Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Hwæt! am I going to talk about today?

My interactions with the Society for Creative Anachronism have been sporadic at most.  What I enjoy of what they do is not enough of what they do to have ever enticed me to join.  But I do have fond memories of taking a series of classes in medieval court dancing - the bransle and pavane and their like - from them back around 1978, for which experience I've remained eternally grateful, for the basic concepts I learned there were the key that enabled me to grasp Regency and English country dancing later on, without having to overcome a hump of incomprehension of what we were doing.

Since then, though, I've rarely heard from them until a month ago, when I got an e-mail from an official of a local SCA shire.  This was someone I'd met at Tolkien events, including running into her and a friend on Merton Street in Oxford after the 2005 Birmingham Tolkien conference; I gave them an impromptu tour of Tolkien sites in central Oxford, an experience which apparently deeply impressed her.  For an upcoming edition of their regular arts & sciences meeting - held in the back room of a Round Table Pizza, a perfectly pseudo-medieval setting - they wanted a talk on Tolkien's new Beowulf translation, and wondered if I could suggest someone.  I could.  I'd do it myself in a pinch, as the background of both Tolkien and Beowulf and what they have to do with each other is well within my ken, but what you really need is an expert on Anglo-Saxon who could explain Tolkien's scholarship on the poem.  So I put them in touch with Dr. Arden R. Smith (Ph.D. in German linguistics, editor of most of the posthumous material on Tolkien's tengwar), who conveniently is even more local to them than I.  But I came along anyway to the event yesterday to cheer on and, as it turned out, to help answer questions afterwards.

Arden gave a great talk, beginning with the pun preserved in this post's topic line, explaining all the background, especially of what Beowulf actually is, and what Tolkien intended his translation to be good for, with great skill, reading a sample of the original with fluency and correct pronunciation (which is something I certainly couldn't do), and then delving into the editorial uncertainties of the text - poetic vocabulary used nowhere else in the surviving Anglo-Saxon corpus, so we don't know what it means; errors and possible errors by the scribes, which are many; text lost around the margins when the sole manuscript barely survived a fire in the 18th century - giving specific examples of how Tolkien's choices in translation reflected his editorial judgment of the text, and how his conceptions changed over the years.  It was as illuminating as I'd hoped, and we were all enlightened.  And full of pizza.

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