Who’s Afraid of Beowulf?

Beowulf and Other Old English PoemsOur scariest recent title (outside of the field of political science) is "Beowulf" and Other Old English Poems,
edited and translated by Craig Williamson. Beowulf's famous battle with the terrifying beast Grendel makes for a wonderful Halloween tale, but the poem has a reputation for being beastly in and of itself.

Halloween is the perfect time to debunk that myth about Beowulf.  Our brave intern, Alli Hoff,  faced the challenging work in the following essay. Her high school encounters with the poem gave her the chills, and not in a good way, but Williamson's translation caused her reconsider the work. Her thoughts on the poem should make Beowulf safe for students to enjoy, even if Grendel still freaks them out.

Beowulf.  Hrothgar.  Grendel.  A study of these medieval characters was standard in the eleventh-grade English curriculum at my suburban Pennsylvania high school.  Despite the teacher’s efforts to curb my classmates’ raucous engagement with the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf, our class discussions quickly atrophied into highly emotional periods during which every student seemed to fall into one of two camps. 

The first group–composed primarily of male students– was fixated on the violent nature of the poem’s plot, often collaborating to draw comics depicting Beowulf and his enemies engaged in fiery combat.  Our teacher graciously tacked the fruits of their labor to the bulletin board.

The second set of students was simply frustrated with the assignment and I, sadly, was part of this camp.  My textbook’s translation from Old English seemed entirely cryptic, despite my painstaking efforts to parse out the intended meaning of the thousand-year-old work. As a result, I admit that I have since held a grudge against all things Beowulf.

Working as a Penn Press intern, though, I recently came face-to-face with a new rendering of my former nemesis in the form of Beowulf and Other Old English Poems, edited and translated by Swarthmore College professor Craig Williamson, with a foreword by Tom Shippey.  The volume includes translations of shorter Old English poems from a wide range of genres, in addition to Beowulf, the central work of Anglo-Saxon poetry.

With an open mind, I cracked the binding, hoping to discover what it was I might have missed back in high school.  The story of Beowulf undoubtedly captivates the modern audience (recall the recent 3D film version), and I wanted to be a part of it.

In Shippey’s exploration of the rich cultural history of Anglo-Saxon sung poetry, and in the commitment Williamson professes to that tradition in his introduction, I found the context necessary to fully appreciate what once baffled me.  After reading Williamson’s commentary, Beowulf’s verses took on a new meaning and– quite literally– a new melody.  Early Anglo-Saxons placed an impossibly high value on the lyric nature of stories, and Williamson’s discussion of his translation process and the particulars of his final product illustrates the high degree to which he understood this while adapting the poem’s Old English version to modern readers.  And while I doubt I’ll ever quite understand the appeal of the poem’s bloodiness to some, its linguistic and cultural importance is no longer a mystery.

So, to former fans and foes of Beowulf alike– I urge a consideration of the work through the lens that Williamson provides.  Who knows?  Maybe you’ll be the next Beowulf cartoonist to grace the walls of my high school English classroom.

Alli Hoff is a senior at the George Washington University, where she is studying journalism.

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