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kottke.org posts about Beowulf

Hear Beowulf & Sir Gawain and the Green Knight read in the original Old and Middle English

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 30, 2018

In this short video, MIT literature professor Arthur Bahr reads brief selections from Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in their original languages, respectively Old English and Middle English. You’ll notice that they sound almost completely like foreign languages. From Open Culture:

After the Viking and Norman invasions, Old English became “the third language in its own country,” notes Luke Mastin at his History of English site. More spoken than written, it “effectively sank to the level of a patois or creole,” with several distinct regional variants. English seemed at one time “in dire peril” of dying out but “showed its resilience once again, and, two hundred years after the Norman Conquest, it was English not French that emerged as the language of England,” though it remained a diffuse collection of dialects.

The entire page on Middle English at the History of English site — “how English went from an obscure German dialect to a global language” — is worth a read.

See also Shakespeare in its original pronunciation.

Seamus Heaney, RIP

posted by Tim Carmody   Aug 30, 2013

Irish poet Seamus Heaney has died at 74. The Guardian has a brief account of his life; The Telegraph grapples more directly with the work There’s also his long, insightful interview with The Paris Review, from 1997.
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“Heaney’s volumes make up two-thirds of the sales of living poets in Britain,” the BBC wrote in 2007, calling him “arguably, the English language’s greatest living bard.”

One of his best-known poems, “Digging,” compares his trade to that of his father and grandfather, who were farmers and cattle-raisers. These are its last two stanzas:

The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.

One of Heaney’s great later achievements was his translation of Beowulf, which I bought and read along with his Selected Poems when I was in college.

Heaney’s take on the Anglo-Saxon most reminds me of the first of Ezra Pound’s Cantos, a weird mix of old epic and contemporary free-verse imagery and meters, a translation of a translation of Homer that begins “And then” and ends “So that:”

When Swinburne died, W.B. Yeats is said to have told his sister, “Now I am King of the Cats.” When Robert Frost died, John Berryman asked, “who’s number one?”

I note this not to pose the question “who’s number one?” now that Heaney has died, but to observe that just as champion boxers and sprinters often have outsized competitive personalities that seem like caricatures compared to other athletes, even among writers, and even when they resist, as Heaney did, being drawn into literary feuds or political debate, great poets are often magnificent and terrible and troubling and glorious and weird.

David Gallagher dings Beowulf for using digital

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 15, 2007

David Gallagher dings Beowulf for using digital actors, resulting in an uncanny valley problem for the movie.

It’s impossible to watch “Beowulf” without sensing that the “actors” are being pushed around by invisible forces, not living and breathing on their own.

I noticed the same thing when I saw the trailer in the theater a few weeks ago. I’m stunned that the filmmakers thought it was OK that the whole thing seems soulless and constantly reminds people that, hey, this is fake, you’re watching a movie! It’s a real testament to Pixar that they’re able to stop short of the uncanny valley (they’re still obviously cartoons) and still imbue their characters with life and emotion (see Anton Ego’s revelation in Ratatouille).

Update: I forgot that Zemeckis and company did the creepy Polar Express as well.