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Beowulf Paperback – October 15, 2010
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Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
From John McNamara’s Introduction to Beowulf
Even more perplexing is the question of values and beliefs in the poem. The world of Beowulf is the world of heroic epic, with its legendary fights among larger-than-life figures, both human and monstrous, its scenes of feasting in great beer halls presided over by kings, its accounts of bloody feuds trapping men and women alike in cycles of violence, its praise of giving riches to loyal followers rather than amassing wealth for oneself, its moments of magic in stories of powers gained or lostand over all, a sense of some larger force that shapes their destinies, both individual and collective. Readers have often looked upon this long-gone heroic world for a glimpse of a pagan past in Northern Europe before Christianity was brought by foreign missionaries, yet the poem is filled with references to the new religion and the power of its God. This tension between the ancient past and what was, in the time of the poet, a new worldview disturbed many romantic and nationalistic critics in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. They sought in Beowulf the origins of Germanic, including Scandinavian, cultureor at least clues from which that culture could be reconstructed. Yet many were for the most part frustrated, for they saw the epic of Northern antiquity marred” by the intrusions of foreign beliefs and values, such as the Christianity imposed by missionaries from the Mediterranean South, and equally marred” by the fantastic fights with monsters in the center of the poem, while the historical materials that most interested them were placed on the outer edges. In this view, the poem simply was not the poem that it should have been.
However, the great work of Friedrich Klaeber, and especially the influence of Tolkien, cited above, would change all that. In recent times, scholars have not only stressed the Christian element as integral to the poem as a whole, but they have spent enormous energy in ferreting out its sources and functions. All of which brings us back, not just to the question of the poet, but more importantly to the question of the audience. After all, the poet was composing the work for a community that already shared certain core values, though those values appear at times to emerge from a moment of cultural transition between the memory of the old and the power of the new. So, once again, we are faced with complexity, and attempts to reduce Beowulf to some single, or at least predominant, worldview cannot explain the creative tensions in this complexity.
Yet there are further questions about audience. Did it consist, as some scholars have proposed, of people so well versed in Christian teachings, and even in learned theology, that it would have been a monastic community? The answer is by no means clear. We do have the famous letter from Alcuin to the monks of Lindisfarne (797) enjoining them not to include secular heroic narratives in their entertainments. But we also have the even more famous story of the poet Caedmon in Bede’s History of the English Church and People (731), which shows the members of the monastery at Whitby singing narrative lays, while accompanying themselves on the harp. Their lays must have been secular since it was only after the miracle of Caedmon’s poetic inspiration that Christian biblical narratives were set to traditional Anglo-Saxon poetic forms. Such a community would not only house scholars, as well as monks with considerably less education, but also the monastic familia was made up of all the lay peoplemen, women, and childrenwho occupied and generally worked the lands surrounding (and dependent on) the monastery.
Our modern view of medieval monasteries has been shaped by later reforms, in which walled structures often shut reclusive monks in cloistered protection from the temptations of the larger world. But in Anglo-Saxon England, the monasteries were generally open to the social world, and the Rule of St. Benedict lays great stress on the need to extend hospitality to all who come to the community. We also have depictions in monastic works, such as lives of the saints, of storytelling events that included monks and laypeople alike. Thus, even if one were to claim that Beowulf was aimed at a monastic audience, it is clear that such an audience would most probably include many who were not monks. And, of course, one need not postulate a monastic audience at all in order to account for the Christian element in the poem. For the dominant ethos of the poem is a celebration of the values of heroic society, and while the poet-narrator’s comments often reflect a Christian point of view, the heroic values in the poem are in themselves primarily secular. Or do we have, once again, a complex creative tension between the two?
Top Customer Reviews
Had I been able to also read the text in modern English in that senior class, I would have been well-prepared to tackle the OE with a deeper understanding of how this great work acts as a foundational text for all British literature from Chaucer to the Renaissance and beyond.
Burton Raffel's clear translation allows the reader to establish a connection to the allegorical and mythological constructs without having to resort to a "Beowulf for Dummies," just to get a passing grade. I am using this book in a graduate class in Horror Text and Theory, and though I am now able to read the OE with more fluency, the accessibility of this translation situates the text in a more viable position for discussion and critical analysis in an arena populated with 20th and 21st century horror. I would recommend Raffel's Beowulf to anyone as their entree into Old English Lit.; to be read along side the original text. It takes the "horror" out of ready Horror.
Beowulf took on completely new meaning when I learned how it had influenced Western myth and fairy tales--and C.S. Lewis and, more to the point, J.R.R. Tolkien. And it's nice I can get it for free on Amazon. There are of course other translations, but I don't mind the old "King James" translations of classics. They feel more mythic, even if I have to use the dictionary like a GPS to get back on track after I've been rerouted by a word that hasn't been used in a century (no problem there; I've loved dictionaries since I was a child, and looking up the origins of words we use daily without a clue of where they came from and what they really mean--or could mean).
Again, there are other versions available for free online, but Kindle is the way to go (though I use a Smartphone), because I can use the Kindle Software dictionary, and best of all, keep my devices' synchronized with Whispersync so I have the same bookmarks and notes on all of them.
Back to Beowulf--you should try it. But if you're unsure, Wikipedia will give you the gist of the book, and if you find yourself wanting more, download it. Can't beat the price--Free! (Though some books are too costly even when free, because they waste my time, which with only threescore and ten allotted me, is a much more precious commodity than money).
Most Recent Customer Reviews
A somewhat difficult translation that was made worse by the notes appearing in the middle of the text without any differentiation. I'm giving up on it.
But I love the cover!
JRR Tolkien drew his inspiration for middle earth from Celtic and Norse mythology, and Beowulf was quite influential. Read morePublished 7 months ago by Eric Holloway
The author of this translation of Beowulf explained how this book was translated through the years. The author of the actual book is unknown and several people through the years... Read morePublished 8 months ago by Sharon