Saturday, September 22, 2007

Epic (and) history

On Monday in the Medieval England course I will be discussing the Old English epic Beowulf as a source for early English life; on Tuesday I'll be discussing the Sumerian epic Gilgamesh for clues about early Mesopotamian culture. Coincidence? I guess, the courses were devised and first put on years apart. I don't think this conjunction has happened before.

I didn't assign reading for either lecture, but the ambitious among you can look up translations of each work on the Web.

For Gilgamesh, you may want to look at the section of the epic (one version thereof) where Gilgamesh fights Humbaba (Huwawa).

I've linked to the Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature, which is an attempt to make Sumerian literature, generally available in specialist editions stored in specialist libraries, move widely accessible, both in editions of the Sumerian texts, and in English translation. Since Sumerian is one of the most difficult of historic languages, this is a worthy enterprise.

For Beowulf, I found it harder to make a choice from the variety of on-line translations. So to give you an idea of the challenges of translating this poem, whose audience's expectations were so different from a modern one's, I include three links: to the opening of the poem, on great Danish kings of the past, translated by Tony Romano, to another version of the opening by somebody else (no back link!), and the section on Beowulf's battle with Grendel, translated by Sullivan and Murphy.

There are complete versions on the Web, too, but I'll leave that to the enthusiasts who want to know how the stories come out.

Image: Gilgamesh and Enkidu in superhuman combat.

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