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  • Benevolent Authoritarianism in Klaeber's Beowulf:An Editorial Translation of Kingship
  • Josephine Bloomfield (bio)

Much of our understanding of Anglo-Saxon culture, even our notion of such institutions as Anglo-Saxon kingship, comes not from written histories but from translations and interpretations of the culture's literary works. There are comparatively few historical documents to tell us about the period, and even extensive study and analysis of the extant wills, charters, diplomas, laws, and chronicles often lead to sparse results:1 information about what happens between humans, what values determine actions, and what objects and events are significant seems more readily available through literature. As a result, in addition to the literary scholars and general readers who over the years have absorbed from Anglo-Saxon literature what it expresses as art, archaeologists and historians have for generations turned to editions and translations of such works as Beowulf to make sense of their finds [End Page 129] or documents and to form their notions of history.2 Indirectly, then, these editions and translations have shaped our perceptions not only of Anglo-Saxon art and culture but of history itself. Beowulf, still the most read of all Anglo-Saxon literature, is foremost among the texts we use to decode the culture; consequently, it is crucial that we critically assess the editorial process that has produced the text as we now conceive it.

Among the editions of Beowulf, Frederick Klaeber's remains the most important. A monumental project begun in 1893, published in 1922, and revised and supplemented up to 1950, it continues to be the central source used by graduate students for the study of the poem and by scholars and teachers as the basis of their translations.3 As a student under Julius Zupitza, creator of the famous and still valuable Zupitza facsimile of the Beowulf manuscript, Klaeber—a master of Greek, Latin, and French in addition to all historical stages of the Germanic-Scandinavian languages, including Old, Middle, and Modern English—was eminently qualified to create an edition of the poem and was recruited to do so by the University of Minnesota in 1893, [End Page 130] shortly after completing his doctoral work in Berlin. During the nearly thirty years that Klaeber spent on the edition, his eminence as a scholar steadily grew: by the time his great work appeared in 1922, he was considered the leading Beowulf scholar in the world; indeed, few would challenge that judgment today.

Since Klaeber made his last supplements to his edition in 1950 , however, the world has looked with a more skeptical eye at any endeavor considered "pure" scholarship, and as a result even Klaeber has come under scrutiny, particularly in the literary and cultural analysis developed in his introduction.4 But his philology has been a different issue: though scholars as wide-ranging as Fred C. Robinson and Raymond P. Tripp Jr. have challenged and even demolished some of Klaeber's glosses, they do not examine what they consider his "flawed" glosses in ideological terms.5 Because the entire philological aspect of Klaeber's work has until recently been viewed as nonideological, his work has not undergone the same examination as cultural work in other disciplines; history, for example, has been regarded as likely to carry ideological biases, while philology has not. Klaeber is generally assumed to have objectively collected and synthesized all of the philological evidence available to him and to have rendered it into an equally objective translation of the poem and its culture. I would like to argue, however, that ideology is deeply important to Klaeber's editorial treatment and translation of kingship in Beowulf; in particular, the ideology of authority underlying his scholarship produces readings of Anglo-Saxon kingship that are significantly different from what other historical (and even philological) evidence suggests. Our view of the past may have been importantly shaped by Klaeber's drawing from his own culture to reconstruct the Anglo-Saxon one. [End Page 131]

Though Klaeber's treatment of kingship in Beowulf has not been given careful scholarly attention, Anglo-Saxon kingship in more general terms has been in recent decades. Historians, linguists, literary critics, and other scholars of the period have noted...


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pp. 129-159
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Archived 2004
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