Monday, February 2, 2015

Gender in the Meadhall: Beowulf & Anglo-Saxon Elegy

Beowulf Grendel's Mother Angelina Jolie Naked Sword Sex

“The present life of man upon earth, O king, seems to me...
like to the swift flight of a sparrow through the house 
wherein you sit at supper in winter, 
with your ealdormen and thegns, 
while the fire blazes in the midst, and the hall is warmed, 
but the wintry storms of rain or snow are raging abroad." 

The Parable of the Sparrow
the Venerable Bede


Introduction to English Literature 1 
A Genealogy of Gender and Genre 

In this course, we explore gender and genre through literature produced in and around the early British Isles, from the elegiac poetry of the Anglo Saxons to the Epic poetry of John Milton’s Paradise Lost. In this survey of medieval and early modern texts, we trace how forms of narrative were informed by and acted on the construction of concepts of sex and sexuality. We study how debates around nature and nurture, essential and artificial, eternal and mutable came to produce later notions of transgender, queerness, disability, race, and religious difference.


Life in the Mead-Hall
(Bede's Ecclesiastical History of England)

The course began with an orientation to the theme of the genealogy of gender and genre. Together we will ask the question: how does genre generate certain modes of gender and how is gender defined according to different genres? The students (many of whom are not English majors) were very excited to have these sorts of discussions and learn about these texts and context In our first section we focused on Anglo-Saxon elegiac literature. The class reflected on the social environment of masculine beer/war-oriented friendship in the Venerable Bede's "Parable of the Sparrow" and "Caedmon's Hymn." Bede compares the mead-hall with "the present state of man on earth," suggesting that we read closely to descriptions of the Hall across the period in order to develop a sense of what material lives and cultural values are allowed to occupy that space. Our list was expansive but included: fire, drink, song, martial friendship, gold, and glory. We asked the question (which will be a mantra for the course) "for who?" is this structure sustained and what happens when you are left outside or cut-off from this cultural norm.

In the story of Caedmon, Bede describes a man with only partial access to the life of the mead-hall because of his inability to participate in all the central activities - namely song. This failure to fulfill the normative labor of Anglo-Saxon masculinity constituted a significant enough disability that night after night when the harp is passed around, Caedmon goes home early. Caedmon's isolation from the community continues until one night, while he is sleeping, an angel visits him. "Sing me frumsceaft," (sing to me of the first Creation) commands the angel. Despite his hesitancy, Caedmon miraculously finds himself composing and singing what is often regarded as one of the first recorded Anglo-Saxon poems. Here we see a context, problem, and resolution suggesting that a central ministry of Christianity is to seek out the marginalized and bring them back into communion with society. What do we make, however, over the insistence that solutions occur on the personal rather than social level? Why "fix" Caedmon by making him like everyone else rather than making room for those without singing talents or inclinations in the mead-hall? What about those who cannot be so easily changed, are they sentenced to perpetuate exile and wandering?

Beowulf Grendel medieval Anglo-Saxon mead hall Herot
Paths on the Margins
(The Wanderer and Deor)

The next week, we examined alternative models of masculinity in the Wanderer and Deor. Together, the elegies complicated the previously established norm of an Anglo-Saxon masculinity centered around mead-halls, warmth, fellowship, gold-giving, drink and song by looking at alternative modes of life offered by the solitary ("anhaga"), sorrowful hearted ("modcearig
"), wandering earth-steppers ("eardstapa"). He is not a singer ("scop"), but keeps his thoughts to himself, in his spirit-chest ("ferðlocan") or mental treasure hoard ("hordcofan"). He does not sit in the warmth of friend and fire, but is a friendless one ("freondleasne") who navigates the ice-cold sea("hrimcealde sæ"). He is not a creature of the firelight, but contemplates those buried in the darkness of the earth ("hrusan heolstre biwrah"). 

Indeed, we learned tactics of expression and argument, as well as learned a great deal about cultural values, from considering both the positive and negative logic of elegy.

Hwær cwom mearg? Hwær cwom mago? --- Where is the horse gone? Where the rider?
Hwær cwom maþþumgyfa? --- Where the giver of treasure?
Hwær cwom symbla gesetu? --- Where are the seats at the feast?
Hwær sindon seledreamas? --- Where are the revels in the hall?
Eala beorht bune! --- Alas for the bright cup! 
Eala byrnwiga! --- Alas for the mailed warrior! 
Eala þeodnes þrym! --- Alas for the splendour of the prince!

Rather than stand firm in the walls of the mead-hall against the ebb and flow of chance, the wanderer is a creature of the seasons, he feels emotions (sorrow and care) pass over him again and again like the waves of the sea ("Cearo bið geniwad" and "Sorg bið geniwad"). This same repetition of care and grief is also present in Deor. As in this list of lost treasures (informing our sense of norm and their alternatives), Deor presents a series of scenes of loss. Each scene ends with the assertion, "that passed away, so may this" or "that was overcome, so may this be" ("Þæs ofereode, þisses swa mæg"). The Wanderer and Deor may be contrarians, defining themselves by loss or alienation, but exhibit a flexibility that allows them to persevere through tragedy. The Mead-Hall may pass away, like the verse of a hymn, but if one learns to ride the waves of the sea and of song, care and grief may pass or be overcome in turn.

Beowulf Grendel medieval Anglo-Saxon mead hall Herot
Battles at the Threshold

While the Mead-Hall and the Wanderer seem to occupy different physical and cultural spaces, these antithetical forms of embodiment come into contact and conflict in the monster battles of Beowulf. Not surprisingly, these encounters occur at the thresholds ("recedes múþan") or cross the thresholds of competing social spaces. We saw the narrative synthesis of these alternatives play out in the battles between Beowulf, Grendel and Grendel's Mother. In the first instance, Grender (a semi-solitary marsh-stepper, "mearcstapa," walking the line between earth and sea) crosses into the Mead-Hall to devour the community life that exists there. We learn that Grendel attacks because he cannot abide the drunken singing of the Hall. Then suddenly Grendel meets his match. Another man, who, while fighting on the side of his comrades, the hall, weapons and armor, uses none of them in this fight. Instead, the super-human grip ("mundgripe máran"of one solitary wanderer is grappled by another solitary warrior. These two monstrously powerful figures wrestle each other, at once opposing each other and reflecting each other with uncanny likeness until Grendel is expelled, broken, to die along the margins.

How does genre and gender demand and embody these cultural contacts/conflicts? The tradition of elegy among those living on the margins or in the ruins produces alternative modes of life that embody loss. After Grendel's death, vengeance is sought by his mother. Thus sorrow is renewed in the Meadhall as a result of this cultural contact. This time, in an attempt to eliminate the alternative world, Beowulf becomes the monster at the threshold by crossing into the underwater cave of Grendel's mother ("sé þe wæteregesan"). Contrasting with the maids of the hall, Grendel's mother is a warrior woman full of the violence ("wíggryre wífes") that characterizes Beowulf's masculinity. While Beowulf succeeds in slaughtering Grendel's mother and ending this alternative power-structure from the land around the Mead-Hall, he does so by immersing himself in more solitude, sorrow, and liquid genders. 

While the medieval manuscript offers a variety of ways to read these cultural contacts, in modern versions of these battles, Grendel and Grendel's mother have been adapted to cultural contexts that demand distinct resolutions from the narrative - variously drawing upon associations of disability, racial otherness, queerness, and trans masculinity. Recently,  when Beowulf was adapted into an animated feature, Grendel's monstrosity was psychologized as the abandonment of a disabled bastard son and the mother's powerful physicality was transformed into slender, snake-like seduction when a naked Angelina Jolie was cast in the role. How does the gender of Grendel's mother and the genre of Anglo-Saxon elegy change when Jolie enters into the mix? How does this cross cultural values from a subversive warrior prowess to a dangerous female sexuality? How does Jolie's portrayal of a shape-shifting monster reflect the transformations of gender and genre being enacted within and between manifestations of Beowulf? In important ways, each of these transformations of the text synthesize the conflict between mead-hall and Wanderer in new ways that speak to the cultural anxieties of the audience.

 Beowulf Grendel's Mother Angelina Jolie Naked Sword Sex
Stay tuned for more on gender and genre 
from Introduction to English Lit I
Beowulf Grendel's Mother Angelina Jolie Naked Sword Sex

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