Beowulf

Okay, so in coming to terms with probably being the bad guy (see owning it) I decided to pick up some literature from my youth. In English class half a life ago we read an excerpt from Beowulf and I remember that it’s the earliest known English lit out there, so I picked it up from the library.

I like to get the most recent stuff I can because often times it contains new research in the notes. So I picked up “Beowulf a New Verse Translation” by Seamus Heaney. Mostly, I liked the cover, but also it was the newest copy at the public library.

beowulf-heaney

Once I got the book I found out what a treasure it is, because Seamus Heaney has the original text right next to the translated text. For giant nerds like me that is awesome. You get to see the actual English language evolve on the page.  Along these lines I was totally disappointed when I read the Tanakh (which also boasted a hebrew version along with the english) that the two versions were totally seperate in the book and could not be compared side by side. So kudos here for Seamus Heaney.

Also, though, hidden in the introduction to the book are some personal notes from the translator and these were an excellent and ironically pertinent gem for my own journey. Seamus appears to be a Northern Irishman, not of British persuasion, who was asked to translate this Anglo Saxon work. How do you go about translating the classical text of the aggressor? His feelings seem to match my own as I try to reconcile the Irish Catholic side of my upbringing with what appears to be Anglo Saxon DNA for my Thompsons. Even among Ulster Scots I feel a bit like a blood traitor. As the other Thompsons are busying themselves with connecting to their innate Celtic-ness, I am learning about the hated invader…the wasp in the bees nest.

Here is the passage from the introduction that meant so much to me personally:

What happened was that I found in the glossary to C. L. Wrenn’s edition of the poem the Old English word meaning “To Suffer”, the word tholian (I don’t have the thorn symbol used in the book so imagine a funny looking p here), and although at first it looked completely strange with it’s thorn symbol instead of the familiar th, I gradually realized that it was not strange at all, for it was the word that older and less educated people would have used in the country where I grew up.  “They’ll just have to learn to thole, “ my aunt would say about some family who had suffered an unforeseen bereavement. And now suddenly here was “thole” in the official textual world, mediated through the apparatus of a scholarly edition, a little bleeper to remind me that my aunt’s language was not just a self-enclosed family possession but an historical heritage, one that involved the journey tholian had made north into Scotland and then across into Ulster with the planters and then across from the planters to the locals who had originally spoken Irish and then farther across again when the Scots Irish emigrated to the American South in the eighteenth century. When I read in John Crowe Ransom the line “Sweet ladies, long may ye bloom, and toughly I hope ye may thole, ” my heart lifted again, the world widened, something was furthered.

The author continues to say that by watching the journey of this word “Thole” he gained a nostalgia for world culture and it opened the door for him to translate this work thirty five years before he was asked to do it.

And so there it is, in the language of language, my feeling at this moment in time, totally encapsulated by the introduction to a book. As this is a journey, I cannot be embarrassed that my chest tightened when I read this and that I fumbled to try to explain it to my wife. How do you explain a feeling you didn’t expect to have? How could a library book have such power over me in what is, at best, a completely amateur and totally selfish genealogy hobby?

My best explanation is that for me this is no academic pursuit. Every corner I turn is filled with dirty emotion. I dislike the Anglo Saxons..the horrid invaders, but my need for answers is forcing me to face the fact that they are there and that they are my people too.

Who cares if the message is delivered by a DNA company, or a family tree or your grandparents, or the introduction by an author? The journey my family has made has also been presented to me as the journey of a single word.

I should be ashamed to leave this in the public, but it’s part of the message in this bottle and it could inform the journey of another. When I lay down to sleep at night I send out a silent prayer to my ancestors. I ask them to help me find the truth of this so that I can put it down. So that I can “know”. Before you think too harshly of me, remember that people pray for new red shoes and big screen T.V.s, asking for knowledge isn’t that bad. I ask them to give me some sign that I’m on the right path and I think to myself that the message should be obvious…like a dream or letter something, but it never comes. So I struggle to find the meaning in the randomness.

A few days ago, I was standing at the corner of our street waiting for my Son’s bus to come. I stood by the street sign and then I looked up at it and made some small connection. There I stood on the corner of Chatham and Hanover. I shook my head and let it go.

Later I got the word from Genetree that I’m probably S21 which would explain a lot about all these germans.

Then I am sitting and reading this introduction to Beowulf, surrounded by my favored books on Buddhism (from my last great journey of self discovery…or non-self discovery) and this note from a Medievalist from Ireland reaches out and squeezes my heart. The unbelievable thing, the thing that makes me feel the strings that tie each of us to the other,  is that the word that is used to help bridge the gap and make this quest “okay”, the word that is used to explain to me, this voyage across the oceans and the seas of time is… “to suffer”.

I picked it because I liked the cover.

Logically, I will tell you that these are coincidences that my brain has picked up, and because pattern making is a human trait, I have made a pattern where none exists. Logically I can say there is no overarching flow to this river of life beyond random chance and if there were it’s efforts would not be wasted for one instant on something as stupid and small as a single person squandering their time and money searching for a past that means nothing in day to day life. People will have died from hunger in the time it took me to write this.

My old brain, my emotional mind is screaming at me that today and for the moment this is important to me for a reason and that when my time comes round again to face death, I will hold this past I have found in my mind like a light and remember that these people I’m hunting, who are my people, suffered too. Then maybe it will help me in that dark place to face the worst enemy, fear,  and stand my ground and laugh. My feeling mind is telling me that whatever it takes for me to face my ultimate doom head on  is good enough. I should not judge myself too harshly for being so lucky, after all, fate will bring down every man and we all will learn to thole.

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