more fun.

        Like

      2. I need to do that. There might be one around here somewhere. It would certainly enrich the experience tremendously.

        Like

    2. And make sure to have the soupe a l’oignon at the cafe around the corner.

      Like

      Reply

      1. It sounds terrific, particularly on this cold morning.

        Like

  6. […] Read his chronicle of his adventure — Beowulf Means Bear — here. […]

    Like

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Jack Donovan

Masculinity and Tribalism

Adventures Fantastic

Reviews, Views, & Occasional News

Bunkhouse Chronicle

Field notes from the Figure 8 Ranch

MountainGuerrilla

Nous Defions!

Frontier Partisans

Field notes from the Figure 8 Ranch

WARFIGHTER

"Strength Through Honor"

%d bloggers like this: