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Beowulf in the Modern Age – Thorkelin to Heaney

Two brief sections of Beowulf were printed in 1705, but the first complete transcriptions of the poem were made by an Icelandic-Danish scholar named Grimur Jonsson Thorkelin between 1787 and 1789 (North, p.4).  He came to the British Library to research documents about Denmark’s history, and since the first part of Beowulf takes place in Denmark, it made sense for him to consult the singed manuscript.  He had two copies made, and after years of study and setbacks, published the first printed version of Beowulf in 1815 in Copenhagen, all in scholarly Latin.  The first English edition was printed in 1833, edited by John M. Kemble and printed by William Pickering, and the manuscript itself rebound in 1845 (Encyclopedia Romana, “Sir Robert Cotton and the Beowulf Manuscript).  Thorkelin’s transcriptions, made some fifty years after the Cottonian library fire, represent the most complete version of the poem accessible to us.  He got to the manuscript some fifty years before letters were further lost due to singed and fragile parchment edges and the inevitable losses that occur during the process of rebinding. As such, these transcriptions hold a highly authoritative status amongst Beowulf scholars.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, Kevin Kiernan protests the status of Thorkelin’s transcriptions by pointing out the modern scholar’s greater access to technology that lets him or her see within the page to palimpsests and tiny paleographical subtleties.  “The point,” he writes, “is not that Wrenn and most other editors have relied on the FS instead of the MS. It is that editors, beginning with Zupitza, have allowed Thorkelin to remain an authority for a crucial reading, a linguistic test used to date the text, that is not only disputed, but flatly contradicted by the MS itself” (Kiernan, p. 35).  Kiernan is not wrong.  High-tech scanning equipment has allowed scholars to see the letters covered by the special page-holders constructed for the Nowell Codex when it was rebound in the nineteenth century.  Much of what was believed to be lost has been recovered by doing so.  Kiernan’s argument is detailed and convincing on this front especially, since he is the editor of the Electronic Beowulf project and has consequently spent a great deal of time using technology to examine the manuscript.  The Electronic Beowulf is now available on CD-ROM, further extending the potential audience of the poem.  Unfortunately, Beowulf and the Beowulf Manuscript is fundamentally crippled by the pervasive tone of arrogance mixed with defensiveness that distracts the reader from Kiernan’s detailed analysis.

Though Beowulf has been a part of the process to define English national identity from the time of its creation, Thorkelin’s work to publish it finally made it accessible to the populace at large.  By the twentieth century it was a standard part of any textbook to learn Anglo-Saxon, and for many it was the only Anglo-Saxon text they were likely to encounter at any length.  For others, it was a side note, overwhelmed by King Alfred’s role in Anglo-Saxon literary and political history. In An Anglo-Saxon Reader, published in 1930, almost one hundred pages are dedicated to texts by Alfred and Bede, while Beowulf receives about fifteen.  Whether or not it had a prominent place in the beginning readers, Beowulf held scholarly and popular attention.  One of the most iconic twentieth century scholarly articles in a humanities subject is J.R.R. Tolkien’s Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics, published by Oxford University Press in 1958 and based on a lecture he gave in 1936.  Today most know Tolkien as the creator of one of the greatest fantasy epics in the English language, The Lord of the Rings.  Few remember him for his work as a professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford University.  In the essay, Tolkien highlights the story itself, showing how the fantasy is as valuable for study as the historical elements.  The poem is as much art as history, he argues.

Indeed, Beowulf captured public imagination.  It truly is a gripping tale of heroes performing deeds of supernatural strength, wielding named swords, and fighting dragons, only to die and be buried with a hoard of golden treasure.  Wikipedia.com has a page dedicated to an admittedly incomplete list of artistic depictions of Beowulf, from television and cinematic adaptations to literary, music, theatrical, and even a board game.  Beowulf has been told in graphic novels, referenced in Star Trek: The Next Generation, and made into not one but four operas. For a poem that has existed for at least a thousand years but only reached general circulation two hundred years ago, it has certainly taken off.  Echoes of the story can be seen in other works that have their roots in Norse mythology, such as Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, and Wagner’s Ring cycle.  But in spite of the poem’s Scandinavian roots and widespread popularity, it has been accepted wholeheartedly as a truly English epic.

The tragic-heroic Beowulf inhabits a place in English cultural identity that is similar to his chronological counterpart, the mythological Welsh king Arthur.  Both stories take place in a mythologized past that can be dated to the so-called Dark Ages, sometime in the sixth century, though the story actually gets written down centuries later.  Arthur and Beowulf exist in an English almost-history, fundamental for national and cultural identity and presented with pride to the world at large.  This approach is now questioned by some scholars such as Seamus Heaney, whose evocative translation in 1999 garnered much praise for its readability and a little criticism for not including explanatory notations. “Heaney recognizes the role that Beowulf and other early English writings have played in the development of a national, English, literature, but in translating it he makes it something else.  He writes from an Irish and a postcolonial experience, not an English one, and he addresses his translation of the poem to the readership of the ‘global village’… rather than appealing to shared cultural origins” (Magennis, p. 11). Heaney, a widely praised Irish poet, recaptured the artistic literature of the poem, making it a book that is hard to put down while reading.

** full bibliography to be posted with concluding section