In one of my favorite passages in Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf, Hrothgar, ruler of the Shieldings, describes Grendel and his mother: “They are fatherless creatures, /and their whole ancestry is hidden in a past of demons and ghosts. They dwell apart/ among wolves on the hills, on windswept crags / and treacherous keshes, where cold streams / pour down the mountain and disappear / under the mist and moorland.”
When we read works like this, we tend to skim, or even skip, the introduction – or I know I am guilty of this, at any rate. I urge you to read this one though; if you don’t, you’ll miss out on some gorgeous prose writing. Trying to pin down the source of this epic’s astounding power, Heaney observes that “…the poet conjures up a work as remote as Shield’s funeral boat borne towards the horizon, as commanding as the horn-pronged gables of King Hrothgar’s hall, as solid and dazzling as Beowulf’s funeral pyre that is set ablaze at the end. These opening and closing scenes retain a haunting presence in the mind; they are set pieces, but they have the life-marking power of certain dreams..”
Here he describes the dragon:
“Once he is wakened, there is something glorious in the way he manifests himself, a Fourth of July effulgence fireworking its path across the night sky; and yet, because of the centuries he has spent dormant in the tumulus, there is a foundedness as well as a lambency about him.”
One more quote about the strangeness of Beowulf: “…it arrives from somewhere beyond the known bourne of our experience, and having fulfilled its purpose.., it passes once more into the beyond.” This quote resonated for me in several ways, especially as regards the use of the word “bourne.” There’s Hamlet brooding on “that bourne from which no traveler returns.” Then there it is again, in “Crossing the Bar’ by Tennyson:
Sunset and evening star
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea,
But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
Turns again home.
Twilight and evening bell,
And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
When I embark;
For though from out our bourne of Time and Place
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have crossed the bar.
[Alfred, Lord Tennyson]
Finally, the idea that this epic poem is some strange manifestation of another world reminded me of something Adam Nicolson says near the conclusion of God’s Secretaries (wonderful title, that; wonderful book, for that matter). In comparing the New English Bible’s version of the New Testament to that of the King James, Nicolson describes “…”the extraordinary and overpowering strangeness of the Bible, its governing sense of the metaphysical somehow squeezed, dragged and stretched, like Christ himself, into the world of men.” (p. 234)
Coming back to Beowulf, one of the things that surprised me most was the mixture of the pagan and monotheistic sensibilities. I wanted to say “Christian,” but there is no mention of Christ in the poem. There is mention, though, of “Almighty God” at line 1314; it occurs about thirty lines before the description of Grendel, his mother, and attendant demons and ghosts, in the passage cited at the beginning of this post.
[More Beowulf art can be found at Beowulf in Steorarume]
In the July 30 issue of Newsweek, there is a fascinating article on quantum physics by Sharon Begley in which the author poses the provocative question: Can the Future Leak Into the Present? I’d like to quote one passage in particular; I don’t dare attempt to paraphrase it: “Last week a conference at Oxford University explored the idea that every time a subatomic system reaches a decision point–to undergo radioactive decay or not, say–it chooses both possibilities: in other words the particle decays, while in a parallel world it does not.” Begley refers to this as the ‘many worlds’ interpretation, which is, apparently, accepted by some physicists, for reasons which I won’t elaborate on here. Now this stuff is really hard to understand; nevertheless, one can readily see that it is extremely intriguing in its implications.
My husband and I were pleasantly surprised by the large number of hits we got on a search for Ralph (pronounced “Rafe”) Vaughan Williams on YouTube. We have decided that this means there is hope for the world after all! Here is a link to the incomparable Tallis Fantasia, performed by an accomplished group of musicians at Indiana University.