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Beowulf [Paperback]

Howell D. Chickering
4.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)

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Review

“It is everywhere vigorous. . . . Chickering enjoys the poem immensely, and this attractive attitude shines everywhere. . . . This book is valuable for its extended literary appreciations and its facing text.” –Library Journal

“A fine book. . . . The essays on poetics, social history, and structure and the notes to specific passages survey the important scholarship.” –Choice

From the Publisher

This presentation of the translation and the Old English Text on facing pages allows the reader to approach the first major poem in English literature in a fresh and exciting new way. Includes a Guide to Reading Aloud, Introduction, Commentary and notes for translation from the original.

About the Author

Howell D. Chickering, Jr., is the G. Armour Craig Professor of Language and Literature at Amherst College. His critical essays, chiefly on medieval English poetry, have appeared in such journals as The Chaucer Review, Journal of English and Germanic Philology, Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies, The Kenyon Review, Philological Quarterly, PMLA, Speculum, and Viator.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

I am very gratified that over the years this book has found a wide and varied audience, from high school students to Ph.D. candidates as well as the general reader interested in poetry. I believe that its longevity is due to my putting the original Old English poem on display in a fairly comprehensible fashion, even though there are places where I would now refine my facing translation or expand the commentary.

Increasingly in the last decade colleagues who regularly use this book have asked me if I would ever consider updating it. I have brooded over what an "update" could possibly mean for a book that is already selective and is aimed at making Beowulf available as poetry to those who have not studied Old English before. Certainly it cannot mean a full account, nor even a cursory survey, of the many developments in the study of the poem over the last quarter century. At the same time, some of those developments do bear upon the literary interpretation of the poem. Moreover, new research tools have come into being, the ongoing Dictionary of Old English (DOE) chief among them, that give us a more accurate understanding of words and concepts in Old English. Recent editions and reexaminations of the MS. have led me to change my mind about the best way to render particular lines. In addition, a number of difficult passages remain in dispute.

The first section below is a digest of what I regard as the most important work on topics that affect my interpretation and translation of the poem. This section is highly selective and has no pretensions to complete coverage. All the different areas of Beowulf study, past and present, are already thoroughly discussed in the now indispensable A Beowulf Handbook, eds. Bjork and Niles (to 1994), and Andy Orchard's A Critical Companion to "Beowulf" (to 2002), both of which contain exhaustive bibliographies. For an annotated bibliography from 1979 to 1990, see Hasenfratz, Beowulf Scholarship. For reviews of research published since 2002, see the Beowulf section of "The Year's Work in Old English Studies" appearing annually in the Old English Newsletter (OEN).

In the second section below I briefly discuss the choices that editors must make in punctuating and emending the sole surviving MS. of the poem, and then list the specific points in the original text where I would now choose a different reading or where I regard the meaning as still uncertain.

All new references in this Afterword, cited here by author or short title, are listed in full in Section IV of the Bibliography. The DOE and OEN appear under Healey and Liuzza, respectively.

I. Scholars still "do not know by whom, how, when, or where Beowulf was composed" (p. 247 above), but the range of suggested possibilities has expanded, and scholarship on the subject has flourished mightily. The articles in the 1981 Colin Chase volume (p. 410 below) made many scholars consider the possibility of dating the poem to the Danish invasions of the ninth and tenth centuries. On paleographical grounds, in that volume and his own book of the same year, Kevin Kiernan even advanced a theory that the composition of the poem is as late as the production of the MS. itself (ca. A.D. 1020, in his view). For objections to Kiernan's theory, see R. D. Fulk in PQ for 1982, among others. On different paleographical grounds, Michael Lapidge recently posited an archetype of the surviving MS. dated to no later than A.D. 750 (see ASE 29), while Fulk's analysis of the poem's meter and phonology suggested initial composition by no later than 725 if originally Mercian, or 825 if originally Northumbrian (see his History, 420). On the other hand, the earlier groundbreaking work of Ashley Crandall Amos convinced many of us that there are few, if any, safe linguistic grounds for dating Old English poems. Writing in 1997 not only about its date, but also the poem's provenance, author, and audiences, Robert E. Bjork and Anita Obermeier noted a trend for scholars to prefer a later date and possibly a southern locale, but they concluded that we have arrived only "at a cautious and necessary incertitude" (Handbook, p. 33). This remains true today. (Further discussion by Liuzza in Baker, Howe in Chase 1997 rpt., Fulk in ASE 32, Cronan in ASE 33, and Newton, The Origins of "Beowulf.")

I still hold the same views about "Composition and Authorship" (pp. 249-52 above) without any substantial change of opinion about the oral vs. written controversy. Even if we accept the idea that the extant text is the product of many re-singings by more than one scop, we still can decide to take our unique MS. copy as what we choose to experience as the poem. It could even be argued that, since we live in our own writing-bound culture, we can only have a literary experience of this one text recorded in writing, to which most readers respond as if to a unified sensibility, though not provably a single "author." Nevertheless, the study of Beowulf as traditional oral poetry has seen great advances since the 1970s, particularly in the work of John Miles Foley and John D. Niles. Equally valuable is Katherine O'Brien O'Keeffe's Visible Song, a pioneering description of what she calls "transitional literacy." The late Edward B. Irving, Jr.'s, Rereading "Beowulf" is perhaps the best recent volume of literary criticism based upon the notion of oral composition; his close readings often transcend the controversy. Andy Orchard has conveniently charted the repeated formulas in the poem for the light they might throw "on the poem's structure or the poet's compositional technique (or both)": see his Companion, Appendices II and III.

As for the prosody of the poem, I continue to feel confident that a careful perusal and enthusiastic application of the Guide to Reading Aloud (pp. 29-38 above) will, with a little coaching or listening to a tape, give the reader everything necessary for voicing Beowulf aloud as poetry, that is, as formed speech that obeys its own artistic rules. Yet it is important to note that the intensive analysis of Beowulfian prosody, and of Old English meter generally, has gone far beyond the systems of scansion described in my Guide. I would call particular attention to the works by Cable, Creed, Fulk, Hutcheson, Kendall, and Russom. I also acknowledge an important omission in not having mentioned in the Guide the central work of A. J. Bliss. All these works are perhaps only for specialists, but any one of them can improve the ear of a reciting reader.

It is a truism of literary study that we do not read a text without supplying some sort of context for it. And we choose the contexts in which we understand it on the basis of our own often unexamined assumptions. Today Anglo-Saxon studies as a field has gained a sharp self-consciousness about its own assumptions. In The Search for Anglo-Saxon Paganism, E. G. Stanley described the attitudes of the nineteenth-century Continental scholars who invented this academic subject, while Carl T. Berkhout and others have described in detail the careers of English Renaissance antiquaries, including Lawrence Nowell, the first known possessor of the Beowulf manuscript. The most searching examination of the ways we have constructed our contexts, and the motives behind them, has come from Allen J. Frantzen. His book Desire for Origins makes it crystal clear that the contexts for the study of Beowulf do not exist on their own somewhere in the past, waiting to be discovered by modern scholars, but rather that we invent and apply them as our predilections lead us. Over the years, critics' views of the poem have been shaped (not always consciously) by religious, political, and nationalistic motivations.

There are many critical approaches to Beowulf, using different contexts. Some apply distinctly modern theoretical concepts and do not bear upon my reading of the poem. Interesting examples of deconstructionist and feminist approaches may be found in Gillian Overing's Language, Sign, and Gender in "Beowulf," while James W. Earl uses what he calls "psychoanalytic anthropology" in his Thinking About "Beowulf." Other critics have approached the poem in the context of Anglo-Saxon cultural history; see particularly Nicholas Howe, Migration and Mythmaking, and Craig R. Davis, Demise of Germanic Legend. Still others have examined the world of the poem from the viewpoint of anthropology, as does John M. Hill in The Cultural World. See further his chapter on "Social Milieu" in the Handbook.

The great majority of literary studies take the poem itself as providing most of its own contexts, though sometimes those contexts are linked with other poetic or historical texts. The critical topics are of course quite various. A sampling might include diction, variation, formulas, macrostructure, microstructure, unity, episodes and digressions, myths, historical analogues, literary analogues, allegory, and symbolism. These and other topics are treated extensively in different chapters of the Handbook. I have already had my say in my Introduction, Background, and Commentary about what I consider the most important literary features of the poem. Recent collections of literary criticism of Beowulf include those edited by Baker, Donoghue, Fulk, and Howe. The best short book-length treatment of the poem remains George Clark's 1990 Beowulf in Twayne's English Authors series.

The historical contexts possible for the poem are continually being enriched in one way or another. Students of lite...
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