First page of Beowulf in Cotton Vitellius A. xv
|Language||West Saxon dialect of Old English|
|Date||c. 700–1000 AD (date of poem), c. 975–1010 AD (date of manuscript)|
|State of existence||Manuscript suffered damage from fire in 1731|
|Manuscript(s)||Cotton Vitellius A. xv|
|First printed edition||Thorkelin (1815)|
|Genre||Epic heroic poetry|
|Verse form||Alliterative verse|
|Length||c. 3182 lines|
|Subject||The battles of Beowulf, the Geatish hero, in youth and old age|
|Personages||Beowulf, Hygelac, Hrothgar, Wealhþeow, Hrothulf, Æschere, Unferth, Grendel, Grendel's mother, Wiglaf, Hildeburh.|
Beowulf (/, /; Old English: [ˈbeːo̯ˌwulf]) is an Old English epic poem consisting of 3182 alliterative lines. It may be the oldest surviving long poem in Old English and is commonly cited as one of the most important works produced between 975 and 1025. The author was an anonymous Anglo-Saxon poet, referred to by scholars as the "Beowulf poet".
The poem is set in Scandinavia. Beowulf, a hero of the Geats, comes to the aid of Hrothgar, the king of the Danes, whose mead hall in Heorot has been under attack by a monster known as Grendel. After Beowulf slays him, Grendel's mother attacks the hall and is then also defeated. Victorious, Beowulf goes home to Geatland (Götaland in modern Sweden) and later becomes king of the Geats. After a period of fifty years has passed, Beowulf defeats a dragon, but is fatally wounded in the battle. After his death, his attendants cremate his body and erect a tower on a headland in his memory.
The full poem survives in the manuscript known as the Nowell Codex, located in the British Library. It has no title in the original manuscript, but has become known by the name of the story's protagonist. In 1731, the manuscript was badly damaged by a fire that swept through Ashburnham House in London that had a collection of medieval manuscripts assembled by Sir Robert Bruce Cotton.
The events in the poem take place in the late fifth century after the Anglo-Saxons had started their journey to England and before the beginning of the seventh century, a time when the Anglo-Saxons were either newly arrived or were still in close contact with their Germanic kinsmen in Northern Germany. The poem may have been brought to England by people of Geatish origins. It has been suggested that Beowulf was first composed in the 7th century at Rendlesham in East Anglia, as the Sutton Hoo ship-burial also shows close connections with Scandinavia, and also that the East Anglian royal dynasty, the Wuffingas, may have been descendants of the Geatish Wulfings. Others have associated this poem with the court of King Alfred the Great or with the court of King Cnut the Great.
The poem deals with legends, was composed for entertainment, and does not separate between fictional elements and real historic events, such as the raid by King Hygelac into Frisia. Scholars generally agree that many of the personalities of Beowulf also appear in Scandinavian sources (specific works designated in the following section). This does not only concern people (e.g., Healfdene, Hroðgar, Halga, Hroðulf, Eadgils and Ohthere), but also clans (e.g., Scyldings, Scylfings and Wulfings) and some of the events (e.g., the Battle on the Ice of Lake Vänern). The dating of the events in the poem has been confirmed by archaeological excavations of the barrows indicated by Snorri Sturluson and by Swedish tradition as the graves of Ohthere (dated to c. 530) and his son Eadgils (dated to c. 575) in Uppland, Sweden.
In Denmark, recent archaeological excavations at Lejre, where Scandinavian tradition located the seat of the Scyldings, i.e., Heorot, have revealed that a hall was built in the mid-6th century, exactly the time period of Beowulf. Three halls, each about 50 metres (160 ft) long, were found during the excavation.
The majority view appears to be that people such as King Hroðgar and the Scyldings in Beowulf are based on real historical people from 6th-century Scandinavia. Like the Finnesburg Fragment and several shorter surviving poems, Beowulf has consequently been used as a source of information about Scandinavian personalities such as Eadgils and Hygelac, and about continental Germanic personalities such as Offa, king of the continental Angles.
19th-century archeological evidence may confirm elements of the Beowulf story. Eadgils was buried at Uppsala according to Snorri Sturluson. When Eadgils' mound (to the left in the photo) was excavated in 1874, the finds supported Beowulf and the sagas. They showed that a powerful man was buried in a large barrow, c 575, on a bear skin with two dogs and rich grave offerings. These remains include a Frankish sword adorned with gold and garnets and a tafl game with Roman pawns of ivory. He was dressed in a costly suit made of Frankish cloth with golden threads, and he wore a belt with a costly buckle. There were four cameos from the Middle East which were probably part of a casket. This would have been a burial fitting a king who was famous for his wealth in Old Norse sources. Ongentheow's barrow has not been excavated.
The main protagonist Beowulf, a hero of the Geats, comes to the aid of Hrothgar, king of the Danes, whose great hall, Heorot, is plagued by the monster Grendel. Beowulf kills Grendel with his bare hands and Grendel's mother with a giant's sword that he found in her lair.
Later in his life, Beowulf becomes king of the Geats, and finds his realm terrorized by a dragon, some of whose treasure had been stolen from his hoard in a burial mound. He attacks the dragon with the help of his thegns or servants, but they do not succeed. Beowulf decides to follow the dragon to its lair at Earnanæs, but only his young Swedish relative Wiglaf, whose name means "remnant of valour", dares to join him. Beowulf finally slays the dragon, but is mortally wounded in the struggle. He is cremated and a burial mound by the sea is erected in his honor.
Beowulf is considered an epic poem in that the main character is a hero who travels great distances to prove his strength at impossible odds against supernatural demons and beasts. The poem also begins in medias res or simply, "in the middle of things", which is a characteristic of the epics of antiquity. Although the poem begins with Beowulf's arrival, Grendel's attacks have been an ongoing event. An elaborate history of characters and their lineages is spoken of, as well as their interactions with each other, debts owed and repaid, and deeds of valour. The warriors form a kind of brotherhood linked by loyalty to their lord.
First battle: Grendel
Beowulf begins with the story of Hrothgar, who constructed the great hall Heorot for himself and his warriors. In it he, his wife Wealhtheow, and his warriors spend their time singing and celebrating. Grendel, a troll-like monster said to be descended from the biblical Cain, is pained by the sounds of a joy he cannot share, attacks the hall, and kills and devours many of Hrothgar's warriors while they sleep. Hrothgar and his people, helpless against Grendel, abandon Heorot.
Beowulf, a young warrior from Geatland, hears of Hrothgar's troubles and with his king's permission leaves his homeland to assist Hrothgar.
Beowulf and his men spend the night in Heorot. Beowulf refuses to use any weapon because he holds himself to be the equal of Grendel. When Grendel enters the hall, Beowulf, who has been feigning sleep, leaps up to clench Grendel's hand. Grendel and Beowulf battle each other violently. Beowulf's retainers draw their swords and rush to his aid, but their blades cannot pierce Grendel's skin. Finally, Beowulf tears Grendel's arm from his body at the shoulder and Grendel runs to his home in the marshes where he dies.
Second battle: Grendel's Mother
The next night, after celebrating Grendel's defeat, Hrothgar and his men sleep in Heorot. Grendel's mother, angry that her son has been killed, sets out to get revenge. She violently kills Æschere, who is Hrothgar's most loyal fighter.
Hrothgar, Beowulf and their men track Grendel's mother to her lair under a lake. Unferth, a warrior who had doubted him and wishes to make amends, presents Beowulf with his sword Hrunting. After stipulating a number of conditions to Hrothgar in case of his death (including the taking in of his kinsmen and the inheritance by Unferth of Beowulf's estate), Beowulf jumps into the lake at the bottom of which he finds a cavern containing Grendel's body and the remains of men that the two have killed, Grendel's mother and Beowulf engage in fierce combat.
At first, Grendel's mother appears to prevail. Beowulf, finding that Hrunting cannot harm his foe, puts it aside in fury. Beowulf is again saved from his opponent's attack by his armour. Beowulf takes another sword from Grendel's mother and slices her head off with it. Travelling further into Grendel's mother's lair, Beowulf discovers Grendel and severs his head. The blade of Beowulf's sword touches Grendel's toxic blood, and instantly dissolves so that only the hilt remains. Beowulf swims back up to the rim of the pond where his men wait in growing despair. Carrying the hilt of the sword and Grendel's head, he presents them to Hrothgar upon his return to Heorot. Hrothgar gives Beowulf many gifts, including the sword Nægling, his family's heirloom. The events prompt a long reflection by the king, sometimes referred to as "Hrothgar's sermon", in which he urges Beowulf to be wary of pride and to reward his thegns.
Third battle: The Dragon
Beowulf returns home and eventually becomes king of his own people. One day, fifty years after Beowulf's battle with Grendel's mother, a slave steals a golden cup from the lair of a dragon at Earnanæs. When the dragon sees that the cup has been stolen, it leaves its cave in a rage, burning everything in sight. Beowulf and his warriors come to fight the dragon, but Beowulf tells his men that he will fight the dragon alone and that they should wait on the barrow. Beowulf descends to do battle with the dragon but finds himself outmatched. His men, upon seeing this and fearing for their lives, creep back into the woods. One of his men, however, Wiglaf, who finds great distress in seeing Beowulf's plight, comes to Beowulf's aid. The two slay the dragon, but Beowulf is mortally wounded. After Beowulf's death, he is ritually burned on a great pyre in Geatland while his people wail and mourn him, fearing that without him, the Geates are defenseless against attacks from surrounding tribes. Afterwards, a barrow, visible from the sea, is built in his memory. (Beowulf lines 2712–3182).
Authorship and date
Beowulf was written in England, but is set in Scandinavia; its dating has attracted considerable scholarly attention. The poem has been dated to between the 8th and the early 11th centuries, with some recent scholarship offering what has been called "a cohesive and compelling case for Beowulf’s early composition." However, opinion differs as to whether the composition of the poem is nearly contemporary with its transcription, whether it was first written in the 8th century, or if a proto-version of the poem was perhaps composed at an even earlier time (possibly as one of the Bear's Son Tales) and orally transmitted for many years, then transcribed in its present form at a later date. Albert Lord felt strongly that the manuscript represents the transcription of a performance, though likely taken at more than one sitting. J. R. R. Tolkien believed that the poem retains too genuine a memory of Anglo-Saxon paganism to have been composed more than a few generations after the completion of the Christianisation of England around AD 700, and Tolkien's conviction that the poem dates to the 8th century has been defended by Tom Shippey, among others.
The claim to an early 11th-century date depends in part on scholars who argue that, rather than the transcription of a tale from the oral tradition by an earlier literate monk, Beowulf reflects an original interpretation of an earlier version of the story by the manuscript's two scribes. On the other hand, some scholars argue that linguistic, paleographical, metrical, and onomastic considerations align to support a date of composition in the first half of the eighth century; in particular, the poem's regular observation of etymological length distinctions (Kaluza's law) has been thought to demonstrate a date of composition in the first half of the eighth century. However, scholars disagree about whether the metrical phenomena described by Kaluza's Law prove an early date of composition or are evidence of a longer prehistory of the Beowulf meter; B.R. Hutcheson, for instance, does not believe Kaluza's Law can be used to date the poem, while claiming that "the weight of all the evidence Fulk presents in his book tells strongly in favor of an eighth-century date."
Beowulf survives in a single manuscript dated on paleographical grounds to the late 10th or early 11th century. The manuscript measures 245 × 185 mm.
The poem is known only from a single manuscript, which is estimated to date from close to AD 1000, in which it appears with other works. The Beowulf manuscript is known as the Nowell Codex, gaining its name from 16th-century scholar Laurence Nowell. The official designation is "British Library, Cotton Vitellius A.XV" because it was one of Sir Robert Bruce Cotton's holdings in the Cotton library in the middle of the 17th century. Many private antiquarians and book collectors, such as Sir Robert Cotton, used their own library classification systems. "Cotton Vitellius A.XV" translates as: the 15th book from the left on shelf A (the top shelf) of the bookcase with the bust of Roman Emperor Vitellius standing on top of it, in Cotton's collection. Kevin Kiernan argues that Nowell most likely acquired it through William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley, in 1563, when Nowell entered Cecil's household as a tutor to his ward, Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford.
The earliest extant reference to the first foliation of the Nowell Codex was made sometime between 1628 and 1650 by Franciscus Junius (the younger). The ownership of the codex before Nowell remains a mystery.
The Reverend Thomas Smith (1638–1710) and Humfrey Wanley (1672–1726) both catalogued the Cotton library (in which the Nowell Codex was held). Smith's catalogue appeared in 1696, and Wanley's in 1705. The Beowulf manuscript itself is identified by name for the first time in an exchange of letters in 1700 between George Hickes, Wanley's assistant, and Wanley. In the letter to Wanley, Hickes responds to an apparent charge against Smith, made by Wanley, that Smith had failed to mention the Beowulf script when cataloguing Cotton MS. Vitellius A. XV. Hickes replies to Wanley "I can find nothing yet of Beowulph." Kiernan theorised that Smith failed to mention the Beowulf manuscript because of his reliance on previous catalogues or because either he had no idea how to describe it or because it was temporarily out of the codex.
It suffered damage in the Cotton Library fire at Ashburnham House in 1731. Since then, parts of the manuscript have crumbled along with many of the letters. Rebinding efforts, though saving the manuscript from much degeneration, have nonetheless covered up other letters of the poem, causing further loss. Kevin Kiernan, in preparing his electronic edition of the manuscript, used fibre-optic backlighting and ultraviolet lighting to reveal letters in the manuscript lost from binding, erasure, or ink blotting.
The Beowulf manuscript was transcribed from an original by two scribes, one of whom wrote the first 1939 lines and a second who wrote the remainder, with a difference in handwriting noticeable after line 1939. The script of the second scribe is archaic. While both scribes appear to proofread their work, there are nevertheless many errors. The second scribe toiled over the poem for many years "with great reverence and care to restoration". The work of the second scribe bears a striking resemblance to the work of the first scribe of the Blickling homilies, and so much so that it is believed they derive from the same scriptorium. From knowledge of books held in the library at Malmesbury Abbey and available as source works, and from the identification of certain words particular to the local dialect found in the text, the transcription may have been made there.
Icelandic scholar Grímur Jónsson Thorkelin made the first transcriptions of the manuscript in 1786 and published the results in 1815, working as part of a Danish government historical research commission. He made one himself, and had another done by a professional copyist who knew no Anglo-Saxon. Since that time, however, the manuscript has crumbled further, making these transcripts a prized witness to the text. While the recovery of at least 2000 letters can be attributed to them, their accuracy has been called into question, and the extent to which the manuscript was actually more readable in Thorkelin's time is uncertain.
In 1805, the historian Sharon Turner translated selected verses into modern English. This was followed in 1814 by John Josias Conybeare who published an edition "in English paraphrase and Latin verse translation." In 1815, Grímur Jónsson Thorkelin published the first complete edition in Latin. N. F. S. Grundtvig reviewed this edition in 1815 and created the first complete verse translation in Danish in 1820. In 1837, John Mitchell Kemble created an important literal translation in English. In 1895, William Morris & A. J. Wyatt published the ninth English translation. Many retellings of Beowulf for children also appeared around the beginning of the 20th century. In 1909, Francis Barton Gummere's full translation in "English imitative meter" was published, and was used as the text of Gareth Hinds's graphic novel based on Beowulf in 2007.
During the early 20th century, Frederick Klaeber's Beowulf and The Fight at Finnsburg (which included the poem in Old English, an extensive glossary of Old English terms, and general background information) became the "central source used by graduate students for the study of the poem and by scholars and teachers as the basis of their translations."
A great number of translations are available, in poetry and prose. Andy Orchard, in A Critical Companion to Beowulf, lists 33 "representative" translations in his bibliography, and it has been translated into at least 23 other languages.
Seamus Heaney's 1999 translation of the poem (referred to by Howell Chickering and many others as "Heaneywulf") was widely publicized. Translating Beowulf is one of the subjects of the 2012 publication Beowulf at Kalamazoo, containing a section with 10 essays on translation, and a section with 22 reviews of Heaney's translation (some of which compare Heaney's work with that of Anglo-Saxon scholar Roy Liuzza). R. D. Fulk, of Indiana University, published the first facing-page edition and translation of the entire manuscript in the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library series in 2010.
J. R. R. Tolkien's long-awaited translation (edited by his son, Christopher) was published in 2014 (Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary). This also includes Tolkien's own retelling of the story of Beowulf in his tale, Sellic Spell.
Debate over oral tradition
The question of whether Beowulf was passed down through oral tradition prior to its present manuscript form has been the subject of much debate, and involves more than simply the issue of its composition. Rather, given the implications of the theory of oral-formulaic composition and oral tradition, the question concerns how the poem is to be understood, and what sorts of interpretations are legitimate.
Scholarly discussion about Beowulf in the context of the oral tradition was extremely active throughout the 1960s and 1970s. The debate might be framed starkly as follows: on the one hand, we can hypothesise a poem put together from various tales concerning the hero (the Grendel episode, the Grendel's mother story, and the fire drake narrative). These fragments would have been told for many years in tradition, and learned by apprenticeship from one generation of illiterate poets to the next. The poem is composed orally and extemporaneously, and the archive of tradition on which it draws is oral, pagan, Germanic, heroic, and tribal. On the other hand, one might posit a poem which is composed by a literate scribe, who acquired literacy by way of learning Latin (and absorbing Latinate culture and ways of thinking), probably a monk and therefore profoundly Christian in outlook. On this view, the pagan references would be a sort of decorative archaising. There is a third view that sees merit in both arguments above and attempts to bridge them, and so cannot be articulated as starkly as they can; it sees more than one Christianity and more than one attitude towards paganism at work in the poem; it sees the poem as initially the product of a literate Christian author with one foot in the pagan world and one in the Christian, himself perhaps a convert (or one whose forebears had been pagan), a poet who was conversant in both oral and literary composition and was capable of a masterful "repurposing" of poetry from the oral tradition.
However, scholars such as D.K. Crowne have proposed the idea that the poem was passed down from reciter to reciter under the theory of oral-formulaic composition, which hypothesises that epic poems were (at least to some extent) improvised by whoever was reciting them, and only much later written down. In his landmark work, The Singer of Tales, Albert Lord refers to the work of Francis Peabody Magoun and others, saying "the documentation is complete, thorough, and accurate. This exhaustive analysis is in itself sufficient to prove that Beowulf was composed orally."
Examination of Beowulf and other Old English literature for evidence of oral-formulaic composition has met with mixed response. While "themes" (inherited narrative subunits for representing familiar classes of event, such as the "arming the hero", or the particularly well-studied "hero on the beach" theme) do exist across Anglo-Saxon and other Germanic works, some scholars conclude that Anglo-Saxon poetry is a mix of oral-formulaic and literate patterns, arguing that the poems both were composed on a word-by-word basis and followed larger formulae and patterns.
Larry Benson argued that the interpretation of Beowulf as an entirely formulaic work diminishes the ability of the reader to analyze the poem in a unified manner, and with due attention to the poet's creativity. Instead, he proposed that other pieces of Germanic literature contain "kernels of tradition" from which Beowulf borrows and expands upon. A few years later, Ann Watts argued against the imperfect application of one theory to two different traditions: traditional, Homeric, oral-formulaic poetry and Anglo-Saxon poetry. Thomas Gardner agreed with Watts, arguing that the Beowulf text is of too varied a nature to be completely constructed from set formulae and themes.
John Miles Foley wrote, referring to the Beowulf debate, that while comparative work was both necessary and valid, it must be conducted with a view to the particularities of a given tradition; Foley argued with a view to developments of oral traditional theory that do not assume, or depend upon, ultimately unverifiable assumptions about composition, and instead delineate a more fluid continuum of traditionality and textuality.
Finally, in the view of Ursula Schaefer, the question of whether the poem was "oral" or "literate" becomes something of a red herring. In this model, the poem is created, and is interpretable, within both noetic horizons. Schaefer's concept of "vocality" offers neither a compromise nor a synthesis of the views which see the poem as on the one hand Germanic, pagan, and oral and on the other Latin-derived, Christian, and literate, but, as stated by Monika Otter: "... a 'tertium quid', a modality that participates in both oral and literate culture yet also has a logic and aesthetic of its own."
Sources and analogues
Neither identified sources nor analogues for Beowulf can be definitively proven, but many conjectures have been made. These are important in helping historians understand the Beowulf manuscript, as possible source-texts or influences would suggest time-frames of composition, geographic boundaries within which it could be composed, or range (both spatial and temporal) of influence (i.e. when it was "popular" and where its "popularity" took it). There are five main categories in which potential sources and/or analogues are included: Scandinavian parallels, early Irish literature sources and analogues, classical sources, ecclesiastical sources, and echoes in other Old English texts.
Early studies into Scandinavian sources and analogues proposed that Beowulf was a translation of an original Scandinavian work, but this idea has been discarded. In 1878, Guðbrandur Vigfússon made the connection between Beowulf and the Grettis saga. This is currently one of the few Scandinavian analogues to receive a general consensus of potential connection. Tales concerning the Skjöldungs, possibly originating as early as the 6th century were later used as a narrative basis in such texts as Gesta Danorum by Saxo Grammaticus and Hrólfs saga kraka. Some scholars see Beowulf as a product of these early tales along with Gesta Danorum and Hrólfs saga kraka, and some early scholars of the poem proposed that the latter saga and Beowulf share a common legendary ancestry, Beowulf's Hrothulf being identified with Hrólf Kraki. Paul Beekman Taylor argued that the Ynglinga saga was proof that the Beowulf poet was likewise working from Germanic tradition.
Friedrich Panze attempted to contextualise Beowulf and other Scandinavian works, including Grettis saga, under the international folktale type 301B, or "The Bear's Son" tale. However, although this folkloristic approach was seen as a step in the right direction, "The Bear's Son" tale was seen as too universal. Later, Peter Jørgensen, looking for a more concise frame of reference, coined a "two-troll tradition" that covers both Beowulf and Grettis saga: "a Norse 'ecotype' in which a hero enters a cave and kills two giants, usually of different sexes".
Scholars who favored Irish parallels directly spoke out against pro-Scandinavian theories, citing them as unjustified. Wilhelm Grimm is noted to be the first person to link Beowulf with Irish folklore; however, Max Deutschbein is the first person to present the argument in academic form. He suggested the Irish Feast of Bricriu as a source for Beowulf—a theory that was soon denied by Oscar Olson. Swedish folklorist Carl Wilhelm Von Sydow argued against both Scandinavian translation and source material due to his theory that Beowulf is fundamentally Christian and written at a time when any Norse tale would have most likely been pagan.
In the late 1920s, Heinzer Dehmer suggested Beowulf as contextually based in the folktale type "The Hand and the Child," due to the motif of the "monstrous arm"—a motif that distances Grettis saga and Beowulf and further aligns Beowulf with Irish parallelism. James Carney and Martin Puhvel also agree with this "Hand and the Child" contextualisation. Carney also ties Beowulf to Irish literature through the Táin Bó Fráech story. Puhvel supported the "Hand and the Child" theory through such motifs as (in Andersson's words) "the more powerful giant mother, the mysterious light in the cave, the melting of the sword in blood, the phenomenon of battle rage, swimming prowess, combat with water monsters, underwater adventures, and the bear-hug style of wrestling."
Attempts to find classical or Late Latin influence or analogue in Beowulf are almost exclusively linked with Homer's Odyssey or Virgil's Aeneid. In 1926, Albert Stanburrough Cook suggested a Homeric connection due to equivalent formulas, metonymies, and analogous voyages. In 1930, James A. Work also supported the Homeric influence, stating that encounter between Beowulf and Unferth was parallel to the encounter between Odysseus and Euryalus in Books 7–8 of the Odyssey, even to the point of both characters giving the hero the same gift of a sword upon being proven wrong in their initial assessment of the hero's prowess. This theory of Homer's influence on Beowulf remained very prevalent in the 1920s, but started to die out in the following decade when a handful of critics stated that the two works were merely "comparative literature", although Greek was known in late 7th century England: Bede states that Theodore of Tarsus, a Greek, was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury in 668, and he taught Greek. Several English scholars and churchmen are described by Bede as being fluent in Greek due to being taught by him; Bede claims to be fluent in Greek himself.
Frederick Klaeber, among others, argued for a connection between Beowulf and Virgil near the start of the 20th century, claiming that the very act of writing a secular epic in a Germanic world represents Virgilian influence. Virgil was seen as the pinnacle of Latin literature, and Latin was the dominant literary language of England at the time, therefore making Virgilian influence highly likely. Similarly, in 1971, Alistair Campbell stated that the apologue technique used in Beowulf is so rare in epic poetry aside from Virgil that the poet who composed Beowulf could not have written the poem in such a manner without first coming across Virgil's writings.
It cannot be denied that Biblical parallels occur in the text, whether seen as a pagan work with "Christian colouring" added by scribes or as a "Christian historical novel, with selected bits of paganism deliberately laid on as 'local colour'," as Margaret E. Goldsmith did in "The Christian Theme of Beowulf,". Beowulf channels the books of Genesis, Exodus, and Daniel in its inclusion of references to the Genesis creation narrative, the story of Cain and Abel, Noah and the flood myth, the Devil, Hell, and the Last Judgment.
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There is a wide array of linguistic forms in the Beowulf manuscript. It is this fact that leads some scholars to believe that Beowulf has endured a long and complicated transmission through all the main dialect areas. The poem retains a complicated mix of the following dialectical forms: Mercian, Northumbrian, Early West Saxon, Kentish and Late West Saxon. There are in Beowulf more than thirty-one hundred distinct words, and almost thirteen hundred occur exclusively, or almost exclusively, in this poem and in the other poetical texts. Considerably more than one-third of the total vocabulary is alien from ordinary prose use. There are, in round numbers, three hundred and sixty uncompounded verbs in Beowulf, and forty of them are poetical words in the sense that they are unrecorded or rare in the existing prose writings. One hundred and fifty more occur with the prefix ge- (reckoning a few found only in the past-participle), but of these one hundred occur also as simple verbs, and the prefix is employed to render a shade of meaning which was perfectly known and thoroughly familiar except in the latest Anglo-Saxon period. The nouns number sixteen hundred. Seven hundred of them, including those formed with prefixes, of which fifty (or considerably more than half) have ge-, are simple nouns, at the highest reckoning not more than one-fourth is absent in prose. That this is due in some degree to accident is clear from the character of the words, and from the fact that several reappear and are common after the Norman Conquest.
Form and metre
An Old English poem such as Beowulf is very different from modern poetry. Anglo-Saxon poets typically used alliterative verse, a form of verse in which the first half of the line (the a-verse) is linked to the second half (the b-verse) through similarity in initial sound. In addition, the two halves are divided by a caesura: "Oft Scyld Scefing \\ sceaþena þreatum" (l. 4). This verse form maps stressed and unstressed syllables onto abstract entities known as metrical positions. There is no fixed number of beats per line: the first one cited has three (Oft SCYLD SCEFING, with ictus on the suffix -ING) whereas the second has two (SCEAþena ÞREATum).
The poet has a choice of epithets or formulae to use in order to fulfill the alliteration. When speaking or reading Old English poetry, it is important to remember for alliterative purposes that many of the letters are not pronounced in the same way as in modern English. The letter ⟨h⟩, for example, is always pronounced (Hroðgar: [ˈhroðgar]), and the digraph ⟨cg⟩ is pronounced [dʒ], as in the word edge. Both ⟨f⟩ and ⟨s⟩ vary in pronunciation depending on their phonetic environment. Between vowels or voiced consonants, they are voiced, sounding like modern ⟨v⟩ and ⟨z⟩, respectively. Otherwise they are unvoiced, like modern ⟨f⟩ in fat and ⟨s⟩ in sat. Some letters which are no longer found in modern English, such as thorn, ⟨þ⟩, and eth, ⟨ð⟩ – representing both pronunciations of modern English ⟨th⟩, as // in thing and // this – are used extensively both in the original manuscript and in modern English editions. The voicing of these characters echoes that of ⟨f⟩ and ⟨s⟩. Both are voiced (as in this) between other voiced sounds: oðer, laþleas, suþern. Otherwise they are unvoiced (as in thing): þunor, suð, soþfæst.
Kennings are also a significant technique in Beowulf. They are evocative poetic descriptions of everyday things, often created to fill the alliterative requirements of the metre. For example, a poet might call the sea the "swan-road" or the "whale-road"; a king might be called a "ring-giver." There are many kennings in Beowulf, and the device is typical of much of classic poetry in Old English, which is heavily formulaic. The poem also makes extensive use of elided metaphors.
Interpretation and criticism
The history of modern Beowulf criticism is often said to begin with J. R. R. Tolkien, author and Merton professor of Anglo-Saxon at University of Oxford, who in his 1936 lecture to the British Academy criticised his contemporaries' excessive interest in its historical implications. He noted in Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics that as a result the poem's literary value had been largely overlooked and argued that the poem "is in fact so interesting as poetry, in places poetry so powerful, that this quite overshadows the historical content..."
In historical terms, the poem's characters would have been Norse pagans (the historical events of the poem took place before the Christianisation of Scandinavia), yet the poem was recorded by Christian Anglo-Saxons who had largely converted from their native Anglo-Saxon paganism around the 7th century – both Anglo-Saxon paganism and Norse paganism share a common origin as both are forms of Germanic paganism. Beowulf thus depicts a Germanic warrior society, in which the relationship between the lord of the region and those who served under him was of paramount importance.
Stanley B. Greenfield has suggested that references to the human body throughout Beowulf emphasise the relative position of thanes to their lord. He argues that the term "shoulder-companion" could refer to both a physical arm as well as a thane (Aeschere) who was very valuable to his lord (Hrothgar). With Aeschere's death, Hrothgar turns to Beowulf as his new "arm." In addition, Greenfield argues the foot is used for the opposite effect, only appearing four times in the poem. It is used in conjunction with Unferð (a man described by Beowulf as weak, traitorous, and cowardly). Greenfield notes that Unferð is described as "at the king's feet" (line 499). Unferð is also a member of the foot troops, who, throughout the story, do nothing and "generally serve as backdrops for more heroic action."
At the same time, Richard North argues that the Beowulf poet interpreted "Danish myths in Christian form" (as the poem would have served as a form of entertainment for a Christian audience), and states: "As yet we are no closer to finding out why the first audience of Beowulf liked to hear stories about people routinely classified as damned. This question is pressing, given... that Anglo-Saxons saw the Danes as 'heathens' rather than as foreigners." Grendel's mother and Grendel are described as descendants of Cain, a fact which some scholars link to the Cain tradition.
Other scholars disagree, however, as to the meaning and nature of the poem: is it a Christian work set in a Germanic pagan context? The question suggests that the conversion from the Germanic pagan beliefs to Christian ones was a very slow and gradual process over several centuries, and it remains unclear the ultimate nature of the poem's message in respect to religious belief at the time it was written. Robert F. Yeager notes the facts that form the basis for these questions:
That the scribes of Cotton Vitellius A.XV were Christian is beyond doubt; and it is equally certain that Beowulf was composed in a Christianised England, since conversion took place in the sixth and seventh centuries. Yet the only Biblical references in Beowulf are to the Old Testament, and Christ is never mentioned. The poem is set in pagan times, and none of the characters is demonstrably Christian. In fact, when we are told what anyone in the poem believes, we learn that they are pagans. Beowulf's own beliefs are not expressed explicitly. He offers eloquent prayers to a higher power, addressing himself to the "Father Almighty" or the "Wielder of All." Were those the prayers of a pagan who used phrases the Christians subsequently appropriated? Or, did the poem's author intend to see Beowulf as a Christian Ur-hero, symbolically refulgent with Christian virtues?
The location of the composition of the poem is also deeply disputed. In 1914, F.W. Moorman, the first professor of English Language at Leeds University, claimed the Beowulf was composed in Yorkshire, but E. Talbot Donaldson claimed that it was probably composed more than twelve hundred years ago, during the first half of the eighth century, and that the writer was a native of what was then called West Mercia, located in the Western Midlands of England. However, the late tenth-century manuscript "which alone preserves the poem" originated in the kingdom of the West Saxons – as it is more commonly known. Donaldson wrote that "the poet who put the materials into their present form was a Christian and ... poem reflects a Christian tradition".
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