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Module 1: Great Epics of World Literature

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The End of Beowulf and The Lusiads

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This narrative poem can be best described as a heroic tale. It has 3182lines. There is no title in the manuscript which has been discovered. Historians have attributed this title because they must have thought it is rather simple and straightforward to name the poem after the protagonist. This is one of the very few texts which show us the strong Germanic roots of the English nation. It also displays the qualities of the English language and English literary tradition. Beforetheybecame intermingled with French, the classical and other non-Germanic cultures, if you are familiar with the background history of Britain as a nation, how it emerged through these different invasions and how various influences had come to shape English literature and English culture and English language, you would perhaps be able to make better sense of how the Germanic roots can be traced in this particular text. This poem Beowulf has been considered a tradition, old English literature, it is rather surprising that such a kind of nobility could have been imparted to a text of those times. And we also find very generous descriptions about the Danes, the Swedes, the Franks, the Frisians and also the Geats. And Geats were the group of people who inhabited what is today southern Sweden and at the same time, we do not find a single mention of any Englishman. Perhaps this is because the Anglo Saxon narrator was looking back at a period which included an assortment of tribes and as sort men to invaders who were not really English. But of course, the ancestors could be traced back and it is in that context that this text is seen as a significant historical artefact as well. (Refer Slide Time: 12:09) The poem opens in Denmark and not in Geatland where Beowulf lives. And at the outset, itself the readers are being told that this is a story about noblemen. And it begins to trace the origins of the Danish dynasty and then it moves to the poem’s present which is during the reign of the Danish King Hrothgar. And Hrothgar instantly was a figure well known to several earlier Scandinavian writers. We find King Hrothgar being mentioned in different other text which also leads us to this assumption that Hrothgar was perhaps are a historical king who lives during those times and there is every reason to also assume that there is a lot of history which was part of this otherwise supernatural mythical narrative heroic tale. So the poem talks abouttheDanishKingHrothgar’sglorious reign and how he even erected a certain kind of a pedestal, a certain kind of a building for all his rectitude to assembly and to have a good time. It is in this such pleasant context that a monstrous troll Grendel intervenes begins with a series of nocturnal attacks, the king’s retinue is constantly under threat, under attack and we are also given to understand from the poem that this monstrous troll Grendel is a begotten descendant of the primordial fratricide Cain and here we also find several biblical allusions. And we are also given to understand that Grendel suffers the wrath of the Christian God and though characters in the poem themselves are not familiar with Christianity we do find Christian tropes becoming extremely significant and even dominant in certain places. So the young hero Beowulf decides to intervene. He resolves to travel from Geatland with 14 followers. He wanted to go to Denmark and then conquer and defeat this monster Grendel who has been causing such a great threat and agony to the king and his followers. And he eventually succeeds in doing that. There are a lot of graphic details through which the poems ake sus and Beowulf manages to defeat Grendel. He even wrenches off Grendel’s arm but then there is also this series of events that follow. Beowulf gets to celebrate his victory with the king and the courtyards but he also has to face the vengeance, the wrath of Grendel’s mother. We find Grendel’s mother coming back with a savage attack. This narrative poem is very eventful so I will spare you the many details which are part of the poem from this part onwards. And at the end through this series of battles after a series of victories that Beowulf enjoys, a dragon kills Beowulf. So more than the storyline what makes this poem enduring to us is the presence of these varied characters and elements which are quite, unlike the old English period. And some of those traits even appear as very modern in terms of their conception, in terms of their representation and their manifestation within this poem. (Refer Slide Time: 15:25) We find dark allusions in the poem throughout. This could be attributed to both the biblical and pagan traditions. And we also find that there is a very fine conflation of history and fantasy, of dignity and horror and which is why historians and literary critics feel that this is a very unusual kind of narrative where we find this nobility of purpose and dignity of diction dominating the structure. The most of the human characters, there is every good reason to assume that they were taken from history but the monstrous adversaries in the form of the dragons, in the form of these monstrous trolls like Grendel, they were all perhaps nightmarish products of the ancient demonology of the north. And Grendel, the monstrous troll himself, that was perhaps a monster straight out of Germanic mythology and he was also considered as a manifestation of evil. And he was rightlyunderstoodbytheChristian audience as the evil personified. It also made this battle between the good and the evil very appropriate in the English context and as pointed out earlier it also made this text a very legitimate and a credible text to be presented at the outset of the emergence of the English nation. There is something very surprising about the existence of the dragons and how the poem deals with it. There is historical evidence to show that the Anglo Saxons continued to 93 in the Anglo Saxon chronicle it is documented there that, fiery dragons were seen flying through the air. Of course, it was a figment the imagination but the point to be understood is that they continued to believe in it and which is why it is important to see this poem not as an act of a suspension of belief but as an extension of the belief system of the people who lived and read during those times. Also in the second part of the old English Maxims, we find this mention of a dragon, a dragon is found in a cave, old and glorying in his treasure. So dragons were part of the everyday reality, the belief system of the Anglo Saxon. (Refer Slide Time: 17:50) In this wonderfully crafted work, the Cambridge companion totheoldEnglishLiterature we find a very detailed, a well-worked out the essay by Fred C Robinson on Beowulf. (Refer Slide Time: 18:00) And here he notes that“The subject matter of Beowulf then suggests that a poem whose mind is well stocked with the imaginative literature of the early Germanic peoples and who has a fairly firm command of the history of Germania in the fifth and sixth centuries, has combined the two, giving ahistorical setting and weight to the legend of preternatural creatures which are hostile to mankind and of a mighty hero who dares to challenge the evil monsters. And this is how the poem has successfully managed to bring together these different elements and despite that, the loftiness, the refinement of the poem is very hard to miss as well. And one thing that has always captured the attention of the critics and the historians is the religious atmosphere of the poem, the background which the poem very certainly continues to invoke. (Refer Slide Time: 18:55) There is an attempt to showcase how admirable and at times even exemplary the non-Christian ancestors could be. And here this is done with a lot of caution. The poet, the narrator is also careful not to appear to be encouraging to return to the dark ways of Germanic pagan ways. So there is a fine balance which is being struck throughout this narrative. And how the poet, the narrator, how he has managed to achieve a resolution of conflicting imperatives is really impressive. The poet’s own faith we get to know through a reading of this poem that it is strongly Christian. Though some historians and critics have argued otherwise they also argued that maybe the later manuscript editors and the translators had very consciously injected this poem withpredominantChristian elements. Nevertheless, itis hard to miss the allusion to several biblical events such as the flood, the last judgement, Cain slaying of Abel. And the characters in the poem at the same time they themselves never allude to any Christian law because the information of Christianity, the belief system which was part of Christianity was not yet available to them. They were not yet part of it. So there are references to pagan rites and there is also this overarching Christian theme and the illusion to the biblical events. Here we also find a fine statement of a Germanic heroic code. (Refer Slide Time: 20:26) Here we find that the presence of this code signifies a hero’s embarkation on a battle far more perilous than the one with Grendel. And this happens when Grendel’s mother comes and then the fight with he dragon ensues. Andthisisarough translation of the section which also tells us about the Germanic heroic code. I read to you very briefly from this segment. “Each of us must abide by the end of the earthly life, let him who can achieve fame before his death! Thatis the best there is for a dead warrior. Arise, lord of the realm, let us go swiftly to see the track of Grendel’s kin’s women. I promised to you that she shall not escape covering, neither into theEarth’s embrace nor into the mountain torrent, nor the depth of the ocean, go where she will.” (Refer Slide Time: 21:16) There are a lot of contestations through which the poem continues to go through whether it was of literate or oral origin, whether it is from a Christian or a pagan system or whether it is mostly history or entirely elements of fantasy. But despite this, this narrative poem Beowulf, it continues to be of most significance for us in the contemporary for the very reason that Fred Robinson reminds us. (Refer Slide Time: 21:43) “It may be that we, more than the Anglo Saxon audience for which Beowulf was created, can feel a close kinship with the desperate men of old -and can hope that we may learn from their heroic acceptance.” I hope you will also find this observation very pertinent and extremely important in our understanding of this narrative poem Beowulf. I thank you for your time and I look forward to seeing you in the next session. Good morning everyone and welcome to today’s session. Today we look at this epic poem written in the Portuguese language titled the Lusiads. (Refer Slide Time: 0:26) It is to give you a context and relevance of this discussion let me draw your attention to a newspaper report which appeared in 2009 in a leading national daily, it was titled Portuguese epic speaks of Kerala’s past and I read you an excerpt from this news report, “74 years after Vasco da Gama’s fleet weighed anchor at Kappad in Kozhikode on May 20, 1498, a book that told the story of his voyage via southern Africa to India was printed in Portugal.” So this is the relevance of us discussing and this Portuguese epic today and we will also see how this is connected to our own history, and how this showcases there are continuing interconnections and the interweaving of literature and cultures as we have been trying to contextualize them for this course on world literature and this piece of news it also adds the epic poem will be of great interest to Malayalees, its descriptive passages tell us of the palace of the zamorin. The poem has been translated into Konkani; it is yet to be translated into Malayalam. So the news is about a series of lectures which are in the context which are in which are highlighting the historical literary importance of this epic titled the Lusiads. (Refer Slide Time: 01:47) So setting this context for you I move on to take you through a brief journey introducing this epic and its author and its historical relevance for you. This historical epic the Lusiads was written by Camões and this is how this name is pronounced ‘Kuh-Moynsh’, he lived from 1524 to 1580, soon after the expedition the successful voyage an expedition of Vasco da Gama. Camoes is considered as a founder and exemplar of Portuguese literature. He is analogous to Shakespeare for English literature or Dante for Italian literature and it is said that he is the first major European writer to travel physically south of the equator. He was a soldier, a prisoner, a ship-wreck survivor. Whatever he wrote about, were based on his first-hand experiences, his voyages. And the recent studies on Camões and his epic the Lusiads by Klein in 2013. It notes he was “an active seafarer not an armchair geographer writing from the safety of a study in Lisbon; he served as a soldier in Ceuta in northern Africa in 1540s and from the mid-1550s spent at least seven years in the East travelling quite possibly as far as Macau in eastern China and Nicholas Birns opines about him that “he is not merely a Portuguese national poet he is a poet of the global Lusophone world which includes Brazil, Angla, Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau, Cape Verde and East Timor.” So this is the relevance and historical significance of this poet Camões and his epic work the Lusiads. (Refer Slide Time: 03:33) Camões is not a poet who found fame only in recent times. Even during his own times and the centuries that followed thereafter, there is enough evidence to believe that he was quite popular and he was a well-acknowledged writer. In an anonymous memoir from the 17th century, it is recorded about Camões: “That famous poet Luis de Camoes who is speaking in absolutes was the prince of them all, was a tall man with broad shoulders and reddish hair, his face was freckled and he was blind in one eye, he was a man of sharp mind, clear judgment and rare wit. He was well-read in the humanities, well-versed in the sciences, skilled at arms and valiant of spirit.” So this is how a Camões is introduced in an anonymous seventeenth-century memoir and what we find in the Lusiads the details and the graphic descriptions that we find in the Lusiads they do stand testimony to the many things which have been written about Camões. (Refer Slide Time: 04:44) What are the main theme and the central crux of this epic the Lusiads? It is about Vasco da Gama’s voyage and the discovery of a new sea route. And if you ask what the significance of this voyage is da Gama’s voyage -it is described as a defining moment of the beginning of modernity. It is said that he shrank the global thereafter yoking Asia inseparably with Western Europe. It pulled commerce out of the Mediterranean Sea to the Atlantic Ocean, so that is a sign of this voyage and by extension this epic the Lusiads. It also acquires this status and relevance of situating itself within this moment of the beginning of modernity. And when we look back at that epic today after centuries we begin to see how important the document is for us to understand the kind of initiatives taken, the kind of enterprising spirit that Vasco da Gama and his crew had back in the fifteenth century. (Refer Slide Time: 05:55) And this is what this iconic travel did to modernity. This is roughly the route that Vasco de Gama and his crew took from Portugal to Calicut. And this discovery as we know our history it was a momentous episode which totally rewrote the story of colonialism and international trade. (Refer Slide Time: 06:25) Bearing this in mind we begin to talk about the various ways in which the Lusiads talk about this epic voyage, this epic voyage undertaken by Vasco da Gama and his crew in the 15th century. It was a dangerous exploit, to begin with, and it is said that only a third of the crew survived after this entire expedition. And there is every reason to believe the accounts which are given in the Lusiads because our author, Camoes himself, he had also undertaken the same journey, he was sent on exile 50 years later, 50 years after Vasco da Gama’s momentous journey and he could come back only after 20 years, he was shipwrecked during this time, he made a lost fortune and eventually as a sum of this as a total of this experience he produced this poem which was as epic as his journey. (Refer Slide Time: 07:16) The Lusiads is an epic poem which Camões started writing in the mid-1560s and it was published in 1572. There are many English translations available today at least eight of them and the first translation was by Sir Richard Fanshawe. He was a courtier of King Charles the first and this translation appeared in 1655. And this translation of the Lusiads from Portuguese to English it is seen as a first major literary exchange between Portugal and England. And now in different languages, we have more than a hundred editions of this poem the Lusiads. It has been translated more than 50 times in different languages including Latin, Italian, Dutch, French, Polish and various other languages and these translations began to appear from the 17th and 18th centuries onwards and of late we also find a lot of critical attention and historical attention being bestowed upon this epic. The Lusiads is considered as the National epic of Portugal. It was written when Camões was an exile in Macau and this if you try to sum up the story of the Lusiads, it is a plot the central theme of Lusiads. It is a story of the Portuguese exploration of Africa and the Indian Ocean and it’s narrated in the form of a traditional epic and it is also one of the most modern recent epics available to us in terms of it is a dimension, in terms of its scope and terms of the large canvas that it deals with. It chronicles Vasco da Gama’s voyage around Africa to India and discovery of this new sea route this was between 1479 and 1499 and Camões incidentally had also spent far more time than a Vasco the Gama himself did, and Camões himself had spent far more time in Asia than in Africa, so his account also has that graphic quality when he talks about his experiences in Asia. And the Lusiads is about real people who lived in the recent past and this is unlike other Renaissance epics which relied a lot on fantasy, which relied on reliving myths, folk tales, and legends and here we have a closer to life account because it is also loosely based on Camões’ experiences and it is also one of the earliest modern epics is to depict non-European people especially when we talk about the kind of works which are produced from a predominantly European setting. (Refer Slide Time: 09:59) The title the Lusiads it derives from the term Lusitania, it was a Roman name used for a province that now roughly encompasses present-day Portugal, it’s written in Homeric fashion and this was written three years after the author’s return from the Indies. There are a lot of Descriptive passages which tell us about the location of the Zamorin and you also get to know a lot about the details through the lens of this author Camões. It's setting the canvas is really expansive it is set in Portugal, Africa and India and of course at sea and the protagonist of this epic, the hero of this epic is not Vasco da Gama but Portugal, but Portugal as a nation with highly enterprising ability and the spirit to send out people on the voyage. So this term is also very befitting to this national epic which now is considered almost a source of supreme national pride.