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Beowulf Revisited

By Connie Bayliss

I stepped out of my Old English class on a rainy morning in mid-June. Hardly a week into the summer term, I was still tired; thinking about a summer of Old English made me feel more tired.

I’ve been taking summer classes almost as long as I’ve been teaching, so the rhythm is familiar. Finish school in a flurry of final grades, rush through inspiration and hope for next year in professional development, fly or drive somewhere far away, and hit the books. I love taking classes, and reading books, and having discussions with classmates and professors, and writing papers. That’s what I told myself, anyway, as I crossed the slate walkway slick with rain to drop off my books.

But this summer it was hard to remember the feeling of curiosity, followed by the satisfaction of discovery, that drives academic pursuit. My mind was full of declensions and conjugations, and trying to distinguish the usage of þ and ð. 1 We’d been reminded that day of the mid-term paper just around the corner, and I steeled myself to skip the post-class croissant and coffee and head straight to the library. I bowed my head to keep the rain out of my eyes and trudged around the corner of Lincoln College, narrowly avoiding a septuagenarian cyclist in tweed as I turned down the lane toward the famed Bodleian Library.

Oxford is a city of small fortresses, all built up against each other. Carefully monitoring the comings and goings of tourist and scholar alike are the porters at every set of massive wooden doors. The walls of Brasenose Lane, the short alley between Lincoln and the library, are tall and crenelated. A venerable sycamore leans out of one of the gardens of Exeter College on the left. And beyond it, the close confines of the lane meet the hubbub and rough cobbles of Radcliffe Square, in the shadow of the library.

In the morning, the mobs of tourists are just beginning to form. They are mostly packs of Italian, or Spanish, or Chinese students studying English with a minor in Places Harry Potter was Filmed. Harmless individually, they are as formidable en masse as the rioting townspeople who originally stormed the colleges’ walls. 2

Entering the main quad of the Bodleian library is a bit like falling into Alice’s rabbit hole. The seas of tourists inside its confines ebb and flow, packed and deafening one minute, then appropriately silent the next as a tour empties back out into the street. The noise and the unpredictability of the crowds, distracted by audio tours, selfies, and the 17th century grotesques adorning the walls can be overwhelming. As Alice discovered, it’s best to keep moving and not try too hard to predict the patterns around you. But you have to keep your direction firmly fixed in your mind. Wander into the wrong door, and you’ll be herded back into the seething masses by the discreet security who zealously guard the Bod.

I entered the main building of the library (“Act confident. Brief eye contact, nod. Keep your card visible. Swipe. Don’t pause for the gate”) and clambered up the dizzying old wooden stairs. The Habersham Hall stairs were good training, but I was still breathless as I reached the top floor and prepared to enter the Upper Reading Room. 3 Anyone who enters a reading room gasping for air is sure to attract unwanted attention, so I waited as I caught my breath and watched the crowds out the window. Finally, I bolstered my courage and entered the room to see rows and rows of desks and scholars.

Each was oblivious to my appearance, engrossed in his or her own work. Piles of books littered most desks, and librarians efficiently and discreetly materialized with new documents. The energy of the room, so still and yet humming with the intensity of true focus, shook me out of my lethargy. As I found a seat and pulled out a well-loved copy of Beowulf, a feeling of awe came over me. The words of a poet, recorded around 800 AD but quite possibly even older, resonated in my ears. The fear and rage of the monster, tortured and torturing; the boasts of the warrior, ringing with confidence yet framed with respect and humility. The devout authorial asides that beg the reader to understand God’s control, while recalling the atrocities of kings of the past. 4 The characters and the emotions of the poem were not stale because I had read them before. They were like new friends, who cannot be truly understood until familiarity and trust has been established. I was not tired of reading. I had just gone too long without reading properly, carefully, deeply. I needed to wake up.

Renewed and reinvested, I worked for hours. I missed lunch that day, but found more satisfying sustenance in remembering what it was like to read to learn. My interest was amplified by knowing that every phrase I interpreted, every picture of Anglo-Saxon art I snapped in a museum, every idea garnered in class discussion, could be passed on to my class in just a few weeks. The only thing more satisfying than realizing truth is sharing it with someone else.

 


1 The letters thorn (þ) and eth (ð) both make variations of the modern English “th” sound.

2 The long history of town-gown conflicts in Oxford is well-documented, and might serve to put the problems caused by new SCAD cyclists on the streets in perspective.

3 The main rooms of the many buildings that comprise the Bodleian libraries are called reading rooms. They are full of books, but only a fraction of the library’s books are actually on the shelves, and others can be requested.

4 This can’t begin to do justice to the awesomeness of Beowulf. For a slightly fuller picture, find me in between classes or after school and I’ll try again. Or pick up Seamus Heaney’s translation and find out for yourself!


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