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1147Re: New Beowulf

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  • Ted Sherman
    Feb 29, 2000
      "David S. Bratman" wrote:
      > From: "David S. Bratman" <dbratman@...>
      > On Mon, 28 Feb 2000, Lisa Deutsch Harrigan wrote:
      > > Since this one has done so well in England, may be they will translate some of
      > > the other Old Stories? I'd like to see them too.
      > The sad fact is that there's nothing else like Beowulf in Old English
      > literature, and we almost didn't have Beowulf, either: it survives in a
      > single manuscript of unknown provenance, which almost burned in a fire
      > some 400-500 years ago, long before it was adequately transcribed.

      Well, it depends on what you mean by "like Beowulf." OE literature
      contains many great work, some short and some long. Beowulf is sui
      generis in terms of its matter; that is, aside from the one surviving
      manuscript of Beowulf, there are no other stories of Beowulf the Geat.
      We do have, at the very least, other references to such great Germanic
      heroes and characters as Siegfried and Sigemund, Attila and Gudrun,
      Welund and Walter, Finn and Hengist; but there's only one story that
      mentions Beowulf. BTW, the Beowulf manuscript was damaged in the great
      fire in 1731 at Ashburnam House, and other manuscripts were destroyed
      and/or nearly destroyed. One of the current projects at the British
      LIbrary is to recover the texts--via UV photography with a Kontron
      camera--contained in some of those burnt mss.

      > There probably were other great Old English epics that _didn't_ survive,
      > of which we have only tiny surviving hints: Wayland the Smith, for
      > instance. It was because the English didn't have an Edda, or a
      > Nibelungenlied, or an Odyssey or Aeneid, or a Charlemagne cycle, that
      > Tolkien decided to make one up on his own.

      Well, England did have its own cycle: the Arthurian cycle. (I know that
      some/much of the Arthurian material comes from France.) Beowulf is
      England's Nibelungenlied, and it antedates the Nibelungenlied by at
      least 175 years. The Brut by Layamon could easily be viewed as England's
      Odyssey or Aeneid, especially the latter (since it kind of takes up
      where the Aeneid stops).

      > (As for why the English are so bereft, that permits of a three-word
      > oversimpliciation for an answer: the Norman Conquest.)
      Actually, the Norman Conquest is only partially responsible; the main
      culprits, really, are the Vikings and Henry VIII. When the Vikings began
      invading in the late 8th century, they sacked and destroyed monasteries
      and the monastic libraries. It's a miracle that the two greatest OE
      manuscripts, The Lindisfarne Gospels and the Book of Kells, still
      survive. In 1536/38 Henry dissolved the monasteries and confiscated
      them; one of the results was the dispersal of many of the monastic
      libraries as well as the destruction of the monasteries and their
      medieval sculptures and stained-glass windows. That's why the Ruthwell
      Cross--which contains a 7th-8th century runic inscription of portions of
      the great OE elegy "The Dream of the Rood"--is broken and the
      inscription so weather damaged. The reformers, following Henry, cast
      down the cross and left it to weather away. It wasn't until the 19th
      century that it was put back together (though with part missing) and
      placed in a chapel.

      Another BTW: the English don't really value Beowulf as much as the press
      might lead one to believe. In the past few decades Beowulf and other
      areas of Anglo-Saxon culture (as in the culture in Britain from c.
      450-1066) have gradually been removed from the curriculum, so that now
      relatively few students actually study Beowulf. Also, for the Whitbread
      Prize, which Heaney's translation won, the vote was split: five judges
      voted for Beowulf and four for Harry Potter and the Prisoner of
      Azkhaban. Two different versions of Heaney's Beowulf are now available
      in the US: a straight translation as well as a copy with Beowulf in OE
      and Heaney's translation on facing pages.


      Dr. Theodore James Sherman
      Department of English, Box X041
      College of Liberal Arts
      Middle Tennessee State University
      Murfreesboro, TN 37130
      615 898-5836; FAX 615 898-5098
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