04 March 2015

Me, Spock, and Beowulf, All on the Ferry.

In Beowulf, when the hero enters Heorot, the mead hall of King Hrothgar, he is greeted by the king and invited to join them at their feast. Then a man named Unferth, who sits in a position of great honor at the feet of the king, begins to speak, questioning Beowulf in a manner that probes his history and tests his character even as it insults him. Unferth is the king's þyle, his 'orator' or 'spokesman.' Beowulf, unprovoked and undaunted (as the hero no doubt should be), responds in kind, to the delight of the king. Evidently, Beowulf's response told Hrothgar everything he needed to know about him:
                             Then the treasure giver,
Grey haired, battle-famed, knew joy.
The Lord of Bright-Danes had heard Beowulf,
Counted his courage, his strength of spirit.
Then laughter lifted in the great hall --
Words were traded, Wealhtheow walked in,
Hrothgar's queen....

(Beowulf, 608-13, trans. Williamson)

In his lecture on this scene and the character of Unferth for our Beowulf through Tolkien class, Professor Tom Shippey described the role of the þyle as follows:
'What's a þyle, which is what Unferth is? I think that's rather easy. Both Gríma Wormtongue and Unferth have a place and that place is at the feet of the king. Later on Hrothgar, lamenting the death of one of his men will say "he was my runwita and my rædbora" (1325). Runwita means "a knower of secrets;" rædbora means "giver of advice." And that, I think, is what Unferth is. He is a confidant, someone who knows the king's secrets. He is a "rædbora," someone who gives the king advice, a counselor.

'In fact, if you're thinking of The Godfather, which is often quite a good idea in these circumstances, he is the consigliere to Hrothgar, who is himself the godfather, you might say.... So we could say that Unferth is a counselor, he's a spokesman because of þelcræft [or "þylcræft" = "oratory," the skill of a þyle]. He's very possibly a kind of genealogist. We're often getting these remarks about people being well known. This is an oral culture dependent on memory. You need somebody who remembers everything and you need someone who can say to the king "yes, yes, he is the son of so-and-so, he's the grandson of so-and-so." Important to remember that. Somebody has to do these things and Unferth does it. Tolkien translates, I think very sensibly, that he is the king's "sage." He is the wise man for the king, who is there to give the king advice. He's a mixture of a kind of researcher and possibly also spin doctor.

'And I'd finally suggest that he's a bit like the king's subjunctive mood. He says what the king might be thinking, but the king won't have said it. So that if it's wrong, as it is when he challenges Beowulf, it's retractable. It's not the king's fault. It's his adviser, and you can blame the adviser....'1 
Last Friday morning (2/27/15) as I was crossing Long Island Sound on the 11:00 AM ferry out of Orient, NY, I was thinking about this scene and Professor Shippey's commentary on it, which I had just listened to again in my car as I drove to Orient. Suddenly I made a connection I had not thought of before.  I think it arose from the combination of the way Hrothgar waits and watches while Unferth fences with Beowulf, and Professor Shippey's explanation of the role of the þyle as ' bit like the king's subjunctive mood.'  But I remembered a scene in Space Seed, one of the best and most important episodes of the original Star Trek.

In this episode, just in case you've never seen it, the Enterprise discovers a 170 year old ship from earth floating derelict in an unexpected region of space. There is no historical record of such a ship, and they go on board to investigate, finding 84 cryogenic pods with humans inside them, more than 70 of whom are still alive.  One of these humans revives, a magnetic, mysterious man who will identify himself only as Khan.  Kirk and Spock suspect that he and his shipmates might be the genetically engineered supermen who vanished at the end of the Eugenics Wars of the 1990s.  A dinner (or feast, if you will) is held to welcome Khan to the 23rd century.  As they sit at the table, the following conversation takes place:
KIRK: Forgive my curiosity, Mister Khan, but my officers are anxious to know more about your extraordinary journey.

SPOCK: And how you managed to keep it out of the history books.

KHAN: Adventure, Captain. Adventure. There was little else left on Earth.

SPOCK: There was the war to end tyranny. Many considered that a noble effort.

KHAN: Tyranny, sir? Or an attempt to unify humanity?

SPOCK: Unify, sir? Like a team of animals under one whip?

KHAN: I know something of those years. Remember, it was a time of great dreams, of great aspiration.

SPOCK: Under dozens of petty dictatorships.

KHAN: One man would have ruled eventually. As Rome under Caesar. Think of its accomplishments.

SPOCK: Then your sympathies were with --

KHAN (turning to Kirk): You are an excellent tactician, Captain. You let your second in command attack while you sit and watch for weakness.

KIRK: You have a tendency to express ideas in military terms, Mister Khan. This is a social occasion.

KHAN: It has been said that social occasions are only warfare concealed. Many prefer it more honest, more open.

KIRK: You fled. Why? Were you afraid?

KHAN: I've never been afraid.

KIRK: But you left at the very time mankind needed courage.

KHAN: We offered the world order!


KHAN: Excellent. Excellent. But if you will excuse me, gentlemen and ladies, I grow fatigued again. With your permission, Captain, I will return to my quarters.

(Kirk stands, and Khan leaves.)

Unify, sir?
With your permission, Captain, I will return to my quarters.

Now I don't believe that the writers of this episode (Gene L. Coon and Carey Wilber) were thinking of Beowulf when they composed this scene. I couldn't even guess if they had read it (though the writer of Star Trek: Voyager, Heroes and Demons definitely had2).   Still I would say that the parallel between the scenes in Beowulf and Space Seed is much more illustrative than that between Beowulf and The Godfather. While the positions of Unferth and Hrothgar are indeed analogous to those of consigliere and godfather, it is in Space Seed that we see the parallels in behavior, as Spock questions Khan while Kirk looks on, evaluating Khan's reactions and responses.  

The verbal duel between Spock and Khan all but proves that Khan is the dangerous enemy they suspected he was, and makes amply clear for us the nature and purpose of such an exchange. For while a modern reader of Beowulf might not immediately recognize what Unferth is really doing, there is no mistaking what Spock is up to. Kirk's involvement makes the parallel even clearer.  First he pretends that it is not he, but his officers who have questions for Khan, which allows Spock to begin his 'attack,' as Khan puts it.  

Then, when Kirk moves to defuse the tense situation by claiming that a social occasion is no place for warlike speech, Khan challenges him more directly, saying that he prefers his warfare 'more honest, more open.' At which point Kirk presses his attack even more forcefully than Spock had.  Even so, when the exchange becomes too heated, Khan is allowed to retreat, avoiding a more dangerous confrontation. Like Hrothgar Kirk learns what he wanted to learn. That the king wished to see if the man before him was the sort of man he hoped for, and that the captain wished to see if the man before him was the sort of man he feared him to be, is not a material difference.  

So there I was with Beowulf and Spock on a ferry (a ferry) last Friday morning, thinking these thoughts. A few hours later I got to my hotel outside Boston.  I checked the news and said "Oh, no." Leonard Nimoy had died, at exactly the time I was thinking about him. No, I don't think there's a connection between these two events, not on any level, not even on the spooky chance-if-chance-you-call-it level. Except in my heart, where this wonderful character and the apparently decent man who gave him such persuasive life dwell now forever.  I am even especially glad I was thinking about him just then.  I now have another reason to remember him.


Beowulf and Other Old English Poems, edited and translated by Craig Williamson (Philadelphia 2011).  The line numbers cited above are for Williamson's translation; those directly below are from the Old English text.
Þa wæs on salum    sinces brytta
gamolfeax ond guðrof;   geoce gelyfde
brego Beorht-Dena;   gehyrde on Beowulfe
folces hyrde,    fæstrædne geþoht. 
Ðær wæs hæletha hleahtor,   hlyn swinsode,
word wæron wynsume.   Eode Wealhþeow forð
cwen Hroðgares....
(lines 607-13)
A more literal translation would run as follows:
Then the giver of treasure, gray haired and brave in battle, knew joy. The lord of the Bright Danes took hope in [Beowulf's] aid; in Beowulf the shepherd of the folk heard steadfast determination.

There was laughter from the men, it made a sweet sound, his words were pleasing. Wealhtheow, queen of Horthgar, came forth....

1 Since I was transcribing an audio recording, all punctuation and paragraphing are of course mine. I have tried to faithfully represent Professor Shippey's words, though I am not completely sure whether the word after 'wrong' in the final paragraph is 'as' or 'and.'  The difference, if there is one, is minimal.

Gríma Wormtongue is of course the counselor of King Théoden in The Two Towers. He first appears in the chapter The King of the Golden Hall, in a scene which has much in common with this one.

The recording is proprietary so I may not link to it.

2 See the article on Heroes and Demons at Memory Alpha for the comments of Naren Shankar, the writer of this episode, who states that he even went back and researched Beowulf in preparing the story. He was surprised to learn that no one else on the production team had ever read it.  

No comments:

Post a Comment