What is Beowulf? Or rather—a more problematical problem this—why is Beowulf? What ought our attitude be to it today? In all this I am referring, of course, to the long eighth-century Anglo-Saxon poem only recently accorded the title Beowulf (the single extant manuscript in the British Museum is without one) and not to its phenomenally muscular monster-killing hero.
To a conscientious literary historian, busily ordering and classifying his specimens, Beowulf is certainly an infuriatingly anomalous poem—neither primary epic like the Iliad and the Odyssey, that is, a long heroic poem originally transmitted orally by professional minstrels, nor secondary epic, a non-oral imitation or adaptation of primary epic with an identifiable author, like Vergil’s Aeneid. Still less is it tertiary epic like Paradise Lost, with a multitude of self-conscious sources and models. Beowulf comes out of the Dark Ages still shrouded in their prehistoric darkness. It is anonymous, but like the Aeneid (which the Beowulf-poet may have known or at least known about) it was apparently never dependent on oral transmission. It had a single author, but one who refuses to be precisely located or labeled. A Northumbrian monk? A Mercian scop (professional bard)? Or even possibly a scop-turned-monk? We can’t be sure. His subject matter is consistently pagan and heroic, but Christian or quasi-Christian moralizing and a Christian supreme deity do keep on intruding.
But though the historians cannot be said to agree on all the problems Beowulf raises, their differences are minor compared to those of the embattled critics. Here, for example, is Burton Raffel—whose paperback translation now reappears splendidly printed and illustrated, and with an interesting “Postscript” and a new “Afterword on Translating Beowulf” thrown in—who tells us over and over again that Beowulf is “a great poem,” “great poetry.” And in the opposite corner, as it were, I can hear the blistering contempt of Kingsley Amis. Amis’s testimony will be found in a clever early poem that had the distinction of infuriating that stout Beowulfian C. S. Lewis. The poem is headed ” ‘There is not much poetry in the world like this’—Professor J. R. R. Tolkien“—a comment that can be taken in two ways. The way Amis took it may be gauged from a few characteristic lines:
Consider now what this king had not done
Never was human, never lay with women
Someone has told us this man was a hero.
But what have we to learn in following
His tedious journey to his an- cestors
(An instance of Old English hark- ing-back)?
Tolkien was the Merton Professor of the English Language when Amis was an undergraduate at Oxford and the poem is partly a parody of the linguistic learning with which Oxford mixes the elegantly escapist literary criticism that found expression in Tolkien’s celebrated lecture “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics.” (To Tolkien the critics were also the monsters.)
It seems prudent to split the difference. Most of us who are not actively engaged…
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