First, the poem itself does need some introduction. Although there was a movie that borrowed the title and some character names, said film was not in actuality anywhere close to the poem.
This online text includes side-by-side Old English and modern translation, and a diplomatic Old English only version. The translation is more faithful to the original syntax and style than many which is why I like it. The site includes a glossary to the Old English, an Introduction to the text, supplemental readings from related texts, bibliography, and explanatory notes with the text. Admittedly, the ads and prominent ‘donate to support’ are not always fun to look at, but the rest of the site makes up for that.
While I admit to owing a huge debt of gratitude to this edition for helping me get through a course covering the original Old English text, this site is also a great illustration of the importance that Beowulf still has. Not only doe the site contain a variety of aids in the study of Beowulf itself, but it also presents other Old English texts that might relate to the same ideas and traditions.
This link to other texts presents one of the main reasons why the Old English Beowulf is still relevant today. It contains some of the only information to have survived the centuries concerning history, culture, and mythology of the time in the English language (at the time). For this reason alone, the poem deserves respect, because it is one of the only texts we still have that illustrates a connection between the English language literary traditions and the epics of Greece, Rome, Scandinavia, and others. This heritage is important because it contains clues to the development of the English literary tradition from some of its earliest stages.
The question remains as to whether or not Beowulf is actually high art as a poem. This is a matter of interpretation, and requires research and study to answer. However, since the text exists in a single damaged copy, and is one of very few extant pieces of Old English poetry that we still have access to, Beowulf deserves attention. Whether we like it or not, it’s nearly all we have.
Beowulf has certainly gotten plenty of attention over the past few centuries. J.R.R. Tolkein was a scholar of the poem, and used sections of it as inspiration for parts of his LOTR series. Even today, the Internet contains many blogs and message boards dedicated to this poem. Just type ‘Beowulf’ into Google or any other search engine. The existence of these digital platforms allows people who may not be professional scholars to interact with some of the oldest known literature in the English language. For this reason alone, the Internet can be called a boon to literary scholarship, because the Internet allows people to experience and interact with texts and ideas they might not otherwise be interested in or have access to.
The quality of these interactions is another question entirely. Some blogs (and other digital sources) are written by trained academics, and others are not. I don not mean to imply that blogs and web sites composed by non-academics are not valuable, or that those by professional scholars must automatically be accepted as high quality. I do say that the author’s background should have an impact on how the content is approach, analyzed, and-or accepted (or not). I would judge quality based on how the author of an opinion uses the actual text of the poem, and whether or not they account for previously published thoughts on the poem. If an author cites the poem frequently and correctly, and especially if they cite authoritative scholarship (or even an authoritative edition of the poem), then I am more inclined to take their ideas seriously. These are all techniques in which scholars are trained, and a professional academic is more likely to use them. That said, I don’t believe for a minute that a person must be trained scholar in order to be a thoughtful reader or interpreter.
Beowulf and its digital presence illustrates both the importance and the cautions of engaging with the digital humanities. While the Web allows for greater access, exploration, and discussion, the natures of said discussions and those who engage in them must be taken into account. An astute observer might notice that I have yet to offer any opinion on the nature of Beowulf as a poem myself. I have no intention of doing so. While I do find the poem fascinating for historical and linguistic-literary reasons, I simply do not feel the need to engage the digital world on this matter. I plan on saving that for works and authors in which I have considerably more experience and expertise. First up, Chaucer. Coming soon.