Most people probably think Beowulf is still read merely because it's old. Well, it is old. Wow it's old. Hoary and whiskery old. Best estimates place the composition somewhere between the 7th and 10th centuries A.D. One can speak in terms of millenia when speaking of Beowulf. Though it's old - have I mentioned that it's old - age is definitely not the sole, or even the best, reason for reading the poem. Flinging oneself into Beowulf is almost like flinging oneself into another language (if one wants to argue that Middle English may as well be another language, then there you go). Simply speaking, Beowulf is still read because it is a poetic masterpiece. It's not read because the monsters go "boo" or because it's considered the prequel to "The Lord of The Rings"; it's read for the impact of its language and the themes that it explores. Of course the poem can be read for enjoyment on the level of an adventure tale. There are monsters, and they're scary, gruesome, and mean; there are also swords, gore, carnage, death, heroes, more swords, myth, partying, a vengeful mother monster, a fire-breathing dragon, and more swords. The Beowulf poet wove a good tale. Some parts spew drama. When Beowulf seeks out Grendel's mother to kill her in vengeance for terrorizing the town, he must submerge himself in a pool of horrid things, holding his breath for the best part of a day. When he finds her his ancient sword fails him. A claustrophobic scene ensues that hydrophobes should skip. Nonetheless, a cursory surface reading obscures the rich interwoven text and meanings that peek just under the surface of what seems to be - to a modern reader, at least - a heroic adventure tale.
Just what the poem is about remains somewhat controversial. The incredible essays included in this Norton Critical Edition bring the poem, its history, and its controversies to life. J.R.R. Tolkien's famous and groundbreaking critique of Beowulf heads up the critical section. Also included are analyses of the structure of the poem(is it analogous to interwoven tapestries and designs of the Anglo-Saxons?), its religious tone (is it Pagan or Christian or both?), is it critical of the heroic life (does heroism lead to ruin), is it a statement on the impermanence of greatness? Was Beowulf deified? There's so much to munch on that a list of questions, controversies, and potential resolutions would be exhausting and inevitably incomplete. Leave it to say that the section of criticism allows one to read Beowulf at a higher level and discover just why this old thing is still around.
The translation by 1995 Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney reads wonderfully. No parallel Old English text is included. Heaney's introducton is amazing. It points out salient sections of the poem where the impact of the text is greatest. Heaney directs the reader to Beowulf's funeral where a Geat woman wails and mourns not only the passing of Beowulf but the impending destruction of her culture by foreign invaders now that their defending hero is gone. Heaney's introduction should be read by all Beowulf readers.
Also included are discussions about the archeology of Beowulf. Photos of artifacts and sites provide imagery for the setting of the poem. The boar-crested helmets are worth the price alone.
Beowulf is worth reading. It can be read on many levels: on the level of poetic analysis, historical analysis, philological analysys, as a monster tale, as one of the oldest poems in the english language, or for enjoyment. Big imposing degrees are not required (though admittedly some of the criticism can get heady and academic; this is not a beginner's guide or "Beowulf for Morons"). Open up. Grendel, Mamma, and Dragon await...