So! An important academic paper disturbing the poetry universe in a way that Prufrock never dared has just come out, according to Jonathan Brown at The Independent. Its findings? Well, sit down first. Okay. The first line of Beowulf should not really have an exclamation mark! Dr. George Waldkenis, a lecturer at the University of Manchester and an editor at the Journal of Historical Syntax, says his exhaustive research shows that the original poet felt no need to loudly importune listeners to come and hear his mellifluous adventure tale. No carnival barker he, but instead a quieter, gentler raconteur. 1200 years ago there was apparently little reason to shout above the din.
Lest ye think this matter trivial, Beowulf is no museum piece (despite its age) but a living thing. The most recent popular translation is by the late Nobel Prize Laureate Seamus Heaney in 2001. (Heaney exclaimed, as it now seems he should not have, beginning with So!) At this writing the Heaney Beowulf ranks #2,826 on the Amazon Best Sellers List. Not half bad for an unknown author doing monsters in translation–especially when the older version is free on your Kindle. In 2007 the Forest Gump director Robert Zemekis got Anthony Hopkins, Angelina Zolie, John Malkovich and Ray Winstone among others to inhabit the monstrous world of Grendel at al, with a script from Neil Gaiman. You can bet he started the casting by exclaiming “Listen!” So it’s good to know we’ve had it wrong. We were profiling, it turns out, the early Anglo-Saxons who we assumed needed paternal admonishment before paying attention. Those people, like the best of us still, would voluntarily settle down for a long song of adventure.