The Old English poem we call Beowulf has long been held as a kind of canonical “beginning” for English literature, though in more of a “prehistoric” sense than a foundational one. English departments liked to have an Anglo-Saxonist around to expose students to Old English as a way to inculcate a sense of a long history, of firmly rooted origins so dim as to be unrecognizable, uncivilized. As claims to tradition, to patrimony, and to cultural legitimacy have surged to the forefront of national consciousness since 2016, medievalisms of several kinds have become current, even urgent, once again. Medieval studies itself is in the midst of painful struggles over legitimacy, inclusion, and identity. This course will read Beowulf (in facing-page translation) as a nexus of these many related cultural forces. The poem is itself a dark meditation upon patrimony and power, and we will consider it alongside important recent reworkings of the poem, including Maria Dahvana Headley’s new radical feminist novel The Mere Wife and Paul Kingsnorth’s pseudo-dialectal The Wake, among many other works in print and in the blogosphere.
MA-Lit Course Designation: Literature Before 1800, A (Formalisms), B (Technologies/Epistemologies), C (Bodies/Identities/Collectivities)