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12 of 19 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The rooting source of mist English literature, 21 Jan 2004
This review is from: Beowulf: A Glossed Text (Penguin Classics) (Paperback)
Beowulf is a masterpiece of English literature, the mastermind of all the authors, playwrights, and many other artists coming after it. The language is rather difficult because it is Anglosaxon. But the book gives systematic notes about the words, and only the words, of the poems. Some of these notes are vague if not faultive. One example : page 51, the word eorl is given as meaning man on line 761 et warrior on line 769, without any more ado. We do regret that these lexical notes are not collected into a lexicon, which would save many repetitions and make it easier to find the word one is looking for. We also regret that there are no notes about the grammar , morphology or syntax of Anglosaxon. We thus miss a lot, for example the feminine, masculine and neuter genders, and this is absolutely essential. One example : Beowulf is the association of the feminine beo meaning bee and the masculine wulf meaning wolf . Yet one can, if one has a good lexicon or dictionary and a good grammar of Anglosaxon, get into these subtleties. And then the poem is remarkably beautiful. I am not going to insist on the mirror it is for the christianizing of the old scandinavian, germanic and probably celtic mythology. This is not commonly studied, but I would like to insist on another element : the structure of the poem. The very first part is absolutely typical of the old culture : Beowulf goes out against some monsters who have survived from a very old period, a very old race (the giants who have been locked up in some mountain by the Gods of this religion), and he conquers glory and fame. There is no fate in this section, or very little. Beowulf is a young adventurer who blazes his trail through the world and history. Then there is a long transition from this glorious age to old age and death and there a new discourse appears and builds itself in the poem : man has to assume some fate that comes from God. Man has to stand up in front of his fate, no matter what it may bring, because it is his divine dimension that demands it. This is both Christian and germanic. So Beowulf is courageous and tries to bring good living conditions to his people because that is his responsibility in front of God, be he the Christian God or Odin, or the weird sisters of Shakespeare, the three Norns, Urd, Vervandi and Skuld. But the last part goes beyond this rather non-defined transition. Beowulf has to fight again against a monster, this time a dragon. This fight is Christian in many ways because the dragon is a reference to the Book of Revelations , or Daniel’s dragon Bel. It is Christian because Beowulf will give the order to bury forever the hoard of this dragon for two reasons : men are not supposed to be greedy any more, and this hoard comes from very old periods of human history and represents the culture of these old centuries. Greed is a capital sin and these old centuries have to be rejected, along with their culture and religion. But, yet, Beowulf is a man who carries the culture of past ages and his burial is typically that of a hero of the past : the pyre, the cremation, though not with a woman, wife or servant or slave, or any other human being who would sacrifice him/herself or be sacrificed to the dead man ; the twelve children going around the tomb represent the twelve rune, Eoh or Eihwaz, the yew tree, a symbol of death in germanic culture, a symbol of Odin’s final battle, the Ragnarok, the end of the world, brought down by a general war among all human races and gods alike, with maybe the promise of a regeneration. This death is a tremendous mixing of Christian and Germanic beliefs, though this death is christianized in its perspective : to bring peace to the world, to reject greed, to look for a regeneration of the soul, to believe that man can improve. And yet it is the negation of the Thing political system of this culture : the king, who should be elected by the people, is here designated if not appointed by the dying king, Beowulf, in the face of death and God. This is in a way a justification of God-anointed kingship, hence the shift from the old germanic Thing democracy to a feudal God-appointed kingship. That poem is definitely one of the most powerful and important poems of English culture. It should be studied in depth by all students or scholars who want to understand anything about the English mind ; even today and probably tomorrow.
Dr Jacques COULARDEAU
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