Sunday, October 18, 2009

King Hrothgar's hall?

Is there anything to this story from the Copenhagen Post?

Could a large mud building unearthed in Lejre have been a cult place or beer hall of the ancient Viking kings?

The hall, 48 metres long and seven metres across, overlooks the site of a Viking palace unearthed in 1986 in what is an historic area of Denmark.

‘We are sure we have found a royal building of some sort,’ said Tom Christensen, curator of Roskilde Museum at the time. ‘The odd thing about the site is that it is littered with bits and pieces of exquisite golden jewellery, glass and bronze broaches, high quality artifacts, such as drinking glasses and ceramics, which all seem to have been deliberately smashed in some ritual.’

‘There is also a huge pile of cooking stones from primitive ovens. This was obviously a place frequented by the upper classes of the Iron Age. Maybe it was some sort of beer hall or a sacred site where cult or religious activities were carried out. The building’s post holes are over a metre deep, so it must have been an impressive construction,’ said Christensen.


Set in the period of the Germanic migrations in the fourth to seventh centuries, the poem [Beowulf] places the Scylding King Hrothgar’s Hall, Hereot, at Lejre, while Saxo Grammaticus, a 13th century chronicler who compiled a history of both legendary and historical Danish kings, also identified Lejre as an ancient royal seat.

Many modern Beowulf scholars identify Hereot with Lejre and, with the discovery of the hall, Danish archaeologists believed they had finally found the site. ‘The date of the cult place fits perfectly with the era of the Scyldings,’ Christensen said.

In 1986 archaeologists discovered a major upturned boat-shaped Viking longhouse, but only the foundations of the huge hall and outhouses remained as the original construction had been of wood. The 50-metre-long, 10-metre-high longhouse was twice the size of any similar hall discovered in Denmark, leading archaeologists to believe they had stumbled on a royal palace from the time of the sagas.

The dimensions of the hall were calculated from 200 posthole marks on the ground from the huge oak beams that supported the walls and roof. There were signs on the site of earlier constructions, dams, windmills and other buildings including a bronze foundry, workshops and outlining fencing, underlining the importance of the Lejre settlement.

A museum now occupies a plot of land near the site. The English web address for the Lejre Museum is

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Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Beowulf: Prince of the Geats, Nazis, and Odinists

Richard Scott Nokes' article on an unexpected set of reactions to the casting of a black actor as Beowulf in Beowulf: Prince of the Geats is now available on line.
It is a journalist's cliche that only weird English profs (and not all of them) care about Beowulf; and they masochistically inflict it on their defenseless students. The flood of Beowulf material in recent years, in movies and elsewhere, blows that throw-away out of the water.

Thanks to Modern Medieval for the heads-up.

Image: Jayshan Jackson as Beowulf.

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Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Michael Drout's Old English course in less than five minutes

Michael Drout is a leading expert in Old English literature and the work of J.R.R. Tolkien. He is also a witty and charming man.

Now, thanks to an anonymous student or students in his Spring course, you can learn everything you need to know about Old English literature in a matter of minutes.

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Saturday, January 03, 2009

Beowulf and Grendel (2005)

For the first 10 or 15 minutes, I thought this movie was a dead loss. I had ordered it from almost as a matter of self-defense. Since the movie was an Icelandic-Canadian co-production and I am a Canadian medievalist with lots of re-creationist friends I felt sure that eventually one of them would pin me down and expect me to have an opinion about this movie and how it compared to the big-budget Hollywood production of a couple years back. A short way into the movie, I was cursing myself for feeling that need, which had trapped me into watching a complete dud. The introduction was completely incomprehensible, in part because the mixture of odd accents among the actors. I did not notice any Icelandic accents, but there were plenty of what seemed to be thick Irish and Scottish ones. Even though I know the story of Beowulf quite well I was getting completely lost.

But as we went on I got more used to it and eventually it won me over. This movie had some of the most believable early medieval armor and costuming, and the landscape may not look very much like Denmark but it evoked a premodern era very strongly. The acting is good and the story is a success on its own terms. This movie actually is less faithful to the poem than the big-budget one, but in some ways that was an advantage. It is not like the big-budget version really caught medieval personalities and ways of thinking; this one may not have either, but to my modern sensibility at least there was a sense of reality about the entire picture. One instance is that Grendel is not a CGI monster of uncertain origins, but a big troll-like human being, who comes from a tribe of troll-like human beings. He's strong and ugly and dangerous but not superhuman. The Beowulf poet might not approve of this treatment, but he is in good company. The people who made the movie don't approve of the poet's presentation either, and they felt free to introduce subplots and different perspectives. I am not sure how strongly to recommend this movie, but if you are interested in reasonable film treatments of the early Middle Ages, you will probably find something worthwhile in this.

Image: A drunk, demoralized King Hrothgar and his stalwart queen.

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Monday, November 26, 2007

My Beowulf review

My review of the Beowulf movie isn't going to be very long. It wasn't quite as bad as I thought it would be in the first five minutes or so. The initial emphasis on special effects ("Lookit what I can do, mom!") I found really tiresome (I liked the battle with the dragon later, fantastic as it was) and I wasn't very keen on the drunken Hrothgar. However, I did not want to leave the theater at any point after that. Not too bad for a Hollywood movie; but despite its pretensions (Neil Gaiman! Neil Gaiman!) it was a pretty much a Hollywood movie.

Rather than say more, I'll refer you to the three best reviews (best in the sense of being the most thoughtful and in-depth), at least two of them by Anglo-Saxonists (one's pseudonymous). These are not humorless, uptight specialists. One was delighted to say, for instance,

Angelina Jolie is doing philology!!! Angelina Jolie is doing philology naked!!!

(Does it get any better than that?)
but all three share the conviction that movie scriptwriters seldom have the subtlety of the medieval sources they sometimes plunder. Hardly news, that.

Here are the three reviews:

Michael Drout at Wormtalk and Slugspeak
Richard Scott Nokes at Unlocked Wordhoard
Dr. Virago at Quod She

And if you want more, see an earlier comment on this blog.

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Saturday, November 17, 2007


I haven't seen a review of Beowulf from a person whose taste I know, and I can't figure out from Rotten Tomatoes whether it's going to be worthwhile.

I am fascinated, though, by the 3-star review from Roger Ebert (via RT):


BY ROGER EBERT / November 15, 2007

In the name of the mighty Odin, what this movie needs is an audience that knows how to laugh. Laugh, I tell you, laugh! Has the spirit of irony been lost in the land? By all the gods, if it were not for this blasted infirmity that the Fates have dealt me, you would have heard from me such thunderous roars as to shake the very Navy Pier itself down to its pillars in the clay.

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Sunday, October 28, 2007

Dating Beowulf part IV: summing up

Michael Drout got busy and then I got busy and so my link to his final discussion of the dating of Beowulf is only being posted now. Thanks, Michael.

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Thursday, October 18, 2007

Dating Beowulf part III

Michael Drout finds a few moments to argue for late dates for Beowulf.

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Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Dating Beowulf part II

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Dating Beowulf: a scholarly treat

This is not about "dating" in the usual sense, or Nekkid Beowulf or Nekkid Grendel's mother, but about the debate over the date that the Old English epic Beowulf was written. (A five hundred year range has been suggested, and none of the possibilities are completely without merit!)

Some years ago, Michael Drout, an eminent expert on Old English literature and J.R.R. Tolkien, found that even high school kids with only the vaguest notion of the story could get excited about this issue. (I think that this says something about Drout's style.) So, in what should probably be called the "Year of Beowulf," he is blogging at Wormtalk and Slugspeak about the various possibilities. Part one of Dating Beowulf is here.

And it is a scholarly treat. I hope it amuses others as well.

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Friday, October 12, 2007

Beowulf: A new verse translation, by Seamus Heaney

I've been taking my own advice and polishing up my knowledge of Beowulf the poem in anticipation of Beowulf the movie. And as I began to read it I realized I probably have read no more than excerpts since I was an undergraduate taking a course in "Medieval Epic" (B and Roland in 10 weeks.)

This time I read Seamus Heaney's much-ballyhooed verse translation from 1999. And I find it no wonder that it was ballyhooed, it is wonderful.

One example to lure you to pick it up (NU's library has it, or will once I return it): Heaney, a Nobel Prize-winning poet, explains that he needed a way to "tune" his translation, and turned to "a familiar local voice," one which belonged to relatives he once called "big voiced Scullions," Irishmen who had weighty way of speaking that gave dignity to the simplest statements. Heaney used their speech as a model, beginning at the beginning, with the Old English word Hwaet!

Conventional renderings of hwaet, the first word of the poem, tend towards the archaic literary, with "lo" and "hark" and "behold" and "attend" and -- more colloquially -- "listen" being some of the solutions offered previously. But in Hiberno-English Scullionspeak, the particle "so" came naturally to the rescue, because in that idiom "so" operates as an expression which obliterates all previous discourse and narrative, and at the same time functions as an exclamation calling for immediate attention.
I've heard that usage, too. With that insight, Heaney produced this:

So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by
and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness.
We have heard of those princes' heroic campaigns.

There was Shield Sheafson, scourge of many tribes ,
a wrecker of mead-benches, rampaging among foes.
This terror of the hall-troops had come far.
A foundling to start with, he would flourish later on
as his powers waxed and his worth was proved.
In the end each clan on the outlying coasts
beyond the whale-road had to yield to him
and begin to pay tribute. That was one good king.

Wow! "That was one good king." I can almost hear one of my country neighbors saying that!

Here's Heaney's version of lines 2177-2189:

Thus Beowulf bore himself with valour;
he was formidable in battle yet behaved with honour
and took no advantage; never cut down
a comrade who was drunk, kept his temper
and warrior that he was, watched and controlled
his God-sent strength and his outstanding
natural powers. He had been poorly regarded
for a long time, was taken by the Geats
for less than he was worth: and their lord too
had never much esteemed him in the mead-hall.
They firmly believed that he lacked force,
that the prince was a weakling; but presently
every affront to his deserving was reversed.
Fresh yet redolent of legendary antiquity. Fabulous, fabulous mastery of the English language. Out of Ireland -- again -- of course.

Image: A plate from a Swedish helmet showing warriors wearing boar-helmets, often mentioned in Beowulf. Look closely and you can see the last visible dog... From Beowulf in Cyberspace.

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Thursday, October 11, 2007

Beowulf basics in preparation for the Beowulf movie

This is the year of naked and semi-naked heroes and villains in Hollywood movies of classic historical and legendary stories. First 300 on the Persian War, upcoming Beowulf, a big-budget version of the best Old English poem. Because these really are classic stories, there's been a lot of debate about them, even though we still only have trailers for Beowulf.

If by some chance you are a little vague (or maybe a lot vague) on the story and the background of Beowulf, an expert Anglo-Saxonist and Tolkien scholar, Michael Drout, has a FAQ on Beowulf.

Thanks to Scott Nokes at Unlocked Wordhoard (one of the coolest blog names in the universe; see his explanation) for drawing my attention to Drout's piece. (BTW, see Drout's blog for another really amazing blog name.)

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Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Beowulf movie

I neglected to give a link to the upcoming Beowulf movie. Once again, it seems kind of pointless to put an image here, when the link leads to two trailers and a TV spot.

Update: And here, Nekkid Beowulf (I love Matthew Gabriele's comment).

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Saturday, September 22, 2007

Epic (and) history

On Monday in the Medieval England course I will be discussing the Old English epic Beowulf as a source for early English life; on Tuesday I'll be discussing the Sumerian epic Gilgamesh for clues about early Mesopotamian culture. Coincidence? I guess, the courses were devised and first put on years apart. I don't think this conjunction has happened before.

I didn't assign reading for either lecture, but the ambitious among you can look up translations of each work on the Web.

For Gilgamesh, you may want to look at the section of the epic (one version thereof) where Gilgamesh fights Humbaba (Huwawa).

I've linked to the Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature, which is an attempt to make Sumerian literature, generally available in specialist editions stored in specialist libraries, move widely accessible, both in editions of the Sumerian texts, and in English translation. Since Sumerian is one of the most difficult of historic languages, this is a worthy enterprise.

For Beowulf, I found it harder to make a choice from the variety of on-line translations. So to give you an idea of the challenges of translating this poem, whose audience's expectations were so different from a modern one's, I include three links: to the opening of the poem, on great Danish kings of the past, translated by Tony Romano, to another version of the opening by somebody else (no back link!), and the section on Beowulf's battle with Grendel, translated by Sullivan and Murphy.

There are complete versions on the Web, too, but I'll leave that to the enthusiasts who want to know how the stories come out.

Image: Gilgamesh and Enkidu in superhuman combat.

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