Middle English Word of the Moment

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Beowulf and the intimidated critic

I confess it: I have been avoiding Beowulf.

Now, of course, as soon as I confessed this to myself, I had to jump in and volunteer to present in the first of two classes in which we will discuss Beowulf in our 'Mediaeval (As) Epic' class - ie, in two weeks, which makes me the first seminar presentation overall.  Despite my rational mind saying 'oh, you should probably go for one of the later Anglo-Norman epics, 12th or maybe 13th century, that way you can double up your theory with your thesis, which, may I remind you, you are writing this semester'.  Because Beowulf is the behemoth, the Hamlet-scale terror, at the mention of which everything in me retreats to huddle behind a defensive barrier of 'oh, I work in the late Middle Ages, no, I have no opinion on Beowulf, that would require reading reams and reams of lifetimes' works of scholarship, also I do not speak Old English, no, please, do not get me fascinated by Old English, I don't have time'.

So of course I have now put myself in the position where I have to have an opinion by next week.  Oh well.

The course is on the concept of epic, and we seem so far to be leaning towards discussion of the later appropriation of that concept, particularly for nationalistic purposes, which accords with the secondary reading for that week (largely nation and romanticism in the 19th and early 20th centuries).  And there I can double up on theory with my thesis, in terms of the opportunistic (re)construction of 'history'. I much suspect that my key terms will be not only 'nationalism' and 'alterity' but also 'borders' and 'fragmentation' - as that will be a topic of discussion later when we reach Raoul de Cambrai - and thus - Grendel!  March-reaver and literal object of fragmentation!

And this, of course, means that I have an excuse to read J. J. Cohen.  This is always a treat.


Kathryn Warner said...

I seem to remember writing an essay on Beowulf at university. Can't for the life of me think what the topic was, though - something to do with the structure, perhaps...? Hope the seminar goes really well!

Anonymous said...

It would be unwise of me to admit how late in my career I left reading Beowulf, given that I currently teach the period, but suffice it to say, this struck chords. Break all necessary legs etc.

Hannah Kilpatrick said...

Thank you both! But I'm wary of 'break a leg' - the Rideau Canal has just been opened for skating for the winter, and I'm teaching myself again. Wishes for broken limbs sound a little ominous…!