The Popularity of Beowulf
Answer to New York Times journalist’s question (April 2006)

Why do you think this is happening? Your involvement is obviously a long and scholarly one, but what is contributing both to that and to this general fascination with and different revivals? Are there political factors? Even religious ones?  Is there something about the period(s) in history "Beowulf" represents, are there other phenomena in popular and high culture that have led people back to it? And what do the different approaches being taken say about the appeal of the subject?

'Beowulf', an archaic oral tale transmitted – possibly for centuries – by bardic performers, was finally written down at some point about one thousand years ago and has since entered into the calmer textual realms of 'literature' and 'poetry'. And yet, it never lost its terrifying archaic core, the nostalgia of the early medieval English kingdoms for their tough germanic ancestors, the bizarre intermingling of pagan and Christian views of life and fate, a warrior's world of weapons and golden rewards dispensed by the clan chieftain while hearing sung war-stories in the mead-hall.

One of the driving forces in this world is fear: not so much fear of the mortal enemy living nearby as fear of the unknown evils of the darkness, in the case of Grendel & his mother monstrous beings who are only vaguely like humans, who eat human flesh, and who cannot be easily touched by traditional human weapons. It is only Beowulf who can defeat the monster Grendel, by leaving aside his weapons and vowing to fight with bare hands. It defies logic.

Maybe this has something to do with Beowulf's wide appeal and the many different interpretations which have been based on the story: it is by definition archaic, shifting, not based on reason or logic or any other 'modern' mindset. Scholars will debate endlessly whether or not the story is Christian, but there is no real solution. The foamy-necked Beowulf boat has room for many modern passengers.

Finally this: Unlike tales of knights in shining armor and deeds of chivalry, Beowulf is from the far reaches of European history, a world of tribes and blood vengeance; it was already 'medieval' in the 11th century, already ancient, terrifying, and able to hold listeners spellbound. And of course it goes without saying that part of its huge appeal today rests simply in the fact that it is made up of such beautifully crafted images and sounds.