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Saturday, January 31, 2015

Guy Goodman Reviews Beowulf (Revision)

I said the HUMAN condition,
not the dragon condition.
[Part of our ongoing clean up of old articles.]

Why the earliest known work of Anglo-Saxon fiction got English literature off to a speculative start.

Good evening. I'm Guy Goodman St.White, your very British-sounding host.

Tonight we shall discuss the fountainhead of all English literature: Beowulf. While we will be delving back through Western Canon into the classics and other translated texts that have influenced English literature, I will, rightly, spend most of my time analyzing dead white guys.

Let us set the stage for this exploration by discussing the first known work of English literature. We can return to some other seminal Western literature works over time.

 Long told as oral tradition by the Anglo Saxon scops of Scandinavia, it was finally transcribed only after Christianity brought letters to the illiterate heathens. However, we do not know exactly who transcribed it, and we call this person only The Beowulf Poet. Like the Bible itself, Beowulf has tensions between Christian values and the value systems of the cultures that transmitted it orally (Anglo Saxon in this case), which lead often to a strange mix of conflicting messages. Beowulf sometimes extols forgiveness and sometimes retribution.

As the fountainhead of all writing ever done in English, Beowulf--in many ways--explains and sets the stage for all that will come after it. In a fundamental way it is no surprise that English speakers are so attracted to the drivel of speculative fiction; their very first story is a prime example of absolute tripe. Probably the plebs enjoy their unrealistic speculative twaddle principally due to the influence of The Beowulf Poet and his ilk. What can we really expect when this is what we have to work with as literally the first book in English. If the foundation of English literature had been set in a seedy rehab facility and the antagonists had been people's preconceptions about bisexuality, the entire English speaking world might have a sliver or two of taste and sophistication.

X-men: First First First First Class.
Beowulf performs acts quite simply impossible to mortal men, like swimming underwater for hours or engaging in combat for absurd lengths of time. This is to say nothing of his nemeses, a cadre of increasingly unrealistic monsters right out of the pages of a Stephen King horrorbook. What we have here is nothing more than a hackneyed example of speculative fiction that The Beowulf Poet tried to make "edgy" by splicing together horror and superhero genres. Not only is Beowulf genre crap, but if anything, Beowulf is extra genre with genre sauce. Realism is not on its list of virtues, and therefore it has simply nothing to inform us about humanity.

Fortunately these days we recognize this sort of malarkey for what it is; and no one who appreciates real literature would be caught dead reading Pennywise the Dancing Clown vs. The X Men. No wonder the world of words is in such a deplorable state.


  1. I realize this is a humorous post (and it worked, I smiled and giggled) but I have a serious question. Is there any remains of the oral tradition in the Western world anymore? It seems like Gutenburg mostly wiped that away, but is there something obvious I'm missing? I might have the wrong google thread, but I could find anything there.

    1. You mean stories people ONLY tell orally.

      There were, and for a long time after the Guttenburg press. In many of the European colonies, including what would become the United States, slaves were kept illiterate to keep their power. They told stories to each other (usually heavily coded stories about slave life).

  2. Yeah, I mean stories that people only tell orally into the modern day. That don't get written down, or recorded, or made into movies/ television. That we still just tell.

    Urban legends, kind of, I guess. I mean, they get written down but they don't really have the same sort of feel as people feel perfectly comfortable embellishing them when they forward them, or dropping details or adding details that can be associated with an oral tradition.

    1. I feel like I've seen some really insightful stuff on the modern oral tradition, but it might take me some digging to find it again.

  3. Looking forward to that post on modern oral tradition!