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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).


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.


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]


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]


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.


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]


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.


[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.
[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

‘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.


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)

Stories versus Tales

Short version: Story means “truth” and tale means “to tell a lie”

Elaborate explanation:

The interchangeable usage of story and tale as having the same semantic connotation is relatively new and pertains solely to Present Day English. Within the English vocabulary tale has evolved and progressed natively through Germanic, West Germanic, and Anglo-Frisian which resulted in the Old English tæl. In contrast story/storie is a loanword imposed on the English language post-Norman conquest from the French estoire which developed through the Italic and Latin branch. Within the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction however, the two words came from separate roots and were not used interchangeably (nor should they be now). What becomes apparent in the history of the two words is the ‘truth’ aspect present in a story and that a tale brings forth a lie. For the purpose of understanding how each word was being defined by lexicographers I have examined dictionaries as far back as 1678 and have found that tale has been used to define story and vice versa. At times both were being used in defining history. The concept “narrative” is however at the base of all three within all dictionaries at all historical points thus being the cohesive agent of all three.


Tale evolved naturally into the English language. The Proto-Indo-European *del meaning “to recount/count” developed into the Germanic Talō which then separated into North Germanic and West Germanic talu (“*del”). North Germanic later divided into Old Norse/Old Icelandic which contains in its dictionary Tal as noun meaning “Talk, parley, conversation. 2. Speech, language. Tala 1. Discourse, speech 2. Tale, number and Tala as verb meaning to talk or speak. To record and to tell.” This shows the word had maintained its semantic value throughout this division. Anglo-Frisian tælu developed into the Old English tæl. In Joseph Bosworth’s Anglo-Saxon Dictionary tæl appears as noun to be “a tale, number, series” but also “evil speaking, calumny, detraction…attack with blasphemy.” Interestingly enough “tale” as a number system finds its way into Portuguese as tæl coming from the Malay tahil meaning “any of several monetary units equal to the equivalent weight in silver.” This is quite amusing as it develops through a different branch and comes to a semantically-relevant homophonic word which in Old English is tæl. Another homophone of “tale” being “tail” maintains the same semantic value in Old Norse as it is tagl meaning the tail of an animal which at the same time in Old English was taegel also meaning tail. Tælan as a verb meant “to blame, rebuke, reprove, reproach, censure, accuse. To speak evil. To slander, to treat with contempt, scorn, insult, mock.” Throughout this division of language, the word brought along with it the implication that one would “recount” or “speak.” There is however a difference between speaking and telling. Elizabeth Closs Traugott writes in her work Regularity in Semantic Change that “tell primarily introduces a narrative…[and that] the reorganization of the lexicon occurred in Middle English with the introduction of talk (an early Frisian term) and the focusing of tell on verbal action (in OE tellan meant primarily ‘count’ or ‘recount; in sequence, i.e. ‘narrate’). Talk is the only word in English borrowed from Lithuanian, which has talkas for ‘talk’ and tulkot for ‘interpreter.’ Russian tolk meaning ‘sense’ and the verb tolkovant-‘to interpret.’ Thus tale as it became in Middle English, though it remained ‘an account’ it also brought along with it a trace of deceit and evil-speaking.

Story on the other hand, originated from the PIE root *wid-tor meaning “to know” or literally translated “to see.” This became in Latin historia which was a “narrative of past events, an account.” Istō/Istoc (root of historia) meant “to the place where you are, to the point you have reached, to this place.” The Latin equivalent for what we now use the word “story/tale” was narratio or fabulo, which we know to be ‘narrative’ or ‘fable’ (quite a different topic altogether). Historia divided into the Romance languages and in French became estoire which literally meant “a chronicle, a history.” The introduction of stoire/story into the English language occurred post-Norman Conquest in Middle English.

Looking at past lexicographers and how they defined story, tale or even history, it becomes apparent that all definitions contain “narrative” as a key concept of each word’s semantic connotation. Samuel Johnson in 1806, E. Cobham Brewer in 1882, and Rev. Walter W. Skeat in 1910 all use tale when defining story and vice versa. This brings to question why the merging of the two separate words occurred, and why the ‘deceit’ in what was previously known in OE tæl was no longer part of the definition of tale. Though the two separate are being used interchangeable tale did maintain the lie in other tangential words sprung from it up to Present Day English. Looking for instance at Johnson’s definition of storyteller and talebearer the distinction becomes much clearer. Johnson defines storyteller as “[story and tell] One who relates tales in conversation, a historian, in contempt” and yet he defines talebearing as “[tale and bear] The act of informing; officious or malignant intelligence.” Talebearing thus implies a gossip-like nature versus one delivering an informative speech.

The most interesting form in which the two words have appeared within a text together as “tale-story” was within Thomas Fuller’s The History of the Worthies of England. It is the only text identified by the OED to have used the words together (hyphened). It is worth glancing at how Fuller used this hyphenated word and within what context (Fuller is speaking about Sutton of Salsbury and how he became wealthy based on an old pamphlet –advertising):

“Thus these mongrel pamphlets (part true, part false) do most mischief. Snakes are less dangerous than lampreys, seeing none will feed on what is known to be poison. But these books are most pernicious, where truth and falsehoods are blended tougher, and such a medley-cloth is the tale-story of this clothier.”

Mongrel, medley-cloth, and tale-story are used interchangeably by Fuller containing the same semantic implication. Mongrel he himself emphasizes to be “part true, part false” and medley-cloth was “a type of cloth woven with wool of different colours or shades mixed in the thread.” Thus, tale-story within this context is the mixture of a truth and a falsehood which means story remained a more reliable account and tale still brought along with it the ‘calumny’ and deceit encountered in the Old English even mid-17th century. Thomas Fuller wrote the book in the late 1650s and passed away in 1661. The book was published posthumously in 1662.

Joint words like tall-tale and fairy-tale emphasize the different aspects of a lie a tale contains. For instance the word tall is a figurative word within the English language which stands for something being exaggerated and has been widely used. Yet one rarely encounters “tall-stories” or “fairy-stories” because the implication would be that one had been there and the content of the account is based in a truth or a biographical occurrence that had once happened and simply been retold. Should one recount a truth with exaggeration it would no longer be a story, rather it would become a “tall-tale” and he/she would be Johnson’s talebearer rather than his storyteller.

living_to_tell_the_talealcie muThis semantic property of ‘truth’ to story remains in Present Day English yet within narrower contexts. Authors like Alice Munro who publish a collection of short narrative accounts are not summed up by publishers as ‘short tales’ nor do they write that on the cover or on the title page. Rather, due to the mature content and the respect attributed to the content, the collected works would be referred to as Short Stories thus implying that parts of these narratives are true and have been appropriated for publication. Tales on the other hand are encountered within texts intended for children (beyond fairy tales) or within contexts where the lie is known to be there. For instance, Gabriel Garcia Marquez wrote his autobiography Living To Tell the Tale, with clear hindsight of what has been professed about his art. Magical Realism has been treated as “the truth of a five-year-old” or “telling a lie with a brick face” (as my English professor, Nick Mount, used to say). Evidently, even in present day narrative content with a more deceitful tone or intended for children is more likely to be labelled as a tale rather than a story.

Thus, by looking at the two words individually and tracing them to their reconstructed Indo-European root in addition to examining how they have been defined by lexicographers at various historical points it becomes evident that story and tale cannot always be used interchangeably (or at least they shouldn’t). The two are not only different but they are contradictory in meaning for one means “truth/to know” while the other means “a lie/to deceive.” The credibility attached to stories has remained through to Present Day English and the exaggerated (somewhat derogatory) connotation remains attached to tales. The possibility that idioms within the English language have contributed to the semantic property of a tale leaves much room for exploration on this topic.

Works Cited: Fuller, Thomas D.D. The History of the Worthies of England (1840), “*del” The American Heritage Dictionary of the English LanguageDerocquigny, Jules. A Contribution to the Study of the French Element in English (1904),“Isto/Istoc” Oxford Latin Desk Dictionary (2005), “Medley-cloth” The OED OnlineNick, Mount “Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Magical Realism” (Lecture, 2011), Lemon, Rev. George William. English Etymology or A derivative dictionary of the English language: in two alphabets (1783), Murray, James A.H. “Oxford English Dictionary.” X, XI. (1969-70), Philips, Edward. The New World of Words (1684), Skeat, Rev. Walter W. An Etymological Dictionary of the English Language (1910), “storyteller” n.f. Def 1. Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language (1806), “tael” Def.1. Joseph Bosworth’s An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary (1954), “taelan” Def.1. Joseph Bosworth’s An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary (1954), “talebearing”n.f. Def.1. Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language (1806), Traugott, Elizabeth Closs. Regularity in Semantic Change (2005), Tulloch, Alexander R. Word Routes: Journeys Through Etymology (2005), “*wid-tor” The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (2013), Zoega, Geir T. A Concise Dictionary of Old Icelandic (1926)

Beowulf: Grendel’s Mother


Incipit page for Beowulf section in MS Cotton Vitellius A XV

After watching a few adaptations of Beowulf, I couldn’t help but wonder if it made sense for Angelina Jolie to play Grendel’s mother in the latest interpretation. It didn’t seem right. I went back to the Old English text to see if it makes any sense. Turns out I was wrong.

Beowulf has been fully translated by sixty-five (and counting) translators, has been adapted into four films (including an animated and a post-apocalyptic version), two shorter animated films, a rock-opera with music by Dave Malloy, it has been incorporated in various comic books and graphic novels and has made its way into smaller independent short clips on YouTube (and children’s shows) in addition to being referenced and parodied within contemporary comedy. With all the representations and adaptations, despite some characters being omitted (such as Wiglaf in Gunnarsson’s 2005 film) Beowulf has remained portrayed as a strong, muscular male, Grendel as a hideous monster and King Hrothgar and his wife as a middle aged couple worn by time and troubles. Grendel’s mother however, differs from the rest due to her shape-shifting portrayal throughout the adaptations. Her monstrosity and destructive powers are bent; yet from a demonic beast, to an Amazon-like figure, to a sexually appealing seductress, Grendel’s mother remains successful in destroying Hrothgar’s peace and bringing Beowulf to her cave. In the original text we are told that:


Grendel’s mother in online depiction

“widcuþ werum   þætte wreccend þa gyt

Lifde æfter laþum       lange þrage

Æfter guðceare    Grendles modor

Ides aglaecwif   yrmþe gemunde

se þe wæteregesan   wunian scolde”

[widely known by men / that an avenger still / lived after the misfortunes, for a long time / after the hostile one, Grendel’s mother / lad troll-wife, remembered misery / she who had to inhabit the dreadful water] (Beowulf, 1253-1261a)


Second online depiction

The word “wrecend” resonates as a masculine quality, one highly valued by the Anglo-Saxons, yet pertaining to male warriors thus making Grendel’s mother an Amazon-like figure. The idea of avenging the murder of a dead one is a recurrent theme in Anglo-Saxon literature, but the poet of Beowulf adds a few lines emphasizing the “troll’s” motherly role:

“…ond his modor þa gyt

Gifre ond galgmond   gegan wolde

Sorhfulne sið      sunnu deað wrecan”

[and his mother even now / greedy and gloomy-hearted / wished to go forth / on a sorrowful journey to avenge her son’s death] (Beowulf 1276-8)

Burton Raffel adds more sensitivity in his translation of this passage translating it as “His mother’s sad heart, and her greed, drove her from her den on the dangerous pathway of revenge” creating a dynamic to this character. A monster who first appears repulsive and masculine in her heroic return to avenge her son (the act of avenge as one commendable by Anglo-Saxon standards) is now presented to us in feminine form, as a mother. This alone makes her action of kidnapping and killing Hrothgar’s kinsman Æschere completely justified. Though as readers we may not be on her side, we understand her actions.

Grendel’s mother is perhaps one of the first females in Anglo-Saxon literature with feminist qualities. She is not only like an Amazon in her warrior nature, but also like the Greek Goddess Athena, seeker of justice (in her quest to settle an equal ransom for her son’s death by taking only one victim) and strong in battle searing for equality based on merit in a man-dominated society. The poet writes:

“                            waes se gryre laessaraffel

Efne swa micle      swa bið mæg þa cræft

Wiggryre wifes      bewaepned men

Þonne heoru bunden    hamere geþuren

Sweord swate fah   swin over helme

Ecgum dyhttig      andweard scireð”

[The horror was less / by even so much as is maid’s strength / the war-violence of woman from an armed man / when adorned blade by hammer forged / sword stained with blood the boar-crest / by edges firm the opposing is sheared] (Beowulf, 1282-5)

Interestingly enough, in Seamus Heaney’s translation of this same passage he writes “her onslaught was less only by as much as an Amazon warrior’s strength.” The key word being “Amazon” since it is absent in the Old English text, yet Heaney too detects that Grendel’s mother’s characteristics resonate with previously encountered female warriors in Greek epic poetry.

What sets Grendel’s mother apart from an Amazon-figure in a somewhat strange way is the fact that she has a son. Between lines 1354 and 1356 Hrothgar says “if he [Grendel] had a father no one knew him” suggesting Grendel’s mother could have been sexually involved with a man, since Grendel resembles men in his physical characteristics (only with more strength). This raises the question of Grendel’s mother’s appearance and it is with this detail that her portrayal becomes diverse as one may wonder if a man was attracted to this woman or if she truly is an anthropomorphic beast. When it comes to description this monster is left to the mercy of the translators and adapters.51cofDOKunL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_

For instance, when describing her kidnapping to Æschere in line 1295 which in Old English appears to be “fæste befangen,” Burton Raffel uses words like “dripping claws” where Heaney simply writes “tight hold” with no mention of “claw.” “Claw” implies a hideous beast with animal features whereas “tight hold” simply emphasizes strength.

Even upon explaining the mother and son Raffel only says that “one of the devils was a female creature…they named the huge one Grendel: if he had a father no one knew him” whereas Heaney writes “one…looks like a woman; the other…an unnatural birth called Grendel…they are fatherless creatures…and their whole ancestry is hidden in a past of demons and ghosts.” The difference between the two is huge as one implies Grendel was from his mother’s womb and may have had a father, whereas the other implies they are demonic, fatherless creatures.

In his book Beowulf and Grendel, John Grigsby writes:

“since the poet makes it clear that Grendel and his mother are amongst such fiends [descendants of Cain] it can be deduced that this pair of monsters were originally divinities too—namely the fertility God and his lover/mother of ancient Denmark. She’s referred to as ‘cursed spirits,’ ‘demons,’ ‘monster of the deep,’ and ‘water-witch.’”

Simply by working with text and translation, Grendel’s mother obtains a dynamic through her actions as feminist, warrior, avenger, and mother. In description we do not know if she is as hideous as Grendel or not. Stepping aside from the text for a moment we can observe how modern artists have envisioned Grendel’s mother.

In Graham Baker’s post-apocalyptic film in 1999, various comic books, and Gareth Hinds’s graphic novel, she takes the form of an alien-like figure. Face and body, she does not resemble humans in any characteristics and her role is miniscule, having no impact on the rest of the plot. Her interference is minor as the main focus is on the Dragon and Grendel, thus diminishing the female warrior presence.

51TCWCPKJFL._SY445_       In Sturla Gunnarsson’s 2005 film, some choices were made in this regard, though not plot-altering. We first see Grendel’s mother as an arm grabbing for the warriors on a boat from beneath the waters, where she becomes a mysterious faceless figure, until she finally has her revenge where she has a human body (though bluish in colour) and a beast-like face with sharp teeth. What makes this portrayal interesting is that, at the beginning of the film the audience sees Grendel’s “father” who we do not encounter in the original text. Though in the fil he appears a strong, tall man, he is a man nonetheless and Grendel then becomes a product of the copulation between the tall nameless man and the monstrous nameless woman. In this movie, Grendel himself is avenging his father’s death (which as the director interprets he was killed by Hrothgar) giving him the role his mother has in the text (that of the avenger).

Lastly, and perhaps the boldest interpretation of Grendel’s mother was carried out by Robert Zemeckis in 2007 (written by Neil Gaiman and Roger Avery). Using the motion-capture process, Zemeckis models Grendel’s mother after Angelina Jolie, famous for her beauty (the simulation replicating the actress’s looks onto the animation panel). This adaptation makes Grendel’s mother a main character and Grendel a mere pawn in her larger game. Her power is not warrior-like; rather she use her sexuality as a weapon—a female weapon. The movie implies that Grendel’s mother seduced Hrothgar years before, and Grendel was not only his son, but the curse she set upon Hrothgar for being weak and giving in to her seductive powers. This, putting a strain on Hrothgar’s marriage, made him want to rid of Grendel and ultimately Grendel’s mother. She is in fact portrayed as Hrothgar’s burden. When Beowulf descends to her lair, Zemeckis’s film implies that Beowulf too gives in to the siren’s seductive powers and the moment he does so, the burden is no longer on Hrothgar but it is transferred to Beowulf. Hrothgar’s ‘freedom’ is portrayed by him committing suicide and Beowulf replacing him on the throne.p-beowulf-grendels-mother

What is interesting of this sexual siren representation of Grendel’s mother, is that the original text allows it to exist. Her description in the text, as previously examined, allows for her looks to be charming and only her character to be beastly and vengeful, as Zemeckis showed her in his film. Interestingly enough, after Beowulf’s burial, the ending of the film is Grendel’s mother waking up from the waters looking in the eyes of her next victim. Although in the original text Beowulf successfully kills her, this film makes Grendel’s mother appear immortal. Her cyclical seducing, torturous and murderous activity can perhaps symbolize the way Beowulf as a text has charmed audiences in Anglo-Saxon England and continues to do so each generation, making us all its slaves, unable to resist the charm that lies in the Old English poetry.



I still have to read Tolkien’s translation of Beowulf — recently published by his son, and I’m a bit hesitant because Tolkien himself didn’t release it in his lifetime which makes me believe it wasn’t a finished product, or something he was comfortable publishing. We do owe Tolkien a lot for bringing Beowulf out of the darkness. Perhaps I will write a post sometime soon on the history of the Beowulf portion of the MS Cotton Vitellius A XV, and how its popularity increased after Tolkien’s 1936 lecture “Beowulf the Monsters and the Critics” which I highly recommend if you haven’t read it yet.

The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction by Istavan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr. a Summary, Discussion, and Review

“…science fiction is more than a literary genre or a social passion. It is a way of organizing the mind to include the contemporary world…SF is an art that delights in vision, intelligence, and the infinite possibilities of change.”

5925031My overall impression of this book was that it was trying so hard to be exclusive and elite that it almost became nonsensical. Yes, I understand that it contributes to a larger conversation. However, if you look at Joanna Russ’s discourse on feminist science fiction, or Sterling’s, LeGuin’s, and Atwood’s nonfiction writing as a writer-critic, or even Auerbach, Marx, and Bakhtin (all names with whom Csicsery-Ronay Jr claims to be ‘in conversation’) they are still trying to reach the public and actually have a discourse. When you purposely make yourself so inaccessible, you might as well be ranting in a dark room, in solitary confinement. It was clear to me that he wanted to fit into the ‘philosophy’ department more than the literary analysis and criticism department, or the literary studies in general. In some sections, he over-complicates topics that are so simple with his verbose and restrictive writing style. For instance, in the section on fictive neology, the entire passage sounds like an anthropology paper on humans as an overview. “Languages have an inherent potential for development through their interaction with the discourses of other cultures and their own internal elaboration.” Yeah…we know. You’d find yourself reading pages upon pages of just common sense knowledge told in a restrictive style. I also found this work to be limited by the few sci-fi works that Csicsery-Ronay has read. While he references certain things here and there from a wider range, he goes into detailed discussion on only a few works (but almost the same ones in every chapter). You can tell he’s definitely (properly) read Solaris, the Kim Stanley Robinson books, few works by Ursula K. LeGuin (if not one) and some of the 19th century classics…but there are so many other works to consider (especially when this was published in 2008). I think he barely dips into science fiction works, extracts a very superficially well-known theme and then starts ranting about it in a way only Philosophy students would understand. This becomes crystal clear the moment you encounter chapters dedicated to Kant, Adorno, and Burke.  Sometimes he just name-drops titles without even discussing them, to get them to fit into his ‘totally-unrelated-to-sf’ thesis.

Those two frustrations aside, the book gets good once you get used to his use of language about mid-end of chapter one. Once he begins to engage with science fiction works (though few) I actually really enjoyed it.

The title for this work is inspired by the medieval Persian allegorical romance The Haft Paykar—a tale of mystical love and moral enlightenment, in which a prince falls in love with seven beauties and upon visiting each of them in a week, each bride tells him a new allegorical story. Istvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr. appropriates the seven beauties to the form of “categories” found in science fiction (which he calls science-fictionality)—of which one work may contain several.

This work is not expository or historical. It is a theoretical model of criticism and responding to a rich discourse about the genre. While there are many literary critical lenses through which to examine sf works (feminist, Marxist, etc) Csicsery-Ronay Jr. approaches sf as (what he ‘simply’ describes as):

“a product of the convergence of social-historical forces that has led to the current global hegemony of technoscience, and as an institution of ideological expression on one hand, and on the other, the ludic framework in a culture of game and play in which that hegemony is entertained, absorbed, and resisted.”

The author explains that he wanted to interact with sf works and read closely while trying to not to border on the banal by using popular works, nor slip into obscurity by addressing texts that deserve a wider audience. A great difficulty arises when he wanted to be inclusive of non-Anglo sf works, while the SF genre is predominantly an Anglo-American genre. These are the seven ‘beauties’ or categories he discusses at length (I am paraphrasing some from the way Csicsery-Ronay Jr introduced them, with some examples that were memorable to me):

  1. Fictive Neology: new worlds, variations and combinations based on the actual process of lexicogenesis (ways words are coined) experienced in social life. Imply linguistic-symbolic models of technological transformation. They engage audiences to use them as clues and triggers to construct the logic of science fictional worlds. In this chapter he looks at the way language is used to construct a novelty but also how the absence of it can also achieve the same results. For instance, he uses the example of Dr. Jekyll’s chemical compound of which we never get to know the name. “By refusing to give his novum a scientific name Stevenson kept his tale from engaging with the discourse of science.” He also examines ways in which Tolkien’s well-constructed Elvish gives the fantasy epic a scientific foundations, while other ‘languages’ referenced in sci-fi with few words here and there and a name do not. Parseltongue isn’t a language, Elvish and Klingon are (in a scientific way).
  2. Fictive Novums: coined by Darko Suvin, the term refers to a historically unprecedented and unpredictable ‘new thing’ that intervenes in the routine course of social life and changes the trajectory of history. According to Csicsery-Ronay Jr., every sf text supplies fictive novums and responses to them, and thus engages the sense of real inhabitants of technorevolutionary societies. Here we learn about negative apocalypse predictions, or we find that something we knew in the past or present to be true, in the future it won’t be so. For instance Kim Stanley Robinson’s “Vinland the dream” contains the idea that the Vikings’ landing in North America is a recent hoax. This chapter has a deeper study of Lem’s Solairs.
  3. Future History: most sf is set in the future, though it does not need to be. The genre relies on the techniques of realism. Maintaining a sense of connection between the present and future, sf constructs micromyths of the historical process, establishing the audience’s present as the future-oriented ‘prehistory of the future.’
  4. Imaginary Science: introducing technoscientific ideas and events among the value-bearing stories and metaphors of social life. “We make science of our metaphors.”
  5. The Science-fictional Sublime: here Csicsery-Ronay Jr. explores several branches of the sublime like the Kantian sublime of temporal and special infinitude of the mathematical, the sense of overwhelming physical power of the dynamic sublime, David E. Nye’s coined American technological sublime where it’s the sense of access to, and control of, the powers of nature that typified the Americanpopulace’s responses to the monumental engineering projects of the nineteenth century, and last the technoscientific sublime, popularized post-WWII which entails a sense of awe and dread in response to human technological projects that exceed the power of their human creators.
  6. The Science-Fictional grotesque: the inversion of the technosublimeàcollapse of ontological categories. This is the domain of monstrous aliens. The grotesque is implosive, accompanied by fascination and horror at the prospect of intimate category-violating phenomena discovered by human science.
  7. Technologiade: transforms popular cultural materials by reorienting their concerns toward its characteristic horizon: the transformation of human societies as a result of innovations attending technoscientific projects. This chapter is similar to Jung’s models of the archetype, only he appropriates it here for the Gothic vs. Adventure. What I found interesting in this chapter was the presentation or idea of the Gothic as a mere inversion of the adventure tale.

He writes:

“Where modern adventure narrates the projection of discovery and invention further and further away from the home base, the metropole and the ‘motherland,’ into exotic venues, the Gothic imagines the subject position of the victim of these cognitive interests…the field of values is reversed…the Gothic inverts the dream world of thrilling travels among wonders into nightmares of abduction, imprisonment, and victimization by barely controllable archaic passions.”

I recommend this  book to people interested in philosophical discourse, rather than people interested in the history, analysis, or in-depth study of science fiction literature/film.

Literary Titans Revisited | Review

“Their writing explores themes in our society…the plight of the marginalized, the environment, the difficulties of finding one’s self and place, the anxiety of getting it all wrong, the longing for love, the search for justice.” —Anne Urbancic

32841205Professor Anne Urbancic (at Victoria College, University of Toronto) assigns her first-year students to explore in depth a library’s archive, write a detailed essay, and present it to the class. One of her students, Griffin Kelly, discovered in her search a series of compact discs in the Victoria University Archive at the E.J. Pratt Library. What she found were 16 interviews conducted by Earle Toppings with some of Canada’s top novelists and poets who were leading figures in the emergence of Canadian identity in literature. Kelly brought Mr. Earle Topping—an editor turned radio host who still resided in Toronto at the time—to speak to the class. Thus began the project that has now been turned into the book Literary Titans Revisited. Urbancic called upon four students, including Griffin Kelly herself, Geoff Baillie, Amy Kalbun, Vpasha Shaik, and the E.J. Pratt Library’s leading Reader Services librarians Agatha Barc, and Colin Deinhardt to collaborate on transcribing the interviews.

Urbancic notes in the introduction that:

“While Canada prides itself on its many excellent and exceptional authors and poets… they had not often appeared on the world’s literary stages until the second half of the twentieth century.”

The topic of Canadian identity in literature is still relatively new compared to its English and American fellows, and resources on Canlit authors are still being pieced together. What Urbancic created with Literary Titans Revisited is an excellent primary source for future Canlit students. Each writer’s interview with Earle Topping is preceded by a brief introduction including biographical material, a portrait, relevant and major contributions, as well as a brief analysis of their overall influence on Canadian literature and culture. The first section ‘Prose’ includes interviews with six novelists including Margaret Laurence, Morley Callaghan, Hugh Garner, Hugh MacLennan, Mordecai Richler, and Sinclair Ross. The second section ‘Poetry’ contains the remaining ten interviews—among which are Al Purdy, Dorothy Livesay, and Irving Layton—to name a few. Lastly, the seventeenth chapter contains an interview with Earle Toppings who discloses his interviewing process, the composition of his questions, and the experience of interviewing the sixteen authors. Finding how he came up with the project and the recording devices he used at the time is an inspiring reminder of how much one can do with minimal resources.


Statue of Al Purdy in Queen’s Park (unveiled in 2008).

The authors shared personal anecdotes, life struggles, and their creative process. Some poets read aloud to Toppings some of their newly composed poems which are not necessarily the ones that later on appeared in print. When it comes to transcribing the poems, this collection stays true to the recordings rather than what was finalized in print. What I found particularly interesting was how at the moment Canadian writers were asked how some of their life experiences connect to their artwork, they began by discussing either a British or American author as an example of how that can happen. Morley Callaghann speaks of Conrad and Joyce, Hugh Garner of Fitzgerald, Hugh Maclennan of Hemingway, and Mordecai Richler of several authors like George Orwell, and Norman Mailer. While trying to find the Canadian voice, these Canadian authors were still using American and British identities as a crutch even in the late sixties.  These interviews are a clear depiction of the search for a unique voice. Simultaneously, some keep in perspective the problematic consequences of Canadian history. Urbancic emphasizes that Al Purdy for instance:

“points out in his poignantly metaphorical verses about broken indigenous art pieces that represent the plight of Canada’s First Nations.”

This book has been published by Dundurn Press and is currently available for purchase (click here) and at your public library (click here). I would recommend this work to anyone who is interested in Canadian Literature, wants to be in the presence of Canadian literary titans, and interested in aspects of the creative process. Lastly, I would hope that all libraries will have this book in their collection. This collaborative project supplemented with the editorial work of Anne Urbancic is a new excellent primary source in Canadian scholarship.

Writings from the Golden Age of Russian Poetry

34889267I received this work from Columbia University Press. It’s an academic book scheduled for publication on November 28. The work itself is a translation and presentation by Peter France of Konstantin Batyushkov’s writings. France interweaves Batyushkov’s own writings with his biography presenting to readers the life of a poet and his career as a soldier with his subsequent decline into mental illness at the age of thirty-four. A mixture of depression and PTSD from his life as a soldier made Batyushkov unable to write poetry any longer in the last few years of his life. Konstantin Batyushkov (1787-1855) was one of Russia’s greatest poets. France makes it known on page one of the introduction that even though:

“To most non-Russian readers his name is hardly known… for Russians he is a classic.”

He emerged in the 1820s in a literary grouping of what was later known as the Golden Age or the Pushkin Pléiade. The introduction to this work tells us that Pushkin himself regarded Batyushkov as a master.

In terms of where in the canon one might place or discuss Batyushkov, France tells us that:

“One might see in this divided soul an expression of Batyushkov’s intermediary historical position—between the urbane sociability of Enlightenment Russia, and the rebellious Romantic sensibility that is embodied in Pushkin’s Eugin Onegin.”


Portrait of Batyushkov

This work is relatively short but quite dense. Peter France focuses on each section of Batyushkov’s life by adding an introduction with biographical information. He then selects the corresponding poems that fit in with that time in Batyushkov’s life and illuminate his feelings, reflections, and own self-documentation. France also adds passages of close reading and analysis to Batyshkov’s poems supporting the connection to his biographical passages by adding letters Batyushkov sent to his family and friends.

Reading this work was refreshing because it felt like I was reading something completely new, but somehow reading a classic as well. I found it absolutely crucial that someone should introduce Batyushkov to the West after reading his poems. France did an excellent job not only presenting/introducing Batyushkov but also in translating his poems. I would strongly recommend this book to readers fond of Russian literature, poetry, and semi-academic works. I didn’t find it exclusive by any means, it was accessible and interesting.

Iain M. Banks by Paul Kincaid | Book Review

32828220This book is a part of the Modern Masters of Science Fiction series published by the University of Illinois Press. Earlier works included Gerry Canavan’s book on Octavia E. Bulter (2016), Jad Smith’s close reading of Alfred Bester (2016), and many others. This work on Banks is scheduled for publication on May 30 and is currently available for pre-order on Amazon.

This book is an academic work, and I can say with confidence that Paul Kincaid is Iain M. Banks’s biggest fan. This book has been written with so much passion. Kincaid writes an in-depth analysis as a product of very detailed close reading. Kincaid is a life-long critic of science fiction. He has reviewed hundreds of science fiction works, been featured in sci-fi magazines, and has contributed to critical anthologies. In addition, he has been the administrator for the Arthur C. Clarke Award from 1995 to 2006 following up this prestigious position with an anthology he edited on each of the first 18 award winners, The Arthur C. Clarke Award: A Critical Anthology (anth 2006).

This non-fiction book is divided in five sections (or long chapters). It begins with an introduction to Banks and a biographical piece on him—which is quite necessary considering thus far no biography of Banks exists. What particularly pulled at my heart strings and got my immediate attention was that Kincaid started with Banks’s public post after finding out he has a late stage of gall bladder cancer giving him a limited time.

The biographical chapter is followed by three comprehensive chapters on the history, theory, and philosophy of Banks’s works. Kincaid situates Banks in both the science fiction community as well as in a larger cultural spectrum. He takes apart the Culture Series and examines the ways Banks was influenced by historical and political events, and how he in turn influenced others. Kincaid brings in works by other theorists, other writers (H.G. Wells, T.S. Eliot, and J.R.R. Tolkien among them) who have influenced Banks, and subsequently the ways his own works predicted 9/11 and the dominant fear/anxieties after.  Lastly, Kincaid examines the aftermath of Banks’s death in 2013 and his last work written: The Quarry, which was published posthumously, and the new and emerging sci-fi writers, that he himself influenced, like China Miéville.

The last section of this book is an extended interview via email correspondence between Iain M. Banks and Jude Roberts who was working on a Ph.D. thesis. The interview occurred between April-June of 2010 and even though a copy of it appeared in Strange Horizons in 2014, this copy is an extended version. In this interview Banks gives his opinion of writers he enjoyed growing up, theorists, women sci-fi writers who influenced him, and the general reception and process of writing his own works.

What I particularly enjoyed about this work was that Kincaid left no stone unturned. Every article, epitaph, critical essay, previous academic work, and/or interview that exists with or about Iain M. Banks, has been acknowledged in this work in one form or another.

I would highly recommend this book on Iain M. Banks (and Iain Banks as Kincaid discusses the difference between the two publication names of the author) to academic universities with courses in Science Fiction as a thorough and comprehensive study of Banks’s work. I would also recommend this book to fans of Banks, particularly those who have read a majority of his works. If you want to know more about Banks and how others have interpreted his works I would also recommend this book, with the suggestion that you read at least The Wasp Factory and Consider Phlebas, as those two works are the most discussed two in this academic book.

Many thanks to the University of Illinois Press for sending me an ARC of this book for review.

Plath and Hughes | Opinion

“The scholars want the anatomy of the birth of the poetry; and the vast potential audience want her blood, hair, touch, smell, and a front seat in the kitchen where she died…neither audience makes me feel she owes them anything.”

–Ted Hughes, The Observer, November 21, 1971

“It’s hard to read the original manuscript without trying to understand what Hughes was thinking when he left out certain poems and included others. She loved him. He hurt her. All of us who love her work are caught like children in that crossfire forever.” 

-Los Angeles Times

Last Tuesday, April 11 The Guardian posted one article around 4:00 p.m. written from an objective standpoint by Danuta Kean titled “Unseen Sylvia Plath letters claim domestic abuse by Ted Huges” showing how some letters to Plath’s therapist (Barnhouse) from Plath herself suggest that Hughes was physically abusive just before her miscarriage. Shortly after, The Guardian followed up with an opinion piece, only four hours later, by Sarah Churchwell titled: “Sylvia Plath, a voice that can’t be silenced” where Churchwell dives a little deeper in the dynamics of the marriage and draws on her own research. On Wednesday, The Guardian published a third paper that was more from a gender studies point of view by Rafia Zakaria titled: “Sylvia Plath’s letters probably won’t harm Ted Hughes’s reputation” where the article criticizes some of Plath’s biographers for placing much blame on Plath in the deteriorating of the marriage, and society in general. All three articles are linked if you are interested in following.

I read all the comments under the three articles with a lot of interest. I wanted to know what do readers who are part of the ‘Hughes’ or ‘Plath’ fandoms think about the three articles, and the dynamics of this relationship as it fits with the poets’ artwork. I extracted from it three dominant comments which I find crucial to discuss. To sum up, these were the dominant three reactions:

  1. Seriously, who cares?
  2. Plath killed herself because of Hughes, as did his mistress, and son.
  3. Hughes is a monster, not even surprised.

Before I try to address the three questions I would fist like to tell you where I stand. First, I love the poetry of Plath. You may have noticed in my “favourites” list that she is the first person that came to my mind. Of Hughes’s work I have read Crow, The Birthday Letters, and The Iron Man, whereas I have read Plath’s entire corpus (including letters/diary entries) so I cannot pretend to be an expert on Hughes. I have glanced at some of his other works but did not finish them. Her use of language stuck with me since six years ago when I discovered her and through most of my undergrad and grad school I have written most of my essays on her poetry, her print culture (comparing various editions of her work), and even on her tombstone which is often chipped away at by fans. Hughes to me, doesn’t quite cut it. I tried reading his works and they did not have an impact. I found that fans are often divided in the two teams, whether it’s Plath vs. Hughes, British vs. American, Women vs. Men, with the occasional: I like neither, or I like both but don’t care about their life.

Secondly I would like to present the disclaimer that I cannot discuss mental illness or pretend that I’m an expert on it, or apply what happened to Plath to all depressed/suicide cases. I do not romanticize suicide. I will only discuss the relationship and biography of the two poets AS POETS and why it matters (or doesn’t) when discussing their poetry as literature, in an academic setting.

That said, I would like to address the three points above:

  1. Who cares?

At first it seems like we all just thrive on drama and that’s what’s interesting. I certainly thought so for a while, until I realized that the ‘who cares’ question is part of the division I mentioned earlier. The truth is, Plath and Hughes were working on different kinds of poetry. Hughes was working on classical/mythological re-workings like those of Ovid; he was writing rhythmically, and building on a larger British Tradition of what was expected of a poet laureate. So if you like Hughes and his work then frankly, you shouldn’t care because Tales from Ovid, The Iron Man, Lupercal, Cave Birds…among others, exist within a contained context of what is on the page and in response to a larger Western Tradition—he was highly influenced by the Romans and his poetry resembles that of Keats, Shelley, or the more recent Seamus Heaney (to me). Unless you’re reading The Birthday Letters, it really doesn’t matter—as our teachers/professors tell us time and time again: biography of the author/poet shouldn’t affect our reading of their art. True. Yes. EXCEPT in one case. This case includes poets: Anne Sexton, Robert Lowell (Plath’s prof), Allen Ginsberg, John Berryman, W.D. Snodgrass, and Sylvia Plath. They were working on a different kind of poetry known as “Confessional Poetry.” This movement was mostly composed of American Poets in the 1950s and ‘60s who wrote ‘poetry of the personal.’ This personal poetry often didn’t rhyme and dealt with topics like: depression, sexuality, abuse, suicide attempts/thoughts, trauma, and things that were highly private and linked uniquely to one’s biography. Unlike poets like Hughes, these poets were drawing solely from personal experience without necessarily responding to a larger tradition. Confessional Poetry is the only time where the poet invites you to learn about their life and invites you to tie it into their artwork. So to answer the question ‘who cares?’ the answer is: people studying confessional poetry. They care about biography, because it’s important, because it’s connected, and because it sheds light and meaning on the artwork. I need to know that Plath was hospitalized in a white room where someone brought her these red tulips that stuck out like an eyesore, for me to understand “the tulips are excitable” in her poem “The Tulips” or that her father was German and a beekeeper which fuels her Holocaust references in “Daddy,” or the ways he was referenced in The Bee Poems. And perhaps understanding that the two poets (Plath and Hughes) were working on something different makes sense of why Plath fans are very interested in biography, while Hughes fans might not be.

  1. She killed herself because (or for) Hughes.

Plath at Smith

Claims like these, though kind of directed at ‘shaming’ Hughes, to me come across as demeaning to Plath. First of all, she wasn’t a love-struck Juliet figure who killed herself because a man left her. She was a very intelligent woman, and had a history of mental illness and suicide attempts. Claiming she ‘killed herself for Hughes’ or to prove a point comes from a reductive understanding of Plath, and a reductive understanding of mental illness.

Plath went to Smith College on scholarship for academic excellence (she wrote her paper on Ulysses). She got electric shock therapy (without anesthesia) which right now is illegal. She attempted suicide once when she was much younger. Her second suicide attempt was by overdosing on pills and she hid beneath the house porch. She was gone for three days, and was in the newspapers as ‘missing.’ They gave her electrical shock therapy again. She then went to Cambridge in England on a Fulbright Scholarship (very prestigious) where she met Hughes. Her thesis was on Fyodor Dostoevsky’s figure of The Double demonstrated through Yakov Petrovich Golyadkin’s character in The Double and Ivan Fyodorovitch Karamazov in The Brothers Karamazov.  This is an excerpt from her introduction in her thesis “The Magic Mirror:”

“It is this dangerous embodiment of the Double in two of Dostoyevsky’s novels which is the subject of our paper. The device of the Double, although an omen of doom, is instructive since it often reveals hitherto concealed character traits in a radical manner and thus frequently throws unreconciled inner conflicts into sharper relief. However, the recurrence of the double personality in Dostoevsky’s novels is more than a mere technique for clarifying the psychic oppositions; it is the core of Dostoyevsky’s own polemical philosophy.”

I think sometimes Plath is reduced to this ‘revenge-kick’ stereotype of a dismissed woman looking for attention. Just look at how Norton’s character talks to Darla in Fight Club like yeah, yeah, we’re all dying, Sylvia Plath. As if she was just looking for attention. She’s just as often stereotyped as “teen” literature because of The Bell Jar (which is a memoir reflecting on her teen years). This is a horrible reduction. That’s like judging Jean-Paul Sartre on Le Mots (The Words) only and clumping all of his later work and philosophy in that category.  It’s just not fair. Plath was an adult, Smith/Cambridge-educated woman with a career, she wrote a thesis on Dostoevsky, and was extremely well-versed in American, British, and Russian Literature. To look at her like she’s the teenage girl from Thirteen Reasons Why (which got criticism on its own as well), is just not comparable.

To return to my original point, while Hughes was an important part of her life, he cannot be blamed for her death because she had a history of attempting it, a history of depression, and they had already been separated for five full months.

“I have done it again.

One year in every ten

I manage it—

…I am only thirty.

And like the cat I have nine times to die.

This is Number Three.” – Lady Lazarus

Secondly, to say that she killed herself for a man is something that demeans a woman of Plath’s stature (or any woman) immensely. She was so intelligent and capable, and was part of an emerging new group of poets—which she pretty much dominates now—that to say ‘she killed herself for Hughes/because of Hughes’ would be offensive to Plath herself and her ambitions for herself (based on the biographies I’ve read of her). Suicide is a result of mental illness and Plath wanted us to pay attention to that. Her poetry calls for mental health awareness, and paying attention to one’s life..

Point #3: Ted Hughes is a monster.

Zakaria’s article suggests that his reputation doesn’t get affected by the appearance of the new letters, while some in the comment sections painted Hughes as ‘monster.’ Maybe he was driven to do things like the biographers say, maybe his reputation is ruined or not like Zakaria says. I don’t know so I am not going to pretend I do. I wasn’t there. He gets blamed for burning Plath’s diaries from her last two years, and for many other things including the death of Plath, his mistress Assia Wevill (and her child), and subsequently Nick Hughes (son with Plath).

I myself am thankful for Ted Hughes for one reason and one only: he published Sylvia Plath’s Ariel and Collected Poems, and that is enough for me. He could have easily kept the manuscript to himself, burnt it, or never have worked on it. However, he did no such thing. He decided to publish them and in the end those last two published works made Plath the iconic figure she is today. The Collected Poems got her the Pulitzer Prize (which she got posthumously in 1982). The publication or Ariel coincided with the rise of second wave feminism and that is how the two stories clashed and combined. Fans of Plath rarely let Hughes forget, and if The Birthday Letters isn’t enough proof that he didn’t exactly have a fun time after 1963 then let’s just be thankful that he published Ariel which made Plath an icon and famous, as well as The Collected Poems. In discussing this with a friend I received the retort “so a bad person did a good thing, does that make his behaviour excusable?” Obviously not, if he was abusive then I would not (and currently do not) celebrate him. I don’t hail him as a ‘great man’  and like I mentioned, his poetry isn’t one that sticks with me anyway—but if it’s his poetry you like then his biography shouldn’t affect the Hughes side because his poetry doesn’t demand it like Plath’s does.  This excerpt from Churchwell’s article highlights an important aspect of this dilemma for us readers:

“the facts may alter with new evidence, but mostly it’s our interpretations that have altered. Our ideas — about feminism, marriage, mental illness, suicide and domestic violence — change and with them or attitudes towards Plath and Hughes.”

To remember that this was the ’60s when women weren’t even allowed to run marathons, have a bank account, or attend universities without signatures from spouses, perhaps Hughes can be seen as progressive by supporting his wife’s literary career. I hope I explained in this post the ways in which I think it’s important to examine this relationship, biography in confessional poetry, and for what purpose.

I would love to know what other people think about this. And if you see another comment in those articles that irked you, why did it? Or in this one. Perhaps I have said things that you found to be untrue in your experience of reading the two poets. If yes, how so? These were the three comments that got to me, but I would love to know what you think.

Other Resources on Plath and Hughes:

Interview with Plath and Hughes

Lecture given at the University of Toronto by Professor Nick Mount.

Sylvia Plath Archives

John Green’s analysis of Plath’s poetry

Discussion of Jonathan Bate’s recent (2015) biography of Hughes: Ted Hughes: The Unauthorised Life

Plath reading my favourite four: “Lady Lazarus,” “The Applicant,” “Daddy” and “A Birthday Present

Audible: Ted Hughes reading his own Crow, Plath’s Biography pre-Hughes Mad Girl’s Love Song, The Bell Jar (read by Maggie Gyllenhaal), Her Husband, Hughes and Plath, A Marriage