From the Bible to Beowulf, or All I Need to Know (and Then Some), a Sensible Suggestion for the Canon

Reginald F. Chuffley

Issue 8 * Spring 2002

Amongst the different brou-hae-hae over the last decade or so regarding the literary canon, and just what should be part of it, has been lost the simple notions of tradition and culture. To think of ourselves as cultured, we must have common ground upon which to build. Most commonly, this takes the form of a literary canon, of works deemed so seminal to a civilization's being that no member of that civilization can be considered fully a member without knowing those works.

To wit, the Mohammedans have their Quran, the Hindoos their Oopanishads, the Yuppim their Pottery Barn catalogue. Simply put, these seminal texts define what each culture is, its core values and beliefs. The Western World, then, could very easily be said to have the Bible at its core. Our ancillary texts all reference it in some way; it forms the foundation of our laws, our principles, holidays, and our inter-institutional lending practices.

It is a matter of simple course, then, that America and Britain, especially, those two nations still holding close to their cultural roots, and whose civilizations express the highest degree of traditional values, should have at their base this primary work. Pesky American constitutional issues aside, the Bible should be taught in schools, reading clubs, in bathrooms, the "Internet," and on the television. It should be sold in every airport bookseller's kiosk and in every hotel room in the country, as inevitably as HBO.

Beowulf is, perhaps, a harder sell. You've seen the Christian aspects of Western culture if you've been here long enough to suck in a breath of God's own clean British air. But we have Beowulf too: look at any episode of the World Wrestling Federation's popular Smackdown series and you'll see outlandishly sized heroes wrestling with hideous monsters (and hideous monsters' even more hideous mothers). Sometimes it is even hard to tell which is which, the veracity to our other core value is so strong. As in the foundational Anglo-Saxon text, one-on-one combat takes place in a Great Hall surrounded by the terrorized masses; the conquering hero and unearthly villain use no weapons, reduced to the very basics of grip, balance, strength and Spandex. Here, aside from the occasional folding chair, the purity of physical combat is preserved, the lineal values descend straight from the Geats to us.

Thus runs the argument. But why, you may ask, limit ourselves to only these two texts? Well, let's look at who we may include to maintain our current notions of "multi-culturalism," to deal with "current cultural realities" as they might say. The most obvious would perhaps be Shakespeare. He seems to be a pretty well-established author. So what about Shakespeare? First off, he came around rather late. English had been under the corrupting thrall of Francophone leadership for some five or six centuries by the time Shakespeare lopes along. And how seriously can we take him now, only four hundred years later? Certainly, half a millennium is not enough time for a writer to truly establish his merit. After all, the texts suggested here for a core canon had been around for nearly a millennium before Shakespeare even outrageously braved his first arrow or sling! So this tot comes about and now we must all bow to him?

Secondly, damningly, he's crippled and sullied by his Italianate leanings. We can blame Wyatt, of course, for all that rot, but no more high-profile example of this exists. Simply by adapting this petit-Romantic form, the sonnet, to the already devolved mother tongue of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Shakespeare betrays the very Englishness of English. After all, an education in English Literature should be an education in English, not Italian.

Last, and most damningly, Shakespeare deals with a panoply of non-English figures: Hamlet, a Dane; Shylock, a Jew; Othello, a Moor--and Julius Caesar? What's all this, then? It is simply another way in which Shakespeare weakens the canon by making paeans to effete Latinate elements. It smacks of "post-modern multi-culturalism," not good-old-fashioned Western values. It speaks of comparative Anthropology, not English Literature. Perhaps Shakespeare should be taught in an Italian Literature class, or Othello in an Afro-English course of study. But don't call it English, for goodness' sake. And so we would do well to do away with this interloper, this Johnny-Come-Lately, William Shakespeare, and justly too.

"Multi-culturalism" is, of course, fine, as far as it goes. But we must protect what we mean by English Literature. The definitions of our culture get fuzzy if we don't have strict delineations between the so-called "multi-cultural" and the good old stalwarts of the Western World, namely Beowulf and the Bible. A solid canon allows us to see the distinctions, to focus with the keening flavor of a good haggis on the cultural steams that inspirit English Literature. We must be careful, then, to avoid also the dangerous Orientalisms of Homer and Virgil. After all, why weaken our literature by confounding the proper European paganism of Beowulf with this swarthy Mediterranean pap? Homer and Virgil are, of course, fine in their own heathen contexts, but confusing for the average reader and deleterious to the overall purity of the canon.

We forget that culture is what determines who we are, and if Anglo-American is what we want to be, the rudiments of this culture must be preserved. Obviously, the canon is a big part of this. But the visual arts should not be overlooked. Therefore, study of them should be limited to Bayeux Tapestry and Celtic funerary art . . . .