Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Beowulf Brouhaha

So Hollywood shoehorned sex into every possible place in the plot of Beowulf. Like no one saw that coming. Suffice it to say that I never pictured Grendel’s Mother that way.

I was a Tolkien geek in college, and took two semesters of Anglo-Saxon mostly as a pose, so I could be more-hobbitish-than-thou in conversation. I thus read Beowulf in Old English, after a fashion. That fashion was general laziness, though I actually did show up for that course, bright and shiny while I was present. So you can trust that what I tell you is absolutely authoritative. Compared to most people, I’m an expert is rather a guiding principle in my life. Compared to an actual expert, I am revealed as a dilettante, here as elsewhere.

Without Tolkien’s essay in the 1930’s, “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics,” it is doubtful that anyone would have ever considered making a 2007 movie about the Hero of Heorot. I have been unable to find the text online, but the wikipedia article is here. (Note to those who followed that link: you are now just about as much an expert as I am, except you will forget this information in a few days.) Tolkien changed Beowulf criticism for the rest of the century with that one presentation. Until that time, Beowulf was regarded as a purely academic curiosity, to be studied for whatever nuggets of history and language could be unearthed. It was not assigned for English survey courses, and was little better known than say, The Battle of Maldon is now. (Maldon would make a great movie, BTW, rather like 300.)

Tolkien pointed out the obvious: “Whoa, cool! This is about monsters!” As the obvious had been eluding academics for two centuries, this was a great contribution. Professors and even high-school educators realized that students might actually be interested in something written before last week, if they could only package it well enough. “Smedley, this is actually a good story. I never noticed before. Perhaps we can get those toads in Fifth Form to actually read something.” The essay is quite magnificent, and still an excellent introductory to what can go wrong with literary criticism. Because the rest of English literature before 1400 lacks adventure and plot, experts became accustomed to overlooking them. Schools can try and assign The Canterbury Tales, a series of sarcastic stories with occasional ribaldry; Pearl or The Dream of the Rood, a religious vision; fragments of poems about death, the sea, and home; or you can compare translations of the New Testament. (Sir Gawaine and the Green Knight, Morte D’Arthur are later). Thus Beowulf in English literature survey courses, by default. It’s older. It’s got drinking, combat, and monsters. It wins.

Packaging has been a problem. Monsters are all well and good, but it’s still poetry, and poetry of an unfamiliar sort. Epic poetry seems to be beloved by great readers, and my own irritation with that form is why I will never rise higher than middlebrow. So be it. I still can’t stomach most poetry. I will have an opportunity to try Beowulf again at least twice. The Irish poet Seamus Heaney has done a new translation which is reported to be excellent and readable. More interesting for Tolkien fans is the discovery in the Bodleian Library of his translation of Beowulf, not previously known to exist. Anglo-Saxon scholar Michael Drout discovered the handwritten notebooks last year, buried underneath other Tolkien writings in an old box.

This seems to happen at the Bodleian with alarming frequency. Stuff shows up in overlooked boxes all the time, it seems. Doesn’t anyone catalog or organize there?


Dubbahdee said...

So, what is the category for those of us who have read the translations, but never the original, haven't read tolkien's essay, who agree that epic poetry is often tedious, but nevertheless found the monsters and the fighting and the drinking and the whole tearing off of arms thing really cool?

If you are a dilettante, what circle of hell is reserved for such as I?

Erin said...

The Seamus Heaney version is pretty good, although I have yet to read the original Old English myself. Dad found this in the paper the other day. Thought it was appropriate.


Anonymous said...

Get the 2-CD version of Beowulf - spoken in its original Old English by Trevor Eaton. This is perhaps the best spoken version available - and it's the complete poem, not an abridged version.