What can be known about a unique poem in a unique manuscript, dated around the year 1000 a.d.? What do we know about the circumstances of its composition? Is it literary, oral, or something in-between? What can we never know? Beowulf is both strange and familiar: it has some links with ancient classical poems like Homer's; 19thc ideas of it have been received and reworked in the course of the 20thc in academe, children's literature and adult popular culture; and yet it remains an ancient artifact of a culture whose world we can never share.
The manuscript and its editions always present us with a linguistic obstacle: Old English has a different kind of grammar from Modern. Old English is like Latin or Russian, or many other languages whose grammar is expressed by inflection: that is, affixes on a root word can stand in for function words like pronouns, so that a noun like "stow" will indicate its grammatical place in a sentence or clause by a series of endings: "... nis Þaet heoru stow!" (That is not a pleasant place!); or "He het þa þa stowe Dominus videt" (He named that place Dominus videt; or "on manegum stowum" (in many places). In an Old English sentence, especially in the poetry, syntax (the order of words) much more fluid than in Modern. Spelling will seem inconsistent, even random, in our terms; the alphabet contains some unfamiliar letters derived from runes.
Translation of a language removed in kind and in time is a process of exploration, not a neat matching of word and idiom to sense, or the grammar of one language to the grammar of another. We will use translation as our primary means of reading Beowulf.
What kind of overlap can be found between our written, literary experience of the poem, and its earlier oral delivery, which may have been memorized, reconstituted anew each time, and was always designed for being heard? Memory functions in different and often enhanced modes in oral rather than written cultures, especially when supported by verbal patterns evolved through centuries in a poetic or sung medium. Written literature may produce an intense impact, but rarely through its delivery; in Beowulf and other Old English poems, impact was always made through oral performance. When such poetry is written down, it is neither strictly oral nor graphic.
Within the poem, no distinction is made between myth and history, although it is now read as though it were 'history with fabulous elements' or 'myth with some correspondence to fact.' Beowulf cannot accurately be described as fiction or fact. It is a kind of narrative comprised of analogical episodes, people, creatures more or less human, praise, blame, lyrical moments, grim comedy and even grimmer tragedy.
The poem makes an icon of a former age, constructed as such very
consciously by a maker of poems, literate, somewhat literate or not at all
literate, from familiar elements in this particular way. Analogies are
built which bridge the preChristian and Christian Germanic worlds, by
making the characters in the poem noble, monotheistic preChristians, for
an audience of Christian Germanic people; the poem is not anachronistic,
and is, even in our terms, accurately placed according to 'history.' It
is a story about 'those others who were ourselves'.