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1152Re: New Beowulf

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  • David S. Bratman
    Feb 29, 2000
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      On Tue, 29 Feb 2000, Ted Sherman wrote:

      > "David S. Bratman" wrote:
      > >
      > > 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.

      When I wrote that there is nothing else like Beowulf in OE literature, I
      didn't mean just that there were no other versions of the story of the
      man Beowulf. There are some great short poems in OE, but I know of no
      other works of creative art in that language remotely comparable to it in
      combination of length and quality. If you do, I would like to know of them.

      > Well, England did have its own cycle: the Arthurian cycle. (I know that
      > some/much of the Arthurian material comes from France.)

      For Tolkien, the Arthurian cycle didn't count. He said it was
      imperfectly naturalized, by which he meant not so much that a great deal
      of what we think of as Arthurian comes from Chretien and other French
      romancers, but that the whole retains a Celtic air: it isn't English, and
      he wanted something English.

      > 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).

      A good point, though the Brut is of course not Old English but Middle
      English. It's not the only English work that is in a sense a sequel to
      the Aeneid (which certainly seems to have had more of a hold on the
      British imagination than it does on mine): Geoffrey of Monmouth's History
      (in Latin, unfortunately for the sake of OE literature) also ties in to
      the Aeneid, and doesn't "Gawain and the Green Knight" start off with some
      references to the Odyssey/Aeneid period? (I don't have a copy here to
      check.)

      > > (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.

      As I said, an oversimplification. While the Vikings and H8 did the
      destruction, they and others like them destroyed many more ancient
      manuscripts, in many languages in many times and places, than they ever
      let survive. What's the fault of the Norman Conquest is that there
      weren't _more (and later) copies_, a few of which might have survived.
      (The Vikings didn't help much there either.)

      David Bratman
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