Beowulf is out, reviews are in, and blogs will soon be abuzz with the input of Anglo-Saxonists. Compared to other medievalists, Anglo-Saxonists are numerous on the Web, but then they’ve long been a forward-looking bunch. More than a decade ago, the now-vanished Old English Pages at Georgetown were some of the earliest online resources for studying any medieval language; the Anglo-Saxon poetic corpus was digitized even before most academics had personal e-mail addresses; and graduate students in the mid-1990s were already exploring the potential of hypertext editions.
Given access to the same technology as their fellow humanities scholars, why are Anglo-Saxonists such early adapters? A 1952 Time magazine article suggests one reason: they’re heirs to a decades-old “Anglo-Saxon boom”:
After, next week, Beowulf scholars will not have to worry too much about the fate of the original, nor will they have to travel thousands of miles to pursue their studies of Thorkelin, whose mistakes in copying (e.g., 599 “d’s” for “eth”) will still take years to untangle. But Beowulf is only the opening salvo of the new Anglo-Saxon boom. Within the next few years, scholars all over the world will have reproductions of everything from St. Gregory’s Pastoral Care to King Alfred’s translation of Orosins’ History of the World. Next volume on the list: an 8th century manuscript of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, the original of which is now in the Leningrad Public Library, where Western scholars would have a hard time getting at it.
After reading the entire article, which summarizes postwar efforts to preserve and publish Anglo-Saxon manuscripts, I wanted to see if the magazine’s coverage of Old English literature had changed in the past half century. I poked around the Time archive and was struck by these excerpts from the magazine’s review of Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf in the year 2000:
“Just don’t take any course where they make you read Beowulf,” Woody Allen advised Diane Keaton in Annie Hall (1977). The throwaway line elicited laughs from Allen’s core audience of college grads, especially the one-time English majors among them who had learned to dread—if not actually read—what they had heard was a grim Anglo-Saxon epic filled with odd names and a lot of gory hewing and hacking.
The joke, it turns out, was on the chucklers…
Heaney’s Beowulf…has now been published in the U.S., giving American readers the chance to take the measure of this Harry Potter slayer, the deadest white European male in the politically incorrect literary canon. Judging by the electronic-sales ratings updated constantly by Amazon.com Beowulf is becoming boffo on this side of the Atlantic as well.
Note the difference in tone. The reporter in 1952 may have been ignorant of the continuing value of the Beowulf manuscript even after its copying and reproduction, but he reports on the state of Anglo-Saxon manuscript preservation without any snark. Amazingly, he even refers to “the famed Thorkelin transcripts” with no trace of irony. Time magazine didn’t expect its readers to know who Grímur Jónsson Thorkelin was, but the mid-century reporter kindly explains the scholar’s importance in four concise sentences—without jokes, without dismissive anecdotes, without caveats about political incorrectness, and without calling anything “boffo.”
Maybe the contrast is unfair. After all, a straight news article serves a different purpose than a book review that takes its subject seriously after three paragraphs of irony. But those three paragraphs sure are telling. The reporter in 1952 takes for granted that Anglo-Saxon manuscripts are important, and he assumes that the average Time reader, when briefed on the basics, is likely to agree. By contrast, the reviewer in 2000 assumes that the reader is inclined to think an Anglo-Saxon poem irrelevant based on a quip in a Woody Allen movie; that the reader needs a Harry Potter reference to make this material palatable; and that the reader requires inoculation against—or permission to enjoy, I’m not sure which—the work of “the deadest white European male.” The 1952 article respects the discernment of its readers, who may be receptive to the obscure. The 2000 review condescends. Really: “boffo”?
What’s especially strange to me is that Time magazine is so out of sync with the literate public’s genuine interest in the past. Except for bored patients in doctors’ offices, most of the people who still read general-interest news magazines must be doing so because they’re at least somewhat curious about the world. I don’t want to overstate the number of readers who might be interested in medieval manuscripts, but the massive success of the Beowulf translation tagged as “boffo” by Time magazine suggests that we shouldn’t understate their numbers either. Why preface a review with cutesy language that camouflages an implicit apology to the larger, incurious public? They’re not going to see the article anyway. How strange to let non-readers set the tone of a book review.
Then again, this is the same magazine whose technology bloggers write movie reviews with skittish disclaimers like this: “The little I remember about Beowulf the poem, which is nothing, since I never read it, is that it was incredibly boring.” Perhaps the writers and editors at a magazine with plummeting subscription rates should think twice before suggesting that reading is somehow uncool.
At the end of Carolingian Culture: Emulation and Innovation, Rosamond McKitterick writes, in a line I love to cite, that the Carolingians “imparted to future generations…the conviction that the past not only mattered but was a priceless hoard of treasure to be guarded, conserved, augmented, enriched and passed on.” That isn’t only a ninth-century sentiment. In the past year, I’ve spoken about Charlemagne in church basements full of senior citizens and I’ve met enthusiastic high-school kids who plan to become medievalists. This passion for history is hardly confined to the Middle Ages: One of my colleagues, a photographer and IT professional from Hawaii, recently drove through the Northeast visiting lesser known Revolutionary War sites; another toured ancient cities in Turkey. All of these people honor the memory of McKitterick’s monks and universalize their motives: To seek wisdom in the past is simply the impulse of civilized, literate people.
The big-screen Beowulf looks pretty silly, but its existence was inevitable, a function of the rampant public fascination with the Middle Ages that many of us witness firsthand. If this movie turns out to be one of medievalism’s more lamentable mooncalves, that’s fine; other opportunities will present themselves—at libraries, in classrooms, in the stillness of a museum gallery or in the raucousness of a Renaissance festival. No wonder that after fifty years, Old English experts, so often derided as fusty and dull, now have a better sense of the popular culture than do the editors of Time. The “Anglo-Saxon boom” continues; scholars are happy, but hardly surprised.