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Feb 14, 2005 7:11 am

Redundancy ...

Just as my wife and I were preparing to leave the house on Friday night to go to a dinner/dance, there was a telephone call from a fellow I hadn't seen in forty years. We had been room-mates in my third year at Duke and kept in touch with each other for a few years thereafter. The fellow always was a bit of an odd duck and a loner, but I was curious to know what had happened to him. He was in Atlanta for a meeting, so we quickly made arrangements to have dinner together on Saturday.

There was little that surprised me in the conversation over Southern fried pork chops at the Collonade the next night. He is still a bit of an odd duck and a loner, only forty years older. What did surprise me was that, in the intervening years, he had accumulated 10, count ‘em, ten earned academic degrees. It was amazing. You name an institution and he'd say:"You know I have an M. A. from there" or whatever. I don't doubt it. He's got a bachelor's degree from Duke, a ph. d. from Vanderbilt, two certificates, and six master's degrees in one thing or another. On average, he's earned an additional academic degree every four years since he first enrolled at Duke in 1958. Not only that, but after retiring a year or so ago he's enrolled in another degree program. I don't know that there's anything wrong with that. Given the escalating costs of programs in higher education and the notion that an education in the liberal arts should be preparation for self-education, it just seemed to me to be an odd allocation of time and money.

Even so, it's not as bad as the story told me by a young Duke co-ed when we were having lunch together in about 1961. A Southern woman, born and bred, she told me that she had read Gone With the Wind 13, count ‘em, thirteen times. On average, she'd read Margaret Mitchell's very long, third-rate romance novel once every 18 months since she first took the breath of life. The woman capped that off by telling me that her uncle was a member of the Klan, which according to her rendition of things was a fairly benign organization. The local chapter, in Florida, I think it was, got itself together once a year and marched in regalia down by the local office of the NAACP to heave a brick through its window. I'm fairly sure that she was just saying some of that for shock-value to my civil rights activist self.

Yet, there was worse than that in my memory. When I was a child in suburban Louisville, mom and dad would give room and board to female students at a local business college in return for help with light house-keeping and baby-sitting. Most commonly, those women came to Louisville from the mountains of eastern Kentucky. The communities from which they came were often very provincial ones. We were surprised to learn from one of them that it was common in her community for students who graduated from the eighth grade to then be hired as the full-time teacher of a class of younger elementary students. That would be as late as the late 1940s and early 1950s. It was worse than that when one of the young women who lived with us said that her uncle had been elected to her community's local school board and that he was firmly opposed to the education of female children, altogether.

My point in thinking about these things is to say that it's important – it is crucially important – to look carefully and critically at the patterns that we repeat. We human beings are creatures of habit. We are most likely to do in the future what we have done in the past. There's probably some improvement in a move from opposition to female education and putting fourteen year olds in charge of first grades, to reading Gone With the Wind over and over and annually heaving bricks through other people's store fronts, to my old room-mate's redundant academic degrees, but Lord our unexamined habits need scrutiny. I've got some of my own that need examination.

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Richard Henry Morgan - 2/14/2005

It gets more complicated still. Both versions of the essay I read are from reproductions in other books. The translations are found in bracketed inserts, so they may be editorial emendations (though neither says that). The differing translations (by the editors?) points out the difficulty of producing a non-controversial version. The assertion that Tolkien mistranslated comes from John Niles of Berkeley, "Beowulf": the Poem and its Tradition, (Harvard, 1983), and is presumably based on Tolkien's unpublished translations (which should be published soon, courtesy of Michael Drout).

I'm sorry now I ever opened my mouth. Never again shall "The Beowulf" or Beowulf cross my lips.

Richard Henry Morgan - 2/14/2005

Just to complicate matters, in his 1936 version, from Proceedings of the British Academy, Tolkien translates 'lof' as 'renown'. In the same place in the essay, as it appears in his 1983 collection, Tolkien translates it as 'fame'. The appendix to the PBA essay traces it to 'valuation' (etymologically), and translates it as 'praise'. Is the distinction between 'praise' and 'fame' a christianizing one? The substitution of 'too' for 'most', is it an artefact of Tolkien's own christianizing? What is the point of view of the author of Beowulf to the character Beowulf and his actions? That's one of the central interpretive questions. I remember the prof spending half a class session on 'lof' one time.

Richard Henry Morgan - 2/14/2005

The last word of the poem -- lofgeornost. Tolkien translated it as 'too eager for praise', rather than 'most eager for praise'. Seamus Heaney translates it as 'keenest to win fame'.

Oscar Chamberlain - 2/14/2005


I'll bite. What was mistranslated?

Van L. Hayhow - 2/14/2005

Tom Stoppard's play, R & G are Dead, sat on the window sill next to my bed for two or three years and I would read parts of it before going to sleep a couple of times a week. The same later on for Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcylce Maintenance.

Richard Henry Morgan - 2/14/2005

Confession. If I don't see Monty Python and the Holy Grail at least once a year, I read through the manuscript on the web. The witch drowning scene helped stir in me an interest in dialectic.

Apparently, I'm not alone in my affection for Holy Grail. When Clease brought his production to the US, between acts he complained to the manager that the audience was the rudest he'd ever seen, there being a constant buzz throughout the presentation. The manager set him straight -- the audience knew every line by heart, and was reciting it along with the cast.

BTW, Tolkien's essay is an example of something rare these days -- elegant, clear writing. I loved it too, though he mistranslated a key concept. Guess which?

Oscar Chamberlain - 2/14/2005

A confession of sorts. I read Lord of the Rings a similar number of times in high school. I didn't start going to hobbit conventions, nor did I try to master Elvish (though I did make a stab at the Dwarvish runes). It probably kept me a step removed from reality, but given my state of being in High School, one step removed might have been considerable better than the other possibilities.

LOTR still echoes through me and, on the whole, that's a good thing. It led me to read Beowulf and Tolkien's essay on it, and I got a bit of a taste for some medieval poetry.

I'm less certain about the echoes of Gone with the Wind as I have never read the book, but a friend of mine who decided to pick it up one day called it the "best bad novel ever written."

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