Saturday, September 4, 2010

Grendel and the Shaper's Harp

Cotton Vitellius A. xv. is a collection of handwritten manuscripts complied into two books and ultimately bound together in the 17th century to rest in the British Library. The second of these books contains five otherwise unrelated items: between the third, which is "Alexander's Letter to Aristotle" and "Judith," which is the fifth item, is the only surviving copy of Beowulf.

One of the earliest and most significant poems in the alliterative style, Beowulf tells of a hero who comes to rid Hrothgar's kingdom of a monster named Grendel. John Gardner (1933-1982) wrote a book that tells this epic story from the monster's prospective.

Many readers encounter John Gardner, as I did, through his book "Grendel."

Grendel is cast by Gardner as a monster with a sense the absurd and a rough sense of humor.

A nihilist by (from) nature, Grendel is suddenly struck by deep musical experience: he overhears an incredible series of performances, and improvisations in the epic performance tradition that would have led, much later, to the written notation of the Beowulf text itself. We are allowed to imagine the formation of the surviving text, in a context that emphasizes its origin in song.

Grendel, while hiding, hears the blind shaper singing:

"with the harp behind him," wrote Gardner, "twisting together like sailors' ropes the bits and pieces of the best old songs."

This is the oral tradition at work. Grendel overhears the legend of his own unnatural death and finds a strange beauty in it. The shaper sang;

"of an ancient feud between two brothers which split all the world between darkness and light. And I, Grendel, was the dark side, he said in effect. The terrible race God cursed.

"I believed him. Such was the power of the shaper’s harp!”

Grendel is convinced by this musical inevitability and yet knows that it is is lies; most of it anyway. How can this be? This is not the supernatural power of music used by Orpheus to control nature, but instead the power of music to resonate (in)human nature.

Grendel ponders:

“If the ideas of art were beautiful that was art’s fault, not the shaper’s. A blind selector, almost mindless: a bird. Did they murder each other more gently because in the woods sweet songbirds sang?

"Yet I wasn’t satisfied. His fingers picked infallibly, as if moved by something beyond his power, and the words stitched together out of ancient songs, the scenes interwoven out of dreary tales, made a vision without seams, an image of himself yet not-himself”

The transformative power of music, the ability to create "a vision without seams, an image of himself yet not-himself," is like the symbolic dream-image of Nietzsche in section 5 of "The Birth of Tragedy" played on Wallace Steven's "Blue Guitar."

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