Saturday, January 26, 2008

The Alien Culture of Beowulf

I just finished reading an interesting novel, The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell. It's technically sci-fi, I suppose, since it deals with the idea of first contact with an alien culture, but Russell is an anthropologist by training, so she's less interested in questions of technology than in how we understand cultures markedly different from our own. I won't spoil the book for anyone who might want to read it (or see the film version currently in development), but I will say this: we fail. The main characters in the novel drastically misunderstand the alien culture, with disastrous results. One line in the novel has had me thinking for the last twenty-four hours or so. The sole survivor of the mission to the alien world says, when questioned about what happened:
"We had all the information, really. It was all there. We just didn't understand. I think perhaps that even if we had been told directly, we would not have understood."

It occurs to me that this is the problem we face when trying to understand the literature and culture of a group of people, like the Anglo-Saxons, with whom we share very little, in the way of either material trappings or basic cultural assumptions. I mean it's all fine and good to study Anglo-Saxon history, look at documents, and try, really try, to figure out who they were and where they came from (psychologically speaking), but I think we have to admit that, despite all of the work done in Anglo-Saxon studies in the past couple of centuries, we still have lots of problems understanding a work like Beowulf.

The Beowulf-Unferth exchange serves as an example. Last week I read an article by Britt Mize in the most recent JEGP on the various ways the mind is represented as a container in A-S poetry. He cites lines from the "flyting" scene that contain examples of this metaphor and then argues that the poet is criticizing Unferth in the way he refers to the contents of Unferth's mind. The argument is interesting and well-made. In the footnotes, Mize briefly discusses some of the different takes on the scene, which made me think about the recent film version of Beowulf and how negatively I reacted to the film's portrayal of this scene, simply because it didn't really jibe with the way I had come to understand both the scene and Unferth's role in the poem. But my ultimate reaction to Mize's point here was different. All I could think was, "We've been poring over every syllable of this poem, and looking at all of the historical/documentary evidence we can find, for more than a hundred years, and we still don't even understand whether we're supposed to like Unferth or not."

It was a sobering thought. What chance do we have of ever truly understanding the literary products of a culture so different from our own? Maybe the producers of films like Zemeckis's Beowulf have the right answers. Maybe we should just think about the poem in early-21st-century terms and be done with it. I know many of my students would prefer this approach. They want to know what this poem has to do with their own world, by which they mean, "Why should we ahve to read this old crap?" Administrators and educational theorists are always telling me that we need to find the relevance in what we teach for our students. I usually resist this notion, arguing that we read Beowulf to understand the past, not to understand the present. But what if the past is unknowable, even in the most basic terms?

I know I'm not saying anything new here, and it isn't the first time the thought has occurred to me. But it has made me think. The protagonist of Russell's novel returns to earth a destroyed man. But today, I'm going to the library to pick up the sequel, in which he goes back to the alien world (albeit against his will). Maybe I'll feel better after reading it.

1 comment:

Tiffany said...

this was a very intresting blog.