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“Wear these bright jewels, belovèd Beowulf; Enjoy them”*…

 

The first page of the Beowulf manuscript

Beowulf, the oldest surviving epic in British literature, exists in only one manuscript– a copy that survived both the wholesale destruction of religious artifacts during the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII and a disastrous fire which destroyed the library of Sir Robert Bruce Cotton (1571-1631). The 3182-line poem, now housed in the British Library, still bears the scars of the fire, visible at the upper left corner of the photograph above. 

Beowulf was written in Old English (or Anglo-Saxon) between 650 and 1000 in what we now know as England.  It recalls a golden age of valor and martial prowess via the adventures of a great Swedish warrior of the sixth century- Beowulf– who comes to the aid of the beleaguered Danes, saving them from the ravages of the monster Grendel and his mother.  In old age, and after many years of rule in his own country, Beowulf dies in the processof heroically slaying a dragon.

A great many translations are available, in both poetry and prose.  In his A Critical Companion to Beowulf, Andy Orchard lists 33 “representative” translations in his bibliography; it has been translated into at least 23 other languages.  Probably the best-known (and best-loved) current version is Seamus Heaney’s verse translation.  But surely the most-anticipated version is the translation completed in 1926– but never published– by J.R.R. Tolkein.

Tolkien’s academic work on the epic was second to none in its day; his 1936 paper “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics” is still well worth reading, not only as an introduction to the poem, but also because it decisively changed the direction and emphasis of Beowulf scholarship.

Up to that point it had been used as a quarry of linguistic, historical and archaeological detail, as it is thought to preserve the oral traditions passed down through generations by the Anglo-Saxon bards who sang in halls such as the one at Rendlesham in Suffolk, now argued to be the home of the king buried at Sutton Hoo.Beowulf gives a rich picture of life as lived by the warrior and royal classes in the Anglo-Saxon era in England and, because it is set in Sweden and Denmark, also in the period before the Angles, Saxons and Jutes arrived on these shores. And, on top of the story of Beowulf and his battles, it carries fragments of even older stories, now lost. But in order to study all these details, academics dismissed as childish nonsense the fantastical elements such as Grendel the monster of the fens, his even more monstrous mother and the dragon that fatally wounds him at the end.

Likening the poem to a tower that watched the sea, and comparing its previous critics to demolition workers interested only in the raw stone, Tolkien pushed the monsters to the forefront. He argued that they represent the impermanence of human life, the mortal enemy that can strike at the heart of everything we hold dear, the force against which we need to muster all our strength – even if ultimately we may lose the fight. Without the monsters, the peculiarly northern courage of Beowulf and his men is meaningless. Tolkien, veteran of the Somme, knew that it was not. “Even today (despite the critics) you may find men not ignorant of tragic legend and history, who have heard of heroes and indeed seen them,” he wrote in his lecture in the middle of the disenchanted 1930s…

Read more of John Garth’s appreciation– and explore the influence of Beowulf on Middle Earth– in “JRR Tolkien’s translation of Beowulf: bring on the monsters.”

And pre-order the translation (with a bonus story by Tolkein), available late next month, here.

* Beowulf

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As we grapple with our Grendels, we might recall that it was on this date in 1958 that Ezra Pound should no longer be held at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital for the criminally insane in Washington, D.C.  Pound has been imprisoned for 13 years, following his arrest in Italy during World War II on charges of treason.

Pound, a poet who was a major figure of the early modernist movement, was the developer of the “Imagist” school, and the “godfather” of a number of now-well-known contemporaries– among them,  T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, Robert Frost and Ernest Hemingway.  He was responsible for the 1915 publication of Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and the serialization from 1918 of Joyce’s Ulysses.

Deeply troubled by the carnage of World War I, Pound moved to Paris, then to Italy, and embraced the fascism of Benito Mussolini, whose policies he vocally supported; he was arrested by American forces in Italy in 1945.  While in custody in Italy, he had begun work on sections of The Cantos that became known as The Pisan Cantos (1948), for which he was awarded the Bollingen Prize in 1949 by the Library of Congress… setting off an enormous controversy.

His release in 1958 was the result of a campaign by writers including Archibald MacLeish, William Carlos Williams, and Hemingway.  Pound, who was believed to be suffering dementia, returned to Italy.

The best of Pound’s writing – and it is in the Cantos – will last as long as there is any literature.

-Ernest Hemingway

 source

 

 

Written by LW

April 18, 2014 at 1:01 am

“Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”*…

 

The MIT Media Lab’s Pantheon Project aims to restore some of that knowledge…

You were not born with the ability to fly, cure disease or communicate at long distances, but you were born in a society that endows you with these capacities. These capacities are the result of information that has been generated by humans and that humans have been able to embed in tangible and digital objects.

This information is all around you. It is the way in which the atoms in an airplane are arranged or the way in which your cell-phone whispers dance instructions to electromagnetic waves.

Pantheon is a project celebrating the cultural information that endows our species with these fantastic capacities. To celebrate our global cultural heritage we are compiling, analyzing and visualizing datasets that can help us understand the process of global cultural development. Dive in, visualize, and enjoy…

Readers can lose themselves in Pantheon, exploring the relative cultural output of different regions in specific domains, like innovation:

… or the cultural output across all domains of a particular nation:

… even the overall rankings of individual contributors to culture over time:

There are, as Pantheon’s keepers freely acknowledge, biases built into the methodology; they continue to work to overcome them.  Still, it is a fascinating– and altogether absorbing– resource.  Check out the rankings engine here; the visualization engine here; and these videos, by way of background:

* T.S.Eliot

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As we consult the league tables, we might recall that it was on this date in 2010 that the overdue fines on two books checked out but never returned by George Washington from the New York Society Library (the city’s only lender of books at the time of Washington’s presidency) reached $300,000.

The library’s ledgers show that Washington took out the books on October 5, 1789, some five months into his presidency at a time when New York was still the capital. They were an essay on international affairs called Law of Nations and the twelfth volume of a 14-volume collection of debates from the English House of Commons.

“We’re not actively pursuing the overdue fines,” the head librarian Mark Bartlett said at the time. “But we would be very happy if we were able to get the books back.”

The Library’s ledger: the bottom-most entries, ascribed to “President,” show show the withdrawal date, but no return. A search of the holdings confirms that the volumes are still missing.

 source

Written by LW

April 17, 2014 at 1:01 am

“Ain’t Nobody Here But Us Chickens”*…

 

A newly discovered dinosaur species that paleontologists have dubbed the “chicken from hell” is among the largest feathered dinosaurs ever found in North America.

The 11-foot-long (3-meter-long), 500-pound (225-kilogram) Anzu wylieiis an oviraptorosaur—a family of two-legged, birdlike dinosaurs found in Central Asia and North America. These dinosaurs ranged in size from a few pounds to over a metric ton, according to a study published March 19 in the journal PLOS ONE.

With its toothless beak, long legs, huge feet, and claw-tipped arms, A. wyliei looked like a devilish version of the modern cassowary, a large ground bird found in Australia.

It was “as close as you can get to a bird without being a bird,” said study leader Matt Lamanna, a vertebrate paleontologist at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh. (See “Pictures: Dinosaur’s Flashy Feathers Revealed.”)

The dinosaur’s well-preserved skeletons suggest it was a wide-ranging eater, munching on a variety of vegetation and perhaps small animals.

The species emerged from three 66-million-year-old skeletons excavated from the fossil-rich Hell Creek formation of South and North Dakota, starting in the late 1990s.  The third skeleton was found more recently, and it took years to identify and study all the remains…

Read the whole story at “New ‘Chicken From Hell’ Dinosaur Discovered.”

* Song title and lyric by Alex Kramer and Joan Whitney; recorded in 1946 by Louis Jordan and His Tympany Five

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As we rethink those chicken wings, we might spare a thought for Raymond Cecil Moore; he died on this date in 1974.  A geologist and paleontologist, Moore did pioneering work on Paleozoic crinoids, bryozoans, and corals (invertebrate organisms existing 570 to 245 million years ago). Among other things, he showed that fossil stemmed forms, sometimes called “sea lilies,” while they bear a superficial resemblance to flowers, were actually animals.  Moore is probably best known as the founder and editor of the landmark multi-volume Treatise of Invertebrate Paleontology. 

Moore (on left), with William W. Hambleton, and Frank C. Foley.

 source

“We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars”*…

 

From the good folks at Chrome Experiments, a wonderfully-informative interactive map of the stars in our corner of the universe.  Readers can zoom around our galaxy at “100,000 Stars.”

* Oscar Wilde

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As we pause to celebrate the birth of the archetypical “Renaissance man,” quite possibly the greatest genius of the last millennium, Leornardo da Vinci (born on this date in 1452), we might also send starry-eyed birthday greetings to Friedrich Georg Wilhelm von Struve; he was born on this date in 1793.  A renowned astronomer, Struve is known both as the founder of the modern study of binary (double) stars, and as the second in a five-generation-long dynasty of great astronomers: he was the son of the son of Jacob Struve, the father of Otto Wilhelm von Struve, the grandfather of Hermann Struve, the great-grandfather of Otto Struve.

 source

 

 

 

Written by LW

April 15, 2014 at 1:01 am

“By blood a king, in heart a clown”*…

 

Readers will remember Arthur Drooker, photographer-extraordinaire of conventioneers.  His most recent foray will reassure those who’ve been worried at the prospect of a clown shortage, even as it horrifies those with coulrophobia…  Drooker’s most recent stop in his quest to capture the best and most spirited conventions nationwide for his forthcoming book Conventional Wisdom was the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Northbrook, Illinois, where he dove into the annual gathering of the World Clown Association (WCA).

Read all about it, and see more of Drooker’s photos, at “Conventional Wisdom: World Clown Association.”

* Alfred Lord Tennyson

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As we practice our pratfalls, we might recall that it was on this date in 1910 that President William Howard Taft inaugurated a long-standing tradition: he threw out the ceremonial first pitch in the baseball game that began the major league season.

 source

 

Written by LW

April 14, 2014 at 1:01 am

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