In honor of final projects due this week, the conclusion of eight years of university education, and National Poetry Month, I present a poem I thought was absolutely the funniest thing ever when I was about nine years old.
Homework! Oh, Homework!
by Jack Prelutsky
Homework! Oh, Homework!
I hate you! You stink!
I wish I could wash you away in the sink,
if only a bomb
would explode you to bits.
Homework! Oh, homework!
You’re giving me fits.
I’d rather take baths
with a man-eating shark,
or wrestle a lion
alone in the dark,
eat spinach and liver,
pet ten porcupines,
than tackle the homework
my teacher assigns.
Homework! Oh, homework!
you’re last on my list,
I simply can’t see
why you even exist,
if you just disappeared
it would tickle me pink.
Homework! Oh, homework!
I hate you! You stink!
Pretty self-explanatory, really. Just a few more days to go…
People keep telling me that I’ll never really be free of homework. Right now I choose to ignore that fact. I will put my fingers in my ears and sing loudly to drown out the reality. Tra la la.
In one of my classes last week, the lecture and discussion focused on the concepts of information anxiety and information avoidance. The scholars who study these concepts argue that people will avoid information that conflicts with the individual’s world view or that will force changes. This makes it sound trivial and petty, but it’s not. A lot of the literature on this topic uses medical examples – people refusing to get tested for genetic disorders or STDs, because the potential results will require drastic changes and important decisions the people are unwilling to face. There are of course less traumatic examples. One article we read used the example of a pretend study of physical attractiveness – do the participants want to know what the other (imaginary) participants said about their attractiveness?
Personally, I’d say no, but that gets into discussions of a favorite concept in social sciences and humanities scholarship: context. We learn from experience, and if experience shows that similar interactions went a certain way in the past, we use that information to make our decisions.
I’m an anxious person. I’m just wired that way. It’s hard for me to avoid worrying. I’m not talking the top ten phobias kind of worrying. I don’t LIKE spiders, but I don’t spend my day obsessing about whether there’s one behind the fridge. If I notice one in my apartment and I’m unable to catch-and-remove before it scuttles out of reach, then I get a little jumpy.
The thing about anxiety is it doesn’t feel rational. It may have logical reasons behind it, but the feeling itself, not to mention the state of mind it creates, relies on illogical emotions. Let’s face it: Anxiety is a kind of fear. When I’m anxious, the feeling can be as minor as a gnawing feeling in my gut, or as major as a full-blown anxiety attack, including nausea, uncontrollable shaking, and inability to focus or relax.
I do avoid some kinds of information, not so much because I think it will force change, but because I know it will trigger anxiety. One of the coping mechanisms for living as an anxious person is to learn what to avoid. I don’t read any newspaper articles that mention the word “pandemic.” I avoid announcements of what the newest OMGDEATHFLU is each year – I just go get the flu shot and hope fervently that it works.
Mostly, however, I prefer to rip the band-aid off, information-wise. Most of the time, I’d much rather know. When I’m anticipating information, the anxious part of my brain goes into catastrophe mode and starts imagining all kinds of terrible outcomes. Information avoidance, to me, is generally way worse than having the information. Yes, getting the diagnosis or hearing the news can create new things to worry about. Yes, it can be hard. But at least when I know, I can do something about it. I can create a plan and start working to solve the problem. I hate the articles on the West Coast that come out every year or two that talk about how the “Big One” (earthquake) could happen any time, that we’re overdue for a massive shake on the Hayward Fault, and look how things will fall apart when it happens. Those articles regularly give me a stomachache (not exaggerating). On the other hand, it makes me paranoid about checking my first aid kits, which is arguably a good thing.
I’m struggling with anxiety a lot right now, in large part because so many areas of my life are stuck in holding patterns. Finding a job, figuring out the health issues that plague me, dealing with social life, and so forth – it feels like a lot of things that are on hold until I figure out what happens after graduation. Obviously the job thing needs to happen, like, yesterday, but everything else seems to rely on that. Getting a job means getting health insurance (I hope), income, and hopefully a new social circle. It means moving to a new place and navigating this whole grown-up life thing.
On the one hand, anxiety is making me attack this, do something about it. I know I won’t feel better till I know what to expect from the next few months, and the rest of the year.
On the other hand, I kind of want to go back to bed and never leave that nice warm safe place.
Tracking the biography of Beowulf is rendered difficult due to the mysteries surrounding the first several centuries of the manuscript’s existence. To do so, one must examine wider trends of politics, warfare, culture, and use that knowledge to make educated guesses. The scholarly debates raging around the dating of the manuscript itself, let alone the poem the manuscript contains, show that the questions cannot be definitively answered until someone invents a time machine. The manuscript is from sometime between the eighth and eleventh centuries. The poem may have been written in the eleventh century, or it may be oral tradition dating well back into the sixth or seventh century, or even farther, if it has been edited to exclude pagan references in favor of Christianity. Kevin Kiernan explains at great length that linguistics cannot be used to determine where in England the manuscript is from, let alone when. Scribal custom at the time incorporated elements of all of the major Anglo-Saxon dialects, and written conventions involved the usage of antiquated terminology (Kiernan, p. 38).
Furthermore, we have no idea where the manuscript actually was until it appears in the private collection of the noted “Saxonist” Laurence Nowell in the 1560s. From there the location of the manuscript can be traced at all times as it weathered the turbulence of England in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and slowly began to return from obscurity when Old English studies came to the English universities. In spite of all of this, the poem’s ubiquitousness today makes it hard to fathom the fact that Beowulf was never published in entirety until 1815. It is iconic today. Academic libraries hold shelves of translations from different times and different editors, in poetry and in prose. Echoes of the story can be found in fantasy literature, and the poem itself is referenced and adapted in everything from Animaniacs to opera. In spite of the fact that the poem is about Scandinavian kings and praises Danish leadership, it is the longest Old English poem in existence, and is considered a national treasure. The Beowulf manuscript helped to found the British Library, and in all periods of its existence has played a small part in defining what it is to be English.
British Library. “Beowulf.” Accessed October 6, 2012. http://www.bl.uk/onlinegallery/onlineex/englit/beowulf/index.html.
Encyclopedia Romana. “Beowulf.” Accessed October 6, 2012. http://penelope.uchicago.edu/~grout/encyclopaedia_romana/britannia/anglo-saxon/beowulf/vitellius.html
Encyclopedia Romana. “Sir Robert Cotton and the Beowulf Manuscript” accessed November 18, 2012. http://penelope.uchicago.edu/~grout/encyclopaedia_romana/britannia/anglo-saxon/beowulf/vitellius.html
Graham, Timothy, ed. The Recovery of Old English: Anglo-Saxon Studies in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. Kalamazoo, Michigan: Medieval Institute Publications, 2000.
Kiernan, Kevin S. Beowulf and the Beowulf Manuscript. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1996.
Magennis, Hugh. The Cambridge Introduction to Anglo-Saxon Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011.
North, Richard. The Origins of Beowulf: From Vergil to Wiglaf. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.
Rumble, Alexander R., ed. Writing and Texts in Anglo-Saxon England. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2006.
Tolkien, J.R.R. Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics. London: Humphrey Milford, 1936.
Turk, Milton Haight. An Anglo-Saxon Reader. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1930.
Zimmermann, Gunhild. The Four Old English Poetic Manuscripts: Texts, Contexts, and Historical Background. Heidelberg: Universitätsverlag C. Winter Heidelberg, 1995.
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
Rediscovery – The Nowell Codex and the Cottonian Library
The only evidence proving the existence of Beowulf or the Beowulf manuscript before 1563 is the physical manuscript itself. Where exactly the codex resided during the centuries between its creation and its appearance in the private collection of Laurence Nowell is entirely unknown. However, historical events suggest a reasonable theory. It is likely that the two scribes were monks, and equally likely that the manuscript, forgotten or suppressed in a world in which strong association with Anglo-Saxon language or culture was highly undesirable, languished on some back shelf of a monastic library. When Henry VIII declared the English church free from Roman rule, the monasteries were dissolved over a period of several years. Their contents were given or sold to royal favorites, or simply taken by those involved in the dissolution process. Once again, Beowulf found its life affected by a time when England was defining itself as distinct from the rest of the world. Whether Laurence Nowell acquired the codex of Anglo-Saxon texts directly from a dissolved monastic library or whether the book passed through other private hands first is unknown, though given the date the latter is more probable. We simply know that the Nowell Codex bears his name and the year 1563.
Laurence Nowell lived during a fascinating time in English history. Through the unpredictability of Henry VIII’s policies to the religious whiplash caused by the reigns of Edward VI, Mary I, and then back to the Protestant queen Elizabeth I, the humanist movement continued to grow. It is also a time when Old English studies came to the English universities. In her article in The Recovery of Old English, Angelika Lutz shows that the Elizabethan regime retroactively represented “the break with the Catholic Church under Henry VIII as a return to the greater independence from Rome that the English Church had known in the Anglo-Saxon period” (Graham, p. 1). Archbishop Matthew Parker and Sir William Cecil promoted “extensive studies of Anglo-Saxon historical sources and of the Old English language” (Graham, p. 2). Laurence Nowell worked for Cecil for a time, so it is unsurprising that he should have developed an interest in the subject. Perhaps the Beowulf manuscript came to Nowell through Cecil. Nowell apparently made a point of collecting Anglo-Saxon documents because he created the first Old English to early modern English dictionary. It was not published until centuries after, but the fact that the project began at all is significant. He studied Old English legal documents in particular, annotating all of the texts he examined. The presence of Old English studies in the universities and Old English documents in private hands may mean that selected scholars were permitted to read Beowulf. Whether it was read or not, Anglo-Saxon texts were used for the specific purpose of restoring England to a more purely English version of itself, putting Beowulf at the center of the process to define national identity.
After Nowell’s death sometime around 1570, some portion of his collection made its way into the hands of Robert Cotton. Once Beowulf shows up in Cotton’s library, historians can trace all of its further movements. Robert Cotton “developed a particular interest in manuscripts concerning the early history of England, manuscripts which he himself put to scholarly use and which he liberally made available to contemporaries who shared his interest. In the spirit of the national enthusiasm of the late Elizabethan period, Cotton regarded this granting of access as an important public duty” (Graham, p. 10). Beowulf could have been read by anyone granted access to his library. Furthermore, he repeatedly petitioned Elizabeth I and James I to create a royal academy and library specifically for antiquarian studies. Cotton even proposed donating his personal library. It is appropriate, therefore, that his grandson did in fact donate the by then much expanded library to the state. The progression of events between Robert Cotton’s first petition to Elizabeth I in 1602 and the eventual donation of the Cottonian Library are of course more complicated, and undoubtedly linked to the political upheaval in England during the middle part of the seventeenth century. In 1629 the library was closed by royal order and Cotton was actually arrested on suspicion of sedition. The antiquarian society to which Cotton belonged had strayed too far into political arenas, and the Anglo-Saxon texts that came from a world unfamiliar with the concept of ruling by divine right might be to blame.
England survived its civil war and the restoration of an increasingly limited monarchy, and Old English studies continued to thrive in the universities. Kiernan writes that “The Cotton collection was presented to the British people in 1700” by Cotton’s grandson, Sir John Cotton (Kiernan, p. 67). It is thus a foundational collection of what is now the British Library – not just one of the most fabulous library collections in the world, but a source of national definition and pride for the British people. It is significant that the collection was donated to the British people, not the British monarch. The House of Commons trustees moved the collection from the “dilapidated” Cotton House to Essex House in 1722. It remained there for seven years, after which it was moved from Essex house, which had been deemed a fire hazard, to the ironically-named Ashburnham House (Kiernan, p. 67). On October 23, 1731, a fire broke out at Ashburnham House. “The Fire prevailing, notwithstanding the Means used to extinguish it, Mr. Casley the Deputy-Librarian took Care in the first Place to remove the famous Alexandrian MS. and the Books under the Head of Augustus in the Cottonian Library, as being esteemed the most valuable amongst the Collection” (Kiernan, p. 68, quoted from a contemporary account). Other bookshelves were removed in their entirety, and others had to be broken open so that the books, already charring from the back of the shelving, could be thrown out the windows. As Kiernan relates, “The Beowulf MS was presumably saved for us by being thrown from the window, for the present condition of Cotton Vitellius A. XV shows that the Vitellius press was one of those that caught fire from the back” (Kiernan, p. 68). Known as Cotton Vitellius A. XV in remembrance of its shelf location in the Cottonian library, the manuscript remained in the condition in which the fire left it until the British Library rebound it in the nineteenth century, charred edges flaking and crumbling, allowing precious letters and words to vanish. It is a great pity that the first complete transcriptions were made decades after the fire. Scholars estimate the loss of thousands of characters from the poem as it originally existed.
** full bibliography will be posted with concluding section of paper
Beowulf and the Beowulf Manuscript
The origins of the Beowulf manuscript are mysterious and the subject of intense scholarly debate. The manuscript itself is now known as the Nowell Codex, after Laurence Nowell’s inscription of his own name on the front page in the sixteenth century. Paleographic studies show that Beowulf was written by two scribes, but it is impossible to prove definitively where those scribes were, precisely when the manuscript was created, or even the extent to which the poem is based on older oral tradition. Is the manuscript a copy of an older written version, or is it the first time anyone wrote the poem down? The basic facts of the manuscript are few. The first scribe copied lines 1-1939, while the second scribe copied the remainder. Beowulf covers about seventy pages of a larger codex including other prose texts, such as Judith and Homily on St. Christopher. It is the longest extant Old English poem, and currently resides in the collection of the British Library. According to the British Library catalogue record for Cotton Manuscript Vitellius A XV, which includes the Nowell Codex, the manuscript is written on parchment and measures approximately 245 x 185mm in its 1845 binding (British Library, Catalogue record).
From a bibliographical point of view, it may be unexpected that the primary debate rages about the dating of the manuscript rather than the authorship. Scholars refer calmly to the two scribes and to an unknown author dubbed “the Beowulf poet.” On the other hand, arguments and conflicting theories about when the manuscript was created can be described politely as contentious. Some date the poem as early as the eighth century, explaining that it must be after Caedmon and the conversion of the English people to Christianity, but that it must be before the Viking raids in the 790s. A poet writing in Anglo-Saxon would be unlikely to praise violent Danish invaders, and the poem is distinctly favorable towards the Danes (Encyclopedia Romana, “Beowulf). This argument seems to be an outlier, and most scholars aim towards the much later date of the late tenth or early eleventh century. The dating theories seem to be based mostly on historical context with the added support of subtle paleographical details. Those that date the manuscript to the earlier centuries focus on the Christian elements of the poem. They generally argue that it points to a converted population trying to meld old pagan stories with the new Christian values. Another option may be found in Richard North’s The Origins of Beowulf. North proposes that “the poem was composed in order to secure the Mercian throne for its patron, Wiglaf, by performing a requiem for King Beornwulf in the aftermath of his death in battle in 826” (North, p. 4). At the other end of the dating spectrum, historians look more at the political situation in England in the late tenth and early eleventh centuries. Kiernan argues that “there is a better argument for an 11th-century, post-Viking origin of the poem, since an 8th-century poem would still have to be transmitted by Anglo-Saxons through the Viking Age” (Kiernan, p. 4).
From the late eighth century onwards, Anglo-Saxon England was plagued by Danish Viking incursions. By the late ninth century, Danish settlers inhabited a portion of the island and eventually acceded to English rule. This does not mean that England was at peace with the Danes. Danish Vikings continued to invade and pillage, and eventually started to demand annual tributes paid by the English government. A series of vicious raids and slaughtering on both sides culminated in 1013, when the Viking king Sweyn Forkbeard conquered England and forced the hapless Anglo-Saxon king Aethelred into exile. Unfortunately for the Vikings, Sweyn died less than a year later, at which point the Anglo-Saxon nobles began to negotiate with Aethelred for his return. History has granted Aethelred the appellation “Unready,” a mistranslation of the Old English word meaning “ill-advised,” and it is widely accepted that the Anglo-Saxon nobles surrendered to Sweyn simply because they had lost all faith in Aethelred’s bad governance. After Aethelred’s death in 1016, Sweyn’s son Canute worked to take over the English crown.
Clearly this is a turbulent time, and most scholars date the Beowulf manuscript to sometime between 975 and 1025, usually before 1016. Beowulf “offers a model for the realization of the royal obligations, a second model for the obligations to be met by the followers, and a third one which presents the mechanism of social rise of an individual on the basis of the individual’s strife for renown. These three models correspond to three fundamental problems of Anglo-Saxon society under King Aethelred” (Zimmerman, p. 267). It is not unreasonable to postulate that the back-and-forth of the crown between Wessex and the Danes might prompt comparisons between the hopeless Aethelred and the powerful, successful Danish kings. Anglo-Saxon political structures provide us today with the foundations of representative government. Their kings were accepted by acclamation, and it was accepted that the populace (land-owning free men, that is) had a say in government. Perhaps an Anglo-Saxon poet, adhering to long cultural tradition, might think they were better off with a Danish king, or perhaps Beowulf is simply toadying to the current overlords.
In the 1980s, Kevin Kiernan published Beowulf and the Beowulf Manuscript, a detailed series of arguments to pinpoint both the date and the origins of the Beowulf manuscript. He complains vigorously about the lack of attention to the physical manuscript itself in determining its date of production, saying that the manuscript deserves equal, if not more, attention than the poem. Kiernan’s work was explosive. He posited a date as late as 1025, during the reign of King Canute. Furthermore, Kiernan wrote, “The chronological gulf between the poem and the MS is usually reckoned to be two or three centuries… Beowulf and the Beowulf Manuscript challenges the unproven premise that Beowulf is an early poem. It argues instead, ultimately on the basis of extraordinary paleographical and codicological evidence, that the poem is contemporary with the MS” (Kiernan, p. 3). Kiernan, who edited the Electronic Beowulf, makes extensive use of digital technologies to examine the extant manuscript for tiny paleographical details, errors in foliation and pagination, and the evidence of palimpsest sections to prove that not only is the manuscript from the middle of Canute’s reign, but it is contemporary with the poem itself.
It is possible, Kiernan proposes, that the manuscript is in fact the original of Beowulf, since he sees evidence that Scribe B worked on it over a matter of years. Other scholars contest this interpretation. “However tempting this suggestion seems to be,” Gunhild Zimmerman writes, “it rests on rather weak arguments as far as the palaeographical evidence of the manuscript is concerned. Many Critics would not be happy with a palaeographical date of the manuscript after 1016” (Zimmerman, p. 236). He goes on to cite several scholars who argue that the scribes worked from a copy, basing their argument on the specific layout of Beowulf within the Nowell Codex. “The scribes could not have known without an exemplar, Boyle concludes, that they would need to add just four extra lines, spread out over four pages, to the normal 20-line frame in order for scribe A to be able to finish copying all the text he had to fit into his pages of text. This was necessary because scribe B had already finished his part of the text before scribe A had finished his” (Zimmerman, p. 236).
The extent to which the manuscript was read by contemporaries is unknown. It seems there are no references to it in other extant documents, and the survival of a single manuscript argues for limited production and consequently limited readership. As Canute was succeeded once again by the house of Wessex, a poem extolling Danish kingship may have been something to keep hidden. The manuscript may have been shoved into the back of a library and forgotten as Anglo-Saxon kings gave way to Norman conquerors, and the language, politics, and social structure of England changed permanently.
** full bibliography will be posted with concluding section of paper
Beowulf is one of the most widely-recognized epic poems in European history. The story is so well known that even those who have never read the poem can explain some of its elements, conjuring up the famous struggle with the monsters Grendel and Grendel’s mother, dragons, named swords, and piles of buried gold. It represents a heroic age full of feats of fabulous strength, and it is a central text of English heritage. Indeed, Beowulf has been at the center of the process of creating England and an English identity from the moment of its creation up to the present. And yet it is a story about a Scandinavian king, possibly written during the brief reign of Danish kings in England during the early eleventh century. Kevin Kiernan argues convincingly to date the extant manuscript to the reign of King Canute by pointing out that a poem that goes out of its way to praise Danish kingship is unlikely to have been written during a time when Anglo-Saxon kings struggled to keep their country safe from Danish depredations (Kiernan, p. 4). This manuscript, the earliest known written version of Beowulf, was thus born into a turbulent political age when Anglo-Saxon England struggled to protect its unique political and social identity. It then disappears from the records for centuries. When the manuscript reappears, it is during the reign of Henry VIII, and it is private collections. Eventually it makes its way to the Cottonian Library, which is one of the founding collections of the British Library. Not only does the manuscript’s surfacing coincide with the rediscovery of Anglo-Saxon studies in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but it also coincides with England’s struggle to define itself religiously and politically.
Remarkably, for a manuscript that is easily a thousand years old and holds such a notable place in English culture, Beowulf was never published until an Icelandic scholar, Grimur Jonsson Thorkelin, copied and translated what remained of the manuscript in 1815. Since then it has been translated, adapted, and published repeatedly. There are movies and graphic novels telling the story. The man who opened the modern age of Beowulf analysis, J. R. R. Tolkien, went on to use his knowledge of Scandinavian and English linguistics and mythology to create a foundation document of fantasy literature, The Lord of the Rings. Beowulf is endlessly influential, and yet for some eighty percent of its history, it was almost entirely unknown. There is no evidence to prove definitively where the manuscript was until it came into private hands in the sixteenth century, who wrote it, or even where it was written. The publication by Thorkelin was necessarily incomplete due to the inability to use technology to scan for palimpsest sections and the loss of letters from the damaged manuscript edges.
Still Beowulf has remained at the center of English cultural identity. It is one of the earliest documents in Anglo-Saxon to survive to the current day. It probably came into being during the final decades before the Norman Conquest fundamentally changed the political and linguistic makeup of England. It was rediscovered during a time when Anglo-Saxon studies came back to English scholarship and English politics fought to define royal control and geographic boundaries. By being one of the manuscripts to survive the fire in the Cottonian Library, Beowulf was one of the first texts in what is now the British Library – a defining element of national and cultural identity if ever there was one. Today it remains so popular and well-known that even those who have never read it can relate important elements of the story. Beowulf may have been published for the first time two hundred years ago, but since then it has never been out of print. Not many books can say as much.
** full bibliography to be posted with concluding section of paper
I promise I haven’t forgotten about the Best Picture Project. IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT is sitting on the table here in my apartment, all ready to be my reward when I finish writing the case study for my Preservation class that’s the second of two assignments for the entire term. Gotta love grad school, no? Kind of makes you miss the days of weekly writing reflections or problem sets (depending on whether you were a fuzzy or a techie). Aside from having lots of little grades to add up for your final grade, having it just be part of the weekly load was in some ways preferable to this end of term OH MY GOD EVERYTHING IN THE WORLD IS DUE IN THE NEXT THREE WEEKS feeling.
People who don’t recognize I have no sense of humor about this right now will say I could have done these assignments earlier, last month maybe, when there was less to do. In theory, yes, for some of them. However, the point of these projects being the term projects is to encompass the entirety of the material covered by the class, not just the first month. Also, I had other assignments due last month. Not like I’ve been slacking.
I have no doubt that it will all get done, on time, and that I will be satisfied with my work. A big pet peeve of mine is people who chirp “you can do it!” automatically at anyone working through finals. Of course we can do it. Most of us have no doubt that we can do it. I think part of my annoyance is that it’s such a generic reaction. It makes the complainer feel like the respondent isn’t actually listening. And yes, the complainer may just be venting off some of the internal stress pressure by whining, but that he or she probably still wants to be heard. We want commiseration, not perky platitudes. Don’t tell us we can do it. Tell us that it sounds like we have a lot of work to do, or that finals suck, or just sigh and say you can’t wait for it to be over either. Or, if you really can’t stand the complaining, just make a sympathetic face and then change the subject.
My break time is over. Back to the case study for me. As my mother likes to say – no way out but through.
Back in high school, I had a brief knack for writing poetry. Not your normal teenage angst poetry, or so I like to believe, but free-verse imagery based in memories, my love of color, or something that was on my mind.
And I was good at it. It flowed through my pencil like something was writing through me, leaving me drained but elated when it was done. That gift left me a while ago, though it’s made one or two reappearances. I choose to think it’s not gone gone but just buried, hibernating until it’s needed again.
I bring this up because I remember my one attempt at a funny poem, back in senior year of high school. My English teacher assigned us to all write a collection of poems, and by the end of it I was so exhausted that all I could think to write was a poem about how my muse was MIA. Maybe it ran off to Hawaii, I speculated.
I’m in essay hell this week, with two writing assignments due and nowhere near enough time. Sanctimonious types will tell me that I’ve known about these assignments for a while, and that’s true. But I’ll defend myself by reminding you all that not only do I have other homework that’s relatively time-consuming, I have other needs, like exercise, social contact, and other kinds of recreation. That’s how I manage my crazy – I schedule in down time every day, to craft, walk around outside, or just lie on my bed and stare at the ceiling.
On Tuesday I spent thirteen hours trying to write a 1500-word essay. It wasn’t impossibly difficult or on a topic about which I knew nothing. Quite simply, there was nothing inside my head. That thrice-cursed muse ran off again, leaving me in the lurch with all of my term projects left to write. By 9pm, hour eleven of this essay, I was slowly typing with one hand while the other arm was curled around my small stuffed toy Snuffleupagus (from Sesame Street), desperately trying not to cry from sheer exhaustion and frustration. Spending such a ridiculous amount of time on such a short writing assignment – most of my Best Picture Project posts have been around 1000 words – made me feel like a grad student failure. Surely by now I should be able to crank these things out as easily as breathing. I used to wish that my head would empty of noise, that it would slow down and just let me have non-thinking quiet for a little while.
Be careful what you wish for – these days it feels hard for me to get my mind going. It seems like it’s always empty. It’s a thick kind of emptiness, like a dense fog rather than an empty room. A strange feeling for a person whose mind used to be so full that it felt like the skull was too small.
I’m kind of apprehensive about the coming three days. My term paper for Preservation is due Monday morning and it’s just sitting there, lurking menacingly. Me being me, I managed to choose a topic for which there isn’t much official literature, so I’m having to patchwork an argument from articles that are sort of related but not exactly on my topic – which was already approved by the prof, and it’s too late to switch anyways.
I’m going to be very happy when I get to Monday afternoon.