LONDON — Britain is a nation of dedicated readers with a wealth of home-grown literary giants to choose from. It's the country that gave the world William Shakespeare, John Keats, Jane Austen, and Charles Dickens, to name just a few.
But seldom has Britannia's book world seen a verbal scrum over what constitutes literary greatness like the one here this past week.
On one side is Beowulf, hero of an 8th-century Anglo-Saxon epic newly translated by Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney. On the other is a bespectacled boy wizard named Harry Potter.
Authors and critics began weighing in on the debate just minutes after Mr. Heaney was named winner of the Whitbread Book of the Year award on Jan. 26, narrowly edging out hugely popular children's author J.K. Rowling for the prestigious prize.
The Whit-bread Awards were established in 1971 to celebrate and promote the best of contemporary British writing.
Literary critic Clive Grinyer says that by snubbing Ms. Rowling and her creation, the Whitbread judges "confirmed the widespread perception that Britain is in the grip of a toffee-nosed culture, unable to reward anything that is popular."
But poet Tom Paulin defends the Irish-born Heaney's "Beowulf" as "a timeless classic" and "a hymn to the deep North Sea energies and roots of the English language."
Nobody disputes that Heaney and Rowling are both accomplished writers. Heaney has won the Nobel Prize for Literature and is seen as one of the finest poets writing in English today.
Rowling has earned a reported $22.5 million with her Potter series, which has sold 27 million copies worldwide. A Hollywood film deal is in the works.
At the heart of the dispute is whether books specifically written for children, and that are highly popular, can be judged by the same criteria as works widely and deservedly regarded as literary classics.
The Whitbread deliberations are supposed to be secret, but perhaps sensing the impending controversy, the chairman of the panel of judges, Eric Anderson, announced that "Beowulf" had beaten out Rowling's latest work, "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban," by a clear margin for the 21,000 ($33,700) prize.
It quickly became clear, however, that the judges had been bitterly divided and that the result had come by a hair.
One judge, speaking anonymously to reporters, said the vote had been 5 to 4 after a 90-minute argument that was "heated and spilled over into anger." Two distinguished writers on the panel - novelist Robert Harris and royal biographer Anthony Holden - had found themselves at loggerheads.
Mr. Harris, sources say, argued that Heaney's "Beowulf" translation wasn't an original work and so couldn't qualify for the prize. Mr. Holden reportedly insisted that a biography by David Cairns on the 19th-century composer Hector Berlioz should win. But he reportedly told the panel: "If the Potter book wins, I'll feel obliged to dissent publicly from the judgement."
In the end, it appears Holden voted tactically for "Beowulf" to ensure that the slayer of the medieval monster Grendel (and Grendel's mother) didn't fall to a 13-year-old trainee wizard. Holden later said: "Had Harry Potter collected Britain's richest literary prize, it would have sent out to the world a message that, as with the monarchy and the Dome, Britain is a country that refuses to grow up."
Erica Wagner, literary editor of the London Times, says maybe that's true. "Harry Potter is a phenomenon," she says. "He is what children, who besieged the bookstores when 'The Prisoner of Azkaban' came out, want to read.
"But," she adds, "Heaney's 'Beowulf' is a masterpiece. The translation brings back a work from an alien culture into the present day."
Gary McKeone, head of literature at the Arts Council of England, agrees that Heaney's "Beowulf" translation deserved to edge out the more popular Potter book, because of its "true literary merit.
"This is translation at its potent best," he says. "Heaney's subtle, luminous vernacular ignites the poem for new a generations of readers."
A needed boost for 'Beowulf'
But Liz Sich, a London-based book- trade analyst says there is "no reason why books like the Harry Potter series shouldn't be regarded as literature.
"So long as they are well written as well as popular, they can be seen in the same category as, say, Charles Dickens. Of course, Ms. Rowling didn't need the Whitbread to prove that she is successful, and in a way it was a good thing that 'Beowulf' got the prize, because it immediately boosted sales for a book that might otherwise have sold only modestly."
David Kneale, spokesman for Waterstone's, one of Britain's biggest bookstores, says winning the Whitbread has lifted Heaney's "Beowulf" into the firm's top 10 in terms of sales. Faber, its publisher, printed 20,000 extra copies ahead of the awards ceremony.
Perhaps a decision taken last year by the Whitbread sponsors to include media celebrities among the judges boosted support for Rowling's book. The celebrities included Texas model Jerry Hall and British comedian Sandi Toskvig.
And in the end, Rowling wasn't left empty handed. She was awarded a prize of 10,000 ($16,000) in the Whitbread children's book category.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society