The History, Preservation, and Conservation of the Beowulf Text in the Cotton MS Vitellius A xv

Introduction and Story Content   

Beowulf is the foundational text in the English literary canon. It is the only epic in Old English and has been used as a source for a large portion of our vocabulary and understanding of Old English and Anglo-Saxon England. Nobody knows for certain when the poem was originally composed in an oral tradition and by whom but the manuscript itself has been dated around the year 1000 A.D. There is a large scholarly debate as to whether the manuscript was written in the early part of the 11th century or late part of the 10th century so the compromise agreement settled on 1000. The scholars who have tried to situate the oral poem itself based on syntax, word usage, vocabulary, and references to clans, people, and events include J.R.R. Tolkien who situated the origins in the year 700, about three hundred years prior to it being set in text. Since then several scholars have verified and defended Tolkien’s stance.[1]

The story of Beowulf contains 3182 lines and is divided into three almost equal parts, identified by the various ‘monsters’ the protagonists must face. Beowulf, a prince of the Geats, hears of his neighbour Hrothgar’s troubles. Hrothgar resides in his Kingdom of the Danes as the poem introduces itself “wē Gār-Dena” literally translated as “we, the Spear-Danes.”[2] Hrothgar’s mead hall is terrorized by a monster named Grendel repeatedly. No man had been strong enough to face the monster and defeat him. The Geats (OE: gēatas) would be what is now South Sweden and was at the time a North Germanic Tribe, and the Danes (OE: danēs) were where Denmark is now. What is curious is that the first English epic and the first English hero is from Sweden, especially since the Viking Raids were detrimental to English monasteries, manuscripts, and culture. Although the Vikings were Nordic military and their attacks happened between the oral tradition of the poem and its immortalization in text, it is still interesting given these relations that the first English hero, is not English.

Beowulf defeats Grendel and there is much rejoicing, after which Grendel’s mother seeks revenge on Beowulf and Hrothgar for killing her son. The idea of avenging was a widely accepted concept in Anglo-Saxon England, and many argue that Grendel’s mother is not so monstrous and uncivilized, because what she seeks is quite noble by Anglo-Saxon standards. Beowulf defeats her as well after which he departs and returns to Geat-land. Years go by, and near the end of his life Beowulf must face a dragon who has been guarding a treasure-hoard. In the process of defending his people and defeating the Dragon, Beowulf dies. The poem is concluded with a funeral service. There have been parallels drawn between the funeral mentioned in Beowulf and burial ship found at Sutton Hoo in England near Woodbridge, Suffolk.[3]

In terms of content one may be able to see parallels between Beowulf and the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, particularly the dragon Smaug who is also sitting on a treasure-hoard in The Hobbit. Tolkien was not only one of the biggest Beowulf fans he was one of the few to make it canon. According to his biographers, when Tolkien gave a lecture on Beowulf in front of a large group of scholars:

“Tolkien’s argument changed forever the landscape of Beowulf scholarship. He said what everyone wanted to hear but no one had mustered the courage to say: that Beowulf was a great poem, a joy to read, a masterpiece of mythopoeic art.”[4]

Tolkien brought Beowulf into scholarship studies by being highly influential, and yet his greatest contribution was brining Beowulf into mainstream culture. Due to the large success of Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion, and The Hobbit, Fantasy as a genre began to grow with a formula: landscape (maps), new language, and dragons were almost always present. The Elvish language Tolkien created was heavily influenced by Old English, and so, fans would work their way backwards and find their way to Beowulf.  From my personal experience, as I was sitting in an undergraduate class of Old English, I noted that a large group of the class was sitting there because of their love for Tolkien (as they mentioned it outright).

Manuscript

As mentioned earlier, the manuscript containing the written text of Beowulf was written around the year 1000. According the British Library

“we do know that the manuscript was produced by two scribes, working in collaboration, but whose handwriting suggests that they were trained at different times, and were significantly different in age. The first scribe copied the texts at the beginning of the book, together with the opening part of Beowulf itself. His counterpart, clearly working at the same time and place, took over the middle of a line, and brought Beowulf to its conclusion, besides adding Judith. To judge by his hand writing, the second scribe was trained late in the tenth century; the first, in contrast, writes a script more typical of the period after 1000. The most likely time for them to have collaborated in the early decades of the eleventh century, possibly during the reign of Æthelred the Unread (978-1016), when England was subjected to waves of Danish attacks.”[5]

The script itself is insular writing and a clear result of communal collaboration. Such scribes (monks) would evidently be in a monastery. The manuscript’s place of origin is also uncertain but the poem’s language is “Late West Saxon, but preserving earlier dialectical forms.”[6] Given that we have no other proof in writing, academics have speculated and agreed that this manuscript remained in a monkish community until King Henry VIII had the religious revolt and reform across England.

Patronage

The first person to write a name within this manuscript is Laurence Nowell (d.c.1570). Kevin Kiernan argues that Nowell most likely acquired it thorough William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley, in 1563, when Nowell entered Cecil’s household as a tutor to his ward, Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford.[7] Nowell himself was a pioneer in Anglo-Saxon studies, and his signature on the opening leaf of this manuscript is on its opening leaf, dated 1563.[8]

digi

Figure 1 The Laurence Nowell Inscription on ff 94 recto. Image taken from the Digitized Manuscript at the British Library Website

The inscription is not on the incipit page of Beowulf because the Beowulf manuscript is part of a larger collection within the “Nowell Codex.” Rather, the inscription is on the first page of the Homily on St. Christopher.

Soon after, the manuscript found its way to Sir. Robert Cotton (d. 1631). Cotton was a politician, and a collector of manuscripts, as well as printed books and other antiquities. Cotton’s method of organizing his large collection was based on various shelves having the bust of a Roman Emperor on it placing this codex under Emperor Vitellius’s. Cotton however, had a habit of binding together manuscripts and works that had unrelated origins. He pieced together the Nowell Codex to the Southwick Codex into one larger, leather-bound codex known as Cotton Vitellius A XV. In an essay titled “Thomas Smith, Humfrey Wanley, and the ‘Little-Known Country’ of the Cotton Library” Eileen Joy wrote about the cataloguing of the Cotton Library. After Cotton passed away, Reverant Thomas Smith (1638-1710) and Humfrey Wanley (1672-1726) were hired to catalogue his library. According to Joy:

“The Beowulf manuscript itself was identified by name for the first time in an exchange of letters in 1700 between George Hickes, Wanley’s assistant, and Wanley. In the letter to Wanley, Hicks responds to an apparent charge against Smith, made by Wanley, that Smith had failed to mention the Beowulf script when cataloguing Cotton MS. Vitellius A. XV. Hickes replies to Wanley ‘I can find nothing yet on Beowulph.’”[9]

The theory that Kiernan has on the matter is that Smith failed to mention the Beowulf manuscript because of his reliance on previous catalogues, or because he had no idea how to describe it, or because it was temporarily out of the codex.[10]

pic two

Figure 2 Index. Vitellius A. XV has five separate components which can be tabulated as follow. Number 7 is Beowulf which is missing yet was added in pencil later on

Cotton however, hired a ‘librarian’ named Richard James (d.1638) to write an index at the beginning of the two combined codices. He seemed to have dismembered the Psalter for use as binding-leaves in 1612 and sewn the two codices, Southwick, and Nowell together. In an attempt to make sense of what is in in it he pasted a parchment page at the very front with a legend/index.The final product of what was in the codex is as follows, according to the British Library:

 

“This manuscript contains four separate items, bound together for Sir Robert Cotton (d. 1631):(i) f 1: Psalter leaf (now removed to form London, British Library, MS Royal 13 D I*, f 37); (ii) f 3: Medieval endleaf, containing historical memoranda; (iii) ff 4–93: Augustine of Hippo, Soliloquia (ff 4r–59v: imperfect); Gospel of Nicodemus (ff 60r–86v: imperfect); Debate of Saturn and Solomon (ff 86v–93v); homily on St Quintin (f 93v: imperfect); (iv) ff 94–209: Homily on St Christopher (ff 94r–98r: imperfect); Marvels of the East (ff 98v–106v); Letter of Alexander to Aristotle (ff 107r–131v); Beowulf (ff 132r–201v); Judith (ff 202r–209v: imperfect). f 2 is a 17th-century Cottonian endleaf.”[11]

wee

Figure 3 Visual of what the two separate codices contain (now sewn as one)

Because Robert Cotton would ‘catalogue’ his manuscripts by means of which Roman Emperor’s bust would be above it, this manuscript, sewn together, happened to be under Emperor Vitellius. Thus it being 15th on the first A shelf, it is known and still labelled to this day as “Cotton, Vitellius MS A. XV.” Sometimes in papers when scholars refer to Beowulf alone they may bring up the Nowell Codex as its own entity and discuss it as such. The British Library however, knows it by the Vitellius name and that is how it is catalogued.

The leaf detached from a fourteenth-century English Psalter (f.1), was reunited in 1913 with other parts of the same volume, the early modern contents-page (f2.), as mentioned before was written by Cotton’s ‘librarian,’ and a late-medieval English endleaf (f3) containing historical memoranda in Latin and Anglo-Norman French.[12]

After Cotton passed away, his son, and then grandson inherited it, but by 1702 the Beowulf-manuscript, was given to the nation and eventually moved to Ashburnham House at Westminster. This particular manuscript was there almost untouched or studied and was left of it. In time some parts deteriorated, as mentioned, it was bound in leather and the pages were parchment so it was susceptible to pests and mould. It had survived about 700 years thus far, and on October 23 of 1731 there was a massive fire where hundreds of manuscripts were severly damaged either by fire or water and thirteen of them were completely destroyed. The collection was moved to the British Museum in 1753. But the manuscript remained in its original biding, and mothering was done to stop the dry, brittle pages from disintegrating.[13] In about 1786, about 50 years after the fire, Danish scholar Grimur Jonsson Thorkelin came to the Museum, looking for documents relating to Denmark. He made two complete copies of the manuscript (the first time ever a copy was made), one by a professional copyist and the other by himself.

Torkelin returned to Copenhagen which was then bombed in 1807 by the British (Napoleonic Wars). Thorkelin’s house burned, but the two transcripts were saved. This aided Thorkelin in producing the first printed edition of Beowulf in 1815. Over time, the original manuscript back in England, was severely deteriorating. Keeping in mind that no one was tending to it, and it had recently survived a fire. The margins and even some of the text itself gradually crumbled.

Because Thorkelin brought Beowulf to light, in 1833 there were preparations for the first (modern English translation) English edition of Beowulf so the manuscript was brought up for examination when for the first time curators noticed that the neglected manuscript was in critical condition. Luckily, Thorkelin’s transcription of the manuscript helped us piece the missing text together. In 1845, the British Museum took steps to preserve what remained. The manuscript’s restoration is owed to Sir Frederic Madden (d.1873), keeper of manuscripts at the British Museum, and Henry Gough, who rebound its leaves in 1845.[14] They mounted each leaf on a paper frame and the manuscript was rebound. The tape still obscured some of the letters as you can see in both figures one and two above. The translation used frequently before more translations appeared was that of William Morris associated with the Arts and Crafts Movement, and A.J. Wyatt, published it in 1895 as The Tale of Beowulf, Sometime King of the Folk of the Weder Geats.[15]

After that the text came to surface, more translations were in the making. Some would directly translated, as others tried to maintain meter, and rhythm. Others would try to make poetic renditions. In time, Tolkien and the Beowulf/Anglo-Saxon scholarship had grown into what was discussed in the introduction. The 20th century was a renaissance for Beowulf and it was immediately incorporated in the English curriculum.

In 1973 the British Library took hold of the manuscript, where it remains today. I was assured in an email from the British Library that:

“[the Beowulf Manuscript] is regularly displayed in our Sir John Ritblat Gallery: Treasures of the British Library, under controlled temperature and light conditions. The amount of time it can spend on display is carefully regulated, and it is frequently removed for periods of rest.” [16]

I asked the British Library if the manuscript has gone any treatments in terms of conservation, particularly in the times it is not on display. The response I received was:

“Dear Andreea, I asked the curator responsible for the Beowulf MS (Cotton MS Vitellius A XV) and he replied as follows: I’m not aware of any information we hold about the conservation of the Beowulf manuscript and this hasn’t happened since I’ve been at the BL (about 10 years).”[17]

Post-Thorkelin bibliographers and scholars such as Sir Frederick Madden and John Josias Conybeare contributed to the production of study-worthy manuscripts of Beowulf by creating their own transcriptions and collations.[18] Equally as significant were the many translations of Beowulf that have been surfacing. While some maintained direct translation, others like the Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney, tried to adapt it in a poetic style to resemble a folk/poetic song. Many people have translated and published their translations of Beowulf, Heaney’s being the most recently famous. Tolkien himself had translated Beowulf and his son Christopher recently published in 2016, Tolkien’s translation.  It being in the public domain, and widely studied, the amount of scholarship on content, language, syntax, history, and literary analysis, as well as existing translations are countless. This phenomenon is not included in the manuscript’s history, but the content is now immortalized.

Digitization

In 1984 however, scholar Kevin Kiernan—who had been writing on the manuscript and the dating of it for years—had new plans for the manuscript. One may have noticed that I have myself cited him a great deal. His studies on the patronage, history, and dating of Beowulf has been unmatched by any other in the field. Because the field in scholarship had grown immensely, many students and scholars wanted to handle the manuscript and study it. But there is only one of it and in 1000 years had survived so much that it still remains in a delicate condition. Kiernan wanted to satisfy both: preserve the manuscript by keeping it away from people touching it, and making it widely available for everyone to use for study. He began preparations for a digitization project which finished only four years ago, in 2013. The digitized project is a collaborative work between the British Library and the University of Kentucky, created by its editor Kevin Kiernan and its Romanian software engineer Ionut Emil Iacob. The 4.0 version of the digitized project (the one currently live) has been created using JavaScript.

Beowulf had to be digitized for the sake of its preservation but also for creating an easier access to Anglo-Saxon Historians, Old English Students/Professors, Medievalists from institutions such as Kalamazoo Michigan and even UofT’s contributors to the Dictionary of Old English. Kiernan wrote an article in 1984 describing what his aspirations would be for the Manuscript—prior to the existence of JavaScript—which resembles what the final project in 2015 ended up as. He wrote in 1984: “Soon it may be expedient for the British Library to attempt to provide a safer method of preserving the manuscripts….textual scholars would be able to see without fibre optic light the hundreds of readings that are now hidden by paper frames.”[19]

digi1digi2

Kiernan did not digitize only the original Beowulf, he also digitized Thorkelin’s two transcriptions as well as Conybeare’s and Madden’s. The beauty of Beowulf’s digital form is that one may look at the copy of the medieval manuscript alongside Thorkelin’s transcription and interact with the digital transcription simultaneously using it as a study aid in translation for content, but also in the study of bibliography. By comparing variations in the different copies and through different lighting Kiernan observed for instance how Nowell or a post-medieval forger may have tried to ‘freshen up’ some of the writing as it is visible through the layers of ink on the palimpsest. Kiernan preserves and shows in his digitization project all the details revealing the long history mentioned above of the manuscript’s provenance—such as script, inscriptions, etc.

In addition to the facsimile-like scans of each transcript, the manuscript, and variations in writing, the website contains metadata. There are glossaries, indication of recto and verso, bright light digitizations (and in response to ultraviolet) to give the student the full bibliographic experience without missing a single detail. Kiernan’s intended audience for this work of art is not necessarily the English student as it does not include various translations of Beowulf such as

Seamus Heaney’s or even Conybeare’s. Kiernan includes only the raw materials (including access to an Old-English translation) to give the student a similar experience to interacting with the primary sources only. In the website including the digitization project, particularly in the acknowledgements section Kiernan attached a presentation titled “Electronic Beowulf Archives, 1993-1997” where Kiernan writes:

“The equipment we are using to capture the images is the Roche/Kontron ProgRes 3012 digital camera, which can scan any text, from a letter or a word to an entire page, at 2000 x 3000 pixels in 24-bit color. The resulting images at this maximum resolution are enormous, about 21-25 MB, and tax the capabilities of the biggest machines. Three or four images – three or four letters or words if that is what we are scanning – will fill up an 88 MB hard disk, and we have found that no single image of this size can be processed in real time without at least 64 MB of RAM.”[20]

In the same spirit he marks that the backup files and images were saved on banded microfilm by the University of Kentucky in storage.

The Digitization project of the Beowulf epic is only small portion of an approximate thousand years of preservation and scholarship in relation to its existence as print culture and as text. The set-up of the digital form of Beowulf forces the contemporary student to understand the manuscript’s provenance and history in order to navigate the website. In its set up a student may view different ‘versions’ of Beowulf and collate and compare them alongside a transcription, and various guiding aids for translation from Old English. In addition there an option to see the palimpsest through bright light and in response to ultraviolet.

Digital Afterlives

As a bibliographer and person keenly interested in the material and print culture of a manuscript I was convinced that the story of the Beowulf manuscript has ended in Digitization. However, in a moment of inspiration I decided to experiment by reverse google-image sourcing the incipit page of Beowulf. The first page is most famous and the first word is as contested as its dating. I’ve personally read several papers inquiring whether “Hwaet!” the first word on the incipit of Beowulf means: ‘Lo!’ ‘Listen,’ ‘Hear,’ ‘pay attention,’ or other possible interpretations. I took this first page and reversed it online. I wanted to see in what ways has the Beowulf manuscript, as it exists today has been appropriated online. My findings resulted in something else which was: readerships. By tracing the first page alone I could find what kind of people use Beowulf and for what purposes. Something that could not be traced in a pre-digital era, now can be. I found the page had been used in settling debates on what Old English looks like on websites and social media. In addition the page had been used on many blogs on literature.

There was a 2010 version of Kindle using it as a screen saver, it was used commercially in a poster sale, among blogs (some personal including headings such as ‘works which inspire me’), Buzzfeed quizzes such as “who were you in a past life.” The digital traces of Beowulf indicate a lot more than its existence as a form of ‘digital print culture’ as it also contextualizes the ways by which readers use it. The readership and usage of Beowulf give a better understanding to what people know of Beowulf, or the misconceptions around it, including traces of its digital format. Although the links to Tolkien and public academic forums were traceable in this experiment, private academic databases like OMEKA for instance do not show in a google image reverse search or other privately-set blogs/or journals. Thus, Beowulf’s digital afterlives might be even more detailed and vast than its many ownerships prior to digitization. I hope that future scholars will consider exploring the present usage of the ‘Beowulf manuscript’ in contemporary media and find the ways in which it has been used, read, or interpreted.

The reverse-image search is a pure manuscript study, whereas in terms of text there is a lot more online. The text opens up opportunity for hypertext as in: one clicks on a word and finds translations of it or a link to an explanation of what that person did, what the historical event was, and so on. One link leading to another, one page nested in another.

Footnotes/References: 

[1] Beowulf Treasures in Focus. The British Library Board: London. 2009. Print. pp.1-23.
[2] Beowulf, Line 1
[3] Beowulf Treasures in Focus. The British Library Board: London. 2009. Print. pp.15.
[4] Zaleski, Philip, and Carol Zaleski. 2015. The fellowship: the literary lives of the Inklings: J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams.
[5] Beowulf Treasures in Focus. The British Library Board: London. 2009. Prin
[6] Ibid.
[7] Kiernan, Kevin S. 1981. Beowulf and the Beowulf manuscript. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press.
[8] Beowulf Treasures in Focus. The British Library Board: London. 2009. Print. pp 7.
[9] Joy, Elieen. Thomas Smith, Humfrey Wanley, and the ‘Little-Known Country’ of the Cotton Library”
[10] Kiernan, Kevin S. 1981. Beowulf and the Beowulf manuscript. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press.
[11] “Digitised Manuscripts.” 2017. Accessed March 26. http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=cotton_ms_vitellius_a_xv.
[12] Beowulf Treasures in Focus. The British Library Board: London. 2009. Print. pp.1-23.
[13] Prescott, Andrew. “Their Present Miserable State of Cremation: The Restoration of the Cotton Library.” Sir Robert Cotton as Collector: Essays on an Early Courtier and His Legacy. (1997).
[14] Beowulf Treasures in Focus. The British Library Board: London. 2009. Print. pp.1-23.
[15] Ibid
[16] Stansell, Zoe. “Library Question Answer On Behalf Of Mss@Bl.Uk”. 2017. E-mail.
[17] Ibid.
[18] Kiernan, Kevin. “Madden, Thorkelin and MS Vitellius/Vespasian A XV” Library 8, no. 2 (1986): 127-132.
[19] Kiernan, Kevin. “The State of the Beowulf Manuscript 1882-1983.” Anglo-Saxon England 13 (1984): 23-42
“Electronic Beowulf Archives, 1993-1997.” 2019. Accessed March 20 http://www.uky.edu/~kiernan/eBeo_archives/

The Girl Aquarium | Poetry Review

“Smash this circus to the ground. Howl fiercely at the moon”

39776212Jen Campbell’s The Girl Aquarium has a very distinct poetic voice. It’s like entering a dream where all the fairy tales, folktales, magical creatures, and children’s stories are participating in the same circus. The term Robert Lowell used when introducing Plath’s Ariel was ‘a controlled hallucination’ and it’s the same term that first came to my mind when reading Campbell’s collection. In addition to the beautiful imagery, there are insights to the inner world of womanhood: perceived by the male gaze tapping on the glass of female aquariums whilst simultaneously containing overlooked multitudes. The corporeal existence of womanhood divorced from all the potential, feeling, and depth. There are limbs severed and scattered all over this collection, and a great focus is placed on movement and performance. In “The woman’s private Looking-glass” the poetic voice urges us to “smash this circus to the ground” and to “howl fiercely at the moon.”

This collection plays with form, it is cohesive and well-edited, and acts as social criticism in the disguise of a dance with words. There’s fluidity and movement not only in the form of the poems but in their content. I will try to focus on one component of all I’ve described. The distinction between how a woman is perceived versus her inner world(s). In “Luminiferous Aether” the poetic voice narrates:

“…there are limbs reaching out / for the Peter Pan collars of speechless girls. / They wait in skin that is not their own. / In the dark they forget the names / of each others’ mothers…in fractured handbags they carry/ knitted souls. They Stretch themselves…..their poor/scarred heads. They know too many things now.”

There is so much to unpack in this single poem. Young girls forced to grow up so soon, to stretch themselves out in skins not of their own and fit a mould of something they have not chosen. To forget that they too need care and protection and are just as lost as the boys. To know so much and be unable to break out of the corporeal prison. No matter what you say or do, you will never be perceived as anything more than something to be admired in your tight claustrophobic aquarium. We are reminded of this gaze throughout. For instance in “The Exorcism of the North Sea” aside from the voices of the past, the ‘ghost birds,’ the grandeur and splendor of the sea and nature, our head is forcibly turned to look at the reality beyond the sublime:

“….we are snow globes…young boys peer…girls in bathing suits. We stretch out our carol sheets and hum like bees.”

In the poem “The Girl Aquarium” the poetic voice shows the dual nature of being both forced to perform, whilst made to feel guilty for actively participating. Craving care and attention, whilst simultaneously being trapped into being perceived differently from who you are and lacking the deeply desired human experiences:

“Labelled doors, interactive exhibits….girls with extra limbs. They scuttle into corners, pretend they’re shy. …hashtag girls….hashtag nothing you’ve ever seen before in your tiny little life….a teenage boy bangs the window, gives them the finger. / The girls rush forward, lips open, kissing the glass…All the better to see you with”

Contrast this poem with “Movement”

“On the bus home, I think of all the constellations / hiding under my skin. / I think of the word vein / and decide I don’t like it. / I think of you and how – maybe / you flit and fit / within a different galaxy. / I write in my notebook in code / and think about gravity. / I think that maybe we’re both lost / in the skins of human planets.”

Presented with constellations and infinite worlds beneath the skin whilst reminded that you will only be seen only for the stretched out, dried, and manufactured covering on the outside. There are no words.

I loved this collection so much. I allowed myself to be amazed and immersed in the experience upon my first reading and so many lines and ideas kept coming back to me the following days. I couldn’t stop thinking about this collection, and I had to go back several times to unpack and interpret. When I tried to decide what I thought of it as a whole I asked myself if there was anything I would have subtracted or added to improve it, and nothing came to mind. The collection is mesmerizing, cohesive, and superbly edited. I highly recommend this collection to those who love poetry, magical realism, and fairy tales, and those looking to try a distinct voice in contemporary poetry.

I received an advanced reader copy for review from Bloodaxe Books. The book is available for pre-order and more information can be found on Campbell’s website. Jen Campbell is a towering figure on Booktube, a great podcast host, a poet, and an award-winning author of nonfiction, children’s books, and humour books.

The Very Best of Caitlín R. Kiernan

“What she gives us is something more subtle and strangely ephemeral. In a way, her best stories are acts of haunting” – Richard Kadrey, Introduction.

39720095The Very Best of Caitlín R. Kiernan was not my introduction to Kiernan, as I have encountered one of her short stories in the Unicorn Anthology, and I simply devoured her novel The Drowning Girl. She’s an incredible writer, one whom I greatly admire for her dark atmosphere and unique fantastical cosmic horror. This collection includes some of her best short works over the years ranging from 2005-present day. As readers we get glimpses into Kiernan’s growth as an author in the last fourteen years witnessing different styles and plots. Most of these short works have been either published independently in SFF magazines, or anthologized thematically, but here her strongest short works have been collected under one name. Kiernan has received the James Tiptree, Jr. and Bram Stoker Awards in the past, and is an author whose work I would recommend you explore.

Kiernan’s style of writing is not very traditional and her use of language is dark, disturbing, and grotesque, while simultaneously drawing you in and holding your attention. The reading equivalent of: ‘I can’t look away.’ Like in The Drowning Girl here too we find that water and fluidity is a reoccurring symbol in Kiernan’s works. I found that her stories managed to incorporate different arts in the mix, specifically film which was a very interesting take. For instance, “The Prayer of Ninety Cats” tells the story of a movie critic watching a film about Elizabeth Báthory, the Blood Countess weaving in the various arts, film, theory, and historical figures. Such interconnected plot-lines will be found in most of these stories. You will find twins killing people, a unique take on the unicorn, a science journalist investigating lighting strikes and finding the unexpected, art critics interviewing models of famous paintings, art exhibitions, and violins made of human remains. You will find a different fictional take on the “dysfunctional family” (and that is putting it mildly), and pays homage to Sci-fi classics with the incorporation of  non-responsive abandoned ships. And as I mentioned, this collection covers a lot of ground: you will find a bit of everything in this book. What is truly intriguing and captivating in Kiernan’s work is her atmosphere and writing style. I will warn readers, however, that aside from the grotesque, there are many instances of swearing in this work (it did not interfere with my personal reading experience). It’s a thrilleresque experience, rough around the edges.

This collection is not for everyone, and that’s okay. Kiernan writes in a dark niche corner of literature, and I think she directs her writings at a very specific kind of audience. I would recommend this collection to you if you enjoy the works of: Shirley Jackson, Victor Lavalle, Nick Mamatas, Angela Carter, David Lynch, H.P. Lovecraft, or Cosmic Horror. If you have not read any of the listed authors, but you want to get out of your comfort zone and try something different, Kiernan might be a great place to start.

This book has been published by Tachyon Publications.

The Unicorn Anthology | Review

“Unicorns aren’t splendid, or any other such word…indeed, through my entire career as the Unicorn Guy – at the last, there is no a word to describe what a unicorn is. No word that I know , anyway.” – Peter S. Beagle, Introduction.

51dBl5qt3uL._SX330_BO1,204,203,200_In the introduction to this anthology Peter S. Beagle explains, how, like a type-cast actor known for a prominent role, at times writers too get trapped with a certain label. For Beagle, the novel of The Last Unicorn and the subsequent stories, adaptations, and retellings that followed have made him known as: “The Unicorn Guy.” He explains that unicorns are not his favourite, and his most successful book is not the one he considers best written. He arrived at one valuable question: what is a unicorn anyway? Using the expansive malleability of fiction, this anthology features a large cast of writers contributing variations, and interpretations on what a unicorn could be. There are such varied takes on ‘the unicorn’ from the scientific, to the magical, to the gender-bending mystery.

“The Magical Properties of Unicorn Ivory” by Carlos Hernandez looks at the realistic interpretation of what our world would be like, and what explanation would be available for the existence of unicorns. A group of scientists discover a small tear in the fabric of the universe and people become immediately obsessed with hunting, gathering, and using the unicorn horn as a tradable good. The unicorns become endangered and in need of protection. This story was among my favourites, and a strong first story for this anthology. There are cautionary tales of all kinds in this collection, from the mixture of hunting and loving in Carrie Vaughn’s “A Hunter’s Ode,” to a more simplistic approach to the wonder of unicorns in “Ghost Town” by Jack. C. Halderman II where we follow a modest small town setting with a simple encounter: “Everyone comes to a place like this once in their lives…if your heart is right, you will recognize it for what it is. If your soul is hardened you will bass it by and never know.”

There are also tales in this collection on the darker more erotic side. I have recently become more acquainted with Cailtín R. Kiernan’s writing style and even so, I can honestly say her story “The Maltese Unicorn” will leave you in a state of shock. There are also more classic fantasy takes like the one found in “The Highest Justice” by Garth Nyx, and “The Transfigured Heart” by Jane Yolen. Far too many in this collection go right for your heartstrings like “Stampede of Light” by Marina Fitch: “Open a child’s mind and heart to the world, and you achieve immortality…whether they remember you or not, you’ll live forever” or a story by Beagle himself about a boy and an injured beast, the brief moments of friendship, and the intricacies of the healing process. There are many others in this collection, and they are all incredible voices contributing on the multi-faceted, and versatile existence of a unicorn in our collective imagination.

The collection ends on a poem written by Nancy Springer capturing the innocence and magic surrounding our fascination with unicorns. Reading this poem feels like walking straight into a Pre-Raphaelite painting.  This collection is a great introduction to various authors and a great sample of their writing, in addition to various ways one can look at a unicorn.

This anthology is edited by Peter S. Beagle and Jacob Weisman. The two have edited another anthology I reviewed two years ago called The New Voices of Fantasy. The Unicorn Anthology will be released soon by Tachyon Publications. It is currently available for pre-order.

‘Monstrous Children’ in Post-Reformation England

In Early Modern England, children were not only in choirs, but they also participated in plays to entertain mayors, Queens, and Kings, in addition to travelling alongside acting guilds in larger cycle productions. There were, however, rare cases where deformed children or ‘monstrous chyldrn’ were paraded for a sum of money (payable to their owner) and for the entertainment of the crowd. One such record appears in the Norwich Record of Early English Drama for the 5th of June 1616 in the Mayors’ court Books XV.[1]

“Humfry Bromely hath libertie to shewe in some howse within this Citty A strange Child with two heads. And that by the space of two days and no more But he ys forbidden to sound any Drume of vse any other meanes to drawe company then onely the hangynge vpp of the picture of the said Child.”

This record is a source of three informative points: deformed children would be on display, public announcements for such displays were regulated, and it became the business of the mayor’s court to keep a record of these showings. Though the Norwich 1616 record shows no sign of payment, an account from the 29th of November, 1637 (also a Saturday) at Coventry in the Chamberlains’ and Wardens’ Account Book III under the subheading of ‘Rewardes to players’ reads “paid given to Walter Neare that went about the shew a child borne without Armes ij s. vj d.” The two shillings and six pence, (or half a crown) would have the buying power today of about $28-30 Canadian Dollars. Thus, Mr. Neare got paid a decent sum from the town’s treasury to go around and show a child who did not have any arms, just as it can be assumed Mr. Bromely was also paid to show a child with two heads.

msojere

Originally published/produced in John Awdeley: London, 1568 (British Library)

In the late Middle Ages/Early Modern Period deformed children would scarcely make it to adulthood, yet the parents found it necessary to place these children in monasteries, on the steps of Churches, or journey alongside them on pilgrimages in the hope of a miraculous cure. Most importantly, the prevailing belief was that these ‘changelings’ were mitigating “guilt-feelings by transference” and physically reflected the sins of their parents. One popular method of connecting these ‘monstrous chyldrn’ to Biblical damnation can be found in the late 1500s on broadside ballads printed in the newspapers. These ballads were a “broad cross-section of ‘news’ ballads, miraculous happenings [and] monstrous births…which sometimes made use of religious judgements, but which (like criminal last speeches) appealed to their audience primarily on other grounds.” What Tessa Watt is describing is the intrigue audiences found in crude humour and entertainment. In his book Mirth Making, Chris Holcomb sustains that “deformity and conformity divide the social world into those who laugh and those who are laughed at.” Though this may come across as ignorant and insensitive in 21st century North America, in the late Middle Ages deformity was a laughing matter and an entertainment act of its own.

These two deformed children accounted and paid for in Coventry and Norwich were an ‘embodiment’ of human sins, impending doom, and a source of cruel humour and entertainment. Their existence and presentation were physical appropriations of the broadside ballads confirming doubts and incredulity. The fact that Bromely was forbidden “to vse the drumme” did imply that this activity was not universally tolerated in 1616 Norwich. However, Neare being paid a half-crown implies that wonder overcame the sense of guilt, as crowds indulged in watching a circus-bound, ‘monstrous chylde’; this shame went only as far as preventing a boisterous form of advertising in Norwich. According to the introduction in the Norwich REED volume, “the mayor and alderman were the guardians for public morality, as we can read in the Court Books of fines for swearers, drunkards, unlicensed ale-house keepers, ballad sellers, [and] wife beaters” (xxiv). Hence, a person caught ‘swearing’ might have been in much more trouble with the ‘guardians for public morality’ than one showing a deformed child.

If one is to consider a play in performance as the appropriation of a written text transferred to a physical presence, then perhaps the ‘shewing of monstrous chyldern’ can be better understood in performance by closely reading a broadside ballad. In an article dedicated to the religious interpretation of these ballads entitled “Popular Hermeneutics: Monstrous Children in English Renaissance Broadside Ballads,” Helaine Razovksy concludes that the three widely found interpretations of such ballads were that:

  • the monstrous child embodies the sins of the parents (if unmarried), and constitutes a specific warning;
  • the monstrous child embodies the sins of the world (independent of the parents’ marital state and constitutes a general warning;
  • the monstrous child embodies the sins of the world (independent of the parents’ marital state) and constitutes a lesson about the practice of interpretation
part w

Originally published/produced in Thomas Marshe: London, 1562. (British Library).

This interpretation of monstrous children creates a better understanding as to why the Mayors Court and the Wardens would pay for such displays—to maintain a sense of ‘morality’ by instilling fear, parading ‘proof’ all around. The Wardens of Coventry were in charge of rewarding travelling players and by doing so “they maintained the apparently unwritten agreement among civic officials in England that the names of the plays presented should not be mentioned” (xxxiii). Evidently, civic officials, though ‘indirectly,’ knew the presentation of deformed children and willing to pay a half-crown for it.

The same religious interpretation of deformed children that Razovsky presents, might have been the reason why Mr. Bromely in Norwich was “forbidden to vse any Drumme…then onely the hangynge vpp of the picture of the said child.” The advertisement for the ‘strange child’ was like the presentation itself, one that was solely visual.

In addition, the records show that this display of deformed children was more frequent than one would think. In the same 1616 record, on June 15 (only 10 days later from the Humfry Bromely record) the Mayor’s Court listed a Mr. Abell Gary with a:

“warrant signed by his Maiestie & vnder his Maiesties signed Aucthorisinge the said Abell to shew a child…they haue leaue to shewe the same till Wednesday next at night & no longer…they are forbidden to use any Drumme…other than A Trumpet at the windows of the howse where they showe”

June 15 was a Wednesday in 1616, thus ‘till Wednesdays next’ implies that the showing of this child by Mr. Abell Gary would be for an entire week. The record itself was only 10 days after Humfry Bromely—who had shown a deformed child for two days—meaning only eight days had passed in Norwich since the crowd had seen a deformed child (or at least written down).

This frequent display emphasized that there was a pressing moral and religious matter that the Majesty himself wanted to instill in his people, or that these deformed children were sensationalized and the crowds simply loved to be entertained by seeing such ‘monstrous’ or ‘strange’ children. Subsequently, a rising demand for such performances was created. However, due to the regulated advertising noted in the Norwich records, the religious damnation associated with deformed children from the late 16th century, encountered in the broadside ballads, was still an underlying component influencing the reception of such a display.

[1] The court normally ‘met on Wednesdays and Saturdays in the Guildhall’ thus, simply because it was written down on the 5th of June (a Saturday) it does not mean that it is the exact day the account happened.

Works Cited:

Records of Early English Drama, University of Toronto Press. Toronto: Coventry (1981), Ecclesiastical London (2008), Newcastle Upon Tyne (1982), and Norwich 1540-1642 (1984)