The Elegance of Beowulf in 100 Tweets

From Samuel Harden Church's Beowulf

From years of use, people know this: Twitter can be a lot of noise. 

But sometimes, to get a tweet just right, to make it fit, I stop and consider the language. In this digital format, we are forced to distill and compress, two poetic virtues that the web rarely requires. 

But what if you're not trying to describe an airport or a sunset, but Beowulf, the (gory, dark) epic Old English poem? 

That was the task that Stanford medievalist (and "text technologies") researcher Elaine Treharne took on. She compressed Beowulf into 100 tweets as part of teaching her course on the many "existing and imagined manifestations" of the work. 

"The underlying theoretical question for this course is 'What is (the) Text?' What constitutes Beowulf? What is its core and what do we understand by 'Beowulf'?" she wrote in her explanation of the project. "In some senses, this seeks to address, for Beowulf, F. W. Bateson's question, 'If the Mona Lisa is in the Louvre, where then are Hamlet and Lycidas?'"

What is the story behind the story of Beowulf? 

This is especially interesting in Beowulf's case because it came out of an oral tradition. Though the scholarship on oral formulaic poetry is more complex than I can get into, this is a poem that probably had many, many variations. At one end of the debate, scholars hold that the poem would have been spontaneously performed anew by bards according to tradition and rhythmic necessity.

All this to say, the essence of such a work—before norms of literacy and textual "integrity" came into being—is complicated. And that's before the zillion adaptations, presentations, new translations, etc, etc. 

So why not tweet it?

And tweet Treharne did. Some of the lines are just remarkable. Here's the introduction of Grendel, the monster: 

"Creation lays sung in hall called to the moor-dwelling monster, he of Cain’s kind, foul offspring of flood-sundered demons, God’s antagonist"

God's antagonist.

Or how about this description of the end of Beowulf's battle with Grendel. 

"In hard hold, Beowulf yanked shredded flesh, sundering arm from shrieking body. Grendel sloped off to die; his arm hung as trophy."

Dense, heavy gore. Sundering arm from shrieking body

To reach the levels of compression required to cram the story into 14,000 characters (or less), Treharne could not rely on a single translation. The exercise "forcing me back to the Old English to try and capture, in the shortest possible length, what I thought were the essential components of the poem."

You can read the whole thing on context by clicking through the hashtag #beow100 or by visiting Treharne's site, where she's archived her work. 

Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.


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