Goodbye to Beowulf

May 12, 2000

Valentine Cunningham breathes a sigh of relief as Oxford finally scraps its compulsory Anglo-Saxon English course.

Surely the walls of Jericho have fallen. Most sensationally, the Oxford University English faculty has just voted, and by a significant majority, to abolish compulsory Anglo-Saxon from its undergraduate syllabus.

So out goes the cornerstone of what had become, by a very long chalk, quite the stodgiest and freakiest undergraduate English course in the country - a course overburdened by a grand but bogus claim to "complete coverage" (everything from The Battle of Maldon to Paul Muldoon) and thus laden with far too many compulsory papers in both first and final-year exams. It was a course built on the very dubious belief that English, and in consequence English literature, begins in 700 AD or thereabouts.

This historic vote comes after years of agitation, and only after criticism from teaching quality assessment inspectors and the arrival in Oxford of a large number of literature teachers utterly amazed by the state of the syllabus they were compelled to teach.

What makes this vote especially welcome is that putting aside compulsory Anglo-Saxon has allowed the introduction of a proper initiatory course for freshers. Oxford English has never before bothered to meet students fresh out of school with proper introductory courses. Until now we have practised the sink-or-swim, in-at-the-deep-end approach. And devil take the hindmost.

From now on freshers will segue into their new linguistic and literary engagements far more educatively with a beginners guide called "Text, Context, Intertext: An Introduction to Literary Studies". Dismayingly characteristic of an appalling conservatism still horribly strong in Oxford English is that opponents of this move have deplored it as introducing "compulsory theory". What is bad about the new paper, it seems, is that it will draw freshers' attention explicitly to topics such as narrative, genre, intertextuality and interpretation.

Resistance to change at Oxford comes from various quarters, but for a long time it has been most organised and vociferous among Oxford's Anglo-Saxonists. Sticking up for one's own bailiwick, one's own special interests, is natural enough. But wanting to force Anglo-Saxon on every Oxford English undergraduate makes less sense, especially when more and more authors and genres have had to become optional as the Oxford syllabus has expanded with the times.

But the modern successors of those fiery die-hards J. R. R. Tolkien and C. L. Wrenn - who kept leading their troops to victory over their less organised "modern" colleagues - have tended to put the interests of self and party above every consideration of pedagogy and literary-critical good sense.

In the early years of Oxford English, Tolkien threw out the Victorian paper to make more room for philology and earlier literature. Tolkien even proposed stopping undergraduate work on Shakespeare for the same purpose. Tolkien's successors admit that something has got to give in a syllabus expanding chronologically and conceptually every day. Their tactic for alleviation? Make the Victorians optional. Whatever happens, though, Anglo-Saxon must remain compulsory.

The modern Tolkienists concede the need for an introductory paper. Their best solution, though, has merely been to offer a bit of discreditable spin-doctoring. They would relabel the present Anglo-Saxon course as "Introduction to Medieval Studies". Which is, of course, just another example of their traditional finagling.

But then, any dodge will do, it seems, as long as Anglo-Saxon can be kept compulsorily in place. And never mind that compulsory Anglo-Saxon's survival would mean carrying on irking undergraduates with what has long been a quite gratuitous burden.

Kingsley Amis went too far, of course, in his spleen over what Oxford English involved him in ("the anonymous, crass, purblind, infantile, featureless heap of gangrened elephant's sputum, Barewolf"), but his feelings about compulsory Beowulf have not been uncommon. Anglo-Saxon studies will survive at Oxford, but among volunteer rather than pressed readers. Which will be better by far for teachers and for taught.

Meanwhile, if Amis's one-time graduate supervisor F. W. Bateson is looking on from whatever nirvana that sturdy and much maligned critic of Oxford's Anglo-Saxon obsession has gone to, no doubt a loud, if belated, cheer is even now to be heard.

Valentine Cunningham is professor of English literature at Oxford University.

* Is Oxford right to scrap compulsory Anglo-Saxon?.

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