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About this book

Of unknown authorship, Beowulf is an Old English epic poem which incites contentious debate and has been endlessly interpreted over the centuries. This Reader's Guide provides a much-needed overview of the large body of Beowulf criticism, moving from eighteenth-century reactions to twenty-first-century responses. Jodi-Ann George:
• charts the changes in critical trends and theoretical approaches applied to the poem
• includes discussion of J. R. R. Tolkein's pioneering 1936 lecture on Beowulf , and Seamus Heaney's recent translation
• analyses Beowulf in popular culture, addressing the poem's life in film versions, graphic novels, music and comics.

Clear and engaging, this is an indispensable introductory guide to a widely-studied and enigmatic work which continues to fascinate readers everywhere.

Table of Contents

Introduction Hwæt!

Abstract
In his Thinking about Beowulf (1994), James W. Earl confesses that:
  • ■ I no longer trust those who say they know what Beowulf means, or even what it is about. The poem is hedged about with so many uncertainties — historical, textual, linguistic, hermeneutic [interpretive or explanatory] — that even the simplest and most straightforward statements can provoke a battle royal among scholars […] Thus the analysis of the poem is endless.1
Jodi-Anne George

Chapter One. ‘Rude Beginning’: 1705–1899

Abstract
■ Poetry has been always classed among the most interesting productions of the human mind; and few topics of human research are more curious than the history of this elegant art, from its rude beginning to that degree of excellence to which it has long been raised by our ingenious countrymen.1
Jodi-Anne George

Chapter Two. ‘Conflicting Babel’: 1900–1931

Abstract
In this chapter we will look at the types of interpretative approaches that began to replace the musings of the early philologists and editors of Beowulf. A great deal of the scholarship produced in the three decades covered by this chapter focuses on the possible sources of the Old English poem (both Classical and Scandinavian). During this period there were also ongoing discussions of the genre of Beowulf and attempts to establish the exact relationship between the text’s Christian and pagan elements. As the introduction to this guide showed, J.R.R. Tolkien identified the ‘conflicting babel’ that was Beowulf criticism in the early decades of the twentieth century. In his summary of theories about the poem, Tolkien mentions that some scholars believed Beowulf to have been ‘inspired by emulation of Virgil’.1 Virgil (or Vergil), it must be remembered, was the author of the Aeneid, a Latin epic composed in the first century BC. The hero of his poem is Aeneas, a Trojan who travels to Italy after the destruction of Troy and through the workings of fate becomes the founder of Rome.
Jodi-Anne George

Chapter Three. The Monsters Meet the Critics: the 1930s and 1940s

Abstract
In the introduction to this guide we saw how John Churton Collins bemoaned that, since its initial appearance on university syllabi, English literature had ‘been regarded not as the expression of art and genius, but as mere material for the study of words, as mere pabulum for philology’. In relation to Beowulf, however, the appearance in 1936 of J.R.R. Tolkien’s ‘The Monsters and the Critics’ changed things forever. This essay, initially given as the Sir Israel Gollancz Memorial Lecture to the British Academy on 25 November of that year, offered a reading of the poem distinct from those which had come before. For Tolkien, Beowulf was indeed a true ‘expression of art and genius’. He did not, though, feel the same way about the existing scholarship on the Anglo- Saxon epic, as he believed that none of it addressed Beowulf as a poem. As a consequence, Tolkien himself set out to do just this in his British Academy lecture. Along the way he also provided a masterly, as well as occasionally humorous, overview of the history of Beowulf criticism up to 1935. And, as we will continue to see throughout the course of this guide, the cacophony of critical voices Tolkien identified back in 1936 still exists to this day where Beowulf is concerned.
Jodi-Anne George

Chapter Four. The Debates Continue: the 1950s and 1960s

Abstract
The two decades under consideration in this chapter were important years for Beowulf criticism. A wide variety of new approaches to the poem emerged and familiar themes and subjects were revisited in fresh and interesting ways. In the light of Tolkien’s earlier study, more criticism on the ‘monsters’ in Beowulf was being produced and the historicity of Beowulf himself was debated. The composition and role of the poem’s original audience also came under the critical spotlight. And, by the mid- 1960s, the New Criticism even began to assert its influence in the field. When we turn to the beginning of the 1950s, however, a name which dominated Anglo- Saxon studies for many years suggests itself, C.L. Wrenn.
Jodi-Anne George

Chapter Five. Stock- taking: the 1970s

Abstract
In The Audience of Beowulf, Dorothy Whitelock advises that ‘From time to time in Beowulf studies it is desirable to do a sort of stock- taking, to see if received opinions have stood the test of time and the impact of new evidence.’1 Though these words were written in 1951 they hold equally true for the 1970s — a time when the landscape of Beowulf scholarship was fast changing. Feminist criticism of the poem began to emerge, and there were ongoing attempts to define what exactly Beowulf was about. Marijane Osborn, for example, in ‘The Great Feud: Scriptural History and Strife in Beowulf’ confidently declared in 1978 that ‘Beowulf is the story of a culture hero who fights in succession three monsters that threaten the fabric of his society.’2
Jodi-Anne George

Chapter Six. Critics on the Crest of a Wave: the 1980s

Abstract
In 1993, J.D.A. Ogilvy and Donald Baker noted in Reading Beowulf that ‘The past 30 years have seen an enormous surge of critical interest in Beowulf1, and the 1980s were on the crest of this scholarly wave. This is supported by Seth Lerer’s observation that ‘Since the early 1980s, approaches drawn from deconstruction, semiotics, cultural studies, and psychoanalysis have sought to relocate Beowulf in the shifting canons of contemporary academic debate.’2 In the field of psychoanalysis, for example, there is James W. Earl’s ‘The Role of the Men’s Hall in the Development of the Anglo- Saxon Superego’ (1983), which takes a Jungian approach to a subject that readers of this guide are by now very familiar with. Earl also talks about masculinity here, which makes this article a very early example of a critical application of masculinity studies to Old English literature. This is not to say, however, that earlier attempts were not made to apply psychoanalytic theory to Beowulf; Jeffrey Helterman’s ‘Beowulf: The Archetype Enters History’ (1968) particularly comes to mind here.
Jodi-Anne George

Chapter Seven. An Embarrassment of Critical Riches: the 1990s to the present

Abstract
The period from the 1990s to the present offers an embarrassment of riches where Beowulf criticism is concerned. Scholars during this period were especially prolific, though this in part has something to do with the nature of the poem itself. As Natalia Breizmann has noted in ‘Beowulf as Romance: Literary Interpretation as Quest’ (1998), ‘The curiously “unfocussed” compositional organization of Beowulf renders the process of the poem’s interpretation potentially infinite, and is thus responsible for the endless deferral of the meaning of the poem.’1 As a consequence, it is difficult to know where to begin the present survey of scholarship.
Jodi-Anne George

Chapter Eight. Beowulf in Popular Culture

Abstract
Michael Livingston and John William Sutton have remarked upon the large number of adaptations of the poem in other media:
■ Since the publication of J.R.R. Tolkien’s seminal essay ‘Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics’ (1936), if we are to select an arbitrary cut- off date, there have been two plays, six musical or symphonic productions, more than a dozen novel- length retellings, at least fifteen children’s books, five comic books or series, numerous poems, parodies, short stories, computer games, films, an episode of Star Trek: Voyager, and even Mardi Gras tokens that have direct connections to the poem.1
Jodi-Anne George

Conclusion

Abstract
This guide has taken the reader on a very long journey through the history of Beowulf criticism. The introduction attempted to establish some important facts about Beowulf: that it is enigmatic, incites contentious debate and is endlessly interpreted. When all is said and done, it is a poem of ‘uncertainties’ whose body of criticism seems to grow daily. It is ultimately hoped that this guide has defined the exact nature and extent of these uncertainties through an examination of essential criticism of Beowulf. The guide’s chronological approach is further intended to assist the reader in an understanding of the history of this criticism and how various scholars have influenced one another. The impact of Tolkien’s ‘The Monsters and the Critics’, on the work of Beowulf critics after 1936, for example, cannot be overestimated.
Jodi-Anne George
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