Friday, January 29, 2016

Worm, Snake, or Dragon?
A Lexical Landscape of the Beowulf Manuscript
Haruko Momma (NYU University)
Feb 5 2016
CUNY Graduate Center
365 5th Ave (btw 34th and 35th Streets)
English Studies Conference Room (4406)

This talk considers the cultural ecology of the Beowulf Manuscript through a lexical study.  The texts contained in this codex come in different forms, ranging from an original poem (Beowulf) to a verse adaptation of a biblical narrative (Judith) to renditions of Latin prose with varying degrees of intervention from the translators; these texts also take place in different geographical locations, including India (The Letter of Alexander to Aristotle), Samos (The Passion of Saint Christopher), and, roughly speaking, the eastern part of the Mediterranean world (The Wonders of the East).  Despite their diversity, these texts are believed by many critics to have been anthologized because of their shared theme of the “monstrous.”  In this talk, I will take a new approach to this issue by examining the semantic range of a certain lexeme as it is used in the manuscript.  The word in question is wyrm, which, rather mysteriously, signifies 'worm', 'snake', and 'dragon', and which refers to diverse animals in the manuscript.  Because of a specific register of this polysemous word, which seems closely connected with its etymology, the distribution and the use of wyrm sheds light on the nature of the manuscript and also of the individual texts therein. This exercise encourages us not only to re-open the age-old question of the pagan-Christian relationship in Beowulf, but also to address the question of the representation of nature in Anglo-Saxon literature.  I will end this talk with a speculation on one of the origins of “realism” in English-language literature.