Expanding Literate Landscapes: Persons, Practices, and Sociohistoric Perspectives of Disciplinary Development. The Case Study of Kate Sharer.

Chapter 4 | A Lengthy Trajectory of Interweavings:
Knotworking English Studies and Fan Activities

Fan Fic-ing Beowulf

In the spring semester of the first year of her MA program, Kate enrolled in a class on British literature to 1500. Early in the semester, Kate read Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf as one of the assigned readings for the class. Almost immediately upon reading Beowulf for class, Kate wanted to write a fan fiction story based on the poem. Her decision was prompted in part by her enjoyment of the poem. As she stated, “I loved the story so much. I knew the story from children’s versions of it I’d read as a kid, but I hadn’t read the whole text, and it had been a long time since I’d even thought about the story, so it was pretty much like rediscovering it.” Her idea for the specific focus of the story was prompted by some comments the professor had made during a class discussion of the poem. According to Kate, the professor had mentioned, and the class had briefly discussed how “Beowulf was a heroic archetype that didn’t really feel. I didn’t like that, so I wanted to write the story from his point of view, including what a real person might think or feel. My professor for the class insisted that Beowulf wouldn’t have had feelings, although he was very tolerant of my interpretations and ideas, but I just don’t buy that.”

As a way of exploring Beowulf’s emotional side in a fan fiction story, Kate decided to focus her fan fiction story on Beowulf’s interactions with other human characters rather than between Beowulf and the monsters of Grendel and Grendel’s mother. With this in mind as she read through Beowulf to accomplish her assigned reading for the class, Kate began to attend closely to Beowulf’s interactions with Unferth, a character that Beowulf has a couple of brief encounters with throughout the poem, including an exchange in the mead hall at the beginning of the poem and an exchange of swords before Beowulf enters the swamp to confront Grendel’s mother. In addition to examining the interactions between Beowulf and Unferth in the Seamus Heaney translation required for the class, Kate also browsed some other editions and a few published articles that focused on these two characters. Ultimately, Kate decided that her fan fiction story, which would be written in three chapters of prose rather than as a poem, would extend and elaborate the three brief interactions between Beowulf and Unferth offered in the original poem.

Fairly early in the process of thinking about Beowulf and Unferth, Kate grew curious about their physical appearance. This was driven in part because she knew that she would need to describe their physical features in the fan fiction story. She located some other artists’ interpretations of these characters to examine. Eventually, she made some of her own colored pencil drawings of Beowulf and Unferth, including a quick colored pencil sketch she drew during one of the class meetings, just to give herself a better sense of what these two characters might look like. We include Kate’s in-class drawing below as Figure 5.

Figure 5
Kate's Drawing of Beowulf and Unferth
(Click to Enlarge)

Kate's drawing of Beowulf and Unferth

In her drawing, the blue-eyed character of Beowulf is represented at left with the beard and his hair gathered in a prominent ponytail. Unferth, at right, features green eyes and is represented without a beard and with two prominent curls framing his face. A smaller and less-detailed image of Grendel hovers at the top right-hand corner of the page. In addition to the characters' names written in Old English letters, the page is also populated with notes Kate jotted to herself to capture her impressions of the finished images. Besides commenting that the figures are "not to scale" and that Beowulf is "not supposed to look Asian," Kate also notes that Unferth has “narrower shoulders” than Beowulf. These quick notes, Kate indicated, served as brief reminders to herself regarding key differences between the image of the characters she had in her mind and how her drawings had turned out. As Kate stated while talking about this sketch during an interview,

I was trying to get an idea of what they would look like to me, based on various artist interpretations. My version of Unferth was actually based on someone’s idea of Beowulf, because it was so different from how I imagined Beowulf. The drawing of Grendel up in the corner was really just a joke, though. I still don’t know what I think he looks like.

The finished version of Kate’s fan-fiction story, titled “That Moment of Need” after a line from the original poem, consisted of three chapters covering 18 single-spaced pages. According to Kate,

I followed along with the story for the structure of the fic [her fan fiction story], but I added an additional scene. The scenes from the text were brought in event from event, including the characters’ actions, but I retold them how I thought Beowulf might have seen and reacted to them, if he were a jaded, feeling person instead of the two-dimensional hero he is in the original text.

Kate’s first chapter elaborates on a private conversation between the two of them after their famous “flyting” interaction in the mead hall depicted in the early lines of the original poem. Kate’s second chapter details Unferth giving Beowulf his sword before Beowulf enters the swamp to confront Grendel’s mother. Her third chapter describes an emotional exchange between Beowulf and Unferth as Beowulf makes plans to leave. In order to provide readers with a sense of the fan fiction story Kate produced, we offer below an excerpt from the opening of her initial chapter.

Beowulf's hard blue eyes traveled briskly over the other man. He looked too small, too young to be much of a hero—and rather shifty, the type who would kill his brothers. He was beardless, with oddly light green eyes and dark hair cropped short save for a curl that hung from each temple. And yet, there was no denying that he had fought bravely for Hroðgar to redeem himself. Odd though it was that Unferð had survived twelve years of Grendel's raids fighting thus.

Unferð entered the room and closed the door behind him; Beowulf took note that Unferð's sword hung at his side. Hrunting, he called it. "I came to make my apologies. You were able to do what I could not." Unferð did not meet the Geat's gaze, looking instead somewhere over Beowulf's shoulder. "You are the warrior—the man I am not." Beowulf was silent a moment, trying to decipher Unferð's purpose. "I did what no one else could. It does not make you less of a man, only equal among normal men."

"Normal men!" Unferð spat out the words. "Yes, I am a normal man—unable to defend my lord and country, so that some foreigner had to come fulfill my duty!” "Why are you here?" Beowulf interrupted. He was tired enough from battle without this rambling young man keeping him awake. "If flyting is your wish, you will do better to wait. I am tired, and besides, what good is a duel of words without witnesses to call the winner?"

Extending the flyting scene between Beowulf and Unferth that occurs early in the original poem, Kate elaborates the emotional dimension of the characters of Beowulf and Unferth. Her story offers readers insight into Beowulf’s thoughts and feelings. Kate also provides some extended dialogue between Beowulf and Unferth that provides additional insight into the affective dimension of their characters. We also want to note that this excerpt references some of the key features Kate attended to in her in-class drawing (see Figure 5 above). For example, the opening paragraph in the excerpt references the color of these characters’ eyes, a feature that Kate represented in her sketch. In addition, the opening paragraph mentions Unferth’s small stature, which is something that Kate was working to represent by narrowing Unferth’s shoulders in relation to Beowulf’s. In the excerpt, Beowulf also comments on Unferth’s hair, particularly the curls hanging from each of his temples, which is another prominent feature of Kate’s drawing. As she had done with her writing and illustrations for her version of the Everyman play and the “Juno” poem, Kate published “That Moment of Need” on a popular fan fiction site accompanied by her drawing of Beowulf and Unferth.

Working on the fan fiction version of Beowulf had a large impact on her reading of Beowulf for the course, but Kate stated that she didn’t sense that it played a large role in shaping the seminar paper she wrote for that class. Her seminar paper did focus on the Beowulf poem, but as Kate described, it was a very “technical” analysis that “focused on the hall [the mead hall] rather than the characters.” Crafting the fan fiction story, did, however, have a major impact on her work for the course on epic poetry she took the next semester, the fall term of her second year in the MA program. Beowulf was on the reading list for that course as well, and one of the first texts covered in the class. Kate decided to focus her seminar paper on Beowulf by analyzing the relationship between the characters of Beowulf and Unferth, and especially on the effect that the exchange of Unferth’s sword between them had on their relationship. After all, her work on the fan fiction story had immersed her in reading the original poem very carefully with an eye toward understanding the relationship between Beowulf and Unferth, and the story she produced explored that relationship in great depth and detail, especially the function of the sword. As Kate explained,

I had to think long and hard about Unferth and Beowulf’s relationship for the fan fic[tion story]. I based their relationship in the fic on their interactions in the original poem, and I even wrote the poem’s scenes with them into the fan fic, just reinterpreted from Beowulf’s perspective. So when I had to write a paper [for the graduate class], I wanted to do it about their relationship, sort of validating my fanfic ideas by doing scholarly work on them and offering proof from the poem that there was more there than just Unferth being antagonistic and stupid. The paper ended up focusing on the exchange of Unferth’s sword Hrunting, which plays a fairly large role in the fan fic.

Kate saw her seminar paper, then, as providing her with an opportunity not only to draw heavily upon the fan fiction story she had written, but also to validate her fan fiction as the basis for the “scholarly” work she did for the graduate course.

Titled “Peace by the Sword: Hrunting’s Role in Flyting and Reconciliation on Beowulf,” the 23-page double-spaced seminar paper Kate finished at the end of the semester analyzed the sword exchange between Beowulf and Unferth and the impact it had on their relationship. We include below an excerpt from the opening pages of Kate’s seminar paper.

The general consensus among scholars is that the transfer of Hrunting forges a connection between Beowulf and Unferð which benefits Beowulf by associating him with Anglo-Saxon society. However, most of these speculations are founded upon misreadings—or at the least, unfounded assumptions—and they consider neither the reasoning behind Unferð's participation in the exchange, nor the significance of Hrunting's failure. The greatest oversight is that they give little attention to Beowulf's reciprocal offer of his own sword.

In his article "Beowulf, Unferth and Hrunting: An Interpretation," Geoffrey Hughes argues that the lending of Hrunting serves two purposes: it establishes a connection between Beowulf and Unferð as champions, and it transfers Unferð's dōm—his glory as a warrior—to Beowulf. To the forging of a connection between the men, Hughes insists in a footnote that "the loan and return of Hrunting clearly associate Unferth with heroic action" (Hughes 395, note 49), but he does not offer evidence of this assertion. On the second point, Hughes states, "By the loan of Hrunting Unferth loses his glory.… Beowulf makes it clear that he regards himself as taking over Unferth's role, the achievement of dōm ' ic mē mid Hruntinge / dōm gewyrce, oþðe mec dēað nimeð'" (Hughes 393).

In this portion of her seminar paper, Kate offers a brief overview of the scholarly attention, with an emphasis on the work of Geoffrey Hughes, devoted to the relationship between Beowulf and Unferth and the role of the sword exchange. The topic that had been at heart of her fan fiction story and fan art drawings had become the basis for her scholarly analysis for a graduate course. Of particular interest here is that the gaps in the scholarly literature that Kate outlines in the initial paragraph of this excerpt, the lack of critical attention to “the reasoning behind Unferth’s participation in the exchange,” the “significance of Hrunting’s failure,” and “Beowulf’s reciprocal offer of his own sword,” are the very issues she explored in her fan fiction story.

As with the two previous interweavings we’ve examined, Kate’s version of Everyman in high school and her “Juno” poem as an undergraduate, Kate weaves together her engagement with fan fiction and fan art with her engagement with English studies. In this interweaving, Kate’s reading of Beowulf for a graduate course prompts her to craft a fan fiction story based on two key characters in the poem, which in turn prompts Kate to craft an illustration of those characters as an invention strategy for the story. The following semester, some four months later, her work on that fan fiction story powerfully informs her reading and writing for the seminar paper for another graduate course. In this interweaving, Kate’s drawing serves as a kind of invention practice, a way for her to get a sense of what the characters of Beowulf and Unferth might look like.

In the next section of this chapter, we elaborate another of Kate’s interweavings of English studies and fan fiction and fan art as she prepares for her MA exams.

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