Monday, June 5, 2017

How do I really feel about Beowulf?

Beowulf came to me, not as lightning out of a clear sky, but as the treasure-laden funeral ship of Scyld: gray prow and mast and ropes looming up out of the mist, the guilt edges of the golden sail billowing just beyond sight.

When I first read the poem, as a young lad, I could only see the faintest outline of its dragon-headed prow. It was a story full of monsters, one which happened "in days of yore" in a land and culture so far from my own that it may as well have been on another planet. But there was something familiar about it even then, though I did not know what, and discovering the poem was like remembering something that I had forgotten.

As I grew older and read the poem again and again the outline of the ship became clearer, and I even began to mark the significance of the strange carvings on its ring-whorled prow. Or rather, I began to attempt to infuse them with significance of my own, for I knew that they must mean something, so I tried to give them meanings which they could not hold. The ship was fixed, like an island in the sea; it would endure, it was I who was falling away into the mist.

Then I first began to see where other men and women had also struggled to draw the ship into their own harbor, catching it with great hooks of iron and trying to drag it out of the mist and re-purpose it for their own use. "This is a fine ship," they said, "and it is a great shame that it should hold only the bones of a dead man. We will draw it into our harbor and make it useful again, to carry more practical cargo or make raids upon our enemies.." But it could not be done. For when those men had drawn their catch to shore they found they had not captured a living vessel at all, but only dead flotsman and jetsam - unsound vessels which could not keep out the sea.

Abandoning this plan, I began to chase the ship itself, determined that if I could not bring it into my own harbor, I would instead cling to some rope or spar, and let the ship carry me where it would. It was only when I learned to read Anglo-Saxon that the whole outline of the ship became clear to me for the very first time: tall, icy, ring-whorled, the beds of ancient kings and heroes laid out upon biers of gold under ancient standards, gray ropes trailing through the mists. I can see only the faintest glitter of that treasure now, and yet I no longer wish to fill my pockets with rings and gems to take home and strew among my pet causes and soapboxes. I cling to the side, damp with mist and the spray of the sea-foam, and hope that Scyld's ship will take me back, by the straight road, to Those who sent him.

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 ca...