Reminders Related to Teaching Middle English

I’m in the middle of teaching an upper-level English course on Middle English Language, Literature, and Culture. It’s a 5-week session, which means 12 3-hour class periods (we lose one day off for Memorial Day), some in-person, some online, and 1 needed for a mid-term, and a second needed for a final exam. More on how things went later.

What I mean to consider today is what preparing for this class has reminded me about studying language. It has been nearly a decade since I taught anything that could be labeled ‘foreign language’, and in some senses Middle English qualifies; a native speaker of modern, current English needs considerable help on grammar, syntax, and vocabulary to work with texts in most any form of Middle English.

Reminder 1: Just because a word looks familiar does not mean it is, aka beware the false cognate. I remembered this myself, but when I started to review some of the texts I was planning to use for class, I was surprised at how often,  when I looked something up, it didn’t mean what I was expecting. This of course makes me paranoid, and I spend possibly longer than I need to double checking vocabulary. I don’t regret that though, because I do find difficult forms or unusual vocabulary with enough advance warning to know it’s coming in class and therefore be able to explain the origin of the form or word.

Reminder 2: Inflections can be important. Middle English is not as inflected as something like Old English, and it is less inflected than modern English. But still, sometimes those spelling variations can matter. This is proving confusing for students sometimes, since they also have to try and deal with the lack of standardized spelling.

Reminder 3: I remember hearing once that a basic rule of thumb for designing a test was to take it yourself (a good idea for proofreading purposes anyways) and then double that time for your students. This rule doesn’t quite work so well with translations, at least not in the first half of the course, when students are still getting used to the textbook, resources, and the language itself. The first full day of class, we barely finished the text with me taking some of the translating to speed things up, and ended up with less than 5 minutes to discuss interpretive possibilities. I don’t regret the length or the text, as I do believe that the more exposure you get to something, the easier it gets to understand and work with.

Reminder 4: The problem with using lots of exposure to learn something, as I did with Middle English, is that you don’t always get a strong grasp of the intricacies of grammar, syntax, morphology, etc. This means that I had to learn the basics rules of Middle English inflection in order to teach it. Similarly, I never really formally studied the syntactic or metrical rules for poetry, and therefore had to learn some of that as well. This is not a bad thing, but it does illustrate the difference between learning a language by the grammar and learning it by exposure.

Reminder 5: Pronunciation and reading aloud are at the same time important and troublesome. Troublesome because if you want to correct most (not even all) mistakes, it takes a very long time to get through a short segment of text. Important because it provides another means of exposure to the language. Plus, when dealing a language that survives in a lot of poetry, you need pronunciation to understand rhyme, and stress to help understand meter. Speaking is one of the best practices for learning these elements.

Reminder 6: Just because a rule makes sense to you, doesn’t mean students will always agree. I’ve long thought that Middle English sounded more familiar in many cases than it looks on paper. However, some students have directly said that for them, the opposite has been true so far.  Part of me wonders whether this was a ploy to lessen the amount of reading aloud, but still it remains true that different people have different learning styles, and every teacher needs a reminder of that once and a while.

Reminder 7: No matter how much you plan, things will go their own ways. I’m a fan of over-planning, because it’s better to have too much than not enough to do, but it can be a little frustrating to not get to something you know/hope would be interesting or fun. This is especially sad when you had a really cool way to tie the literature into something related to the history or culture of the time.

Reminder 8: Technology has a mind of its own. I was assigned a new classroom for this class. This is a good thing in that the room the class is in is considerably nicer than the one I had first though. But the tech is touchy. The computer restarted on its own in the middle of class, the smart-board doesn’t always like all the markers, a key website proved uncooperative during a demo, etc.

Reminder 9: There’s always a student or few who is hard to integrate into the rest of the class. It’s not that a student may not want to participate, but maybe they are shy, or learn better on their own, or have lower confidence. When the class is small though, as many summer and major-level courses can be, it’s hard to let someone hide.

Reminder 10: Teaching a class for the first time is hard work. There’s a lot more advance planning with lectures and lesson plans, and there’s more trial and error with assignments. On the other hand, it’s also pretty rewarding when students actually seem to enjoy the material, and it’s easier to remember to ask for feedback about reading assignments, in class work, or pretty much anything else.

Fantastic Origins

I saw a CFP (‘call for papers’) not long ago that was considering the notion of fantasy in medieval literature. I had a better proposal for a different call, but this one got me wondering about the history of the fantasy genre. Not long after, I got into a discussion during an online book club meeting concerning whether or not The Devourers by Indra Das actually qualifies as fantasy, as it is often labeled. On the basis of a lack of plot and too much emphasis on character psychology, I was among those arguing for ‘no’. I didn’t like the book, but that’s another story.

According to a general Google search, the fantasy genre as it is now recognized started during the Victorian era in England. Depending on who you ask, the first ‘modern fantasy’ was written in either 1872 or 1894 by George MacDonald (The Princess and the Goblin”) or William Morris (“The Wood Beyond the World”). Before these, epic poetry and fairy tales seem to be the most directly and frequently noted as ancestors. I haven’t read either MacDonald or Morris, so I can’t speak to that (yet); I have however read a substantial amount of epic poetry as well as mythology and fairy tales.

From epic poetry and mythology, I would guess the notable attributes of fantasy would be the supernatural elements and the focus on heroic warriors. The thing is though, these components are not restricted to western European epic, such as those by Homer or Vergil, or the Norse sagas. While the hero warriors like Beowulf, Achilles, Odysseus, deities like Thor and Odin, monsters, and sorcer-ers/-esses are certainly ancestors of many modern fantasy characters, these elements also appear in other times and places. Gilgamesh for example is Sumerian, Ramayana is from India, and Sunjata is from Africa. Theses epics also contain the same sorts of elements, yet are rarely connected to modern fantasy literature. In some ways this is too bad; I would rather like to see a story somehow featuring Enkidu (Wildman companion of Gilgamesh), Sumaworo (sorcerer king/antagonist of Sunjata) and Hanuman (helpful flying monkey/wind deity in Ramayana).

The fairy tale genre is also pretty obvious. The supernatural elements, the struggles of the heroes to interact and-or overcome them makes a lot of sense in connection to fantasy. The cautionary element of many of the original stories seems to have been removed from most modern fantasy, but then again Disney does the same thing. Every year in an intro to lit class, I shock at least a few students by pointing out that Ann Sexton’s “Cinderella” is actually pretty accurate to the original story in terms of narrative. This is also similar to the argument for story collections such as the 1001 Nights as possible ancestors. I can see that as a possibility; however, many of those stories might fall under the category of fairy tale or myth. I also wonder why something like Christina Rosetti’s Goblin Market isn’t often cited. Maybe it’s too directly rooted in fairy tale tradition, but I would argue it too could be classified as fantasy.

There are some likely contributors that I was surprised to not see, such as chivalric tales. Something like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight has nearly all of the elements already discussed, including the supernatural, deities (the Christian God and relevant associates are mentioned frequently), a hero, and has the addition of what may now be recognized as basic elements of high fantasy, knights, wizards and sorceresses, lords, and damsels. Given the obvious debt to Arthurian legend and tales of chivalry, I have to wonder why these kinds of stories aren’t connected to the modern genre. It’s possible, that I didn’t go looking enough, yet I would have though these things would be at the top of the list of likely ancestors, and they are not.

I understand why the likes of J.R.R. Tolkien would be cited as crucial to the history of the fantasy genre, as the mention of the likes of Patrick Rothfuss as inheritors and continuers of the genre. Both authors write in the tradition of high fantasy, using vaguely medieval settings, magic and its practitioners, heroes and ladies, dragons, demons, etc. I wonder why we don’t see more mention of the likes of C.S. Lewis or Lewis Carroll, authors of The Chronicles of Narnia and Alice in Wonderland series’ respectively. You could even add Frank L. Baum’s Wizard of Oz series too. While they do not write high fantasy, and their stories tend to be rooted pretty closely to the real world in some way, both Carroll and Lewis do in fact use many of the tropes, including magic, adventure, heroes, unusual creatures, battles, an all-powerful (or at least knowing) force, etc. Baum does so as well, although he lacks the deity element.

All of these possibilities also help consider hybrid genres like steampunk. I mention steampunk specifically because of the frequent Victorian element in the stories, characters, and-or settings. This genre shares many of the previously mentioned fantasy attributes with the addition of historical fiction options, and connections to science fiction (technology is often important).

Steampunk also happens to be a current favorite of mine, so maybe all of this is by way of saying, possible new research project, here I come!  To be continued…………..

Medieval Literature, Theory, and Beyond

Much 20th century literary theory does not work well when applied to medieval literature. The ideas of formalism, structuralism, reader response, and new historicism (for example) very rarely produce strong readings/interpretations of individual medieval texts. One reason for this problem is that much contemporary theory is designed to function on a genre or wider level, and suggests that texts of certain kinds share a certain set of features (for reasons defined by the theory). Medieval writing displays too much range of style for such ideas to work. A second reason for the incompatibility is that medieval writers and scholars had their own ideas about literary theory and practice which do not match well with the modern theories. Medieval literary theory as practiced and understood by medieval writers has been getting more attention in recent decades, and this scholarship agrees on the point that medieval writers appreciated both canonical styles (the auctores) and individual creativity (inventio). {I will present a more detail consideration of these ideas soon.}

I bring up the idea of literary theory, modern and medieval, because there is a way to adapt current literary theory to medieval literature, and that is to take the terms and key concepts and adapt them and/or combine them (as opposed to attempting to apply the entire theory).  For example, Thomas Reed borrows terms and ideas from Bakhtin and Gilman, and applies them to debate poetry, and Katherine Little borrows from Macherey, Alpers, Marx, and others to apply to late medieval poetry.

Now for confession time. I don’t especially like modern “literary theory” because it too often takes medieval texts out of their original context and gives them readings that may be interesting and intelligible to a contemporary reader, but that are entirely foreign to the culture which produced the texts in the first place.  Literary criticism should  not ignore the actual text in order to produce meaning, nor should it ignore the circumstances (literary, historical, cultural etc) under which the text was first produced.

Here’s what all of this has to with my own work (beyond my personal understanding and practice in terms of theoretical approaches): I am (as mentioned in an earlier post) trying to work on two projects at once. Newer project considers the concept of the medieval pastoral poem as adapted to the university setting, while big (older project) considers Gower’s Confessio Amantis as a debate poem. I looked into Katherine Little’s Transforming Work in hopes that it might work for both projects. The bad news: the argument will only be useful in my pastoral project. The good news: some of her theoretical references will be helpful in both. (Note: I will always advise students and scholars to mine the Works Cited of any publication for your own personal gain. This works every bit as well with digital sources (like Wikipedia) as with print.) Pierre Macherey published A Theory of Literary Production in 1966 (in French; the translation in English was done in 1978) using ideas from Marx and Freud to first define and then outline the practices of ‘literary criticism’.  The ambiguity and manipulation of the art vs science dichotomy to create meaning that Macherey sets up will prove useful in both projects.

Before I end up with further project ideas (more is better than none though), I will pause for now to return to work on working through my ever-expanding reading list for my Gower analysis, while keeping an eye out for ideas that might be useful for the pastoral paper or any other project ideas that might arise. Stay tuned…

Beginning a New Project

Embarking on a new project is always an interesting time. What I am beginning to work on is an extension of an older project, but it represents a new direction. My current long-term research project is a revision of my dissertation into a book. The original project, titled “Argument In Poetry: (Re)Defining The Middle English Debate Poem In Academic, Popular, And Physical Contexts”, argues that many medieval English argument poems tend to follow two models based on academic and popular practices of the times. The academic models come from commentary and disputation practices (Chapter 2), while the popular practices are derived from medieval drama and sermons (Chapter 3). The physical context, addressed in the fourth chapter, reviews a sample of representative manuscripts containing debate poems in order to analyze the types of texts, themes and marginalia typically preserved along with the poems.

I am currently working on a replacement for my original chapter 4. I will be replacing that chapter with an extended analysis of a single longer poem, John Gower’s Confessio Amantis. I plan to analyze the persuasive elements that relate to the commentary tradition, the disputation tradition, the sermon, and confessional literature. The first part of this project will be concentrating primarily on the interactions between Amans and Genius in order to analyze Gower’s treatment of the interpretive and persuasive dialogue in the context of the various related discursive traditions referenced above. The second part of the project will concern the same elements within the exempla presented by Genius.

I am proceeding thus:

1) Initial reading of the primary text for ideas and questions to guide research.

For this first step finding the right edition of your text is important as the edition can be used to start the secondary source research process.  The advent of the digital humanities has made this element far more accessible than ever before. To me, a good edition, traditional or digital requires several components. First, a good scholarly edition must have a good “Works Cited” and ideally “For further information see” sections. A second key element is the inclusion of a glossary and textual notes. Particularly if I am looking at the text in question for the first time in depth, a detailed “Commentary-Notes” section is also very helpful. I am partial to the TEAMS Middle English series because these editions meet the above requirements. In the case of the Confessio Amantis, I will be primarily referring to:

Confessio Amantis, Volume 1


{I will eventually be using all 3 volumes, but volume 1 serves as a good example.}

An interesting fact about this series of editions is that many are available online as well as in print.  If I am committed to a specific text as my object of study, I find that I prefer to have the printed text. I prefer to not be tied down by WiFi connections and battery or cord availability. That said, I do like the digital editions because they can save time with hyperlinks to notes, and a digital text can make initial word searches faster than a paper concordance. I always make sure to double check a full concordance (when available) simply because, especially with Middle English, there may be forms of the word or alternative spellings that I was not aware of.

2) Once I have some ideas and questions from the initial reading of the primary text, I next begin looking into the secondary research to see what has already been done in the field, and to find out who the major scholars are. For this literature review, I start in two places. First, I have search my primary academic library’s catalog for potentially relevant sources.



The second place that I look to build my list of works to review is the Bibliography section of my edition.

                                                                                  LIbrary search

As of this writing, I have gotten as far as the two steps described above. What follows is based on previous practices.

3) As I read through the first round of primary sources, I keep notes. Based on my initial questions and observations concerning the text, I write down the relevant ideas for each text. I also make note of any potentially useful sources referenced so that I can look up the original arguments or ideas for myself. I prefer to keep track of my sources in a searchable digital file, but I keep my notes in a notebook. Although the paper notebook is less easily searchable, I find that if organized by title and author, I can still refer back to what I need while not being tied to an available screen.

This part of the process is probably the most time-consuming. The Bibliography and Index can be helpful places for saving time, especially if a text is not the work of a single author, but a collection or anthology of essays. That said, I firmly believe that taking time during the initial research phase will save time later on. Keeping detailed, organized notes will be helpful later on when I might realize that I want to return to a source I haven’t looked at in six months for a specific reference. In addition to checking my notes, I will also go through the indices and bibliographies provided to re-view the source in terms of my current question or perspective.

4) Outline. I like outlines and I find that I work well with them. As I teach composition students, I record my claims and reasons based on the primary text, keeping track of the relevant passages. I then add to each claim-reason the relevant secondary references.

5) First draft. After ensuring that everything in my outline is compatible, I sit down to write. I find that setting a schedule is useful, but that flexibility must be included. I set myself a weekly page goal and a daily  progress goal with a catch-up day built in.

6) Review and Revision. A hard lesson to learn is that having someone else read your unfinished work is helpful. After draft 1 is done, I send it to a willing trusted third party, while I begin my own revisions. This step is repeated until a polished project is completed.

Given that I am currently in the middle of step 2, the Gower project of mine will be ongoing for quite some time. I hope to have an outline at least started by Summer 2015. In the meantime, stay tuned for occasional updates and observations about how works is coming along.

Lydgate No Fun?

John Lydgate is known primarily for his more serious works such as Troy Book, the Fall of Princes, and the Siege of Thebes. The heavy moral didactic emphases in these works are something of a Lydgate trademark.  Even in the more amusing works, including the debate poems “The Churl and the Bird” (179ff) and “The  Debate of Horse, Goose and Sheep” (48ff), this tendency is apparent. Based on the majority of his work, Lydgate seems to have a hard time writing ‘just for fun’ pieces.

“The Churl and the Bird” is told in the style of a fable, and in accordance with this tradition, Lydgate includes a moral at the end of the poem. The final three stanzas specifically label the poem as a fable, and present four lessons to be taken from the poem.  The first is “Now forged talis  I counsaille you to fle”, and the second “For losse of goode takethe not to gret hede” (192). This second lesson is reiterated as “Coveitethe no thing that may not be” (192). The third lesson is “Bettir is freedom withe litelle in gladnesse/ Than to be thralle withe al worldly richesse” (193).

The fourth and final lesson is less direct. In the final stanza of the poem, Lydgate presents the traditional sending of his book to his patron. Conventional though this conclusion may be, the final lines still contain instructions. Lydgate says, “And as touching the translacioun/ Oute of Frenshe, hough ever the Englisshe be,/ Al thing is saide undir correctioun/ With supportacion of your benignite.” (193) The humility and  self deprecation are conventional, but the comment about the imperfection of translation contains the suggestion that the reader needs to take some responsibility for their own reading and interpretation.

In “The Debate of the Horse, Goose, and Sheep”, the moral is more direct. After the narrative of the court case has concluded, Lydgate adds another section, fourteen stanzas long, to explain ‘the moralite’ of the debate. The moralite opens with the lines, “Of this fable conceyveth the sentence,/ At goode leyser doth the matier see,/ Whiche  importith grete intelligence,/ Yif ye list take the moralyte,/ Profitable to evry comunaulte;/ Whiche inculdith in many sundry wyse:/ Noman sholde, of high or low degre,/ For no peragatif his neyhbour  to despise.” The rest of the lesson in interpreting the debate never refers to the actual debate, and instead presents a sermon on social equality.

There are very few texts by Lydgate in which the author does not indulge in his monkish habit of turning everything into a lecture. Lydgate wrote a series of ‘mummings’ (alternatively titled ‘disguisings’) which make up the majority of his ‘just for fun’ work. The Mumming at Hertford will serve as an example. Mummings are a kind of dramatic performance intended for entertainment purposes often produced on commission.  What kind of performance will be coming in this particular example is made clear by the prologue, which explains, “Nowe in þe vigyle of þis nuwe yeere/ Certeyne sweynes ful [froward of ther chere]/ Of entent comen, [fallen on ther kne],/ For to compleyne vn-to Yuoure Magestee/ Vpon þe mescheef of gret aduersytee,/ Vpon þe trouble and þe cruweltee/ Which þat þey haue endured in þeyre lyves/ By þe felnesse of þeyre fierce wyves;”

A series of caricatures follows the prologue, but Lydagate does not rely exclusively on wife-bashing for the entertainment. After all of the husbands present their complaints, the wives get a chance to respond. This group of women appear more educated than their husbands, which off-sets the shrewish characterizations. All though it is a collective speech, as opposed to each woman getting her own response, the women make references to literature as opposed to pure folklore and convention at the beginning of their defense: “And for oure partye þe worthy Wyff of Bathe/ Cane shewe statutes moo þan six or seven,/ Howe wyves make hir housbandes wynne heven,/ Maugre þe feonde and al his vyolence;/ For þeyre vertu of parfyte pacyence/ Parteneþe not to wyves nowe-adayes,/ Sauf on þeyre housbandes for to make assayes./ Þer pacyence was buryed long agoo,/ Gresyldes story recordeþe pleinly soo.” The ladies clearly have read Chaucer.

The decision by the ‘king’ also supports the idea that the women have outsmarted their husbands: “Wher-fore þe Kyng wol al þis nexst[e] yeere/ Þat wyves fraunchyse stonde hoole and entier,/ And þat no man with-stonde it, ne with-drawe,/ Til man may fynde some processe oute by lawe,/ Þat þey shoulde by nature in þeyre lyves/ Haue souerayntee on þeyre prudent wyves,/ A thing vnkouþe, which was neuer founde.” In contrast to this potentially feminist stance, the final words of the performance return to the traditional view of women causing men nothing but trouble: “Let me be-ware þer-fore or þey beo bounde./ Þe bonde is harde, who-soo þat lookeþe weel;/ Some man were leuer fetterd beon in steel,/ Raunsoun might help his peyne to aswaage,/ But whoo is wedded lyueþe euer in seruage.”

“The Mumming at Hertford” shows that Lydgate was capable of composing a text purely for entertainment, with no lecture or overall moral. One wonders what the effects might have been if he had allowed “The Debate of the Horse, Goose, and Sheep” or “The Churl and the Bird” to stand without the emphasis and re-emphasis on the specific lessons he wanted his reader to take away.


Chaucer In Perpetuam

At one point in my academic career, I swore that I would not be using Chaucer in my dissertation. I also suggested that Chaucer was over-studied. This was before my DQE (qualifying exam), and before ENG 8830, a course/independent study that is designed to prepare the student for the DQE and beyond. I have since completed 8330, the DQE, and the dissertation itself. I still stand by my assertion that certain things about/by Chaucer have been over-studied. However, I did end up including Chaucer’s “Parliament of Fowls” in my final chapter.  I will not be putting forth major scholarly analysis of any Chaucerian text here. Rather, I intend to comment on the relevance of Chaucer’s poetry today.

1) Chaucer provides proof that human nature hasn’t changed much in 650 years. For example, Chaucer proves that even as early as the fourteenth century, fart jokes were funny. Read The Miller’s Tale if you are skeptical.  For another example, Chaucer  insinuates in more than one poem that writers are under-appreciated, and that the job of a writer/scholar can be very difficult . The biggest example of Chaucer speaking out as a writer is in The Complaint of Chaucer to His Purse, and he also hints at the difficulties a writer can face in The Parliament of Fowls when the dreamer-poet-scholar  first prays to  Venus for help with poetry (112-119) and Scipio later tells him that he (Scipio) will help the dreamer with his writing (162-168). The Parliament begins with a scholar struggling with an academic book (22-35, 92-98), although it does end with the scholar hopeful that he can find the answer he is looking for (693-699). For a more modern reference, Chaucer inspired what may be the first ever fan-fics in English. Robert Henryson, in the fifteenth century, wrote The Testament of Criseyde which presents what happened to her after the conclusion of Chaucer’s story. John Lydgate framed his Siege of Thebes as a Canterbury Tale about twenty years after Chaucer died.

2) Reading Chaucer is a gateway to lots of medieval stuff including history, literature, culture, and education. The historical and cultural allusions and direct references illustrate examples of how people in Chaucer’s time may have viewed figures and events that would turn out to be of enduring historical interest. The possible references to a royal courtship or engagement in Parliament of Fowls and the dedication of Book of the Duchess to John of Gaunt, and a reference to John Gower in Troilus and Criseyde (5, 1856) are only  three of many such references. Chaucer wrote some teaching texts, including An ABC and Treatise on the Astrolabe, and in many of his poems, he presents people who are or are trying to study.

3) Chaucer is known as “The Father of English Poetry/Literature” for a reason. While this title may be disputed and questioned, the fact remains that Chaucer was a gifted and intelligent poet. Two hundred years before Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet, Chaucer wrote Troilus and Criseyde (scroll down to find T&C). Both stories are about a pair of doomed lovers, but Chaucer’s gives much more insight into the psychology and motivations of his characters. Yes, Troilus and Criseyde are probably older than Romeo and Juliet,  and Chaucer was not writing for the stage. However, the individuality and struggles of the individual characters are far more detailed in Chaucer’s work, and level of detail regarding character or motivation is not restricted by genre or age of the characters. The same can be said of The Canterbury Tales, especially the General Prologue, and in some of the inter-tale dialogue among the characters.

Back to the personal for a final notion. Here’s the fan-fic that I think needs to happen. I would do it, but I am a terrible creative writer. Dr Who ends up in medieval London, and meets Chaucer.  Chaucer would be in the early stages of his literary career, and assists the Doctor through some court intrigue in return for the Doctor promising to come back with some stories to help fill in plans for The Canterbury Tales. NB – Since, as of this writing, Doctor 12 is mostly unknown, I will cast the one Doctor who is still available, and that is the regeneration clone of Doctor 10.

The Doctor would leave for a while,  and he would come back only to find out that Chaucer has died very recently under mysterious circumstances, and he and companions decide to solve the mystery of Chaucer’s death. This would allow for some exploration of the real historical possibilities of what might have happened to Chaucer when he died, and also allow for the requisite Whovian monster to make its appearance. Said creature would be some kind of demon that feasts on words and ideas, and it got to liking Chaucer a little too much. The Doctor would defeat whatever it is, but while he and the companion(s) were looking through Chaucer’s papers for clues to solving the murder, the Doctor would start doodling in the margins of one of the books which would eventually turn out to be the Hengwert manuscript.  Click here for the digital facsimile.

To the reader: If you have ideas on how to expand my above scenario, please share! This is one of the great advantages of the digital humanities, that people can collaborate so easily on ideas.

Beowulf Online

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.

The Best Edition and Translation for Serious Students: Beowulf on Steorarume

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.