Posted by: Brad Nixon | June 2, 2014

Beowulf? The Past is Dead, La Boheme

In response to a number of Under Western Skies blog posts that discussed or referenced antique versions of our English language, faithful reader, La Bohème has asked me as — mistaking me for — an authority on the subject of the Anglo Saxon language, WHY I should feel compelled or (as I suspect was the case in his tutelary background) BE compelled to read that centuries-old poem, Beowulf.

It’s a fair question. In fact, the more I’ve thought about answering La Bohème, the more complex the answer seems. Over the course of many months I’ve re-read Beowulf both in the original Old English and in translation, and studied critical evaluations of the text in order to address this question.

So, why should we still study this hoary old pome, much less say anything more about something written down more than a thousand years ago?

I must reveal that I know LaBohème personally; he’s not some troll out of the cybersphere. He is, in fact, a graduate of the same institution of higher learning as I, which — ipso facto — qualifies him as “very smart.” Not only that, I’ve traveled with him to foreign lands. I have heard him ask for directions in Italian that got us to our desired destination and I’ve eaten delicious food that he’s ordered in France — en français. He is a professional in a highly regarded field, entry to which requires an advanced degree and the ability to discriminate between fine points of semantic distinction. He’s a connoisseur of  good food and great art. In other words, he’s no bozo. In other words, I find it somewhat daunting that he’s asked to have explained to him why one of the foundational works of his native language should be required study. I also know he’s something of a gadfly, and that he asked that question to get my goat. Well, no one likes their goat to be got.

I’m prepared to answer.

It’s an easy answer, LaBohème. Beowulf has no relevance and no meaning to us twenty-first centurions. It means nothing. It’s worse than even yesterday’s newspaper (for those who still read such things), because you can’t wrap fish in it, much less a whale, because while Beowulf looms on our linguistic horizon like a whale (Anglo Saxon: hwal), hwal wrappage requires the full print edition of Sunday New York Times or Le Monde, including le magazin and l’equipe du Sport. It’s worse than other unread books one may have on one’s shelf, because it’s very slim, not even large enough to use as a doorstop. It’s yesterday’s news.

Forget it. Let it go. Forget we ever knew it existed. After all, even though Beowulf may have a certain historic or artistic appeal for a few scholars and aesthetes, you, ma Bohème, have put your finger on it: the past is dead, nor all our piety nor wit shall lure it back to cancel half a line. It’s hard to read, it uses obsolete language in an extinct poetic form, and describes legendary events set in a culture that is hopelessly remote from ours.

Think of Beowulf as you would those Cro-Magnon cave paintings. While we’re glad to know that our ancestors 15,000 years ago inscribed pseudo-artistic marks on subterranean walls with bits of charcoal and ochre, and though we may admire those first glimmering human attempts to represent what the world signified, any reasonably skilled child of today can look in a book to draw horses and deer just as well — probably better (and they’ll do it on an iPad and post it to Instagram).

Take another example: those Greek sculptures from the classic era — Praxiteles and that crowd. Graceful, sure, but kind of soulless, wot? How many Discus Throwers do you want occupying the atrium of the family manse? “None” is the proper response. I happen to know you’ve wandered around Europe’s cathedrals, museums, abbeys and palaces and seen all the tapestries, stained glass, frescoes, murals and mosaics. Really, you have to conclude, there are only so many representations of ancient gods and biblical panoramas and hunting scenes one can look at before one cries, “Basta! — enough! This is not my world. This is not our world! These are antique fictions chock-full of whack-a-doodle old conventions that should have faded away with the benighted old artistes who created them.”

Indeed, the past is dead.

The notion that there would be a surviving poem of compelling majesty written down at the dawn of recorded literature that portrays in unique and stirring language the stupendous feats of a man who prevails against monsters and dragons while upholding his culture’s most deeply held virtues of valor and loyalty has nothing to do with us. Our literature today, our language today, is much fuller and richer than that.

There are, perhaps, a few things that would be lacking in our understanding of the world if we didn’t study Beowulf, but they are, admittedly, minor. We might miss, for example, the fact that our English language is directly descended from a centuries-long tradition of storytelling that precedes history itself, when tales were told, not written. Granted, Beowulf resides at the very cusp of literacy as society emerged from a purely oral/aural society and shows us that what some long-ago scribe determined was worth recording was not the Bible or the landholding records of the West Saxon aristocracy, but a tale about the core values that informed the society of the time — which are otherwise inaccessible to us. Interesting information, perhaps, but expendable.

True, we’d miss the fact that having such an ancient document before us — literally transcribed from spoken English into the very earliest known written form of the language — demonstrates how the language sounded a thousand years ago, before there were any other means of recording sound. That’s not such a big deal. Who cares if we don’t know how the languages spoken in western Europe eventually developed into the sounds of our present-day language from some potpourri of archaic Germanic tongues? It doesn’t matter at all, as you suggest.

An even more subtle — and probably worthless — point related to that previous one is that the language at the time Beowulf was recorded was in flux as it emerged from the polyglot mix of Frisian, Germanic, and other western European languages. If that sole manuscript of Beowulf had not survived, we’d be lacking a critical juncture in the emergence of English from a highly-inflected early Indo-European language into its current streamlined and incalculably flexible form that can generate sentences of massive power. You’re right: it’s not really that important.

Nor does it matter that some of the most talented poetic imaginations of the past two hundred years have labored to study Beowulf and render it into modern English, striving to produce contemporary versions of the story in language that derives directly from the original. Seamus Heaney only received the Nobel Prize, so he can be discounted, and J.R.R. Tolkein, well, despite the fact that there’s a lot of buzz about a newly published translation he made of Beowulf, who’s he?

No, even though the poem records the exploits of a magnificent hero and gives us a glimpse into the society that precedes any other recordings of our cultural heritage, in language that demonstrates the centuries-old power of our native tongue, we should let it go.

Oh, sure, some minor South American poet wrote about the power of the Anglo-Saxon language, but we can certainly discount his third-world opinion:

At various times, I have asked myself what reasons
moved me to study, while my night came down,
without particular hope of satisfaction,
the language of the blunt-tongued Anglo-Saxons.

Used up by the years, my memory
loses its grip on words that I have vainly
repeated and repeated. My life in the same way
weaves and unweaves its weary history.

Then I tell myself: it must be that the soul
has some secret, sufficient way of knowing
that it is immortal, that its vast, encompassing
circle can take in all, can accomplish all.

Beyond my anxiety, beyond this writing,
the universe waits, inexhaustible, inviting.

“Poem Written in a Copy of Beowulf”
by Jorge Luis Borges (trans. by Alastair Reid)

© Brad Nixon 2014, 2019


  1. Truly, I was very much looking forward to your scholarly and penetrating analysis, and I did thoroughly enjoy it. As it is not what I had expected to read, that made it all the more enjoyable. That said, you compliment far too generously THE GADFLY, who now rears his ugly head, as follows:

    You’ve really done it this time! Obama is hopping mad, and the NSA is highly embarrassed. Until your release of this sensitive material, only a handful of NSA operatives knew anything about Beowulf. These guys were secretly spending our hard-earned tax dollars researching Beowulf, instead of protecting American students from the terror of English Literature (particularly, VERY EARLY English Lit.). Now, because of YOUR BLOG, Ben Greenwald of The Guardian, and Julian Asange of Wikileaks have this sensitive information. And, horror of horrors, Asange has since passed it on to Wikipedia. Now the WHOLE WORLD will know! How do I know this? Because Beowulf is NOW on Wikipedia for all to see! Oh, no!!!


    • I thank you for your measured response. In those long-ago days when I was first exposed to VERY EARLY ENGLISH LIT (VEEL), there was no one to counsel or advise me about the reckless path I was pursuing. There were, in fact, Certain Elements (CE) within the Academic Community (AC) (opposed by the Academic Community/Dissident Corps (AC/DC)) who ENCOURAGED me to take that path, which I followed to desolation and ruin. If, by revealing now the nature of the all-consuming pursuit that awaits the devotees of Anglo-Saxon, I can in some way mitigate the pain and suffering that drives initiates to relentlessly construe nouns, verbs, adjectives and adjectives as having derived from either Anglo-Saxon, Norman French, Parisian French, Old Norse or Latin, I will feel that my time here in this loathsome place (Anglo-Saxon: lathgenithlan) has been somewhat redeemed. You’ve done a great service, La Boheme, and I’m sure the NSA agents who are even now knocking on your door while firing tear gas cannisters through your windows will be sympathetic to your cause. Good luck, and good night.


      • Brad, your brief, yet precise and to the point, explanation of the import of Beowulf was far superior to that of any of my former professors; à votre santé!


  2. Any piece of art which came to us through centuries is worth of study.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Agreed. Whether we appreciate or even like it at all, I think it’s worth asking ourselves what there is that might resonate with us, whether from 100 or 1000 (or 5000!) years ago. Art connects us all. Thank you, Victor.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Fox News is not in charge of the language. They’re not even in charge of the news. What they are in charge of is fake news, “alternative facts,” and opinions solely driven by ratings.


Leave a Comment. I enjoy hearing from readers.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


%d bloggers like this: