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Monday, June 24, 2013

My Sister's Epic Journey

An Illustration of My Favorite Scene from the Epic, in which
Grendel's Mother Sits on Top of Beowulf, Endeavoring to
Poke Him with a Knife
My sister recently completed her PhD in Medieval Studies.  Last weekend, Nancy and I drove to Iowa to celebrate.

It was epic, and I use this word advisedly.

Her dissertation puts forth a radical interpretation of Beowulf, which you may remember concerns the title character doing battle with various monsters and their family members until he's finally done in by a dragon and given a burial at sea.  In many ways it's typical of epics from Gilgamesh to The Aeneid in which the hero faces and overcomes one highly improbable peril after another.  But unlike The Odyssey, which is so firmly rooted in Greek culture you couldn't pry it loose with a backhoe, or The Aeneid, which was transcribed so many times, you couldn't throw a rock in Imperial Rome without hitting a copy, of the Beowulf manuscript, there was only one copy.  It was mis-cataloged, mislaid, and burned by fire.  Following the fire mishap, it suffered a botched restoration job.  All this time there was only the single copy, and no one knew precisely what it was about.  Beowulf was not fully (mis)translated until 1815, the year the Grimms published the first edition of Tales.

And so the manuscript, hung by its teeth from various precipices, being "rescued" time and again only to find itself in new peril, but surviving, although battle-scarred, against every odd and in the face of every hostile chance.  The manuscript itself is an epic hero.

And so is my sister Nettie.  Starting as a peripatetic story-teller, in Mississippi, she became entranced with the epic.  Her fascination took her from the familiar south to the exotic clime of Iowa, an epic journey that covered many miles and many years.  Not to mention toil and sweat.  Make no mistake: an academician does battle - especially one with challenging new insights: battle with older, better established theories - battle with the difficulties of translation not only across the barrier of language, but of time and culture.  Battle with Grendel, Grendel's mom, and the dragon.  Battle against self-doubt.  Battle with Beowulf.

But she made it.  My sister.  The hero.

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