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: https://signumuniversity.org/event/thesis-theater-richard-rohlin/

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 Grendel Fight: Beowulf, lines 709-822a

                  Ða com of more    under misthleoþum
                  Then came from the moor  under misty slopes

 710           Grendel gongan,    Godes yrre bær.
                  Grendel came,  God’s wrath bearing.

                   Mynte, se manscaða    manna cynnes,
                  He meant, that man-scather,  of mankind

                   sumne besyrwan    in sele þam hean.
                 someone to ensnare  in that high hall.

                   Wod under wolcnum    to þæs þe he winreced,
                 He stepped under the sky  until he saw that wine-hall,

                   goldsele gumena    gearwost wisse,
                 that gold-hall of men  most clearly recognized,

 715           fættum fahne.    Ne wæs þæt forma sið
                 gold-plated and shining.  Nor was that the first time

                   þæt he Hroþgares    ham gesohte.
                  that he Hrothgar’s  home had sought.

                   Næfre he on aldordagum,    ær ne siþðan,
                 Never he in life-days,  before or since,

                   heardran hæle    healðegnas fand.
                 harder luck  of hall-thanes found.

                   Com þa to recede,    rinc siðian,
                 Came then to the hall,  the warrior to travel,

 720           dreamum bedæled.    Duru sona onarn,
                 from joys deprived.  The door soon ran back

                   fyrbendum fæst,    syþðan he hire folmum æthran.
                 with fire-forged bars fast,  when he it with hands touched.

                   Onbræd þa, bealohydig,    ða he gebolgen wæs,
                 Threw open then, the evil-meaning one,  he that was swollen with rage,

                   recedes muþan.    Raþe æfter þon
                 the hall’s mouth.  Quickly after that

                   on fagne flor    feond treddode,
                 over the flagstoned floor  the fiend trod,

 725           eode yrremod.    Him of eagum stod
                 went angry-hearted.  From his eyes issued

                   ligge gelicost    leoht unfæger.
                 most like to a flame  light unlovely.

                   Geseah he in recede    rinca manige,
                 Saw he in the hall  warriors many,

                   swefan sibbegedriht    samod ætgædere
                 to sleep a host of kinsmen  all together

                   magorinca heap.    Þa his mod ahlog,
                 of young warriors a troop.  Then his spirit laughed,

 730           mynte þæt he gedælde,    ær þon dæg cwome,
                  intended that he would take away,  before the day should come,

                   atol aglæca    anra gehwylces
                 the terrible monster  each one of them

                   lif wið lic,   þa him alumpen wæs
                 life with body,  since to him it happened

                   wistfylle wen.    Ne wæs þæt wyrd þa gen
                 of fill-of-feasting hope.  Nor was that fate still

                   þæt he ma moste    manna cynnes
                 that he more might be allowed  of mankind

 735           ðicgean ofer þa niht.   
                 to partake beyond that night. 

Beowulf:                                          Þryðswyð beheold,
                                                          The mighty one beheld,

                   mæg Higelaces,    hu se manscaða
                 kinsman of Hygelac,  how the sin-scather

                   under færgripum    gefaran wolde.
                 with sudden-snatch  would proceed.

                   Ne þæt se aglæca    yldan þohte,
                  Nor meant  that monster to wait,

                   ac he ge|feng hraðe    forman siðe
                 but he quickly chose  at his first chance 
 740           slæpendne rinc,    slat unwearnum,
                 a sleeping hero,  slew him greedily,

                   bat banlocan,    blod edrum dranc,
                 bit open the bone-locker,  blood-streams drank,

                   synsnædum swealh.    Sona hæfde
                 gorged on gore.  Soon had

                   unlyfigendes    eal gefeormod
                   of the unliving  all consumed

                   fet 7 folma.    Forð near ætstop,
                 feet and hands.  Forward and nearer crept,

 745           nam þa mid handa    higeþihtigne
                 to seize with hands  the strong-hearted one

                   rinc on ræste,    ræhte ongean,
                 the warrior on bench,  began to reach for,

                   feond mid folme.    He onfeng hraþe
                 fiend with hand.  He [Beowulf] quickly clasped [Grendel]

                   inwitþancum    7 wið earm gesæt.
                 with ire  and with his arm sat up.

Grendel:                 Sona þæt onfunde,    fyrena hyrde,
                                Soon he found,  the keeper of crimes,

 750           þæt he ne mette    middangeardes,
                 that he never met  in Middle-earth

                   eorþan sceatta,    on elran men
                 in earth’s regions,  another man

                   mundgripe maran.    He on mode wearð
                 with greater hand-grip.  In mood he became

                   forht on ferhðe.    No þy ær fram meahte.
                 fearful in mind.  Not as before might he get away.

                   Hyge wæs him hinfus,    wolde on heolster fleon,
                 He was fain to flee  forth to his hiding-place,

 755           secan deofla gedræg.    Ne wæs his drohtoð þær
                 to seek the Devil’s companionship.  Nor was his condition

                   swylce he on ealderdagum    ær gemette.
                 such as he in former days  had met.

 Beowulf:                Gemunde þa, se goda    mæg Higelaces,
                                Remembered then, the good  kinsman of Hygelac,

                   æfenspræce.    Uplang astod
                 his evening speech.  Upright he stood

                   7 him fæste wiðfeng.    Fingras burston.
                  and firmly took hold of him.  Fingers burst.

 Grendel: 760        Eoten wæs utweard,    eorl furþur stop.
                 The ogre was eager to be gone,  the earl stepped forward.

                   Mynte se mæra,   hwær he meahte swa,
                  Meant the monster,  howesoever he might,

                   widre gewindan,    7 on weg þanon
                   far to flee,  and from that way thence

                   fleon on fenhopu.    Wiste his fingra geweald
                 flee to his fen-hold.  He knew, with his fingers’ might

                   on grames grapum,    þæt he wæs geocor sið
                   in the grip of the foe,  that it was a sorrowful trip

 765           þæt se hearmscaþa    to Heorute ateah.
                 that the harm-scather  to Heorot took.

The Danes:            Dryhtsele dynede.    Denum eallum wearð,
                                The mead-hall quaked.  To all of the Danes it was,

                   ceasterbuendum,    cenra gehwylcum,
                 to the encampment-dwellers,  to each of the bold,

                   eorlum ealuscerwen.    Yrre wæron begen,
                 to the earls a storm of bitter dregs.  Both were angry, 
                   reþe renweardas.    Reced hlynsode.
                 the raging house-guards.  The hall shook.

 770           Þa wæs wundor micel    þæt se winsele
                 That was a great wonder  that the wine-hall

                   wiðhæfde heaþodeorum,    þæt he on hrusan ne feol,
                 withstood the battle,  that it to the earth did not fall,

                   fæger foldbold.    Ac he þæs fæste wæs,
                 fair earth-dwelling.  But it so firm was,

                   innan 7 utan    irenbendum,
                 inside and outside  with iron bands,

                   searoþoncum besmiþod.    Þær fram sylle abeag
                 with such skill strengthened.  There from the floor were ripped

 775           medubenc monig,    mine gefræge,
                  mead-benches many,  so I’ve heard,

                   golde geregnad,    þær þa graman wunnon.
                  with gold adorned,  where the fierce ones fought.

                   Þæs ne wendon ær,    witan Scyldinga,
                 They never thought before,  the wise Scyldings,

                   þæt hit a mid gemete    manna ænig,
                 that by power  of any man,

                   betlic 7 banfag    tobrecan meahte,
                 the splendid and antler-adorned [hall]  might be broken,

 780           listum tolucan,    nymþe liges fæþm
                 destroyed with cunning,  unless the fire’s embrace

                   swulge on swaþule.    Sweg up astag,
                 with flames swallowed.  Music arose,

                   niwe geneahhe:    Norð-Denum stod
                 new and desperate: the North Danes started

                   atelic egesa,    anra gehwylcum
                 in abject horror,  every one of them

                   þara þe of wealle    wop gehyrdon,
                 those who from the wall  wailing heard,

 785           gryreleoð galan    Godes andsacan,
                 singing a terrible song,  God’s adversary,

                   sigeleasne sang,    sar wanigean,
                 the victory-less singing,  bewailing sorrow,

                   helle hæfton.   
                 Hell’s prisoner. 

Beowulf:                                    Heold hine fæste,
                                                    Held him fast,

                   se þe manna wæs    mægene strengest
                 he that of men was  in might strongtest

                   on þæm dæge    þysses lifes.
                 in that time of this life.

 790           Nolde, eorla hleo,    ænige þinga
                 He had no desire, the earls’ protector,   by any means

                   þone cwealmcuman    cwicne forlætan,
                 that deadly guest  to release alive,

                   ne his lifdagas    leoda ænigum
                  nor his lifedays  to any people

                   nytte tealde.   
                  useful considered. 

The Geats:          Þær genehost brægd
                                           There very earnestly brandished

                   eorl Beowulfes,    ealde lafe,
                  warrior of Beowulf,  ancient heirloom,

 795           wolde freadrihtnes    feorh ealgian,
                  wished his lord’s  soul to defend,

                   mæres þeodnes,    ðær hie meahton swa.
                 of famous lord,  however they might.

                   Hie þæt ne wiston,    þa hie gewin drugon,
                 They did not know,  when they joined the fray,

                   heardhicgende    hildemecgas,
                  brave-minded  battle-men,

                   7 on healfa gehwone    heawan þohton,
                 and on each side  thought to hew,

 800           sawle secan:    þone synscaðan
                 soul to seek:  that sin-scather

                   ænig ofer eorþan,    irenna cyst,
                  any on earth,  of irons choice,

                   guðbilla nan    gretan nolde.
                 war-swords,  none would harm him.

Grendel:                 Ac he sigewæpnum   forsworen hæfde,
                 But he against victory-weapons  had cast spells,

                   ecga gehwylcre.    Scolde his aldorgedal,
                 against every edge.  His life-ending must,

 805           on ðæm dæge    þysses lifes,
                 on that day  of this life,

                   earmlic wurðan,    7 se ellorgast
                 wretchedly take place,  and the alien spirit

                   on feonda geweald    feor siðian.
                 with the fiend’s power  go far away.

                   Ða þæt onfunde    se þe fela æror
                 Then he found,  he that often before

                   modes myrðe    manna cynne,
                 mind’s affliction  to mankind

 810           fyrene gefremede,    he fag wið God,
                  crimes committed,  feuding against God,

                   þæt him se lichoma    læstan nolde;
                 that him the life-shell [his body]  would not obey;

                   ac hine se modega    mæg Hygelaces
                 but to him the proud  kinsman of Hygelac

                   hæfde be honda.    Wæs gehwæþer oðrum
                 had by hand.  Was each by the other

                   lifigende lað.    Licsar gebad,
                 loathed while living.  Pain he felt,

 815           atol æglæca.    Him on eaxle wearð
                 the horrible monster.  On his shoulder appeared

                 syndolh sweotol,    seonowe onsprungon,
                 a large wound,  sinews popped apart,

                 burston banlocan.    Beowulfe wearð
                 the bone-locker burst.   It happened that to Beowulf

                 guðhreð gyfeþe.    Scolde Grendel þonan
                 glory in battle was granted.  Grendel was forced from there

                 feorhseoc fleon    under fenhleoðu,
                 life-sick to flee  under the fen-slopes,

 820          secean wynleas wic.    Wiste þe geornor
                 to seek his joyless home.  Knew he surely

                 þæt his aldres wæs    ende gegongen,
                 that his life had reached its end,

                 dogera dægrim.   
                 its allotted span. 

Friday, July 27, 2018

Threads in the Odyssey: Hospitality

One way of reading the Odyssey is as a series of encounters with various kinds of hospitality. Put another way, this is one of the major threads woven all throughout this epic of weaving. Hospitality necessarily involves food, of course, which is why reading any given book of the Odyssey is likely to give one a hankering for cheese, wine, and mutton. I think it was Fielding that referred to it as "the eatingest epic."

There seem to be three kinds of hospitality that Odysseus encounters:

1) Right hospitality, that gives gifts, offers entertainment, exchanges and reinforces cultural norms through storytelling, sacrifice, eating, and other forms of ritual bonding. The Phaeacians are the best example of this. Closest in kinship to the gods of all mankind, the Phaeacians are good at entertaining perhaps because they are used to entertaining the gods face-to-face. Most importantly, the Phaeacians do not just show Odysseus a good time: they let him go, they prepare him for his journey, they send him on his way richly repaid for all his trials. This is the telos of proper hospitality: to send the guest or suppliant on his way again, better and richer than he was before; to send him to his homecoming well-equipped and well-prepared for what he will find there.

2) Oppressive hospitality, which we see from people who are either on the fringes of human society or on the divinity spectrum. Calypso both, course, but also the lotus-eaters. These are people who give gifts, but who make a prisoner of the guest by refusing to speed them on their way.

3) Monstrous hospitality, which we see from monsters and from evil men. Polyphemous the Cyclops is the arch example of this. He is "hospitable" in that he "offers lodging" -- i.e. he locks Odysseus and his men in the cave and refuses to let them go. He offers a "guest-gift" in that he promises to eat Odysseus last. He has his guests for dinner instead of having them over for dinner. One of the things that is stressed when the Cyclops are introduced is that they are lawless, and live "every one for himself," without king or laws. This designates them as barbaric and sub-human, and their hospitality matches. On the other side of the guest-host relationship, the Suitors are committing similar crimes.

Good old Nestor shows #1 to Telemachus, but very nearly verges on #2, so much so that Telemachus eventually has to slip away so as not to be smothered by the old man's affections and get on with his quest.

In the house of Menelaus, Telemachus finds perfect hospitality. (Not to mention the fact that Helen finally confirms the legitimacy of his parentage, something Telemachus has been worried about since the beginning of the poem). It's only then that he's equipped to head back to Ithaca, rendezvous with his father, and clean house.

Currently reading: How to be Un-Lucky, by Joshua Gibbs
Current audio book: The Odyssey, by Homer (trans. Fagles)
Currently translating: Hervarar saga

Monday, July 23, 2018

The Riddles of Gestumblindi: Riddle 8

First, here's the answer to riddle 7:

"Góð er gáta þín, Gestumblindi, getit er þessar. Þat er laukr. Höfuð hans er fast í jörðu, en hann kvíslar, er hann vex upp."

"Your riddle is good, Gestumblindi, but I have guessed it. That is a leek [or garlic]. His head is fast in the earth, and he forks as he grows upwards."

Riddle 8

Þá mælti Gestumblindi:

"Hvat er þat undra,
er ek úti sá
fyr Dellings durum;
horni harðara,
hrafni svartara,
skildi hvítara,
skapti réttara?
Heiðrekr konungr,
hyggðu at gátu."

Then said Gestumblindi:

"What is that wonder
Which I saw outside
Before Delling's Doors?
Harder than a horn,
Darker than a raven,
Whiter than a shield*,
Straighter than a shaft?
Heiðrekr king,
Ponder this riddle."

*This is the reading found in the R-text of the saga. However, the H and U versions both have "whiter than the white of an egg," which is probably closer to the original reading. The ON word for an egg-white is skjall.

Currently reading: How to be Un-Lucky, by Joshua Gibbs
Current Audio Book: The Odyssey, by Homer
Currently translating: The Waking of Agantyr

Monday, July 16, 2018

Cuckolds and Consolation: The Song of Demodocus

In Book VIII of the Odyssey, Odysseus—as part of the entertainment staged by the Phaeacian king Alcinous—listens to the blind bard Demodocus tell the story of the time Aphrodite and Ares caught in flagrante by Hephaestus. You’ve probably heard the story retold something like this:

Ares, the god of War, is having an affair with Aphrodite, goddess of sexual passion. Anytime Hephaestus is gone from home, Ares shows up and “shames” the forge-god’s marriage bed. But Helios, Titan of the sun, sees this (as he sees everything) and tells Hephaestus. Hephaestus, being no match for Ares in strength or speed, forges a net of chains so fine not even the gods can see them, and uses them to booby-trap his bed. Then he pretends to leave the house, and when Ares shows up and he and Aphrodite become, uh, entangled, Hephaestus springs the trap. It’s so well made that not even Ares, swiftest of the gods, can escape it, and Hephaestus calls all of the other gods to come and see the adulterous lovers in his bed. The retelling of this story usually ends with Hephaestus as the butt of the joke, the other gods mocking him as a cuckold before forcing him to let Ares and Aphrodite go.

But that isn’t really the version we get in the Odyssey. To be sure, Apollo and Hermes find some humor in the situation:

But lord Apollo, son of Zeus, questioned Hermes:
 “Hermes, son of Zeus, you messenger
and giver of good things, how would you like
to lie in bed by golden Aphrodite,
even though a strong net tied you down?”
The messenger god, killer of Argus, then said
in his reply:
                              “Far-shooting lord Apollo,
I wish there were three times as many nets,
impossible to break, and all you gods
were looking on, if I could like down there,
alongside golden Aphrodite.”

Kidding aside, what has happened is no joke, and the elder and more sober-minded Poseidon recognizes this. It is he who convinces Hephaestus to let the pair go free, but only after the god of the sea and earthquakes promises to be surety for Hephaestus’ demands:

At Hermes’ words,
laughter arose from the immortal deities.
But Poseidon did not laugh. He kept requesting
Hephaestus, the celebrated master artisan,
to set Ares free. When he talked to him,
his words had wings:
                                     “Set him loose.
I promise he will pay you everything,
as you are asking, all he truly owes,
in the presence of immortal gods.”
The famous lame god then replied:
Shaker of the Earth, do not ask me this.
It’s a nasty thing to accept a pledge
made for a nasty rogue. What if Ares
escapes his chains, avoids the debt, and leaves—
how then among all these immortal gods
do I hold you in chains?”
                                            Earthshaker Poseidon
then answered him and said:
if indeed Ares does not discharge his debt
and runs away, I’ll pay you in person.”
Then the celebrated crippled god replied:
“It would be inappropriate for me
to refuse to take your word.”
                                              After saying this,
powerful Hephaestus then untied the netting.

A more idiomatic translation of Hephaestus’ response to this handsome offer might be, as Fagles renders it, “now there’s an offer no one could refuse!” It’s his satisfaction with Poseidon’s offer, not the bullying of the other gods, which finally motivates powerful Hephaestus to loose the chains and set the lovers free. The lovers promptly run off, but we have Poseidon’s guarantee that the wronged husband will be paid reparation. That’s how the song ends, and we are immediately told that “As he listened, Odysseus felt joy in his heart…”

I want to suggest that Odysseus’s joy goes deeper than they joy anyone with a good ear might feel at hearing a good song. Odysseus enjoys this story—and I think, the story is placed just at this juncture in the Odyssey’s narrative—because it provides him a sort of catharsis for his fears about what Penelope might be up to while he’s been away.

All throughout the Odyssey, Penelope and Odysseus both either hint at or explicitly state their misgivings about who their spouse may have become after the long years of the War and the Return. That, in large part, is the tension playing out in the series of “tests” which begin at Odysseus’ homecoming: Odysseus testing Penelope, Penelope testing Odysseus, Telemachus naively expecting them to just pick up where they left off. But at this point in the story, Odysseus has no idea what Penelope’s up to. Has she pulled a Clytemnestra and shacked up with another man, waiting to kill him when he gets home? The evil fate of Agamemnon (and the loyalty of Orestes, who seems to be a sympathetic figure in the Odyssey) has been the constant echo of Telemachus’ own quest to confirm his parentage and reclaim his patrimony.

There are several clues which suggest Odysseus might identify with the lame forge-god. Consider the description of Hephaestus’ forging of the trap:

Once he heard
the unwelcome news, Hephaestus went into his forge,
pondering some nasty scheme deep in his heart.
He set up his massive anvil on its block,
then forged a net no one could break or loosen,
so they’d have to stay immobile where they were.
When, in his rage, he had made that snare for Ares,
he went into the room which housed his marriage bed,
anchored the netting all around the bed posts,
and then hung loops of it from roof beams high above,
fine as spiders’ webs, impossible to see,
even for a blessed god—that’s how skillfully
he made that net. Once he’d organized the snare
around the bed, he announced a trip to Lemnos,
that well-built citadel, his favourite place by far
of all the lands on earth.

This smacks for all the world of one of Odysseus’ classic tricks. We see Hephaestus getting revenge, not through strength, but through guile, weaving (and weaving is what Odysseus, and Penelope, and Athena, chiefly do) a trap that will hold a rival who could otherwise easily outrun him.

Running, or the lack thereof, might be something else Odysseus has in common with the lamed forge-god. Earlier in the day, Odysseus—after being taunted by a hot-headed youngster—challenges the Phaeacian youths to all sorts of contests of strength. He’ll best them in anything, he says, except running. Back in the day he might have been a great sprinter, but years of hardship at sea mean his legs aren’t what they used to be. But Odysseus, like Hephaestus, is still powerful from the waist-up, a match for any at wrestling or boxing, archery or spear-throwing.

Where does the relief, the catharsis, come in? Hephaestus eventually gets what he demands: reparations, in the form of the bride-price he paid for the cheating Aphrodite. Poseidon, effectively Aphrodite’s uncle, assures it. In this story we see Odysseus’ worst fears—that of being cuckolded—and his best hopes—getting his own back—realized in a ribald tale of the light-living immortals.

Nowadays we would probably chide Odysseus for prizing a bride-price as high as so excellent a queen as Penelope, and maybe he would or wouldn’t have, if things had turned out that way. What’s important here, though, is that Odysseus lives in a “heroic” society, which is to say he lives in a society when a man must be extremely conscious of what honors and reparations are due to him. In this respect, I do not think it is a coincidence that it is Poseidon—the god to whom Odysseus owes all the suffering he has experienced during his Return—who guarantees that War will pay.

All quotes are from Ian Johnston’s freely available translation of the Odyssey, located here: http://johnstoniatexts.x10host.com/homer/odysseytofc.html

Currently reading: A Companion to Old Norse-Icelandic Literature and Culture by Rory McTurk
Current audio book: The Odyssey, translated by Robert Fagles
Currently translating: Sacris solemniis, by St Thomas Aquinas

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