Slow Progress

By the end of September I hope to be making more progress with my latest Tolkien essay. It hardly needs mentioning that the current forthcoming one on Tolkien’s Minstrelsy intersects with ‘Tolkien’s Heroic Romance’ as this focuses on the real-world problems associated with the overlapping use of oral and literary modes of disseminating heroic romances. I had not expected this to have such a bias towards the vexed question of ‘oral literacy’, but it is quite characteristic of medieval romances that they at least pretend to be oral in origin. When dealing with Tolkien’s romances this problem comes to the fore. The essay therefore notes the specific points of contact or resemblance between Sir Bevis and Tolkien’s romances but is beginning to pick up where the ‘Minstrelsy’ essay left off in its discussion of modes of transmission, and their political implications. As Bilbo exclaimed under different circumstances, ‘Give me more time! Give me time!’ The point about this is that there is a whole new audience/readership among younger researchers who know their Tolkien and to whom Sir Bevis may profitably be introduced and again disseminated.



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Philologically speaking…

I never thought I’d launch myself into philology, but it seems that the right way to go at present is into this dark forest. I’m slowly building my understanding of the names and their relevance in Boeve. It means struggling with Stimming’s 19th century German commentary, and Martin’s French Introduction to his edition, and maybe another French article on Stimming influence, but the ‘truth’ about the use of the names is in there somewhere. The Hampton references will give me some British historical dimensions, and I still need to track down the significance of swifts/swallows/martlets in Anglo-Saxon society, although I’m not sure Rhona Beare can be right about Harold Godwinson in Vita Aedwardi. I think he has to be either a hawk (his favoured bird), or and eagle (the royal bird). His brother Tostig could be the barnacle goose, but even that is tricky and depends on one’s perspective, but Edward was at some point given the martlet posthumously as his heraldic bird, and that cannot be insignificant.

As far as composition goes, I’m not convinced (!) that Boeve is as early as everyone thinks, but that it is a ‘historical’ overview of the loss of the Godwin lands. It seems very strange otherwise that the extent of Boeve’s father’s lands matches so closely the heartland of the Godwins. This is going to take a lot of work to untangle! The improbable life-cycle of the medieval barnacle goose seems oddly apt for a collection of references that hang together but make no sense.

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The first level of history

Almost too hot to think, but I have been able to put some historical data into the new article on Beuve. Structure at present is not important, only seeing what I’ve got in relations to what I want to say. Most of the historical family relationships are in, and the fact that Edgar and his daughter only emerge into the second part of the story, the Continuation, requires some consideration. But the importance of women in relation to the story is closely mirrored by the historical references. It’s not a direct match, but that’s not a problem given the apparent reliance on chronicles, and their reliance on eye-witness accounts. However, much more needs to be done and all the time I’m thinking about the etymology of Bovo/Beuve, and their cognates. Surely its not a coincidence that Bovo lived in or beside Butcher’s Row in twelfth-thirteen century Southampton? Sooner or later I’m going to have to open up last year’s work and see how the latest material fits with that. But not just yet.

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Excitement at last

Earlier this year I thought I’d never feel that familiar excitement of following an idea to see if it led anywhere interesting. At last the Boeve research is beginning to feel exciting. Having narrowed my focus down, for now, just to the etymology of the name, some really interesting things are beginning to happen. The original work I did last year on this remains pertinent, but taking it in more depth is providing a better sense of control and detail. The records, of course, are the problem, wherever one looks they are either in Latin, but it is now a matter of tracking down what the Latin glosses. That leads to some further interesting possibilities, not least Butcher’s Row in Southampton. Or maybe that lost Saxon warrior and his bow. Only time will tell as I pick through the elements. In fact, my other strand of research prompted this microscopic process when I read Tolkien’s scholarly analysis of the name Nodens.

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A Missing Piece

For a long time now I’ve been trying to track down a reference to Celtic mythology which certainly bears on the episode in Boeve when the hero is wounded in the thigh by one of the lions which attacks him and menaces Josian. At long last I found details of the essay that discusses the Celtic myth and thanks to the patient help of the Interlibrary Loans service at the Central Library I now have Proinsias Mac Cana’s ‘Women in Irish Mythology’. It has opened up important lines of enquiry and new considerations about the way female characters are presented in Boeve. So I now have to go away and read more about this. Meanwhile, the etymology of names and their relationship to wider issues continues to tantalise, and I still haven’t laid to rest the matter of the swallows, which realistically look more like eagles or hawks, so more etymological enquiry is needed. It’s hard to believe it’s July already, but this is a task that keeps fragmenting and is all the better for it.

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Work on Boeve continues slowly. It is really a matter of taking all the elements already identified and seeing where they lead, but I believe I’ve been on the right track all along. There is definitely good reason to take the first part separately from the ‘Continuation’ and to regard this as dealing with a range of issues specific to its original agenda, and then to deal with the ‘Continuation’ and its rewriting of those issues for a different purpose. At that point it became a different political text.

I’m still working on the potential for Boeve to reflect an earlier local legend of the kind referred to in Dr. Speed’s book, as well as having being composed for Sotonian patrons. I’m inclined to challenge the standard reading that asserts that a tale like Boeve must have been composed for an aristocratic patron, no matter how lacking the text may be in unequivocal marks of this origin. The work on the etymology of names is tricky, and Speed’s account is unsupported by historical references, but these matters need to be explored in depth in order to understand the text and its development.

The chance to get out in the fresh air and begin work on the garden has undoubtedly helped to restart the writing by providing some complete diversion – I have recently heard it described as perfect for mindfulness – but reading Slavoj Zizek again, and Terry Eagleton on Walter Benjamin, have both been helpful with rethinking the construction of history in Boeve.

Meanwhile, Bevis has become a paradigm for my other research interest; and with the news of a proposal for Southampton to become the next City of Culture I have already suggested that Bevis should be given a higher priority as part of the cultural history of the City. I hope to reinforce this point further in the near future as Bevis could be a valuable addition to our cultural landscape. The Bevis trail I have proposed would pick up the local traditions as well as the literary origin, which, although fictitious, could be linked through the references in the story to places and events that can be accommodated to the remaining ‘footprint’ of the medieval town.

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May, swallows, and geese

As mentioned in April’s post, I was in search of Rhona Beare’s articles on these birds, and although old and strange, they are oddly productive. Barlow’s book is back beside me, and Anglo-Saxon history, though very chaotic in the pre-Conquest period, is where I am still finding the most useful material for understanding the opening of Boeve. Inevitably, almost, dear old Derrida’s différènce is helping to untangle one part of the story from another when due consideration is given to how it really separates out. So, for now, the so-called Continuation is not my focus. I’m trying to understand what the story is doing before that takes over. It has long been established that the Continuation is different in many ways, so it needs to be considered for its separate status. When the time comes, I shall consider why it was tacked on to the original, but without understanding the point of that original the impulse behind the Continuation is bound to be rather out of focus.

Although I think I am making some progress with the original, I think I probably need refer only to the earliest MSS because to propose any oral version may be unnecessary. The dating does not need to be based mid to late 12th century historical events, although these are undoubtedly relevant. Nevertheless, the original MS may just as easily have been created in the 13th, looking back as the chroniclers constantly did to events in earlier times in order to comment on their own, wryly perhaps. Indeed, I believe now that a narrow focus on the date has obscured much of the interest that lies in the opening of the story, and therefore skews understanding of the later relationship between the original and the Continuation.

Meanwhile, the matter of the hero’s name and the name of his horse require further investigation and careful consideration. It remains difficult to see the logic behind creating a hero whose lands are so closely associated with Southampton (if that’s what they are!), if the work is to be focussed on the lords of the largest castle in West Sussex. The Anglo-Norman poem itself does not name Southampton, only Hampton. The fourteenth-century Middle English poem names Southampton in various spellings, and it may have been so called in intermediary redactions, but if we accept that these all derive from the Anglo-Norman version of the thirteenth century the disconnect between Southampton and Arundel must be addressed and understood. In the thirteenth century the only link between the two Anglo-Norman settlements was the pilgrims’ road to Becket’s shrine at Canterbury that started at Southampton’s western quays. The Pilgrim’s Gate, and a nearby place known as ‘Pilgrim’s Pit’ testify to this in Southampton’s medieval records. There was at that time, according to the Victoria County History, no actual coast road, which was a Victorian development. The medieval pilgrims’ road ran east to Arundel where there was a convenient stop-over, and the road is of some significance to the story of the poem, as is Becket’s earliest biography. But dating again comes into play at this point, as it does in the case of Edward the Confessor’s shield!

However, the biggest question to be tackled in relation to the earliest version of the poem that we have evidence for is the matter of the hero’s name, which appears to have no connection with anything on this side of the Channel except the son of a Southampton merchant. If it is a coincidence it is a mighty strange one, given that the date of the poem and the dates of the son are very close. And what relationship do they, together or separately, have to either St Bovo of Fraxinet, or Bovo of St. Bertin?

It has taken me years to get to the point of being able to ask some of these essential questions.  The answers I originally proposed were judged unconvincing and although I can now see why, they have at least given me some foundations on which to build, not just an argument and set of theories, but the confidence to take on the task. As part of that confidence building I’d like to credit Dr. Luke Sunderland for an email he sent which spurred me on to consider further the significance of a woman speaking English, even while I was looking at the swallows and geese.


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