February 04, 2011

Not your average mead hall

The theme at Goat Rope these days is Beowulf, that first surviving Old English epic. If you like this kind of thing, please click on earlier posts. You'll also find links and comments about current events below.

As I mentioned earlier, there are some direct references to the Bible in the poem. Most of these are to early chapters in Genesis. Anglo-Saxons were fascinated with the Cain and Abel story and they liked the parts about giants in the earth and the Great Flood.

There may also be some indirect biblical references. The story of the building of Heorot, the mother of all mead halls by Hrothgar, king of the Spear-Danes, could be an allusion to the tower of Babel story. The whole raiding/pillage/tribute thing was going pretty good for this king:

To Hrothgar was given such glory of war,
such honor of combat, that all his kin
obeyed him gladly till great grew his band
of youthful comrades.

As often happens, powerful rulers like to create architectural monuments to their power. And among the North Sea raiding peoples, any self-respecting lord needed to have a drinking hall where all he could get the band together for drinking and reveling.

(I'd be pretty much down with the program, although I'm not a real mead fan.)

Anyhow, Hrothgar decides to build a truly grand mead hall. As the poem goes,

It came in his mind
to bid his henchmen a hall uprear,
a master mead-house, mightier far
than ever was seen by the sons of earth,
and within it, then, to old and young
he would all allot that the Lord had sent him,
save only the land and the lives of his men.
Wide, I heard, was the work commanded,
for many a tribe this mid-earth round,
to fashion the folkstead. It fell, as he ordered,
in rapid achievement that ready it stood there,
of halls the noblest: Heorot he named it
whose message had might in many a land.

Here he doled out rings and goo-gaws with the best of them, gift giving being the preferred way of ensuring the loyalty of his retainers.

But as often occurs in myths and legends, such ambitious efforts often come to naught. A shadow of doom hangs about the place. It is destined to be the scene of terrible carnage from the monsters and of still worse from family strife.

But that will keep till next time.

THE STATE OF WORKING AMERICA has just been released by the Economic Policy Institute, which has been publishing these every other year or so since 1988. My short summary of the latest edition: not that great.

EXTREME WEATHER. Get used to it. Better yet, do something about climate change.

JOBLESS CLAIMS dropped last week, although not enough to dent the unemployment rate.

WHITHER PROGRESSIVES? Here's what Barbara Ehrenreich suggests. I don't always agree with her but generally find what she has to say to be interesting.


February 03, 2011

To wind and tide

OK. Or Hwaet if you want to get Anglo-Saxon about it. Let it be duly noted that when I pass over to the Great Perhaps, I don't want a fancy funeral. I'll settle for one just like that given to Scyld Scefing, the ruler of the Spear-Danes in the early part of Beowulf.

In lieu of flowers, here's how it should be done, by way of Seamus Heaney's translation. First, take me out to a Viking ship like this:

they shouldered him out to the sea's flood,
the chief they revered who had long ruled them.
A ring-whorled prow rode in the harbour,
ice-clad, outbound, a craft for a prince.
They stretched their beloved lord in his boat,
laid out by the mast, amidships,
the great ring-giver. .

But make sure it's decked out like this:

Far-fetched treasures
were piled upon him, and precious gear
I never heard before of a ship so well furbished
with battle tackle, bladed weapons
and coats of mail.

Then pile it on:

The massed treasure
was loaded on top of him: it would travel far
on out into the ocean's sway.

And deck me out:

They decked his body no less bountifully
with offerings than those first ones did
who cast him away when he was a child
and launched him alone out over the waves.

Then raise a standard and shove me off:

And they set a gold standard up
high above his head and let him drift
to wind and tide, bewailing him
and mourning their loss. No man can tell,
no wise man in hall or weathered veteran
knows for certain who salvaged that load

Any questions?

ON THE AGENDA. WV advocates for survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault highlighted their public policy agenda yesterday. One of these priorities is modernizing unemployment to cover people who have lost employment due to domestic violence, stalking and sexual assault when they are again available for and seeking work.

FOR FOR THOUGHT and for the future.

NOT IF SOME PEOPLE I KNOW CAN HELP IT. It is suggested here that clean energy sources could meet most of our needs by 2050.

SPEAKING OF ENERGY, a draft study by the Department of the Interior on the future of mountaintop removal mining is stirring up predictable controversy here. Here's Ken Ward on the topic in the Gazette and in Coal Tattoo.

THIS COULD REALLY HAPPEN. For your amusement from The Onion.


February 02, 2011

Wrecker of mead-benches

El Cabrero is having fun here with Beowulf lately, although you'll also find links and comments about current events. If you like this kind of thing, check earlier posts.

If one were to make a list of the qualities of a good political leader these days, the ability to wreck the drinking halls of his foes might not make it to the top of the list, but it sure did in the opening lines of Beowulf. That was one of several attributed to an early king of the Spear-Danes.

Just for fun, here are the opening lines in the original Anglo-Saxon:

HWÆT, WE GAR-DEna in geardagum,
þeodcyninga þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon!
oft Scyld Scefing sceaþena þreatum,
monegum mægþum meodosetla ofteah,
egsode eorlas, syððanærest wearð
feasceaft funden; he þæs frofre gebad,
weox under wolcnum weorðmyndum þah,
oð þæt him æghwylc ymbsittendra
ofer hronrade hyran scolde,
gomban gyldan; þæt wæs god cyning!

Did everybody get that?

Seriously, though, it's hard to recognize that as English apart from a few words, although it was just that in second half of the first millennium AD. It still might have been if a certain Norman called William the Bastard didn't become William the Conqueror. The alphabet was a bit different, as you can tell. For example the thing that looks like a weird letter p had a th sound. I haven't got around to figuring out the other ones yet.

Here's Seamus Heaney's version of the same passage:

So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by
and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness.
We have heard of those princes’ heroic campaigns.

There was Shield Sheafson, scourge of many tribes,
a wrecker of mead-benches, rampaging among foes.
This terror of the hall-troops had come far.
A foundling to start with, he would flourish later on
as his powers waxed and his worth was proved.
In the end each clan on the outlying coasts
beyond the whale-road had to yield to him
and begin to pay tribute. That was one good king.

Scourging, wrecking, rampaging, collecting tribute. A "god cyning" (good king) indeed.

(My favorite phrase from the original is "hronrade," which means "whale road," i.e. the sea. I'm thinking about referring henceforth to the muddy river I grew up around as "the carp road.")

SAD BUT PREDICTABLE. Some conservatives are re-writing the narrative of the Great Recession by--you guessed it--blaming the poor.

POST-MASSEY. Will Alpha be any better? Here's Ken Ward's take on it. My guess: it would be hard to be worse.

DOING MORE FOR THE WORKING POOR. Here's a call for a state earned income tax credit.

UNCERTAINTY about Republican efforts to repeal health care reform has left many Americans in a tough spot.

GETTING REAL. Still, West Virginia is getting ready to implement reform (probably). The state insurance commission is proposing creating a state insurance exchange. Meanwhile a major expansion of Medicaid is on the horizon.

FILLING IN THE TRICERATOPS FAMILY TREE. A newly discovered ancestor of the three horned dinosaur weighed in at around 15,000 pounds and had a skull eight feet long.


February 01, 2011

Keenest to win fame

Goat Rope is all about Beowulf these days, although you will also find links and comments about current events. For more, click on earlier posts.

The Beowulf poet and the society he or she (or they) came from knew nothing about Greek tragedy, but it doesn't take much looking to find some tragic themes there. For many people, especially those influenced by Aristotle, tragic art involves a noble character brought low by some flaw or mistake of lack of insight. That kind of works for Beowulf, although the flaw in question is as much a part of the society it came from as it was of the hero.

Beowulf as a young man was all about winning fame. Hence, the trip to the land of the Danes to kill the monster Grendel. Before all that,

...He had been poorly regarded
for a long time, was taken by the Geats
for less than he was worth: and their lord too
had never much esteemed him in the mead-hall.
They firmly believed that he lacked force,
that the prince was a weakling; but presently
every affront to his deserving was reversed.

He got fame alright, but never quite lost the thirst for it. He eventually became king and ruled well over the Geats for fifty years until someone stirred up the wrath of a dragon, which he vowed to kill single handedly. As the last lines of the poem go,

They said that of all the kings upon the earth
he was the most gracious and fair-minded,
kindest to his people and keenest to win fame.

You could say that the tragic flaw of Beowulf was the conflict between the first part of the sentence and the last four words. Had he been less keen to win fame, he would have delegated the dragon slaying to younger men and continued to rule justly over the Geats and kept them in safety. Instead, he died in the effort, leaving his people to the nasty fate anticipated by a grieving woman, who

...sang out in grief;
with hair bound up, she unburdened herself
of her worst fears, a wild litany
of nightmare and lament: her nation invaded,
enemies on the rampage, bodies in piles,
slavery and abasement.

As Dylan pointed out in a song, sometimes it's either fortune or fame, though neither are what they claim. Beowulf chose fame. I think I prefer fortune.

HOLY JUDICIAL ACTIVISM, BATMAN! A federal judge in Florida may have been overly caffinated (or something) when he ruled on the constitutionality of health care reform.

THINGS THEY DON'T TELL YOU ABOUT CAPITALISM. Here's an excerpt from a new book about that topic.

OF WRITERS, RELIGION, EXILE, POLITICS AND SUCH. Here's the latest edition of the Rev. Jim Lewis' Notes from Under the Fig Tree.

BRICKS WITHOUT STRAW. If memory serves, a labor dispute in Egypt a few thousand years ago led by an agitator named Moses kicked up some dust. Here's an item from the AFLCIO blog on the role of Egyptian unions in the struggle for reform.

CORPORATIONS AND THE COMMONS. This entrepreneur calls for a balance between the two.


January 31, 2011


The theme at Goat Rope these days is Beowulf, although you'll also find links and comments about current events below. The title of this post comes from the first word of the poem in old Anglo-Saxon (although the a and e were joined together in the original). The word means something like Listen, or Behold, or Hear this! Seamus Heaney's translation renders it as So.

It's a way of saying, "The show is about to start." And it is quite a show. Heaney calls the poem "a work of the greatest imaginative vitality, a masterpiece where the structuring of the tale is as elaborate as the beautiful contrivances of its language."

If I had to say what it was about, aside from the whole monster and dragon killing thing, I'd have to say it was about aging and how those glory days that Bruce Springsteen sang about pass you by. In the beginning of the poem, Beowulf is a young man eager to gain fame and a name for himself by killing the monster that haunts the hall of the Spear Dane king Hrothgar. He goes home to Geatland and eventually becomes king, ruling justly for 50 years.

In his old age, when a dragon threatens his realm, he determines to fight it alone, as if it see if he's still got it in him:

"I risked my life
often when I was young. Now I am old,
but as king of the people I shall pursue this fight
for the glory of winning, if the evil one will only
abandon his earth-fort and face me in the open."

He reminds me a bit of Tennyson's Ulysses, who decides in old age to hit the whale road again:

Tho' much is taken, much abides; and tho'
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

He does pretty good, but it doesn't turn out too well for the king, the kingdom or the dragon.

BIG NEWS. It looks like Alpha Natural Resources is about to buy Massey Energy, which continues to dispute MSHA's version of the Upper Big Branch mine disaster. For more, click here. It will be interesting to see what changes--and what doesn't.

SEVEN SOCIAL SINS. Here's an op-ed from the Gazette by Perry Mann on some problems as identified by Gandhi.

DODGING THE ISSUE. Most high school science teachers avoid taking a strong stand on teaching evolution in biology classes.