Thursday, December 26, 2013

"Thou met'st with things dying, I with things new-born": On Seasons and Genres in The Winter's Tale

I found a flower in the snow
The last play I taught in my Shakespeare class this semester was, appropriately to the season,  The Winter's Tale. A strange play that few of my students had read or seen before, Winter's Tale spends its first three acts as a tragedy and then makes a surprising and bittersweet comeback by the end. The play begins with King Leontes's unfounded jealousy over an imagined relationship between his wife Hermione and best friend Polixenes. This jealousy serves to tear apart his family and friendship and country. His heir dies, his wife dies, and his newborn child, whom he wrongly believes to be illegitimate, is left out in the cold and bear-filled landscape to face the elements. Antigonus, the man sent to leave the baby, receives one of the most famous stage directions in history: Exit, pursued by a Bear. Perhaps Antigonus is punished by nature for abandoning the child, perhaps this is a lesson in conflicting loyalties (loyalty to the king's orders vs. loyalty to personal morality), or perhaps he is a scapegoat figure. In any case, the last we see of Antigonus he is running for his life. Offstage, he dies a terrible death (while the bear, presumably, gets a good meal). Also offstage, a young man observes the violent mauling, while onstage the man's father, a shepherd, finds the baby. And here, at the end of act three, we get the first moment of real hope in the play. The play has been filled with jealousy and despair and death and cold and darkness, but the baby lives. At this time of year, when days are short and temperatures are cold and it feels like spring may never return, a glimmer of hope can mean life. (I never really understood this when I lived in California, but I certainly get it in upstate New York.) To survive winter, we need something to look forward to. A celebration. A winter holiday. A candle or a sprig of holly. And, of course, the shortest day of the year means that each subsequent day will be longer. The play, tied to seasonal change, is rooted in such inevitable cycles. A tragedy or a comedy, the play suggests, is only a matter of where you stop the tale. And this play keeps going into spring.

The shepherd is amazed by his discovery of the helpless child, and his son is horrified by the violence he has witnessed, and their conversation brings despair and hope, death and life, into contact. It is no accident that it is the old man who finds the new life. The pivotal moment of the play is this one of life and death, beginnings and endings. At the same time as father saves a new life, the son can do nothing to stop a life from ending. Hope, it seems, comes at a price.

I won't go into lengthy summary or analysis (though I have much more to say on the play), nor will I give away the ending. Instead, I just want to say a few words about the play in terms of this holiday season. In keeping with my Christmas posts from the past two years (one on Gawain and the Green Knight and another on The Second Shepherd's Play), I want to think here about how The Winter's Tale might help us contemplate this time of year. It's a play in which hope comes just as things seem the most tragic. Death is everywhere and we are sure this must have been mislabeled as comedy or romance. Surely it's a tragedy. In Act 2, the doomed little heir Mamillius explains to his mother that "A sad tale's is best for winter" (II.i.25). And what we get is indeed a seasonally-appropriate sad tale. But then something miraculous happens. A baby is born; a baby lives. Time passes, and it is winter no longer.

One of the many things I love about this play is that it manages to bring together genres in the way that seasons come together, not as separate entities but as parts of a larger, interconnected cycle. Even the play's ending, which allows for resolution, reconciliation, and even joy, is not completely free from the sorrow of the first three acts. Time has passed, bodies once young are now wrinkled. The years cannot be regained anymore than the wrongs can be forgotten. People have died, people have been slandered and exiled. And though some wrongs can be righted, others never can. Leontes regrets and learns and gets some redemption, but none of this erases what he's done. His happy ending is truly happy, but also bittersweet. The characters value their happiness because they know how dearly-bought it is. Likewise, we can always do better and the world can always do better for us, but what we've done and experienced won't just go away. It makes us who we are. The baby grows into a woman, but this doesn't eliminate the fact that her father intended her death. Her name, Perdita, means "the lost one," indicating that if she's found she will nonetheless represent that which has been lost. It is in this lost one, this Perdita, that we find hope, and the hope is real, but that doesn't disconnect it from the circumstances that required hope in the first place. This looking forward as well as backward, this Janus posture fitting to the new year, helps us to see that joy and sorrow are not always distinct, nor do they need to be. As redemption is only possible after a fall, hope only means anything in times of despair. This holiday season, as we move to a new year, let's think on the fact that looking for joy and hope and goodness in the world need not mean that we've forgotten the bad and the sad. Instead, let us try to see the bigger picture, to learn from mistakes and to understand that sometimes our gain comes from another's loss. And as the happiness found at the end of Winter's Tale is more meaningful to the characters in that they've known such sorrow, perhaps we can remember that life has no simple happy endings. Happiness is tangled and complicated, and life very often continues even after marriages or deaths that would make such neat conclusions to comedies or tragedies. And even the times of year we associate with joy can be filled with loss as well. I shine with love for those around me, but I also ache with fresh grief for those I have lost. I know I am warm and safe inside, but others are stuck in the cold. Part of being in the spirit of the season, I think, is in realizing what it means to celebrate light in the middle of the winter. In the spirit of The Winter's Tale, then, I wish for more joy and compassion for you all this holiday season. Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays and Happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

An Exercise in Gratitude

When I was a little girl, and whenever I’d have a particularly bad day and found myself feeling as though nothing, absolutely nothing, was right with the world, my father would send me off to my room with a pencil and paper. My task was simple: to write down ten good things that had happened to me that day. I frequently responded to his insistence that I complete this exercise with some version of the following:


My father, however, is nothing if not persistent, and so off to my room I went, even though I was convinced in that moment that the paper would remain blank, the pencil just as sharp and unused as it was when he gave it to me. 

I’d sit in my room for a while, refusing to consider anything aside from all of the wrongs and hurts that had afflicted me over the course of the day. But after a while, some kind of quiet miracle would occur: I’d start to remember the beautiful birds I saw flying high above me as I walked into my school building, or the way a friend made me laugh at lunch, or the puppy I saw from my school bus window. I’d start there, and after a few minutes I’d find that recalling and writing down those ten good things wasn’t nearly as hard as I had thought.

This exercise taught me an important lesson growing up: that even when life kicks you repeatedly in the unmentionables (over and over . . . and over again in some cases), there are still a wild array of reasons to be grateful for each day that you’ve been given. 

The importance of this exercise came back to me rather suddenly a few days ago. I came home from an exhausting (and, to be honest, somewhat demoralizing) teaching day, only to find yet another quasi-rejection from a university to which I’d applied earlier this Fall.  I’ve been rather silent here on the blog over the last few months, and this silence has stemmed from the fact that I’m overwhelmed by the stresses of contingent labor as an adjunct and that I am equally overwhelmed with the job application process. There are so many aspects of both this process and adjunct life that frustrate and depress me, but as a powerless, contingent member of the academy, there is little to nothing that I can say here or elsewhere that will help me or anyone else in my position. And that realization only further adds to the anger and frustration, and leads to me feeling trapped by the very system to which I’ve devoted so much of my adult life and about which I care rather deeply.

I do a decent job on most days of keeping these broader anxieties at bay, but they creep up nevertheless, and I found myself so trodden down and beaten up a few days ago, that I retreated to my bedroom to take a wildly uncharacteristic nap. Having resisted nap taking with a vengeance since I was a toddler, however, I unsurprisingly found myself lying in bed, awake with all of my worries.

The simple truth is that I am terrified, just like any other recently-minted Ph.D. in my position. I’ve worked hard, I’m finding ways to publish and to keep my research projects afloat, and I am fortunate enough to be able to afford to continue going to conferences. I know that I’m good at what I do. But I also know that none of those things makes me any more likely to land the kind of job that I’ve worked so hard to achieve. And it terrifies me to think of having to start all over again.

As I mulled over these worries and tried to fly swat them away, I suddenly remembered the exercise that my father gave me so long ago, and I found my thoughts starting to shift. Yes, countless aspects of the job application process and the state of academy are cause for justifiable anger, depression, and resentment right now, especially for adjuncts like myself. And I am certainly entitled and justified in feeling those feelings. However, I know that what I’m really hungry for is a sense of purpose and a sense of happiness in my deeply uncertain and contingent professional life, and focusing on all of the things that enrage me (things over which I have little to no control) will not help me find either of those things. It dawned on me that maybe, just maybe, writing about what I am grateful for in the midst of this hell-storm could help buoy my spirits, and perhaps the spirits of others out there who are struggling along with me. And I say “with” because I truly believe that we are in this together, and, as a wise a wonderful friend recently observed, a win for any of us is a win for us all.

So friends, for what it’s worth, here is my list from a few days ago:

Today, I’m grateful for . . .

1. The fact that it was 41 degrees when I woke up. It finally feels a little like winter, and I now have plans to go out and purchase an obscene amount of hot chocolate and start decorating for the holidays while drinking said hot chocolate.

2.  This video, which (miracle of miracles) actually got me to crack a smile this afternoon:

3.  Nutella. Because, let’s face it – stressful days are simply made for nutella.

4. The fact that even with all of my fears about my professional future, I am still madly in love with medieval literature. Case in point: I can’t wait to curl up by my parents’ fireplace and re-read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight this Christmas.

5.  Being able to teach world literature. Where else can you help students forge meaningful comparisons between Old Norse sagas and Japanese warrior tales?

6. Being able to end the content portion of my current course with Midsummer Night’s Dream, and having a rollicking good time discussing the mechanicals’ performance of Pyramus and Thisbe in class this week.

7.  My husband, for always being able to make me laugh, especially on a day like today.

8. My friendship with Kristi. We've swapped countless job letters, CVs, teaching statements, and the like over the past few months, all in an attempt to help each other create the best portfolios possible. That we were often applying to the same positions was never even so much as a concern, and I count myself so very, very fortunate to have her (and several others like her) in my life.

9. All of my family, friends, colleagues, especially those who have buoyed my spirits over the past few months. You might not know this, but your words of encouragement are ones I go back to immediately on hard days, and I find myself deeply humbled and truly grateful for the number of people out there who believe in me.

10. The fact that I had the opportunity to do EXACTLY what I loved most for well over seven years. Grad school was certainly brutal at times, and it came with no guarantee of an academic job; those years, however, were richer beyond anything I could have imagined, and I know that they will always be meaningful, no matter where I find myself in my professional life.  


After I wrote this post, I asked my scholar friends on Facebook for some advice on how to survive the job market, and I was truly humbled by the warm, honest, and heartfelt responses that so many people took the time to compose. My hope is that both that conversation and this post might help others out there who are feeling similarly trodden down by the application process. I know that writing and responding to both have helped me immeasurably. And as I said to my friends on Facebook, their responses reminded me of how very grateful I am for pursuing the career that I did, because I’ve managed over the past several years to surround myself with truly wonderful people, and that makes all of the struggles I’m experiencing right now far more than worth it.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

CFP: Animals in Arthuriana, Kalamazoo Medieval Congress 2014

"The Questing Beast," by Arthur Rackham
Courtesy of The Camelot Project

CFP: Animals in Arthuriana

Kalamazoo Medieval Congress 2014
Sponsored by The Rossell Hope Robbins Library at the University of Rochester

My colleague Kara L. McShane and I are gathering papers for a panel on Animals in Arthuriana for the 49th International Congress on Medieval Studies (May 8-11, 2014) at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. We've been talking for a while about the fascinating roles animals play in the Arthurian tradition, and Kara has also been working on a wonderful Arthurian Bestiary for The Camelot Project, and we're hoping that this panel will reflect the excitement we feel about the topic. For a conference affectionately called "The Zoo," we feel that this subject will be particularly appropriate.

From dragon-laced dreams to lion companions to warhorses, animals play a vital role in a wide range of Arthurian materials. Kara and I invite proposals engaging with the varying roles of animals within the realms of Arthurian literature, art, film, etc. Topics of interest may include, but are not limited to, the relationships between humans and animals in Arthuriana (for example, a knight and his horse), the historical place of animals in the tradition, the distinction (or lack thereof) between humans and animals, figures who can not be easily categorized as human or animal, animals symbolism and heraldry, prophetic animals, the adaptation of animals for contemporary Arthurian media, and more. 

Please send 250-300 word abstracts to me at by September 15th.

Friday, August 9, 2013

"How can you have boundaries if you fly?"

On a recent cross-country flight I was lucky enough to have a clear day and thus a beautiful view. I snapped photos with the kind of obsessive fervor that only a too-early morning and the knowledge that I should be writing can elicit. The more I looked at the landscape below me, the more I found myself grasping to identify the topographical features that would result in such strange shapes. I especially marveled at my ignorance when we flew over areas where I had lived (and hiked and driven around and explored) for many years. This made me think, in turn, about how familiar the Mercator Projection map looks to me, even though it bears little resemblance to the actual earth or landscape (see my earlier post, "Tales of Land and Sea"). It is the appearance of the land itself from above that surprises me. I was reminded of The Once and Future King, when little Arthur/Wart, transformed into a bird, is confused by the lack of boundaries on the land he sees from above (chapter 18 of The Sword in the Stone). In what way, then, do maps represent the land they depict? To what extent are they meant to? Will programs like Google Maps and Google Earth change how we imagine the world? What does a birds-eye view teach us that being on the ground cannot (and vice versa)? I don't yet have answers to these questions, but I would love to hear your thoughts as I begin to consider them.

Here are a few of the photographs I took from the air:  

Patchwork Landscape
Filled with beautiful swirls
And surprising colors
Landing, the shapes reorganize into something more familiar ...
Only to be obscured by fog


Thursday, July 11, 2013

The Book Proposal: A (Brief) List of Resources

One of my goals for this week is to complete a draft (however rough) of my book proposal. Up until a few days ago, I'd done more reading up on the process than writing, and I sought out a wide array of advice to help me get a sense of how to tackle this particular project. As is the case with so many things at this stage of my career, this style of writing is entirely new to me. I have, however, found the writing to be at least a little easier than the cover letter for the job market, my feelings for which were  captured in a Facebook update from this past Fall:

The book proposal is a strange beast for a lot of reasons, but I've found the writing to be incredibly helpful. Among other things, it's forcing me to find succinct ways to describe my book and why it matters, painful as that process might be.

I'll be writing a lot more about this entire dissertation-to-book process in the months (and, most likely, years) to come, and I hope to have actual advice to impart once I get further into it. For right now though, I thought I'd share a list of the readings I've found to be the most helpful and/or eye-opening:

1. "How to write a book proposal for an academic press." From Get a Life, Ph.D., a blog authored by Tanya Maria Golash-Boza.

[I've referred back to this post more than any other source so far. Her advice is rooted in extensive experience, and I appreciate her candor and her collegial approach. She speaks to you as a fellow professional, and the impeccably organized path that she lays out here has been incredibly helpful to me in the drafting process. Her advice to write the chapter descriptions first is a fantastic one, by the way: I tried it out and it definitely helped to jumpstart my writing.]

2. "How to Write a Book Proposal." From The Professor Is In, a blog authored by Dr. Karen Kelsky. 

[Dr. Karen's advice here, as elsewhere, is incredibly helpful and thorough. Just be prepared for her characteristic bluntness! She goes into considerable detail in this post, but I was very struck by her emphasis on confidence — essentially, that the proposal can't afford to betray any lingering insecurity. I'll be returning to the final two paragraphs multiple times in the next several days to remind myself of that!]  

3. "The Reality of Writing a Good Book Proposal," From The Chronicle of Higher Education, authored by Rachel Toor. 

[This post was written from the editor's perspective rather than the author's, and it's a fantastic read for that reason. It confirms what posts 1 and 2 have to say, but also offers up some unique advice as well. For instance, I found the suggestion to fill out the author questionnaire before writing the bulk of the proposal to be incredibly helpful (here's one of many good templates). It's made certain sections of the proposal far less daunting.]

4. "From Dissertation to Book." From The Chronicle of Higher Education, authored by Leonard Cassuto.

[Lots of good advice in here as well, but the main thing that makes this post stand out from the others is the advice to avoid publishing too much of your dissertation in journals if you want to publish an overhauled version as a book.]

5. The Thesis and the Book. Edited by Eleanor Harman, et al. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003.

[If you're looking for lists of things to avoid when trying to prepare your dissertation for book publication, then this book will be helpful. Moreover, the "author's checklist" in Chapter 6 is also a great thing that I'll likely return to as I move forward. That said, I couldn't believe the smugness and condescension that occasionally oozed from the pages. There are some fantastic and collegial chapters in here (Chapters 4 and 5 stood out to me in that regard), but the second and third nearly turned me off of the book altogether. Chapter 2 was entitled "The Dissertation's Deadly Sins," for instance. It begins by stating: "The dissertation system must have laid at its door an enormous squandering of creativity, youth, time, and money each year upon the execution of prose works that do not communicate significantly and are therefore dysfunctional." (Are you not INSPIRED?) And it then goes on to assault your eyes with phrases like "A second characteristic of the system makes the situation of doctoral candidates even more hopeless,"  "the dissertation's amateurishness further reveals itself in pedantry and cowardice," and "editors are accustomed to the juvenescent tantrums of neurotics." I am FULLY aware that I am new to this process and that I have an enormous amount to learn (and an equally enormous amount of work to do) before I submit a text to an academic press. I do not, however, appreciate having that lack of experience rubbed in my face (by way of a thesaurus) over the course of twenty pages. I especially don't appreciate having someone who repeatedly uses patroningzly alliterative phrases ("the pusillanimous passive," anyone?) lecture me on the importance of clear and approachable language.
The sad thing is that these chapters (two and three) DO contain excellent pointers, but they're almost entirely lost in the vitriol. 

With that said, the book as a whole is definitely worth a read because it contains a wealth of useful information — and, to be fair, some truly approachable and collegial chapters. Just try and resist the (not so occasional) urge to chuck the book across the room as you make your way towards those chapters.] 

Each of these five sources has proved helpful and enlightening, if at times a bit frustrating due to tone and approach. The tendency among some of these authors towards condescension continues to mystify me, and reminded me of Jeffrey Jerome Cohen's past arguments against infantilizing graduate students and junior scholars. As he put it:
"The enduring ardor for hierarchy endemic to our profession puzzles me. Graduate students and faculty are colleagues engaged in a mutual enterprise. The commitment to study for an advanced humanities degree is a brave and perilous one, because the road is difficult and the destination extremely uncertain. Those who undertake such a commitment should be honored and cultivated for that choice, not made to feel like kids who need a strong dose of paternalism to keep them from overstepping."
In like fashion, I remain puzzled by the choice of some of these authors to infantilize their audience — especially since their work is (ostensibly) trying to encourage those very readers to act and write like professionals and not as students. Golash-Boza's perspective, after wading through The Thesis and the Book, was beyond a breath of fresh air as a result.

I'll be updating this list as I find more sources that prove helpful. In the meantime, I'd love to hear your recommendations and thoughts: what guidelines, books, articles, and/or blog posts have been helpful to you in this stage of the process?

Thursday, June 27, 2013

What a World!: Or, an invitation to BABEL along with me at K'zoo 2014

Good news! My proposed session, sponsored by the BABEL working group, has been given the green light for Congress next year. It springs in equal parts out of work on my book and from a lively conversation at Bell's brewery at this year's gathering in sunny Kalamazoo. The fine details: it will be a roundtable, hopefully comprised of seven participants. We're encouraging papers that veer towards the experimental, the playful, even the avant-garde, but given the wideness of the topic, there's plenty of room in which to maneuver and plenty of space for a variety of approaches; multimedia presentations are greatly encouraged.

Title: What a World! (A Roundtable)


“Oh what a world, what a world! Who would have thought a good little girl like you could destroy my beautiful wickedness?!” So screams the Wicked Witch of the West after Dorothy splashes water on her in the film The Wizard of Oz. The entire film reflects upon matters of perspective and thwarted/exceeded expectations, of not quite believing your eyes or trusting what you see, of creating contexts for experiences you never could have anticipated. The witch melts, in the end, because of her failure to imagine a world in which both she Dorothy could exist. While the gist of this line accords with the final words the Witch speaks in the book version, the phrase “What a World!” (original to the film) encourages meta-commentary. We are called, as viewers and as readers, to wonder along with the witch how this world — and such a vivid one at that — could have been engendered. In this sense, the phrase “What a World!” becomes as much an invitation to engage critically as it becomes a statement of wonder.

The issues inherent in fictionalized worlds, so beautifully encapsulated in this scene from The Wizard of Oz film, have much to offer studies of medieval literature. This session invites papers that consider all aspects of engendered worlds, but is especially invested in exploring how contemporary notions of “worldbuilding” — so often associated with high fantasy and science fiction— as well as Heiddeger’s “worlding” (in all its various theoretical manifestations and adaptations) can be appropriated to discuss the creation of fictive worlds in medieval literature. The session seeks to explore worlds built through varying states of incredulity, wonder, a desire to control and contextualize, or even built out of nostalgia and/or a desire to escape (however briefly) one’s own circumstances — from the translocated Holy Land of the mystery cycle plays, to the worlds encountered through chronicles, histories, and travel narratives, to the landscapes and cultures of Arthurian romance. How might the concept of “worldbuilding” invite fresh considerations and interrogations of medieval literature? How does it simultaneously reflect the desires authors have to create something new even as they (or their texts) admit the impossibilities of such projects? To what extent do engendered worlds allow and invite contemplation upon the many ways in which humans, as readers and receivers of texts, ineffably participate in this process of creation?

Friday, June 21, 2013

Wine in Beowulf: A Guest Post!

I'm thrilled to introduce our first-ever guest post here at In Romaunce, which is also our first post focusing on Old English literature. Sharon Rhodes — a good friend and a current Ph.D. candidate at the University of Rochester — recently gave this fascinating paper at Kalamazoo on the appearances of wine in Beowulf, and I invited her to post it here. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did, and definitely take a look at her wonderful blog!

Win of Wunderfatum: The Significance of Wine in Beowulf
-- Sharon Rhodes, University of Rochester

Illustration by J.R. Skelton, in Stories of
As in most cultures, alcohol had an important social function in the world represented in Beowulf. Many sources attest to the importance of mead and ale in medieval Germanic culture: perhaps most interesting is the Mead of Poetry in Norse myth but, as Henry Winfred Splitter pointed out, there was also “baptismal beer, [. . .] betrothal and marriage beers, and funeral beer” (Splitter 257).[1] However, because grapes do not grow well in the north, wine in the medieval north had to be imported and thus it has no place in the mythology most relevant to Beowulf.[2] Though chemically similar, wine is significantly different from native “eal-” and “medu” as a cultural symbol. For instance, in Aelfric’s Colloquy the schoolboy asserts that he drinks beer and water because “wine is not the drink of children or fools, but of the old and wise.”[3] While this is not the schema of alcoholic drinks we see in Beowulf, it shows that even in Aelfric’s day, wine was something special, fit only for the old and wise, not the general population.When we refer to a hall as a mead-hall we are specifying a particular sort of hall from a particular culture, region and time in terms of alcohol. Consequently, it is unsurprising that the Beowulf-poet mentions alcoholic beverages with the frequency he does: “medu” (mead) and compounds beginning with “medu” occur 13 times, compounds beginning with “eal-” occur 7 times, and “beor” occurs 3 times. Interestingly, “win,” a non-native alcoholic substance, only occurs 3 times as a word in itself and 5 times within compounds; moreover each mention of wine marks something wrong or about to go wrong within the story. The three instances of “win” occur at important moments of the first part of the poem and within about 300 lines of one another. First, “win of wunderfatum” (wine of wondrous vessels) makes an appearance in the feast following Beowulf’s defeat of Grendel. Second, at the same feast, “the men drank wine” (“druncon win weras"). And third, in the passage that describes Beowulf’s weapons and armor before he descends into Grendel’s mere, we learn that Unferth was “drunk with wine” (“wine druncen”) when he lent his sword, Hrunting, to Beowulf. Similarly, the win-compounds also appear significant: "winsele" and "winreced" -- both of which can be translated as ‘wine-hall’ -- are used by the narrator when referring to a hall that is failing or has failed as a center of civilization.
In his article “The Cup as Symbol and Metaphor in Old English Literature,” Hugh Magennis asserts that “[i]n Beowulf [. . .] references to the ‘hroden ealowaege’ (adorned ale-cup 495) and to the ‘win of wunderfatum’ (wine of the wondrous-vessel 1162) are an essential part of the poet’s evocation of the good life in the hall enjoyed by Danes and Geats” (Magennis 517). While ale and mead both seem to be generally associated with the good life in the hall, I question the positive associations of win of wunderfatum. Wunderfatum or “wondrous vessel” appears to be a nonce word with no inherently positive elements. Beyond the basic semantics, however, we must note that the Danes serve and drink this “win of wunderfatum” at a feast celebrating what they believe is a victory over Grendel when we can see that Grendel’s defeat brings the more violent attack of his vengeful mother. The Danes celebrate a false victory and consequently drink in a false sense of security; however sweet this respite may seem, it is short and ends in Hrothgar’s bitter tears and thus the “win of wunderfatum” seems a bitter cup if not a poculum mortis.[4] Several scholars, such as Carleton Brown and Hugh Magennis, have looked at the motif of the poculum mortis, or cup of death, in Old English literature. Maggenis asserts that, “Beowulf does not exploit the complex of Christian imagery of cups and the serving out of drink, but relies instead on the resources of the secular poetic tradition” (535-36). This reading, however, ignores the Beowulf-poet’s differential treatment of native drinks and wine which is not entirely dissimilar from the double meaning ascribed to wine in the Bible where, Magennis himself points out, it serves two symbolic purposes: it represents both the good in life and the bad (Magennis 518).[5] In Beowulf, rather than ascribing two meanings to one drink, two types of drink are used, one for each meaning: native and foreign: beer, mead, and ale (native alcoholic beverages) represent the joys of hall-life, while wine represents the darker side of hall-life, whether the negative repercussions of drunkenness (vs. the positive repercussions: poetry) or simply as a marker of things gone or about to go badly.[8]
The uses and contexts of mead, ale, and beer and compounds containing those words illustrate the particular distinctions the Beowulf-poet draws between wine and native drinks. Beyond the numbers, note that while there are plain benches in Beowulf ("benc" 492, 327, 1013, 1188, 1243) and seats ("setl" 2013, 1786, 1232, 1782, 2019, 1289) and mead-benches (776, 1052, 1067, 2185, 1902) and mead-seats (5), there are never wine-benches or seats. Similarly, there is mead-joy, a word for the path to the mead-hall, a word for the meadow around the mead-hall, and of course, vessels of mead and ale: "medoful," "meodoscenc" and "ealuwaege."[6] None of these ideas has a counterpart beginning with “win-”.
The numbers, however, are significant too. “Med-” occurs in 9 distinct endocentric compounds (that is, a compound wherein element A denotes a special kind of element B) a total of 15 times in addition to the 2 times that medu itself occurs as a word in its own right. Comparing this to the 3 occurrences of win in Beowulf and the 5 win- based compounds the centrality of the native mead to Hall-life is underscored. Additionally, there are 7 occurrences of compounds beginning with “ealo-” and the 3 instances of "beor": there are ale-benches (1029, 2867), ale-drinkers(1945), ale-sharing (765), ale-cups (2021, 481, 495), beer and beer-halls. These numerous occurrences and myriad endocentric compounds, 25 in all, speak to the centrality of mead and beer but also to their ordinariness.[7]
Nevertheless, this is not a simple matter of positive and negative implications of course; "meodosetla" certainly does not predict good things for those that Scyld Scefing unseated (5), but this type of raiding was typical of Germanic culture — a misfortune, for sure, but not an unexpected one and one within the bounds of cultural norms. Furthermore, when Grendel overturns the Danes’ mead-benches on the night of his defeat, it is a quotidian part of hostilities within the hall in an otherwise otherworldly battle and creates a sharp contrast with the  initial image of mead-benches (meodosetla) being torn away in the prologue (775). The two perpetrators -- Scyld Scefing and Grendel -- are quite different, or, as more recent arguments have it, perhaps they are not different at all. As with Scyld Scefing’s raids, Grendel’s effect on the mead-benches is symbolic of his effect on the Danes, he has interrupted and obstructed the most basic part of the Danes‘ lives. In overturning their mead-benches Grendel and Scyld Scefing has overturned their social cohesion.
After defeating Grendel’s mother, Beowulf and his retinue traversed the “meodowongas” on their way to Heorot: the very meadow Heorot stands on is specified as a mead-meadow, a fact we can also read as signifying that the hall is once more as it should be, a simple mead-hall in a mead meadow, free of monsters at last. Finally, the smooth functioning of Hygelac’s hall, unperturbed by monsters or betrayal, can be seen partly by the mead-cups: “Mead-cups went / throughout that high-hall, Haereth’s daughter / she loved the people, bore drinking cups / to the hands of illustrious ones”[8] (1980b-82a). Wine is not mentioned at all during the period of the poem set within Hygelac’s realm, presumably because his reign -- within the poem -- is marked by mead, normal, every day mead just as it is marked primarily by concord, at least within the present of the poem. 
The word “medu” (mead) occurs only twice, but each time the poet uses it as symbolic of what all good Germanic leaders do: in Beowulf’s pre-fight speech and reply to Unferth he says:  I shall offer to the Geats might and courage in battle soon now. A man may proudly return to mead in the morning light [when] the sun clad in radiance shines from the south” (601b-06).[9] By saying that the men will go to their mead Beowulf is not only declaring success, he is claiming that his heroic feats will restore Hrothgar’s world to normalcy. Similarly, in the second half of the poem, while chastising them for betraying Beowulf, Wiglaf reminds his fellows that Beowulf gave them mead in the beer-hall (2633-35). Wiglaf is not merely saying that Beowulf was hospitable to them, but that he fulfilled the most basic duties of his contract with them as his warriors and therefore they owe him their loyal service in times of war.[10] Mead is not merely mead, but is a metonymic place holder for all that a good lord or hero delivers and, conversely, as a symbol of the absence of a good lord or hero.
In contrast, the passages wherein the poet uses “win” do not symbolize normalcy, but instead seem to foreshadow discord. The first occurrence of "win" -- the “win of wunderfatum”[11]-- precedes both the attack of Grendel’s mother and Wealhtheow’s speech.[12] We know that Weahltheow is at least a respectable cup-bearer because after Beowulf defends his performance in the swimming contest with Breca she bears the "medoful" to the honored guests, as Maxims I asserts she should (82-92). Because Weahltheow otherwise appears to be a good queen the poet seems to suggest that her advice should be heeded, and thus her opposition to Hrothgar’s ‘adoption’ of Beowulf likely has merit: to her mind it is a rash thing, betraying thoughtlessness of his own sons and nephew in the throws of overwrought gratitude to Beowulf for, presumably, ridding his hall of monsters. Further, though I disagree with J.D. Ogilvy on some points of his reading of Weahltheow, I do agree with him in asserting that Weahltheow’s public opposition of Hrothgar is one of many signs of disfunction in his realm.[13]  She speaks her piece and though she does so graciously it is counter to the “gamen” that otherwise fills the hall after Beowulf’s victory against Grendel. The first instance of wine underscores the aberrancy of this adoption; Hrothgar should not place Beowulf over his own sons, and he and all of the celebrants are oblivious to the horror yet to come.
The second use of "win" directly precedes the attack of Grendel’s mother: “There was the best of feasts / the men drank wine.” [14] That the men drank alcohol does not concern the poet; though some Old English religious texts can be read as condemning drinking,[15] in Beowulf mead, beer and ale are celebrated and their absence mourned. The men drank alcohol every night, including the night preceding Beowulf’s successful fight against Grendel. The poet warns us of the horror to come by specifying that the men drank wine rather than their more conventional mead or ale; an idea further supported by the ominous half-line that follows “Wyrd ne cuthon” ("they did not know fate," 1233). Counter to the belief of the celebrants at this “best of feasts,”[16]  Grendel’s death does not mean that the danger has passed. Rather, his death has awakened a new horror and a more legitimate one. While Grendel seems not to have had any legitimate reason to attack the Scyldings, Grendel’s mother has a genuine grievance to avenge. Like the wine, this grievance is both familiar and foreign: within Germanic society kin had a right to revenge, or "wergild." However, like Grendel, Grendel’s mother does not belong to this civilization. So, although she has suffered a loss, there is no protocol for dealing with that loss. Just as the men who drank wine at the feast may not have known exactly what to expect from the foreign yet familiar beverage.[17]
The final use of wine prefaces Beowulf’s descent into Grendel’s mere. Before Beowulf makes his speech and dives, the poet tells us that Unferth lent Beowulf his sword, Hrunting, and also that Unferth did not remember what he’d said before, when he was “wine druncen” (1465-67).[18] What he spoke before is either untold or is an allusion to Unferth’s challenge to Beowulf upon his arrival in Hrothgar’s court, what many have called a flyting match (Ward Parks). Regardless, the poet’s reference to Unferth’s lapse of memory when drunk with wine helps to defame Unferth who is unwilling to descend into the mere himself and must either have failed to defeat Grendel with Hrunting, or worse, never tried. Moreover, we must bear in mind that despite the sword’s record in previous battles, Hrunting fails in Grendel’s mere: it would not bite into Grendel’s mother (1523).[19]
Though perhaps less poignantly placed, the compounds meaning “wine-hall” -- "winreced" and "winsele" -- occur at points when halls, both Heorot and other unnamed halls, fail as the epicenters of Germanic society. When Hrothgar orders Heorot built, the poet says that he commands men to build a “medoaern micel” ("a great mead-building," 69). Even in his account of Grendel’s desecration of it, he refers to Heorot as a mead-hall still, (484) a fiction Beowulf politely echoes in his otherwise combative response to Unferth by also referring to Heorot as “thisse meoduhealle” (638). However, the poet/narrator calls Heorot a “winreced” (wine hall) in line 714 when Grendel “Wod under wolcnum,” to Heorot. "Winreced" recurs in line 993, at the celebratory feast that is celebrated too soon and winsele occurs directly before and during Grendel’s attack (695, 771). A hall should be a safe place, but at these points Heorot’s function is undermined and altered and it becomes a gathering of victims for monsters rather than a place of unity and rejoicing. The final occurrence of "winsele" comes in Beowulf’s speech before the fight with the dragon as part of the “Father’s Lament” (2456). Here it comes in the half-line “winsele westne,” deserted wine-hall. A deserted mead-hall is almost an oxymoron, so, just as when Heorot is referred to as a “winreced” by the poet, the “winsele” of the Father’s Lament is not the merry center of a comitatus and so the poet makes the distinction between the failed hall and the successful hall explicit through his diction. Just as things had gone horribly wrong in Hrothgar’s realm, the lamenting father’s loss of both sons through one’s killing of the other is a tragic undermining of normalcy.
Although the Beowulf-poet does not use the poculum motif precisely, he does use beverages to distinguish between the usual and the unusual. Mead, beer, and ale were all highly important to Germanic society, so intrinsic thereto that they specify a variety of other nouns in compounds. These drinks unify society within the hall culture in Beowulf and in the reality of early Germanic society, like the sharing of bread that gives us companion, sharing mead and beer is a foundational social act. Unlike mead, beer, and ale -- all of which are ubiquitous in Beowulf -- wine appears in more specialized instances, surrounding individuals and actions that contrast with expectations for how hall-life should work. Wine marks instances where things are not as they seem and where social expectation is not met. We can thus read wine as a harbinger of the chaos that the anti-social Grendel, the dragon, and Grendel’s mother[20] both bring and symbolize into the human world of Beowulf.

[1] Much as we now and many the world over use alcoholic beverages to toast our good fortune and honor the departed.
[2] Such as that recorded in the Eddas.
[3] “win nys drenc cilda ne dysgra ac ealdra and wisra” (Marsden, 10, ll. 67-68)
[4] Magennis notes that “In the Bible itself the cup metonymically represent the wine which it contains, and it shares the metaphoric associations of this wine. In the Old Testament wine typically denotes the good things rightly enjoyed by men” (518).
[5] Magennis cites: Judge’s 9:13: quae respondit numquid possum deserere vinum meum quod laetificat Deum et homines et inter ligna cetera commoveri (And it answered them: Can I forsake my wine, that cheereth God and men, and be promoted among the other trees?)
and Ecclesiasticus 31:35: vinum in iucunditate creatum est non in ebrietate ab initio (Wine was created from the beginning to make men joyful, and not to make them drunk.)
[6] The eucharist symbolizes salvation, but also Christ’s execution. In De Auguriis, Aelfric achieves a similar, though opposite, distinction through different means by using the native English "cuppan" when speaking of the devil’s cup and the Latin loan calic for God’s cup: “Ne mage ge samod drincan ure drihtnes calic / and thaes deofles cuppan to deathe eowre sawle” (Aelfric, “De auguriis” in Lives of Saints: ,217-18) (cited by Magennis 526). Thus, Aelfric divides the symbolism of wine in the Bible and, much like the Beowulf-poet, though the Latinate Aelfric inverts the value of native vs. foreign by using calice, a Latin loanword and the ultimate root of our modern chalice for the good cup and the native cuppa- for the bad. Aelfric seems to privilege Latin learning over Native tradition.
[7] "medoaern" (mead-hall/building 69),  "medobenc" (mead-bench 776,1052, 1067, 2185), "medodream" (2016), "medoful" (mead-cup 624, 1015), "medoheal" (484, 638), "medostig" (path to the mead hall 924), "meduseld" (mead-hall 3065), "meodosetl" (mead-hall seat 5), "meodowong" (meadow around the mead hall 1643), "meoduscenc" (mead-cup 1980).
[8] In lines 1052 and 1067, the mead-bench sets the perfectly ordinary scene of hall life as it should be, warriors are seated on them (1052), the scop sings his song along them (1067), and line 2185 mentions the mead-bench as part of the conventional setting of hall-life: the Geats did not expect much good from Beowulf to come to the mead-benc while he led them.
[9] “Meodoscencum hwearf / geond thaet heahreced Haerethes dohtor, / lufode tha leod lithwaege baer / haethnum to handa”
[10] “Ic him Geata sceal / eafoth ond ellen ungeara nu / guthe gebeodan. Gaeth eft se the mot / to medo modig siththan morgenleoht / ofer yylda bearn othres dogores / sunne sweglwered suthan scineth”
[11] The word “medudream” which we can literally translate as “mead joy,” but is also translated as conviviality (student edition) and jollity (dictionary); Beowulf uses this word to describe the people of Hrothgar’s kingdom when recounting his time among the Danes to ????Geatish leader.
When Beowulf dies he is not just leaving “his magum” but the “meduseld” (mead-hall) he had occupied with them (3065).
[12] “Leoth waes asungen / gleomannes gyd. Gamen eft astah, / beorhtode bencsweg, byrelas sealdon / win of wunderfatum.” (The song was sung, the tale of the minstrel. Delight sprang up again, bench-rejoicing shone, cup-bearers gave wine from the wonder-vessels) (1159b-62a)
[13] Interestingly, both mothers of the poem work on behalf of their offspring.
[14] Additionally, like his tears after Aeschere’s death, this decision suggests that Hrothgar is overwhelmed by his emotions.
[15] “Eode tha to setle. Thaer waes symbla cyst, / druncon win weras.” (1232-33)
[16] In Juliana drinking and revelry are portrayed as sinful.
[17] “symbla cyst”
[18] the sweetness and higher alcohol by volume might well have gotten the better of men accustomed to drinking less alcoholic mead and ale.
[19] l. 531 beore druncen
[20]Eccl. 31:39-40: "Wine drunken with excess is bitterness of the soul. The heat of drunkenness is the stumblingblock of the fool, lessening strength and causing wounds." 
Unferth’s drunkenness cannot be blamed for Hrunting’s failure in the mere, but the fact that he was so drunk with wine that he lost memory, further discredits him, underscores his inferiority to Beowulf and foreshadows the imminent failure of Hrunting -- Unferth’s only extension of assistance in this fight and thus an extension of Unferth himself -- against a monster that, just like Grendel, is immune to conventional weapons.
[21] While the sharing of mead between Hrothgar and Hrothulf is pointed because of the poet’s and readers’ knowledge of Hrothulf’s eventual betrayal of Hrothgar, this is an ironic use of shared mead, but not one completely outside of the norms of Germanic society in the way that Grendel is. Grendel’s mother, more than either of the other monsters, lacks a clear position in the world of Beowulf.

                                                     Works Cited

Beowulf: An Edition. Mitchell, Bruce and Fred C. Robinson eds. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1998.
Brown, Carleton. “Poculum Mortis in Old English.” Speculum. 15.4 (1940): 389-99.
Cook, Albert Stanburrough. “Bitter Beer-Drinking.” Modern Language Notes. 40.5 (1925): 285-88.
Glosecki, Stephen O. “Beowulf 769: Grendel’s Ale-Share.” English Language Notes. 25.1 (1987):  1-9.
Kim, Susan M. “‘As I Once Did with Grendel’: Boasting and Nostalgia in Beowulf.” Modern Philology. 103.1 (2005): 4-27.
Magennis, Hugh. “The Cup as Symbol and Metaphor in Old English Literature.” Speculum. 60.3 (1985): 517-36.
Ogilvy, J. D. A.  “Unferth: Foil to Beowulf?” PMLA. 79.4 (1964): 370-75.
Parks, Ward. “The Flyting Speech in Traditional Heroic Narrative.” Neophilologus. 71 (1987): 285-95.
Splitter, Henry Winfred. “The Relations of Germanic Folk Custom and Ritual to Ealuscerwen.” Modern Langugae Notes. 67.4 (1952): 255-58.