My last encounter with Klaeber's Beowulfwas over thirty years ago when it was set as the text for an honours seminar in Old England at the University of Sydney. I can still readily identify the reddish brown volume by sight and have used it many times because it was so complete. Every word was glossed, every scrap of historical detail footnoted, and there were generous appendices with a critical edition of the Fight at Finnsburghand parallels in other languages. Klaeber's first edition of Beowulf was published in 1922 while he was still a young man working in the English Department at the University of Minnesota. The magisterial third edition – which was the edition I owned – was published in 1951 after Klaeber had retired to Germany and lived through the dark days of the rise and fall of the Third Reich. He poured into it all his love for the heroic culture of northern Europe that had been defiled by the Nazis. Martin Lehnert, as the editors to this new edition note, once called the 1951 third edition the 'Beowulf-Bible of International Studies'.
My veneration for my copy of Klaeber was sufficient that I chose not to actually use it for my own painfully slow translation, but rather copied out the entire text in a small exercise book and glossed it and parsed it line by line. This way of using Klaeber was probably typical of many generations of Beowulf readers in the Klaeber tradition. Very few of us ever got to the point where, like J. R. R. Tolkien, we could slip a copy of the Anglo-Saxon text in our pockets and take it out to read it for pleasure.
R. D. Fulk of Indiana University, Robert E. Bjork from the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies at Arizona State University and John D. Niles from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, have together taken up the challenge of creating a fourth edition of Klaeber's classic. This still looks very much as Klaeber had left it, including its rather antiquarian typeface, section breaks and system of pagination. The dense introduction – all 190 pages of it – is numbered in roman letters. Like Klaeber, the 'real' book begins with the text of 'Klaeber's Beowulf and The Fight at Finnsburg'. The actual text is very much as Klaeber left it, though, if anything, it is more academic and less oriented to the student audience that Klaeber had in mind for his work. [End Page 271]For example, where Klaeber speaks of the apparatus of variant readings, the new edition has (in italics) apparatus criticus. Klaeber's note to the student advising them to 'go carefully through' the explanatory notes when reading the text has been deleted. Perhaps Fulk and his colleagues are aware that their new Beowulf will not be the must-purchase edition of Beowulf that it was for earlier generations.
The originality of this new edition is mostly concentrated in the notes that work very effectively to bring the text up to date with modern scholarship. Inevitably this has meant some expansion of the dimensions of Klaeber's compact classic. There is a short list of works cited, concentrating on those cited most frequently. In this digital age there is really no need for anything more since online databases provide ready access to new scholarship. For advanced students, this will be a very useful edition. Klaeber himself was self-effacing to the point of invisibility in his original edition. It is interesting to speculate on what he would think of this new version that includes a picture of him at the age of eighty as the frontispiece. This has less appeal than an animated Angelina Jolie, or the sinuous elegance of Seamus Heaney's masterful poetic translation that grace other contemporary renditions of the Anglo-Saxon epic. Hopefully, this new edition will nevertheless serve...