Sunday, November 27, 2005

The Red Pen Bleeds - 4

But he wasn't through with me yet. Sighting along his nose he said, "Identify the manuscript and comment on the selection please."
I stopped folding the translation sheet in exact squares.
"It's from Beowulf...It's Hrothgar's bitter plea to the Geat warrior to deliver the Danes once more from rapine and slaughter...A pair of lake monsters have been ravaging the great hall of Heriot. He is describing the haunt of the monsters...He warns Beowulf that he will be fighting in no common circumstances...on strange ground so bedevilled by evil that even the bravest of the forest creatures avoid it...He makes the usual offer of reward...a great treasure...because Beowulf is a great warrior and can rightly expect a rich reward...the battle he is about to fight is with no ordinary mortal foe, and the need is great...and because Hrothgar is a great leader, a 'gold-friend of men', generous and noble by nature and too wise to be mean in gift-giving.
"The actual physical details are deliberately used to create atmosphere and dramatic suspense...It is the only elaborately detailed landscape picture in the entire manuscript, and is considered a classic masterpiece of descriptive poetry. ..Parallels with the desolate description of the Grendel Lake are found in early religious accounts of hell...in the Icelandic Grettissagga..."

What else?
"Oh. And Beowulf's offer and Hrothgar's acceptance are a traditional element...an expression of mutual devotion and loyalty between a thane and his lord..." What the devil was it called? Oh yes. "...that of comitatus."
"Explain."
I explained, unwillingly. We all knew what the comitatus ethic was, even if we knew precious little else about the whole subject. For a moment I wondered about the selections Dr. Sinclair had chosen for us to translate. The man was as full of guile as Friar Tuck.
I had been twisting my fingers in my lap as I struggled to frame my answers, now I looked up in time to collect a straight look and a brief nod. Then the brown eyes flicked beyond me and the voice took on a note of acute resignation.
"Alright, Mr. Dermott, you may begin now. You're the last...Thank God."
The unfortuante Dermott cleared his throat with a squeak that earned a further glare from Dr. Sinclair, pushed back a fringe of fair hair with a gesture that made one sure he had chosen Dr. Sinclair's course only because the word "poetry" appeared somewhere in the course outline, and began uncertainly.
It soon became obvious that Dermott, who had actually fainted one day after slicing his finger on a broken cup during coffee break, was being treated to the bloodiest passage that Beowulf or the entire complement of Anglo-Saxon manuscripts had to offer.

Comments: Major beginner's mistake # 3 - unnecessary exposition.
Most of this passage should be cut. While the earlier translation has some bearing on the plot, this commentary has no relevance whatsoever. Often the beginner is so afraid the reader won't "get it" that he hits the suffering reader over the head with a 2x4 constructed of scrupulous, extraneous and boring detail. The beginner has the urge to instruct. Readers don't care to be instructed. Not obviously, anyway. The reader doesn't need to have Beowulf explained. They've already gotten the idea that yeah, yeah, there's some sort of parallel fight ahead connected with an old manuscript, let's get on with it.
I'm surprised I constrained myself to one page - unfortunately it's on page 6. Some go on for three or four.
In fact, this sort of thing is so deadly, you're all probably slumped in your chairs.
Only saving grace in this passage is a "show not tell" as in "folding the examination sheet in exact squares."

4 comments:

Gabriele C. said...

Did you write a thesis about Beowulf? *grin*

Bernita said...

Nope.
T.S.Eliot and archetypal survivals in specific modern lit.
Had to deliver a paper on Beowulf though...comparisons w/Grettirsaga, Njal's Saga, et sec and one on The Role of Women in Anglo-Saxon Lit ( the witch, the bitch and the lady, as I remember) or something like.

Gabriele C. said...

Hehe, I had one about Brynhild in the Old Norse tradition versus Song of the Niblungs, and one about the concept of honour in the Laxdoela saga.

My MA thesis was about an scarcely known French epic and its equally unknown Old Norse adaptation, and my PhD is about the Karlamagnús saga and its connection with the French epic tradition.

Guess what the characters in my first novel kept doing: yes, translating French epics into Old Norse - for several pages. :-)

Bernita said...

It bloody well annoys readers.
They want a story not a dissertation.
It annoys me just looking at it now.