The Authorship of Beowulf
Who wrote Beowulf?
The author did not sign and date the manuscript, and no records were
kept of when the poem was written. Given the lack of information
pointing to the origins of the poem, scholars must deduce the text's
history by the artifact that exists. But why study the authorship of
the poem? Colin Chase summarises the reasons for this quest in the
prologue of the collection The Dating of Beowulf:
The date of Beowulf, debated for almost a century, is a small
question with large consequences. Does the poem provide us with an accurate
if idealized view of early Germanic Culture? Or is it rather a creature of
nostalgia and imagination, born of the desire of a later age to create for
itself a glorious past? If we cannot decide when, between the fifth and the
eleventh centuries, the poem was composed, we cannot distinguish what
elements in Beowulf belong properly to the history of material
culture, to the history of myth and legend, to political history, or to the
development of the English literary imagination.
The quickest and easiest assumption about the origins of the poem is that
it was an oral poem that was eventually transcribed and has since been
passed down in the form of the manuscript. Scholars have presumed to
study the poem as if it were Classical, and find much difficulty in the
non-continuous narrative and the unfamilliar form. Allen Frantzen, in
`Writing the Unreadable Beowulf', is uncomfortable with the way a
tradition may be imposed by `canonical' editions such as the Norton
Anthology; he is also critical of the quest to find a single author of
the `pure' poem. Instead, he is looking for the gaps in the text that
indicate to him that it had been constantly rewritten to suit the
culture of that time. In effect, there may have been so many authors
spanned the six centuries that the authorship remains in question;
the rewriting of Beowulf continues in the postmodern period.
Seamus Heaney's poetic translation is the latest.
Paull F. Baum finds a "literary vacuum without historical
perspective" when the authorship and purpose of the poem remains in
question. In The Beowulf Poet he suggests that a single
author had combined two folk stories with some historical events as a
backdrop and some Christian doctrine to create a new form of heroic
epic, or as Tolkien suggests, an "heroic-elegaic" poem. Baum even goes
so far as to hypothesize an eighth-century female author of the poem
as explanation for their pronounced roles, and for the lack of gory
fighting (compared with the Finnsburh Fragment). The brief historical
digressions and Christian colouring suggest an audience familiar with
those ideas and events in the late eighth century. With the difficult
language and sometimes obscure references, his conclusion is that the
poem may have been a collection of folk lore and history, but intended
for a small audience.
It seems clear that the origin of Beowulf stems from a
mix of Scandinavian, Germanic, and Anglian influences. What is consistently
unclear is which of these audiences the poem was intended for. As a story
of Danes, Geats, and Swedes, one might suppose that the poem was of
Scandinavian origin, finally written down in England, but there is
no reference to the characters in Scandinavian lore.
Perhaps looking closely at the artifact that is Beowulf
itself, the manuscript, can shed light on the authorship of the
poem. Kevin S. Kiernan suggests an eleventh century origin, and that
the single extant manuscript is, in fact, the first composition of the
poem in his book Beowulf and the Beowulf Manuscript and
summarized in his essay The Eleventh-Century Origin of Beowulf and
the Beowulf Manuscript. Noting the efforts taken by the second
scribe of the MS in proofreading and correcting the text of Beowulf and not the rest of the Nowell Codex, Kiernan begins to figure that the composition of the text is not a mere copy of some earlier manuscript, but the original. An abrupt shift from one scribe to the
next on folio 174v suggests that two distinct poems may have been
combined at the last minute.
What is most striking about the manuscript is the digression from the
20-line grid of the rest of the codex starting from folio 163 until
the end of the poem. Kiernan speculates that the second scribe had
completed his last two gatherings of pages before the first scribe,
thus requiring him to fit more per folio than he had started
with. Kiernan concludes that this is a result of two scribes trying to
integrate two previously unrelated texts together. Leonard Boyle's
article Beowulf and the Nowell Codex, argues that both
scribes were working in concert while the Beowulf section of the Nowell Codex was some 36 lines of text unsynchronized with the manuscript they were copying; thus the discrepancies attempt to fix the foliation in terms of the whole codex.
Boyle also notes the alteration of fitt numbers could either be a
mistake on the first scribe's part, or that a fitt had been
deliberately omitted while copying. With fitt XXIIII missing on the
manuscript, a later scribe had chosen to correct this by altering
fitts XXIIII through XXVIIII. Boyle also suggests that the fitts may
have recieved their numbering for the first time on this
manuscript. Kiernan takes this suggestion as further proof of the
authorship being contemporary with the manuscript.
Baum, P.F. "The Beowulf Poet" in An Anthology of Beowulf Criticism. University of Notre Dame Press. 1963.
Boyle, L. "Beowulf and the Nowell Codex" in The Dating of Beowulf, University of Toronto Press, 1997.
Chase, C. The Dating of Beowulf, University of Toronto Press, 1997.
Frantzen, A.J. "Writing the Unreadable Beowulf" in Desire for Origins. Rutgers University Press. 1990.
Kiernan, K.S. Beowulf and the Beowulf Manuscript. Rutgers University Press, 1981.
Kiernan, K.S. "The Eleventh Century Origin of Beowulf and the Beowulf Manuscript" in The Dating of Beowulf, University of Toronto Press, 1997.
Anonymous, Beowulf Klaeber, F.R. ed. D.C. Heath & Co. 1950.