The Postmodern Beowulf: A Critical Casebook

(West Virginia University Press, Jan. 2007)

Preface: After Everything, The Postmodern Beowulf

Eileen A. Joy

It is the very fact that we cannot live in the present—that the present for us is always part of an unfinished project—which converts our lives from chronicles to narratives. . . . We cannot choose to live non-historically: history is quite as much our destiny as death. (Terry Eagleton, After Theory, p. 209)

Now that theory is supposedly irrelevant, “over,” and “dead,” and has even inspired an “anthology of dissent,” is the time finally propitious for the belated arrival of The Postmodern Beowulf?[1] Are we really belated and is theory even really dead? I would say, yes and no—to both questions. As Allen Frantzen has remarked, scholars working in Old English studies who engage contemporary, poststructuralist criticism often find themselves “challenged as intruders, as strangers on the beach, not unlike the way Beowulf and his retainers rouse the coastguard’s suspicion as they arrive in Denmark.”[2] Scholars working in contemporary literary studies do not often look to the field of Old English for enlightenment or direction on the subject of critical theory, and within the field of Old English itself, the resistance to theory, in general, has been strong, and occasionally mean-spirited. But here is not the place to go over old debates, for as Gillian Overing stated more than ten years ago at the 1991 convention of the Modern Language Association, “we are changed by this new work,” which “has, indeed, arrived.”[3] While Theory, with a capital “T,” already has a long history, which some trace to Plato and others to 1966 when Jacques Derrida presented a paper, “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences,” at a conference at Johns Hopkins University, it has not, in fact, exhausted itself and was never and can never be just “one thing” (or “empire,” as recently argued) to be either embraced or rejected without equivocation. As reported in The Chronicle of Higher Education, theory is not “a unified kingdom,” but is rather “a loose federation of states with permeable boundaries, no universally recognized constitution, and not much in the way of a lingua franca. It looks less like a superpower . . . and more like the fractious and ever-expanding European Union.”[4] And whether conceived of as empire or fractious union, as Terry Eagleton reminds us, “[w]e can never be ‘after theory,’ in the sense that there can be no reflective human life without it. We can simply run out of particular styles of thinking, as our situation changes.”[5] Theory will always be with us, if we prefer the examined life (and how could we not?), although some theories will, of historical necessity, eventually become useless (except as chapters in our intellectual history).

Styles of thinking have, indeed, changed as particular situations—social, cultural, political, historical, institutional, and otherwise—have changed, and this is why, for example, we already have first-, second-, and third-wave feminist critique, and even post-feminist critique. A first-ever anthology of critical essays on Beowulf that represents scholarship influenced by postmodern thought—which is what we offer here—does, in fact, arrive somewhat belatedly to a set of discourses long in session in the American university and already famous for pronouncing their own enervation, but I would argue that it is precisely in its “after-ness” that Beowulf scholarship of a certain postmodern bent is so timely, and even needed. It is partly due to the fact that the reception of theory in Old English studies has been less than welcoming that those scholars wanting to carry the water to our field of newer analytical models have been so measured and careful in their approaches that they almost never take foreknowledge for granted and have thereby bequeathed to us a great gift—they have taught us theory while also practicing and revising it, and they have not neglected in the process what is generally understood to be the great strength of traditional medieval studies: an attention to philology, history, and cross-disciplinary contexts. Indeed, because of our focus on literature within its manuscript context, we should hold open the question of our “after-ness” to theory since, as Roy Liuzza writes, the “poststructural recognition of the enigmatic contingency of the text, as well as the cultural critics’ attention to the social circumstances of literary production” already has its parallel in Old English studies, where critics, for a while now, have already been questioning “the authority of the text, the propriety of stylistic criticism, the means and circumstances of reading and reception, [and] the nature of literary creation and transmission.”[6]

Paul Strohm’s observation is correct: “Postmodern theory has always needed us,” mainly as “a necessary foil to an argument for an emergent modernity” and as a repository of a supposedly socially “static” world, but “[o]ur retort must be that our period, no less than any other, is the plagued and proud possessor of motile signs, category confusions, representational swerves and slippages, partial and competing and always irreconcilable narrations.” Strohm is also correct in suggesting that postmodernism is ultimately involved in a project in “which any good medievalist would describe himself or herself as engaged: the attempt to restore complexity to our understanding of the past.”[7] This is similar to Lee Patterson’s argument some years ago that medieval scholarship has an important role to play in instructing “postmodern criticism in the historical complexity and concreteness of cultural forms.”[8] And this means, too, I would argue, that medieval studies has a critical function to perform in refashioning contemporary theoretical models, through a rigorous historicism, that helps to extend and deepen the explanatory power of those models.

The attempt to restore historical complexity to our understanding of the past and its cultural forms, and to also show how Old English studies both practice and reformulate theory, suffices as a description of the project of The Postmodern Beowulf, which was initially born out of a desire to provide for students an anthology of “the best of” contemporary critical approaches to the poem and then later developed into a “casebook” that we hope more than amply demonstrates the ways in which Old English scholarship has debated, elucidated, practiced, historicized, and even developed theory in relation to the critical analysis of Beowulf. The book is divided into four sections—History/Historicism, Ethnography/Psychoanalysis, Gender/Identity, and Text/Textuality—that have been designed, not as much to represent specific movements within theory (such as deconstruction, new historicism, post-colonialism, Lacanian analysis, queer studies, and the like), as to offer broad contextual fields of inquiry within which certain questions regarding history, culture, identity, and language have perdured over time (and in response to which questions the more narrowly-defined theoretical “schools” have arisen). This is not to say that specific theoretical approaches are not purposefully highlighted in the volume, because many of them are, but it was also our concern to select essays that took up more than one narrowly-defined approach and that also combined approaches (both traditional and more contemporary) in strikingly innovative ways. So, for example, we selected James Earl’s “Beowulf and the Origins of Civilization” because it utilizes Freudian analysis (especially in relation to Freud’s ideas regarding identification and the superego), but also because what is being psychoanalyzed is not what we might at first expect (i.e., the characters in the poem), but rather, the readers of the poem, both the present-day readers (ourselves) as well as one of the poem’s probable Anglo-Saxon readers, Byrhtnoth, the “real life” hero of the tenth-century Old English poem, Battle of Maldon. At the same time, Earl also analyzes his own dreams about the poem, thereby drawing himself (and more generally, the Old English scholar) under the rubric of his theoretical model. And because his analysis of one of those dreams is also an attempt to understand the ways in which the poem almost demands a certain kind of masculine identification with a particular Anglo-Saxon heroic ethos, Earl’s essay also investigates the tensions between gender and ethnography in relation to the process of reading the poem in our present moment. Ultimately, Earl creatively interweaves Freud with reader reception theory and even with an imaginative new historicism (how might Byrhtnoth have read Beowulf?), and he also provides a glimpse of what “the personal is theoretical” might look like.

In addition to including essays on Beowulf here that we feel represent the most innovative uses and refashionings of multiple critical methodologies—both traditional and more theoretical—we decided to also include within each section essays which address more broadly-ranging theoretical issues (grouped under the heading “Critical Contexts”), so that the Beowulf essays can be read and discussed in the classroom in relation to, not only other essays on Beowulf (both within and outside of this book), but also these broader arguments. These are essays that represent a diverse spectrum of academic fields, from cultural criticism (Edward Said, “The World, the Text, and the Critic”) to Old Norse studies (Carol Clover, “Regardless of Sex: Men, Women, and Power in Early Northern Europe”) to ethno-archaeology (John Moreland, “Ethnicity, Power and the English”) to Continental philosophy (Michel Foucault, “What Is an Author?”) to medieval studies more generally (the essays by Claire Sponsler, Alfred Siewers, Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, Carol Braun Pasternack, and Michelle Warren). Each section of the book contains five essays: three essays that directly address Beowulf (arranged in chronological order, by earlier to later publication date), preceded by two “Critical Contexts” essays that were chosen either because they propose critical paradigms that are reflected upon and articulated in the respective Beowulf essays, or because they offer analyses and arguments that broaden the depth of the critical field within which the Beowulf essays that follow them can be evaluated (and it just so happens that two of these essays, Siewers's and Cohen's, also address Beowulf in addition to other literary subjects). The main objective in doing things this way is to both show the development of certain theoretical lines of thinking within Beowulf scholarship, and to also create areas of critical tension that would ideally lead to further debate in the classroom. So, for example, in the History/Historicism section of the book, we have included two “Critical Contexts” essays—Edward Said, “The World, the Text, and the Critic” and Claire Sponsler, “In Transit: Theorizing Cultural Appropriation in Medieval Europe”—that both advocate (albeit in different ways) a criticism that would be attentive to the ways in which a cultural text, whether a poem or symphony or painting, performs in the particular world(s) in which it circulates, and also to the manner in which cultural objects are always being “appropriated” by different groups in different times and places, where meaning becomes as much a question of the environment of the work’s reception as of what might be called an “original” authorial intention.

The essays that follow Said and Sponsler—Nicholas Howe, “Beowulf and the Ancestral Homeland,” Allen Frantzen, “Writing the Unreadable Beowulf,” and John Niles, “Locating Beowulf in Literary History”—all seek to understand what Beowulf, as a cultural text, and also as a myth of “origins,” might have meant in particular places to particular groups. For Howe, that means exploring how the Anglo-Saxons might have composed the poem as a kind of epic of a myth of ancestral migration from continent to island, which “gave the English as a folc a common identity by teaching them that they were descended from those who had made the exodus of the mid-fifth century,” and therefore the poem might have had a critical function in an emerging “national” identity. Niles’s essay (which explicitly acknowledges, as does Frantzen’s essay, the influence of Said’s thought) argues for Beowulf’s status as “a socially embedded poetic act” that “responded to lively tensions, agreements, and disagreements in the society from which it came.” More specifically, Niles sees the poem as responding to “a mixed and somewhat turbulent [post-Viking invasions] Anglo-Scandinavian society,” and he argues that the poem is ultimately “the projection of two great desires: (1) for a distinguished ethnic origin that would serve to merge English and Danish differences into a neutral and dignified pan-Germanism, and (2) for an ethical origin that would ally this unified race with Christian spiritual values.” Taking the idea of the poem’s social utility even further, Frantzen’s essay looks at Beowulf’s role in nineteenth-century positivist philology, in modern translations, and also in the twentieth-century literary anthology and literature survey classroom, thereby giving us an invaluable (if selective) reception history of the poem that also shows us how the multi-vocality of the text has often been silenced in favor of supposedly authoritative and authentically “historical” editions. Frantzen also helps us to see, through a careful attention to the text of the manuscript itself and its “cruces,” “not how Beowulf was created, but how we have created it, making and remaking not just its literary meaning but its language.” Because Frantzen undertakes a close analysis of the intra-textuality and syllepsis of the Old English words writan (“to write”) and forwritan (“to cut through,” or “to carve”) in the poem, as they relate to the inscription (textual? runic?) on the hilt of the magic sword that Beowulf retrieves from Grendel’s underwater mere, and which Hrothgar “reads,” Frantzen’s essay also practices a Foucauldian exploration of the linkages between writing and death, while also demonstrating “that the illusive and allusive nature of writing and reading in Beowulf discourages us from acts of closure, and indeed prevents those acts of interpretation, of ‘cutting through,’ sought by conventional criticism.” The Beowulf essays in the first section of the volume, then, all explore in various fashions how the story and text of Beowulf have been appropriated for various historically-situated ideological and ontological ends, while Frantzen’s essay also delineates how the text of the poem will always resist our desire to read, translate, present, or interpret the poem in narrowly-defined, totalizing ways.

Similar to the History/Historicism section, the Text/Textuality section of the book begins with two “Critical Contexts” essays—Michel Foucault, “What Is An Author?” and Carol Braun Pasternack, “The Textuality of Old English Poetry”—that together formulate a line of thinking clearly influential upon the Beowulf essays that follow. Both Foucault and Pasternack call attention to the importance of the structure of language, as well as of its gaps, omissions, and silences, in determining “meaning” in any text, and they also urge a reading of literary texts (what Foucault calls a “typology” or “historical analysis” of discourse) that sets aside the idea of an “author,” or what Pasternack calls a “poet-figure,” in order to understand literature as a cultural “intertext” that is composed and recomposed over time and is always open to multiple interpretations by readers who, more so than authors, are the real “producers” of the text. The articulation of texts within socio-historical relations is exactly the focus of the three Beowulf essays in this section, although the essays are also markedly different from each other (they do not share, in other words, a programmatic approach or thesis, although all three are concerned with the ways in which the language of the poem constructs and is constructed by social meanings that are always, to a certain extent, in flux). In “Swords and Signs: Dynamic Semeiosis in Beowulf,” Gillian Overing explores the “nonteleological, nonhierarchical coexistence of the metaphoric and metonymic modes” in the poem, specifically through the use of Charles Sanders Peirce’s semiotic theory of the “triadic production of meaning,” in order demonstrate how the poem “invites a challenge to assumptions about the possibility and desirability of a structural overview” and essentially resists any attempts on the part of the critic to limit or totalize what is, ultimately, the text’s “infinitude.” For Seth Lerer, in “Hrothgar’s Hilt and the Reader in Beowulf,” the main objective is to analyze scenes of “reading” in Beowulf, especially with reference to the engraved sword hilt Beowulf retrieves from Grendel’s mere, as a means of reflecting upon “the reader’s own relationship to texts, to authors, and to Christian culture generally,” art as “a public and social act,” and also upon how Beowulf “represents a move from presence to absence as it dramatizes differing forms of literary communication and response.” With reference to “forms of speaking” in Beowulf, as well as in ancient Greek and Arthurian literature, and in Scandinavian runology, Lerer also ruminates on “[w]hat may be called the ‘literacy’ of Beowulf . . . the way in which it imagines its own reading public—the way in which it shows us that to read the legends of the past is to read by ourselves.” In her essay, “‘As I Once Did With Grendel’: Boasting and Nostalgia in Beowulf,” Susan Kim “locates the poem’s representations of linguistic performance in the context of early medieval linguistic theory” and “treats the engagements with linguistic performance as negotiations of concepts of personal identity.” Because, according to Kim, “language works by difference, by alienation of the sign as thing and the sign as meaning, but also of sign from sign, the very process of identification in language inscribes alienation within human identity,” and on one level, “this is the alienation of the self understood as the body and the self represented in language.” More specifically, Kim looks at the ways in which this alienation is “literalized” in Beowulf’s identification with Grendel and in Grendel’s severed arm as a “sign” of that identification, and she also looks at the ways in which nostalgia functions in the poem as a source for “the potential for an identity not understood as dislocated or alienated from itself.” Ultimately, all three of the Beowulf essays in this section are interested in the questions posed at the end of Foucault’s essay, “What are the modes of existence of this discourse? Where has it been used, how can it circulate, and who can appropriate it for himself? What are the places in it where there is room for possible subjects? Who can assume these various subject-functions?” Because there is no essay in the entire book that addresses, explicitly, a postcolonial approach to Beowulf, perhaps because this is an area that is just beginning to be explored in Old English studies,[9] we have also included as a “postscript” essay to this section, Michelle Warren’s “Post-Philology,” which calls for the creation of a new alliance between philology, postmodern critique and post-colonial studies, and we leave it to our readers to imagine how this might be accomplished, along the lines Warren illustrates, in Beowulf studies.

Some of the “Critical Contexts” essays also enlarge (and occasionally problematize) the critical dialectic of the readings that follow them. In the Ethnography/Psychoanalysis section, John Moreland’s “Ethnicity, Power, and the English” and Alfred Siewers’s “Landscapes of Conversion: Guthlac’s Mound and Grendel’s Mere as Expressions of Anglo-Saxon Nation-Building” both attend to subjects that are not a direct concern of the essays that follow, but which nevertheless create productive critical tension with some of the cultural-historical assumptions of those essays, while also broadening the theoretical horizons within which those essays can be read and appraised. Moreland argues against the idea of the early English as a stable or “natural” ethnographic category in his essay, where he provides a thorough overview of the latest findings in archaeology, anthropology, and sociology, in order to show that Migration Period groups, such as the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, were characterized more by their fluidity, heterogeneity and overlapping identities than traditional accounts would allow, while at the same time, Moreland admits that “it would be a debilitating step to move from the rejection of a direct and inflexible link between ethnic identity and material culture to argue that there is no relationship.” Siewers’s essay combines eco-criticism, Augustinian “sign theory,” and Julia Kristeva’s theory of abjection (as it applies to western medieval theology), in order to highlight a certain “process of cultural differentiation” in Anglo-Saxon England, where “constructions of nature relate to [the] development of a new kind of performative subjectivity for cultures and people,” and this is a subjectivity that, of political necessity, required “a defining of the Welsh and other non-English cultures as Other” as well as a de-humanizing of the native British landscape. Siewers’s and Moreland’s essays are included in the Ethnography/Psychoanalysis section, partly because they both attend to the archaeology and material culture of early England, which is not fully addressed anywhere else in the volume and which we see as integral to thinking about early English ethnography, and partly because they both attend to the heterogeneous aspects of a so-called “Anglo-Saxon” identity that are not always acknowledged in studies of Beowulf that take an ethno-psychological approach, such as the essays here by Earl (“Beowulf and the Origins of Civilization”), John Hill (“The Ethnopsychology of In-Law Feud and the Remaking of Group Identity in Beowulf: The Cases of Hengest and Ingeld,” which argues that the poem’s narratives of feud, dismaying to some critics in their violence, are actually “socially acute meditations on the prospects for settlement” and for “accomplished and extended community”), and Janet Thormann (“Enjoyment of Violence and Desire for History in Beowulf,” which analyzes, through Lacan, the “crisis” of history occasioned by feud in the poem, and also includes an analysis of Anglo-Saxon law codes in relation to that crisis). Likewise, in the Gender/Identity section, the “Critical Contexts” essays by Carol Clover (“Regardless of Sex: Men, Women and Power in Early Northern Europe”) and Jeffrey Cohen (“The Ruins of Identity”) raise important questions that are intimately related to (yet not always directly addressed by) the essays that follow by Clare Lees (“Men and Beowulf”), Mary Dockray-Miller (“Beowulf’s Tears of Fatherhood”), and Shari Horner (“Voices From the Margins: Women and Textual Enclosure in Beowulf”). For example, if the “principle of sex” was not so “final or absolute” as we assume it was in early northern Europe, and “gender” was not necessarily predicated upon “sex,” as Clover argues (following Thomas Laqueur’s idea of the “one-sex” or “one-flesh” model of sexual difference that he argues obtained in the classical world and in premodern Europe), how does that affect our ideas regarding how masculinity and violence (Lees) or homosociality (Dockray-Miller, whose essay actually responds directly to Clover’s) or women’s spaces (Horner) are constructed in Beowulf? And if, as Cohen argues, “to be fully human is to disavow the strange space that the inhuman, the monstrous, occupies within every speaking subject,” how does this affect our ideas regarding how identity—gendered or otherwise—is represented in the poem? This is a question which Susan Kim actually addresses in great depth in her essay (described above) in the Text/Textuality section of the book, which brings us to: how to read this book in the classroom, exactly?

The Postmodern Beowulf may well be used in the classroom—where we believe it can be used to introduce students to theory, as well as to teach Beowulf. The four sections of the book—again—represent broad contextual fields of inquiry to which certain, more narrowly-defined questions and theories of history, culture, identity, and language pertain. The first section, History/Historicism, covers “cultural history” most broadly, and more narrowly, new historicism, cultural appropriations theory, Foucault’s archaeological method, reading reception theory, Said’s “worldly criticism,” deconstruction, and in the case of Frantzen’s essay, the intellectual history of Beowulf scholarship. The second section, Ethnography/Psychoanalysis, attends to anthropology, archaeology, sociology, eco-criticism, Freudian, Lacanian and Kristevan analysis, and what can be called, following the work of Georges Devereux, ethnopsychoanalysis.[10] Gender/Identity, the third section, comprises sexuality and gender studies, feminist critique (of both the Anglo-American and French varieties), psychoanalysis (Freud and Lacan), and queer studies. Finally, the Text/Textuality section of the book includes philology most broadly (in its more traditional and more poststructural conceptions), sign theory (or, semiotics), deconstruction, Lacanian anaylsis, Kristeva’s theory of intertextuality, and orality studies. In addition, we have added, as “bookends,” an Introduction, Eileen Joy and Mary Ramsey’s “Liquid Beowulf,” and an Afterword, James Earl’s “Reading Beowulf with Original Eyes,” that both take up the question, in different ways, of the poem’s relevance to our current historical moment (and to modernity and postmodernity more generally).

Merely “listing” the theoretical concerns (or, approaches) for each section runs the risk of oversimplifying the diverse hybridity of critical approaches represented in each essay and also obscures somewhat the very rich connections that are present—both explicitly and implicitly—among the different sections of the book. So, while it may be useful to teach the contents of the book section by section, there are many ways in which the contents can be reassembled to create new and critically productive groupings. For example, since Frantzen’s essay engages in a close analysis of the “text” of the “giant” sword hilt in the poem, it can be read alongside the essays by Overing and Lerer, which take that same sword hilt and its inscribed “text” as one of the primary focuses of their essays. Likewise, since Kim’s essays takes up the question of how monstrosity functions in the construction of Beowulf’s identity, her essay can be read alongside Cohen’s (whose essay Kim explicitly addresses) in the Gender/Identity section. Thormann’s essay, because it addresses not just a Lacanian analysis of violence in the poem, but also looks at how the poem attempts to foreclose, through language, a particular kind of violent history, could easily be read within the History/Historicism or the Text/Textuality section. Because Earl’s essay directly addresses the issue of how the poem requires a certain gendered identification, and because Lees’s essay directly confronts his argument, as does Dockray-Miller’s, these three essays could form a grouping unto themselves—one could also add to this group Earl’s Afterword, “Reading Beowulf With Original Eyes,” since he provides there a linguistic analysis of Hrothgar’s emotions upon Beowulf’s leaving of Daneland that is strikingly different (yet connected to) the reading that Dockray-Miller provides for the same scene. Certain essays that concentrate on the issue of violence—Thormann’s, Hill’s, Cohen’s, and Lees’s—could form another grouping. Essays that center upon the poem’s role in constructing a specific cultural (or, “national”) identity—Howe’s, Niles’s, Siewers’s, Cohen’s, and Lees’s—form yet another possible arrangement. How the poem figures loss, absence, and alienation—linguistic, personal and more broadly social—is also the concern of the essays by Frantzen, Earl, Thormann, Kim, and Lerer. Because the field of Old English studies, and of Beowulf studies, especially, is somewhat intimate, the readers of this book will quickly discern how often the authors included here reference, and concur and argue with, each other’s work, providing a valuable set of cross-references that, we would argue, will lead to combinatory readings the even the editors have not yet anticipated.

Ultimately, this book cannot deliver a neatly programmatic or even a “whole” view of “the state of theory” in Beowulf studies at present, for we are still living and working in this moment—a moment, moreover, of constant and continual theoretical upheaval and change, and into which we place The Postmodern Beowulf as a selective representation of the first stage of an ongoing conversation and critical debate among Old English and other scholars over the late modern interpretation of the poem. To the question of what Beowulf might have meant to its original audiences, and what it might mean to those of us reading it and trying to understand it today in this place we call modernity (or, postmodernity), the essays collected together in this volume offer a diverse and wide-ranging set of possible answers, while also raising important questions for future research and discussion. History, the things that actually happen, as Leopold von Ranke would have said—not only the history of the so-called Middle Ages, but also our own history, both personal and intellectual—is always a more messy business than we would like it to be, more random and chaotic than the structure and order we want to perceive in it (and often invent for it), and despite the schematic organization of this book, we would again urge also reading against that schematic, too. Only in that way can connections between the essays not yet thought be discerned and new paths of inquiry opened.

In a recent conversation between the two documentary filmmakers Errol Morris and Adam Curtis, where they discussed the Vietnam War and 9/11 (the subjects of their two most recent documentaries—The Fog of War and The Power of Nightmares, respectively), Morris asked, “is history primarily a conspiracy? Or is it just a series of blunders, one after the other? Confusions, self-deceptions, idiocies of one kind or another?” To which Curtis replied, “[h]istory is a series of unintended consequences resulting from confused actions, some of which are committed by people who may think they’re taking part in a conspiracy, but it never works out the way they intended.” Curtis continued by arguing that what really affects the outcome of history are ideas themselves (a notion he credits to Max Weber): “People have experiences out of which they form ideas. And those ideas have an effect on the world. . . . [e]ven though it doesn’t actually ever work out the way the person who had the idea intended.”[11] Such would be an apt description of the development of a theoretical history, whether it begins with Plato or Derrida, and wherever it continues to circulate as a stream of literary consciousness, whether in the study of the Victorian novel or Old English poetry. Foucault could not have guessed, when writing “What Is An Author?” how his argument that the disappearance, or death, of the author necessitates the tracing of certain textual “gaps and breaches” in order to locate “the openings this disappearance uncovers” might have been taken up by Carol Braun Pasternack in her discussion of the “textuality” of Old English poetry, whose authors were always already “missing” long before Nietzsche or Roland Barthes or Foucault declared them so and called the resulting situation “modern.” Such is the inherent transformative power of an idea let loose in the world.

The most valuable intellectual life, I believe, is one which allows for and actively embraces the infinite play and tension between differing ideas and systems of thought, and which desires the always open question over the statement that supposedly “closes” the debate. How could our future—never mind the past—be thought otherwise? Yes, some ideas will always be better (more ethically worthy, let’s say) than others, and we cannot entirely escape the responsibility of critical judgment if we believe there is something ultimately at stake in the reading, interpretation, and teaching of a poem like Beowulf, although the question of whether or not poetry “matters,” and how, is one of those open questions to which I believe the continued study of Beowulf could matter a great deal. And it is a question, moreover, in which something—the future of the study of literature within the public university, for example—really is at stake. Ultimately, whether we take the more positivist or the more poststructural approaches to the poem, what we are after is meaning. We want the poem to mean something because, even in postmodernity, there has to be some kind of answer to the eventual non-being of everything. The poem itself was likely written out of such a desire. There is no one, definitive way to read Beowulf, either as an artifact that can tell us something about that foreign country we call Anglo-Saxon England, or as a poetic narrative somehow relevant to the concerns of contemporary thought and life, and if The Postmodern Beowulf is read in the manner we have intended it to be read, it will hopefully demonstrate the benefit of an open-ended pluralism of theoretical approaches to the poem, as well as the ways in which the poem itself is inexhaustibly productive of the question of its own meaning. We learned that from theory.

Book/Chapter Outline

Preface: Eileen A. Joy, "After Everything, The Postmodern Beowulf"


Eileen A. Joy and Mary K. Ramsey, "Liquid Beowulf" [original essay]



Edward Said, "The World, the Text, and the Critic" [originally published in: Edward Said, The World, the Text, and the Critic (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983), 31-53]

Claire Sponsler, "In Transit: Theorizing Cultural Appropriation in Medieval Europe" [originally published in: Journal of Early Modern and Medieval Studies 32.1 (Winter 2002): 17-39]


Nicholas Howe, "Beowulf and the Ancestral Homeland" [originally published in: Nicholas Howe, Migration and Mythmaking in Anglo-Saxon England (1989; Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2001), 143-80]

Allen J. Frantzen, "Writing the Unreadable Beowulf" [originally published in: Allen J. Frantzen, Desire for Origins: New Language, Old English, and Teaching the Tradition (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1990), 168-200]

John D. Niles, "Locating Beowulf in Literary History" [originally published in: Exemplaria 5 (March 1993): 79-109]



Alfred K. Siewers, "Landscapes of Conversion: Guthlac’s Mound and Grendel’s Mere as Expressions of Anglo-Saxon Nation-Building" [originally published in: Viator 34 [2003]: 1-39]

John Moreland, "Ethnicity, Power and the English" [originally published in: William O. Frazer and Andrew Tyrell, eds., Social Identity in Early Medieval Britain (London: Leicester University Press, 2000), 23-51]


James W. Earl, "Beowulf and the Origins of Civilization" [originally published in: James W. Earl, Thinking About Beowulf (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1994), 161-88]

John M. Hill, "The Ethnopsychology of In-Law Feud and the Remaking of Group Identity in Beowulf: The Cases of Hengest and Ingeld" [originally published in: Philological Quarterly 78 (1999): 97-123]

Janet Thormann, "Enjoyment of Violence and Desire for History in Beowulf" [original essay]



Carol J. Clover, "Regardless of Sex: Men, Women, and Power in Early Northern Europe" [originally published in: Speculum 68.2 (April 1993): 363-87]

Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, "The Ruins of Identity" [originally published in: Jeffrey J. Cohen, Of Giants: Sex, Monsters, and the Middle Ages (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1994), 1-28]


Clare A. Lees, "Men and Beowulf" [originally published in: Clare A. Lees, ed., Medieval Masculinities: Regarding Men in the Middle Ages (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1994), 129-48]

Mary Dockray-Miller, "Beowulf’s Tears of Fatherhood" [originally published in: Exemplaria 10 (1998): 1-28]

Shari Horner, "Voices from the Margins: Women and Textual Enclosure in Beowulf" [originally published in: Shari Horner, The Discourse of Enclosure (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2001), 65-100]



Michel Foucault, "What is an Author?" [originally published in: Josué V. Harari, ed., Textual Strategies: Perspectives in Post-Structuralist Criticism (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1979), 141-60]

Carol Braun Pasternack, "The Textuality of Old English Poetry" [originally published in: Carol Braun Pasternack, The Textuality of Old English Poetry (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 1-32]


Gillian Overing, "Swords and Signs: Dynamic Semiosis in Beowulf" [originally published in: Gillian Overing, Langage, Sign, and Gender in Beowulf (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1990), 33-67]

Seth Lerer, "Hrothgar’s Hilt and the Reader in Beowulf" [originally published in: Seth Lerer, Literacy and Power in Anglo-Saxon England (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1991), 158-94]

Susan M. Kim, "As I Once Did With Grendel: Boasting and Nostalgia in Beowulf" [originally published in: Modern Philology 103.1 (August 2005): 4-27]


Michelle R. Warren, "Post-Philology" [originally published in: Patricia Clare Ingham and Michelle R. Warren, eds., Post-Colonial Moves: Medieval through Modern (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), 19-45]

Afterword: James W. Earl, "Reading Beowulf with Original Eyes" [original essay]

Preface Footnotes

1. On the supposed irrelevance and death of theory, see Emily Eakin, “The Latest Theory is Theory Doesn’t Matter,” The New York Times, 19 Apr. 2003: D9, and Stephen Metcalf, “The Death of Literary Theory: Is It Really a Good Thing?”, 17 Nov. 2005, available at For a spirited debate over the question of whether “the great era of theory is behind us” and the future of critical inquiry in general, see W.J.T. Mitchell et al., “The Future of Criticism—A Critical Inquiry Symposium,” Critical Inquiry 30 (2004): 324-479. As to theory’s counter-movement, see Theory’s Empire: An Anthology of Dissent, ed. Daphne Patai and Wilfrido H. Corral (New York, 2005).

2. Allen J. Frantzen, “Who Do These Anglo-Saxon(ist)s Think They Are, Anyway?” Æstel 2 (1994): 1-43.

3. Gillian Overing, “Recent Writing on Old English: A Response,” Æstel 1 (1993): 135-49. See also T.A. Shippey, “Recent Writing on Old English,” Æstel 1 (1993): 111-34, to which Overing’s essay is a response. For an excellent historical overview of “the state of theory” (as of 1994) in Old English studies, see Roy Michael Liuzza, “The Return of the Repressed: Old and New Theories in Old English Literary Criticism,” in Old English Shorter Poems: Basic Readings, ed. Katherine O’Brien O’Keeffe (New York, 1994), pp. 103-47. For an excellent survey of the most important developments in Old English manuscript and literary studies in general, see Katherine O’Brien O’Keeffe, ed., Reading Old English Texts (Cambridge, 1997).

4. Jennifer Howard, “The Fragmentation of Literary Theory,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 16 Dec. 2005: A12-13.

5. Terry Eagleton, After Theory (New York, 2003), p. 221.

6. Liuzza, “The Return of the Repressed,” pp. 129, 130.

7. Paul Strohm, Theory and the Premodern Text (Minneapolis, 2000), pp. 158, 160, 153.

8. Lee Patterson, “On the Margin: Postmodernism, Ironic History, and Medieval Studies,” Speculum 65 (1990), p. 106.

9. See, for example, the essays by Nicholas Howe and Seth Lerer (“The Afterlife of Rome: Anglo-Saxon England and the Postcolonial Void” and “‘On fagne flor’: The Postcolonial Beowulf, from Heorot to Heaney,” respectively) included in Postcolonial Approaches to the European Middle Ages: Translating Cultures, ed. Ananya Jahanara Kabir and Deanne Williams (Cambridge, 2005).

10. See Georges Devereux, Ethnopsychoanalysis: Psychoanalysis and Anthropology as Complementary Frames of Reference (Berkeley, 1978).

11. “Adam Curtis Talks With Errol Morris,” The Believer, April 2006, pp. 60, 61.