Old English lives: outside Oxford

May 19, 2000

Cunningham's problem seems to be with Beowulf itself. Citing Kingsley Amis's quite spectacularly daft comment is really a bit too selective, especially as Amis said in his memoirs that he had come to be "pretty sure that I and the others had things the wrong way round".

Admittedly, he (and more especially Philip Larkin) had trouble appreciating Beowulf at the time and that seems to be the main problem.

The message seems to be that Beowulf is not really part of Eng. Lit. and not worth reading anyway, so let's forget it entirely. But Beowulf is, and always has been, a magnificent and highly relevant text. Put simply, Beowulf is about the attempt to protect civilisation from the inroads of chaos.

Grendel, the monster from the unknown, attacks Heorot, the heart of the civilised world. Hard-won civilisation crumbles, the people start worshipping false gods and only Beowulf can hold back the tide. After 50 years of peace he has to fight again when human greed awakens a dragon. He defeats it. He dies, and, yes, he dies hard, but it was the right thing to do, and it inspires a young warrior.

It will be a great sadness if students no longer read such works as The Battle of Maldon or The Dream of the Rood. But Beowulf is special: above all, it can teach us to recognise Grendel and the rest of them, and maybe encourage us to do something about it.

Brian Murdoch Professor of German University of Stirling

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