Beowulf in the Alps, or, how I learned to stop grumbling and love alliterative metrics

For someone who aimed for several years to specialise in Old English and Anglo-Saxon Studies, I never liked Beowulf terribly much. Not as much as I loved religious prose, and not as much as I liked Judith and Juliana or even Genesis B. Some of it was to do with how very little Beowulf himself interests me – compare Roland, who for whatever daft reason, I have always wanted hug. I was enticed into engaging with Beowulf via the canonical Overing essays on women, and more recent works like Magennis’ ‘Gender, Power and Heroism’ which use the women of Beowulf as comparison points for the likes of Judith. Some of this is down to personal taste, some to gender and/or Satan (Satan in Genesis B is just cool, ok?).

But some of it came down to… well, I find metrical analysis very difficult. It just doesn’t make easy sense to me. I was a brat about metrics when we studied Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, too. The only useful things I ever had to say on metrics in Genesis B were to do with the ridiculously long hypermetric lines, and those at least are easy to spot. I’m slowly growing out of being a brat about this, though, because since 2010 people have been paying me to teach rudimentary (modern) metrics and therefore I’ve had to engage. (I’ve discovered I really like dactyls. Dactyls are awesome.)

UniL chalet on the left, Les Diablarets

Nevertheless, I am slightly surprised to report that I have had enormous fun with Beowulf. Allow me to explain:

The University of Lausanne sports union own a chalet at Les Diablarets. The UniL English department’s medieval section, headed up by the charming Denis Renevey (who gave a talk for the USyd CMS in 2010, not sure if anyone else remembers that), have a tradition of going away every year or two, after ski season proper has ended, and reading medieval literature in the Alps. Known as ‘Chaucer in the Alps’, with occasional non-Chaucerian themes, this is quite an institution.

This year, their invited guest was Andy Orchard (now based at Oxford), and a handful of us from Geneva went up to join our Lausanne colleagues.

I was promised the following fun aspects:

  • Hanging out in gorgeous Swiss scenery
  • A “Gentle walk” (never trust the Swiss re: gentle walking) below the snow-line on the Saturday afternoon
  • Good food, good wine, with special attention to a barbecue if it’s sunny (the Swiss really love barbecues)
  • Two days of close work on Beowulf

This was the gentle hike part. On the other side of the route, we had to ford a rapid stream because the bridge had collapsed, and I ended up knee-deep in a snowbank.

All of these eventuated, and all of them were fun. Even the part where a group of us got separated from the rest and wandered forlornly across the mountain fields was fun (we tried composing the Lay of the Lost Lonely Travellers in alliterative verse to commemorate). I was sceptical about the capacity of two days closely studying Beowulf with a mixed group many of whom don’t read Old English to be both illuminating and fun, but my goodness, it was.

Andy Orchard is just brilliant. I mean, we all know he’s brilliant, and you can even tell he’s funny from some of his books. But in person he’s not just clever, he’s engaging and motivating; and he makes a truly prodigious number of terrible puns. He started with Gregory the Great’s Non Angli sed Angeli, reporting it as a particularly painful pun. About an hour into his leading the workshop I’d concluded it caused him pain primarily because he hadn’t thought of it first!

Orchard, who’s edited Klaeber IV, is now working on his own edition of Beowulf, and we got given a sneak preview of fifteen pages or so. I’m officially excited: Orchard’s doing things in his edition that nothing else pulls all into the one place. He’s got parallel original text and translation (and the translation is lineated prose, which he happily declares be prioritising accuracy over aesthetic aspects) at the top half of each page; editing notes at the bottom; and in a belt running across the double-page spread, a specific set of notes dedicated to flagging up which compounds or phrases are repeated elsewhere and where. Orchard really loves compound words, especially unique compounds, and has preserved them as hyphenated units in his translation and devoted plenty of energy to annotating them.

[Links below go to the official photos on the UniL English Dept website]

In addition to Orchard’s engaging style and mine of information, the format of the weekend had a great emphasis on oral reading. The whole-group sessions worked fairly simply: participants read aloud, Orchard gently corrected pronunciation, and questions and comments were posed by participants of Orchard and vice-verse. Now, this ‘read a bit and comment on it’ method is fairly similar to the way Dan, Helen and I worked through the text in my fourth year, but there our focus was on translation. In the Alps, only a handful of participants were skilled in OE, so we had parallel translations the whole time: our focus went onto reading aloud for poetic effect.

For some reason – maybe it was Andy Orchard’s brilliance, maybe it was the fact that I wasn’t being assessed on it – the basics of the metrical scheme suddenly came clear to me. We broke up into groups and practised reading, preparing a section per group for oral performance, and, quite uncharacteristically, there I was getting excited about double-alliterations and stress patterns and the like. I made my OE class the following week break into groups and practice reading aloud, so excited was I; and I think I’ll try to pack more of that in next semester.

The other spectacular feature of the UniL Alps weekends is the group performances. Oh my. The group I was working with the first night missed the memo about dramatic staging until after dinner, so we went fairly simple: here you can see Hrothgar (composed of two people back-to-back, rotating as their assigned part of the speech ends) with a chorus of narrators – I was rather proud of my contribution, picking out half-lines that work as aphorisms and/or are repeated throughout the section, which we the chorus all repeated back after Hrothgar. The crowning glory, though, was a group who staged an interpretive dance swimming race, and, when challenged to a tie-breaker, enacted the theft of mead-benches from the opening lines by, well, stealing our seats from under us. Here the same group enact Unferth at the feet of Hrothgar.

My only disappointment is that none of my OE students this semester could be persuaded to come with us. I devoutly hope that Denis Renevey extends the invite to we Geneva folk again – and not just because he makes amazing fondue.

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