Ever been part of a class in which you studied Beowulf? I have. Twice. The first was in high school. We read an anthologized version that had been heavily edited and contained lots of bold-faced explanations in the margin of the textbook. The second was in college, when we read the real thing. The whole thing. And we talked about it. For days and days and days.
Just to set the stage, here: Beowulf is the oldest surviving poem known to man. It’s hard to read. Really hard. That sucker has almost 3,200 weirdly placed lines telling convoluted story of Beowulf’s long and awful battles with beasts and demons. I remember nothing about it—just utter, full-on bewilderment. It’s a miracle I survived the ordeal.
If it were a text vs. reader matchup, this reader lost. Both times.
Here’s the truth: Beowulf humbled me. A lot. Both times I read it, I had been feeling pretty smart. I could quickly comprehend most texts I came across, and could talk at length to friends and teachers about meaning, theme, purpose, point of view, and all the other story elements we rely upon when we talk about texts.
Not Beowulf. I couldn’t seem to dig my way through the thick writing, the metaphor, the rising and falling action. I relied solely on the text’s margin notes and Cliff’s Notes for a fighting chance in my battle against this poem.
Most of us, even those who weren’t English majors, have the story of the text that humbled us. The one we just couldn’t grasp. For some of us, it was Shakespeare. For others, like me, it was an epic poem written hundreds of years ago. It may have been philosophy—Socrates, maybe, or Plato—that stumped us, no matter how hard we tried or how much we were told it’s a Large Part of our Grade. We’ve all faced off with a text—and lost.
I recently stumbled across a college literature anthology. I flipped through the pages, landing on Beowulf. I skimmed through, feeling embarrassed that I’d never really understood it. I wondered if I might have a better chance now, having grown in confidence and experience as a reader, and knowing how to hunt down online resources and supports.
So in a valiant display of fierce defiance, I dug in. I’m two decades beyond when I last laid eyes on the piece, and this time, knew what to do. I read, and I read again, and I read again. I consulted websites and library books. I found blogs and websites to talk me through the story. In time, I came to a peaceful, if begrudging, sense of understanding. It was hazy, but it was there. There was not a great epiphany of understanding—no “ah-ha!” moment, no elation, no conquering fist thrust in the air. But there was respect: I recognized that the poem held layers and layers of brilliance, especially when the context and setting were considered. And the story was actually pretty good.
I finally feel I can put it away for good. I also feel satisfaction: I did it. I saw the light at the end of the poem, as well as I needed to, anyway.
I have talked a lot about the times it is best to abandon a text, but at the same time, I believe there are texts we shouldn’t abandon forever. There may be some real good to come out of trying again. Maybe it’s the gift of understanding and mastery. But it may also be a gift of humbleness, resilience, and respect.
Final score? Beowulf—2. Me—1. But my win is the one that counts.