Beowulf and the Fate of Music

Yes, that's English. Image courtesy of the British Library.

Yes, that’s English. Image courtesy of the British Library.

Before medieval European civilization developed anything as novel as a “book,” “scroll,” or “codex,” there was the mind of the storyteller. The storyteller was given a special seat by the fire, fed for knowledge, and oft given full attention. The storyteller was the source of news from other lands, stories about the past. Anyone could become a storyteller, if they sat by the fire and cast the spell of speech, or song. Some did it more often than others. Some did it better than others, conjuring images and compelling deeds through utterance. For some, it became an identity. As speaking hominids, our growing community of storytellers created our first communal memory, our first library. Our library was populated with epic masterpieces, like the Epic of Gilgamesh, Enûma ElišBeowulf, The Iliad, and The Odyssey, to name a few. In time, these songs were written down. Yet for centuries before they were written down, they were performed. Beowulf was a tale sung by a single performer, over a matter of hours or even days, communicating a complex narrative, resplendent with emotion and commentary.

From a historical perspective, Beowulf is such a significant document because it is a record of the gradual transition of a pre-print, aural culture committing itself to the marching lines of the written word.

“What you print, is nothing compared to the effect of the printed word. The printed word sets up a paradigm, a structure of awareness, which affects everybody – in very very drastic ways – and it doesn’t very much matter what you print, as long as you go on in that form of activity.” – Marshall McLuhan,  June 1977, Televised ABC Radio National Interview, “The Medium Is The Message.”

The oldest existing manuscript of Beowulf is a handwritten document, set down in a local dialect, chronicling the way in which the generations-old song was sung in that area. Someone decided, This is important enough to write down. It was no longer sufficient to remember and perform Beowulf. Maybe people didn’t have that kind of time anymore, who knows? The tale became printed, chosen to become an exact record, no longer polished by generations of poetic license.  Though, in retellings change had been its nature.

The written text of Beowulf is a fascinating artifact of Medieval European culture’s transition from oral to written. The oldest manuscript of the epic tale is dated at approximately 1000 AD. The song is believed to have been composed 3 centuries before (700 AD), as a tribute and eulogy to a dead king. Think of it: for about 300 years, the long and meticulous story of Beowulf was sung – performed – to a small listening audience. And this was not as novel a feat as we consider it now. Back then, there was no Gutenberg press, no widespread literacy. Song was the way important stories got around. In pre-electrical times, the mesmerizing flicker and glow of the campfire was the first television. Similarly, bardic telling was the first “book,” a massive idea, organized by memory, with no manuscript of which to speak.

Nobody’s Homer

This sort of thing, the transition from oral to written culture, has happened before (and it will happen again). Consider The Iliad and The Odyssey. Two bardic lays about Mycenaean Greeks during the Trojan War, occurring sometime around 1100 BC. To our best current historical knowledge, Homer was the bard who finally committed the songs to written words around 850 BC. Interestingly, we do not know this for sure, because, like Beowulf the oldest existing manuscripts of The Illiad and The Oddessy also date from around the year 1000 AD, 1,850 years after Homer.

Heavyweight epic poems of the classical and medieval ages were not committed to handwriting until after they had been sung for centuries. These to-be classics where everywhere, living books, volumes of thought, floating around in bardic minds.

Marshall McLuhan Would Be Proud?

According to the Ben Bagby production, Beowulf takes about 5 hours to perform. A lot of information was stored in that song. Before print culture, vocalization was the primary form of storage and transmission of human narrative. These days there are so many forms of narrative transmission that songs are merely regarded as pieces of pop albums. But our popular song verse-chorus-verse-bridge comes from an older singing tradition, an ancient, living, aural cycle, longer in detail, less compressed in relish.

The pop song of today is built to deliver a Beowulf in 4 minutes or less, if it’s a hit.  The bardic lay now electronically sped up and infinitely replicated into the rhinestone glitter of chart-topping glamour. Think of a modern singer-songwriter, prolific and talented. One songwriter, like Harry Nilsson or Bob Dylan, has hours of songs. Stevie Wonder could sing his own songs, with no repeats, for longer than it would take Ben Bagby to sing Beowulf.

The Bards Are Back, Baby!

New bards, with fresh rewrites of The Illiad, The OddessyBeowulf, and beyond.  This, I think, is part of what McLuhan was referring to when he wrote of an “electrical retribalization” of the west. Marshall McLuhan called the electronic media “an extension of our central nervous system,” leading to a new turn back to an aural culture. Like the refugee librarian nomads at the end of Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. Those fellows each remembered an entire book, every word, every detail cover to cover.

“A single conversation across the table with a wise person is worth a month’s study of books” – Chinese proverb

The cycle seems repetitive, the way McLuhan frames it. “Retribalization” implies nothing new. Consider the long dynastic ages of Egypt and China, both examples of aural-to-print revolutions in previous historical incarnations. For me, the question becomes, What historical incarnation do we resemble now?  I think we’re going visual, an emoticon era, new hieroglyphics based on mutually incomprehensible languages.

“The [television] image is constituted by millions of these resonating particles. There are no pictures on television. There are no snapshots, there’s no shutter, there’s no camera. There is an outpouring of these small bits of information, in patterns, that are entirely active and dynamic. So, they resonate. He was saying [Tony Schwartz, in The Responsive Chord] that the Television image is not primarily visual, but a resonating form of experience.” – Marshall McLuhan,  June 1977, Televised ABC Radio National Interview, “The Medium Is The Message.”

T.V. Is A Song

Got data?

Is our auditory sensorium building a new picto-aural communal library, parallel to the book, accessible via the ability to learn from electronically listening to others?  Think of the way you tell a story from memory. Images and clouds of scenes are strung together by a storyteller’s vocalization, which captures the details of the story with dynamic precision. In that library, how will you find your books, and choose your teachers? Will the storytellers sing for their supper, again? Doesn’t Stevie Wonder deserve better? Will retribalization make fiat currency incidental, as people learn to exchange value on an individualized, localized scale? Run with it.

Thank you for reading. Reading rules!


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Let’s Go Fly A Kite

A happy mini-post today because I finished recording voice tracks for the Cetus Finalis audio book!

Next, scene and chapter breaks will be set to Ryan Hurtgen’s original score. You’re going to love this.

Stay tuned for aural pleasure.

Thank you for reading. Reading rules!

Posted in Art and Artists, Audio Book, Cetus Finalis, Music and Musicians, Poetry, Ryan Hurtgen | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Uncanny Valley Digest: Liu Cixin’s The Poetry Cloud

Last night’s Poetry Cloud discussion was the bubbles rising! Inventive, playful, manga-like. Three folklorish characters play out a science fiction stage drama: a poet (farmed for consumption), a dinosaur (which eats poets), and a god walk into a parsec wafer with a wicked big chandelier…

Tidy three act structure: Intro/The Gift

P.1079 Dinosaur Big-tooth and poet-in-a-pocket YiYi dialogue:

“I’ve noticed you think yourself noble and pure, and others to be beneath your notice. Very interesting feelings for a little fowl from a feedlot.”
“Thus is the way with all poets.” Yiyi straightened himself in the pocket, proudly holding his head high, though he knew that Big-tooth could not see this.

The conflict of the drama is: Can technologically enabled omniscience ever plumb the depths of the human inner world, the mysterious journey of being? Even one so lowly as a poet bred in a feedlot, for being human, brings something to the universe that even the god can not surpass. It’s a dare, on the poet’s part.

P.1082 “Why is the Devourer Empire still struggling in the atomic age after 80 million years of existence?”

P. 1082 A question posed to the god from the poet YiYi, “Does art exist everywhere in the universe?”

P. 1083, the crux of the whole story:

YiYi: “This has nothing to do with technology! This is the essence of the inner world of the human soul, and is unsurpassable!”
The god: “You say this because you are ignorant of the power that technology could eventually bring.”

The inner world of the human soul is not a gradated or quantified place. When you’re there you are there. There is no increment, no surpassing. The process and substance of that inner place can never be comprehended in it’s totality. It is nothing that can be encompassed, codified, stored. The poet presses on, challenging the god, ever so subtle, harmless:

“Human art to you is merely a flower carved in stone, and you cannot overcome this obstacle with technology.”

And the god takes our trickster’s bait. Goaded by YiYi, the god wishes to “surpass” the greatness of the poet Li Bai. He transmutes into a poet’s body, a clone of the great Li Bai, that part’s easy. See how easy it is to be human? Then he whips up all of the materials he needs to write, from quill and ink to paper and desk, only to have writer’s block, overcome with thought at creating. He has a drink to loosen up. And like fire water it takes over his life.

Tidy three act structure: The Alternative Route

P. 1085 The poet is winning. He says to the god, “I still believe what you face is a transcendent art form.” And such a thing , he implies, is like kryptonite to a god.

P.1084 “…the god had moved all his own memories into the clone. ‘Cold, this is cold?!'”

The god-clone-Li-Bai gets into the natural life, the “true folk culinary art that had been lost long before the Earth was annihilated.”

Suhail: As an aside, Zelazney does this a bunch, transmigrating back and forth between organic matter, mechanical matter, and transcendant space. For example, his short story “For A Breath I Tarry.” and in both books Lord Of Light and Creatures Of Light And Darkness.

David: The former god, now party poet with writer’s block, says Bah, I’m all powerful. I’ll build a machine to write and store every poem that will ever be written! The poem greater than Li Bai’s work will be in there, guaranteed. So HA!

That's doable...The god gives a computer’s answer: “I will write every posssible pentasyllabic and heptasyllabic poem.”

Chris: The million monkeys at typewriters issue.

P. 1084 The “output portal” an E=MC2 door that draws energy from the universe at large to build, well, anything.

Suhail: Like the autofac in Dick & Zelazney’s Deus Irae.

An interesting moment here about aesthetics and the quality of art: The Devourer is freaked out that the god is going to generate and save all possible poems. So many of them will be gibberish! he exclaims. He has a point. The first poem will be, “Ah Ah Ah Ah Ah / Ah Ah Ah Ah Ah /Ah Ah Ah Ah Ah /Ah Ah Ah Ah Alas” Then the trickster poet YiYi gives a loquacious, profound interpretation of the ridiculous poem. Proving that, to be wonderful, a poem need only be interpreted eloquently, while drunk.

Do you look drunk to you?

Now that’s poetry!

Tidy three act structure: The Ultimate Poetry Composition

We learn that the god is an individual, that it is not part of a monist collective mind. It is merely an idiosyncratic individual from a species so far in advance of the dinosaur and human species that it’s transcended matter and is basically a god for that reason. And it’s a kind of art historian, which is why it’s so interested in this poetry thing.

Do they build it? Of course! It’s not curious enough the the story opens on a hollow earth. You want to know how it got that way. You have to come back at the last act to find out how it all shakes out.  And the dinosaur people… Well, if you want to know about the dinosaur people, it’ll be more fun (funner, as none say) if you read for yourself.

David: The characters were flat.
Chris: Maybe they were folkloric.
Suhail: Hmm, I can see that. I like the way the story is crafted, the small details built in to the plot for example the way the tables turn between the human and the dinosaur. Though it has no bearing on the trajectory of the story, it is a cool play.
David: Still, the characters are there to deliver something, they’re symbols.
Chris: It’s no Canticle For Leibowitz, but let’s look for other layers of the story. What are some other ways to understand it, coming from a culture where the individual is not as prized, not as much as we’re used to. So, who’s the big technological god who starts picking and choosing the fates of others? Does it always know best?
Suhail: I like what you said earlier about the Loory comparison, because he does seem to have just thrown these characters together, then they acted, and he followed the consequences of those actions. There’s a weird dreamy continuity that way.
David: Yeah, there is color in them that way. He’s not preaching something, the story is crafted to be good. Basic three act structure.
Chris: And the trickster lands on his feet. The poet gets the girl by the river.

Tidy three act structure: Epilogue/The Poetry Cloud

Cool, funky, technical “spaceship earth” stuff. “Land doors” and manual satellite launches on the Lagrangian Points, drifting weightless from north pole to south in a direct line through the center. But mind the white hole lamp acting as a sun. Neutron matter reinforcement rings of longitude and latitude.

The final conundrum, basically setting them back where they started: Now that we have all possible poems, how do we recognize and find the great ones? The god of course says he’s now working on software to parse out the quality poems. The poems do not exist until the poets discover them in the fullness of time, by writing. Basically the same problem poets have always had.

Hands down our favorite story of the summer. A meditation on infinity and everythingness. Quirky characters that somehow fit together just right. It had colorful, inane, meticulous fun with solar system terraforming concepts. Reorganizing matter on an enormous engineered scale, turning planets and suns into quantum computers the size of planetary orbits. The technical stuff was thought out, no matter how fantastic. That was fun for the detail geek in me.

Ben Loory, courtesy of the L.A. Times

David: It’s like a Ben Loory story on science acid.
All: HA!
David: The god can only outdo humans by becoming human itself.
Chris: The folklore quality of the plucky poet, ordinary guy that he is, turns around the fate of the whole human race.
David: In the Asimov tradition in some ways. It was fun. I laughed out loud, loved the flowing imagery. The levity, the absurdity was great. Letham has that…I think a lot of writers got it from Dick. Phil Dick, even in his most dreary scenarios, maintains that absurdity bordering on humor.
Suhail: It was nice to read a longer story. Too many of these were too short.
Nowell: Just a splash. There was no space to go anywhere with them.
David: Yeah, let’s do books again next summer.
Chris: Definitely.
David: Maybe four books, two weeks apart.

Suggestions so far: Lem, Moorcock, Butler, Zindell (Neverness), McCaffery, Rajaniemi (Quantum Theif)

Join us next time, when we round out the summer with our screening of 2001: A Space Odyssey, followed by a discussion to compare versions, and revisit any favorite moments from this summer. Thank you for reading. Reading rules!


Posted in Authors and Writing, Ben Loory, Book Reviews, Books, Poetry, Science and Nature, Science Fiction, Short Stories, summer reading, uncanny valley | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment