By María José Gómez Calderón
Revista canaria de estudios ingleses, No. 55 (2007)
Abstract: This paper explores the appropriation of the Old English poem Beowulf by such a distinctive 20th-century art-form as the comic book. Since 1941 to present day, the text has been revisited by several authors at different stages of the development of the comic as an independent genre in a process parallel to its legitimation as a central part of the English literary canon. In the context of the modern commodification of the Middle Ages, the Beowulfs in comic book become a territory of negotiation between high and low culture as they revisit early Germanic epic to render it suitable for the taste of wider, contemporary audiences.
Introduction: As Pierre Bourdieu indicates, the difference between high and low culture products depends on the cultural capital and competence determining their consumption, which derives in the enclassement of both the work of art and its consumer. In this sense Beowulf, as a medieval text, is clearly a high culture item requiring a considerable level of learning to read it —linguistic competence in Old English and some familiarity with ancient Germanic poetry, to begin with. Although this is not the common cultural background of most contemporary readers, Beowulf has attracted wide audiences beyond the academic circles among those who can just identify the title as one of the classic texts of the English canon. In this line, media and genres as diverse as film, television, the musical, the rock opera or science-fiction and adventure novels have revisited this text more than one millennium old and turned it into one more medieval product catering for popular audiences. This paper explores the appropriation of the Old English poem by modern popular culture in such a distinctive 20th-century art-form as the comic book, which proves that a heroic, legendary story already old for the Anglo-Saxons —it was set in geardagum, “the ancient days”— still elicits the interest of the audience in the modern world.
As a derivation of the illustrated story that had become popular in the 19th century, the comic book rises as one of the favourite forms of entertainment for young readers when, in the 1940s, the daily comic strips included in journals and magazines started to be published independently and serialized by distinctive, specializing companies. Beowulf has in fact been present in the history of media from an early stage, yet before being turned into comic book matter it had already been the object of numerous revisitings both within the scope of high and low culture since the poem was recovered and first edited in 1815. In fact, as soon as the Old English text was accessible for the average reader through modern translations many abridged, simplified versions appeared, which paved the road to later parodies, adaptations and imaginative rewritings. This process of “vulgarization” of Beowulf has, however, run parallel to its legitimation as one of the central pieces of the English literary heritage and corner-stone of Old English Studies; actually, the history of Anglo-Saxon scholarship is intimately connected to what in Foucaultian terms can be termed as the “archaeology” of this poem.
See also: Gareth Hinds’ Beowulf