For centuries, the epic poem “Beowulf” has been held as the gold standard of Anglo-Saxon poetry.
However, the heroic tale is just one text in a rich canon of extant Old English poetry that is just as engaging and significant to scholars and students across a variety of disciplines, explains Aaron Hostetter, an assistant professor of English at Rutgers University–Camden.
With precious little of it translated into verse, Hostetter set out to change that. In a labor of love dating back seven years, he has translated 66 percent of extant Old English poetry – and counting – on his web-based Anglo-Saxon Narrative Poetry Project. The site is increasingly gaining popularity, with steady web traffic from users around the world. He also maintains a blog, a precursor to the main site, where he posts updates, posits topics for discussion, and answers questions from readers.
“Part of my project was motivated out of severe frustration and anger, because there is no reason that this stuff shouldn’t be translated,” says the Collingswood resident. “I wanted to make sure that a threatened discipline wasn’t going to die.”
Just as importantly, Hostetter was intent on opening Anglo-Saxon literature – spanning roughly from the fifth century to the Norman Conquest in 1066 – to the average readers who aren’t “craggy philologists.” He explains that, historically, many Anglo-Saxon scholars have taken an insular view of their discipline, believing that only those educated in Latin and various North European languages had the linguistic acumen to master Old English.
“There is a lot of inaccessibility that has been built into the traditional education of Anglo-Saxon literature,” he says. “That doesn’t have to be there; it can be open and modern.”
He adds that, while Beowulf deservedly resonates with modern readers, inspiring – among other things – feature films, comics, and video games, it has done so at the expense of other Old English poems. According to the Rutgers–Camden researcher, this is due in part to conventional teaching practices, which typically focus on the sweeping, 3,182-line poem as the definitive literary achievement of the age.
“The sense is that there is room in our collective consciousness for only one Anglo-Saxon poem, so it might as well be one that kids will read – and should read,” says Hostetter.
But while Beowulf is “a lot of fun,” he says, it is actually not typical of the core themes and messages found in most Anglo-Saxon works. Rather, it was hagiographic poems, depicting the lives of saints and other iconic Christian figures, which sated the literary appetites of pious, literate, wealthy patrons, he explains.
“These poems were written in a verse that they liked and had a message that they could take home,” he says. “They give you a much more accurate picture of the literary dreams that Anglo-Saxons were having, and how they pictured themselves in relation to Christian history and Pagan culture.”
Determined to present this more accurate and comprehensive understanding of the literature, the Rutgers–Camden scholar began the arduous task of translating the works line-by-line while still a graduate student at Princeton University – but always with his future students in mind.
“Of course I didn’t have any students at the time,” he recalls. “I was just a doctoral student toiling away in the basement of a library.”
Hostetter ended up putting his translations to the test upon joining the Rutgers–Camden faculty in fall 2011. He pleasantly discovered that they did the trick; his students read and understood the works and, better yet, they stayed engaged.
“I think if they had read the books that I read, they would have shut me out for half the semester,” he says.
Just as telling, enrollment in Hostetter’s Anglo-Saxon literature course has mushroomed from a handful of students to 17 during the spring semester. The numbers, he says, “vindicate” his approach.
“It’s beautiful. It shows that if you open the gates, people will come and learn, and can take those lessons with them in their lives,” he says. “Few of my students are going to become Anglo-Saxon scholars, but that’s not the point; it’s that they will gain this linguistic and cultural perspective.”
However, he stresses, Anglo-Saxon poetry is by no means just for students. Rather, critical legal, political, and religious scholars can also benefit from discovering language that has its roots in this literature. “It could be a metaphor or phrase that appears in Anglo-Saxon, and they’ll recognize it because they can read it,” he says.
For Hostetter, whose idea of an enjoyable Sunday afternoon is translating 50 lines of Anglo-Saxon verse, he is determined to expand what is arguably already the most exhaustive archive of translated Anglo-Saxon poetry ever created.
“Once people see what’s there,” he says, “they can discover its value.”