Beowulf, Cultural Memory, & War

"Force is as pitiless to the man who possesses it, or thinks he does, as it is to the victims; the second it crushes, the first it intoxicates. The truth is, nobody really possesses it. . . . Perhaps all men, by virtue of being born, are destined to suffer violence; yet this is a truth to which circumstance shuts men's eyes. The strong are, as a matter of fact, never absolutely strong, nor are the weak absolutely weak, but neither is aware of this. They have in common a refusal to believe they belong to the same species. . . . The man who is the possessor of force seems to walk through a non-resistant element; in the human substance that surrounds him nothing has the power to interpose, between the impulse and the act, the tiny interval that is reflection. Where there is no room for reflection, there is none either for justice or prudence."--Simone Weil (from "The Iliad, or The Poem of Force")

"What is truly historical--rather than merely mimetic--about the artwork is inseparable from what within it exceeds its history."--Gerhard Richter


In this course, we are going to focus primarily on the Old English epic poem Beowulf, and on the subject of ancient and modern warfare. Furthermore, we are going to explore the ways in which cultural memory and history are bound up together in art, and how different writers and artists in different periods appropriate Beowulf--as manuscript and codex (book), story and poem, myth and history, Ur-text and postmodern text--in ways that speak to their particular place in time. Finally, we are going to use the text of Beowulf as a site through which to glimpse the history of its nineteenth and twentieth-century scholarly appropriations, and therefore, this course will also serve to introduce you to some of the history of literary theory.

In his Introduction to his beautiful translation of Beowulf for Broadview Press (2000), Roy M. Liuzza has written that "Beowulf is frustratingly ambivalent--it is not quite mythical enough to be read apart from the history it purports to contain, nor historical enough to furnish clear evidence for the past it poetically recreates" (16). Further, Liuzza writes,

While medieval authors certainly made distinctions between historia and fabula, the boundaries between those terms are not nearly as impermeable as those of our modern categories "history" and "fable"; this unruly poem, like the manuscript in which it survives, does not stay within the framework of our generic expectations. Moreover, the poem itself is a monumental exercise of the historical imagination, poetically re-creating a past which is itself multilayered and temporally complex. (16)

It will be one of our aims, as readers and thinkers working together in this seminar-style course, to investigate Liuzza's description of Beowulf as "a monumental exercise of the historical imagination," and to see if we can discover some of the ways in which history and art are ineluctably enmeshed, and even "speak" past, over, and around each other. We will also explore the notion, expressed by the historian Dominick LaCapra, that "history and memory have a supplementary relation that is a basis for a mutually questioning interaction or open dialectical exchange that never attains totalization or full closure" (History and Memory After Auschwitz 20), and we will contemplate art's function in relation to this mediation between memory and history.

Although we will be working with Beowulf primarily in translation (in order to spend as much time as possible on its historical, cultural, and scholarly contexts), we will be devoting a portion of the course to learning the rudiments of Old English, and each student will be expected to work on language exercises outside of class keyed to Peter Baker's book Introduction to Old English and to his online aids for that book, located here. Normally, it would take an entire semester (at least) to translate Beowulf from Old to modern English, and we will not be doing that, but each student should have the ability, by the end of the course, to be able to read portions of Beowulf, with the aid of a dictionary, in the original Old English.

As this is a graduate seminar-style course, preparing for and participating in class are vitally important to your ultimate success, and therefore, your contribution to in-class discussions as well as your attendance record will be factored into your final grade. Although I will provide much guidance and commentary, the students are essentially the discussion leaders of this course. As this is also a reading-intensive course, not keeping up with the reading could be extremely detrimental to your progress and final evaluation.


Beowulf: A New Verse Translation. Trans. Seamus Heaney. Norton, 2000.

Peter S. Baker. Introduction to Old English. Blackwell, 2003.

Cambridge Companion to Old English Literature. Ed. Malcolm Godden

        and Michael Lapidge. Cambridge, 1986.

Philip Gourevitch. We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed

        with our families. Farar Straus & Giroux, 1998.

*MANY of the readings for the course are articles that have been placed on Electronic Course Reserve, or are chapters in books that have been placed on regular reserve at the Circulation Desk (these are indicated on "Schedule of Events" below)


1 CRITICAL PAPER, 15-20 pages (50%)

A two-part project: an annotated bibliography and a critical research paper. Students are expected to develop their own topics and approaches; introduction of secondary texts, critics, media, and ideas is welcomed. This critical essay should deliver an original critical perspective and consistent argument relative to Beowulf that is ideally developed from one or more trains of critical-cultural thought encountered in readings and/or discussed in class.


To facilitate class discussion, each student is asked to write ONE short response (1 to 1-1/2 typed pages) to each week's readings. It is up to the student to decide which reading (or readings) to respond to, and in what manner. These short reading responses begin on Thursday, February 5th, and no reading response is due on the day you give an oral presentation. For some brief instructions on how to approach these reading responses, go here.

To encourage intellectual discourse and debate, every week I will be posting to an online discussion board a sampling of some of the more provocative reading responses (or even, e-mail queries/ramblings) that I receive, and those can be accessed here.


Each student will be asked to make ONE oral presentation on a reading assigned by the professor. These will be readings that are in addition to those assigned to the entire class each week (they are indicated by an asterisk [*] on the Schedule of Events). On the day you give your oral presentation, it is not necessary to write a reading response.


A translation of one of the selections (or a portion of a selection) from the "Anthology" included in Baker's Introduction to Old English (pp. 166-224). You may turn this in any time before the end of the semester.


The professor does not accept late assignments. Period. If there is an extraordinarily good reason for needing an extension on a due date, let the professor know in advance, and she will be kind.


Attendance, promptness, and participation are essential to success in college courses. Faculty members recognize that unexpected occasions may arise when a student must be absent from class, but the general attendance policy of this professor is that if a student is absent more than the number of required class sessions per week (in this case, that would be more than 1 session), the professor has the option of lowering the student's final course grade by one letter grade for each additional session missed. Furthermore, if absences become excessive (more than two weeks' worth of sessions), the SIUE Registrar, at the professor's request, reserves the right to withdraw the student administratively. For more information on this, please consult the following: SIUE Class Attendance Policy. Failure to attend class in a responsible and committed manner may thus be grounds for failure in or administrative withdrawal from the course.


Any student found engaging in an act of academic dishonesty will be promptly dismissed from the course with a grade of "F." By "academic dishonesty," I mean PLAGIARISM (the act of representing the work of another as one's own), which the University considers a grave breach of intellectual integrity. All definitions, terminology, concepts, and patterns of organization taken from an outside source must be identified and given credit in any essay or exam you write--whether it be for the English department or any other department. For more detailed information on this, please consult the following: SIUE Plagiarism Policy.


A 93-100
B 84-92
C 74-83
D 65-73
F under 65

Grading Guidelines

SCHEDULE OF EVENTS (subject to revision as semester progresses)

CC=Cambridge Companion; CR=Course Reserves

(readings indicated with an asterisk--*--are designated for oral presentations)

Thursday Jan. 15 Introduction to Course
Simone Weil, "The Iliad, or The Poem of Force" (handout)
excerpt from The Thin Red Line (film)
Thursday Jan. 22 <The Poem Itself + Some Backgrounds>
Beowulf (read entire poem in translation)
Robinson, "Beowulf" (CC, 142-59)
Wormald, "Anglo-Saxon society and its literature" (CC, 1-22)
Thursday Jan.29 Niles, "Pagan survivals and popular belief" (CC, 126-41)
O'Keefe, "Heroic values and Christian ethics" (CC, 107-25)
<Early Interpretations/Debates>
Blackburn, "Christian Coloring in Beowulf" (handout)
Chadwick, excerpt from The Heroic Age (handout)
Tolkien, "The Monster and the Critics" (handout)
Thursday Feb. 5 <The Manuscript & Cotton Library>
The Electronic Beowulf
Prescott, "The Electronic Beowulf and Digital Restoration" (CR)
Kiernan, "Digital Image Processing and the Beowulf Manuscript" (CR)
Bjork & Obermeier, "Date, Provenance, Author, Audiences" (CR)
*Liuzza, "On the Dating of Beowulf" (CR)
Denise *Colin Chase, ed., The Dating of Beowulf (book on reserve)
Thursday Feb. 12 <Archaeology & Place>
Cramp, "Beowulf and Archaeology" (CR)
Frank, "Beowulf and Sutton Hoo: The Odd Couple" (CR)
Overing and Osborn, "Mapping Beowulf" (CR)
Casey *Carver, Sutton Hoo: burial ground of kings? (book on reserve)
Jim *Mitford, The Sutton Hoo ship burial: a handbook (book on reserve)
Thursday Feb. 19 <Cultural Appropriations & Memory>
Frantzen, "Origins, Orientalism, and Anglo-Saxonism" (CR)
Bjork, "Nineteenth-Century Scandinavia and the Birth of Anglo-Saxon Studies" (CR)
Niles, "Appropriations: A Concept of Culture" (CR)
Sarah D. *de Certeau, "Ethno-graphy" (handout)
Ben *Le Goff, "Memory" (handout)
Thursday Feb. 26 <History, Memory, Ideology -- Part I>
Niles, "Locating Beowulf in Literary History" (CR)
Howe, "Beowulf and the Ancestral Homeland" (CR)
Joanne *Lowenthal, "How We Know the Past" (handout)
Thursday Mar. 4 <History, Memory, Ideology -- Part II>
Frank, "Germanic legend in Old English Literature" (CC, 88-106)
Frank, "The Beowulf-Poet's Sense of History" (CR)
Earl, "Transformations of Chaos" (CR)
Patti *Hutton, "Placing Memory in Contemporary Historiography"  & "History at the Crossroads of Memory" (handout)
Bill *excerpt from Margalit, The Ethics of Memory (handout)
Thursday Mar. 11 NO CLASS -- SPRING BREAK
Thursday Mar. 18 <Women & Gender>
Bennett, "The Female Mourner at Beowulf's Funeral" (CR)
Lees, "Men and Beowulf" (CR)
Overing, "Gender & Interpretation in Beowulf" (CR)
Chia-Hui *Partner, "No Sex/No Gender" (handout)
Thursday Mar. 25 <Anthropology & Ethnopsychology -- Part I>
Earl, "Beowulf and the Men's Hall" (CR)
Earl, "Beowulf and the Origins of Civilization" (CR)
Johnston, "On Freud's Civilization and Its Discontents"
Freud: Conflict and Culture (Library of Congress exhibit)
Thursday Apr. 1 <Anthropology & Ethnopsychology -- Part II>
Hill, "The Psychological World in Beowulf" (CR)
Hill, "The ethnopsychology of in-law feud and the remaking of identity in Beowulf" (CR)
Eric *Day, "Hwanan sio f aras: defining the feud in Beowulf"  (CR)
Justin *Freud, "The Uncanny" (handout)
Paper Topic/Annotated Bibliography Due
Pasternack, "Post-structuralist theories" (CR)
Thursday Apr. 15 <War, Violence, & Chaos>
Earl, "Violence and non-violence in Anglo-Saxon England" (CR)
excerpts from Baraz, Medieval Cruelty (handout)
Janella *Near, "Anticipating Alienation: Beowulf and the Intrusion of Literacy" (CR)
Sara K. *Berger, "Trauma and the End of the World" (handout)
Thursday Apr. 22 Gourevitch, We wish to inform you . . .
excerpt from Tarkovsky's Andrei Rublev (film)
"The Few Who Stayed" (American Radio Works)
"The Ghosts of Rwanda" (PBS Frontline)
"The Triumph of Evil" (PBS Frontline)
Josie The Current War in Sudan
Bill *excerpt from Hedges, War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning (handout)
Thursday Apr. 29 Gourevitch, We wish to inform you . . .
Samantha Powers, "Bystanders to Genocide" (The Atlantic)
Monday May 3 Critical Paper Due