03 May 2011

Literature Detective Action!

There's a lot of fun detective work in the study of literature. When you study modern texts, you have the opportunity to examine some of the people and places that inspired or are incorporated in the book, and when you study older texts, you can engage in some amazing CSI-style analysis to fill in the gaps left by slipshod copyists or the ravages of time. For example, today in class ran across a great little bit of detective work that has been done on the Beowulf manuscript.

Now, we really have one copy of Beowulf at this point, since the others have been lost or damaged over the centuries. It was probably written in the 7th or 8th centuries, about events that are set in the 5th century - that's a long time for anything. The main version we have, known as "Cotton Vitellius A.XV," was copied from an older original during the 10th century. It was in a fire and it's crumbled from age and it got even more messed up when it was rebound. It's a mess.

Making it even worse are the mistakes made by the copyists. We know there were two of them, both monks in a scriptorium devoted to copying such texts for posterity (for an interesting account of such a place worked, check out Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose). They spent a lot of time on the text and were scrupulous in their attentions, but they still sometimes made errors.

In some cases, we'll probably never know what the original actually said, before the added mistakes. But at other times, clever thinking and hard work can discover what Beowulf must have been before the monks got to it.

Let's take a look at lines 306-308, from Chapter IV (when Beowulf has arrived at Hrothgar's hall for the first time).

Cotton Vitellius A.XV looks like this:


Yeah, it's not very pretty. They didn't break it up into lines, they didn't use our orthography, and their handwriting was very different. Cleaned up, it looks like this:

Guman onetton,
sigon ætsomne,oþþæt hy æltimbred,
geatolic ond goldfah,ongyton mihton;

A translation is, "The men hastened, advancing together until they were able to see the all-timbered [?], splendid and adorned with gold;".

Unfortunately, there's a problem (thus the question mark). "æltimbred" would seem to be an adjective, unknown but still easy to figure out. But there's nothing for it to modify - no noun where we might expect! The all-timbered what? And what does "all-timbered" even mean

As you probably guessed, there's a mistake. That "æl" should actually be "sæl" - another word for "hall," making it a "timbered hall" (which actually makes sense).  But we don't have to just guess!  There's a neat way we can be sure.

Beowulf has a very specific poetic meter, first discovered and classified by German scholar Eduard Sievers. Each line is composed of two halves, and their meter falls into one of five broad types (labeled among scholars as A-type, B-type, etc). The type is indicated by the stresses, like most poetry. So we can look at a line and break it up into stresses, and decide which type it is from that. The most important rule here is that alliteration is the dominant theme: the first stress in the second half will come on the major alliteration. Here's an example from the above selection:


geatolic ond goldfah, ongyton mihton

So returning to the problematic line, we can scan the first half...

sigon ætsomne, oþþæt hy æltimbred,

...but the second half has no alliteration, so the meter doesn't work! The only way it does work is if we change the word over to what we think it must have originally been...

sigon ætsomne, oþþæt hy sæl timbred,

So now we know that the whole thing must have been:

Guman onetton,
sigon ætsomne,oþþæt hy sæl timbred,
geatolic ond goldfah,ongyton mihton;

Or in Seamus Heaney's poetic rendition:

They marched in step,
hurrying on till the timbered hall
rose before them, radiant with gold.

Voila! We have used study and our minds to reach back more than a thousand years and undo the slip of a sleepy monk's pen! Amazing!

1 comment:

  1. First of all i would like to thank you for the great and informative entry. I have to admit that I have never heard about this information I have noticed many new facts for me. Thanks a lot for sharing this useful and attractive information and I will be waiting for other interesting posts from you in the nearest future. Keep it up.





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