Beowulf is one of those classics that we've all heard about, but about which we know little. Unlike Greek and Italian classics, or some other legends,...moreBeowulf is one of those classics that we've all heard about, but about which we know little. Unlike Greek and Italian classics, or some other legends, it hasn't entered into our common lexicon or our everyday phrases. We know a lot more about the fall of Troy and "beware of Greeks bearing gifts" (ouch) without having read The Iliad or The Aeneid - but Beowulf? Not so much. Stop reading right now and ask yourself: what's it about? Who is Beowulf? Where and when is it set? What lessons in life does it teach? Unless you studied it at university (in which case you'll know a heck of a lot more about than I do!), you're probably drawing a blank just as I did before reading it.
And I'm still not sure I have anything enlightening or interesting to say about it. This is one of those old classics that you really do benefit from having the wealth of knowledge that comes with a teacher well versed in the nuances, because on your own you probably won't pick up on a lot of it, especially if you don't have a background in it. That doesn't mean that you can't enjoy Beowulf for what it is, and appreciate the tale and the translation.
So what is Beowulf all about then? Beowulf is a man, a Geat warrior (a tribe from Geatland in modern-day north Sweden) and nephew to the king, Hygelac. He takes fourteen warriors with him and sails to Denmark where the king, Hrothgar, is being besieged by a demon called Grendel which attacks at night and kills indiscriminately. Beowulf has pledged to rid the Danes of this demon, and on his first night at the hall he fights the creature - with no weapons but his hands - and wins. Grendel retreats, sorely wounded.
Hrothgar is extremely grateful the next day and bestows many gifts on the Geats, but that night Grendel's enraged demon mother attacks, seeking revenge. She makes a kill but Beowulf and his men fight back and she flees. They follow her to a lake and Beowulf dives down with just a sword - sour and jealous Unferth's sword, that is supposedly undefeated - and takes on Grendel's mother. The sword proves useless but Beowulf is able to kill Grendel's mother and then the wounded Grendel too.
Having rid Denmark of two demons, King Hrothgar is even more grateful and bestows even more gifts. The Geats sail off and time passes; we meet Beowulf again as a much older man, having served his king in a war with the Swedes and been king himself for some thirty years. Now a dragon has woken after a thief got into its treasure horde, and is on the attack. Beowulf takes some men and goes to confront it, but only one of these warriors, Wiglaf, actually comes to his aid; the others flee. Beowulf and Wiglaf defeat the dragon but at the cost of Beowulf's life: he dies.
There are also many tales within this story, tales of war and rivalry, fights breaking out over disagreements, women and anything else really. It is an epic poem about bravery, loyalty and fame. Originally written in Anglo-Saxon or Old English between the middle of the 7th century and the end of the 10th, the author is unknown. This translation (in fact I think most translations are like this), has the original text on the left page and the modern-English translation on the right. If you look at the original, you can see just how far the English language has come in over a millennium: to the un-Gaelic eye it's unreadable. The alphabet isn't even the same. I've read parts of The Canterbury Tales in its original Middle English (from 14th century), and if you read it out loud it's not too difficult and quite fun - but the alphabet was the same as ours and the words not that far off. Our modern-day English is another language altogether, and the hilarity of time travel books and films is that, were you really to go back to say the 10th century England, you wouldn't be able to understand them at all, and vice versa. Even after the Normans came, their French might have been hard to understand too (though the French have put a lot of effort into "preserving" their language, whereas our organised English is actually a fairly new concept). So while it's interesting to see the original verse alongside the translation, I certainly wasn't able to read it.
But translation makes a big impact on how you read such classics, and how well you enjoy them. This is a fairly recent translation by Seamus Heaney, an Irishman, and it is highly readable and almost prose-like. There is less poetry to his rendering, but there is still rhythm. His translation is well suited to being read aloud: you can easily imagine someone telling the story with a rapt audience crowded around, a fire crackling in the hearth, casting a warm glow on ruddy cheeks.
Hygelac's kinsman [Beowulf] kept thinking about his name and fame: he never lost heart. Then, in a fury, he flung his sword away. The keen, inlaid, worm-loop-patterned steel was hurled to the ground: he would have to rely on the might of his arm. So must a man do who intends to gain enduring glory in a combat. Life doesn't cost him a thought. Then the prince of War-Geats, warming to this fight with Grendel's mother, gripped her shoulder and laid about him in a battle frenzy: he pitched his killer opponent to the floor but she rose quickly and retaliated, grappled him tightly in her grim embrace. [p.107]
My thoughts on this story are sketchy at best. First of all, I admit surprise that it's about Scandinavian warriors, because - being an Anglo-Saxon tale - I was expecting it to be about an Anglo-Saxon warrior, set in the once heavily-forested Britain that is long gone, with maybe a druid somewhere around. I had just got that impression from somewhere and it stuck. Considering the fact that the Vikings were often rampaging and pillaging and raping and looting the UK coast, I wonder if it's a story that came from them and was told by the locals (and written down by one of them)? It would have to have done, I would think.
What makes me curious is why, for so long, this text was aggressively studied at universities across the country: Heaney says in his introduction,
For decades it has been a set book on English syllabuses at university level all over the world. The fact that many English departments require it to be studied in the original continues to generate resistance, most notably at Oxford University ... For generations of undergraduates, academic study of the poem was often just a matter of construing the meaning, getting a grip on the grammar and vocabulary of Anglo-Saxon, and being able to recognize, translate, and comment upon random extracts which were presented in the examinations. [p.x]
Was it just a puzzle, then? Or one of those texts that was considered a right of passage (a bit like Ulysses)? What I mean is, why were they so "gung ho" to have this studied by all students? A question for a crusty old academic from a hundred years ago, I think (who would no doubt patronise me with his condescending answer). I don't mean that there's no value in the poem, only expressing curiosity that it was so precious - especially considering it hasn't entered into our culture like Shakespeare has.
As for the story itself, it's short, interesting, at times eventful, but my interest in it is predominantly for its place as a precursor to fantasy fiction. I got onto this topic a bit when talking about The Aeneid - or if I didn't, then I meant to! - but when you read these ancient texts, from The Bible to The Odyssey to just about anything else that's survived (many of which I haven't read but based on what I know of them, I would include in this), you really start to notice what they all have in common: fantasy, and our deep abiding love for it. Magic, wizards, dragons, demons, epic love, battling evil, quests and the more subtle themes and tropes that today's fantasy authors are thankfully branching out into, they must all fascinate and delight us more than we're often willing to admit, since it's the one genre we've always had (with romance being a close second - there's romance in these texts but it's generally not the main attraction). It makes me grumble, to hear certain people trash modern-day fantasy books, when they resemble more closely these ancient texts than anything else we write. It's perfectly okay, academically-speaking, to study Beowulf or Dante's Inferno, to spend years pulling it apart and teasing out meaning, but read Robert Jordan, Kate Elliott, Brandon Sanderson, Jennifer Fallon or Steven Erikson and you'll be dismissed as someone who likes "escapism" and doesn't take reading seriously (and is probably not very smart or educated, to boot).
Truth is, Tolkien himself loved Beowulf and wrote an essay on it that forever changed the way it was studied. You can see the influence of works like this on his own books. So from that perspective, this was an interesting read. I can't really say that I got a lot out of it though. Certainly Heaney's translation is very readable, especially for a contemporary audience, but I didn't find the story particularly thought-provoking, enlightening or educational - not reading it on its own. But as part of a body of work about heroes and quests and being brave, it's well worth reading. (less)
I'm not a huge fan of poetry, and I find most of it pretty alienating and annoying, but Cohen has such a lovely tone, and doesn't seek to be "clever"...moreI'm not a huge fan of poetry, and I find most of it pretty alienating and annoying, but Cohen has such a lovely tone, and doesn't seek to be "clever" by being obtuse. Which means his poetry actually says something to me (and makes sense: I can understand what he's saying, or relate to it, or interpret it), which makes it something worth treasuring :)
I had never read this before, I'm pretty sure - we certainly never had a copy in our house nor any pre-Christmas tradition of reading it, nothing like...moreI had never read this before, I'm pretty sure - we certainly never had a copy in our house nor any pre-Christmas tradition of reading it, nothing like that. Probably my primary school had an old copy but I don't think I was too interested. So this was a new reading experience for me, one I approached without any memories or sense of nostalgia to guide me. I got it because it's such a classic, and I believe it's the origin of Santa's sleigh and reindeer (which are named), though don't quote me on that.
I decided to get the original edition - I love the old style of illustrations and I didn't want anything changed or edited. It's a classic, after all! What I found was a really delightful poem that carries with it a great sense of expectation, anticipation and atmosphere, far more than I would expect, and the descriptions had that Narnia quality - it's the only word I can think to describe it, but basically I mean the way things looked in an age gone by, an older period that's nostalgic to us now.
It's not the children who discover St. Nicholas, but their father, who is woken by the "clatter" of a sleigh and eight small reindeer, who waits for him to exit the chimney. I love the descriptions of Saint Nick, some of which I've included here, followed by their accompanying illustrations:
He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot, And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot' A bundle of Toys he had flung on his back, And he looked like a pedler [sic] just opening his pack.
The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth, And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath; He had a broad face and a little round belly, That shook when he laughed, like a bowlful of jelly.
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf, And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself; A wink of his eye and a twist of his head, Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread;
I'm not sure how much of our current Santa mythology comes from this poem - I'll have to wait to find out when I read Gerry Bowler's Santa: A Biography later on - but whether it started anything or not, it's certainly played a big part in immortalising it all. Little has changed since this was published in 1912 - really the only thing different is that Santa was later dressed in Coca Cola colours for their own marketing, something we've been stuck with ever since. Another reason why I wanted the original, pre-Coca Cola illustrations.
This was a truly delightful read, in a purely nostalgic sense, and while I may not have grown up with it as a kid, it manages to bring back that sense of excitement and wonder and make you feel like a bit of a kid again, which is always a good feeling. (less)
Anita Heiss is an Australian Aboriginal writer and a member of the Wiradjuri nation of central New South Wales. This collection of poems expresses cle...moreAnita Heiss is an Australian Aboriginal writer and a member of the Wiradjuri nation of central New South Wales. This collection of poems expresses clearly, and with great emotion and intelligence, her experiences of being an indigenous Australian, growing up "brown" in "white Australia", and a sharp political commentary. I want to start by sharing some of the poems in this book, or parts of them at least, that will give you an idea of her style and also show just how sharp a slap in the face her words can be:
I was born and raised a young girl
I went to school I played with dolls I ate McDonald's I spoke English I watched Romper Room and Sesame Street
I fell I bled I hurt I cried Happy I laughed
One day -- you called me abo, boong and coon you spat at me you said I was dirty
You made me your idea of what you thought I was.
What you thought an Aborigine was.
Why couldn't you just let me be? I was just another little girl skipping home from school
Instead, you created me, You politicised me You made me an activist You made me have to be vocal You gave me the chip you now criticise me for
Advance Australia - Unfair (Sung to the tune of the national anthem, Advance Australia Fair)
Australians all should be ashamed For we are not all free They killed the blacks and stole the land And lock up refugees The land is raped by profiteers The Murray-River died History's page Denies the rage Because historians lied. In prison cells how can we sing Advance Australia fair?
from "What is the Spirit of Australia?
The spirit of Australia should be found - in its soul, its character, its courage and its foundation. A collective generous spirit could exist simply by celebrating the diverse nation we are.
But, it seems the 'Spirit of Australia' is an indefinable essence of Aussie-dom which can apparently be bought, marketed, logoed, animalized, idolized, bastardized and accessorized.
I'm Not Racist But...
I'm not racist but... Why can't I climb Ayres Rock? Why don't they get jobs like everyone else? Did you hear the one about? Why are Aborigines so angry? Why don't they just get over it - the past is the past? Why do I have to say sorry for something I didn't do?
I'm not racist but... They're all drunks! They don't wash! The kids roam the streets at night! They look dangerous!!!
I'm not racist but... I wouldn't pick one up in my cab I wouldn't want my daughter to marry one I wouldn't rent my flat to one I wouldn't employ one
I'm not racist because... I played football with one once I worked with one once I use the word Koori I let them sit next to me on the bus I walked over the Harbour Bridge I signed a hand I gave money to one begging on the street
I'm not racist... I'm simply privileged by being white I'm just speaking from a position of power I'm just observing the obvious
I'm not racist, I'm just following the lead of my prime minister!
I don't know how much of this will resonate with non-Australians, but having lived in Canada for nearly 8 years now I'm aware that there are a lot of similarities between the two countries when it comes to the indigenous population, both in terms of colonial history, suppression and genocide, native land rights, redressing past wrongs, "sorry", and ongoing tensions and culture clashes, so I think Canadians at least would understand this, even if (I find) the tone and language is so distinctly, well, Australian.
I'm from Tasmania, the island state of Australia (I've met some Canadians who think it's a separate country, or who ask me "Is that near Australia?" - and some others who think it's in Africa!), and we don't have a noticeable Aboriginal population. This is due to the Black War of the 19th century (I forget the actual dates) and a planned genocide that resulted in the last few Aborigines being rounded up and shipped off to Flinders' Island, where they died out of disease and, for want of a better word, idleness (removed from their way of life and culture, converted to Christianity, they had nothing to do, no reason to live). One recent, internationally-available book you can read about that time is Richard Flanagan's Wanting, which I highly recommend.
Because there are no full-blooded Aborigines left in Tasmania, only many many part-Aborigines, you grow up not really aware of them. There were lots of kids in my year at high school, including blonde, blue-eyed kids, who were actually part-Aborigine, but you wouldn't have known unless they told you. So there's a bit of a disconnect right from the beginning, for the white population. But I know people who've gone to the Northern Territory and come away with the lowest of lowest opinions about the Aboriginal communities there - because they don't take care of themselves, they're all obese and alcoholics and have diabetes and just sit around waiting for government handouts. That's the picture they paint, those are the words they use. It's a fact that these communities constitute a third-world of poverty, disease, lack of education etc. within Australia, though it's not the whole picture by any means.
When I was in second year uni, I had a flatmate who was taking first year Aboriginal Studies. I remember that, after a lecture in which they had an Aborigine guest speaker, she came home to tell us all about it, how mind-opening it was, how the speaker had told them that while white Australia is dismissive and impatient and just wants the Aborigines to assimilate, to just "get over it" and stop whining and fit in, to adopt the Australian national identity as it were, the Aborigines themselves don't want to. They don't want to be Australian (I would like to think that if "being Australian" incorporated, fully and authentically, the Aboriginal cultures, lifestyle, belief systems and peoples in a genuinely respectful and appreciative way, that "being Australian" would be less of a repugnant thing to them - but it's hardly that simple). I was young, and it had never occurred to me that they didn't want to be Australian - I had assumed, as young people do, that it was a matter of simple racism, land rights, and so on, that we weren't accepting them (which is, really, also true). It gave a whole new edge to the situation that I hadn't been aware of before, and made me really think about what it meant to "be Australian."
Fact is, I have a great deal of respect for the Australian Aborigines - especially after studying their belief systems and culture for a whole semester at college (year 12 to be exact) - but I find I don't know how to say that. I feel like no matter what I say, I will always be oppressive or racist, giving "lip service" to something I don't really understand. And I do want to understand, I really do. I admire the way of life they had before we invading colonisers destroyed it, ridiculed it, oppressed it, banned it. The Aborigines, also immigrants like everyone else in the country, had been there for a good 20,000 years before the Europeans arrived, and while they had changed the landscape with careful burning, they hadn't made much of an impression on the land at all. This is something I admire and respect and appreciate from the bottom of my soul, because it fits in with how I think we all should be living, really, ideally - even though I hardly want to give up my modern lifestyle any more than most other people (the classic paradox). The Aborigines were custodians of the land, believing that they were looking after it, that it wasn't there for their use and abuse.
Reading I'm Not Racist, But... is a lot like facing a mirror that shows a very ugly image of your white privileged soul. I am white. I am Anglo. I am privileged because of it. I don't think I could escape that even if I tried. Being aware of it is the best that I can do. I felt such anger coming off the pages, the lines and words, of Heiss' poems, her social observations. I felt that little girl who thought she was just a little girl, suddenly turned into something low and dirty with just a few words. I felt the injustice of inequality like a stab to the palm, but with all these feelings came that usual, typical sense of uselessness. There was no opening, no slender gap in the door, that offered a way to change things, to make amends, to prove my own worthiness as a being who genuinely cared. The poems made me feel hurt and angry with empathy for Heiss and other Aborigines, but also like their hurt and anger was a stiff, upright wall I couldn't pass through, a wall designed to maintain the hurt and anger. That was just the impression I got, because this is a very emotional collection of poems and so I couldn't help but respond emotionally, with empathy.
The collection has a clear theme but not all the poems are about growing up Aboriginal, or even political. Some are whimsical, wishful, and a couple I couldn't really follow at all (poetry is not my strong suit). They are all brimming with passion and, at heart, a love for the country and for being Aboriginal. They are full of heart, soul and when they're not sharply critiquing or sad, they're surprisingly funny. The collection could have been better edited - there were some typos, little glitches that spoil the flow - and some of the poems were definitely a lot stronger than others, with more focus and power and imagery. Overall though, I felt this was an important collection, and through her poems Heiss shows the power words and imagery have to convey a range of meaning and emotion in a thoughtful, insightful, damning way. Her words pin you to your seat and force you to look at yourself, and painfully recall whether you've ever used those atrocious words, "I'm not racist but..." (less)