Medieval Studies Beowulf
by
Paul E. Szarmach
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 June 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0062

Introduction

By common estimation the corpus of Old English poetry is some 30,000 lines or, roughly, the literary output of John Milton. At 3,182 lines, Beowulf is approximately 10 percent of the corpus, which partially accounts for its significance. Almost always difficult to date and rarely attributable to a named author, this body of vernacular writing is the largest extant in the first 1,100 years of the Common Era. Although there is evidence that some post-Conquest figures worked with Old English literary remains, the awakening to Old English literary forms took place in the 16th century when, in the context of religious disputes, partisans sought to find the roots of their beliefs. Poetry was not the desired end of study. Prose records, which were more numerous in laws, chronicles, sermons, and homilies, were more accessible and more pertinent than poetry. As the 19th century began, the subject started to leave its antiquarian beginnings and to create the Age of Philology, during which there was a primary emphasis on what a text said as opposed to what it meant. At midcentury scholars also assisted the building of nation-states by tracing in history a pure national spirit, presumably unadulterated. Literary criticism, as we now know it, began to emerge toward the end of the 19th century. J. R. R. Tolkien’s essay, “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics” (Tolkien 1936, cited under Articles) is the traditional starting point for the literary criticism of Beowulf, but Tolkien had predecessors. The early history of Beowulf, the written text, defies any easy account. The only extant manuscript surfaces in the collection of Sir Robert Cotton, where it escaped the fire of October 1731, offering burn marks to testify to its presence then, as well as to water damage. Now bearing the shelfmark “British Library, Cotton Vitellius A.xv,” the manuscript received notice from antiquarians in the 18th century, notably Humphrey Wanley (1705). In the early interpretation of the text, scholars saw a Scandinavian context. As the study of the poem grew in the 19th century and beyond, scholarship and criticism offered a dizzying array of approaches and opinions.

Facsimile Editions

Grímur Jonsson Thorkelin, who was researching early Danish history, made two transcripts of the poem, which he used in his 1815 edition. Kemp Malone offered the first opportunity (Malone 1951) for scholars at large to see the Thorkelin transcriptions and to judge the 1731 fire and its continuing effect on deterioration, especially the margins. Originally photographed in 1877 and then reissued in a second edition in 1959, Davis 1967 is still arguably the most convenient visual record of the poem, given its portability. Malone 1963 contains a substantial textual introduction, essentially superseding previous discussions while offering high-quality photographic reproduction. Kiernan 2011 presents improved color facsimiles of the entire manuscript with special attention to Beowulf and, through digital technology, restores hundreds of readings. Most significantly, Kiernan’s close attention to the textual and manuscript evidence leads him to argue for a late date for the poem.

Editions

For much of the 20th century, the standard scholarly edition of the poem was Frederick Klaeber’s Beowulf, particularly in the third edition (Klaeber 1950). As the study of the poem developed and new ways of looking at the epic came forward—notably advances in the study of oral literature, the rise of literary theory, gender studies, etc.—Klaeber’s work still commanded attention and respect, even if some held him accountable for failing to predict and follow the future of scholarship and criticism. The third edition was the “Beowulf-Bible of International Studies.” In an act of intellectual piety, as well as in an attempt to update Klaeber’s work, R. D. Fulk, Robert E. Bjork, and John D. Niles have collaborated on Klaeber’s Beowulf (see Fulk, et al. 2008). Their edition incorporates the generations of scholarship that have appeared, including the controversies over the dating of the poem, the construction of the manuscript, and the unity of the poem. The coeditors are not radical revisers of the Old English text. The Klaeber editions certainly qualify as “critical editions” in the wide scope of their presentation and in their more or less conservative treatment of the text. But the development of the field has made it clear that other editions are necessary or helpful. Among the “school texts” of note is the convenient student edition produced by George Jack in Jack 1997. Aiming to make the language of the poem accessible, Jack provides a running gloss alongside the Old English lines. The potential intellectual cost of this convenience is a simplistic view of the language and the poet’s deep command of it: one word may have many different meanings and shades of meaning, after all. Still, undergraduate and graduate students have found this edition useful. Mitchell and Robinson 1998 seeks to give maximum help to those reading the poem for the first time. The authors meet their general goal in several specific ways that include keeping the notes as simple as possible, reducing emendation to a minimum, and limiting discussion of phonological and metrical problems when the meaning of the poem is affected. Chickering 1977 moves even closer into the classroom with a well-known dual-language edition of Beowulf. The apparatus is minimal, but the occasion to introduce the sound of Old English is ever present. Dobbie 1965 fulfills in part its series mandate to produce a complete record for Old English. Unlike so many editions announcing their aim to assist students of all sorts, Dobbie evidently prefers to focus on the text. When C. L. Wrenn produced his edition (subsequently revised by W. F. Bolton in 1973; see Wrenn 1982), students of the 1950s and 1960s greeted it as “more literary than Klaeber.” This reaction indicates that Wrenn had attained his objective announced in his preface to interest literary students in the kind of accurate study that may lead to aesthetic pleasure and understanding. Michael Alexander executed “a double Penguin” when he issued a glossed edition of the poem (Alexander 1995), which is a complement to his earlier verse translation (Alexander 2003, cited in Translations).

  • Alexander, Michael, ed. Beowulf. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1995.

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    The Old English faces a page with glosses for virtually every word. The edition contains an introduction, a note on meter, and several helpful additional aids. A complement to the translation in Alexander 2003 (cited in Translations).

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  • Chickering, Howell D., ed. Beowulf: A Dual-Language Edition. Garden City, NY: Anchor, 1977.

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    Highly regarded as a teaching vehicle: in verse, but fairly literal. With Old English on the verso and a corresponding translation on the recto, the presentation gives a teacher who knows some Old English an opportunity to place students deep into the text at passages the instructor wishes to highlight or otherwise use to illustrate the original.

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  • Dobbie, E. V. K., ed. Beowulf and Judith. Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records 4. New York: Columbia University Press, 1965.

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    First published in 1953. Useful now as a place marker in the development of the textual study of the poem and as a point of comparison between this comparatively plain text and more complicated recent discussions. Dobbie has to contend with a series format that circumscribes his approach to the poem in limiting the amount of Beowulf scholarship that he can include. Germanic antiquities thus receives selective treatment, while the text as text receives comparatively more attention.

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  • Fulk, R. D., Robert E. Bjork, and John D. Niles, eds. Klaeber’s Beowulf and the Fight at Finnsburg. 4th ed. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008.

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    Will eventually supersede Klaeber 1950 as the field incorporates its achievement. In their some 190-page introduction, the authors have brought to the edition the present concerns of those who are primarily literary or cultural interpreters, thus further demonstrating their own well-established literary scholarship. As is to be expected, not all will agree with the coeditors in their interpretations; in this way they will share Klaeber’s company. Familiarly known as “Klaeber 4.”

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  • Jack, Ian, ed. Beowulf: A Student’s Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.

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    Students using this edition should read the introduction and especially the sections regarding editorial procedures and running glosses.

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  • Klaeber, Friedrich, ed. Beowulf and The Fight at Finnsburg. 3d ed. Boston: D. C. Heath, 1950.

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    Klaeber’s third edition will still hold sway for its achievement as a benchmark for the study of the poem. The immense learning present in Klaeber’s pages was already apparent in his earlier editions. Klaeber’s mastery of philology and the bibliography of scholarship set his work apart and challenged scholars and students alike.

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  • Mitchell, Bruce, and Fred C. Robinson, eds. Beowulf: An Edition with Relevant Shorter Texts. Oxford: Blackwell, 1998.

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    It is difficult to imagine two senior scholars who could bring more scholarly authority to the interpretation of the poem. To give context to the poem, the coeditors engaged Leslie Webster to offer a chapter on archaeology. Webster provides a significant background section of archeology and Beowulf, reminding readers that Beowulf is a poem, not an archaeological textbook. Clearly, the coeditors want to place the beginner as close to the poem as they can, avoiding imposed interpretations.

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  • Wrenn, C. L., ed. Beowulf. London: Harrap, 1982.

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    First published in 1973 and first reprinted in 1980. The introduction is “pre-Kiernan,” and so discussion of date, origin, and provenance needs to be seen in the light of more recent developments. W. F. Bolton’s revision updated the bibliography, compressed commentary, and added new material to the introduction, among other changes.

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Translations

Nobel Prize winner Seamus Heaney won the Whitbread Prize for his translation of Beowulf, making the poem a surprise best seller in 1999. The translation marked the highpoint of Heaney’s engagement with the medieval world, following up on extracts published earlier. There are four published versions that realized an original invitation by W. W. Norton, which invitation was left standing for some thirty-five years: Heaney 1999, which was published by Faber and Faber; Heaney 2000, which was published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux; and a “double Norton” version, Heaney and Donoghue 2002. The brilliance of the “translation,” coupled with the marketing power of Norton, guarantees the presence of this translation in curriculums and in scholarly discussion for a long time. Yet, past, present, and future (a projection of the past) confirm that to the making of Beowulf translations there will be no end. Alexander 2003 gives a translation and editorial apparatus. Bradley 1982 includes Beowulf along with most of the corpus. Chickering 1977 remains a useful text for the classroom. Fulk 2010 is a major new entry into the list of translations, appearing in a comprehensive new series dubbed “The Medieval Loeb.” Liuzza 2000 has been praised for the accuracy of the translations. Donaldson 2001 remains a fairly reliable prose translation, often used as an aid by student translators.

Bibliographies

Two kinds of bibliography assist the students of Beowulf: Old English field bibliographies and bibliographies specific to Beowulf. The field bibliographies are: (1) the annual Anglo-Saxon England, which gives strong coverage of Beowulf and related disciplines such as history and archaeology; (2) the Old English Newsletter, which now produces an annual bibliography online and reviews that bibliography in Year’s Work in Old English Studies (OEN also records “Research in Progress” as part of its bibliography); and (3) Greenfield and Robinson 1980, which is a standard bibliography from the 16th century through 1972 when ASE begins its bibliography. In addition, the editions listed in Editions contain bibliographies of varying scope, with Fulk, et al. 2008 being the most extensive. Fry 1969 is a useful work-specific compilation through its date of publication. Short 1980 and Hasenfratz 1993 together give coverage through 1990. Kiernan 2011 incorporates a bibliography in its electronic edition.

Dating Controversies

One of the ironies of scholarship is that after several generations of study, it is still not possible to arrive at anything like a broad consensus regarding the date of the poem. For some the prior question is: What poem are we talking about? The presumptive oral version, the first scribal effort, possible succeeding efforts, the poem as we find it in Cotton Vitellius A.xv? Early on there was belief (not proof) that the Age of Bede (d. 735) would have been a hospitable time for composition and for the poem’s values, themes, and style. With the close examination in Kiernan 1996 of the manuscript and its arguments for late dating, scribal “authorship” of the version in hand, and a structural “Beowulf A” and “Beowulf B” and all that flows from a composite poem, the issue was joined anew. Even with Kiernan’s digital edition (see Kiernan 2011, under Facsimile Editions), any date proposed within the approximately 250 years, even vaguely possible, will strike a controversial note. The “late-daters” and “early-daters” continue their raspy dialogue. Bjork and Obermeier 1997 mainly describes the issues rather than contests them. Chase 1997 carefully constructs the conference behind this proceedings volume, and Dumville 1998 replies to Kiernan’s second edition, while Gerritsen 1989 was one of the first to dispute Kiernan. Lapidge 2001 presents detailed palaeographical evidence to suggest an early date. Liuzza 1995 takes a nonpartisan view of the controversies. Fulk 1992 brings language and verse forms to the discussion.

  • Bjork, Robert E., and Anita Obermeier. “Date, Provenance, Author, Audiences.” In A Beowulf Handbook. Edited by Robert Bjork and John Niles, 13–34. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997.

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    The coauthors calmly review the inconclusive and frustrating evidence of their four announced topics.

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  • Chase, Colin, ed. The Dating of Beowulf. Papers presented at a conference held in Toronto on 20–23 April 1980. Toronto Old English Series 6. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997.

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    This record of the Toronto conference that began the modern controversies about dating numbers several key contributions in a volume where almost every article is of importance. One may highlight here: Roberta Frank’s “Skaldic Verse and the Date of Beowulf” (pp. 123–139), Kevin Kiernan’s “The Eleventh-Century Origin of Beowulf and the Beowulf Manuscript” (pp. 1–9), and E. G. Stanley’s “The Date of Beowulf: Some Doubt and No Conclusions” (pp. 197–211). First published in 1981.

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  • Dumville, David. “The Beowulf-Manuscript and How Not to Date It.” Medieval English Studies Newsletter 39 (1998): 21–27.

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    Though a comparatively late-dater of the poem (ten years on either side of 1000 CE), Dumville disputes Kiernan’s suggestion of the 1030s. The article gives an abbreviated recap of the controversy.

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  • Fulk, R. D. A History of Old English Meter. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992.

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    Within a remarkable and wide-ranging study of Old English meter, Fulk concludes: “In brief, Beowulf almost certainly was not composed after ca. 725 if Mercian in origin, or after ca. 825 if Northumbrian.” A most influential study.

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  • Gerritsen, Johan. “Have With You to Lexington: The Beowulf Manuscript and Beowulf.” In Other Words: Transcultural Studies in Philology. Edited by Lachlan Mackenzie and Richard Todd, 15–34. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Foris, 1989.

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    Gerritsen is one of Kiernan’s chief critics (see Kiernan 1996).

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  • Kiernan, Kevin. Beowulf and the Beowulf Manuscript. Rev. ed. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996.

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    In challenging received opinion from his study of the manuscript features, Kiernan brought the field to reconsider issues of dating (date of the manuscript, c. 1000), authorship (second scribe combined two stories), and narrative structure (stories linked by a palimpsest). See also Kiernan 2011 (cited under Facsimile Editions). First published in 1981 (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press).

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  • Lapidge, Michael. “The Archetype of Beowulf.” Anglo-Saxon England 29 (2001): 5–41.

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    Argues that the many literal errors in the transmitted text are best explained by hypothesizing an early-8th-century archetype in Anglo-Saxon set minuscule.

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  • Liuzza, Roy Michael. “On the Dating of Beowulf.” In Beowulf: Basic Readings. Edited by Peter S. Baker, 281–306. New York: Garland, 1995.

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    Considers the ignorance and disagreement over the date of Beowulf and shows the fragility of knowledge of Old English literary culture. A brief but excellent introduction to the issues.

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Sources and Analogues

Once the defining method and interest of Beowulfian scholarship, source study and source hunting continue in a perhaps less than dominant way but rather with a certain inconclusiveness developed in this subfield over time. In a masterful and succinct contribution to A Beowulf Handbook, Andersson 1997 surveys the major issues and achievements of this approach. Andersson considers Scandinavian parallels, Irish parallels, classical influences, scriptural and patristic echoes, Old English sources and analogues, and future directions. Klaeber 4 (Fulk, et al. 2008, cited under Editions) considers sources and parallels in Appendix A and elsewhere in the commentary to the edition. Bruce 2002 collects and describes evidence for the place of Scyld and Scef in mythology and history. Chambers 1959 is the first collection of sources and analogues, though now somewhat dated. For students, Garmonsway and Simpson 1971 may be the most accessible collection of materials. The sharply focused Deskis 1996 pursues the range and relevance of proverbial materials with special reference to Beowulf. Drawing on historical sources, Newton 1994 argues for an early date in East Anglia. Orchard 1995 provides a useful introduction, Old English and Latin, to one of the “hot topics” of the last two decades. Puhvel 1979 pursues Celtic connections.

  • Andersson, Theodore. “Sources and Analogues.” In A Beowulf Handbook. Edited by Robert Bjork and John Niles, 125–148. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997.

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    The first stop for studying sources and analogues. A helpful chronology gives the grand sweep.

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  • Bruce, Alexander M. Scyld and Scef: Expanding the Analogues. New York: Routledge, 2002.

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    Bruce presents all the extant medieval notices and references to Scyld and Scef, two shadowy figures of Scandinavian mythology who receive mention at the beginning of Beowulf, and offers a critical analysis of all forty-three references to them.

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  • Chambers, R. W. Beowulf: An Introduction to the Study of the Poem with Discussion of Stories of Offa and Finn. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1959.

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    First published in 1921. Though much of this is outdated, Chambers nevertheless assembles narrative elements, documents, and works still of use.

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  • Deskis, Susan. Beowulf and the Medieval Proverb Tradition. Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies 155. Tempe, AZ: Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, 1996.

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    In a meticulous study, Deskis seeks to integrate into the network of sources and parallels the corpus of proverbial, sentential, or gnomic passages in Beowulf. She conducts an exhaustive search in vernacular and Latin texts.

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  • Garmonsway, G. N., and Jacqueline Simpson. Beowulf and Its Analogues. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1971.

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    Convenient assembly of analogues and documents concerning personages mentioned in the poem as well as sections on fighting manlike monsters and the dragon. Contains a section by Hilda Ellis Davidson, “Archaeology and Beowulf.”

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  • Newton, Sam. The Origins of Beowulf and the Pre-Viking Kingdom of East Anglia. Cambridge, UK: D. S. Brewer, 1994.

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    Newton argues for an early date and an East Anglian provenance.

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  • Orchard, Andy. Pride and Prodigies: Studies in the Monsters of the Beowulf Manuscript. Cambridge, UK: D. S. Brewer, 1995.

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    Orchard considers the compilation of the Beowulf manuscript and addresses the precise role and meaning of the monsters and the heroes who confront them. The appendices give Latin text, Old English text, and translation of The Wonders of the East, The Letter of Alexander to Aristotle, and the Liber Monstrorum, which accompany Beowulf in Cotton Vitellius A.xv.

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  • Puhvel, Martin. Beowulf and Celtic Tradition. Waterloo, Canada: Wilfrid Laurier, 1979.

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    Studies Celtic parallels and analogues to and possible source material of elements in Beowulf, but questions remain as to how close the parallels are. Puhvel argues that the Beowulf poet was “. . . at least in the Grendel part of the poem, deeply and widely indebted to materials such as folktales and a body of more or less popular tradition, folkloric, and other” (p. viii).

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Collections

It is probably true that apart from certain editions, the book was not the dominant scholarly form in Old English studies—the “article” was. There are several classic collections that study Beowulf with sharply focused articles that implicitly and explicitly celebrate the literary values of the poem. Nicholson 1963 was the first in line, offering exemplary discussions of themes and setting the standard for its successors in this scholarly genre. Fulk 1991 extends the scope of a Beowulf collection, though necessarily following Nicholson in some selections. Fry 1968 moves to represent critical approaches, as does Bloom 1987, the latter of which includes, quite obviously, updated issues. Baker 1995 commissions several essays to join the classics. Damico and Olsen 1990 likewise mixes classics with commissioned pieces, adding feminist perspectives. For the well-known Approaches to Teaching series published by the Modern Language Association, Bessinger and Yeager 1984 includes short articles from a wide variety of educators on how to teach the poem. Bjork and Niles 1997 commissions many contributors to cover the major themes in the study of the poem.

  • Baker, Peter S., ed. Beowulf: Basic Readings. New York: Garland, 1995.

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    Thirteen essays in a mix of classics, revised classics, and new essays illustrate the evolution of Beowulf studies from the mid-1960s on: E. G. Stanley on Beowulf and Larry D. Benson on pagan coloring are among the important selections.

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  • Bessinger, Jess B., and Robert F. Yeager, eds. Approaches to Teaching Beowulf. New York: Modern Language Association, 1984.

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    A handy aid (now being revised) of suggestions by experienced hands for those teaching Beowulf, especially for the first time.

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  • Bjork, Robert E., and John D. Niles, eds. A Beowulf Handbook. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997.

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    Bjork and Niles collect eighteen essays by various hands on topics that together constitute a comprehensive introduction to the poem. The essays present the “state of the question” and summarize the main currents of study. Though published more than a decade ago, the essays are still current with the ironic exception of the work on Klaeber 4 (edited by Bjork, Niles, and also Fulk, who participates in this collection; see Fulk, et al. 2008, cited under Editions) and the continuing development of theory.

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  • Bloom, Harold, ed. Beowulf. New York: Chelsea House, 1987.

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    Bloom’s broad-based series Modern Critical Interpretations offers a collection of eleven essays written mainly by scholars pursuing more contemporary issues and themes. Bloom’s own introduction concerns the Christian theme and criticizes Fred Robinson’s ideas of the poem’s appositive style. An updated edition was published in 2007.

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  • Damico, Helen, and Alexandra H. Olsen, eds. New Readings on Women in Old English Literature. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990.

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    The first collection in the field to look at Old English literature from a feminist perspective. The articles include the consideration of historical and cultural contexts that illuminate Beowulf.

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  • Fry, Donald K., ed. The Beowulf Poet: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1968.

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    Ten selections, including a poem by Richard Wilbur and a Saturday Review piece by Kenneth Rexroth, seek to represent various critical approaches. Includes Tolkien, as cited in Articles.

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  • Fulk, R. D., ed. Interpretations of Beowulf: A Critical Anthology. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991.

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    Fulk assembles seventeen previously published essays covering a sixty-year period to illustrate various approaches to the poem. Fulk’s preface is useful for pointing out what considerations of space forced him to omit.

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  • Nicholson, Lewis E., ed. An Anthology of Beowulf Criticism. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1963.

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    This collection of eighteen essays contains works considered classics at the time and arguably helped launch the critical engagement with the poem characteristic of the 1960s and 1970s. Tolkien, Francis P. Magoun Jr., R. E. Kaske, and Margaret E. Goldsmith, among others, offer significant insights into the poem that still resonate in the field.

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Interpretations

By the mid-20th century, New Criticism, also sometimes called “formalism,” was the dominant mode of analysis in literary circles. New Criticism focused on the poem as a “well-wrought urn” through its concern for the words in the text; thus, this critical mode had a ready mate in Old English as it read the literature. At one point the oral nature of Old English poetry was a major area of discussion when F. P. Magoun Jr. linked Old English poetry and its formulaic nature to oral composition. Oral literature is now a much-studied subject in itself—though still connected to Old English. Suffice it to say that most interpreters grant the oral nature of Old English poetry and Beowulf in matters stylistic and perhaps even structural. Though somewhat shopworn now, the antinomy of pagan versus Christian has been a major theme from the 19th-century beginnings through the present post-Christian age. The consensus of opinion now is that a Christian poet looks back on a bygone age, but exactly how the poet reflects on said age is where the argument now lies. Is the poet an ironist whose backward glance produces a Christian condemnation or does he celebrate glorious deeds of old? (See the Oxford Bibliographies article on Old English Religious Poetry.) As literary study moves into its contemporary phase, directions become more unclear. Theory has been declared “dead on arrival” so many times that the cliché has lost the power to amuse. Pure theory has entered Old English literature rather late in the game. Of course, one may readily ask: What theory is under discussion? No doubt that gender criticism will have staying power. A recurrent problem in discussing all theory is the simplistic application of a theory to the literary object. The thumbnail sketch here of Old English literature should, given the nature of literary discourse, receive sharp criticism from scholars. This reaction would not be surprising, since the works chosen and presented are but a small segment of the grand discussion.

Major Studies

The books chosen here treat only a selection of the major themes in the scholarship of the poem in the last generation. Irving 1968 is the forerunner of many subsequent “new critical” readings. Damico 1984 and Chance 1986 open the poem to the first wave of feminist scholar-critics. Goldsmith 1970 sees the influence of early medieval Christianity, while Robinson 1985 links pagan and Christian through stylistic features. Niles 1983 gives a masterly overview of the features of the poem, especially characteristics of oral poetry. Orchard 2004 offers a “critical” complaint in that the emphasis is on the scholarship of the poem. Joy and Ramsey 2006 opens up the poem to postmodernist interpretations.

  • Chance, Jane. Woman as Hero in Old English Literature. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1986.

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    Leading study in the first wave of feminist interpreters. Some would agree that feminists are no longer interested in “the hero,” for there are other important themes, but this study was pioneering.

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  • Damico, Helen. Beowulf’s Wealhtheow and the Valkyrie Tradition. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1984.

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    Effectively launches the new interest in women in the poem. Wealhtheow emerges out of the scholarly shadows to be seen as a major character.

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  • Goldsmith, Margaret. The Mode and Meaning of Beowulf. London: Athlone, 1970.

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    Goldsmith argues that the author of Beowulf had received the religious education of his time, which accounts for the “attitudes” of the poem and its complexity. Also argues that Beowulf is the first great medieval allegory of death and life based on the beliefs of the Western church.

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  • Irving, Edward B. A Reading of Beowulf. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1968.

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    The first “reading” of the poem, followed subsequently by his rereading of Beowulf published in 1989.

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  • Joy, Eileen A., and Mary K. Ramsey, eds. The Postmodern Beowulf. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press, 2006.

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    A “critical casebook,” which the editors believe to be an ideal text to introduce theory to Beowulf students. The four major chapters consider history/historicism, ethnography/psychoanalysis, gender/identity, and text/textuality. Each of these chapters begins with essays on critical contexts and then go on to essays on Beowulf. The book has begun its controversial life, which is likely to last to the medium-term future. Readers should check textual citations.

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  • Niles, John D. Beowulf: The Poem and Its Tradition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983.

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    A synthesis about the art and the interpretation of the poem locating it outside of the monastic milieu and in the oral heroic verse-making heritage. Niles is guided by the conception of Beowulf “as not a text, in any primary sense, but a performance shared among members of a community” (p. vi).

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  • Orchard, Andy. A Critical Companion to Beowulf. Cambridge, UK: D. S. Brewer, 2004.

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    In nine major chapters supported by three appendices and other apparatuses, Orchard gives an overview of scholarship on Beowulf. Noteworthy are a long bibliography and an index of lines and passages cited and discussed. Chapter 8 characterizes the poem as “beyond criticism.” The book approaches a one-scholar tour de force, but one regrets the absence of feminist themes.

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  • Robinson, Fred C. Beowulf and the Appositive Style. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1985.

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    Describes appositional techniques in the poem that enable the poet to express his Christian vision of the pagan life. Apposition allows the poet to use Old English vocabulary to accommodate a partly Christian and a partly pre-Christian perspective on the narration. Robinson shows how modern scholars have obscured the poem by applying modern conventions to the style.

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Articles

Practicing Anglo-Saxons have, as a group, excelled in writing articles that are often master interpretations. Kaske 1958 is the place to begin because of its wide applicability to medieval literature. Tolkien 1936 is the celebrated article that helped vault Beowulf to literary status. Hill 1990 and Lees 1994 offer articles on gender issues, and Frank 1982 considers the major thematic of a virtuous pagan, while Harris 1982 uncovers an important structural feature of the poem. Leyerle 1967 argues for a link between art and literature. Bjork 1994 affirms methodological links that offer an interdisciplinary view.

Beowulf and Popular Culture

When Alvy Singer (played by Woody Allen) advises Annie Hall (played by Diane Keaton) not to take a course where they make you read Beowulf, his counsel was as dubious as his mastery over his insecurities. Both elite culture and popular culture now celebrate the Anglo-Saxon epic in every conceivable way. The success in popular culture is a function of the adaptability of the poem to contemporary media. Osborne 1997 outlines translations, versions, and illustrations through 1994, offering thirteen plates depicting scenes in the poem. Osborne updates her work online in An Annotated List of Beowulf Translations to include translations of the epic from 1800 through the present. Her list includes works that are more properly “imitations.” Beowulfiana: Modern Adaptations of Beowulf is an online list of Beowulfiana that is composed of not translations or editions but seemingly everything else, including toys and games.

Film

In barely more than a decade Beowulf showed its adaptability for feature films, but not without controversy. Zemeckis 2007 directed a film with star power and high production values. Gunnarsson 2006 took advantage of its northern scenery, while Baker 1999 turned to science fiction. McTiernan 1999 adopted Michael Crichton’s novel (see Crichton 1992, cited under Literary Afterlife) to produce a film that some instructors find useful in teaching reluctant students of Beowulf. Magennis 2001 takes a balanced view of the adaptation of Crichton’s novel. Sturtevant 2007 compares film and epic to conclude that the film can rightfully stand on its own.

  • Baker, Graham, dir. Beowulf. DVD. Burbank, CA: Dimension Home Video, 1999.

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    A sci-fi/fantasy treatment that places Beowulf in the future, all with a touch of a “sagebrush” saga.

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  • Gunnarsson, Sturla, dir. Beowulf and Grendel, 2005. DVD. Troy, MI: Anchor Bay Entertainment, 2006.

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    The award-winning Canadian director also takes liberties with the epic (Beowulf is furnished with a father, for example), but he does not miss the chance to feature some gorgeous scenery.

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  • Magennis, Hugh. “Michael Crichton, Ibn Fadlan, Fantasy Cinema: Beowulf at the Movies.” Old English Newsletter 35.1 (2001): 34–38.

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    Writes a review for Anglo-Saxonists, seeing some success in capturing the heroism of Beowulf in classroom comparison with Eaters of the Dead. Considers Baker 1999 “a half-baked bloodfest.”

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  • McTiernan, John, dir. The 13th Warrior. DVD. Burbank, CA: Buena Vista, 1999.

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    Based on Crichton 1992 (cited under Literary Afterlife), and likewise considered a disappointment. Ahmed, effectively exiled to the north by the caliph of Baghdad, joins Viking raiders, learns their language and ways, and joins a party of them to save a village as the required non-Norse thirteenth man. The Vikings under Buliwyf defeat the bearlike Wendol, who are cannibals. The victorious Buliwyf dies from poison, and Ahmed returns home.

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  • Sturtevant, Paul. “The Tales of the Monsters of Zemeckis’s Beowulf.” Bulletin of International Medieval Research 13 (2007): 31–37.

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    Argues that Zemeckis 2007 should be judged on its own merits and thus deserves its success.

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  • Zemeckis, Ralph, dir. Beowulf, 2007. DVD. Hollywood, CA: Paramount Pictures, 2008.

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    November 2007 saw teachers and students join forces to attend the film. Purists would observe that the film was not your father’s Beowulf, most notably because of the sexuality imported into the film and other liberties with plot and character. At one point the dragon almost steals the show by executing a perfect barrel roll. Beginning students often mistake the movie for a cinematic translation of the epic.

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Music and Performance

The crossover from the narrative of Beowulf to other artistic forms has its risks. Olsson 2006 is a recitation or a performance—a “singing” in the terminology of oral literature—that is nothing less than a convincing tour de force. Hanson 1925 creates a tone poem that for some catches the tragic spirit of the poem. In Heaney 2000, Seamus Heaney reads his own work. As Frantzen 2006 suggests, Goldenthal 2007 and Wylie and Davies 1974 have much to overcome in rendering an opera from the Old English narrative.

Literary Afterlife

To fail to mention J. R. R. Tolkien here would be worse than treason. In his The Hobbit (Tolkien 1989a) and The Lord of the Rings (Tolkien 1989b), both imaginatively derived from his scholarship, Tolkien masters several different registers of narration. Gardner is considerably less ambitious, but he creates a tour de force in his more focused retelling of the poem (Gardner 1989). Holt 1988 concerns Norse themes more than Beowulfian ones. Godwin 1995 reshapes the narrative for a smoother retelling. Crichton wrote Eaters of the Dead (Crichton 1992) on a bet that he could make an “entertaining” story out of Beowulf.

  • Crichton, Michael. Eaters of the Dead. New York: Ballantine, 1992.

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    In general, as the movie The 13th Warrior (see McTiernan 1999, cited under Film). Crichton adopts the conceit of scholarly commentary on an old manuscript supported by sources. Some critics did not welcome this version. First published in 1976.

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  • Gardner, John. Grendel. New York: Vintage, 1989.

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    An established scholar of medieval literature and a highly regarded 20th-century author, Gardner tells the story from Grendel’s point of view. Along with Olsson 2006, and perhaps Hanson 1925 (both cited under Music and Performance), Gardner’s Grendel ranks at the top of works inspired by the original. Often taught as a text to compare with the original, Grendel has inspired a brisk trade in course papers. First published in 1971 (New York: Knopf).

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  • Godwin, Park. The Tower of Beowulf. New York: William Morrow, 1995.

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    Accomplished fantasy writer Godwin returns to medieval narrative material to refashion the Beowulf story. In his telling we learn more about the backstory, which also produces another sensitive Grendel.

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  • Holt, Tom. Who’s Afraid of Beowulf? New York: St. Martin’s, 1988.

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    When archaeologist Hildy Fredericksen discovers a sunken Viking longship, she gets more than she bargained for as Norse heroes awaken. Beowulfians will be disappointed that their hero makes only a cameo appearance in this comic narrative. Republished as Expecting Beowulf (Framingham, MA: NESFA, 2002).

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  • Tolkien, J. R. R. The Hobbit, or, There and Back Again. New York: Ballantine, 1989a.

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    As the dynamic Tolkien industry has established, Beowulf stands closely behind this work as a treasure house of narrative motifs and ideas. The Oxford don has creatively woven a fantasy from various motifs found in Beowulf and other medieval literature, making Bilbo Baggins a figure for all seasons. First published in 1937 (London: Allen & Unwin).

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  • Tolkien, J. R. R. The Lord of the Rings. New York: Ballantine, 1989b.

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    First published 1954–1956 (London: Allen & Unwin). This trilogy, known primarily by moviegoers, displays the imaginative genius of Tolkien in a larger and more ambitious narrative.

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