Interview: Seth Lerer
Dragging the Monster out from the Closet:
Beowulf and the English Literary Tradition
An interview with Seth Lerer
by John Smelcer
Seth Lerer is one of the world’s foremost scholars of Medieval and Renaissance studies and Old and Middle English grammar and pronunciation, having studied at Oxford in the Faculty of English shortly after the death of its star faculty member, J. R. R. Tolkien. He is the author of numerous articles and books on the subject, including Inventing English and the award-winning Children’s Literature: A Reader’s History from Aesop to Harry Potter. His The History of the English Language is a popular lecture series produced by The Teaching Company. Professor Lerer has taught at numerous universities, including Princeton and Stanford, where he was the Avalon Foundation Professor. He is currently Dean of Arts and Humanities and Distinguished Professor of Literature at UC-San Diego. John Smelcer, who also studied at Oxford, is the author of numerous books on mythology.
JS: I remember it was 1977, and Elvis had been dead for only a few months. I was an eighth grader in junior high school in Fairbanks, Alaska. I must have been fourteen. One day, after reading some book that bored me to death, the teacher handed out a slender book called Beowulf. Little could I have suspected that the course of my life changed at that moment. Beowulf opened my mind to literature for the first time. Here was an ancient story of epic adventure with strong-armed, sword-wielding heroes, a treasure-hording dragon, dark foreboding castles with even darker halls . . . things that went bump in the night. There was even a terrible, shaggy, torso-and-limb-ripping monster unlike anything I’d ever seen before. I was in love. The story gripped my imagination. Naturally, there was no accompanying Old English text. The story had been rendered into prose only, and I suspect, edited for junior high school readers. Oblivious to its original form and language, I must have read it half a dozen times that year.
SL: I also first read Beowulf in junior high. I had been exiled to the library for some infraction (probably passing love notes in math class), and I pulled a copy off a shelf, attracted by the glittering cover. It was really a children’s edition, but it had amazing illustrations: Grendel strode across the pages, dripping with blood, his skin an electric green. I remembered how the names, even in the dumbed-down prose translation, sounded like incantations: Wealhtheow, Hrothgar, Unferth. The translation also gave the flavor of the Anglo-Saxon, with its short, monosyllabic words and its attempts at alliteration. A few years later, in high school, we read the old Burton Raffel translation, and I then trooped off to the Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh to get a copy of a facing page, Anglo-Saxon/Modern English edition. I sat up nights reading the text aloud, trying to get a feel for the language and the phrasing. I listened to the recording, made in the 1950s, of the Swedish born, Yale Professor Helge Kokeritz, who read selected passages in an accent that crackled like icicles in the sun. In college, I studied Old English, writing an honors thesis on the kenning: the noun metaphorical pattern that was so characteristic of early Germanic poetry. Phrases such as “road of the whale” (for “the sea”), “God’s candle” (for “the sun”), and so on gripped me. I translated passages whole, trying for effect. And then, I did two years of graduate work at Oxford, where I studied with students of J. R. R. Tolkien and learned all the minutiae of the language. I listened to lectures by Oxford dons who still peppered their recitations with reflections on the second world war. I remember an entire hour devoted to the specifics of the arm hold that Beowulf exerted on Grendel. As I learned more and more about the language, my excitement only grew, and I came to realize that the poem is less about heroics and adventure than it is about the words we use to tell the tales. The real hero of the poem, it seemed to me, was the poet himself: the voice of the narrator who tells us all to listen to his words (his opening word, “Hwaet!” really means “What!” or “Listen!” or even “Hey there!”). Scenes that amazed me were those with the “scop,” the poet in the king’s hall who tells stories of creation and adventure. And then there is the moment when Beowulf himself returns to Hygelac’s court, 2000 or so lines into the poem, and retells the story that we’ve all just heard, and adds new details (like Grendel having a monstrous glove) and becomes his own best poet.
JS: I also passed love notes during class. Her name was Clancy. I’ve read Raffel’s translation. Indeed, I wanted to ask you which translation is your favorite. I’m partial to Frederick Rebsamen and Seamus Heaney, who I edited and published in Rosebud fifteen years ago. To me, both scholars did a fine job of adhering to musicality of the poem, the sense of cadence and meter. There is something astonishing about the intensity of the Old English half-line, how its compressed feet and short phrases build drama and tension in a way that is both mesmerizing and even a bit relentless. Do we know if there were musical interludes or caesuras (pauses) in the oral presentation of sagas like this to ease the somewhat muscular onslaught of this verse and let the listener come up for air? I suspect so. Silence is often used to build dramatic moments. Or was this a verse form whose drama had to be leveraged to its fullest to entrance a mead hall audience of its day?
SL: Right now, Heaney’s is my favorite translation. Partly, it’s because he captures the tone and drama. Partly, too, it’s because he has such a brilliant and evocative critical introduction to his work. He reflects on the nature of language in his own childhood, and he calls attention to the way that story-telling is not only about creating a sense of adventure but also about creating a sense of authority, of respect, of power in traditional, family-oriented societies. Scholarly friends of mine respect Heaney, but they think very highly of Roy Liuzza’s translation, too. It’s somewhat more literal and it benefits from a rich philological knowledge by a true professional scholar. What both translations are able to do, however, is create that important sense of suspense that the Old English half-line generates. There’s a lot of scholarly and critical debate about the “musicality” of the Old English poetry: was music used as an accompaniment (for example, a harp of the kind found in the famous Sutton Hoo burial); would music have served as an interlude or break; were the lines themselves sung or chanted in some way? I think it may have been Mozart who said something like, “music is what interrupts silence”; or something to the effect that music exists only in relation to silence — that is, that the meaning of musical phrasing lies in the rests or pauses in the melodic line. I think the same is true of poetry and of early Germanic verse in particular. The rhythms of the poetry ask for pause. Indeed there is a sense that Beowulf itself is a poem that begins with the breaking of silences: Hwaet breaks the silence that precedes it; and, for Grendel in the wilderness, it is the sound of Hrothgar’s celebrations that drives him crazy. In J. R. R. Tolkien’s brilliant phrasing, “Grendel is maddened by the sound of harps.” Words for “silence” are everywhere in the poem, and the drama of the narrative often hinges on having the poet call attention to the silence that precedes a great speech. In a sense, you could say that one of the themes of Beowulf is that what makes us human is sound itself: music, poetry, story-telling. Poetry has meaning because it breaks the silence. At the poem’s end, Beowulf’s fame lives on precisely because others will tell tales of him. The last word of the poem is lof-geornost, “most worthy of praise”.
JS: In the conclusion of “Beowulf and the Critics,” Tolkien says, “[Beowulf] is now itself to us ancient; and yet its maker was telling us of things already old and weighted with regret, and he expended his art in making keen that touch upon the heart which sorrows have that are both poignant and remote. So that if the funeral of Beowulf moved once like an echo of an ancient dirge, it is to us as a memory brought over the hills, an echo of an echo. There is not much poetry in the world that has this effect” (“B” manuscript). Speaking of Grendel . . . for the past four years, I’ve been teaching at Binghamton University in the same department where John Gardner taught medieval literature. As you know, Gardner wrote Grendel, a magnificent recasting of Beowulf from the monster’s point of view. I loved that book from the first pages with the obstinate goat and its hanging balls. It rekindled my love of Beowulf. In the months before he died in a tragic motorcycle accident on his way to campus, Gardner personally encouraged me to study and create literature — advice that I took to heart.
SL: I vividly remember reading Gardner’s Grendel my freshman year in college. It’s a brilliant work of imaginative scholarly fiction. Gardner was one of the most original medievalists of the twentieth century, and his creative work and scholarly production needs to be reassessed.
JS: I agree. Gardner succeeded in making Grendel into a sympathetic character, especially the last words of the dying monster, “Poor Grendel.” In the fall of 1997, Ted Hughes and I co-wrote a poem about Grendel over pints in a pub in Guildford, England. “Beowraven” was written in alternating lines, a line by me followed by a line by Hughes. The poem appeared in, Raven Speaks, a small book of my poetry that Hughes published later that year.
Raven wanted a pet
so he slogged into a fen
fashioned a fanglorious beast
from filth and slime and muck
named it Grendel
stropped its wicked claws and teeth
stroked its mudruckled fur
at Hrothgar’s unwary keep|
& the gorged and grisly creature
with a heap of bones
SL: I love the poem. It reminds me of some of Hughes’s “Crow” poems (with Raven standing in for Crow). Like the best of Hughes, it brings together a sensitivity to the sounds of vernacular English with a sophisticated understanding of literary allusion. So many monosyllables in the poem: pet, fen, beast, teeth, fur, fetch, bones. And then, the lurid polysyllables: “fanglorious” (a brilliant coinage); “mudruckled” (worthy of Hopkins). In fact, one of the great things about it is the way that it makes the word “fetch” sound so much more horrid than it really is: a blend, now resonant, of fen, beast, muck, grisly — all the hard fricatives of fear.
JS: I’ll never forget the fun we had in the pub that night. It was one of those moments you wished would never end. Rosebud’s Editor-in-Chief, Rod Clark, asked me to bring up the question of the prejudice against horror as literature in contemporary American literature. In Beowulf and the Epic Tradition (1961), William Lawrence best encapsulates Beowulf’s plot as “a wonder-tale in which the hero Beowulf puts an end to the ravages of the demon Grendel, who for twelve years has haunted the hall of Hrothgar, King of Denmark, killing and eating Hrothgar’s warriors. Later, Beowulf slays Grendel’s dam and, in old age, he fights against a dragon that has attacked his people” (19). Sword-wielding heroes, mead-halls, monsters and fire-spewing dragons. This is the stuff of the first and longest heroic epic in the English literary tradition, and yet in American literary history (and to a certain degree in England) there is an inherent prejudice against horror and fantasy as being inferior forms of literature. In Europe, for example, there is much more respect for Edgar Allan Poe than there is in the United States. Yet this historical prejudice of much American criticism ignores the fact that some of our greatest English literature is drenched in horror and full of high fantasy. How can we account for this attitude?
SL: Indeed, one of the things that Gardner truly got about early English literature was its fascination with the horrible and the fantastic. I think that part of the long-standing American resistance to the horror and fantastic comes from the Puritan tradition. By this, I don’t mean simply a “puritanical” resistance to certain forms of the imagination. Instead, what I really mean is the double focus on realistic detail and salvational narrative. The English novel begins in crosshairs of that focus: Robinson Crusoe is, as readers have long known, a great Puritan novel, in that it builds its narrative out of a close personal attention to detail. It is this Puritan attention to detail that dovetailed with the legacy of John Locke—a philosophical legacy that focused on attention to particulars and an empirical understanding of knowledge. Ian Watt wrote many years ago, in his landmark book The Rise of the Novel, that what Defoe and Swift and their contemporaries recognized was that “the plot had to be acted out by particular people in particular circumstances, rather than, as had been common in the past, by general human types against a background . . . determined by convention.” What the modern, English-language novel did was displace romance, fantasy, and horror: all genres that drew their power from conventions and types, rather than by particulars. I think the legacy of this eighteenth-century set of ideas lies in the Anglo-American resistance to horror and high fantasy.
JS: But then Tolkien comes along and drags the monsters back out from the closet.
SL: Precisely. It took someone like Tolkien in the 1930s to restore the monsters to the centrality of Beowulf. And it is no accident that Tolkien saw in early English literature in general aspects of fantasy and fairy tale. One of the great moments, for me as a scholar, in Tolkien’s writing is not in his criticism but in his letter of application for the job of Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford. Writing in 1925, he recounts that, while teaching at Leeds University, he was very successful in building enrollments in historical linguistics and medieval studies. “Philology,” he wrote, “indeed, appears to have lost for these students its connotations of terror if not of mystery.” For Tolkien, and for many modern teachers, our job is to make difficult work seem less terrifying than it appears to be. But, as Tolkien well knew, we should not lose sight of the true mystery in literature. If Beowulf does anything to its readers, it should terrify them.
About the interview:
This interview previously appeared in Rosebud. It is reprinted here with permission.