Few medievalists grace the saints’ calendars of American churches, but it’s fitting that back-to-school week coincides with the feast day of Nikolaj Frederik Severin Grundtvig, observed annually on September 2 by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and on September 8 by the Episcopal Church in the United States. The Danish bishop and polymath is little known outside his home country, but he was a monumental figure there—and if you’ve read any edition or translation of Beowulf, then N.F.S. Grundtvig was partly responsible for getting it into your hands.
After Icelander Grímur Jónsson Thorkelín published the first printed edition of Beowulf (with the support of the Danish government) in 1815, Gruntvig was the most vocal scholar to point out the many errors in Thorkelin’s transcription and Latin translation, from misreadings of Old English words to Thorkelin’s failure to recognize proper names. Thorkelin, a twitchy careerist, responded by accusing Grundtvig of “sweet dreams, absurd fantasies, and willful distortions of the original and of my work within the Chaos that surrounds him,” but Grundtvig, the superior scholar, was right. Grundtvig was also the first to notice that the Hygelac of Beowulf was the historical figure Chochilaichus named by Gregory of Tours in his History of the Franks, and Grundtvig’s 1820 version of Beowulf in Danish was the first translation of the poem into any modern language.
Although Grundtvig was peeved to see the Danes exeunt two-thirds into Beowulf, he never stopped grappling with the poem, seeking not only its universal lessons within the context of his own faith but also clues to the Scandinavian past. “[T]he language,” he wrote, “is ingenuous, without having the German long-windedness, and without remaining obscure in its brevity as so often in the Eddic poems.” Inspired by Beowulf, Gruntvig became an Anglo-Saxonist while rising through the Lutheran church, studying theology and languages, agitating for Norwegian independence, becoming the father of Danish folk schools, dealing with censorship and fines and exile, marrying three times, briefly serving in the Danish Parliament, and somehow finding time to translate hundreds of hymns and write countless poems and books. (For all I know, he even invented Lego and provided the theological foundation for his nation’s wonderful open-faced sandwiches.)
Something of an Anglophile, Grundtvig practically begged the English to appreciate this work by their native poet, and the tone of his 1831 proposal for an Anglo-Saxon book subscription program will amuse any medievalist who’s been accused of cultivating obscure interests:
I know there are tastes, called classical, which will turn away in disgust when they are told that this poem consists of two fabulous adventures, not very artificially connected, except by the person of the hero,—and that these episodes, which relate to historical traditions of the North, are rather unskillfully inserted. But I think such classical scholars as have a squeamish repugnance to all Gothic productions, should remember that, when they settle themselves down in the little circle of the ancient world, they have banished themselves from the modern, and consequently have made their opinions on such a subject of very little importance.
“For all his faults of expression,” writes Tom Shippey, “Grundtvig read the poem more acutely and open-mindedly than any scholar for decades.” Even those of us who will never be honored with hymns could do worse than aspire to earn such an epitaph. Thanks to scholars like Grundtvig, not only do we better understand how and why the Anglo-Saxons wondered, as others have, “Ubi sunt qui ante nos fuerunt?,” but we can also start to answer the question ourselves.