Hey, you know those awesome Danish kings of old? Scyld was the best, though he came from nothing. And his son, Beow, did him proud.
With that tweet, Elaine Treharne started a social media project that would go viral and garner mainstream media attention – all about an Anglo-Saxon poem.
Treharne, a professor at Stanford University, has retold the story of Beowulf on Twitter, taking the over 3000 lines of Old English poetry and turning it into 100 tweets. The idea for creating the Twitter project came about from teaching this year’s class ‘Text in Context: Beowulf from Then `til Now’.
“Since my Beowulf course is comprised of analysis of a large number of different Beowulfs,” Treharne explained, “I wanted the students to have a social media version to evaluate. I couldn’t think of one. As I’m a keen tweeter, I thought of Twitter as a potentially interesting and challenging medium of presentation, but I only had four weeks to do the poem, so I thought a hundred tweets was probably ideal: 3 or 4 a day.”
Even so, the notion should could tweet Beowulf came to her unexpectedly: “I had the idea about 4am on my last day of teaching in the autumn, when I woke up, anxious about all the things I had to do.”
From December 10th to January 6th the tweets came out, each with the hashtag #Beow100. For example, the 41st part was “Grendel’s mother arrived, eager to avenge her loved son’s death. She hurriedly snatched Hrothgar’s hero and her son’s hand. Uproar!”
Treharne wanted the Twitter version to remain true to the original story. “Generally,” she explained, “my method was to condense thirty lines of Old English per tweet, of course, and I found that unit of lines worked extremely well. Beowulf falls well into this textual sequence. The parts of Beowulf that are hardest to tweet, and that thus demand the most telescoping in the telling of the narrative are the so-called ‘digressions’; the poet’s information on lineage and historical contexts; and the elements of time when time moves swiftly from past to future to present. No part of Beowulf was wholly omitted. There is a reference to every major component.”
Once the tweets starting coming out, the Twitterverse responded with enthusiasm. For example, @rantyben said, “This #Beow100 thing is pretty much the highpoint of my first year on twitter,” while @jeffreyjcohen added “Really enjoying @ETreharne’s #Beow100: It’s as if beowulf were a serialized novel, and you keep waiting for the next installment…”
Treharne’s twitter account got between 500 and 600 new followers on the first couple of days of the project. It also attracted the attention of major mainstream media, including The Atlantic, Christian Science Monitor, CBC, and the New York Times. Treharne also posted the full set of tweets on her blog Text Technologies last week, and has received over ten thousand new visitors. She has found all the attention “Incredible, really. There is such interest in this poem and things written about the poem. Imitative Twitter projects have also been begun by other scholars and there are many comments from readers, most of whom said they enjoyed the poem.”
She has now moved on to #Beow200, in which she will tweet the other texts found in the only manuscript that contains the story of Beowulf, such as the Old English story Judith and the Life of Saint Christopher, the dog-headed saint. Trehane adds that she hopes to more Twitter projects like this in the future, saying ” it’s a fascinating method of interpretation and forces very close attention to the core issues/themes/events in the text.”