What’s in a Name? Or, how the book got a title.

If you watched the video I made for my Kickstarter campaign, you may recall that the title for this book, The Blood-Tainted Winter, has a history, a meaning.  But for the wider audience, I thought I’d share that here and give you another glimpse into the evolution of this story.

Have you read Beowulf?

I have.     

And to be honest, it’s not my favorite piece of epic literature.  The translation matters, of course, and Seamus Heaney’s is delightful.  But there’s no changing the fact that it can be a long slog and, for me at least, I was so concerned with making sure I understood what was going on as I read, that I didn’t really understand what was going on.

I’ll explain.

Whatever translation you read, you get stuff like this:

In the boroughs then Beowulf, bairn of the Scyldings,
Belovèd land-prince, for long-lasting season
Was famed mid the folk (his father departed,
The prince from his dwelling), till afterward sprang
Great-minded Healfdene; the Danes in his lifetime
He graciously governed, grim-mooded, agèd.

I mean, c’mon!  There are parentheses!  How awkward is that?!  To be fair, this is not Heaney’s translation.  His is much cleaner and brighter.  But the point is that sometimes you get so caught up in trying to comprehend the words and how they fit together and translating them in your brain to something more familiar, that you forget to take a moment and really let theses words sink in so you can taste the blood and the ashes, the sharp blades and the quick tempers, the heroism and the treachery.  Which means most of the story gets short shrift.

At least, that’s what I think.

But I digress.

The phrase the blood-tainted winter lurks somewhere in the text of Beowulf.  You’ll get a glimpse of it in context at the front of the book when you buy your copy.

Why did I choose to extract a bit of Beowulf if I don’t adore it?

While I may not wax poetic about this epic poem, I am enamored with the idea of it.  That this thing, this piece of poetry, is a piece of history that has evolved countless times, changing with every telling around a hearth on a winter night.  Like a tapestry woven by infinite hands, invisible to each other and working sometimes in harmony, sometimes in discord, but always toward a purpose, an end design, as faint and ill-defined as it may be.

This is the kind of story that lives and breathes beyond its time, because it was crafted by the living, breathing heart of the culture it was born in.  And that’s a powerful thing.

I’ll leave you with some of Seamus Heaney’s translation, the opening words, in fact.  Because even though Beowulf doesn’t sit on my nightstand and I certainly can’t recite any of it, I think this beginning is perfect.

So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by
and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness.
We have heard of those princes’ heroic campaigns.

There was Shield Sheafson, scourge of many tribes,
a wrecker of mead-benches, rampaging among foes.
This terror of the hall-troops had come far.
A foundling to start with, he would flourish later on
as his powers waxed and his worth was proved.
In the end each clan on the outlying coasts
beyond the whale-road had to yield to him
and begin to pay tribute. That was one good king.

Spear-Danes and whale-roads and mead-benches.  YES.  The nonchalance of the last line.  And that So, standing there at the beginning, enticing, reaching off the page.  That seals the deal.

I may just go find myself a new copy of Heaney’s translation and settle in.

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