Inside the Whale and Other Essays by George Orwell

To write in plain, vigorous language one has to think fearlessly, and if one thinks fearlessly one cannot be politically orthodox. (The Prevention of Literature)

Orwell wrote hundreds of essays, reviews and articles which, since his death in 1950, have been repackaged in a number of formats. This selection dates from 1957 and contains some of his greatest hits. It’s notable that most of these come from the war years. By this stage, after a decade of writing so-so novels and the three great works of reportage (Down and Out in Paris and London, The Road to Wigan Pier, Homage to Catalonia) he had found his voice and writing style – a frank, common sense left-wing persona conveyed in attractively straightforward prose.

Orwell wrote a staggering number of book reviews, theatre reviews, film reviews, as well as a large number of opinion pieces, besides his long works of reportage and the novels. For decades after his premature death in 1950 various selections of these essays have been gathered. When I was a boy in the 1970s Penguin published four volumes of the Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell, comprising:

  • Volume 1: An Age Like This, 1920-1940
  • Volume 2: My Country Right or Left, 1940-1943
  • Volume 3: As I Please, 1943-1945
  • Volume 4: In Front of Your Nose, 1945-1950

They seemed expensive (and big) to me at the time so I never bought them which I now regret. Penguin also offered two shorter paperback collections, Inside The Whale and Other Essays and The Decline of the English Murder and Other Essays.

In the 1990s all these collections were rendered obsolete by the publication of the heroic lifework of Orwell scholar Peter Davison – no fewer than 20 volumes of the Complete Works of George Orwell. The first ten or so contain the novels and other book-length works – the remaining 10 volumes collect not only every known essay, but all the poems, all the letters and all the diary entries for each of the two or three-year periods they cover. If you have these books, you have everything. And each one is around 600 pages long. Orwell wrote a lot.

Inside the Whale is a much shorter, simpler selection of just nine essays which was originally published in 1957 and reissued by Penguin in 1962, a nifty 200 pages long.

It contains excerpts from two longer works – from the documentary reportage The Road To Wigan Pier and the political tract The Lion and The Unicorn – along with seven other stand-alone essays, as follows:

Inside the Whale

This is a long review of the novel Tropic of Cancer, published in 1935 the by American writer Henry Miller. It’s the largely autobiographical ‘story’ of a penniless American author in Paris, living from hand to mouth in a milieu of brothels, cheap bars and other cadgers and chancers. It was banned when Orwell reviewed it because its pages are stuffed with (then banned) swearwords as well as obscenely graphic descriptions of sex. Surprisingly, the highly political Orwell declares the irresponsibly hedonist Tropic of Cancer an important book which everyone should read. In order to explain why, Orwell has to step back and give a brief overview of the development of English literature in the previous 40 years or so.

First the Edwardian era, which he sees as being dominated by ‘beer-and-nature’ writers, the Georgian poets, John Masefield, Edward Thomas and so on. (Orwell gives no sociological explanation for this ‘movement’, though my understanding is that the trend towards English nature writing in the first decade of the 20th century was a backlash against the very urban decadence, the Yellow Book atmosphere and the Oscar Wilde trial of the 1890s.) As his exemplar Orwell gives a long summary of the timeless appeal of the Shropshire Lad poems of A.E. Housman.

Post Great War, Orwell here – as in many places – emphasises the extraordinary bitterness between the generations, the older generation still puffing on about Empire and honour, the younger generation bitterly disillusioned by what they’d seen. The movement’ of the 1920s consisted of startling individuals – Joyce, Eliot, Pound, Lawrence, Wyndham, Lewis, Aldous Huxley. If one thing characterised this disparate group it was pessimism combined with highly experimental technique – itself a sort of embodiment of the collapse of traditional forms.

They dominated the 1920s. Then, very abruptly, after the Wall Street Crash, there emerged a completely new generation of young poets and novelists, dominated by the energetic socially conscious poetry of W.H. Auden. Auden, Stephen Spender, Cecil Day Lewis, Louis MacNeice, all close friends who reviewed each other’s works, the Auden gang reverted to traditional forms, easily understandable diction, and the conviction that literature must be engaged and purposeful – they were all left-wing and some toyed with communist beliefs.

This sweeping overview of the literary scene is firm, confident and helps you grasp the basic outline of the decades since 1900 – but it also leaves you, as with so much Orwell, with the feeling that he’s simplifying things and leaving things out. You don’t have to be a feminist to feel he’s left out any women writers, chief of whom should be Virginia Woolf. And he mentions other Edwardian writers – Moore, Conrad, Bennett, Wells, Norman Douglas – simply to say they’d shot their bolt before the war began. Probably. And doesn’t mention Rudyard Kipling whose personality – from everything I read – dominated the Edwardian era. Or John Galsworthy who was writing his long series The Forsyte Saga from 1906 onwards, and was so esteemed as a writer that he won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Anyway, having given an entertaining caricature of the literature of the 1920s and 30s Orwell gets back to the point. He confidently states that the coming war will tear to pieces western civilisation. This is a feeling which dominates his 1939 novel Coming Up For Air. But it is not just the war that worries him, it is what will happen after the war, which he fears will see a revolution and maybe the advent of some kind of totalitarian society. This fear is based on the existence of totalitarian states in Russia and Germany, the feeling that many aspects of a mechanised society call for strong centralised authority, and the tendencies he sees around him in contemporary England. In this scenario, it is unlikely that the ‘liberal’ literature of his day will survive.

Back to the Miller novel: Orwell praises Tropic of Cancer because it honestly describes the squalid everyday thoughts in most people’s head, the everyday worries and fidgets, without any glamour, without any political purpose. Its protagonist spends his time cadging money, getting drunk, smoking fags, scrounging for food. Thus the novel stands completely outside the trend for highly politicised poems and novels of the 1930s, even in America it stands apart from the politicised novels of John Dos Passos and so on. It comes from a writer who accepts that civilisation is ending and doesn’t care. Acceptance of life as it is for most people – dirty, cheap, sordid, sex, defecating, scrounging money, setting people up – this is the everyday concern of his ‘hero’, and screw the rest.

Orwell then pauses his analysis to invoke the Bible story of Jonah in the whale (it isn’t a whale in the Bible, it is simply referred to as a fish). In Orwell’s reading this legend is so popular because the whale represents the womb. Maybe this is why the story has such a fairy tale feel and has endured so long, stripped of all religious meaning. It is a symbol of the womb, safe and warm and secure.

Bringing all these strands together, Orwell concludes that Miller is inside the whale – he accepts the decline and fall of the West and he doesn’t give a damn, he just describes life the way it is experienced by millions of average non-intellectual people. In its lack of highbrow content, in its lack of political engagement, in its lack of liberal worry and concern, in its avoidance of everything which obsesses the ‘responsible’ literature of the 1930s, Tropic of Cancer may well be, says Orwell, a harbinger of the literature of the future. A novel of proletarian acceptance and passivity.

Thoughts Orwell’s sweeping generalisations about the Modernist generation and then about the Auden generation are confident and compelling and contain loads of insights. But the fundamental premise of this and so much of Orwell’s writing – that western capitalism is crumbling before our eyes, that it is finished, that it must and will be overthrown and replaced with some form of socialism – turned out to be deeply and profoundly untrue. Sure the post-war Attlee government nationalised medicine and other key industries, but after six exhausting years the British people threw them out and elected the usual parade of public schoolboys. The banks weren’t nationalised. The Stock Exchange stands where it’s always been. All the public schools remained, churning out pukka chaps to run government, ministries, the army and the British Empire for another generation.

Orwell’s comments and insights into contemporary writers have a kind of sixth-form brilliance but tend to remind you of what you already knew; or, on closer examination, turn out to gloss over all kinds of exceptions and complexities (all the writers he leaves out in order to make his generational point); or are telling enough, but belong to the world of 80 years ago, a world as remote, to all practical purposes as Dickens’s London.

Down the Mine (1937)

This is an excerpt from chapter two of Orwell’s 1937 work of reportage, The Road to Wigan Pier, in which he summarises the experience of going down a coalmine, the collation of Orwell’s visits to three different northern coalmines in February 1937.

The whole chapter opens with a typically ringing Orwell statement –

Our civilization, pace Chesterton, is founded on coal, more completely than one realizes until one stops to think about it. The machines that keep us alive, and the machines that make machines, are all directly or indirectly dependent upon coal. In the metabolism of the Western world the coal-miner is second in importance only to the man who ploughs the soil.

None of this is true any more. Our civilisation is built on oil, extracted and refined in faraway countries, notably the Middle East where we are doomed to be embroiled for the foreseeable future.

Hard and grim reading though the chapter is, it is of purely historical interest, like a description of a Victorian cotton factory, or of life in the trenches, or onboard a slave ship.

England Your England (1941)

This is section one of the long political essay The Lion and The Unicorn, which Orwell wrote as the Second World War got underway and which was published in 1941. The aim of the book was to show that a socialist revolution was not only an option but vital to winning the war because Hitler and Stalin’s totalitarianisms had shown how effective strong, centrally planned economies are at waging war – the only hope for Britain to fight back was for us also to create a strong centrally planned economy and the only way that could happen was if there was some kind of socialist revolution.

Here, as in all his predictions, Orwell was dead wrong. Sure, production in a whole range of British industries was redirected by the wartime coalition into a centrally co-ordinated war effort. But it was all done without the government actually taking over any of these concerns and it was all done under a profoundly reactionary Conservative Prime Minister.

These political ideas are argued through in parts two and three of the essay and their demonstrable falseness is part of the reason they are rarely reprinted. The aim of part one was to establish the nature of the English character as a starting block before going on to explain why the English revolution would take place with English characteristics.

These thirty or so pages are, then, a preliminary to the book’s central argument and consist of a loving and nostalgic summary of all aspects of the English character. It is a very forgiving portrait. The main drift is that, although Orwell claims the law is rotten and ‘democracy’ is a sham and capitalism is coming to an end – in fact, when you look at it, the law is not completely – not as corrupt as in a dictatorship; in fact the law still plays a central life of even the lowest crook – a sharp contrast with the totalitarian states where there is, in effect, no law.

Similarly, he repeats the standard left-wing view that the newspapers are the voice-pieces for their capitalist owners, but he is forced to admit that they don’t actually take bribes. He contrasts the relative honesty of serious English newspapers with the French press, which he says was openly bought and sold in the 1930s.

The standout passages are where Orwell lauds numerous aspects of English culture in a fondly critical way – our philistinism, lack of philosophical thought, our poor records in the arts (especially music), the refusal of the English to learn other languages, our fondness for hobbies especially gardening, and so on. Though hedged with barbs and criticisms, this long essay is in effect a wide-ranging and forcefully expressed love letter to England and that is why it has proved so popular.

Late in the essay he develops a theory about why England’s recent leaders have been so rubbish – the English upper classes have simply refused to see that times have changed: if they did they would realise that they have to change too; they would realise the social and economic conditions which supported a landed aristocracy in the 1850s or 60s have simply ceased to exist.

Instead the English ruling class retreated into stupidity, the stupidity of the upper class idiots who ran the First World War, the captains of industry who didn’t know how to modernise in the 1920s, the buffoons who let the largest empire the world has ever seen drift rudderless between the wars, and the half-treacherous politicians who prostrated themselves before Hitler. Chaps like Lord Halifax (Eton and Oxford) or Neville Chamberlain (Rugby) didn’t know what to do with Hitler because he wasn’t a chap from a nice public school like them. He represented the revolutionary aspects of the modern world which were precisely what the English upper classes had taught themselves not to acknowledge or understand.

This is plausible and darkly funny; like so much of Orwell’s essays it contains dazzling generalisations, biting criticism and an underlying current of ironic amusement. But, of course, every single one of its modern readers reads it with a condescending smile. Nobody alive today identifies with this poncey upper class. Like so much satire, nobody applies it to themselves.

Thus, the essay’s barbs about the English character can be shrugged aside by most readers: as the political analysis a) doesn’t apply to me b) was all 80 years ago — all that remains is the love letter – and hence its enduring popularity among nostalgic readers of all stripes.

Shooting an Elephant (1936)

A short account of an incident during Orwell’s time as an officer in the Indian Police stationed in Burma. An elephant goes rogue, rampaging through the market and killing a native. Orwell is compelled to do something and sends for a rifle to protect himself. But his presence, and even more the arrival of the gun, help draw a huge crowd and then create an enormous sense of expectation.

And all of a sudden Orwell feels a fool and a fake. Thousands of natives are watching him expecting him to do something decisive. And Orwell feels as never before that the imperialist, the sahib, is compelled into this absurd role.

I perceived in this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys. He becomes a sort of hollow, posing dummy, the conventionalized figure of a sahib. For it is the condition of his rule that he shall spend his life in trying to impress the ‘natives’, and so in every crisis he has got to do what the ‘natives’ expect of him. He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it. I had got to shoot the elephant. I had committed myself to doing it when I sent for the rifle. A sahib has got to act like a sahib; he has got to appear resolute, to know his own mind and do definite things. To come all that way, rifle in hand, with two thousand people marching at my heels, and then to trail feebly away, having done nothing – no, that was impossible. The crowd would laugh at me. And my whole life, every white man’s life in the East, was one long struggle not to be laughed at. (p.96)

So, despite not wanting to do it with every nerve in his body, Orwell ends up shooting the elephant so as not to be ridiculed, to keep the British end up, to play the good sahib. What makes it infinitely worse is that the elephant proves horribly resilient and even after Orwell has emptied the rifle into it, plus a load of revolver bullets, still takes half an hour to painfully die.

Leaving Orwell revolted with himself, his cowardice and the absurd system which placed him in such a ridiculous situation.

Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool (1947)

Towards the end of his life, in 1903 the famous Russian novelist and spiritual writer Leo Tolstoy wrote an essay summarising a lifelong dislike for Shakespeare. (Like so many writers and critics he doesn’t let it lie with a personal dislike, but goes on to assert why everyone must dislike Shakespeare, because he is naturally bad. In fact he calls Shakespeare evil.)

Orwell is struck by the way Tolstoy singles out King Lear as the focus of his attack, giving a misleading and crude summary of the plot in order to support his claims that Lear – and Shakespeare – are

stupid, verbose, unnatural, unintelligible, bombastic, vulgar, tedious and full of incredible events, ‘wild ravings’, ‘mirthless jokes’, anachronisms, irrelevancies, obscenities, worn-out stage conventions and other faults both moral and aesthetic.

Psychological Orwell draws attention to the parallels between Lear and Tolstoy himself who, famously, gave away his land, money, the copyrights in his writings and tried to get closer to God by living the simple life of a peasant. In the event, his renunciation didn’t bring him freedom as he continued to be harried and nagged by those around him to carry out his duties (and keep his money). Shakespeare’s play is remarkably similar in outline, describing King Lear’s attempt to give away his royal power which leads to humiliation and degradation – rubbed home by various other characters in the play, not least the Fool. Lear’s story, in other words, tends to undermine the central moral act of Tolstoy’s life: it attacks Tolstoy at his most sensitive spot.

(This is an unusually psychological approach for Orwell, whose criticism is usually characterised by a political, semi-Marxist approach i.e. the importance of economics and class as determining factors in an author’s work).

The Christian versus humanist worldview The essay goes on to draw a general contrast between Tolstoy’s born-again Christian viewpoint and Shakespeare’s broad humanism. After his conversion Tolstoy thought that he (and all mankind) ought to narrow down their lives to the single aim of striving to live the good, holy life of simplicity and devotion to God.

His [Tolstoy’s] main aim, in his later years, was to narrow the range of human consciousness. One’s interests, one’s points of attachment to the physical world and the day-to-day struggle, must be as few and not as many as possible. Literature must consist of parables, stripped of detail and almost independent of language. (p.109)

His later writings in this vein amount to a kind of ‘spiritual bullying’.

Shakespeare, by contrast, is fascinated by the teeming profusion of life. Shakespeare may or may not have been a Christian – it’s impossible to tell from either the plays or the Sonnets – but his writing is characterised by an astonishing curiosity about all aspects of human life and experience expressed in a fantastic profusion of language.

If one has once read Shakespeare with attention, it is not easy to go a day without quoting him, because there are not many subjects of major importance that he does not discuss or at least mention somewhere or other, in his unsystematic but illuminating way. Even the irrelevancies that litter every one of his plays – the puns and riddles, the lists of names, the scraps of ‘reportage’ like the conversation of the carriers in Henry IV the bawdy jokes, the rescued fragments of forgotten ballads – are merely the products of excessive vitality.

The clash between Shakespeare’s worldly profusion, its ‘irreligious, earthbound nature’ and Tolstoy’s vehement rejection of the world – this world against the next – is the eternal clash between the religious worldview and the humanist worldview.

Orwell finishes with some sentiments which anticipate Nineteen Eighty-Four – that it wasn’t enough for Tolstoy to dislike Shakespeare; he had to concoct the most powerful case possible against him, he had to get inside the minds of Shakespeare devotees and do as much damage to him as possible.

He will do dirt on Shakespeare, if he can. He will try to get inside the mind of every lover of Shakespeare and kill his enjoyment by every trick he can think of, including—as I have shown in my summary of his pamphlet—arguments which are self-contradictory or even doubtfully honest. (p.119)

Politics vs. Literature: An Examination of Gulliver’s Travels (1946)

This is a fascinating essay flowing with insights into Swift’s politics and personality as revealed by a close reading of Gulliver’s Travels. There is no doubt Swift was a reactionary and a misanthrope, but Orwell has found himself coming back to Gullivers Travels again and again, and partly the essay is an exploration of why he is so beguiled by an author who, on paper, he ought to disagree with.

For a start Orwell identifies Swift as a religious reactionary, and defines the type as:

people who defend an unjust order of Society by claiming that this world cannot be substantially improved and only the ‘next world’ matters.

This arises after a lengthy consideration of Swift’s dislike of the contemporary world of his day (the early 1700s), his contempt for contemporary politicians and his especial hatred of ‘science’ which he regards as completely useless.

Orwell entertainingly points out the similarity between Swift’s anti-science and the attitude of religious writers of the 1940s. A tactic of religious writers through the ages is to say that experts in other (scientific) fields shouldn’t meddle in theology e.g. Richard Dawkins may know all about evolution but his views on religion are worthless; he shouldn’t meddle in areas where he isn’t an expert. Orwell brings out the implication of this line of argument which is that the ‘theology’ which religious writers practice and preach is as solidly factual and undisputed as, say, chemistry or physics – when it very obviously isn’t.

This, Orwell comments, is:

the note of the popular Catholic apologists who profess to be astonished when a scientist utters an opinion on such questions as the existence of God or the immortality of the soul. The scientist, we are told, is an expert only in one restricted field: why should his opinions be of value in any other? The implication is that theology is just as much an exact science as, for instance, chemistry, and that the priest is also an expert whose conclusions on certain subjects must be accepted.

After many scattered insights into Swift’s personality and writings, this essay – like so many of Orwell’s – veers round to finally focus on Orwell’s Number One Obsession – the totalitarian state. Orwell makes the surprising suggestion that Gulliver’s Travels contains uncanny predictions of the essential qualities of totalitarianism:

Swift’s greatest contribution to political thought in the narrower sense of the words, is his attack, especially in Part III, on what would now be called totalitarianism. He has an extraordinarily clear prevision of the spy-haunted ‘police State’, with its endless heresy-hunts and treason trials, all really designed to neutralize popular discontent by changing it into war hysteria.

In Orwell’s view, Swift anticipated the notion that, in a pacifist or anarchist society, with few if any laws, there is a tyranny of public opinion. Everyone believes X and huge psychological and/or emotional pressure is brought on you to believe X, too. Anyone not believing X hasn’t broken any laws, because there are no laws. He or she is just excommunicated from society. Thus the Houyhnhnms, the horse-like ideal creatures of part IV of Gulliver’s Travels:

had reached, in fact, the highest stage of totalitarian organization, the stage when conformity has become so general that there is no need for a police force.

Finally, Orwell returns to where he started: Why, if Swift’s vision is so nihilistic and reactionary, does he still love him so much? Orwell concludes that even if you profoundly disagree with a writer’s worldview, as long as they are not actually mad, and are capable of continuous i.e coherent thought – then the key criterion is conviction. Conviction and sincerity in a writer can often make the unappealing or antipathetic, strangely powerful and appealing.

His attitude is in effect the Christian attitude, minus the bribe of a ‘next world’ – which, however, probably has less hold upon the minds of believers than the conviction that this world is a vale of tears and the grave is a place of rest. It is, I am certain, a wrong attitude, and one which could have harmful effects upon behaviour; but something in us responds to it, as it responds to the gloomy words of the burial service and the sweetish smell of corpses in a country church…

The views that a writer holds must be compatible with sanity, in the medical sense, and with the power of continuous thought: beyond that what we ask of him is talent, which is probably another name for conviction. Swift did not possess ordinary wisdom, but he did possess a terrible intensity of vision, capable of picking out a single hidden truth and then magnifying it and distorting it.

Having just read Peter Davison’s selection of Orwell’s journalism, Seeing Things As They Are, I know that this is a criterion Orwell returns to again and again – personal conviction is the fundamental bedrock of a ‘good’ writer: even if you completely disagree with their worldview or politics, the sincerity of their writings can still win your admiration.

Politics and the English Language (1946)

Orwell starts from the premise that western civilisation is going down the tube and part of that decadence is the decline of the English language. Well, that was eighty years ago and we’re still here and managing to write books and talk to each other. A certain type of person is always lamenting the death of English, conservatives with a small c.

Orwell gives five examples of terrible writing from his day, and then gives a handy list of the bad techniques they use:

  1. Dying metaphors. New metaphors make us see the world anew, but dead metaphors give the impression of imagination or perceptiveness while in fact remaining inert.
  2. Operators or verbal false limbs: replacing simple verbs with verb phrases such as ‘render inoperative’, ‘militate against’, ‘prove unacceptable’, ‘make contact with’, ‘be subjected to’ and so on. In addition, the number of verbs is being reduced – by using the passive over the active voice, using noun constructions instead of gerunds (‘by examination of’ instead of ‘by examining’ – sounds more scientific) and so on. Simple conjunctions and prepositions are replaced by such phrases as ‘with respect to’, ‘having regard to’, ‘the fact that’, ‘in view of’ etc. The ends of sentences are saved from anti-climax by resounding commonplaces like ‘greatly to be desired’, ‘cannot be left out of account’. In our own time I reach for my gun every time someone says ‘going forward’.
  3. Pretentious diction:
    1. Verbs like ‘exploit’, ‘utilize’, ‘eliminate’ are used to dress up simple statements and give an air of scientific impartiality to biased judgments.
    2. Adjectives like ‘epoch-making’, ‘historic’, ‘triumphant’ are used to dignify the sordid processes of international politics.
    3. Foreign words and expressions such as ancien regime, deus ex machina, mutatis mutandis, are used to give an air of culture and elegance.
  4. Meaningless words: Orwell singles out art criticism for its vague emptiness, but also key political terms which have become almost meaningless, like ‘fascist’, ‘freedom’, ‘democracy’.

These trends can be summarised.

The whole tendency of modern prose is away from concreteness. (p.150)

People use longer words and ready-made phrases because they sound grand. Also you don’t have to think about them so much. Modern discourse is full of identikit elements. Modern

prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen-house. (p.145)

The more examples he gives us the more it becomes clear Orwell’s critique is targeted mainly at the grandiose verbosity of the Soviet Union and its communist defenders in the West – with some side dishes knocking the mealy-mouthed euphemisms used to conceal the brutality of the British Empire or – a new appearance in his list of enemies – the American use of atomic bombs on Japan.

Then he gives us his set of six rules which will help us purify our writing style and our thinking:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything barbarous.

Comments As usual with Orwell you get the feeling that he is an amateur trespassing into a vast and specialised field: linguistics, psychology, brain science, communication theory and much more have grown up since his day. It may be true that bad style corrupts language and that this damages thought, but it is a typically sweeping generalisation that actually raises far more issues than it settles.

Although the article starts out appearing to be about language in general, it soon becomes clear that Orwell is thinking of political journalism, reporting and speech-making and, even more specifically, is criticising the obfuscations of the hard-left defenders of the Soviet Union in particular.

His claim is that most contemporary political discourse is designed to hide things.

Political language – and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists – is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.

I’m not saying this isn’t true, just wondering when it has ever not been true? Political speeches and writings of the 17th, 18th or 19th centuries, were they all better expressed and therefore more honest? As usual, Orwell’s points are interesting, thought-provoking and forcefully expressed – but leave you suspecting they are a gross simplification of extremely complex ideas and issues.

The Prevention of Literature (1946)

Like so many of Orwell’s later essays, this reads like a kind of offcut from Nineteen Eighty-Four. Orwell attends a meeting of P.E.N. ostensibly devoted to ‘freedom of the press’ but is appalled at the mealy-mouthed lack of conviction among the speakers. Indeed he is disgusted to find so many British ‘intellectuals’ defending the USSR and Stalinist communism.

This begins his argument with the proposition that imaginative literature needs to rebel, to be heterodox, to say no to authority.

To write in plain, vigorous language one has to think fearlessly, and if one thinks fearlessly one cannot be politically orthodox. (p.168)

But instead of speaking truth to power, a worrying number of the intellectuals he sees around him censor themselves, refusing to tell the truth about the Spanish Civil War (Stalin’s communist party sabotaged the republican side), Russia’s treatment of Poland (Stalin deliberately tried to exterminate its intelligentsia) the Ukraine famine (millions died as a result of Stalin’s obsession with ‘collectivising’ agriculture) and so on.

This leads him to a consideration of how a totalitarian state requires not just total submission in the present, but requires that the past lines up to support the present ‘line’. And this leads to a paragraph which could have come straight out of Nineteen Eighty-Four.

From the totalitarian point of view history is something to be created rather than learned. A totalitarian state is in effect a theocracy, and its ruling caste, in order to keep its position, has to be thought of as infallible. But since, in practice, no one is infallible, it is frequently necessary to rearrange past events in order to show that this or that mistake was not made, or that this or that imaginary triumph actually happened. Then again, every major change in policy demands a corresponding change of doctrine and a revelation of prominent historical figures. This kind of thing happens everywhere, but is clearly likelier to lead to outright falsification in societies where only one opinion is permissible at any given moment. Totalitarianism demands, in fact, the continuous alteration of the past, and in the long run probably demands a disbelief in the very existence of objective truth. (p.164)

Exactly the situation described in the novel. This leads him on to even wilder speculation about what might be the fate of ‘literature’ in a state which was truly totalitarian over many generations. It would eventually be created by committee, or even by machines, to fulfil the iron requirements of ideology.

It is probably in some such way that the literature of a totalitarian society would be produced, if literature were still felt to be necessary. Imagination — even consciousness, so far as possible — would be eliminated from the process of writing. Books would be planned in their broad lines by bureaucrats, and would pass through so many hands that when finished they would be no more an individual product than a Ford car at the end of the assembly line. It goes without saying that anything so produced would be rubbish; but anything that was not rubbish would endanger the structure of the state. As for the surviving literature of the past, it would have to be suppressed or at least elaborately rewritten. (p.172)

Already, he says with a ghoulish shiver, modern films, radio programmes and the newfangled television are being produced by such committees – and gives the terrifying example of the Disney films.

A sort of mechanizing process can already be seen at work in the film and radio, in publicity and propaganda, and in the lower reaches of journalism. The Disney films, for instance, are produced by what is essentially a factory process, the work being done partly mechanically and partly by teams of artists who have to subordinate their individual style. (p.171)

Yes. Bambi (1942) and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) – terrifying harbingers of a totalitarian future 🙂

In Orwell’s later essays there are countless stretches which remind you of Nineteen Eighty-Four and if you read Nineteen Eighty-Four there are countless passages which remind you of passages in the essays: between the two they build up into a stiflingly self-reinforcing universe, a bubble of Orwell’s paranoid obsessions. The essay ends with a characteristically spine-chilling note of doom:

At present we know only that the imagination, like certain wild animals, will not breed in captivity. Any writer or journalist who denies that fact – and nearly all the current praise of the Soviet Union contains or implies such a denial – is, in effect, demanding his own destruction. (p.174)

He makes it sound as if the entire class of contemporary writers is rushing pell-mell into self-created gulags – and yet who were the authors of the 1930s?

Graham Greene, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Daphne du Maurier, Agatha Christie, Robert Graves, T.H. White, Virginia Woolf, Stella Gibbons, Dorothy L. Sayers, Evelyn Waugh, P.G. Wodehouse, Willie Somerset Maugham, Elizabeth Bowen, Anthony Powell and many others. None of them seem quite so terrified of the present or future as Orwell. All of them got on with writing novels for the most part untouched by the claustrophobic throbbing of Orwell’s feverish fantasies.

Boys’ Weeklies (1940)

Orwell in English nostalgia mode gives a surprisingly long and thorough review of the boys’ comics of his day which, seeing as many of them had been going for decades, were also the comics of his own boyhood. Some of the ones he mentions – Hotspur and Wizard – were (I think) still going when I was a boy in the 1960s. There are roughly two types, those for 12 and 13 year-olds, and those for slightly older boys.

He lingers longest over Gem and Magnet, which both contain stories set in public school and featuring stereotype characters (school hero, school bully, school swot, Indian rajah’s son). He repeats three of four times the idea that these stories contain no reference to the real contemporary world – the slump, unemployment, strikes, trade unions, the Russian Revolution, Hitler or Fascism.

He then points out that all these comics are published by big publishing combines which also include, for example, The Times and The Daily Telegraph – right-wing publishers, in other words.

And he concludes his syllogism by concluding that these comics probably play a larger part in forming the mentality and attitudes of boys than people like to admit. And their influence is overwhelmingly on the side of the status quo – supporting the British Empire, dismissing foreigners as ludicrous, ignoring all the social issues of the day which threaten to undermine the current (capitalist) system.

a) I don’t know for sure, but I’m guessing this was quite a pioneering essay, to give such length and analysis to twopenny comics. I shouldn’t be surprised if this kind of thing is used to position Orwell as godfather to modern media studies, semiology and so on.
b) Like a lot of media studies it seems grindingly obvious and trite, alongside other shock-horror revelations such as that adverts are designed to manipulate their audiences, Hollywood happy endings ignore the complex realities of life, the news in papers or on TV is actually manufactured – chosen and written and presented from artificial, non-neutral points of view. Golly.

The essay seems to me a long exercise in English nostalgia which I think is Orwell’s predominant mood or feeling. He is not very optimistic about the future and so doesn’t give you the kind of socialist uplift his ostensibly left-wing views might suggest. Instead, like his novels, many of his essays give the impression of being horrified by the modern world and wishing, at numerous levels, to be able to go back to simpler, more bucolic Edwardian times.

Founding text of media studies it may or may not be – but it is certainly of a piece with the man who wrote the long love letter to the English character excerpted above, England Your England.

Conclusion

So dated that they are now period pieces, I think the forthright, confident and very persuasive style of Orwell’s essays deludes many of his fans into thinking they have contemporary relevance, or are applicable to today’s situation, today, 2017 – when a close reading of any of them quickly leads you to conclude that they aren’t, they really aren’t.

They are, for the most part, nostalgic for an earlier Edwardian England, of boys’ comics and maiden aunts cycling to church — and they are themselves objects of our own nostalgia for the 1930s – nostalgia for a period when political issues were clearer and unmistakable, when intellectual life seemed much simpler, and also for the quaint world of pigeon fancying, stamp collecting and all the other aspects of ‘the English character’ which Orwell so lovingly describes – for the gentleness and above all the decency Orwell which repeatedly singles out as the main quality of English life.

And there is a third level of nostalgia, nostalgia for their own rather simple-minded approach, for a time when one plain-speaking chap could tackle a wide variety of subjects – with an approach utterly bereft of philosophical or economic underpinning, lacking any cultural or literary theory, uncluttered by any specialist knowledge at all, a plain man’s plain speaking.

The trouble is that, beneath the manly prose and the sweeping generalisations – when the dust dies down – the take-home messages of many of these essays are often twopenny ha’penny truisms, such as that political language ought to be clearer or that Shakespeare was a humanist, that the British Empire was a charade or totalitarianism is not a good system for the imaginative writer.

Orwell is never less than interesting and highly readable – but a couple of hours later I often have trouble remembering what he was on about.


Credit

Inside the Whale and Other Essays by George Orwell was published as Selected Essays in 1957 and republished with its current title in 1962. All references are to the 1975 Penguin paperback edition.

All Orwell’s major works are available online on a range of websites. Although it’s not completely comprehensive, I like the layout of the texts provided by the University of Adelaide Orwell website.

Related links

George Orwell’s books

1933 – Down and Out in Paris and London
1934 – Burmese Days
1935 – A Clergyman’s Daughter
1936 – Keep the Aspidistra Flying
1937 – The Road to Wigan Pier
1938 – Homage to Catalonia
1939 – Coming Up for Air
1941 – The Lion and the Unicorn
1945 – Animal Farm
1949 – Nineteen Eighty-Four
2014 – Seeing Things as They Are: Selected Journalism and Other Writings of George Orwell

A Choice of Kipling’s Verse by T.S. Eliot (1941)

Kipling… is the most inscrutable of authors. An immense gift for using words, an amazing curiosity and power of observation with his mind and with all his senses, the mask of the entertainer, and beyond that a queer gift of second sight, of transmitting messages from elsewhere, a gift so disconcerting when we are made aware of it that thenceforth we are never sure when it is not present: all this makes Kipling a writer impossible wholly to understand and quite impossible to belittle.

There are a number of paperback selections of Kipling’s poetry in print, which all include a more or less similar selection from the 350 or so poems he published, certainly all including the 20 or 30 greatest hits. This selection, for example, includes 123 poems – but what really distinguishes it is the magisterial introductory essay by the dean of Modern poetry, Thomas Stearns Eliot.

It’s a long and densely argued essay that is sometimes difficult to follow, but it is packed with fascinating insights.

Poetry and prose inseparable Kipling’s verse and prose are inseparable halves of the same achievement. ‘We must finally judge him, not separately as a poet and as a writer of prose fiction, but as the inventor of a mixed form.’ This is certainly the case in the volumes I’ve read recently, in the stories from Puck of Pook’s Hill onwards through to Debits and Credits, where every story is introduced or followed by a poem which comments on the characters and actions, shedding new light, modifying, deepening or perplexing our response.

Common criticisms

Eliot lists the common criticisms of Kipling:

Superficial jingles Most critics have to defend modern poetry from charges of obscurity; the critic writing about Kipling has to defend him from charges of ‘excessive lucidity’. We have to defend Kipling against the charge of being a journalist, writing for the lowest common denominator, against the charge that he wrote catchy superficial ‘jingles’. And yet there is no doubt that real deeps of poetry are sounded in many of his poems.

Topicality A further obstacle is Kipling’s poems’ topicality. So many of them are written a) for very specific occasions and b) from a political point of view which hardly anyone sympathises with nowadays. Personally, I have found occasional and political poetry to be an acquired taste. When I was young I liked emotional or rhetorical or dramatic poetry which spoke to my emotions. It was only in middle age that I tried Dryden again and realised, to my surprise that, once I fully understood the political background to his satires, I enjoyed their craft and wit and appropriateness. Same with Kipling. And in fact, as Eliot points out, the gift of being able to write really good occasional verse – i.e. verse directly speaking to a current event – and to do it to order, ‘is a very rare gift indeed’.

Similarly, both good epigrams and good hymns are very rare, and Kipling produced fine examples of both.

Imperialism Kipling thought the British Empire was a good thing. He thought the British had a unique ability to rule other peoples wisely and fairly. (And a comparison with the alternatives – with the Belgian or French or Spanish or Portuguese or German empires of the period – does tend to support this view; let alone a comparison with the alternatives of the Nazi Empire and the Soviet Empire, which grew up between the wars.)

But, contrary to the uninformed view that he is a prophet of Empire, his early stories are almost entirely satires on the greed, stupidity and snobbery of the British; throughout his prose runs blistering criticism of British politicians; and stories and poems alike from the Boer War onwards lament in graphic terms England’s failure to live up to her own best ideals.

The most notoriously imperial poems are less hymns to any kind of racial or cultural superiority, but rather calls to duty and responsibility. He explicitly condemns the mercantile parties (in Britain and America) who used the high ideals of empire as a fig leaf for rapacious exploitation.

Racism I find Kipling’s casual contempt for some Indian natives (as for many of the women) in his early stories revolting. But there is a good deal of evidence that he was in fact surprisingly tolerant for his time. The prime exhibit is Kim, his best book and one of the best English fictions to come out of the Raj, in which all the most sympathetic and real characters are Indian: the Lama, Mahbub Ali, Hurree Chunder Mookerjee and the widow. One of his most famous poems is Gunga Din in which the Indian is, quite simply, declared a better man than the narrator. He treats the multiple religions of India with equal respect or satire, depending on the context.

Kipling wrote a lot and his attitudes – or the attitudes of his narrators and characters – are mixed and contradictory. But one consistent worldview that the white man, the Englishman, is always and everywhere innately superior to the inferior races – is not there in his writings. He believed that white Western culture had a responsibility to bring the benefits of civilisation – law, schools, hospitals, railways, roads – to the developing world, and so spoke about the White Man’s Burden to do all this – and lamented the resentful ingratitude of the recipients, and the relentless criticism of anti-imperialists at home. But:

a) The era of empires and colonies is over – India and Pakistan will soon have been completely independent for 70 years – and so Kipling’s views have receded to become just the most forcefully expressed of a whole range of opinion from a period which historians can investigate and the literary reader can imaginatively inhabit, as I inhabit the mind of a 17th century French Catholic courtier when I read Racine or a medieval monk when I read Chaucer.

b) Throughout the month that I’ve been soaking myself in Kipling – with his relentless rhetoric about the responsibility of the ‘White Man’ to help the rest of the world – I have also been opening newspapers and hearing on the radio relentless calls for ‘the West’ to intervene in the bombing of Aleppo or do more about the refugee crisis, or intervene in Yemeni civil war. If you replace ‘white man’ in his poems with ‘the West’ you’ll see that a lot of the same paternalistic attitude lives on, even in self-proclaimed liberals and anti-imperialists: there is still the assumption that we in ‘the West’ must do something, are somehow responsible, somehow have magic powers to sort out the world’s troubles which (it is implied) the poor benighted inhabitants of Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Somalia and all the rest of them lack.

In other words, although all right-thinking contemporary liberals decry Kipling’s patronising racism, or the paternalistic implications of his belief that the ‘White Man’ has some kind of responsibility to guide and help and save the rest of the world, I am struck by how much the same attitude of paternalism is alive and kicking in the same liberal minds.

Anyway, you only have to compare Kipling’s thoroughly articulated view that the White Man’s burden is to help and raise up the peoples he finds himself set over, with something like the Nazi doctrine of the innate superiority of the Aryan race, which saw every example of every other race as genetically inferior and only fit to be used as slaves or to carry out live experiments on – to realise the difference. Set against the Nazis, Kipling’s work overflows with sympathy for all types of native peoples – Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, Buddhists – and with numerous narratives where the ‘native’ turns out to be the equal of or, quite often, a better person than the struggling white man.

Professionalism Eliot draws attention to Kipling’s professionalism – an aspect of his work which I also find admirable:

No writer has ever cared more for the craft of words than Kipling… We can only say that Kipling’s craftsmanship is more reliable than that of some greater poets, and that there is hardly any poem, even in the collected works, in which he fails to do what he has set out to do.

As Eliot points out, quite a few of the stories, particularly the later stories, refer to art and, specifically, to the redeeming element of craft, craftsmanship, the skill and dedication involved in making something. In this respect Kipling is more like the engineers he venerated – building useable structures for specific purposes – than the lyric poet of popular mythology, wanly waiting on inspiration from the Muse. (As Eliot points out, for both Dryden and Kipling, ‘wisdom has the primacy over inspiration’.)

Lack of psychology But this very facility lends itself to a further criticism, that it was in some sense too easy for Kipling; or, put another way, that his verse never feels as if it comes from the kind of psychological depths or offers the kind of personal, intimate or psychological insights which the post-Romantic reader is used to. We like to feel that a writer is in some sense compelled to write what and how he did. Eliot contrasts Kipling with Yeats, whose career included all kinds of compulsions – political, personal, social, romantic – and is often compelling because of it. Almost all Yeats’s poetry is lyrical in the sense that it is designed to arouse feeling. Kipling is the opposite. He is more like Dryden; both writers used poetry ‘to convey a simple forceful statement, rather than a musical pattern of emotional overtones’. His poetry might arise out of some particularly effective statement, but it is statement first and foremost, with almost no emotion or psychology.

In this respect, then, the objectivity of the ballad form suits the objectivity of his approach. For no other writer of comparable stature is there less sense of ‘this inner compulsion’, less sense that he had to write what he wrote. The majority of Kipling’s output derives from skilful craft and a facility in writing in all kinds of forms, a kind of impersonality, which many modern readers of poetry don’t find sympathetic.

Kipling is the most elusive of subjects: no writer has been more reticent about himself, or given fewer openings for curiosity.

Many types of literary criticism are essentially biographical in that they set out to show how an author developed, working with changing material and experiences, learning how to shape and deploy them over the course of their career etc. But this entire critical approach doesn’t work for Kipling, who is skilled and adept right from the start, who shows equal and astonishing fluency with whatever he turns his hand to, and whose oeuvre shows next to no personal or biographical content. The opposite.

Ballads This craftsmanship is exemplified in the form most identified with Kipling. Eliot dwells at length on the fact that Kipling wrote ballads – he wrote in more forms than the symmetrical rhyming ballad, but he was always driven by what Eliot calls ‘the ballad motive’. Eliot gives a brief history of the ballad, pointing out that a good ballad can appeal to both the uneducated and the highly educated, and then going on to praise Kipling’s mastery of the form:

  • ‘a consummate gift of word, phrase and rhythm’
  • ‘the variety of form which Kipling manages to devise for his ballads is remarkable: each is distinct, and perfectly fitted to the content and mood which the poem has to convey’

Eliot goes on to make the distinction between poets like himself, whose aim is to make something which will be and, as an evocative object, evoke a range of responses in different readers; and Kipling’s poems which are designed to act – designed to elicit exactly the same response in all its readers.

Poetry or verse? Eliot tackles the tricky subject of whether Kipling’s work is verse or poetry. I think he’s saying that most of it is verse (hence the title of this book), but that ‘poetry’ frequently arises within it.

With Kipling you cannot draw a line beyond which some of the verse becomes ‘poetry’; … the poetry when it comes, owes the gravity of its impact to being something over and above the bargain, something more than the writer undertook to give you.

Possessed Eliot makes the point that, completely contrary to his reputation as a blustering racist imperialist, there are in fact strange, really strange and eerie depths, hints of terrible psychological experiences, found in much of his work. (I’ve commented on this uncanny element in my review of a collection of his ghost and horror stories – Strange Tales – which in fact, far from depicting heroic chaps running a gleamingly efficient Empire, give a consistent sense of very ordinary men stretched to the limit by difficult work in impossible conditions and teetering on the verge of complete nervous and psychological collapse.)

But it isn’t just stress and collapse. Quite regularly something deeper, a sense of strange historical or even mythical depths, stirs in his work.

At times Kipling is not merely possessed of penetration, but also ‘possessed’ of a kind of second sight.

Hence Eliot is able to say that in a hymn-like poem written for a very public occasion, like Recessional:

Something breaks through from a deeper level than that of the mind of the conscious observer of political and social affairs –  something which has the true prophetic inspiration.

Verse or poetry?

Put simply, Kipling was capable of fluently writing verse for all occasions, which generally eschews all psychology, and certainly all autobiographical content, in order to put into objective ballad formats the catchy formulation of popular or common sentiments; but his sheer facility of phrasing and rhythm often lends this ‘verse’ a kind of depth which justifies the name of ‘poetry’.

I have been using the term ‘verse’ with his own authority, because that is what he called it himself. There is poetry in it; but when he writes verse that is not poetry it is not because he has tried to write poetry and failed. He had another purpose, and one to which he adhered with integrity.

Towards the end of the essay Eliot returns to the question.

What fundamentally differentiates his ‘verse’ from ‘poetry’ is the subordination of musical interest… There is a harmonics of poetry which is not merely beyond their range – it would interfere with their intention.

In other words Kipling wasn’t trying to write poetry, he was aiming at verse and he did write a good deal of truly great verse – but from that verse, from time to time, both true deep memorable poetry emerges, and also profound prophetic truths are articulated.

Five sample poems

I’ve selected five Kipling poems designed to give a sense of his variety of style, mood and subject matter: an example of the Ballad-Room Ballads which were such a popular success in the early 1890s demonstrates the young man’s bumptious good humour; one of the many poems which reveals the eerie, science-fiction-ish, visionary side of Kipling’s imagination; his most famous ‘hymn, with its Biblical imagery and refrain; an eerie moving poem about the Great War; and a compressed, bitter epigram from the same conflict.

1. Fuzzy-Wuzzy (1890)

A tribute to the bravery of the Sudanese warriors who the British Army faced in their campaign against the forces of ‘the Mahdi’ in the Sudan in 1884-85, in the Army’s march south to rescue General Gordon and his Egyptian garrison besieged in Khartoum. It includes a list of recent British military defeats, is a tribute to the superior fighting qualities of the black man, all told in high good humour as Kipling enjoys deploying outrageous rhymes and rhythms, an enjoyment which is still infectious.

We’ve fought with many men acrost the seas,
An’ some of ’em was brave an’ some was not:
The Paythan an’ the Zulu an’ Burmese;
But the Fuzzy was the finest o’ the lot.
We never got a ha’porth’s change of ‘im:
‘E squatted in the scrub an’ ‘ocked our ‘orses,
‘E cut our sentries up at Suakim,
An’ ‘e played the cat an’ banjo with our forces.
So ‘ere’s to you, Fuzzy-Wuzzy, at your ‘ome in the Soudan;
You’re a pore benighted ‘eathen but a first-class fightin’ man;
We gives you your certificate, an’ if you want it signed
We’ll come an’ ‘ave a romp with you whenever you’re inclined.

We took our chanst among the Khyber ‘ills,
The Boers knocked us silly at a mile,
The Burman give us Irriwaddy chills,
An’ a Zulu impi dished us up in style:
But all we ever got from such as they
Was pop to what the Fuzzy made us swaller;
We ‘eld our bloomin’ own, the papers say,
But man for man the Fuzzy knocked us ‘oller.
Then ‘ere’s to you, Fuzzy-Wuzzy, an’ the missis and the kid;
Our orders was to break you, an’ of course we went an’ did.
We sloshed you with Martinis, an’ it wasn’t ‘ardly fair;
But for all the odds agin’ you, Fuzzy-Wuz, you broke the square.

‘E ‘asn’t got no papers of ‘is own,
‘E ‘asn’t got no medals nor rewards,
So we must certify the skill ‘e’s shown
In usin’ of ‘is long two-‘anded swords:
When ‘e’s ‘oppin’ in an’ out among the bush
With ‘is coffin-‘eaded shield an’ shovel-spear,
An ‘appy day with Fuzzy on the rush
Will last an ‘ealthy Tommy for a year.
So ‘ere’s to you, Fuzzy-Wuzzy, an’ your friends which are no more,
If we ‘adn’t lost some messmates we would ‘elp you to deplore.
But give an’ take’s the gospel, an’ we’ll call the bargain fair,
For if you ‘ave lost more than us, you crumpled up the square!

‘E rushes at the smoke when we let drive,
An’, before we know, ‘e’s ‘ackin’ at our ‘ead;
‘E’s all ‘ot sand an’ ginger when alive,
An’ ‘e’s generally shammin’ when ‘e’s dead.
‘E’s a daisy, ‘e’s a ducky, ‘e’s a lamb!
‘E’s a injia-rubber idiot on the spree,
‘E’s the on’y thing that doesn’t give a damn
For a Regiment o’ British Infantree!
So ‘ere’s to you, Fuzzy-Wuzzy, at your ‘ome in the Soudan;
You’re a pore benighted ‘eathen but a first-class fightin’ man;
An’ ‘ere’s to you, Fuzzy-Wuzzy, with your ‘ayrick ‘ead of ‘air —
You big black boundin’ beggar — for you broke a British square!

2. The Deep-Sea Cables (1893)

Part of a longer sequence Kipling called A Song of the English which describes various aspects of British naval and maritime supremacy. It describes the advent of cables laid on the ocean beds to carry telegraphic messages. At a stroke the continents of the world were united and messages which used to take months to travel from India or Australia to London could now be sent almost instantaneously. Hence the line ‘they have killed their father Time’. The poem is both an example of Kipling’s obsession with new technology, and his ability to make that technology glamorous and romantic; and at the same time hints at the occasional weirdness of his imagination, broaching on the territory of H.G.Wells or Conan Doyle’s tales of the uncanny.

The wrecks dissolve above us; their dust drops down from afar—
Down to the dark, to the utter dark, where the blind white sea-snakes are.
There is no sound, no echo of sound, in the deserts of the deep,
Or the great grey level plains of ooze where the shell-burred cables creep.

Here in the womb of the world—here on the tie-ribs of earth
Words, and the words of men, flicker and flutter and beat—
Warning, sorrow and gain, salutation and mirth –
For a Power troubles the Still that has neither voice nor feet.

They have wakened the timeless Things; they have killed their father Time
Joining hands in the gloom, a league from the last of the sun.
Hush! Men talk to-day o’er the waste of the ultimate slime,
And a new Word runs between: whispering, ‘Let us be one!’

3. Recessional (1897)

Written for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, readers at the time and ever since have been struck by the absence of Pomp and Glory and rejoicing and jubilation. The opposite: the poem is a gloomy pessimistic vision of the way all empires fade and die and so the British Empire will, too. It is a sober call to duty and righteousness. It is on the basis of this solemn incantation that Eliot describes Kipling as ‘a great hymn writer’ – ‘Something breaks through from a deeper level than that of the mind of the conscious observer of political and social affairs – something which has the true prophetic inspiration.’

God of our fathers, known of old,
Lord of our far-flung battle-line,
Beneath whose awful Hand we hold
Dominion over palm and pine—
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

The tumult and the shouting dies;
The Captains and the Kings depart:
Still stands Thine ancient sacrifice,
An humble and a contrite heart.
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

Far-called, our navies melt away;
On dune and headland sinks the fire:
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!
Judge of the Nations, spare us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

If, drunk with sight of power, we loose
Wild tongues that have not Thee in awe,
Such boastings as the Gentiles use,
Or lesser breeds without the Law—
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

For heathen heart that puts her trust
In reeking tube and iron shard,
All valiant dust that builds on dust,
And guarding, calls not Thee to guard,
For frantic boast and foolish word—
Thy mercy on Thy People, Lord!

4. Gethsemane (1914-18)

Eliot says he doesn’t understand this poem. I see it as remarkably simple, in fact the simplicity of rhyme scheme, the short lines, the repetitive words all contribute to its haunting limpidity. The soldier going up the line towards the trenches pauses with his troop and officer for a rest, and bitterly prays that the cup – i.e. his death, his doom, his fate – will pass from him i.e. be avoided. But it isn’t. He is gassed. Compare and contrast with the long bouncy rhythms and good humour of Fuzzy Wuzzy, with the grand rolling phrases of Recessional, the eerie visionariness of the Sea Cables, and you begin to see Kipling’s variety and virtuosity. He could write poems for all occasions, for all moods – and they are not just good but brilliant.

The Garden called Gethsemane
In Picardy it was,
And there the people came to see
The English soldiers pass.
We used to pass—we used to pass
Or halt, as it might be,
And ship our masks in case of gas
Beyond Gethsemane.

The Garden called Gethsemane,
It held a pretty lass,
But all the time she talked to me
I prayed my cup might pass.
The officer sat on the chair,
The men lay on the grass,
And all the time we halted there
I prayed my cup might pass.

It didn’t pass—it didn’t pass –
It didn’t pass from me.
I drank it when we met the gas
Beyond Gethsemane!

5. Epitaph of War

Eliot writes: ‘Good epigrams in English are very rare; and the great hymn writer is very rare. Both are extremely objective types of verse: they can and should be charged with intense feeling, but it must be a feeling that is completely shared.’ Kipling had the inspired idea during and after the Great War to use the extremely short, abbreviated format of epigrams found in the Green Anthology as models for very short poems commemorating aspects of the conflict. Hence:

Common Form

If any question why we died,
Tell them, because our fathers lied.

Conclusion

Although not a totally coherent piece of prose (given its occasionally rambling and repetitious structure), Eliot’s 30-page essay on Kipling nonetheless contains more ideas and insights into his verse than anything else I’ve read.


Related links

Other Kipling reviews

Small World by David Lodge (1984)

‘I was telling a young guy at the conference just this morning. The day of the single, static campus is over.’
‘And the single, static campus novel with it, I suppose?’
‘Exactly! Even two campuses wouldn’t be enough. Scholars these days are like the errant knights of old, wandering the ways of the world in search of adventure and glory.’ (p.63)

This is a long, brilliantly conceived and brilliantly funny novel. It is a sequel ‘of sorts’ to Lodge’s best-selling 1975 hit, Changing Places, in that it includes the two central figures of that novel (the high-flying American academic Morris Zapp and the put-upon dowdy English academic Philip Swallow), but significantly expands the scope to include scores more characters. And it is a long, dense text, half as long again as Changing Places, some 340 pages in the densely-worded Penguin edition. Rich and complex and very funny.

Based on romance

It was a stroke of genius to see that the peripatetic, jet-setting lifestyle of the modern globe-trotting academic and the networks of international colleagues who he or she is continually bumping into at conferences around the world, resembles the tangled interlinking plot structures of late medieval and Renaissance romances, and that an entire novel could be written in which themes and motifs and names and incidents borrowed from that old genre could be recycled to provide the structure, characters and incidents of a 20th-century novel.

The romance genre

Romances flourished as a genre in the high Middle Ages and early Renaissance (1400-1600). They differed from epic or tragedy by their focus on love (rather than war and death), generally between one handsome knight and his lady, and detailed the setbacks and difficulties they encounter before finally being united; although other romances also described quests in search of wisdom or some other object – most famously, the Holy Grail. The hundreds of poems written about the knights of King Arthur come under this heading. One of the longest is the Italian Orlando Furioso (1530), which I haven’t read, and the classic late example is Spenser’s The Faerie Queene (1590-1600), which I have.

The latter is over 1,000 pages long and that’s in its unfinished state. It tells the increasingly complicated stories of a confusing host of knights and their helpers, the damsels they rescue, fall in love with and lose to sorcerers or dragons, and the allegorical places they visit – the Bower of Bliss, the Garden of Adonis etc.

Lodge deploys his academic knowledge of the genre to create a text which pays homage at every level to the conventions of romance (The Faerie Queene is name-checked several times, just to make it obvious). As Cheryl Summerbee, the airport check-in girl, (unexpectedly) explains:

‘Real romance is a pre-novelistic kind of narrative. It’s full of adventure and coincidences and surprises and marvels, and has lots of characters who are lost or enchanted or wandering about looking for each other, or for the Grail, or something like that.’ (p.258)

The text also refers to post-Renaissance works which reference or rework romance, from Keats’s ‘Romantic’ poetry, through to T.S. Eliot, whose Modernist masterwork The Waste Land is also quoted throughout. (There is even an amusing scene where the jet-lagged hero arrives in Lausanne only to find everybody dressed as characters from The Waste Land walking round quoting lines from it. It turns out to be the annual Waste Land festival.)

Romance themes

There are so many characters – at some points a bombardment of characters – and we are so often introduced to them for only half a page before being whisked off to meet others, only returning to the first ones 30 or 40 pages later – and so many incidents, scattered and comic, that only make sense when we return to them after a break and begin to piece them together, and which develop and unfold at distant intervals throughout the book – that the book is more like a soap opera with twenty or more strands all moving forward simultaneously in brief cameos (which is exactly the structure of something like The Fairie Queene).

Given all this, it’s easier to approach the book by looking at the themes it incorporates and some of the characters and events which bring them to life, rather than at the ‘story’. For there is no one story: there is a complex web of storyettes. Storylings. Stortions.

Quest The fundamental theme of romance is the Quest and the core strand in the novel is the quest of young Irish academic Persse McGarrigle (his name reminiscent of the Arthurian Sir Percival) – ignorant of literary theory, the academic racket and still a virgin – for the ravishingly beautiful and dazzlingly intelligent Angelica, who he pursues from conference to conference around the world. Except that she – in a standard but very funny comedy convention – has always just left for the next conference, and so his quest never ends.

Confused identities It is a running joke that, although Persse (thinks he) is passionately in love with the intelligent, enchanting Angelica, she has a twin sister, Lily, who is a stripper. The outraged Persse glimpses Angelica in a porn movie and then at a strip club, both sightings only spurring him on to ‘save’ this poor damsel. At the climax of the novel Persse excitedly loses his virginity to Lily under the impression she is Angelica. Until she reveals she is Lily, whereupon he is distraught. But she then confuses him (and the reader) by saying she’s really Angelica pulling his leg. At which he is deliriously happy. But then confirms she is in fact Lily. All this is designed to show him he is pursuing a ‘dream’, an idealised version of a woman.

In another strand, the homely old spinster, Miss Sibyl Maiden, reveals that she is in fact the long-lost mother of both the girls, who she was forced to abandon 27 years earlier and hasn’t seen since, and in the final scenes of the novel, she is reunited with the ageing academic who (typically) seduced her all those years ago.

Character Romances are often populated by types and allegorical figures. It is part of the pleasure of reading them to see a skillful author orchestrate meetings between ‘characters’ which are also encounters between ‘Chastity’ and ‘Temptation’, or ‘Greed’ and ‘Temperance.’

All the characters in Small World have the same level of ‘realism’ as in other Lodge novels, but they are also quite plainly romance types: Persse is a knight errant, Angelica is his Dark Lady, Miss Maiden is the wise woman who, in one striking scene set at Delphi in Greece, parks herself over a cleft in the rock and has a dizzy spell, accurately predicting the end of the plot – because for that moment she is re-enacting the role of the prophetess or sibyl at Delphi who sat in a chair astride a cleft from which holy gases emerged and prophesied the future. There is the ferociously competitive and beautiful and sexually manipulative female Italian academic, Fulvia Morgana, whose name recalls Morgan le Fay in the Arthurian legends. This wonderfully decadent creation not only lures Morris Zapp back to her apartment for what (he is surprised to discover) is meant to be a threesome, but is also an insouciant Marxist critic, relentlessly unmasking the bourgeois assumptions of literature and criticism alike, while herself enjoying a high-powered jetsetting lifestyle, luxury apartment and fast cars. So, sexually and morally corrupt.

There is a brilliantly funny strand involving Cheryl Summerbee, the check-in girl at Heathrow, who therefore interacts with almost all the characters at some stage. We learn that she brightens up her day by seating people according to how they treat her. Nice polite people get the seats with long leg-room near the exits. Anyone who’s rude gets sat next to the toilets or a mother with two screaming children. We only have to meet her a couple of times before she can be referred to obliquely by characters at parties saying things like, ‘God I had an awful flight; first I got into a row with some chit of a girl at the check-in and then spent 8 hours sitting next to a mother with a screaming baby.’ It gets funnier each time it happens.

In fact, Cheryl also plays the role of guide or helper when she directs Persse to Heathrow’s little-visited underground chapel, and – unexpectedly – actually pulls out a copy of The Faerie Queene when Persse needs to consult one (to discover the meaning of a cryptic reference Angelica has left for him).

Verbally At a simple verbal level Lodge has his characters casually use the language of the romance: they are said to be ‘lured’ into situations, to experience ‘peril’, think of each other as a ‘sorceress’ or a ‘hero’, to cast a ‘spell’ on each other. In these tiny verbal details Lodge very enjoyably brings out his theme – but also demonstrates how much contemporary diction is in fact based on this forgotten world.

Incidents large and small also bear out the theme. I particularly liked the moment when Hilary, the long-suffering wife of weedy Philip Swallow, one of the two protagonists of Changing Places, waves him off as he leaves in an early morning taxi – having stuffed a bundle of pants and socks just out of the tumble dryer into his lap – and finding herself left with an odd sock waves it at the departing husband ‘like a makeshift favour’ (p.168), like the handkerchief or scarf which a fair lady waved at her knight in a joust.

Locations The novel flits around the world following the frantic globe-trotting of its characters, with scenes placed in realistic settings in New York, London, Ireland, Hawaii, Heidelberg, Israel, Australia and so on, in hotel rooms, conference rooms, pubs and bars and cinemas and streets. But some of the locations take on an obvious symbolic meaning, like the underground Chapel at Heathrow (reincarnation of the countless chapels which Arthurian knights seek rest in). And there is rather a lot of hanging round in brothels or strip clubs or porn movie cinemas, which are both ‘realistic’ settings for characters sneaking off for a quiet afternoon to bump into other characters with embarrassing consequences, and more symbolic places of temptation and misunderstanding.

Sterility and fertility T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land was partly based on his reading of Jesse Weston’s  From Ritual to Romance, an early 20th century academic book (1920) identifying the roots of romance in pre-Christian fertility rites associated with spring and the rebirth of the natural world. Thus the novel deals very heavily and thoroughly with sex – not romance – sex, in all positions and circumstances between all possible combinations of characters (see below for more about the sex in the book).

In a rather touching thread the ageing American academic Arthur Kingfisher (a jokey reference to the central role of the Fisher King in The Waste Land, itself a reference to pagan myths about the sterile king presiding over a barren country) has become impotent and associates it with his inability to generate new insights into literature. We meet him at intervals throughout the book, in various hotel rooms, being stimulated by his sexy Korean secretary, Song-mi Lee, and forever wanly failing to get an erection. In the final pages he experiences a physical and mental rebirth and finally gets it up, on the back of which revival of virility he proposes to his secretary, in one of the few actually ‘romantic’ gestures in the novel.

In fact, the closing pages describe a rebirth which affects not just Kingfisher but all the characters in the book.

They are set at the annual mega-conference of the Modern Languages association, the grand-daddy of literary conferences, attended by up to 10,000 academics all jostling for position, networking and seeking jobs. In the novel this one is being held in New York just after Christmas, a city famous for its freezing winters. And yet, at the climax of the novel, there is a freak outbreak of warm weather, characters open the windows to let in sweet spring air and experience epiphanies: Arthur Kingfisher gets an erection, Desirée Zapp (divorced wife of the exuberant Morris Zapp) realises her non-fiction book is good after all, the ageing English novelist, Robert Frobisher, who’s been blocked for eight years, suddenly conceives the first line of a new novel, and so on.

It is a happy ending for most of the characters, and it is based on the theme and numerous incidental details, of fertility arising in the dead land.


 

The business of literature

Maybe this all sounds terribly contrived, but it reads perfectly naturally because the overt subject of the novel is the hectic travel schedules and love lives of a host of modern academics and writers, and since they talk of nothing except literature and sex (and literary theory and jobs and grants and money) it is perfectly reasonable that literature and sex dominate the text.

The ‘story’ is entirely about characters thinking, eating and breathing literature and literary criticism, attending conferences, and writing papers, about Shakespeare or the Romantic poets or Icelandic sagas or Augustan satire or any of a host of other academic subjects which are raised and discussed by all concerned. The content couldn’t be more academic. Therefore, it is entirely appropriate for the entire novel to be based on a literary archetype, and to be strewn with literary references at every level.

And anyone expecting literary critics to spend their time discussing the moral or spiritually elevating nature of the art they handle will be bitterly disillusioned. The text is stuffed with insights, comments and asides on the dog-eat-dog nature of the contemporary academic world, and the cut-throat competition to develop and promulgate the next anti-humanist, technocratic and unconventional literary theory. (There is a handy summary of the ideal career path on page 151.)

Morris Zapp is such a great comic creation because he is the most cynical of careerists – his ambition is to become the highest-paid academic in the world and he explains several times to the naive Persse just how cunning and calculating you have to be to forge a career in modern literary studies – but he is also strangely loveable, unhealthily puffing on his outsize cigars, having long angry phone calls with his venomous ex-wife, sitting in his hotel room watching the porn channel while he explains structuralism to a dazed beginner.


 

Comedy

But many of the situations are straight-out funny without any allusions or special knowledge. The comedy can perhaps be categorised into types:

The extended comic situation A particularly unpleasant academic, the linguist Robin Dempsey (who we saw Philip Sparrow inadvertently pass over for promotion in Changing Places) through a further set of coincidences develops a loathing for Sparrow, whose career (and sex life) go stratospheric once he gets onto the international conference circuit. Dempsey tries out a new experimental computer program being developed on his campus, which is designed to offer the user the probing questions and sympathetic responses of an agony aunt or therapist. Very slowly, Dempsey finds himself spending more time in the computer room typing his problems onto the primitive screen and waiting for the computer’s replies (‘Tell me more about your divorce’) which prompt him to ever-longer frenzies of typing.

It is one of the novel’s funnier strands to return to Dempsey at intervals to witness his slow descent into crippling dependency on the machine, and Lodge’s writing is absolutely pitch perfect in creating the blank, affectless but somehow provoking prose style for the machine.

But the whole gag steps up a gear when the geeky technician who created and maintains the machine starts to get resentful at the amount of time Dempsey is hogging it for, and starts to interfere with the replies, slowly steadily shifting the program’s responses from the neutral to the deliberately provocative. This running gag climaxes withl the stunning moment when Dempsey types, ‘What shall I do?’ and the computer comes back, quick as a flash – ‘Shoot yourself’ – at which moment Dempsey realises he’s been had and his fury is magnificent to behold.

The farcical moment Swallow, on his trip to Turkey, is intimidated by the armed soldiers everywhere and especially intimidated when he and the British Consul and his Turkish host go to pay their respects to the tomb of Atatürk. You’ll be fine, they tell him. Just do everything the Consul does. So they are nervously walking up the guard-lined avenue towards the tomb when the Consul accidentally trips and sprawls headlong – and is astonished to find Swallow manically copying his gesture and throwing himself headlong on the ground beside him.

Character as comic plight The philosopher Henri Bergson said one of the roots of comedy is treating people like machines; there is something funny about predictability. (Tag lines are a sub-set of this approach: viewers of the old TV classic Dad’s Army are waiting for Captain Mainwaring to say ‘Stupid boy’, or Jonesy to say ‘They don’t like it up ’em’ or Fraser to say ‘We’re doomed’. There are innumerable similar tag-lines in hundreds of TV sitcoms.)

Thus one way to create a comic character is to make them embody a plight which they are doomed to mechanically reenact over and over again. So more or less the only thing about the ageing Angry Young novelist Robert Frobisher is his epic writer’s block, which is flung in his face by his wife and mentioned by everyone who knows him, and comes to seem more and more laughable.

Similarly, we keep getting shown the Australian academic Rodney Wainwright, sweating in North Queensland over the paper he’s due to deliver at a conference which hasn’t got past the first paragraph, while he fantasises about all his young students out freely frolicking on the beach. And each time we return to him, his plight seems more intense and funny.

In Turkey we are introduced to Dr Akbil Borak, who will be hosting Philip Swallow on the latter’s lecture visit to Ankara. Swallow has recently published his (very old-fashioned critical book) about the Romantic essayist, William Hazlitt, and so we periodically drop in on Borak throughout the novel, gamely reading his way through the university’s 25-volume edition of the Complete Writings of Hazlitt, and peppering his conversation with quotes from the latest Volume he’s just finished.

Maybe none of these look so funny here, but it’s a testament to Lodge’s brilliant comic timing that we return to each of these characters at unexpected moments, when we’ve more or less forgotten about them, to find them in ever-more inventive and absurd complications of their plights.

Comic dialogue The pompous old Oxford don Rudyard Parkinson is showing off his grand literary connections to a graduate student.

‘I’m not much of an expert on air travel,’ said the young man. ‘A charter flight to Majorca is about the limit of my experience.’
‘Majorca? Ah yes, I remember visiting Robert Graves there once.Did you happen to meet him?’
‘No,’ said the post-graduate. ‘It was a package holiday. Robert Graves wasn’t included.’
Rudyard Parkinson glanced at the young man with momentary suspicion. (p.157)

The one-liner

Hilary snorted derisively. ‘Matthew says that when I run I look like a blancmange in a panic.’ (p.58)

‘There was a story in the paper the other day, about a man who’d had a heart attack and asked his doctor if it was safe to have sexual intercourse, and the doctor said,”Yes, it’s good exercise, but nothing too exciting, just with your wife.”‘ (p.62)


Romance and sex

‘It all comes down to sex, in the end,’ Miss Maiden declared firmly. ‘The life force endlessly renewing itself.’ (p.12)

Before reading David Lodge’s novels, I read about 40 thrillers and spy novels from the 1930s to the 1980s and, despite their reputation, there is actually more sex in one David Lodge novel than in all those 40 thrillers put together. If Lodge’s novels are to be believed, Roman Catholics and literary academics are at it, hammer and tongs, every day. Things get off to a gentle start with the mere ogling of outstanding breasts.

[Persse] inclined his head towards the magnificent bosom, appreciating, now, why Professor Swallow had appeared to be almost nuzzling it in his attempt to read the badge pinned there… (p.9)

[Angela’s] beauty looked a little tousled, and she was out of breath – indeed her bosom was swelling and sinking in the most amazing fashion under the high-necked white silk blouse she was wearing. (p.37)

But anyone who’s read this novel’s predecessor, How Far Can You Go, with its cool and clinical descriptions of sexual activities, won’t be too surprised by the graphicness of the scene where the virginal Persse pops into a porn cinema, supposedly to find out what the fuss is all about.

The images on the screen shifted, close-up gave way to a wider, deeper perspective, and it became apparent that the owner of the vagina had another penis in her mouth, and the owner of the first penis had his tongue in another vagina, whose owner in turn had a finger in someone else’s anus, whose penis was in her vagina; and all were in frantic motion, like the pistons of some infernal machine… The moans and groans rose to a crescendo, the pistons jerked faster and faster, and Persse registered with shame that he had polluted himself. (p.49)

That’s more like the Lodge I’ve gotten used to. And now the subject has been graphically broached, there’s no holding back:

Swallow tells Zapp about the woman he had an affair with years earlier:

Then we made love. There was nothing particularly subtle or prolonged about it, but I’ve never had an orgasm like it, before or since. I felt I was defying death, fucking my way out of the grave. (p.74)

Zapp’s ex-wife, at her writer’s retreat in America, can’t sleep for worry about her new book.

Desirée wonders whether to try and relax with the help of her vibrator, but it is an instrument she uses, as a nun her discipline, more out of principle than real enthusiasm, and besides, the battery is nearly flat, it might run out of juice before she reached her climax – just like a man. (p.87)

Flying to the latest conference, humourless creep Howard Ringbaum tries to get his wife to help him join the Mile High Club.

In the same airplane, some forty metres to the rear of Fulvia Morgana, Howard Ringbaum is trying to persuade his wife Thelma to have sexual intercourse with him, there and then, in the back row of the economy section… ‘Take off your pants and sit on my prick,’ says Howard Ringbaum, unsmilingly. (p.91)

The impotent Arthur Kingfisher receives his nightly attentions from his devoted Oriental acolyte.

Kneeling on the bed beside the man, in the space between his left arm and his left leg, is a shapely young Oriental woman, with long, straight, shining black hair falling down over her golden-hued body. Her only garment is a tiny cache-sexe of black silk. She is massaging the man’s scrawny limbs and torso with a lightly perfumed mineral oil, paying particular attention to his long, thin, uncircumcised penis. (p.93)

Back home in England, Philip snuggles up to his wife, Hilary.

He snuggled up to her spoonwise, curving himself around the soft cushion of her buttocks, passing his arm around her waist and cupping one heavy breast in his hand. Unable to sleep, he became sexually excited, lifted Hilary’s nightdress and began to caress her belly and crotch. She seemed moist and compliant, though he was not sure if she was fully awake… (p.95)

Fulvia Morgana drives Zapp back to her luxury Italian villa and makes it clear she is available.

Morris ran his hands down her back and over her hips. She appeared to be wearing nothing underneath the white robe. He felt desire stirring in him like dull roots after spring rain. (p.136)

Bertha is the wife of ex-Wehrmacht tank driver and fearsome German literary theorist, Siegfried von Turpitz who, in one of the novel’s countless running gags, always wears a black leather glove on one hand to conceal some terrible wartime injury and to intimidate people with.

When he comes to her bed she is not always sure, in the dark, whether it is a penis or a leather-sheathed finger that probes the folds and orifices of her body. (p.144)

Felix Skinner is the disorganised, shabby, randy publisher of Philip Swallow’s bad book about Hazlitt.

Felix Skinner was in fact already back from lunch at the time of Philip Swallow’s phone call. He was, to be precise, in a basement storeroom on the premises of Lecky, Windrush and Bernstein. He was also, to be even more precise, in Gloria, who was bent forwards over a pile of cardboard boxes, divested of her skirt and knickers, while Felix, with his pinstripe trousers around his ankles, and knees flexed in a simian crouch, copulated with her vigorously from behind. (p.160)

In a rather touching plot strand, Philip is reunited in Turkey the woman he had a brief affair with years earlier and, as with almost all Lodge characters, this is the prelude to days and days of love-making.

When the sun shone full upon the window, he angled the blinds so that bars of white-hot light striped Joy’s body, kindling her blonde pubic hair into flame. He called it the golden fleece, mindful that the Hellespont was not far away. When he kissed her there, his beard brushing her belly, he made a wry joke about the silver among the gold… He nuzzled her, inhaling odours of shore and rockpool; the skin of her inner thighs was as tender as peeled mushrooms; she tasted clean and salty, like some mollusc from the sea. (p.226)

And much, much more in the same vein.

Where does all this sex in David Lodge’s novels come from? You could argue that the romances he’s referencing are all about love and fertility; and The Faerie Queene is surprisingly overt about sexual encounters. But obviously nothing like this.

Maybe he’s accurately conveying what it felt like to be born in 1935, to grow up a young man in the ferociously repressed 1950s, and to live on into the astonishingly liberated 1970s (the novel is set in 1979, exactly 10 years after the date of its prequel, Changing Places)? So it is an accurately 20th century recasting of the theme of fertility, it is modern fertility in (all kinds of) action.

And maybe he knows that sex is strange, unpredictable, disruptive, comic in the deeper sense without being laugh-out-loud funny. Sex is where human beings often find a kind of secular redemption, just as often experience disgust and humiliation – but either way, it punctures any pretensions we may have to being ‘higher’, spiritual beings.

Literary criticism as pornography

Also, Lodge is undoubtedly reflecting the trend in Literary Studies in the 1970s to turn away from ‘traditional’ questions of morality and character and towards questions of language and meaning which, unexpectedly – following the sensual evolution of French post-structuralist thinkers like Barthes and Foucault – turned out to be dripping in sexual overtones. (See, for example, the use of the concept of jouissance/orgasm in French literary and feminist theory.) If you think literary criticism is about discussing the moral choices of characters in novels, then modern specialisms like Queer studies will make your hair stand on end.

Thus Zapp – the ahead-of-the-curve, highly professional and competitive American academic – delivers a paper to a conference about ‘Literary Criticism as Striptease’ in which he doesn’t shy away from describing a striptease in detail, and the way the reader/voyeur ends up not only staring at the stripper’s vagina, but closely examining it and trying to escape up it back into the womb! And the heroine, Angelica Pabst, delivers a paper late on in the novel which gives a Freudian explanation of the way that, if epic is the phallic genre and tragedy is about castration, then romance is the vaginal genre, a source of unending desire and fascination but which, once entered, turns out to be an empty space.

Seen from another angle, those other genres are male in that they lead to one-off, generally bloody climaxes, just as male desire all builds through foreplay to the one big ejaculation. Whereas romance is a feminine genre, where complex storylines entwine and lead to numerous climaxes, none of which ends the story, but merely sets the scene for further quests and further climaxes, as a woman can climax multiple times to the man’s one-off effort.

I’ve heard and read English lit papers like that. (What makes it comic is the description of the stunned English audience of Zapp’s rodomontade, the women who noisily walk out, and the young man who faints at the climax of the paper.) These are not exaggerations. In fact they’re both genuinely insightful papers, of the kind that makes and sustains careers in contemporary literary theory.

And they both go some way to explaining how the study of literature – which for our parents was something to do with morality and spiritual values – had become by the 1970s absolutely soaked in sexual language and imagery, creating the perfervid atmosphere in which the academics themselves all too easily give way to the temptation to rut like rabbits.

And expose themselves to the satirical eye of a comic writer of genius like Lodge.


Computers

Worth noting Lodge’s engagement with computers as early as the novel’s setting, 1979. I’ve described the Dempsey-computer plotline at length. Turns out the blocked writer-Robert Frobisher strand is also computer-related. After a disastrous literary party aboard a houseboat on the Thames, a tipsy Frobisher explains to Persse the origin of his block. He was invited to a university where bright young things had been studying his works with the aid of a computer. They had fed it his complete works and then asked it to analyse his style. Thus, during his visit, they ask Frobisher what he thinks his favourite word is (after excluding ‘a’, ‘the’, ‘and’, all the obvious connnectives). Joy, beauty, hope? he wonders. No. ‘Greasy’. ‘Greasy’ is the word he uses more than any other. Along with ‘grim’ and ‘grey’. They rattle off sentences from his oeuvre with these words in. Then reveal lots of other aspects of his style. Then show him pastiche sentences they’ve made up using the computer analysis.

Next morning, back at his desk, Frobisher sits down to write and… can’t. Can’t think of a thing to say which doesn’t include what he now, fatally, knows to be his favourite words or phrases. Tries writing sentences with them and is horrified. Tries writing sentences deliberately avoiding them but they don’t seem right. Stares at the empty page all morning, then gives up. Been like that for the past eight years.

It is a typical Lodge incident: not only does he understand the possibilities of computers, he can already seen their potential for harm as well as good, and for comedy. Positioned where it is – just after the literary party – and told late one drunken night to Persse, it manages to be both very funny and also very sad. Clever, penetrating, very funny, poignant – the Lodge Effect.


This is a brilliant novel, brilliantly clever and brilliantly funny, surely one of the best comic novels in English since the war.

Related links

David Lodge’s novels

1960 – The Picturegoers
1962 – Ginger, You’re Barmy – Jonathan Browne is fresh from gaining a First in English when he is plunged into National Service among brutal proles and cruel NCOs in a windswept barracks in Yorkshire. Onto this amiable backdrop is nailed a melodramatic story about his friend at university, Mike the ginger-haired renegade of the title, attacking a cruel NCO, being imprisoned, being spring by the IRA, and then forced to return to make a raid on the barracks which Jonathan, by freakish coincidence, ends up foiling.
1965 – The British Museum Is Falling Down – a day in the life of young academic Adam Appleby, unhappy Catholic father of three, who spends a day at the BM failing to do any research and finds himself embroiled in more and more comic complexities, all the time panic-stricken that his wife might be pregnant for an unbearable fourth time.
1970 – Out of the Shelter – the boyhood and teenage years of Timothy Young, child of very ordinary suburban London parents, who is a toddler during the Blitz, a boy at the end of the war, and a teenager when he goes to stay with his older sister in post-war Germany, where he makes all kinds of discoveries about war and peace and life and love.
1975 – Changing Places: A Tale of Two Campuses – It is January 1969 and two English Literature professors are swapping jobs for a term: down-trodden Englishman Philip Swallow is heading for the Californian delights of Euphoria State University, and lit crit superstar Morris Zapp is heading towards rundown rainy Rummidge University. How will they cope with the resulting culture shocks? A hilariously knowing romp, a sophisticated comedy classic.
1980 – How Far Can You Go? – The stories of 10 young Catholics in the 1950s and their adventures as they mature during the 1960s and 70s, larded with lots of commentary about the sweeping changes to Catholic dogma during this period, and lots and lots of clinical descriptions of sex, in a surprisingly flat and unentertaining novel.
1984 – Small World: An Academic Romance – a brilliantly conceived comedy of manners satirising the world of modern literary scholarship with its cast of jetsetting, globe-trotting, back-stabbing, vaultingly ambitious and goatishly lecherous academics, led by the protagonists of Changing Places, but with a whole lot more characters added, all travelling, questing and falling in and out of love in the artfully contrived and very funny modern-day equivalent of a medieval romance.
1988 – Nice Work
1991 – Paradise News
1995 – Therapy
2001 – Thinks …
2004 – Author, Author
2008 – Deaf Sentence
2011 – A Man of Parts

Repetition and excess in the fiction of Hammond Innes

1. Repetition

Quite often in Hammond Innes’ novels the same situation recurs repeatedly or with minor variations. This gives the books the effect of the classic nightmare where no matter how hard you struggle you can’t escape.

For example, in Killer Mine there is a long sequence where the hero is lured deeper into the mine by the mad old owner until he is lost and doomed to die. He is only saved by the loving servant girl. But she’s barely guided him back to the surface before he has to go back down into the mine to finish the work he’s being paid for, which leads to the intense climax of the book when the mine is flooded. My point is that the reader has barely recovered from the nightmarishly claustrophobic descriptions of the first sequence before he is plunged into the nightmarishly claustrophobic descriptions of the second, almost identical one. The repetition is odd, from a logical narrative point of view, but it does create a kind of irrational claustrophobic fear.

In The Angry Mountain the overwrought hero feels himself surrounded and trapped by his horrific past (imprisonment and the amputation of his leg) and by its living embodiments – Maxwell, Hilda Tuvak, Reece and Shirer – who seem to be pursuing him from Czechoslovakia to Milan, to Naples, to the villa on the mountainside and on to the climactic scenes in the monastery of Santo Fancisco. In particular, the evil Dr Sansevino keeps re-appearing, each time reawakening the protagonist’s sweaty nightmares of being trapped and tortured.

Similarly, in Air Bridge, the overwrought hero’s memories and experiences follow the same recurring pattern which he can’t escape from: his WWII bomber crash-landing, imprisonment, escape, finding an airfield and stealing a plane – then in peacetime stealing planes, being nearly caught, escape – then, at Membury, effective imprisonment in the airfield, until there is a dramatic crash – then stealing the plane on the Airlift, which nearly crashes – then being blackmailed and trapped by Saeton – then being abandoned at the derelict airfield in the Soviet Zone – then being effectively imprisoned by the RAF authorities when he makes it back to Gatow. At each point the memories of stealing, crashing, imprisonment and escape close in on him and make a cumulatively powerful imaginative impact on the reader.

There is a linear narrative to Hammond Innes’ thrillers; but there is also this circling, enclosing, smothering repetitiveness.

2. Excess

Innes’ novels regularly transport the reader from normal life into a tricky situation, which itself becomes perilous, and then is carried on into a sequence of evermore nailbiting crises. You feel exhausted. You feel the wheel has gone full circle, and the narrative has reached a kind of natural conclusion. But it is a characteristic of Innes’ novels that they then continue, beyond what you thought was shatteringly sufficient, into new zones of melodrama and tension. Thus:

When the hero of The Lonely Skier has escaped the shootout on the mountain top, the burning down of the chalet and fled with bullets pinging round him, finally reaching the safety of the town below, I was exhausted. He had escaped. Phew. But Innes pushes the narrative one step beyond by making him get up and retrace the journey of his colleague, Ingles, figuring out how he got his fatal wound and reconstructing the massive avalanche which was responsible for his death, adding a sixth act of further tension and fear.

In the Blue Ice the reader follows the sea journey to Norway, the various chases and shootouts in the whaling station, and then the long gruelling trek and ski across country which leads to the climax where all the main characters arrive at an isolated frozen mountain hut and there there is another shootout. Enough already. But Innes pushes the characters (and the reader) beyond exhaustion into another ski chase across the mountains to within sight of the eponymous Blue Ice – where two of the main characters meet their grisly end.

In the White South the characters are marooned on the Antarctic ice, only to realise their camp is being crushed by icebergs moving towards them. They only just survive by leaping onto a ridge on one of the icebergs, and subsist in two armed and opposing camps until they realise they have to set off to find the survivors of the whaling ship or starve. There follows a long gruelling trek across the ice in which one of the most sympathetic characters dies of starvation and exhaustion, before they finally find survivors who have sufficient food to revive them. Harrowing enough, the reader feels. But Innes pushes it one step beyond, by then detailing the voyage all the survivors have to make in small lifeboats across hundreds of miles of stormy sea to the small island of South Georgia. Not all of them make it.

In The Angry Mountain you feel the narrator has been harassed enough after being arrested by the security police in Czechoslovakia, then hounded in Milan, chased to Naples, and up to a remote villa where his worst nightmares come true and the woman he thinks loves him turns out to be a drug addict blackmailed into luring him to the hideaway of the doctor who tortured him during the war! Just when you think the situation can’t get much more intense, Mount Vesuvius erupts and the entire novel is transformed: everything which went before pales into insignificance as the characters now desperately scrabble not only to survive, but to rescue the hostages the mad doctor has trapped up in the ruined monastery. There is a long, nailbitingly intense sequence of entrapments, imprisonments and daring escapes even as the molten lava demolishes buildings around our heroes. As the sympathetic characters are all finally freed just ahead of the building collapsing, the exhausted reader sinks back, replete with thrills and spills. But then it emerges that disparate lava flows have now joined up further down the hill to surround and cut them off. The characters make their various ways back to the same villa where the original revelations occurred only a few hours earlier, though it seems like months, so much has happened! But even this is only the start of a final and more intense struggle for survival, with another hair-raising, last-minute escape attempt.

Same in Air Bridge, where the long, detailed account of manufacturing the new air engines – with the accompanying personal dramas which make up the first half of the novel – is swept away in the second half of the book as Fraser is blackmailed into pretending to crash an airlift plane and flying it back to England. Which is itself swept away by his feverish need to return to Germany to find and save his colleague, Tubby, who fell out of the plane after a fight. Fraser forces Saeton to drop him in the area where Tubby fell, and then battles winter conditions in the wild – exposure, hunger and exhaustion – to find him, only then to have to walk, dodge Soviet patrols and angry German lorry drivers, back to the safety of the British base. That’s enough for one book, I am exhausted. But then Innes has his hero escape from hospital, still badly wounded and suffering from exhaustion, and makes him link up with his on-off German girlfriend, and risk a truck journey deep into the Soviet Zone to arrive back at the farmhouse where Tubby lies sick – only to find the maniac Saeton has beaten them to it, which leads to a shootout in the frozen woods around the farm. That definitely feels like enough, but then Fraser, wounded in the arm, losing blood and close to passing out, has to fly the plane out of the Soviet Zone and do a guided landing in an intense rainstorm back at the Allied base.

It is a consistent element of Hammond Innes’ novels that they take the situation as far as you think it can possibly go; and then take it one or two nailbitingly intense scenes further.

Related links

Hammond Innes’ novels

1937 The Doppelganger
1937 Air Disaster
1938 Sabotage Broadcast
1939 All Roads Lead to Friday
1940 The Trojan Horse – Barrister Andrew Kilmartin gets involved with an Austrian Jewish refugee engineer whose discovery of a new lightweight alloy which will make lighter, more powerful aircraft engines leads to him being hunted by an extensive and sinister Nazi network which reaches to the highest places in the land. The book features a nailbiting chase through the sewers of London and a last-minute shootout on the Nazi ship.
1940 Wreckers Must Breathe – Journalist Walter Craig stumbles across a secret Nazi submarine base built into a ruined tin mine on the Cornwall coast and, along with local miners and a tough woman journalist, fights his way out of captivity and defeats the Nazis.
1941 Attack Alarm – Gripping thriller based on Innes’ own experience as a Battle of Britain anti-aircraft gunner. Ex-journalist Barry Hanson uncovers a dastardly plan by Nazi fifth columnists to take over his airfield ahead of the big German invasion.


1946 Dead and Alive – David Cunningham, ex-Navy captain, hooks up with another demobbed naval officer to revamp a ship-wrecked landing craft. But their very first commercial trip to Italy goes disastrously wrong when his colleague, McCrae, offends the local mafia while Cunningham is off tracking down a girl who went missing during the war. A short but atmospheric and compelling thriller.
1947 The Killer Mine Army deserter Jim Pryce discovers dark family secrets at a ruined Cornish mine which is being used as a base by a father-and-son team of smugglers who blackmail him into doing some submarine rock blasting, with catastrophic results.
1947 The Lonely Skier Writer Neil Blair is hired to visit the Dolomite mountains in Italy, supposedly to write a script for film producer Derek Engles, in reality to tip him off when key players in a hunt for Nazi gold arrive at the ski hut in the mountains where – they all think – the missing treasure is buried.
1947 Maddon’s Rock Corporal Jim Vardin, convicted of mutiny at sea and imprisoned in Dartmoor, breaks out to clear his name and seek revenge on the captain and crew who pretended to sink their ship, the Trikkala, but in fact hid it at a remote island in the Arctic circle in order to steal its cargo of silver bullion.
1948 The Blue Ice Mineralogist and industrialist Bill Gansert sails to Norway to discover the truth about the disappearance of George Farnell, a friend of his who knew something about the discovery of a rare metal ore – an investigation which revives complex enmities forged in Norway’s war-time Nazi occupation.
1949 The White South Narrator Duncan Craig becomes mixed up in the disaster of the whaling ship Southern Star, witnessing at first hand the poisonous feuds and disagreements which lead a couple of its small whalecatcher boats to get caught in pack ice, fatally luring the vast factory ship to come to their rescue and also becoming trapped. It then has to evacuate over 400 men, women and children onto the pitiless Antarctic ice where Craig has to lead his strife-torn crew to safety.
1950 The Angry Mountain – Engineering salesman Dick Farrell’s wartime experiences come back to haunt him as he is caught up in a melodramatic yarn about a Czech spy smuggling industrial secrets to the West, with various people from his past pursuing him across Italy towards Naples and Mount Vesuvius, which erupts to form the dramatic climax to the story.
1951 Air Bridge – Bomber pilot fallen on hard times, Neil Fraser, gets mixed up with Bill Saeton and his obsession with building a new type of diesel aero-engine based on a prototype looted from wartime Germany. Saeton is helped by partner Tubby Carter, hindered by Tubby’s sex-mad wife Diana, and spied on by Else, the embittered daughter of the German who originated the designs. The story moves to Germany and the Berlin airlift where Saeton’s obsession crosses the line into betrayal and murder.
1952 Campbell’s Kingdom – Bruce Campbell, given only months to live by his doctors, packs in his boring job in London and emigrates to Canada to fulfil the dream of his eccentric grandfather, to find oil in the barren patch of the Canadian Rockies known as ‘Campbell’s Kingdom’.
1954 The Strange Land – Missionary Philip Latham is forced to conceal the identity of the man who replies to an advert to come and be doctor to a poor community in the south of Morocco. Instead of curing the sick, he finds himself caught up in a quest for an ancient silver mine, a quest which brings disaster to the impoverished community where it is set.
1956 The Wreck of the Mary Deare – Yacht skipper John Sands stumbles across the wreck of the decrepit steamer Mary Deare and into the life of its haggard, obsessive captain, Patch, who is determined to clear his reputation by revealing the owners’ conspiracy to sink his ship and claim the insurance.
1958 The Land God Gave To Cain – Engineer Ian Ferguson responds to a radio plea for help received by his amateur radio enthusiast father, and sets off to the wilds of Labrador, north-east Canada, to see if the survivors of a plane crash in this barren country are still alive – and what lies behind the conspiracy to try and hush the incident up.
1960 The Doomed Oasis – Solicitor George Grant helps young tearaway David Thomas travel to Arabia to find his biological father, the legendary adventurer and oilman Colonel Charles Whitaker, and becomes embroiled in a small Arab war which leads to a siege in an ancient fortress where the rivalry between father and son reaches a tragic conclusion.
1962 Atlantic Fury – Painter Duncan Ross is eyewitness to an appalling naval disaster on an island of the Outer Hebrides. But intertwined with this tragedy is the fraught story of his long-lost brother who has stolen another man’s identity. Both plotlines lead inexorably to the bleak windswept island of Laerg.
1965 The Strode Venturer – Ex-Merchant Navy captain Geoffrey Bailey finds himself drawn into the affairs of the Strode shipping company which aggressively took over his father’s shipping line, thereby ruining his family and driving his father to suicide. Now, 30 years later, he is hired to track down the rogue son of the family, Peter Strode, who has developed an obsession with a new volcanic atoll in the middle of the Indian Ocean, whose mineral wealth might be able to help the Maldive Islanders whose quest for independence he is championing.
1971 Levkas Man – Merchant seaman Paul goes to find his father, eccentric archaeologist Pieter Van der Voort, another typical Innes obsessive, this one convinced he can prove his eccentric and garbled theories about the origin of Man, changing Ice Age sea levels, the destruction of Atlantis and so on. Much sailing around the Aegean, feelingly described by Innes, before the climax in a vast subterranean cavern covered in prehistoric rock paintings, in an atmosphere heavy with timeless evil, where his father admits to being a murderer.
1973 Golden Soak – Alec Falls’ mining business in Cornwall goes bust so he fakes his own death and smuggles himself out to Australia to take up an invitation to visit a rancher’s daughter he’d met in England. He finds himself plunged into the mystery and intrigue which surrounds the struggling Jarra Jarra ranch and its failed mine, Golden Soak, a mystery which leads him on a wild chase out into the desolate hell of the Gibson desert where Alec discovers the truth about the mine and the rumours of a vast hill of copper, and witnesses archetypal tragedies of guilt and expiation, of revenge and parricide.
1974 North Star – One-time political agitator and seaman Michael Randall tries and fails to escape his treacherous past as he finds himself embroiled in a plot to blow up a North Sea oil rig, a plot which is led by the father he thought had died decades earlier.
1977 The Big Footprints – TV director Colin Tait finds himself caught up in the one-man war of grizzled African hunter and legendary bushman Cornelius van Delden against his old friend, Alex Kirby-Smith, who is now leading the Kenyan government’s drive to cull the country’s wildlife, especially its elephants, to feed a starving population and clear the way for farmers and their cattle. It’s all mixed up with Tait’s obsessive quest to find a remote mountain where neolithic man was said to have built the first city in the world.
1980 Solomon’s Seal – Property valuer Roy Slingsby prices the contents of an old farmhouse in the Essex countryside and is intrigued by two albums of stamps from the Solomon Islands. He takes up the offer of a valuing job in Australia and finds himself drawn into the tragic history of the colonial Holland family, whose last surviving son is running machine guns to be used in the coup and bid for independence of Bougainville Island. Though so much of the detail is calm, rational and business-like, the final impression is of an accursed family and a fated ancestral house which burns down at the novel’s climax.
1982 The Black Tide – When his wife dies blowing up an oil tanker which has hit the rocks near their Cornwall home, ex-merchant seaman Trevor Rodin goes searching for the crew he thinks deliberately ran her aground. His search takes him to Lloyds of London, to the Nantes home of the lead suspect and then on to the Persian Gulf, where he discovers several ‘missing’ tankers are in fact being repurposed by terrorists planning to create a devastating environmental disaster somewhere on the coast of Europe. With no money or resources behind him, and nobody believing his far-fetched tale, can Rodin prevent the catastrophe?
1985 The High Stand – When gold millionaire Tom Halliday and his wife Miriam go missing, their staid Sussex solicitor Philip Redfern finds himself drawn to the old gold mine in the Canadian Rockies which is the basis of the Halliday fortune, and discovers that the illegal felling of the timber planted around the mine is being used as a front for a gang of international drug smugglers, with violent consequences.
1988 Medusa – Former smuggler turned respectable ex-pat businessman, Mike Steele, finds his idyllic life on the pretty Mediterranean island of Minorca turning very nasty when he gets mixed up with mercenaries running guns onto the island to support a violent separatist movement and military coup.
1991 Isvik – Wood restorer Peter Kettil gets caught up in a crazy scheme to find an old Victorian frigate allegedly spotted locked in the Antarctic ice by a glaciologist before his death in a flying accident. His partners are the nymphomaniac Latino wife of the dead glaciologist, Iris Sunderby, a bizarre Scottish cripple, Iain Ward, and a mysterious Argentine who may or may not have been involved in atrocities under the military junta.
1993 Target Antarctica Sequel to Isvik. Booted out of the RAF for his maverick behaviour, pilot Michael ‘Ed’ Cruse is hired by Iain Ward, the larger-than-life character at the heart of the previous novel, Isvik, to fly a C-130 Hercules plane off a damaged runway on the Antarctic ice shelf. There are many twists, not least with a beautiful Thai woman who is pursued by the Khmer Rouge (!), before in the last few pages we realise the whole thing is Ward’s scheme to extract diamonds from the shallow seabed, whose existence was discovered by the sole survivor of the frigate found in the previous novel.
1996 Delta Connection An astonishing dog’s dinner of a novel, which starts out reasonably realistically following the adventures of Paul Cartwright, scrap metal consultant, in Romania on the very days that communist ruler Nicolae Ceaușescu is overthrown, before moving on to Pakistan and the Khyber Pass where things develop into a violent thriller, before jettisoning any attempt at realism and turning into a sort of homage to Rider Haggard’s adventure stories for boys as Cruse and his gay, ex-Army mentor, battle their way through blizzards into the idyllic valley of Nirvana, where they meet the secret underground descendants of Vikings who long ago settled this land, before almost immediately participating in the palace coup which overthrows the brutal ruler and puts on the throne the young woman who Paul fell in love with as a boy back in Romania, where the narrative started. A convoluted, compelling and bizarre finale to Innes’ long career.

Beowulf: the Monsters and the Critics by JRR Tolkien (1936)

Tolkien was Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Pembroke College, Oxford from 1925 to 1945. In 1936 he delivered this lecture about Beowulf to the British Academy. It is often cited as a turning point in studies of the poem because it completely changed the focus of study from seeing Beowulf as a primarily historical document which frustratingly fails to explain the many legends it refers to and wastes all its energy on childish monsters – to viewing it as a sophisticated work of art which uses its fairy-tale monsters to convey a surprisingly modern and relevant worldview about the ubiquity of Evil and the need to confront it, no matter what the cost.

Beowulf misused as history Tolkien claims that up to his time Beowulf has been recognised as important by critics and historians but consistently misinterpreted. By historians, philologists, archaeologists etc it has been mined for information about Germanic customs and religion and clothes and warfare. But Beowulf is not a historical document: it is a poem, a work of art. Its very success as a poem has created the sense that it is historical when, in fact, the most recent research tends to highlight (as with Shakespeare’s treatment of history) only its inconsistencies and cavalier approach.

So far from being a poem so poor that only its accidental historical interest can still recommend it, Beowulf is in fact so interesting as poetry, in places poetry so powerful, that this quite overshadows the historical content, and is largely independent even of the most important facts… that research has discovered. It is indeed a curious fact that it is one of the peculiar poetic virtues of Beowulf that has contributed to its own critical misfortunes. The illusion of historical truth and perspective that has made Beowulf seem such an attractive quarry, is largely a product of art. The author has used an instinctive historical sense – a part indeed of the ancient English temper (and not unconnected with its reputed melancholy), of which Beowulf is a supreme expression; but he has used it with a poetical and not an historical object.

Critics despise the monsters And literary critics have consistently been embarrassed by the centrality to the plot of the monsters which Beowulf has to kill – Grendel, his mother and the dragon. Literary critics up to Tolkien’s day preferred the many Germanic tales which are alluded to throughout the poem, stories which dealt with purely mortal men and sounded a lot like the classical tragedies they all did in Classics at school. For these critics, the Beowulf poet was guilty of crass bad taste in banishing these moving adult tragedies to the periphery and placing at the centre of the poem a series of childish folk tales, dealing with creatures out of fairy story or nursery rhyme. Tolkien quotes the great critic WP Ker, who in 1905 wrote:

The great beauty, the real value, of Beowulf is in its dignity of style. In construction it is curiously weak, in a sense preposterous; for while the main story is simplicity itself, the merest commonplace of heroic legend, all about it, in the historic allusions, there are revelations of a whole world of tragedy, plots different in import from that of Beowulf, more like the tragic themes of Iceland. Yet with this radical defect, a disproportion that puts the irrelevances in the centre and the serious things on the outer edges, the poem of Beowulf is undeniably weighty. The thing itself is cheap; the moral and the spirit of it can only be matched among the noblest authors.

Tolkien’s counter arguments It is this damning perception which Tolkien sets out to overturn: he succeeded so well that his lecture is cited by every study since as marking a sea change in attitudes. For Tolkien asserted that, far from being the rag-tag miscellany of an immature and juvenile culture, of a poet overwhelmed by silly folk stories and stitching them together willy-nilly – the Beowulf poet was a latecomer, arriving at the end of a mature and full civilisation, after it had been converted to Christianity, well aware of all the old legends and stories, who made a conscious choice to place the monsters at the centre of the poem because they are in fact the quintessence of the old pagan worldview: they encapsulate on a mythical level the evil, unreason and unavoidable death which all men face.

Tolkien marshals a range of arguments:

  • Other long Old English poems – eg Andreas, Guthlac – which contain just as dignified and high a style, somehow fail to have anything like the impact of Beowulf – could it be the much-condemned mythical subject matter which gives Beowulf depth and not its peers?
  • Criticism of the triviality and folk-taleness of the plot stem from reducing it to a synopsis, telling the story in outline – a fine methodology for comparative folk tale analysis but disastrous for poetry, which is made out of the texture of the words.
  • A deep prejudice of taste makes the critics of his time rate purely human tragedies as the highest genre – “Doom is held less literary than άµαρτία”. This represents a lack of feeling for “the mythological mode of imagination”

The significance of a myth is not easily pinned down on paper by analytical reasoning. It is at its best when it is presented by a poet who feels rather than makes explicit what his theme portends; who presents it incarnate in the world of history and geography, as our poet has done. Its defender is thus at a disadvantage: unless he is careful, and speaks in parables, he will kill what he is studying by vivisection, and he will be left with a formal or mechanical allegory, and, what is more, probably with one that will not work. For myth is alive at once and in all its parts, and dies before it can be dissected.

  • The very process of analysing the poem, for purely historical or archaeological or narratological purposes, destroys its greatest effect, its power in every part.

Far from putting the essential legends of Germanic heroes at the periphery and filling the foreground with triteness, the Beowulf-poet has summarised the essence of  the Northern worldview, of a doomed hero with his back against the wall – the exaltation of undefeated will. This is the Northern spirit which receives such stirring expression in the words of Byrhtwold at the battle of Maldon.

It is in Beowulf that a poet has devoted a whole poem to this theme, and has drawn the struggle in different proportions, so that we may see man at war with the hostile world, and his inevitable overthrow in Time… The particular is on the outer edge, the essential in the centre…

When we have read his poem, as a poem, rather than as a collection of episodes, we perceive that he who wrote hæleð under heofenum may have meant in dictionary terms ‘heroes under heaven’, or ‘mighty men upon earth’, but he and his hearers were thinking of the eormengrund, the great earth, ringed with garsecg, the shoreless sea, beneath the sky’s inaccessible roof; whereon, as in a little circle of light about their halls, men with courage as their stay went forward to that battle with the hostile world and the offspring of the dark which ends for all, even the kings and champions, in defeat….

Beowulf is not, then, the hero of an heroic lay, precisely. He has no enmeshed loyalties, nor hapless love. He is a man, and that for him and many is sufficient tragedy…

It is not an irritating accident that the tone of the poem is so high and its theme so low. It is the theme in its deadly seriousness that begets the dignity of tone:

lif is læne: eal scæceð leoht and lif somod.

So deadly and ineluctable is the underlying thought, that those who in the circle of light, within the besieged hall, are absorbed in work or talk and do not look to the battlements, either do not regard it or recoil. Death comes to the feast, and they say He gibbers: He has no sense of proportion. I would suggest, then, that the monsters are not an inexplicable blunder of taste; they are essential, fundamentally allied to the underlying ideas of the poem, which give it its lofty tone and high seriousness.

By putting the monsters at the centre of his poem, the poet transcends the details of time and place to confront the timeless Problem of Evil

Tolkien goes on to address various other criticisms which have been made, such as that the poet’s combination of Old Testament with Germanic legends shows confusion and primitiveness. Tolkien argues at length that it shows just the opposite – a profound mind meditating on and assimilating the implications of the new Christian worldview:

In the poem I think we may observe not confusion, a half-hearted or a muddled business, but a fusion that has occurred at a given point of contact between old and new, a product of thought and deep emotion. But that shift is not complete in Beowulf – whatever may have been true of its period in general. Its author is still concerned primarily with man on earth, rehandling in a new perspective an ancient theme: that man, each man and all men, and all their works shall die. A theme no Christian need despise…

Yet this theme plainly would not be so treated, but for the nearness of a pagan time. The shadow of its despair, if only as a mood, as an intense emotion of regret, is still there. The worth of defeated valour in this world is deeply felt. As the poet looks back into the past, surveying the history of kings and warriors in the old traditions, he sees that all glory (or as we might say ‘culture’or ‘civilization’) ends in night. The solution of that tragedy is not treated—it does not arise out of the material.

We get in fact a poem from a pregnant moment of poise, looking back into the pit, by a man learned in old tales who was struggling, as it were, to get a general view of them all, perceiving their common tragedy of inevitable ruin, and yet feeling this more poetically because he was himself removed from the direct pressure of its despair. He could view from without, but still feel immediately and from within, the old dogma: despair of the event, combined with faith in the value of doomed resistance. He was still dealing with the great temporal tragedy, and not yet writing an allegorical homily in verse.

Tolkien contrasts Beowulf with the southern, Mediterranean world of the Classics, which so many of his contemporaries were brought up on and against which they are judging Beowulf and finding it lacking:

It is the strength of the Northern mythological imagination that it faced this problem, put the monsters in the centre, gave them Victory but no honour, and found a potent but terrible solution in naked will and courage. ‘As a working theory absolutely impregnable.’ So potent is it, that while the older southern imagination has faded for ever into literary ornament, the northern has power, as it were, to revive its spirit even in our own times. It can work, even as it did work with the goðlauss viking, without gods: martial heroism as its own end. But we may remember that the poet of Beowulf saw clearly: the wages of heroism is death.

Unlike, say, the Odyssey with its strange, hanging happy ending or the Iliad which ends in media res with the funeral of Patroclus but the war still unconcluded, Beowulf ends with the funeral and burial of the hero and the threatened end of his people, the Geats. Although it manages to have Christian sentiment throughout, the final feeling is of a very modern existentialist view of the world, as cold, heartless, shelterless, where most of us are abandoned to figure out our lives by whatever code or guidelines we can muster. For Tolkien, writing in the 1930s, in the shadow of the Nazis, the heartless Northern view of life must have seemed much more pressing and contemporary than the sweet perfections of the Classic tradition.

Hygelac's watchman greets Beowulf's boat

Hygelac’s watchman greets Beowulf’s boat

Beowulf: the Monsters and the Critics online

Beowulf – elements of style

In the introduction to his Penguin 1973 edition of Beowulf, Michael Alexander summarises elements of the style of Beowulf and their consequences. (All quotes in the following are from Michael Alexander’s 1973 translation, reproduced with kind permission of the author):

1. The alliterative verse line

Number one is the use of alliteration as a device to order the verse rather than end-rhyme. Alliteration is much more intrusive, up to three words are dictated by the form as opposed the one of end-rhyme and this helps the tendency to clump words into alliterating stock phrases. Next is the inflected nature of the language which allows complex meaning to be conveyed by one word, and powerful meanings by just two. Compact and energetic. But the real key to Old English verse structure is the caesura which divides the two half lines, holding in balance the short clauses:

þaér æt hýðe | stód hringedstefna

There at hythe [harbour] | stood the ringed-prow [ship]

This balancing has all kinds of affects, as Alexander puts it:

Traditional oral composition by phrase accounts for an exclamatory lack of syntactic subordination and for the tacking, eddying, resumptive movement of the sense.

There is a continual play between the demands of sense ie the syntactic units not to be too far apart – and of the alliterative scheme ie some sets of words fit fluently together regardless of sense and so being grouped together regardless of sense: an accumulation of short stocky phrases.

The symmetry of the halves of the line produces balance, antithesis and chiasmos much more commonly than in unrhymed iambic pentameter, and the forward movement is much more impeded than in later English blank verse. The halves of the line are, as often as not, out of the natural sequence of prose or spoken syntax and, as the mind reshuffles the parts of the sentence, the tendency is for the half-lines to move apart; but the alliteration and the stress pattern bind them together. The final impression of the verse in Beowulf is of contrasting energies being held in a rhythmic balance – and this is also the impression of the poem as a whole.

This is what Alexander captures in his use of “exclamatory”. Reading Anglo Saxon verse is like a series of hand grenades going off in your mind, in your mouth, as punchy phrase follows punchy phrase. Or, as Tolkien puts it in his famous essay, The Monsters and the Critics:

We must not view this poem as in intention an exciting narrative or a romantic tale.The very nature of Old English metre is often misjudged. In it there is no single rhythmic pattern progressing from the beginning of a line to the end, and repeated with variation in other lines. The lines do not go according to a tune. They are founded on a balance; an opposition between two halves of roughly equivalent phonetic weight, and significant content, which are more often rhythmically contrasted than similar. They are more like masonry than music.

2. Other elements of style

The kenning is a figure of speech in old Germanic or Norse literature which uses two words, one in the genitive or possessive case, to create a periphrasis or roundabout way of describing an object. Thus, in Beowulf, the sea is described as the seġl-rād “sail-road” (1429b), swan-rād “swan-road” (200a), hron-rād “whale-road” (10). (Riddles were a big part of Germanic culture. There are two entire sets of riddles in the AngloSaxon corpus, 90 riddles survive in the Exeter Book. Kennings are a kind of miniature riddle).

From the south blazed
the sun, the world’s candle (1965-6)

When heaven’s jewel
has glided from the world… (2073)

God they thanked
For the smooth going over the salt-trails (228)

Day in the east grew
God’s bright beacon, | and the billows sank… (571)

… a chief shall greet
his fellow with gifts | over the gannet’s bath (1861)

Riding at anchor
the strayer of ocean… (1882)

A special sea dress, | a sail, was hoisted… (1906)

… until they took part | in that play-of-the-shields… (2038)

the daring-in-battle | would address the harp,
the joy wood… (2108)

since the legacy of the hammer [sword], | hard and battle-scarred,
the iron edges, | had utterly destroyed him (2828)

As this selection shows they are good but not that good. Some of them stray from being kennings to being simple metaphors. In fact it’s surprising and a little disappointing that there are so few kennings in Beowulf, I counted fewer than 20 in total. This is not where the poet’s energies were directed. More effort went into…

Pleasure in elaborating – armour God, kings, heroes and some classes of objects tend to have repeatable descriptive phrases cluster round them in apposition.

He then saw in the hall | a host of young soldiers,
a company of kinsmen | caught away in sleep,
a whole warrior-band. (728)

the grisly plaint of God’s enemy,
his song of ill-success, the sobs of the damned one
bewailing his pain. (786)

Let’s take objects first: the poem is awash with description of objects, especially those manmade objects which indicate status and class and that means, pre-eminently, arms and armour. Finely carved armour, especially if it involved gold, was possibly the most precious and rare object in the Migration Age; cups, goblets, jewellery come a close second but armour was heavily invested with the masculine values of the time – the strongest warrior was expected to wear the finest armour; and arms and armour were also an important part of the gift-giving which bound Dark Age society together:

The war-coats shone
and the links of hard | hand-locked iron
sang in their harness | as they stepped along
in their gear of grim aspect | going to the hall.
Sea-wearied, they then | set against the wall
their broad shields | of special temper,
and bowed to bench, | battle-shirts clinking,
the war-dress of warriors. (322-8)

Then as a sign of victory | the son of Healfdene
bestowed on Beowulf | a standard worked in gold,
a figured battle-banner, | breast and head armour;
and many admired | the marvellous sword
that was borne before the hero. (1021-5)

Against sea-beasts | my body-armour,
hand-linked and hammered, | helped me then,
this forge-knit battleshirt | bright with gold,
decking my breast. (550-3)

Then the cup was taken to him | and he was entreated kindly
to honour their feast: | ornate gold
was presented in trophy: | two arm-wreaths,
with robes and rings also, | and the richest collar
I have ever heard of | in all the world. (1192-6)

On a side note, much of the armour has the image of a boar on it. Not sure if this was a generic symbol of warriors or relates to a particular tribe but, strikingly, boar motifs were found on the armour at the famous Sutton Hoo archaeological site.

Over the cheek-pieces
boar-shapes shone out, | bristling with gold,
blazing and fire-hard, | fierce guards
of their bearers’ lives… (303-6)

where the bound blade, | beaten out by hammers,
cuts, with its sharp edges | shining with blood,
through the boars that bristle | above the foes’ helmets! ( 1285-87)

He was my closest councillor, | he was keeper of my thoughts,
he stood at my shoulder | when we struck for our lives
as the crashing together | of companies of foot,
when blows rained on boar-crests. (1325-8)

Boar carved in iron on a helmet from the Sutton Hoo excavations

Boar carved in iron on a helmet from the Sutton Hoo excavations

Elaboration of names Not only are important objects described at length but important people tend to have multiple epithets clustered around them, “a series of synonyms in apposition”. A king or hero will be named and then their position as leader or their family position clarified, their genealogy or their deeds will be summarised in an apposite phrase or two. It bigs them up, it makes them more potent (as, to this day, we give the royal family or eminent soldiers or notable citizens an accumulation of names, titles and awards).

It also has a secondary affect, as Alexander points out, of placing everything and everyone within a realistically-conceived world. Characters don’t appear out of nowhere: their names, their deeds, their family and their history are all explained, and this technique is part of what gives to the poem its epic quality of describing a real and objective world.

to earth’s men the most glorious
of houses under heaven, | the home of the king (309)

“The Master of the Danes,
Lord of the Scyldings, | shall learn of your request.
I shall gladly ask | my honoured chief,
giver of armbands, | about your undertaking… (350)

“The Master of Battles | bids me announce,
the Lord of the North-Danes, | that he knows your ancestry…” (391)

To you I will now
put one request, | Royal Scylding,
Shield of the South-Danes, | one sole favour
that you’ll not deny me, | dear lord of your people,
now that I have come thus far, | Fastness of Warriors.. (426)

Great then was the hope | of the grey-locked Hrothgar,
warrior, giver of rings. | Great was the trust
of the Shield of the Danes, | shepherd of the people… (607)

… hoping that their lord’s son | would live and in ripeness
assume the kingdom, | the care of his people,
the hoard and the stronghold, | the storehouse of heroes,
the Scylding homeland. (910)

… stepping on eagerly | to the stronghold where
Ongentheow’s conqueror, | the earl’s defender,
the warlike young king… (1967)

The protector of warriors | rewarded me
with a heap of treasure, | Healfdene’s son. (2142)

… when Hygelac was slain
when that kindly lord of the peoples, | the king of the Geats,
the son of Hrethel, | among the hurl of battle
slaked the sword’s thirst… (2355)

Elaboration of God’s names And of course this applies most of all to descriptions of God who, naturally, merits multiple appositional phrases, to big up his magnitude, as he does in all churches to this day. To this day it is felt by many users of English that the only way to convey somebody or something’s power is to give them multiple epithets. More is more:

The Maker was unknown to them
the Judge of all actions, | the Almighty was unheard of,
they knew not hot to praise | the Prince of heaven,
the Wielder of Glory. (180)

The Father in His wisdom
shall apportion the honours then, | the All-Holy Lord… (687-8)

The ancient arose and | offered thanks to God,
to the Lord Almighty, | for what this man had spoken. (1396)

“I wish to put in words my thanks
to the King of Glory, | the Giver of All,
the Lord of Eternity, | for these treasures that I see… (2794)

Understatement of experience “Litotes is a figure of speech in which understatement is employed for rhetorical effect, principally via double negatives. Rather than saying something is attractive (or even very attractive), one might merely say it is ‘not unattractive'”. A bluff Northern Yorkshire understatement is meant to be a leading characteristic of Norse and Anglo Saxon verse but I found litotes relatively rare in Beowulf.

Nor was it ungraciously | that he greeted the strangers (1892)

The wind did not hinder | the wave-skimming ship (1907)

There was little cause | for crowing among the Hetware
for their conduct of the foot-fight… (2363)

Related to it is the way eloquent verse paragraphs often end with a short, pithy, blunt, ironic comment, like a capstone.

The Scylding champion, | shaking with war rage,
caught it by its rich hilt, and, | careless of his life,
brandished its circles, | and brought it down in fury
to take her full and fairly across the neck,
breaking the bones; | the blade sheared
through the death-doomed flesh. | She fell to the ground;
the sword was gory; | he was glad at the deed.

The last line and a half is the conclusion and climax of 50 lines describing the fight between Beowulf and Grendel’s dam, and very characteristically Anglo Saxon in its sudden laconic brevity: three short, pithy half lines, summing up the action with Nordic indirectness (“the sword was gory”) and understatement of emotion (“he was glad at the deed”).

He had dived to his doom, | he had died miserably;
here in his fen-lair | he had laid aside
his heathen soul. | Hell welcomed it. (850-52)

There were melting heads
and bursting wounds, | as the blood sprang out
from weapon-bitten bodies. | Blazing fire,
most insatiable of spirits, | swallowed the remains
of the victims of both nations. | Their valour was no more. (1120)

Before morning’s light
he flew back to the hoard | in its hidden chamber.
He had poured out fire | and flame on the people,
he had put them to the torch; | he trusted now to the barrow’s walls
and to his fighting strength; | his faith misled him. (2320)

It was not granted to him
that an iron edge | could ever lend him
help in a battle; | his hand was too strong.
I have heard that any sword, | however hardened by wounds,
that he bore into battle, | his blow would overtax
– any weapon whatever: | it was the worse for him. (2682)

Archaic and artful Anglo Saxon poetic diction is deliberately more archaic and elaborate than Anglo Saxon prose which tends to be simpler and more analytic. Many words occur in the poetry which are found nowhere in the prose, some of them related to older Norse terms. Ie Anglo Saxon poetry is a highly artificial and artful creation. The use of multiple short, laconic, forceful phrases in apposition creates a steady, powerful impact. As Alexander eloquently puts it:

the effect is of strenuous and untiring eloquence.

Full text of Beowulf with parallel translation

All quotes copyright © Michael Alexander 1973, reproduced with kind permission of the author.

Finn and Hengest: The Fragment and the Episode by JRR Tolkien (1982)

Known to millions as the author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien earned his living as a philologist, a specialist in Anglo Saxon, Middle English, and medieval Norse and German at Oxford University. His core activity was establishing the meanings of Anglo Saxon and Norse words which often exist only in a handful of forms, in a handful or only one manuscript, identifying where scribes and copyists made mistakes (as they often did), establishing their cognate forms in other early medieval texts, languages and dialects, with the ultimate aim of establishing ‘good’ texts. For 40 years, from the late 1920s to the early 60s,  he lectured and wrote about all aspects of Anglo Saxon (and its cousin, medieval Norse) literature.

The historic ‘interludes’ in Beowulf

The 3,000 line Old English ‘epic’ Beowulf contains quite a few references to the collective history of the north European Germanic tribes of the Dark Ages; the stories of various heroes of legend are told within the poem by the bards who populate the various kings’ halls (Hrothgar the Dane, Hyglac the Geat), but always quite allusively – the audience who heard these poems knew the stories extremely well; the pleasure was in the way the poet shaped and formed them.

Unfortunately, to us, 1,500 years later, these tellings are tantalisingly obscure, hinting at back stories which we can almost never verify or only painfully piece together from other fragments and damaged texts which happened to survive from Europe’s ‘Dark Ages’. This book is about one particular such legend which occurs around line 1,000 of Beowulf:

The Episode, Beowulf 1063-1160

After Beowulf fights and defeats the monster Grendel in Heorot, the meadhall of King Hrothgar the Dane, the king’s bard sings in celebration a brief summary of the story of Finn, Hnaef and Hengest. The ‘Episode’ as it’s called, lasts only 100 lines before the plot moves swiftly on, leaving a number of unresolved queries in its wake: what happens at Finn’s hall? Why is there a fight at all? Who exactly is it between – Danes and Frisians are mentioned, so where do the Jutes come in? Why does Hengest replace Hnaef as leader of the Danes? Is Hengest even Danish or some kind of exile or mercenary? Has he got anything to do with the Hengest who the Venerable Bede records as leading the Jutes who invade and start to settle Kent in 449AD? Why does Hengest decide to stay, along with the Danish warband, under the hospitality of the Frisian King Finn for an entire winter after Finn and his men have treacherously attacked them?

The Fragment

As chance would have it, and it really is the randomest of lucky chances, in the 1700s a scholarly vicar, George Hickes, published a fragment of Anglo Saxon verse he had found on spare sheet of manuscript in the Archbishop of Canterbury’s library. The sheet has since disappeared. All we have is his transcription, riddled with mistakes. But it is a fragment (starting and ending in mid-sentence) which seems to come from the story of Hnaef and Finn and seems to describe in hectic immediate style the start of the dramatic fight at Finn’s hall. This text has become known as the Fight at Finnsburg, also known as the ‘Fragment’.

Gathering Tolkien’s papers

When Tolkien died he left a vast amount of papers, published and unpublished, scholarly or part of his great imagined world of Middle Earth. His son, Christopher, has dedicated his life to establishing order and publishing definitive versions of these texts (hence, for example, the 12 volumes of the stories of Middle Earth). Over his career Tolkien lectured and speculated repeatedly about the relation between the Fragment and the Episode (which has also attracted a huge amount of attention from other scholars of the period).

Finn and Hengest: The Fragment and the Episode was compiled by the OE scholar Alan Bliss in an attempt to create a definitive version of Tolkien’s thoughts on this popular subject. It is divided into four parts:

1. Glossary of Names A very detailed consideration of the origin, meaning, other citings and interrelations of all the proper names used in both the Fragment and Episode: Hnaef, Healfdene, Scylding, Hengest, Finn. You get a good flavour of just how complicated it is trying to establish order and consistency from the wealth of fragments and references to names which differ in every citation and from language to language, in the Wikipedia article about Hrothgar, lord of the Danes, whose meadhall Beowulf visits and protects from the monster Grendel.

Investigating all the names which occur in both Fragment and Episode provides a foundation for…

2. Textual Commentary A detailed examination of key words and phrases in the text which shed light on the mystery. This is like the textual apparatus you get with any classic text, explaining in detail all the editorial choices and decisions. This passage gives a good flavour of the book. It is analysing lines 43-45 of the fragment which, in George Hickes’ transcription reads:

Þā gewāt him wund hæleð | on wæg gangan,
sǣde þæt his byrne | ābrocen wǣre,
here-sceorpum hrōr, | and ēac wæs his helm þyrl…

Then a wounded hero | away turned,
said that his byrnie | was a-broken
active in his armour| and also his helm pierced…

about which Tolkien writes:

45 Hickes [ie George Hickes’ transcription has…] Here sceorpum hror. ‘Active in his armour’ makes no sense in this context, which clearly is a complaint that their weapons are no longer serviceable. Compare the exclamation of Hjalti (Hialto) in Saxo’s translation of Bjarkamal: “Already, grievously have sword and darts cut to pieces my shield… of the broken shield the arm thongs alone remain.” Compare also the situation in Olafr Trygvasson’s last fight:

“Ōlāfr konungr Tryggvason stōð ī lypting ā Orminum, ok skaut optast um daginn, stundum bogaskoti, en stundum gaflǫkum, ok jafnan tveim sęnn. Hann sā fram ā skipit, ok sā sīna męnn reiða sverðin ok hǫggva tītt, ok sā at illa bitu; mælti þā hātt: ‘hvārt reiði þēr svā slæliga sverðin, er ek sē at ekki bīta yðr?’ Maðr svarar: ‘sverð vār eru slæ ok brotin mjǫk.’

In that case read hreosceorp (pl.) unhror. Unhror does not else occur, and hror is usually applied to persons – its sense is ‘valiant, mighty’ (but etymologically ‘active, agile’). Neither of these is a fatal objection to weapons. Cf. fyrdsearo fuslic (B.2618) ‘gallant’. The classic example is cene ‘noble’ – ‘bold’ – ‘sharp’. The accentuation héresceorp un| hrór (Type E) is not unprecedented: cf. se þe unmurlice | madmas dæleþ (B.1756), þæt is undyrne | dryhten Higelac (B.2000). Technically as a “noun-compound”, un- should have the accent, but in spite of the additional logical reason for accenting the negative un- it was clearly often unaccented (like ne) – owing partly to the influence of the simplex and partly to sentence-rhythm. It is often in origin an IE unaccented form. Cf. “the ùnknown warrior”, “into the ùnknown”; cf. also ON ó– accented, ú– unaccented.

That is Tolkien’s reasoning for changing hrōr to unhrōr in the passage quoted above, so that his amended version now reads:

Þā gewāt him wund hæleð | on wæg gangan,
sǣde þæt his byrne | ābrocen wǣre,
here-sceorpum unhrōr, | and ēac wæs his helm þyrl…

Then a wounded hero | away turned
said that his byrnie | was a-broken
his armour inactive | and also his helm pierced…

If you’re looking for hobbits, forget it. The whole book is written like this.

3. Reconstruction A brief conclusion, based on the detailed evidence of the previous two sections of what the actual story was, what are the historical events behind the legend, namely:

Finn is king of the Frisians., a border people caught between the powerful Franks to the south, Danes to the north. He has married Hildeburh, sister of king Hnaef of the Halfdanes, probably in an attempt to patch up some feud between them. The Halfdanes are probably a family or tribe on the edges of Danish royal influence proper, types of colonists. The Frisians are an ancient tribe recorded by the Romans as far back as the first century. Hnaef Halfdane takes 60 thanes to visit Finn; this half Danish, mixed nature of his following explains why a number of his followers appear to be Jutes from the Jutland peninsula. Presumably he was visiting his sister; probably he was bringing back Finn’s son who he had been fostering as per northern Germanic custom. He planned to spend the winder with Finn, his brother-in-law.

It seems that Hnaef the half-Dane, with Jutes among his retinue, arrives at Finn’s hall/stronghold to find there are a number of exiled Jutes there who have fled some internal Jutish feud. There is very bad blood between the Jutish contingents. The atmosphere is tense. The half-Danish contingent, housed in the guests’ hall, that night notice shields and armour creeping up on them in the night. This is where the Fragment starts with the first assault on the hall: Hnaef despatches men to guard the two doors; Garulf among the attackers falls; they fight for five days, with the attackers suffering grievous casualties, when an attacker turns to his king (Finn?) to say his armour is packing up, the king replying, How are the two others (presumably the pair of defenders defending the door) doing…?

The Episode starts with queen Hildeburh surveying the carnage “when morning came”. King Hnaef of the defenders has been killled. So has Hildeburh’s son by Finn (the assumption is that he had been sent as a ward to the court of Hnaef, had therefore slept with the half-Danes, had for some reason been forward in the defence and so killed). But Finn has suffered more with most of his thanes killed in the assault. Therefore he is forced to make a peace treaty with Hengest, who has succeeded Hnaef as leader of the guests. In it Finn promises to call off the attack, lease them the hall for the winter, give them as much gold and rings as he usually gives his Frisians; so that they in every way become his subjects. The treaty agreed, many of the Frisians return to their homesteads leaving Hengest and the half-Danes to winter with Finn. Hengest broods all winter long on the conflict between his duty to avenge his dead leader Hnaef and the peace treaty he has agreed with Finn. In the spring the sea thaws and a number of the half-Danes sail away to Denmark, taking the tale of the treacherous attack on them and the murder of Hnaef. They return with reinforcements. One of the half-Danes places a well-known sword in Hengest’s lap and the next thing we know Finn is dead, his hall burnt down, and the half-Danes have taken queen Hildeburh and all Finn’s gold back to their native land.

Popularity

The tale, and references to Finn, seem to be so widespread in the ancient literature because:

a) historically, it captures an important moment in the troubled tribal wars of the North Sea and Baltic, one which seems to have crystallised certain shifts of power towards the Danes, against the Frisians and which, importantly for the later English tribes, prompted Hengest’s mission to Britain.

b) culturally, it deals with the classic dilemma explored again and again in the Icelandic sagas: Hengest’s conflict between the prime duty to avenge a murdered lord and some other duty either of marriage or, as here, a sworn treaty.

c) of its psychological complexity: almost certainly Finn didn’t initiate the attack on the half-Danes, his Jutish guests did and he found himself dragged in to fight against his wife’s kin; he sees his own son killed; he himself dies and loses everything. It is a very Northern, bleak outcome. But also the wrecca or adventurer Hengest didn’t expect a fight, and probably finds leadership of the survivors thrust upon him. His ethical dilemma (described above) is at the centre of the Episode. And queen Hildeburh is a victim like Hecuba or Andromache; through no fault at all of her own seeing first her son then her husband killed, her marriage hall going up in flames and herself taken like booty back to her homeland with ashes in her mouth. She is a character worthy of Greek tragedy.

Three Appendices One of the appendices is a tentative chronology of the events outlined above: I was electrified to discover Tolkien thought that Beowulf must have been born around 500AD; and that, with his breadth of knowledge and command of the sources, he thinks the powerful wrecca (exile, adventurer) Hengest, whose brooding character dominates both Fragment and Episode, is the same Hengest who the Venerable Bede records as invading Kent with his partner Horsa in 453! Tolkien’s full chronology is:

410 Romans leave Britain
425 Hengest born
430 Healfdene born
Fight at Finnsburh occurs about 452. Hnaef aged about 30 dies. Hengest the king’s thegn is 25. Hildeburh, Hnaef’s sister, older than him, 33, so as to have a son old enough to fight (and die) 15?
453 Hengest, victorious in the fight at Finnsburh, but with all sorts of enemies, leads a war band along with Horsa in the invasion of Kent. He has an infant son Oesc. Horsa is killed in battle soon after.
460 Hrothgar, second son of Healfdene born
470 Oesc becomes a warrior. 473 last mention of Hengest, in a chronicle. He probably lives to old age.
480 Hygelac of the Geats born.
490 Kingdom of Kent established with Oesc as head of the new royal line.
495-505 death of Healfdene Scylding; accession of his second son Hrothgar aged 35 or so.
495-500 Beowulf born.
512 death of Oesc, recorded in Chronicle.
520 Beowulf, aged about 20, travels from the court of King Hygelac of the Geats to visit Heorot, hall of King Hrothgar of the Healfdenes. Fights Grendel and her mother.
525-30 death of King Hygelac in a battle with the Franks, as recorded in Gregory of Tours’ Historia Francorum.
570 the aged Beowulf sets out to battle the dragon who is terrorising his people. Dies and is buried beneath a great mound by the sea.

Criticism

I am not scholar enough to criticise the contents of this book in detail. The editor, Bliss, keeps up a steady stream of footnotes pointing out where Tolkien’s theories are out of date or wrong. And the book was published in 1982 – who knows what further discoveries and insights have been published in the past 30 years?

It is a big effort to read this book, but working through all 150 pages of Tolkien’s densely argued notes really takes you into the guts of the text with all its possible variant readings and interpretations. Even an amateur like myself comes away with a much more vivid feel for the complexity of the texts, for the power and beauty of the poetry, for the pathos of the central characters, and excited by the tantalising crossovers with actual recorded historical events.

The only criticism I can confidently make is that the book should have included the text of the poem Widsith. This 140-line Anglo Saxon poem is a lament by a wandering minstrel for the courts and kings he has known and performed for: some are clearly fantasy (Caesar, the king of the Egyptians) but others are highly factual references to real kings of Germanic tribes. Early in the poem he refers to Hnaef and Finn, lines Tolkien includes in his list of four sources of evidence which he will consider. It would have been easy and very convenient for the reader trying to follow the repeated references to Widsith if the book had included the full text and a decent prose translation of it.

Book jacket for Finn and Hengist, copyright John Howe and Random Books

Book jacket for Finn and Hengist, copyright John Howe and Random Books

Sagas

The pleasures of Anglo-Saxon poetry

Anglo-Saxon poetry offers a range of pleasures which can, perhaps, be arranged in a hierarchy.

The pleasure of the sounds

First, there is the pure pleasure of the sounds – the tremendous compacting of meaning into abrupt gutteral syllables compressed into short alliterative lines which sound great when recited aloud. They nakedly convey the pagan energy from the origin of our speech which usually lies hidden beneath layers of mellifluous Norman French, Latin and all the other languages we’ve rifled and pillaged. There is a sonic purity which is reinforced, the more you understand the history and subject matter, by a kind of ideological or historical sense of primalness.

Art and style

There is the art and style: as you practice you gain a deeper understanding of the skilled use of alliteration, the division of sentences into compact semantic units or stock phrases (“hard under helmet”), the laconic understatement (“the blow was not welcome”), the pleasure of deciphering riddles or kennings.

Subject matter

There is the the “sweet sorrow” of the subject matter, broadly dividing into:

  • elegies of profound loss, to the passing of great men, great times, great buildings – Durham, The Ruin, Deor, The Seafarer, The Wanderer, The Wive’s Lament
  • overtly Christian poetry, but tinged with the same pagan sense of loss and sadness – The Dream of the Rood
  • warrior legends and epics: Beowulf, the Fight at Finnsburg, The Battle of Maldon – always with the same dying fall, Beowulf’s fate, Finn’s defeat, Byrhtnoth’s ofermode

Virility

Poetry which manages to convey sensitivity to the sad plight of fallen humanity with tremendous energy and virility. It assumes a very masculine worldview, one of continual physical competition, bravery and strength in contests and fights.

Our heritage

William Morris crystallised the plaint why tens of millions of English people know the story of the Odyssey or the wooden horse of Troy who have never heard of Beowulf, Maldon or Finnsburg. These are the myths and legends of our forebears, of the Germanic tribesmen who invaded and settled our country 1500 years ago, giving their name to our country and to our language. Their word-hoard, their myth-kitty, their songs and lays are intrinsic to our language and heritage. Almost nobody knows or studies them. (This Amazon book review claims in 99% of schools Old English isn’t taught at all, and only appears in 10% of university departments.)

The pathos of survival

Because so little survives – only 30,000 lines of poetry, of which Beowulf comprises 10% – and most of which has survived by the slenderest of threads, there is a strong sense of the preciousness and uniqueness of what we have. There is a close analogy with the Sutton Hoo treasure, enormously rich in itself but indicating by its very richness – like Beowulf – the enormity of what has been lost.

Dead language

Then there is the very academic pleasure of studying and trying to understand a dead language. But not one like Latin or ancient Greek which were kept alive by scholars through the Middle Ages and Renaissance and then widely studied as a sign of culture in the Victorian period and beyond. Anglo Saxon has always been a tiny minority pursuit (oddly, since it is the origin of the most successful language on the planet). Yet the more you study, the more you enter the treasure house of a lost world.

Philology

Not only does so little survive but what we have was written in different places in different dialects  which themselves changed and evolved over some 600 years, so it’s not even one language but a range of quite distinct sub-languages we are dealing with. Trying to piece together all the scattered fragments of text – and the scattered dialects in which they’re written – to create a consistent understanding of the Anglo Saxon languages has been the work of two centuries of philologists and sooner or later even the casual reader finds themselves drawn into speculation about the meaning of this or that word, and then into the long history of debates about it…

For example, the precise meaning of ofermode in the battle of Maldon is debated to this day and has large ideological and historical overtones – is the poet criticising or praising Byrhtnoth? is the entire poem a critique of the craven policy of King Aethelred? – but all these depend on the most technical of philological interpretations which requires a detailed knowledge, training and understanding in the Anglo Saxon languages…

Beowulf lines 1127-37

Hengest ða gyt
wælfagne winter | wunode mid Finne
eal unhlitme. | Eard gemunde,
þeah þe he ne meahte | on mere drifan
hringedstefnan; | holm storme weol,
won wið winde, | winter yþe beleac
isgebinde, | oþðæt oþer com
gear in geardas, | swa nu gyt deð,
þa ðe syngales | sele bewitiað,
wuldortorhtan weder. | ða wæs winter scacen,
fæger foldan bearm.

Hengest there yet
the woeheavy winter | waited with Finn
all unhappy. | His home-earth beminded
though there he might not | on the mere drive
his ring-prowed ship; | whelm storm swelled
waged with wind, | winter waves belocked
ice be-bounden, | until another came
year in the homeyards | such now yet does
those which continually | observe the seasons,
world-wondrous weather. | Then was winter scampered
fair felt the earth.

Related links

Replica of the helmet from the Sutton Hoo ship-burial (Wikimedia Commons)

Replica of the helmet from the Sutton Hoo ship-burial (Wikimedia Commons)

Beowulf – the epic

Beowulf is the longest Old English poem, some 3,200 lines in length, representing a tenth of the 30,000 lines of OE poetry which survive. It relates events set during the European Migration Era (400-600); was probably composed before the death of Bede (735); and the version we have was probably written down around 1000.

Setting All the events of Beowulf are set in Denmark and southern Sweden; it doesn’t even mention Britain or England which makes it odd that it is routinely discussed as the first great work in English literature – though having read the Eddas I now appreciate that Germanic culture, language, myths and legends stretched during this period in a continuum from the Black Sea to Iceland. Beowulf was only given its current name in 1805 and was first published in 1815.

Manuscript Beowulf survives, like most OE, in just one manuscript, in this case British Library Cotton MS Vitellius, which was damaged in a fire but luckily survived. The manuscript also contains handwritten texts of a homily on St Christopher, the Marvels of the East, the Letter of Alexander to Aristotle and an imperfect copy of another Old English poem, Judith. All five texts concern or mention fabulous beasts so the MS may well have been assembled around this theme. The verse is written out as continuous prose, divided into numbered sections. So the layout of all modern editions into traditional poetic lines, often with clearly marked half line-breaks, the punctuation, commas, full stops and speech marks, are all the work of modern editors.

First page of the Beowulf manuscript; legible but damaged

First page of the Beowulf manuscript; legible but damaged

Above, the first page of the Beowulf manuscript, from which scholars extract lines of verse, thus:

Hwæt! We Gardena | in geardagum,
þeodcyninga,  | þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas | ellen fremedon.
Oft Scyld Scefing | sceaþena þreatum,
5monegum mægþum, | meodosetla ofteah,
egsode eorlas.

Author Of course no-one knows who the author was or even where it was written: but scholars agree it is the work of a sophisticated and well-educated Christian, maybe even a monk, probably associated with one of the royal courts which flourished in the 700s, either of Wessex or Mercia or Northumbria.

Plot In his youth Beowulf the Geat, from south Sweden, sails to the legendary court, Heorot, of King Hrothgar the Dane, and frees it from being terrorised by the monster Grendel who has been attacking and sweeping off warriors to kill and eat for 12 long years. No sooner is Grendel defeated than his mother attacks. Beowulf tracks her back to her lair beneath a lake, there fighting and killing her. He returns in honour and laden with gifts to Geatland and his king, Hygelac. Eventually Hygelac and his son die and Beowulf becomes king of the Geats. 50 years later his own kingdom is threatened by a dragon. Beowulf heroically defeats the dragon but is himself killed; he is burnt on a pagan funeral pyre, buried in a mound by the sea, and it is predicted that his people will now perish. It is not a happy ending.

Historical provenance Beowulf is nowhere attested in the historical record. Maybe he is entirely fictitious. But his Geatish lord, Hygelac, was certainly real: he is recorded as dying in a skirmish against the Franks about 520 in Bishop Gregory of Tour’s History of the Franks. So soon after is when Beowulf would take over as king; and fifty years later would date his fight with the dragon and death around 570AD.

Network of references If the plot is so simple, how come the poem is so long? Partly because it is enmeshed in scores of references to other Germanic legends of the Migration Era. These were clearly designed to pad, bolster and ennoble the main plot, but are a stumbling block to the modern reader: whereas the contemporary audience would have caught the subtlest reference to these stories, we know next to nothing about these long-lost legends;  many are only barely explicable by reference to scattered and obscure references or fragments.

The Penguin translation Penguin translations have a long tradition of being old-fashioned and often poor quality. But Michael Alexander’s introduction and translation are both excellent. (Nota bene: I am referring here to the 1973 translation and introduction; Alexander updated his translation and completely rewrote the introduction in 2003.)

Michael Alexander’s introduction His main claim is that Beowulf is an epic, if we define epic as having these attributes:

1 inclusiveness of scope
2 objectivity of treatment
3 unity of consciousness, of ethos
4 an action of significance – epic amplitude – fullness of epic narration

An epic should be universal, taking in all of life and representing it in such a way that the general truth of the presentation is universally recognised. Its scope should embrace war and peace, men and gods, life and death in a comprehensive and encyclopedic way. And its presentation should be objective…. One’s consciousness of unity in the Iliad, and in epic generally, springs not from a unity of action but a unity of consciousness, an ethos which arises from a primitive intuition of the cosmic solidarity, organic unity and continuity of life.

1. Inclusiveness of scope Beowulf comprehends life and death, man and God, peace and war. It opens with the funeral of one hero, follows the career from young glory to aged defeat of another hero: a lifecycle. The entire life of a people, the Geats, its rise and fall, is described. Peace with its beauty and ceremonies in the hall of Hereot is described, and war and its devastating consequences among the Germanic tribes is continually referred to. Goodness and civilisation at the hall are disrupted by evil incarnated in the monsters. The start of history is captured by the scop or bard, who inaugurates Hereot by singing a poem of God’s Creation of the world – and the end of the history is symbolised by the prophesied extermination of Beowulf’s people after his death. God is seen intervening at key points throughout the poem; but the Devil is alluded to once and his forces, the monsters, drive the plot which is a microcosm of the endless battle of Good against Evil in a fallen universe. “The whole life of the people and of mankind is involved in the struggle of the hero-king against the dragon.” In its way, it is as cosmic in ambition as Paradise Lost.

2. Objectivity of treatment

  • The dignified presentation of death Alexander considers the poem gives weight and due importance to all its characters and especially to their deaths : “Every single one of the numerous individual deaths in the poem is given its full weight and significance… Homer and Tolstoy do not outdo Beowulf in their respect for the gravity and commonness of dying.” Though Alexander admits that the poet does intervene, does comment, does include homilies and morals, thus falling short of the “blithe cosmic impartiality” of Homer. But then who doesn’t?
  • Stock scenes “Much of the objectivity – the truth – comes from the traditional presentation of life in the heroic world. It is crystallised into generic scenes: voyage, welcome, feast, boast, arming, fight, reward… have the traditional and practised feel of solid simplicity and consistency… The familiar nuts and bolts of life are presented in stylised, elevated but simple form…”
  • Values “Value are constant: sunlight is good, cold is ominous.” Constant, simple and dignified. Feasting in the firelit hall is good. Being isolated in the cold moor is bad. Fighting alongside your brother warriors is good. Being betrayed by a colleague is bad.
  • Nature “The stage upon which the drama is set is large and simple. Men are haeleth under heofenum, ‘heroes beneath the heavens’, they are be twaem seonum, ‘between two seas’,  on middanyeard, on ‘middle earth’, swa hit waeter bebugeth, ‘surrounded by water’. Every event and action is positioned in a landscape which is both realistic but raised to a level of stylised simplicity, given a symbolic depth. “The sense of never losing one’s bearings is not only spatial but temporal. The coming of day or night or the seasons is never omitted.”
  • Genealogy “Likewise we know where ever man comes from… A man is identified as someone’s son or as someone’s kin. For important people or things, complete genealogies or lists of owners are given… Each action in Beowulf has a full spatial and temporal dimension, and the cosmic envelope of space and time is always assumed and usually felt to be there, immutable.”
  • Impersonal “In epic, human and non-human actions are felt to be part of a larger impersonal if organic process, the authority of which is not questioned, but accepted and respected. (Critics of Homer speak of the aidos, or respect, felt for the operations of the process.)” Alexander concedes the poet’s Christian comments and interventions do break this impersonality; they intrude sermonising; they prevent Beowulf rising to the heights of Homer. Nothing in western literature does.
  • Already known Unlike most modern narratives, whether novels or plays or movies, in an epic poem the audience knows the story and outcome before the start. This means a) the audience and poet are interested in the treatment not the plot b) the poem is full of flashbacks, recapitulations, anticipations: these amplify the sense of completeness, of pattern, of objectivity and detachment from events.

3. Unity of ethos is related to objectivity. The one enables the other. The poet achieves his objectivity because he is working within an objective worldview. “The stability of the system of epic formulae perpetuates the tribal view in the hallowed tribal words. This system is itself an organism. Each verbal formula is the tribe’s crystallisation of an aspect of experience…” The crystallisation is possible because of the tribe’s shared views. The tribe’s shared views are crystallised in the formulae. This is why the way in which OE alliterative verse tends to separate stock phrases in apposition into stand-alone units, also emphasises the deep, archaic, shared value in these phrases – and smoothing their clunky positioning out into fluent modern English prose completely obliterates not only their poetical, but their ideological impact, which is enormous.

Lofgeornost The last word of the poem is lof-geornost “most eager for praise” and “this is the primary theme of all heroic poetry, the prowess, strength and courage of the single male, undismayed and undefeated in the face of all adversaries and in all adventures. The hero surpasses other men, and his aristeia is rewarded by fame.  He represents the ultimate of human achievement in a heroic age, and embodies its ideal. Though he must die his glory lives on.”

The Aeneid issue CS Lewis divided epic into primary epic (made by a sometimes illiterate near-contemporary in the culture he is describing – Homer) and secondary epic (a conscious recreation of a vanished world by a highly literate author from another culture – Virgil). Beowulf is nearer the second category because, as all scholars acknowledge, although it is written about preliterate pagan Germanic society in pagan Germanic poetry using pagan Germanic formulae, it was actually composed by a highly literate Christian, possibly even a Christian Anglian monk, just about as far removed from the world of feasting, fighting German pagans as he could be. He is in love with the pagan world and its culture; presumably so is his audience or there would have been little point composing the poem; but he is decisively separated from it by his Christian faith.

Secondary epic This is what makes Beowulf a secondary epic: that the poet is not only looking back at a legendary past; he is looking back at the pagan world looking back at its legendary past. Not only is there a dying fall to his depiction of the pagan world (itself obsessed with the sense of transitoriness and passing-away); but he sees that the entire pagan worldview epitomised in his subject matter and in the Germanic style of stock phrasing, was wrong. There is a deeper level of melancholy. “To a literate consciousness deepened by Christianity, the heroic world of these heathen ancestors must have seemed doubly admirable and the limitations of heroic life doubly tragic.”

4. A significant action At its core Beowulf is a folk story or, deeper, a myth. A hero fights monsters three times: the first two times he conquers; the third time he is old and the monster kills him. It is a profound emblem of the life of man, overcoming challenge after challenge, but unable to avoid, ultimately, his own mortality. If, at a deep, mythical level, the story is about Man confronting his own Mortality, Alexander suggests that at a higher level the “significant action” or actions emphasise the importance of loyalty to the chieftain as the fundamental tie in heroic society; Beowulf dies on a mythic level because the dragon kills him, but on a social level because his 12 thanes abandon him; at his moment of need the bonds of allegiance break down; and that is symbolic of the fragility and vulnerability of heroic society as a whole. It has the same elegiac feel as the collapse of the Order of the Round Table. Sure, it’s attacked by external enemies; but it is its internal weakness that condemns it.

And here again the “Aeneid effect” kicks in – the poem laments the passing of one warband, one people, the Geats – but the Christian poet, at a higher level, laments the passing of the entire pagan way of life. It is a double elegy. It is made up of dynamic, vigorous, virile verse which, at every moment, is haunted by the transitoriness of human power and life. It is wonderful.

Beowulf sailing home by John Howe © John Howe (http://www.john-howe.com)

Beowulf sailing home by John Howe © John Howe (http://www.john-howe.com)

John Howe The illustrator John Howe has created a wonderful series of illustrations of Beowulf on his website. Enjoy and marvel.

Energy is eternal delight as William Blake said. Both Tolkien and Alexander emphasise the power and forcefulness and energy of the verse which, of course, reinforce the subject matter of the poem which is, ultimately, the hero’s virility. Beowulf has “a hero’s delight in his own prowess and a hero’s magnanimity to lesser men”. His virility burns bright in his youth; then diminishes and is conquered in old age, by death. It is no shame. We all share the same destiny. Beowulf is revered for his defiance, his unwillingness to go gentle into that good night, for his prowess.

The critics write of: “sustained energy as poetry”, “an utterance of power”, “characteristic power and beauty”, “powerful and unique power”…

All quotes copyright © Michael Alexander 1973, reproduced with kind permission of the author.

Translating Old English poetry

Translating Old English verse presents obvious challenges. Here I outline:

  1. the challenges and the character of OE poetry
  2. the deliberately idiosyncratic approach I am taking

1. The challenges

Old English, or Anglo-Saxon, is the language spoken by the Germanic settlers in England from their arrival in the 450s until a few generations after the Norman Conquest. Scholars divide OE into prehistoric OE (before anything was written down); Early OE 650-900; Late OE – after the Vikings/Danes invaded north and eastern England. There is a theory that interacting with the Danes in the Danelaw ie the East of the country which they settled, hurried the abandonment of the inflections which made OE hard to learn, speeding the transition to early Middle English. The Danes, the Normans and the spread of Latin learning, all did for OE. Some 80% of OE words didn’t survive into Middle English, let alone modern English.

Old English verse All OE verse is in alliterative measure ie no rhymes, no regular rhythms; instead each line is divided in half, with two stresses in each half: the start-sound of the first stressed word in the second half of the line must be alliterated by one of the two stressed syllables in the first half of the line, possibly both. The second stressed syllable in the second half of the line generally doesn’t alliterate, eg:

Brimmanna boda, | abeod eft ongean

Limited vocabulary A lot of the words are very samey: lots of geatu, ongean, gealgean, gangon, geganga, geseman, gofol. Not a scholarly opinion, but even when you hear it read aloud you get the impression there were far fewer words, and far fewer combinations of sounds available, than in modern English with its vast vocabulary. (See a handy list of core OE vocabulary)

Inflection – Old English is an inflectional language like Greek or Latin ie a lot of the grammatical information is contained in suffixes at the end of the word. The practical effect of this is that a lot can be said with few words eg ‘…folc and foldan. | Feallan sceolon…’

Compressed As with the poems in the Elder Edda, the alliterative form of Anglo-Saxon verse, and the inflectional nature of the language, tend to make the poetry compressed, very compressed. Pronouns and connective words aren’t necessary. A lot is conveyed by two words.  The modern English translation always takes more words to say the same thing.

Phrases 

  • Apposition The division of the already short 4-beat line into two 2-beat parts combined with the requirement for every line to alliterate, makes for continual use of apposition ie small alliterative phrases or units are deployed to fit the alliteration more than the flow of the sense.
  • Separation As in Latin poetry phrases can be widely separated since the inflections – not the word order – explain the grammatical relationship between them; short phrases often refer to people or actions a few lines earlier, rearranged to make the alliteration. This sense of dislocation and apposition adds to the special character of the poetry.
  • Stock phrases It is assumed the poetry originated in oral form, composed by skilled poets or skopas who used stock phrases or readymade formulas to elaborate on the spot equally well-known stories and legends. A number of stock half-lines occur in more than one poem; a few occur more than once in the same poem.

Laconic The affect of all these factors is to make the verse very clipped, abbreviated and laconic. The brevity tends to understatement; a lot is implied. There is a continual sense of very masculine understatement.

Litotes  This tendency is made explicit in the use of litotes, a Greek term for a figure of speech in which understatement is employed for rhetorical effect, usually through double negatives eg rather than saying that something is attractive (or even very attractive), you say it is “not unattractive”.

Feminine endings In the study of poetic meter a feminine ending is a line of verse that ends with an unstressed syllable. So:

  • Masculine ending: Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day – the final beat falls on the final syllable
  • Feminine ending: To be or not to be, that is the question – the final beat falls on the penultimate syllable and the ‘-ion’ syllable is weak = feminine

Many of the final words in each line are infinitives or other forms which take a weak final syllable. OE poetry is full of weak, feminine endings. This produces a kind of dying fall to almost every phrase – eg “…folc and foldan. | Feallan sceolon…” giving the poems as a whole, a particular rolling music.

2. My approach

Many of the qualities listed above are lost in the translation into uninflected, uncompacted modern English. All the translations I’ve read, not unreasonably, try to translate Old English poetry into flowing, smooth, readable, fully comprehensible modern English. This involves:

  • using entirely modern words
  • entirely modern forms of the words eg especially simple uninflected verb forms and modern pronouns
  • unpacking the tightly wrapped and allusive stock phrases into fully explicit sentences
  • rearranging short phrases which are organised in the original in order to fit the alliterative scheme and thus often scattered, into more logically sequential orderings
  • losing the music of OE’s feminine, ie unstressed, endings, especially the feminine endings of infinitive forms of verbs

I’ve set out to try and avoid these losses. I am trying to create a version of mongrel English which stays as close as possible to the original in every respect – words and word forms, apposition and alliteration,  avoiding all Latinate or French words, using archaic forms and even inventing new words to bridge the gap between then and now, the damaged often obscure source text, and the clear fluent logic demanded by our shiny white screens. I am trying to make them readable but to keep as many of the qualities identified above as possible.

Caedmon’s Hymn (c670)
is the oldest recorded Old English poem, and one of the oldest surviving examples of Germanic alliterative verse. In his Ecclesiastical History of Britain, the Venerable Bede tells how Caedmon, an illiterate cowherd at a monastery in Whitby, has a vision which tells him to use traditional OE verse forms to praise the Christian God. Caedmon’s Hymn is nowadays regarded as the “first English poem”:

nu scylun hergan | hefaenricaes uard
metudæs maecti | end his modgidanc
uerc uuldurfadur | swe he uundra gihwaes
eci dryctin | or onstealde
he aerist scop | aelda bearnum
heben til hrofe | haleg scepen
tha middungeard | moncynnæs uard
eci dryctin | æfter tiadæ
firum foldu | frea allmectig

The Wikipedia translation:

Now [we] must honour the guardian of heaven,
the might of the architect, and his purpose,
the work of the father of glory
as he, the eternal lord, established the beginning of wonders;
he first created for the children of men
heaven as a roof, the holy creator.
Then the guardian of mankind,
the eternal lord, afterwards appointed the middle earth,
the lands for men, the Lord almighty.

My translation:

Now we shall honour | heavenrich’s guard
the might of the master | and his moodthink
the work wulderfather | so he wonders wrought
eternal Lord | ordered beginning.
He earliest shaped | for the children of men
heaven to roofe, | the holy shaper,
then middleyard | mankinde’s guard
eternal Lord | after appointed
fields for folk, | father almighty.

Related links

Modern iIlluminated manuscript-style illustration of Caedmon's Hymn by PC Hodgell

Modern iIlluminated manuscript-style illustration of Caedmon’s Hymn by PC Hodgell

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