Classic EssaysRevilo P. Oliver

The Flight From Reason


by Revilo P. Oliver

I HAVE HAD TO comment from time to time on the “creation scientists,” who are one of the most ominous phenomena of our darkling age. They are alarming because they are not professional theologians, marketing their “transcendental” wares, nor yet ignorant crackpots, like the inspired tailor, Lodowicke Muggleton, or the recalcitrant housewife,”Mother Ann” Lee. They are men who have been trained in the techniques and, one would suppose, the principles of scientific research, but perversely use their academic credentials to promote unmistakable hoaxes, such as the “Holy Shroud,” or to concoct pseudo-scientific verbiage in support of the Jews’ rifacimento of the Babylonian creation-myth. (ILLUSTRATION: Prof. Raymond Plummer Tripp, Jr.)

They are not an isolated phenomenon. The same strange lust for sciolistic mystery-mongering to promote old Yahweh appears, I am sure, is in every domain of learning. I could cite scores of examples in widely varying fields of scholarship. Most recently, I was close to incredulity when I read the review in Speculum, LX (1985), pp. 755f., of a recent book by Professor Raymond Plummer Tripp, Jr., which bears the cute title, More About the Fight with the Dragon, Beowulf 2208b-3182: Commentary, Edition, and Translation (Lenham, Maryland University Press, 1983). I borrowed a copy of the book. It amazed me.

The Anglo-Saxon epic, Beowulf, is commonly described as our “most precious relic of early Germanic literature.” It presents a multiplicity of problems that have exercised scholars since it was first published in 1815 under the title (in Latin, in conformity with scholarly practice at that time), De Danorum rebus gestis, poema Danicum, dialecto Anglo-Saxonica. That title advertises the first problem. It is a poem written in England about the deeds of heroes who lived in Denmark and the southern district of Sweden known as Gotland. It is an English poem that has nothing to do with England, which is not even mentioned. Was it originally written in Denmark or Sweden, so that our text is an Anglo-Saxon translation or adaptation of a Norse epic now lost? Most scholars are certain that Beowulf was composed in Anglo-Saxon in the Seventh or Eighth Century, one or two centuries after the events narrated in it were supposed to have taken place. Presumably the poet composed his verse for the satisfaction of English noblemen who were interested in the exploits of their racial kinsmen across the German Ocean (now called the North Sea).

The text is preserved in only one manuscript, copied around the year 1000, by two scribes, neither of whom was competent in the Anglo-Saxon of the poem, which had become archaic by their time, and which they copied as prose; they were further distracted by their effort to write a clear, regular hand and produce neat, even elegant, pages. The manuscript was damaged by fire in 1731, before anyone had made a study of the text or even copied it, and after that the scorched or charred margins of many pages broke off and were lost in handling. The Wyatt-Chambers edition of the text (Cambridge University Press, 1920) includes photographs of pages that illustrate the markedly different hands of the two scribes and also will show you how the pages were damaged in a fire that almost deprived us of the oldest monument of English literature. (This edition, with the companion volume, R. W. Chamber’s Introduction, is, I believe, the most useful edition of the Anglo-Saxon and I recommend it in preference to the later editions, which were made to present debatable emendations or to accompany English translations.)

Generations of scholars have labored to purge the text of scribal errors, restore the words that were lost when the margins were destroyed, and fix the meaning of a few words that are rare or even hapax legomena, probably because Beowulf is the only poem of its kind that has survived to our time. There will always be some points at which scholars will debate the correct reading of a word or inflection, but these are minor or even minute details that are of virtually no importance when one considers the poem as a whole.

It is absolutely certain that the poem is essentially a pagan work. It narrates the exploits of a Norse hero and his associates in a world unperturbed by Christianity, although someone — whether the author or a subsequent copyist is much disputed — made a few interpolations here and there to add an explicit but incongruous Christian coloring and quite probably altered a few words that had a specifically pagan religious connotation, e.g., replacing “wyrd” (“fate”) with “god,” a word which need mean only “a” god (unidentified), but which was cleverly used by Christians as a specific reference to their own compound deity. On the basically pagan nature of the poem, all scholars have been in complete agreement. The debate has been over the question whether it is more probable that the author was a pagan with whose work a Christian scribe or editor tampered here and there ad maiorem gloriam Dei, or a man who, like the famous Snorri Sturlason, was at least publicly a Christian, but felt the profound attraction of his native religion and mythology and tried to preserve it, and so composed in Anglo-Saxon a long poem about the exploits of pagan heroes, inserting here and there some Christian coloring, perhaps as a prudent precaution against the Christian lust to persecute.

Now comes Professor Tripp modestly to assure us that all scholars of Anglo-Saxon have thus far been groping blindly in the darkness of a polar winter — a darkness that has at last been dispelled, now that the sun of his intellect has risen above the horizon. Claiming that our text is fantastically corrupt, he has “rectified” it by rewriting the last third of the poem. You won’t recognize it as coming from any poem you ever read. Most of what you remember from that part of Beowulf is gone. Professor Tripp has expunged the dragon, the fugitive slave, Wiglaf (Beowulf’s faithful man-at-arms, who adds such pathos to the end of the story), and many minor characters and incidents. There is still someone named Beowulf, but he has been transformed into an entirely different man.

The fiery dragon has been replaced by an evil king, a pagan who, by satanic arts, has returned to life after death to harass good Christians. There is no dragon’s horde and no fugitive slave who steals a jeweled goblet. It is the reanimated but unregenerate pagan himself who steals a sacred goblet from Beowulf! And Beowulf is a Christian hero who combats the vile heathen’s diabolically reanimated body on behalf of good old Jesus and the True Faith. Hallelujah and pass the holy water!

Make no mistake: this big book is a work of great learning. There can be but few scholars whose knowledge of the Anglo-Saxon language excels Tripp’s. He explains each of his innumerable and drastic alterations of the text as an emendation, for which he gives a plausible explanation by the rules of palaeography, involving one or another of the many elaborately classified causes of scribal errors in copying. On strictly palaeographic grounds, i.e., without regard to the resulting meaning in its relation to the rest of the poem, each single “emendation” is possible in itself; it is in the aggregate that they become so preposterous that it is hard to speak of them without ridicule. One is tempted to say that if the text has been so corrupted as to require all of his drastic “rectifications,” we have no means of knowing what the poem was about — perhaps the subject was Mary’s little lamb or the hunting of the snark. A man with Tripp’s knowledge of Anglo-Saxon and palaeography could, with only a little more effort, “rectify” the text to introduce those subjects, and his text would be as linguistically and palaeographically substantiated as Tripp’s new Beowulf — and only a little more remarkable as a perverse use of great erudition to violate common sense.

Years ago, a beamish adolescent, subsidized by a wealthy man in California, boasted in print that he was “hooked on Jesus.” Capricious or derelict youngsters are commonplace these days, but when philologists become hooked on the same drug, it is time to become more alarmed than ever for the future of civilization.

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Source: Liberty Bell magazine, May 1986;

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