Beowulf is one of the most widely-recognized epic poems in European history. The story is so well known that even those who have never read the poem can explain some of its elements, conjuring up the famous struggle with the monsters Grendel and Grendel’s mother, dragons, named swords, and piles of buried gold. It represents a heroic age full of feats of fabulous strength, and it is a central text of English heritage. Indeed, Beowulf has been at the center of the process of creating England and an English identity from the moment of its creation up to the present. And yet it is a story about a Scandinavian king, possibly written during the brief reign of Danish kings in England during the early eleventh century. Kevin Kiernan argues convincingly to date the extant manuscript to the reign of King Canute by pointing out that a poem that goes out of its way to praise Danish kingship is unlikely to have been written during a time when Anglo-Saxon kings struggled to keep their country safe from Danish depredations (Kiernan, p. 4). This manuscript, the earliest known written version of Beowulf, was thus born into a turbulent political age when Anglo-Saxon England struggled to protect its unique political and social identity. It then disappears from the records for centuries. When the manuscript reappears, it is during the reign of Henry VIII, and it is private collections. Eventually it makes its way to the Cottonian Library, which is one of the founding collections of the British Library. Not only does the manuscript’s surfacing coincide with the rediscovery of Anglo-Saxon studies in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but it also coincides with England’s struggle to define itself religiously and politically.
Remarkably, for a manuscript that is easily a thousand years old and holds such a notable place in English culture, Beowulf was never published until an Icelandic scholar, Grimur Jonsson Thorkelin, copied and translated what remained of the manuscript in 1815. Since then it has been translated, adapted, and published repeatedly. There are movies and graphic novels telling the story. The man who opened the modern age of Beowulf analysis, J. R. R. Tolkien, went on to use his knowledge of Scandinavian and English linguistics and mythology to create a foundation document of fantasy literature, The Lord of the Rings. Beowulf is endlessly influential, and yet for some eighty percent of its history, it was almost entirely unknown. There is no evidence to prove definitively where the manuscript was until it came into private hands in the sixteenth century, who wrote it, or even where it was written. The publication by Thorkelin was necessarily incomplete due to the inability to use technology to scan for palimpsest sections and the loss of letters from the damaged manuscript edges.
Still Beowulf has remained at the center of English cultural identity. It is one of the earliest documents in Anglo-Saxon to survive to the current day. It probably came into being during the final decades before the Norman Conquest fundamentally changed the political and linguistic makeup of England. It was rediscovered during a time when Anglo-Saxon studies came back to English scholarship and English politics fought to define royal control and geographic boundaries. By being one of the manuscripts to survive the fire in the Cottonian Library, Beowulf was one of the first texts in what is now the British Library – a defining element of national and cultural identity if ever there was one. Today it remains so popular and well-known that even those who have never read it can relate important elements of the story. Beowulf may have been published for the first time two hundred years ago, but since then it has never been out of print. Not many books can say as much.
** full bibliography to be posted with concluding section of paper