A Critical Companion to Beowulf

A Critical Companion to Beowulf

A Critical Companion to Beowulf

A Critical Companion to Beowulf

Synopsis

Beowulf is the best known and most closely studied literary work surviving from Anglo-Saxon England, and the modern reader is faced with a bewildering number and variety of interpretations about such basic matters as the date, provenance, and significance of the poem. A Critical Companion to Beowulf addresses these and other issues, reviewing and synthesising previous scholarship, as well as offering fresh perspectives. After an initial introduction to the poem, attention is focused on such matters as the manuscript context and approaches to dating the poem, before a lengthy discussion of the particular style, diction, and structure of this most idiosyncratic of Old English texts. The background to the poem is considered not simply with respect to historical and legendary material, but also in the context of myth and fable. The specific roles of selected individual characters, both major and minor, are assessed, and in a chapter on the degree of piety and Latin-derived erudition implied by the text consideration is given to the original intended audience and perceived purpose of the poem. A final chapter describes the range of critical approaches which have been applied to the poem in the past, and points towards directions for future study. ANDY ORCHARD is Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon, University of Oxford.

Excerpt

A hundred years ago, a reader of Beowulf had access to an impressive array of tools: scholarship on the poem was both vigorous and wide-ranging. Bibliographical guidance and general background were provided by (amongst others) Richard P. Wülcker, Stopford Brooke, and Alois Brandl. The compendious dictionary now known simply as ‘Bosworth–Toller’ had just appeared in its original form, and the last few years of the nineteenth century had seen the publication of not one but two dictionaries of Old English specifically designed for students. Within little more than a decade from the beginning of the twentieth century Albert Cook would publish a concordance to Beowulf, and scholars would have access to a massively revised version of Christian W. M. Grein’s mighty guide to Old English poetic diction, first published half a century earlier. Editions of Beowulf were proliferating, in part in reaction to the eccentric text edited by Ludwig Ettmüller in 1875: a twenty-year period either side of 1900 saw a revision by Adolf Socin of Moritz Heyne’s edition of a quarter of a century before, as well as a new edition by Alfred J. Wyatt, itself later comprehensively revised, and two further texts by Moritz Trautmann and Ferdinand Holthausen.

All this editorial activity was set against the background of the collective editions of Old English prose and verse by Christian W. M. Grein and Richard P. Wülcker. Among a growing range of renderings, Beowulf was translated in 1895 by a famous artist (in collaboration with an Anglo-Saxon scholar) into verse, and in 1892 and again in 1901 by other noted Anglo-Saxon scholars into prose. Study of the metre of Beowulf had been put on a new footing by the publication in 1893 of Eduard Sievers’ hugely important study of Germanic metre, and if the detailed study of the manuscript-context and scribal transmission of the poem had to wait until after the First World War, Julius Zupitza had already published a widely available manuscript-facsimile of Beowulf itself. Likewise, if a (still less than satisfactory) edition of the prose texts of the Beowulf-manuscript did not appear until 1924, a number of separate editions and discussions of all four other texts in the Beowulf-manuscript (including Judith) had already appeared by 1906.

In late nineteenth-century Germany, a cottage-industry busily collected parallels not only between various Old English poems, but across the whole spectrum of Germanic verse; and fierce debate raged about the precise significance of such parallels, which were argued on the one hand to reflect a common Germanic stock of formulas, and on the other conscious borrowing between poets. Source-study of Beowulf had become a particular focus for enquiry ever since the Icelander Guðbrandur Vigfússon had drawn attention . . .

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