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Old 10-01-2019, 09:44 AM   #1
William Cloud Hicklin
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You think you've read drivel? You haven't read drivel until you've read this

https://daily.jstor.org/the-question...ce-in-beowulf/
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Old 10-01-2019, 10:41 AM   #2
Huinesoron
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Oh boy.

For my own entertainment as much as anything, my thoughts and comments:

Quote:
Most readers of Beowulf understand it as a white, male hero story
Sooo, Beowulf is indeed a white, male hero. Does that mean people look at the story and go 'ah yes, this is the essence of whiteness'? Convince me, Dorothy Kim.

Quote:
Crucially, Grendel is never clearly described, but is named [...] a part of “Cain’s clan.”
The drawing out of this connection of Grendel with Cain is worrying, because I know some religions (coughMormonismcough) have historically associated dark skin with the Mark of Cain. Hmm.

Quote:
Indeed, Beowulf is a story about monsters, race, and political violence.
I still remain to be convinced. Political violence? Maybe internally in the court (I can't remember), but Grendel and his mother are malevolent forces outside of politics.

Quote:
Yet critics have always read it through the white gaze and a preserve of white English heritage.
I don't even know what that second part means. I'm not sure on the first part, either - Beowulf isn't a historical account, it's an epic poem written by a Scandinavian. To read it without 'the white gaze' can certainly make for interesting speculation, but requires projecting something the actual writer didn't intend.

Quote:
Yes, before and while writing The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien was an Oxford medieval professor who interpreted Beowulf for a white English audience.
Was 'The Monsters and the Critics' really that popular? I figured it was a fairly minor piece of scholarship only made famous by it being Tolkien.

Quote:
Yet it is in fact written in a language that after many centuries has still essential kinship with our own, it was made in this land, and moves in our northern world beneath our northern sky, and for those who are native to that tongue and land, it must ever call with a profound appeal—until the dragon comes.
She quoted Tolkien, so I get to. He has a lovely sense of drama and rhythm. ^_^

Quote:
Thus Tolkien’s view on which bodies, fluent in this “native” English tongue [Old English], can read Beowulf, also offers a window into the politics of who gets to and how to read and write about the medieval past.
Errr. The Tolkien quote says that when read in its original language, or by people close to its original setting, the poem has a strong draw and power. That doesn't mean that nobody else can read it, or write about it - just that to experience what the writer intended, you should be close in mindset to the writer. As an Anglo-Saxonist, Tolkien was probably closer than almost anyone else to that mindset.

Quote:
Tolkien’s investment in whiteness does not just apply to his ideal readers of medieval literature.
Ms. Kim has doubled-down on her overinterpretation of the quote here.

Quote:
It also extends to the ideal medieval literature scholars. At the 2018 Belle da Costa Greene conference, Kathy Lavezzo highlighted Tolkien’s role in shutting the Jamaican-born, Black British academic Stuart Hall out of medieval studies. [...] “But when I tried to apply contemporary literary criticism to these texts, my ascetic South African language professor told me in a pained tone that this was not the point of the exercise.”
It's unclear whether Hall actually names Tolkien - the article throws in an aside to say that he was an English professor at Oxford when Hall was there. But assuming it was... surely the professor is allowed to determine the point of the exercise? Whatever the exercise was, it did not involve the application of contemporary literary criticism to Beowulf. I note that presumably-Tolkien was acting as a language professor, not a literature one in this instance. There isn't anything in this paragraph to indicate that Hall being black had anything to do with it, or that a white medieval-obsessive would have had any better luck.

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This clashes with Tolkien’s friendlier image that has permeated popular culture, thanks to The Lord of the Rings.
Personally I've never figured on Tolkien being particularly friendly in person; he always seemed like a bit of a grump.

Quote:
Through Tolkien’s white critical gaze, Beowulf as an epic for white English people has formed the backbone of the poem’s scholarship. To this day, there have only been a few black scholars of Anglo-Saxon studies to publish on Beowulf.
That latter fact is terrible. I think there should be analysis of Beowulf from many perspectives, including modern literary criticism. That doesn't mean it's appropriate in every assignment involving Beowulf, which seems to be the argument here.

The statement that Tolkien is responsible goes back to the question of how influential 'The Monsters & the Critics' was. I still don't know.

Quote:
Mary Rambaran-Olm has reported on the many instances of black and non-white scholars being shut out of medieval studies.
She has (there's a link). Tolkien's name isn't in there.

Quote:
Ironically, Tolkien’s advocacy for a Northern, “native,” and white ideal readership contrasts with his own personal and familial histories. He was born and raised in South Africa. Though Tolkien’s biographers have claimed that his African upbringing scarcely influenced him
He was! To an English couple who'd only just moved there. He left when he was three. This is disingenuous in the extreme.

Quote:
scholarly critics have pointed out the structural racism in his creative work, particularly in The Lord of the Rings.
Have they. Have they indeed. Oh look, it's a link to an article called 'Beyond Black and White: Race and Postmodernism in The Lord of the Rings films'.

Tolkien didn't write the films.

Quote:
Additionally, he wrote an entire philological series, “Sigelwara Land” and “Sigelwara Land (continued),” on the Old English word for “Ethiopia.” In this series, he explicates the connections between Sigelwara Land and monsters by flattening the categories of black Ethiopians, devils, and dragons. He writes:

"The learned placed dragons and marvelous gems in Ethiopia, and credited the people with strange habits, and strange foods, not to mention contiguity with the Anthropophagi. As it has come down to us the word is used in translation (the accuracy of which cannot be determined) of Ethiopia, as a vaguely conceived geographical term, or else in passages descriptive of devils, the details of which may owe something to vulgar tradition, but are not necessarily in any case old. They are of a mediaeval kind, and paralleled elsewhere. Ethiopia was hot and its people black. That Hell was similar in both respect would occur to many."
Er... what Tolkien seems to be saying is that the same word is used to describe Ethiopia and devils. He then speculates on a reason people in the past would have done this. He's not... he's not actually saying they're the same thing.

Quote:
Tolkien’s work of empirical philology is a form of racialized confirmation bias that strips Ethiopia of any kind of connection to the marvels of the East, gems, or even his own fixation on dragons. He highlights Sigelwara as a term related to black skin and its connections to devils and hell, framing Ethiopians within the same category as “monsters.”
Uggggh I'm going to have to read Tolkien's etymology aren't I?

Okay: this appears to be broadly correct. Tolkien's argument is that, because Sigelwara means both Ethiopia and Hell, it must mean 'black people living in a hot region', and therefore the unknown elements that make it up must form that meaning. He goes to great lengths to draw a link to 'sigel' as a word for the sun.

Quote:
He has no qualms about consistently connecting the Ethiopians to the “sons of Ham,” and thus the biblical descendants of Cain, linking medieval Ethiopia with the justification for chattel black slavery. In fact, no part of the etymology (nor any part of medieval discussions of Ethiopia) discusses slavery.
There is precisely one reference to this idea that I can see across both Sigelwara documents, saying 'If this guess is worth considering we perceive rather the sons of Muspell than of Ham'. Tolkien is clearly poeticising, and using an actual Biblical way of doing so: Egypt is described as 'the land of Ham' no less than four times in the Bible.

The connection from Ham to Cain is, uh, I'm gonna go with 'unsupported at this time'. I think I've heard it occasionally, but assuming that Tolkien thought it is a huge leap. Assuming that Tolkien even thought about the ways Americans had justified their virulent racism is an even bigger one (slavery had been outlawed in Britain a long time earlier).

I... have no idea why the etymology not mentioning slavery is relevant. It also doesn't mention the purported presence of the Ark of the Covenant in Ethiopia. (Weren't slaves mostly taken from the west coast of Africa, rather than Ethiopia in the east?)

Quote:
Tolkien would have read Beowulf’s Grendel, who is linked to Cain, as a black man:

"Grendel was that grim creature called, the ill-famed haunter of the marches of the land, who kept the moors, the fastness of the fens, and, unhappy one, inhabited long while the troll-kind’s home; for the Maker had proscribed him with the race of Cain."
Nope: that's Cain, not Ham. The Sons of Ham are African, those of Japheth are European, those of Shem Asian & Semitic. That's the Medieval worldview Tolkien would have known; Cain doesn't enter into it.

Quote:
Tolkien’s articles on Ethiopia and on Beowulf, all published in the 1930s, reveal that Tolkien likely interpreted Grendel as a black man connected to a biblical justification for transatlantic chattel slavery. Thus, Grendel was raced within the logics of Tolkien’s white racist gazer.
None of these assertions are strongly supported by the article. They can certainly be assumed, but that's all it is: an assumption. I can equally assume that Tolkien's obsession with monsters is because he hung out with a dragon on weekends, and provide just as much support.

Quote:
His interest in solidifying white Englishness and English identity—as a chain of links from the premodern medieval past to contemporary racial identities—is a project that extended into multiple scholarly areas.
Now this is true. Tolkien very clearly believed that English culture and identity was special.

Quote:
He may have abhorred fascism and antisemitism, but he upheld the English empire’s white supremacy. He held racialized beliefs against Africans and other members of the English black diaspora.
This is given no support in the text. I think the second sentence is just a restatement of the assumptions above; there's no evidence at all given to show that Tolkien felt English culture was more special than others. In fact, I recall something in 'Letters' where he complained about the prospect of global culture becoming homogenised - hardly a White Supremacist!

There follow a few paragraphs discussing Toni Morrison's essay as a keystone in black discussion of Beowulf. There's no Tolkien so I'm not commenting. ^_^ Then we get this:

Quote:
Morrison’s Beowulf interpretation highlights what other critics, following Tolkien’s lead, have deemed marginal. She decenters the white male hero, focusing instead on the racialized, politicized, and gendered figures of Grendel and his mother, who in Tolkien’s read would have been black. In his article “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics,” his white male gaze concentrates on what these two “monsters” can do for Beowulf’s development as the white male hero of Germanic epic. Morrison, on the other hand, is interested in Grendel and his mother as raced and marginal figures with interiority, psyche, context, and emotion.
Which (unsupported assertions about Tolkien seeing Cain and thinking Black aside) sounds like an interesting exercise! But... not one that will tell you much about the poem written by an Old English-speaking bard who wanted to praise Beowulf's heroism and show off a nice battle to the death. Grendel and his mother were not creatures with 'psyche and emotion' - they were fictional monsters brought in for Beowulf to kill.

Or at least, that is a valid stance to take in discussing the poem. It seems Ms. Morrison has a different stance, which she develops in her essay, and that's fantastic! But Ms. Kim does not explain that stance: she just asserts that Tolkien was wrong to not take it, and implies that it's the only correct stance to take.

---

In conclusion? Painting Tolkien as racist fails here as it has so many other times, and in particular, the pile of assumptions and leaps that have to be taken to get there is extraordinary. But I'm very pleased that Toni Morrison has found a new angle to consider Beowulf under - I just hope she hasn't built her article around the concept that Tolkien Must Be Wrong.

hS
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Old 10-01-2019, 02:09 PM   #3
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The article isn't terribly well-supported, as Huinseron has said, and I think it's couched in rather sensationalist terms, but I don't think the point it makes is entirely unreasonable – or rather, to again agree with Huinseron, whatever Morrison is saying in the essay about which this article was written sounds rather more substantial than this article itself.

I do think the implication that "The Monsters and the Critics" still dominates Beowulf isn't right, though; I haven't studied it for a long time, but I consistently get the impression that most contemporary scholars of Beowulf consider Professor Tolkien's reading to be very idiosyncratic and rather outdated. There have been decades and decades of scholarship since "The Monsters and the Critics" came out. In my university studies it was only read as one among many interpretations, and not one which was afforded much attention in particular.
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Old 10-04-2019, 01:21 PM   #4
William Cloud Hicklin
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Quote:
Tolkien’s articles on Ethiopia and on Beowulf, all published in the 1930s, reveal that Tolkien likely interpreted Grendel as a black man connected to a biblical justification for transatlantic chattel slavery. Thus, Grendel was raced within the logics of Tolkien’s white racist gazer.
That has got to be one of the stupidest things I have ever read in print.

(Just for anyone who isn't conversant with one of the fundamental cultural texts of Western civilization, the Book of Genesis, here's what it says about Cain (after he murdered his brother and was exiled):

Quote:
16 And Cain went out from the presence of the LORD, and dwelt in the land of Nod, on the east of Eden. 17 And Cain knew his wife; and she conceived, and bare Enoch: and he builded a city, and called the name of the city, after the name of his son, Enoch. 18 And unto Enoch was born Irad: and Irad begat Mehujael: and Mehujael begat Methusael: and Methusael begat Lamech. 19 And Lamech took unto him two wives: the name of the one was Adah, and the name of the other Zillah.

20 And Adah bare Jabal: he was the father of such as dwell in tents, and of such as have cattle. 21 And his brother's name was Jubal: he was the father of all such as handle the harp and organ. 22 And Zillah, she also bare Tubalcain, an instructer of every artificer in brass and iron: and the sister of Tubalcain was Naamah.

23 And Lamech said unto his wives, Adah and Zillah, Hear my voice; ye wives of Lamech, hearken unto my speech: for I have slain a man to my wounding, and a young man to my hurt. 24 If Cain shall be avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy and sevenfold.
That's it. That's all there is. Nothing about blackness, Africa or slavery at all. Nor monsters, either; it was a medieval mythos, derived from the Talmud, which made Cain the ancestor of monsters and demons. (The attentive will note that this is, more or less, an abbreviated version of the Ch 5 genealogy from Seth to Lamech- Noah's father in that version! Let's hear it for J-E intershuffling.
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Old 10-04-2019, 03:15 PM   #5
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Originally Posted by William Cloud Hicklin View Post
That's it. That's all there is. Nothing about blackness, Africa or slavery at all. Nor monsters, either; it was a medieval mythos, derived from the Talmud, which made Cain the ancestor of monsters and demons. (The attentive will note that this is, more or less, an abbreviated version of the Ch 5 genealogy from Seth to Lamech- Noah's father in that version! Let's hear it for J-E intershuffling.
I really dislike "commentaries" like the JSTOR piece, picking apart old literature, songs, and poetry for the purpose of holding them up to a modern interpretation that allows them to sneer derisively at the "unenlightened" of long ago.

It seems pretty obvious that one bent on seeing hidden meanings and colorings in anything will tend to find them, regardless of whether they are actually there.
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Old 10-04-2019, 03:41 PM   #6
William Cloud Hicklin
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Originally Posted by Inziladun View Post
I really dislike "commentaries" like the JSTOR piece, picking apart old literature, songs, and poetry for the purpose of holding them up to a modern interpretation that allows them to sneer derisively at the "unenlightened" of long ago.
Lewis had a great term for it: "chronological snobbery." And he was referring to that sort of thing when it had some whiff of actual merit, not counterfactual codswallop like this piece.
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