I have written up this guide in a way that should also be helpful for researching other work and authors from English literature, but the resources found are specific to Beowulf. The general approach consists in moving from general references to more specific ones.
General Reference Works
Some of the better encyclopedias append a short bibliography to (longer articles). For example, the Encyclopædia Britannica does provides “Additional Reading” on Shakespeare but unfortunately not for Beowulf, nor for Old English Literature. The Wikipedia article on Beowulf has a further reading section (which complements the article's sources), but it is not clear whether this represents the most important scholarship rather than the literature that the article's editors were aware of and/or had easy access to.
Overviews of a Specific Period
There are a number of series of handbooks and guides for specific literary periods or even specific authors. These books provide an introduction to the period or author and references for further reading (even though the formats differ from series to series). Below is a list of examples.
- The Basics is a series by Routledge that covers a wide variety of topics, including literature. Medieval Literature: The Basics by Angela Jane Weisl and Anthony Joseph Cunder (2018) covers more than just Anglo-Saxon literature but does discuss Beowulf to some extent.
- The Cambridge Introductions to Literature is a series by Cambridge University Press covers a wide variety of literary topics, including specific periods and specific authors. This series is ideal for students. One of the volumes in this series is The Cambridge Introduction to Anglo-Saxon Literature by Hugh Magennis (2011). This volume contains an appendix with resources for studying Anglo-Saxon literature.
- The Cambridge Companions to Literatur is another series by Cambridge University Press with a name similar to the previous series but aimed at a more advanced audience. The Cambridge Companion to Old English Literature edited by Malcolm Godden and Michael Lapidge (2013) contains a number of essays contributed by different scholars, each with their own sources. The volume contains an essay on Beowulf by Andy Orchard and a Further Reading section at the end of the volume.
- Beginnings is a series published by Manchester University Press and focuses on literary studies and cultural studies. It is explicitly aimed at students. There is a volume on Shakespeare, for example, but nothing related to Anglo-Saxon literature.
- The Bloomsbury Guides to English Literature is a series with volumes focusing on specific periods, such as the Renaissance or Romantic Literature; unfortunately, there was never a volume dedicate to Medieval literature or Anglo-Saxon literature.
Overviews and Anthologies of Criticism
It is possible to find anthologies of criticism by searching for the title of the work combined with terms such as “essential criticism”, “readings”, “basic readings”, or the combination of “anthology” and “criticism”. For Beowulf, these searches result in titles such as the following:
- Beowulf: A Reader's Guide to Essential Criticism by Jodi-Anne George (Red Globe Press / Bloomsbury, 2009; 192 pages). This book “charts the changes in critical trends and theoretical approaches applied to the poem”, so it sounds like a good place to start.
- A Beowulf Handbook edited by Robert E. Bjork and John D. Niles (University of Nebraska Press, 1998; 466 pages). This covers all major aspects of Beowulf and Beowulf criticism. Helpful for students.
- The Beowulf Reader: Basic Readings edited by Peter Baker (Routledge, 2000; 326 pages). This volume collects thirteen essays that illustrate the evolution of Beowulf criticism since the 1960s.
- A Critical Companion to Beowulf by Andy Orchard (Boydell & Brewer, 2004; 416 pages)
- Beowulf: The Critical Heritage*, edited by Tom Shippey and Andreas Haarder (Routledge, 1999, 2014; 612 pages). According to the publisher, “This impressive volume selects over one hundred works of critical commentary from the vast body of scholarship on Beowulf - including English translations from German, Danish, Latin and Spanish - from the poem's first mention in 1705 to the Anglophone scholarship of the early twentieth century. Tom Shippey provides both a contextual introduction and a guide to the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century scholarship which generated these Beowulf commentaries.”
- Macmillan's old Casebook series was a series of anthologies of criticism. It covered many authors and works (e.g. many of Shakespeare's plays) but I have not been able to find a Casebook dedicated to Beowulf. Its successor, the New Casebooks or Palgrave Essential Histories Series, provides specially commissioned essays rather than older ones. The volume Medieval English Literature edited by Beatrice Fannon (2016) does not seem to cover Anglo-Saxon literature.
- The Critics Debate was a series by Macmillan in the 1980s; it gave an overview of (the evolution of) the criticism of a specific work. It is a great way of getting started, but I was unable to find a volume dedicated to Beowulf. Jodi-Anne George's guide, listed above, should provide a more recent alternative.
The above list does not provide examples of comprehensive literature reviews. Such reviews may offer too much for people looking just for "essential scholarship", unless the author explicitly guides the reader (e.g. by annotating the bibliography or other means). According to Fred C. Robinson's 199§ lecture to the British Academy (Beowulf in the Twentieth Century), the best assessment of the field of Beowulf studies at the time was Eric Gerald Stanley's book In the Foreground: Beowulf (Boydell & Brewer, 1994).
Further Reading and Bibliographies in Editions and Translations
Editions and translations often also offer references for further reading. (Editions provide only the original Old English text with a critical apparatus but no translation.)
- Beowulf and the Fight at Finnsburg, edited by Friedrich Klaeber was the standard edition of Beowulf of the twentieth century (see Fred C. Robinson's 199§ lecture, mentioned above). The third edition from 1936 was last reissued with supplements in 1950. Pages CXXV-CLXXXI contains a bibliography subdivided into sections such as “literary criticism”, “textual criticism”, “language” and “style”. What makes (or made) this bibliography valuable are the short notes added to many of the entries indicating whether a specific study was valuable or what is discussed. A fourth edition, Klaeber's Beowulf, Fourth Edition was published by the University of Toronto Press in 2008 with a revised introduction, but I could not find out whether the bibliography had been updated. (“Works Cited” probably lists just the works cited in the volume, rather than providing the sort of guidance that Klaeber offered.)
- Beowulf: A Student Edition by George Jack (Clarendon Press, 1994; 256 pages) is a less intimidating alternative to Klaeber's edition. It also contains a guide to further reading that should be more up to date than the list in Klaeber's third edition.
- The series Norton Critical Editions is excellent for students who are looking for a “one-stop shop” providing an annotated text or translation, background materials, a selection of criticism and a list of further reading. Norton currently offers two Beowulf translations:
- Beowulf: A Verse Translation and Introduction (University Press of America, 2006; 144 pages) also contains a short list of recommended readings.
Since the goal here is not to create a comprehensive bibliography, this approach deviates from what is usually recommended in guides for literature students such as Einführung in die anglistisch-amerikanistische Literaturwissenschaft by Mario Klarer (Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1994) or Arbeitstechniken Literaturwissenschaft by Eckhardt Meyer-Krentler (third edition, W. Fink, 1993). Guides such as these recommend consulting relevant bibliographies such as the MLA International Bibliography, the Arts & Humanities Citation Index, ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global (formerly known as Dissertations Abstracts [International]) and possibly Philosopher's Index. Newer resources, not limited to literature or the humanities, include Google Scholar (launched in 2004) and GreyNet International (launched in 1992). (OpenGrey, a site for European grey literature will apparently cease to exist in the summer of 2022; its resources have been archived by GreyNet.)