Thursday, January 17, 2019

The Riddles of Gestumblindi: Riddle 10

As usual, here's the answer to the previous riddle:

"Góð er gáta þín, Gestumblindi, getit er þessar. Þar fara svanbrúðir til hreiðrs síns ok verpa eggjum; skurm á eggi er eigi höndum gert né hamri klappat, en svanr er fyrir eyjar utan örðigr, sá er þær gátu eggin við."

"Your riddle is good, Gestumblindi, but I have guessed it. Swan-maids* go to their nests and lay eggs; the shell of the egg is not by hand or hammer forged, and the swan by whom they previously got the eggs sits upright outside the islands."

Riddle 10

Þá mælti Gestumblindi:

"Hverjar eru þær rýgjar
á reginfjalli,
elr við kván kona,
þar til er mög of getr,
ok eigu-t þær varðir vera?
Heiðrekr konungr,
hyggðu at gátu."

Then said Gestumblindi:

"What are those ladies
On the mighty mountain,
Woman begets by wife,
So that she bears a son,
And those women have no husbands?**
Heiðrekr king,
Ponder this riddle."

*Female swans.
**This is an idiomatic rendering of (in literal word-order): and having-not [i.e. marriage] those women be.

Currently reading: Reclaiming the Atonement, Patrick Henry Reardon
Current audio book: Out of the Silent Planet, C.S. Lewis
Currently translating: Hervarar Saga, "The Riddles of Gestumblindi"

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

The Riddles of Gestumblindi: Riddle 9

First, here's the answer to riddle 8:

Heiðrekr mælti: "Smækkast nú gáturnar, Gestumblindi, hvat þarf lengr yfir þessu at sitja? Þat er hrafntinna, ok skein á hana sólargeisli."

Your riddles grow small, Gestumblindi, what need is there to sit any longer at this? That is obsidian*, when shone on her a sunbeam.

Riddle 9

Þá mælti Gestumblindi:

"Báru brúðir
ambáttir tvær
öl til skemmu;
var-at þat höndum horfit
né hamri at klappat,
þó var fyrir eyjar utan
örðigr sá, er gerði.
Heiðrekr konungr,
hyggðu at gátu."

Then said Gestumblindi:

"Maidens bore,
Serving-maids twain
Ale to the store-house;
Not turned by hands
Nor beaten by hammers,
Though far outside the island
The maker sat upright.**
Heiðrekr king,
Ponder this riddle."

*Literally "raven-flint."
**The thing which was not turned by hands or beaten by hammers must refer to the cask in which the ale was carried, not the ale itself.

Currently reading: For the Life of the World
Current audio book: The Man Who Was Thursday
Currently translating: Hervara saga, "The Riddles of Gestumblindi"

Friday, January 11, 2019

That Tremendous Reality

 "...much too frightened of that tremendous Reality on the altar."

With these words, G.K Chesterton explained why he put off his conversion to Roman Catholicism until the last 14 years of his life. It wasn't until recently, reading a sort of biography of Chesterton (Chesterton: The Nightmare Goodness of God) that I realized what a late convert he was. It surprised me that the man who could write so intimately of confession in the Father Brown Mysteries had not actually "crossed the Tiber" when most of them were written. He delayed, in his own words (not that we can trust authors when they speak of themselves, but that's often all we have to go on), because he was "much too frightened" of the Sacrament of Sacraments, the Holy Eucharist.

I've been mulling over this thought the last couple of days because of something that happened in my own experience, being in the process of converting from a Southern/Independent Baptist upbringing to the Orthodox Church. There were many "tipping points" along the way--it might be better to describe them as a slow progress up the mountain. But for a long time I had been content with the idea of reading "sacramental authors"--Lewis, Tolkien, and Chesterton, but also Ratzinger and Vigen Gourian and Alexander Schmemann--and importing their ideas as much as possible into my own Baptist experience.

One day during a Sunday morning service in which we were to take "The Lord's Supper" (which at the church where I have been on staff the last 10+ years is done 2-3 times a year), one of the pastors stood up before communion and gave a little talk, reminding everyone that what was about to happen was just, and I quote, "just crackers and grape juice, and nothing more." My oldest daughter (6 at the time) wanted to know why the pastor "did not believe in communion." And that is when I knew we had to make a change.

But what is interesting to me, and what the Deacon who teaches the catechumen class at our new church pointed out to me, is the fact that people have to be reminded, not that something significant is happening in communion (though probably there are people who need to be reminded of that), but rather that nothing whatsoever is happening. There is a fear in these churches, quite justified, that the act of ritual itself will impart the sense that something significant is taking place. And that brings me back to Chesterton's fear, his intuition, about the reality made imminent on the altar.

Admitting that different Christians can mean very different things when they speak of "sacraments," it seems to me that the sacramental view of the world is the native language of creation. It is what even merely human rituals and even merely pagan religions hint at, so that if for a moment we let our guard down we find that our nominalism does not really hold up.

This is not to say that everyone understands fully what is happening. I am not sure that I ever will. But I see it as significant that it is precisely in these moments--communion, baptism, marriage--that even Baptists will revert back to traditional liturgical formulas. Without knowing why, after he spent several minutes telling us all that this was only juice and only crackers, the pastor proceeded to say "this is my body, which was broken for you" and break the bread, and "this cup is the new testament in my blood" and distribute the juice. There is an intuition, deep down in the quiet places of the heart, that something awful is happening, or ought to be happening, and that these words and no others will do.

What I have called nominalism, this insistence on seeing things for nothing more than they appear to be--we might say even less than they appear to be--is a defense. It is a defense against the terrible alternative of the world breaking in upon us, of showing itself to be the world, and the shift in gravity this might cause.

Let us stand aright. Let us stand with fear.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

My interview at the Tolkien Experience Project

Fellow Signumite and now PhD candidate at Cardiff Metropolitan University Luke Shelton graciously interviewed me a couple of months back for his Tolkien Experience Project. My responses to his questions went live today. There's a certain rightness in that, since today is the feast day of St John of Damascus.

Though he's less well-known or appreciated in the West, St John of Damascus was (depending on who you ask) either the first of the Scholastics or the last of the Greek Fathers. In his Three Treatises, he also put forward what would prove to be the basis for the classical Christian theology of art, a legacy which Tolkien ultimately inherited and developed in On Fairy Stories. I cannot stress enough how important On Fairy Stories has been to the development of my faith and understanding of the world and my role in it.

I may write more about this theology of art and incarnation in a future post if it isn't too far off the beaten path for this blog. In the meantime, I encourage you to check out the interview and Luke's whole project here.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Thesis Theater: The Digital Hervararkviða

As I've mentioned recently, I've been head-down getting the Digital Hervararkviða finished and ready for prime time. Last week it came back from the second reader (Professor Haraldur Bernharðsson) with some great feedback and corrections. Today, I implemented those corrections and sent off the finalized version of the project.

If you're interested in learning more about it--what it is, why I did it, and how I did it--I'll be showcasing it in a Thesis Theater tomorrow night. This online event is open to the public, so we hope to see you there--especially if you're interested in Old Norse, ghost stories, warrior maidens, cursed swords, and scariest of all, the digital encoding of ancient and medieval texts.

Here's the link for the signup:

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Zombies don't scare Hervor. Hervor doesn't scare Hervor.

I'm largely absent from blogging because I am down to the last several weeks of crunch-time on the Digital Hervararkviða (click here for the genesis of this project). The Facsimile layer is as close to finished as anything can be, and I am now working on punctuation for the diplomatic and normalized layers (as punctuation is essentially wholly absent in the original work), as well as a translation and introduction to the poem. The first draft is due to my advisers in a week or two.

I cannot resist commenting, however, on one of the differences between this version of the poem and the one that most people who have read it are likely to be familiar with: Christopher Tolkien's largely excellent 1958 edition of "The Saga of King Heidrek the Wise" (which you can find freely available online). Christopher Tolkien is mainly working from the R-text whereas I am working from the H-text. Without getting too much into the weeds, the two are quite different.

One of those differences comes in at Hervor's approach to her father's barrow. In Christopher Tolkien's edition it reads like this (translation his):

Now Hervor saw where out upon the island burned the fire of the barrows, and she went towards it without fear, though all the mounds were in her path. She made her way into these fires as if they were no more than mist, until she came to the barrow of the berserks.
Here's how that bit reads in the H-text:

hón sá nú hauga eldana ok haugbúa úti standa ok gengr til hauganna ok hræðisk ekki ok óð hón eldana sem reyk þar til er hón kom at haugi berserkjanna þá kvað hón...

And my translation:

She saw now the barrow-fires, and the cairn-dwellers standing outside, and unfrightened she went to the barrow. She waded through the fires there as if they were smoke, until she came to the barrow of the berserks. Then she said...

The word haugbúi (absent in Christopher Tolkien's text) literally means "howe-dwellers." In other words, the dead. And the dead here appear to be out standing around as the barrow-fires* burn above their graves. Hervor simply ignores them, and in fact walks right past them. Not only is she fearless, she "hræðisk ekki." We would translate this as "frightened not," as in "she is not frightened, she is not afraid."

But -isk is the 3rd person present singular reflexive mediopassive ending. Literally "frightens-herself not." Now, we would correctly understand this as meaning she is not frightened, or perhaps that she does not allow herself to be frightened.

But I am amused by the idea that even Hervor doesn't scare Hervor.

*Barrow-fires refer to the ancient belief, still found up to recent times, that on certain nights of the year fires will hover over places, especially graves, where treasure is buried. There are a surprising number of words in Old Norse for this.

Currently reading: The summa of St John of Damascus
Current audio book: The Two Towers, by JRR Tolkien
Currently translating: The Hervararkviða

Friday, August 31, 2018

Notes on the Grendel Fight

The Grendel Fight is one of the best passages in Beowulf, perhaps in all of English poetry. There are so many things it does well that are only apparent in the original Old English. But there are a lot of things it does well that are apparent even in translation. Here are some of them:

Perspective Shift

"Perspective shift," one might almost call it an "apposition of perspective" is one of the Beowulf poet's main tools for building suspense. Working within an established genre trope (of the "monster goes to hall expecting dinner, monster meets hero instead and over-commits himself, monster and hero engage in wrestling match in which monster drags hero towards door, trying to get away" variety; see Grettis saga), the poet knows his audience knows (and indeed he has liberally foreshadowed) how the fight will end. Instead of creating suspense (and horror, and delight) by keeping them in ignorance about the outcome, he does it by forcing their perspective to shift through the various characters.

Grendel (709-735a)
  Beowulf (735b-748)
    Grendel (749-756)
     Beowulf (757-759)
      Grendel (760-765)
    The Danes (766-787a)
   Beowulf (787b-793a)
  The Geats (793b-802)
Grendel (803-822a)

As we see, Grendel's perspective interweaves and bookends, and is in fact at the center, of the fight. We get Grendel's perspective on his approach to the hall, and then the switch to Beowulf's perspective when Handsco is eaten. It's back and forth, blow by blow like this all the way through the first half of the scene, and then we're taken out of the hall entirely for a fairly lengthy digression on what the Danes are hearing and thinking.

Dramatic Irony

Everyone in this scene is a source of dramatic irony (where the audience knows something the characters do not) except for Beowulf himself:

  • Grendel does not know that he is going to die, etc.
  • The Danes do not know how the fight is going, and furthermore they are confident that nothing except fire can destroy their hall (whereas the audience knows that this is precisely how Heorot is going to be destroyed, as the poem frequently foreshadows).
  • The Geats do not know that Grendel is iron-proof.
Only Beowulf has no surprises here. We are told that he hopes Grendel won't get away, but we're never told he expects one thing to happen while in fact something completely different is going to happen. The effect is that we are put in a narratively superior standing to Grendel, to the Danes, even to the Geats, but never to the poem's hero.


Recall that it was the music (among other things) from Heorot which aroused Grendel's ire at the beginning of the poem. Now, the Danes are the ones on the outside, and they too hear music. Translations that render the noises Grendel makes as merely weeping or screaming miss the literal sense of the Old English, and so I think miss some of the irony the poet intends us to feel. Grendel is often referred to as a hall-chieftain, a warrior, even a king, all in order to emphasize his role as a grim parody of human society. The poet extends that metaphor here: Grendel is doing the thing that you're supposed to do in a Mead-Hall: making music! But Grendel's music is horrifying, because it is really the screams of a monster who is quite literally getting his arm ripped off--though I think some of the anguish must surely be mental, as well as physical. After all, Grendel has never lost a fight before this night. And he does not lose grinning, or laughing, or stoically, or even singing--all of which would be perfectly reasonable ways for a hero to go out. He loses screaming.

Currently reading: Justin Martyr's Dialog with Trypho
Current audio book: Paradisio, by Dante (trans. Longfellow)
Currently translating: Hervarar saga

The Riddles of Gestumblindi: Riddle 10

As usual, here's the answer to the previous riddle : "Góð er gáta þín, Gestumblindi, getit er þessar. Þar fara svanbrúðir til hre...