Everyday Semiotics

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Of monsters and the men who slay them and the men who tell their tales

Let me just say I’m now a certifiable George Guidall fan. Who’s he? He’s the fellow who, on recent car journeys, read to me Gilgamesh (700 BC, in a “new English version” by Stephen Mitchell, AD 2004) and Beowulf (circa AD 700-1000, translated in 1999 by Seamus Heaney).

Hearing Guidall I picture an older man, not physically strong though certainly powerful of voice, who is somehow perfectly suited to these tales of manly monster-hunters. Having spent much of my life with a pretty Homer-centric view of epics, I found myself utterly captivated by these non-Greek myths; which are nonetheless just as morally ambiguous as the Odyssey. Mitchell points out that the monsters Gilgamesh faces down -- Enkidu, Humbaba, the Bull of Heaven -- don’t actually threaten his kingdom in Uruk.

Beowulf does a bit better: he stops Grendel and his mother, who individually pose threats to the Danes, and goes after the dragon, who only became a menace after treasure hunters violated his horde. The ambiguity in this tale comes from its awkward point of narration: set in heathen times and lands but told by a retroactively proselytizing Christian Anglo-Saxon.

My (rather distracted) riff on ciphers completed, I’ll be setting in now on some considerations of monster hunters, all of whom could do well with a George Guidall treatment, I think.

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