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Updated: Sep 10, 2020

Beowulf Mural, Robert Eva, photographer, Sheerness, Kent, Great Britain, 2017

I've found some details in a Georgian folk tale that align with tales that are said to be related to the origins of the Beowulf story. The background theory here is that Beowulf, the long, Old English poem, had been told in different folk traditions and that perhaps more than one story came together and was eventually crafted into the work of literature we have today. The details I will provide here relate to the Beowulf analogues and wouldn't necessarily be recognized by readers of the poem.

The Georgian tale “Asphurtzela” includes mortal struggles with trolls and a dragon, but those details weren't the clincher for me. What struck me was the journey he makes with two super-powered companions in which Asphurtzela is lowered into a cave to find princesses and is then betrayed by his companions, who drop the rope and shut up the cave. Various scholars (including Tolkien and Chambers) believed that Beowulf's encounter with Grendel was originally a story where three heroes each took their chance sleeping in the hall and the first two were eaten. Both scholars suggested that Hondscio, the unfortunate Geat whom Beowulf essentially lets Grendel eat, would have been one of these companions, and that the event in Beowulf is basically a calcified remnant of a character that doesn't especially make sense anymore, but would have if Hondscio stayed in the hall alone on a previous night.

Tolkien's 2014 Beowulf; A Translation and a Commentary includes a rendition of the Beowulf story, titled "Selic Spell," as if it were a folk tale precursor of the epic poem. In this version, Tolkien emphasizes the fairy-story nature of Hanscio and Hrothgar's Asher by naming them Handshoe and Ashwood. Handshoe has magic gloves and Ashwood has a magic spear, and as is familiar in fairy stories, these characters each try and fail to defeat the troll, raising the stakes for Tolkien's Beewolf to succeed. In "Asphurtzela," the hero Asphurtzela's companions are the aptly-named "clod-swallower" and "hare-catcher," because the one is able to eat clods of dirt and the other is so fast, that even with mill wheels tied to his feet, he can catch rabbits. As in Tolkien's "Selic Spell," Asphurtzela and his companions take turns facing a troll opponent and only Asphurtzela is successful and only on the third try.

Another similarity between Beowulf and "Asphurtzela" is that in both stories, the hero is abandoned by his comrades in a troll cave. In Beowulf, the Danes all think that Beowulf is dead when he fights Grendel’s Mother when blood bubbles up in the mere. The Danes lose hope and leave the mere, but Tolkien believed this was a remnant of a purposeful betrayal and in "Selic Spell" actually has the Unferth figure, named Unfriend, abandon the rope he lowers Beewolf into the cave on, purposely leaving him to die. Asphurtzela's companions purposely close the cave entrance with stones leaving him to find his own way out after Asphurtzela provides them with captive princesses for wives.

I have not completed my survey of literature related to a recognized analogue of Beowulf, called Grettis Saga, which could provide a sort of missing link between Beowulf and the Georgian “Asphurtzela.”  Like Beowulf and “Asphurtzela,” the hero Grettir defeats successive trolls. Like Asphurtzela and Beewolf of Tolkien's "Selic Spell," he is also lowered down a cliff (or into a cave) and as in Beowulf he is thought to be killed by the troll and he is abandoned. In Grettis Saga, the hero is left by a priest named Stein, who, like the Danes, believes his hero to be dead. I have searched, so far in vain, for a theory I believe I have read that suggests that Stein in Grettis Saga may also have started as a folktale figure with supernatural powers, the power over stones. If this is correct, Stein would seem to have something in common with Asphurtzela's earth-eating companion. This is my final task in bringing together the details from sources I had read years apart from one another, but have had the nagging sensation that I should review to pull together meaningful correspondences.

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  • Writer's pictureBen Hellman

Updated: Jul 27, 2020

A warning that Lal's Mahabharata, in English, does not seem to be in print or easily obtained. I purchased one of two available used paperback copies online for about $35 and it was warped, with onion-thin pages, some of which were not even cut properly, meaning that I had to tear them open if there weren't scissors about.

The best part of P Lal is the language, and Lal is credited, in my limited research, with presenting an English idiom that suits Vyasa. Lal wrote something along the lines of: 'If Vyasa spoke English, this is the sort of English I believe he would have spoken.' (He had me there!) There are some lovely turns of phrase in this translation. At one point a waterfall falls "like a woman's loose dress," and there are stirring epithets, such as "mace-armed Bhima." A warrior shines like a cloud at sunset illuminated by lightning. Battle scenes are grisly and evocative, as is Lal's description of hell. One detail that stuck with me about hell was that human hair grew in place of the grass.

This is the second version of the Mahabharata that I have read, the first being Jaya, by Devdutt Pattanaik. I was already quite enamored with the story and in general terms, it is not different, but only by its differences can I really remark on the plot at this moment. Where Pattanaik states that this is an age of degradation, in Lal it is clear that even the heroes seem to be in trouble. There are direct signs of it, not the least of which was the cheeky golden mongoose with blue eyes that appeared a la the Cheshire cat and said they were in trouble before puffing out of existence. Yudhisthira's dice match is a bit more ambiguous. There are clues elsewhere that he has a gambling problem, but it isn't clear in the moment. There is a much clearer sense that the Pandavas have won a Pyrrhic victory, that none of them can enjoy. They have ruined their lives and the lives of their loved ones. It is harder for me not to see a man (rather than a god) in Krishna, who goads on Arjuna and Yudhisthira in battle. Krishna seems to bear the anger of a man, and a man's desire for revenge.

The most noble character, for me, in this telling was Bhishma, a guru willing to tell his nephews how to kill him and win the war, and then willing to instruct them on how to follow dharma before he dies. It is hard not to admire a guy pierced by thousands of arrows, who is able to stave off the moment of his death by sheer will (and a boon from the gods) for more than six months, lying on the ground more like an arrow porcupine than I've even seen a Christian saint.

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Updated: Jul 27, 2020

I want to share with you a story about an encounter I had at a urinal, but stick with me, because this is also a story about life and death.

I walked up to a urinal in the public bathroom at work the other day and I was in a hurry, as I always am at work. As I was readying myself, I looked down and saw a large stink bug in the urinal, trying, but failing, to climb out. My thinking was a bit slower than my actions because I had already unbuttoned myself before I thought, "I'm not going to pee on this bug."

A stink bug sounds like a bad bug, but if you see one, it's kind of woody looking. It's an outdoor bug. It clearly doesn't belong in a urinal. No one was in the bathroom and I stepped to the next urinal and as I took care of business, I thought that saving this bug from the urinal was above my pay grade. A urinal is a dirty place and you may or may not think it squeamish of me, but reaching in was an immediate veto. But then I stopped and thought that someone else would definitely pee on this bug and not many people would make the effort to save it. Someone needs to step forward on occasion and risk getting their hands dirty.

As I accepted that I was the man who needed to get this stink bug out of the urinal, I began to think about where I was going to put it that was better than the urinal. This was, perhaps, part of an attempt to get out of helping the stink bug, but it was 30 degrees out (just below freezing for anyone outside the US) and it would last a very short time outside. Putting the stink bug on the bathroom floor was also a bad choice. A kid would see this guy and stamp on him. My final decision may have been a compromise, but I want you to know that I went through this entire thought process in the act of urination--by the time I was done, I had removed the stink bug, washed my hands and left quickly.

So I decided to put him in the garbage. Again, not the best place for long term survival, but not a terrible place in the short term. The bathroom garbage is full of paper towels, which meant that he would not be crushed or exposed to anything worse than the urinal. It's also possible he would escape the bag before being put outside. Getting him out proved to be easy. I like to think he understood I was trying to help. He climbed right onto a crumpled up paper towel. I didn't need to touch him and he didn't try very hard to get away. I placed him in his towel in the trash.

While all this was going on, a secondary internal conversation was going on, partially a philosophical and meta-cognitive debate. Putting the stink bug in the trash was not all I could potentially do to save him. Had I stopped and spent actual time on the problem, I might have found a place somewhere in the building where he might hide and prosper. But by getting him out of the urinal, I was doing him some kind of service. I had bettered his position. And I think that my actions and level of investment in his predicament was appropriate to me. This was partially a debate with myself because I thought for an instant that if I was not willing to ensure this fellow's survival, what right did I have to intervene? But I told myself that my limited services were worthwhile and that although I was not willing, or perhaps even able, to invest the time and energy to save the creature, helping him not be peed on to the death or crushed under foot were substantive improvements in his lot.

So this is potentially bigger than me or the stink bug. This is become parable because it reinforced a lesson, that I think, again, was appropriate to me in the moment. We may not be able to solve every problem in life, but small incremental applications of help are not without worth or merit.

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