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Beowulf

Beowulf

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Add This - Beowulf

Written by Howell D. ChickeringAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Howell D. Chickering

  • Format: Trade Paperback, 464 pages
  • Publisher: Anchor
  • On Sale: February 14, 2006
  • Price: $15.95
  • ISBN: 978-1-4000-9622-0 (1-4000-9622-7)
EXCERPT

I am very gratified that over the years this book has found a wide and varied audience, from high school students to Ph.D. candidates as well as the general reader interested in poetry. I believe that its longevity is due to my putting the original Old English poem on display in a fairly comprehensible fashion, even though there are places where I would now refine my facing translation or expand the commentary.

Increasingly in the last decade colleagues who regularly use this book have asked me if I would ever consider updating it. I have brooded over what an "update" could possibly mean for a book that is already selective and is aimed at making Beowulf available as poetry to those who have not studied Old English before. Certainly it cannot mean a full account, nor even a cursory survey, of the many developments in the study of the poem over the last quarter century. At the same time, some of those developments do bear upon the literary interpretation of the poem. Moreover, new research tools have come into being, the ongoing Dictionary of Old English (DOE) chief among them, that give us a more accurate understanding of words and concepts in Old English. Recent editions and reexaminations of the MS. have led me to change my mind about the best way to render particular lines. In addition, a number of difficult passages remain in dispute.

The first section below is a digest of what I regard as the most important work on topics that affect my interpretation and translation of the poem. This section is highly selective and has no pretensions to complete coverage. All the different areas of Beowulf study, past and present, are already thoroughly discussed in the now indispensable A Beowulf Handbook, eds. Bjork and Niles (to 1994), and Andy Orchard's A Critical Companion to "Beowulf" (to 2002), both of which contain exhaustive bibliographies. For an annotated bibliography from 1979 to 1990, see Hasenfratz, Beowulf Scholarship. For reviews of research published since 2002, see the Beowulf section of "The Year's Work in Old English Studies" appearing annually in the Old English Newsletter (OEN).

In the second section below I briefly discuss the choices that editors must make in punctuating and emending the sole surviving MS. of the poem, and then list the specific points in the original text where I would now choose a different reading or where I regard the meaning as still uncertain.

All new references in this Afterword, cited here by author or short title, are listed in full in Section IV of the Bibliography. The DOE and OEN appear under Healey and Liuzza, respectively.

I. Scholars still "do not know by whom, how, when, or where Beowulf was composed" (p. 247 above), but the range of suggested possibilities has expanded, and scholarship on the subject has flourished mightily. The articles in the 1981 Colin Chase volume (p. 410 below) made many scholars consider the possibility of dating the poem to the Danish invasions of the ninth and tenth centuries. On paleographical grounds, in that volume and his own book of the same year, Kevin Kiernan even advanced a theory that the composition of the poem is as late as the production of the MS. itself (ca. A.D. 1020, in his view). For objections to Kiernan's theory, see R. D. Fulk in PQ for 1982, among others. On different paleographical grounds, Michael Lapidge recently posited an archetype of the surviving MS. dated to no later than A.D. 750 (see ASE 29), while Fulk's analysis of the poem's meter and phonology suggested initial composition by no later than 725 if originally Mercian, or 825 if originally Northumbrian (see his History, 420). On the other hand, the earlier groundbreaking work of Ashley Crandall Amos convinced many of us that there are few, if any, safe linguistic grounds for dating Old English poems. Writing in 1997 not only about its date, but also the poem's provenance, author, and audiences, Robert E. Bjork and Anita Obermeier noted a trend for scholars to prefer a later date and possibly a southern locale, but they concluded that we have arrived only "at a cautious and necessary incertitude" (Handbook, p. 33). This remains true today. (Further discussion by Liuzza in Baker, Howe in Chase 1997 rpt., Fulk in ASE 32, Cronan in ASE 33, and Newton, The Origins of "Beowulf.")

I still hold the same views about "Composition and Authorship" (pp. 249-52 above) without any substantial change of opinion about the oral vs. written controversy. Even if we accept the idea that the extant text is the product of many re-singings by more than one scop, we still can decide to take our unique MS. copy as what we choose to experience as the poem. It could even be argued that, since we live in our own writing-bound culture, we can only have a literary experience of this one text recorded in writing, to which most readers respond as if to a unified sensibility, though not provably a single "author." Nevertheless, the study of Beowulf as traditional oral poetry has seen great advances since the 1970s, particularly in the work of John Miles Foley and John D. Niles. Equally valuable is Katherine O'Brien O'Keeffe's Visible Song, a pioneering description of what she calls "transitional literacy." The late Edward B. Irving, Jr.'s, Rereading "Beowulf" is perhaps the best recent volume of literary criticism based upon the notion of oral composition; his close readings often transcend the controversy. Andy Orchard has conveniently charted the repeated formulas in the poem for the light they might throw "on the poem's structure or the poet's compositional technique (or both)": see his Companion, Appendices II and III.

As for the prosody of the poem, I continue to feel confident that a careful perusal and enthusiastic application of the Guide to Reading Aloud (pp. 29-38 above) will, with a little coaching or listening to a tape, give the reader everything necessary for voicing Beowulf aloud as poetry, that is, as formed speech that obeys its own artistic rules. Yet it is important to note that the intensive analysis of Beowulfian prosody, and of Old English meter generally, has gone far beyond the systems of scansion described in my Guide. I would call particular attention to the works by Cable, Creed, Fulk, Hutcheson, Kendall, and Russom. I also acknowledge an important omission in not having mentioned in the Guide the central work of A. J. Bliss. All these works are perhaps only for specialists, but any one of them can improve the ear of a reciting reader.

It is a truism of literary study that we do not read a text without supplying some sort of context for it. And we choose the contexts in which we understand it on the basis of our own often unexamined assumptions. Today Anglo-Saxon studies as a field has gained a sharp self-consciousness about its own assumptions. In The Search for Anglo-Saxon Paganism, E. G. Stanley described the attitudes of the nineteenth-century Continental scholars who invented this academic subject, while Carl T. Berkhout and others have described in detail the careers of English Renaissance antiquaries, including Lawrence Nowell, the first known possessor of the Beowulf manuscript. The most searching examination of the ways we have constructed our contexts, and the motives behind them, has come from Allen J. Frantzen. His book Desire for Origins makes it crystal clear that the contexts for the study of Beowulf do not exist on their own somewhere in the past, waiting to be discovered by modern scholars, but rather that we invent and apply them as our predilections lead us. Over the years, critics' views of the poem have been shaped (not always consciously) by religious, political, and nationalistic motivations.

There are many critical approaches to Beowulf, using different contexts. Some apply distinctly modern theoretical concepts and do not bear upon my reading of the poem. Interesting examples of deconstructionist and feminist approaches may be found in Gillian Overing's Language, Sign, and Gender in "Beowulf," while James W. Earl uses what he calls "psychoanalytic anthropology" in his Thinking About "Beowulf." Other critics have approached the poem in the context of Anglo-Saxon cultural history; see particularly Nicholas Howe, Migration and Mythmaking, and Craig R. Davis, Demise of Germanic Legend. Still others have examined the world of the poem from the viewpoint of anthropology, as does John M. Hill in The Cultural World. See further his chapter on "Social Milieu" in the Handbook.

The great majority of literary studies take the poem itself as providing most of its own contexts, though sometimes those contexts are linked with other poetic or historical texts. The critical topics are of course quite various. A sampling might include diction, variation, formulas, macrostructure, microstructure, unity, episodes and digressions, myths, historical analogues, literary analogues, allegory, and symbolism. These and other topics are treated extensively in different chapters of the Handbook. I have already had my say in my Introduction, Background, and Commentary about what I consider the most important literary features of the poem. Recent collections of literary criticism of Beowulf include those edited by Baker, Donoghue, Fulk, and Howe. The best short book-length treatment of the poem remains George Clark's 1990 Beowulf in Twayne's English Authors series.

The historical contexts possible for the poem are continually being enriched in one way or another. Students of literature were grateful indeed when three distinguished Anglo-Saxon historians brought out The Anglo-Saxons in 1982 (listed under Campbell in Section IV of the Bibliography), an up-to-date and integrated overview of Anglo-Saxon political and social history. Although we do not know in which century, or in which Anglo-Saxon kingdom or monastery, the poem should be located, the more that we can know about the period, the better. The literary history of the entire period has been treated by Greenfield and Calder, and most recently by Fulk and Cain. Students will also find useful introductions to Old English literature in Donoghue's book of that name, and in the collections edited by Godden and Lapidge, and by Liuzza. Two collections that focus on current critical approaches are edited by Aertsen and Bremmer, and by O'Brien O'Keeffe.

One historical context for the poem that has developed considerably in recent years has been archaeology. In 1977 the Sutton Hoo ship-burial and the great hall at Yeavering dominated our perception of the relationship between the poem and material reality. Sutton Hoo remained the determining context for the goods and burial customs mentioned in Beowulf all during the time that scholars believed the poem had to have an early date. (See further Roberta Frank, "The Odd Couple.") But British medieval archaeology has developed at a rapid rate since the 1970s, and there have been notable new Anglo-Saxon and Viking discoveries. Comparisons with archaeological finds elsewhere in Northern Europe have also proven fruitful. Catherine M. Hills sketched archaeological developments to 1992 in her chapter in the Handbook and concluded, interestingly enough, that the Anglo-Saxon evidence found up to that point was "at least partly compatible with a later date of composition than that usually suggested by reference to Sutton Hoo" (her p. 310). For work subsequent to 1992, see the "Archaeology" section in "The Year's Work in Old English Studies" in OEN.

Then there is the perennial double question of the nature of the hero and the metaphysical design in which the poem places him. Analyses of both Beowulf's character and the poet's viewpoint on the story have proceeded apace in the last few decades without any final resolution, and none is likely to occur soon. Most interpretations of the poem's design and purpose have usually been bound up with assumptions about its presumed historical circumstance. Even if we did not have to make unprovable assumptions about an historical context, any consensus in criticism would probably continue to be thwarted by the poem's elliptical and ironic strategies of both style and design. The poet rarely commits himself to a single judgment on the actions of his characters, offering instead competing perspectives and oblique analogies.

Recent scholarship has refined the meanings of what too often are undefined blanket terms in the criticism of Beowulf, "Christian" and "pagan," so much so that I would no longer dare to say, as I do on p. 259 above, that the Germanic and Christian traditions are as fused in Beowulf as they were in Anglo-Saxon society. Such a statement assumes too symmetrical an analogy between literature and life. Moreover, while there may have been different kinds of fusion in various periods and social strata, critics of the poem continue to disagree on whether the Germanic past of the story is fused with, or at odds with, the evident Christianity of the poet.

We can describe with confidence the Christian concepts in the poem (see pp. 258-60, 268-77 above, and Orchard, Companion, pp. 130-68), but the precise type of "Christianity" enjoyed by the poet and his audience will depend on which century we choose to place the poem. In an important reappraisal of seventh- and eighth-century sources, the late Patrick Wormald (p. 414 below) showed that our modern understanding of the Conversion had been skewed by an overreliance on a single source, the Venerable Bede, and his persuasive picture of a wholesale exchange of one set of values for another. Wormald demonstrated that both secular poetry and ecclesiastical prose were products of an aristocratic society, and argued that this "warrior nobility" had successfully assimilated the new faith while retaining many of its earlier values (his p. 57). If we choose to date the poem later in the period, it is probably equally unwise to think of a monolithic Anglo-Saxon world-view, particularly in the Danelaw: Judith Jesch has recently described the evidence for a "light pagan colouring" that continued for several generations among Anglo-Scandinavians in northern England during the tenth and eleventh centuries. For that period, she urges that we abandon "our strictly dichotomous and antithetical view of paganism and Christianity" ("Scandinavians and 'Cultural Paganism' in Late Anglo-Saxon England," in Cavill, pp. 55-68; quotes on p. 67).

In his chapter on this topic in the Handbook, Edward B. Irving, Jr., usefully discusses the three different meanings "pagan" has had in Beowulf criticism: literal, vestigial, and ethical (his pp. 177-80). As for the Christianity of the poem itself, he finds it "distinctly limited" and "tailored to the dimensions of heroic poetry" (his p. 186; see further his essay in ASE 13). Irving's view assumes that the poem belongs to a single genre, heroic poetry. However, as has been said many times, Beowulf is a poem that is over before it begins; it anticipates its end in its beginning. Its "pastness" and its elegiac elements are undeniable. The poet's view of his noble characters and their actions in the past may well be critical while at the same time admiring (pp. 27, 377, 379 above). The most influential presentation in the last twenty years of this binocular view of the poem has been Fred C. Robinson's elegant little book, "Beowulf" and the Appositive Style (p. 414 below), which takes the position of E. G. Stanley's article on the "Haethenra Hyht" (p. 408 below) and extends it through a masterful presentation of the poet's deployment of appositions of several kinds: lexical, grammatical, and narrative.

Excerpted from Beowulf by Translated and with an Introduction and Commentary by Howell D. Chickering Jr. Copyright © 2006 by Howell D. Chickering. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.