Tag Archives: kevin crossley-holland

Some reasons to read Beowulf

Here are just a few reasons why you might want to read Beowulf. First, it is a famous example of literature from the Early Middle Ages. Second, it represents English-language literature in its infancy. Third, it has had impacted modern literature since its rediscovery.

The Early Middle Ages, although politically fractured and certainly with a lower standard of living than the Later Roman Empire or the High Middle Ages, are a period of great creativity and transformation within western Europe, as the post-Roman world resettles itself into something new. Beowulf is, in many ways, indicative of the Early Middle Ages. Culturally, the Early Middle Ages see the introduction of literacy and Christianity to more and more ‘barbarians’—the English, Irish, Scots, Dutch, various continental Germanic peoples, Danes, and more. As a poem about the pagan past being told from a Christian perspective, Beowulf encapsulates the early medieval world, not simply by showing us aspects of Anglo-Saxon society (the beerhall with the lord bestowing gifts upon his thegns—the world of Sutton Hoo), but of European society more broadly (the transformation of barbarian pagans into literate Christians).

Beowulf is one of the earliest long-form English poems. It shows, in a certain way, the foundations of English literature. This is a lofty claim; Beowulf certainly exerted no direct influence on Chaucer, who certainly had closer English poets as well as French and Latin literature to hand. Nonetheless, Beowulf was written in the English vernacular, composed from the stuff of the oral legends that existed as part of the cultural inheritance the English brought with them from the Continent. Its intrinsic interest, then, is that it is a so-called ‘primary’ epic, such as Gilgamesh, the Homeric epics, and The Song of Roland, as opposed to Apollonius of Rhodes, Virgil, Dante, or Ariosto. It depicts a pre-literate, warrior society, yet is itself cast in a beautiful, lyric form. Beowulf carries with it not just daring adventure and heroism, but also the hope of heaven and high ideals of loyalty and honour. These are ideals that are known to capture the hearts and minds of most people. Reading Beowulf shows us English poetry when England was barely English.

Finally, Beowulf has a strong influence on modern literature and art. Like most, if not all, early medieval vernacular literature, it lay dormant for many years. But nationalism, romanticism, and the rise of vernacular philology in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries meant that this Old English epic has found new life, being ushered back into the canon of English-language classics. Immediately, of course, J. R. R. Tolkien, Oxford’s first Professor of Anglo-Saxon and critic of Beowulf comes to mind—especially since the publication of his translation with notes in 2014. It is widely known that Tolkien was influenced by Beowulf in crafting his fantasies, and The Hobbit in particular. From my own experience, many young people have been ushered into classic literature through the twofold gateway of Tolkien and Lewis. Beowulf also inspired the later portions of Eaters of the Dead (filmed as 1999’s The 13th Warrior) when Michael Crichton takes the story beyond Ibn Fadlan’s surviving narrative.

Furthermore, modern adaptations have made Beowulf a known entity, but—like the famous Victorian trio of horror stories, Frankenstein, Dracula, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde—very little read. It has been unfaithfully adapted multiple times for the cinema, as well as a more faithful animated version with the voice talents of Derek Jacobi and Joseph Fiennes. In print, John Gardner has given us Grendel, telling the tale from the perspective of the monster, and Gareth Hinds produced a vivid and captivating graphic novel. One of my favourite adaptations of Beowulf is the stilt play! There has also been an anthology of short fiction about the character inspired by the epic.

So, if you take C S Lewis’s advice and read an old book after every new book, why not pick up Beowulf next time? I’ve read and recommend the translations of Liuzza, Crossley-Holland, and Tolkien, but I expect Heaney’s is more than worth your time.

What ‘Dark’ Ages?

As promised, here is a post about what follows late antiquity (and if the debate about ending ‘late’ antiquity interests you, be sure to read the comments of the post thereon).

A week or two ago, I was at a conference about the Middle Ages. My paper was about Justinianic hagiography because I think the later bits of Late Antiquity also count as the early bits of the Early Middle Ages. Anyway, one of the people commented during a tea break that she doesn’t think the Middle Ages begin until the year 800. Another delegate remarked, ‘So you’re a believer in the Dark Ages?’

I know this is non-controversial in many circles, and has been for many years, but it is worth saying: The Dark Ages Never Happened.*

There are people who still use the term, such as an evangelical woman who once asked me if there were any Christians in the ‘Dark Ages’. Thunderstruck, I didn’t really have much of an answer; I also wasn’t sure what she meant by ‘Dark Ages’. Did she include the entire Middle Ages? I know that not everyone who uses the term includes the whole 1000-year period typically designated ‘mediaeval’, such as a friend who once remarked in a blog that Muslims dragged western Europe ‘kicking and screaming out of the Dark Ages.’ Usually, when the term crops up, it means something from the Fall of Rome until sometime in the Carolingian era or the 1000s or 1100s.

No one’s really sure what the Dark Ages are, I guess; that’s a worse range of dates than we had for Late Antiquity.

The Dark Ages are imagined to be a period of internecine warfare across ‘Europe’, an age when ‘barbarians’ took over the Roman Empire and everything went to pieces. Christianity was turned into superstition (if Constantine hadn’t already done it; it all depends whom you ask). Trade disappeared. People lived brutal, hard, short lives, plagued by fear of the supernatural and of Vikings. Learning was lost, shunned even. It was a dark time in western Europe, and was saved possibly by the Carolingian ‘Renaissance’ or by Islamic learning or by the Irish. Depends whom you ask.

This, quite frankly, is not exactly the case. The change from Empire to barbarian kingdoms is a gradual one, and the movement from a Mediterranean-wide economy of exchange to local economies in the West is very slow, indeed. True, the aristocracy became landed warriors, one of the hallmarks of mediaeval civilization, but they still ruled by Roman Law, still levied Roman taxes, still wrote in Latin, for a very long time.

Indeed, all sorts of Roman learning and aspects of Roman culture were preserved throughout western Europe, even in places where Roman administrative culture completely evaporated, such as Britain. How ‘dark’ can an age be if it gives us Gregory the Great, Isidore of Seville, Adamnan of Iona, the Venerable Bede, Alfred the Great, Alcuin? How ‘dark’ can a world really be that gives us the epic poem Beowulf or the Icelandic Sagas? Or Romanesque architecture and the Lindisfarne Gospels?

Any survey of Early Mediaeval literature should disabuse the notion that, say, 400-1000 was a ‘Dark Age’ for western Europe. Sure, there was a lot of local warfare. This didn’t really let up until 1945, so that can’t really count against the period. Sure, there was some political instability. Sure, a lot of manuscripts were lost. And, yes, Vikings would occasionally come to raid your village. Or found Dublin. Or conquer and settle Normandy. Or become members of the Emperor’s guard in Constantinople.

Even the example of the Vikings, so archetypically ‘Dark Ages’ shows us that the image of the Early Middle Ages as ‘dark’ is off the mark.

This was a transitional period, probably more unstable than some, but not so bad. Many imperial institutions persisted. The Church kept doing her thing. Gregory of Tours and the Venerable Bede gave us voluminous Latin output that includes Bible commentary, saints’ lives, and the history of their peoples. Worth reading. The Insular culture gave us the Book of Kells, the Lindisfarne Gospels, and other exquisite examples of book production. The continent gave us very important texts of secular and canon law as well as the beauty of early Romanesque art.

Perhaps what is darkest about this period is our ignorance of it. Most ignorant are those who still call it ‘Dark.’ Yet in many other ways, historians have far less material from this period to work with. So it is harder to illuminate this age than those that precede and follow it. Nonetheless, it is worth illuminating yourself if you can. You’ll find that the Early Middle Ages are an interesting bit of history.

So, check out these; I list only four so as not to weigh you down. Feel free to recommend others in the comments!

The Inheritance of Rome: A History of Europe from 400 to 1000 by Chris Wickham; pub. Penguin. The introductory chapter deals with a lot of the reasons the Early Middle Ages are snubbed, and not just the ‘Dark Ages’ issue. I’m about 1/3 through, and it’s very illuminating.

Romanesque by Norbert Wolf. This is one of those wonderful introductory volumes of art history produced by Taschen, full of colour illustrations demonstrating the subject at hand. Romanesque is the style of art and architecture most common in the Early Middle Ages. It is beautiful.

The Anglo-Saxon World: An Anthology ed. and trans. Kevin Crossley-Holland, including the entirety of Beowulf. This Oxford World’s Classics volume gives the reader an initiation in the varied literature from the world of the Anglo-Saxon people until 1066, including poetry, sermons, chronicles, spells, riddles, letters, and land grants.

The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius. This piece of Latin philosophy, written primarily in verse, is a tour-de-force of late antique/early mediaeval philosophical writing that will make the reader rethink the allegedness ‘darkness’ of the 500s.

*Neither did the Renaissance.