Professor takes a new look at Beowulf


October 30, 2008

Robert Bjork has spent the better part of his life as a Beowulf scholar. Still, the Arizona State University English professor is surprisingly accepting of the Angelina Jolie avatar who appears in Beowulf, the 2007 film by director Robert Zemeckis.

Cast as Grendel’s mother, Jolie is a modern metaphor of seduction. “The movie makes Beowulf come alive. It’s not true to the poem,” he says, “but Jolie’s seductiveness in the film is comparable to the extremely seductive pull of the treasure and social power in the poem.” Download Full Image

Bjork is director of the Arizona">http://www.asu.edu/clas/acmrs/">Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies. He was smitten with Beowulf when he read it during his second year of undergraduate school at Pomona College in Southern California. He has taught it almost every year since 1979 and still finds something new each time he reads it.

Beowulf is an existential poem. It offers insight into a whole social structure,” Bjork explains. “But it also takes you into the existence of the individual. And it’s a poem without real resolution.”

Scholars think that the poem was written more than 1,500 years ago. The author is unknown. The epic depicts Beowulf as a hero of the Geats who battles three antagonists: Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and an unnamed dragon who finally defeats him. There is little doubt that the poem was passed down through oral tradition for hundreds of years until it was finally written in Old English.

“It’s perfectly reasonable to view this poem as an accretion of stories that would be drawn to this main narrative line. Most scholars now believe that the poem as we have it is the work of one really, really good poet,” the ASU professor explains.

Within the text, Beowulf is multidimensional. He is capable of great acts of sacrifice and heroism. But he also exhibits barbaric behavior that reflects a darker side, that of Anglo Saxon society which is further embodied by Grendel and Grendel’s mother.

The majority of scholars agree that the poem developed over time. It is rich with myth and history, comedy and tragedy, fact and fiction. Bjork thinks the poem should be viewed as a retrospective nostalgic look at a pagan past through a sympathetic, Christian present.

“That kind of amalgamation is an integral part of the poem,” he adds.

However, one might wonder if there is yet enough information to fill a 688-page volume of text together with an introduction and commentary on the ancient poem. Beowulf and the Fight at Finnsburg by Friedrich Klaeber was first published in 1922. The 3rd edition was last revised in 1950.

Bjork and colleagues R.D. Fulk and John D. Niles build on that original and highly regarded edition. Together, they edited a newly published edition to render it as useful and relevant as it was 50 years ago.

“The original scholarship was meticulous,” Bjork says, “It’s just that so much has been uncovered in the past 50 years.”

Many technologies developed during the past half century have been attached to Beowulf scholarship. Material culture is the most significant. Bjork describes it as, “the cultural remnants from archeological digs that you can hold in your hand, the palpable evidence of the society.”

The evolving uses of ultraviolet light have allowed scholars to examine the text, digitize the manuscript, and enlarge a small portion of it into an entire page. This allows them to better see and transcribe each letter that comprises a word. As a result, many previously lost letters have been recovered, a fact reflected in the new 4th edition of the poem.

Friedrich Klaeber was a German scholar who taught at the University of Minnesota. In the glossary to his edition of the poem, “He supplied some modern reflexes of several hundred words, and those reflexes were almost all German,” Bjork says

“In the 4th edition we have supplied Swedish, Danish, and Norwegian cognates that are closer than the German. This edition of the book is more balanced in this regard. It’s free of the German bias of Klaeber on the poem’s vocabulary.”

In addition, Bjork believes this generation of readers proved highly inspired to read the recent translation of Beowulf by Irish poet, Seamus Heaney.

“I love that translation,” he says. “It’s a modern translation of an ancient epic that really draws you into it. The translation also was on the New York Times bestseller list for weeks. It did more for Anglo Saxon studies than just about anything in history.”

The new edition contains an immense range of material culture and Scandinavian history. “The original Klaeber text did not have this material,” Bjork says. “But we can’t overstate the importance of Klaeber’s edition. That’s why we’ve given it new life in a 4th edition.”

Sheilah Britton, sheilah">mailto:sheilah@asu.edu">sheilah@asu.edu
(480) 965-0413 

Lisa Robbins

Editor/publisher, Media Relations and Strategic Communications

480-965-9370

Nickel speaks at United States Naval Academy


October 30, 2008

Professor James">http://www.law.asu.edu/Apps/Faculty/Faculty.aspx?individual_id=4887">James Nickel of the Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law spoke recently about teaching human rights to the ethics faculty at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md.

Nickel, professor of Law and Faculty Fellow in Center for the Study of Law, Science, & Technology, is also an affiliate professor in the Department of Philosophy and in the School of Global Studies, and teaches and writes in jurisprudence, constitutional law, political philosophy, and human rights law and theory. Download Full Image

He is currently a visiting professor at Georgetown University Law Center.

Judy Nichols, judith.nichols">mailto:judith.nichols@asu.edu">judith.nichols@asu.edu
(480) 727-7895
Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law