In the first of his three Signum Symposia on the J. R. R. Tolkien’s relationship to Beowulf, Professor Tom Shippey discussed the lists of people who are referenced in passing at a variety of points in epic. In his discussion, he comes down on the side of those who argue that many of these references are allusions to now missing stories. Unferth, for example, remains honored at Herot even though there is a reference to his having been involved in the death of his brothers — an incident that should have marked him indelibly with dishonor. We don’t get the story but the text seems to expect us to already know it.
While listening to the Symposium again on the way to work the other day, two metaphors for this loss came to mind. The first has a direct application to this blog: These stories are broken hyperlinks. As we drift towards next generation texts, allusions will increasingly appear in this technological form — links to click or words that, when tapped, will produce a box summarizing the connection.
To understand this change, however, we have to cease to think about high literature, as we think of it today. Yes, the Modernists alluded to other works all the time, as anyone who has looked at T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land can tell you. But even though Eliot wants you to remember the Grail stories in general and Jesse Weston’s From Ritual to Romance in particular, this act of allusion is different from the kind of nod that the Beowulf poet, Chrétien de Troyes, and Tolkien engage in. Their allusions are less scholarly exercises and more the calling up of the kind of fan knowledge possessed by those who can tell you about the history of their favorite super hero or the long history of ships named Enterprise. It is the difference between connecting single stories to other ones and seeing the whole of a Matter, in the way we talk about Arthurian legend being the Matter of Britain and the tales of Charlemagne and his paladins being the Matter of France.
Beowulf can thus be imagined as our reading a partial comic book run.
This difference might help us with our students, who are more likely to possess the latter kind of knowledge about something (e.g., their favorite TV show or sport team) than the former. We might also benefit from spending some time considering whether the allusions within high literature, as it is imagined by the inheritors of the Modernist enterprise, isn’t just a dressed up form of what scholars sometimes dismissively call trivia.
1. I would mention to those not as familiar with Beowulf that kinslaying is at the center of the story. Grendel, for example, is a descendant of Cain. The Finnsburg episode vibrates with the issue. Beowulf himself silently refuses to walk down the road that might lead to such a possibility when he supports his nephew for the Geatish throne rather than challenge him.