10th-century Staple An Overnight Hit New Translation Creates A 'Beowulf' Boom. Puzzled Professors Are Rejoicing.

Posted: March 14, 2000

IMMACULATA — It's a book that few know, fewer have actually read, and fewer still teach. So Sister Elaine Glanz couldn't help laughing about how, 1,000 years after it was written, Beowulf has become a best-seller.

"We're on the cutting edge of the 10th century. It's a riot," said Sister Elaine, who teaches Beowulf at Chester County's Immaculata College - one of a dwindling number of area schools that do offer it.

Nevertheless, a new, high-profile translation of the Old English epic just made the cover of the New York Times Book Review.

As of yesterday, the translation by Seamus Heaney, the Irish Nobel Prize-winning poet, was No. 2 on Amazon.com's list of fiction best-sellers and No. 11 on its "100 Hot Books" list. The latter is defined as being "the 100 titles Amazon.com customers couldn't live without in the last 24 hours.

Which, said Sister Elaine, is pretty funny when you consider that most people have been able to live without it for the last millennium.

Sitting around a table for a discussion of this phenomenon last week were two other local Beowulf scholars - Phill Pulsiano, a Villanova University English professor, and John Vickrey, a retired Lehigh University English professor.

They shared Sister Elaine's amused bewilderment. But while literally shaking their heads in wonder, they could not help wondering whether this most unexpected of developments might lead to a Beowulf boom.

"I certainly hope it will all inspire and help Anglo-Saxon studies," Pulsiano said. "You never know." Certainly, he added, Heaney appears to have done more than "we could have imagined in 300 years of trying." Heaney will speak at Villanova on April 4 in a by-ticket-only event.

Believed to have been written in England between the seventh and 10th centuries by an unknown author, Beowulf is the tale of a Scandinavian hero who saves the Danes from two seemingly invincible monsters, Grendel and Grendel's mother, and then in old age must do battle again, against a dragon, in a combat in which both the dragon and Beowulf die but Beowulf's people are saved.

The group had no difficulty explaining why the poem about these brave-in-the-face-of-death deeds had fallen into obscurity.

It's seen as something from the "Dark Ages" because there's very little recognizable English in the Old English text.

There have, of course, been many translations over the centuries, but none that has been conceived and received like Heaney's.

Taking a great deal of poetic license, which variously amuses and upsets purists, the poet has given the first English classic his Gaelic voice and stamp.

The result is a taut 3,182-line text that beat out Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban for Britain's prestigious Whitbread Award and is a best-seller on both sides of the Atlantic.

Why?

Perhaps it's Heaney's name and fame. Perhaps it's related to the millennium. Perhaps it's because Beowulf's battles with three horrifying monsters appeal to the Dungeons and Dragons crowd.

Perhaps it's our hunger for heroes. Perhaps Beowulf's themes of life's transitory nature and the inexorability of fate are especially resonant.

Pulsiano said all he knows for sure is that "it's mind-boggling."

He should know. Pulsiano, who has taught at Villanova since 1984, is the executive director of the International Society of Anglo-Saxonists. A grand-sounding name, but in fact, it has only about 500 members.

Pulsiano's Beowulf classes aren't standing-room-only, either.

"I teach Anglo-Saxon as an independent studies course," he said. "You'll never find 10, 15 students interested in learning Anglo-Saxon. It's sheer luck if you can find two."

After coming to Immaculata four years ago, Sister Elaine, who studied with Pulsiano and Vickrey for her doctorate in English literature, briefly taught Beowulf as part of a freshman survey course.

She has since dropped that and now teaches it - in translation - only to advanced English majors.

One of her Ancient and Medieval Literature students last semester was Mary Beth Gallagher, 21, a senior from Gibbstown, Gloucester County.

Gallagher said she had not read Beowulf in high school. And she was glad she did not have to try reading it in the original Old English when she took Sister Elaine's course.

"God!" Gallagher said, "I couldn't imagine trying to sift through it."

That it`self may be part of the problem, said Vickrey. For like The Odyssey and The Iliad, Beowulf was chanted and sung by bards long before it was set down on paper.

The "sentence structure that, to our [modern readers'] minds, is contorted" is absolutely lyrical when you hear it read, said Vickrey, who taught at Lehigh from 1961 to 1995.

To demonstrate, Vickrey recited several passages in a voice and tone so rich and musical that one could not help being caught up in its flow despite not being able to understand a single word.

The ancients believed in signs, and likewise, Sister Elaine, Pulsiano and Vickrey said there is one that would convince them that Beowulf really and truly is back: if Oprah Winfrey selects it for her book club.

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