Introduction To Beowulf Essay

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Introductions to the Old English poem called Beowulf often begin with something of the sort: 'Beowulf is written in West Saxon and recorded only in the Cotton Vitellius A. xv manuscript…' One may wonder why such a work would be introduced in this rather dry and relatively uninformative manner. Unfortunately, very little can be said definitively as regards the poem's authorship, date or location of composition, purpose, theme, &c.


On definitive ground, we can describe Beowulf as the longest surviving poem in Old English and one of the earliest European epics written in the vernacular (rather than in Latin). Written in unrhymed, four-beat alliterative metre of Old English poetry, it tells of the exploits of the hero Beowulf. The first part of the tale narrates Beowulf's youthful adventures in Denmark battling the monstrous creature Grendel on behalf of the King Hrothgar of the Danes, and the second part narrates his later life, including his fight with a fire-dragon, during his reign as the King of Geatland (traditionally located somewhere in southern Sweden or one of the Baltic island on the east coast of Sweden).

We may say that Beowulf was composed somewhere in England between about 521 AD (the approximate date of the death of the historical model for the character Hygelac) and 1026 AD (more or less the latest possible date of the manuscript itself). We do not know for sure where in England the poem was composed. Nor do we know if the poem was composed by a single author, or whether it is the result of the merging together of ballads by different authors, nor whether the poem was significantly altered subsequent to its first written form. The poem's purpose is also unclear - arguments have been made for a naturalistic mythic allegory, a Christian allegory, a criticism of heroic culture, a mourning for the loss of heroic culture, a Germanic 'Old Testament', an allegory concerning contemporary politics in one or other of the Saxon kingdoms - just to mention a few. The title Beowulf itself is an editorial convenience -- the manuscript copy of the poem is untitled. We also know almost nothing about Beowulf's place in English literature in the Anglo-Saxon period - we do not know what popularity, if any, the poem enjoyed. Certainly, awareness of the poem seems to have disappeared entirely by the early Middle English period, and the poem does not re-enter the canon of English literature until the late 18th and early 19th centuries - which places Beowulf in an odd ancient/modern position within the history of English literature.

Let it suffice that very little can be said with certainty on almost any aspect of the poem. This introduction is an attempt to provide an overview of what is known about the work and also to present some of the claims which have been made on the less certain aspects. I shall endeavour to provide a fair account of some of the major theories, though I reserve the editorial prerogative to suggest what seems most plausible to me.


I. The Beowulf-manuscript [13.04.02/last modified 16.12.2003]

  a. Provenance of Beowulf ms.
The author of Beowulf is unknown, as is the exact date of the composition of the poem. In its present form, Beowulf was possibly composed as early as the seventh century or as late as 1025. Beowulf survives in a single manuscript codex [British Library [Museum] MS Cotton Vitellius A.xv (Gneuss 399)]. This codex is a composite codex assembled in the first half of the 17th century, itself consisting of two Old English codices: the first, the Southwick Codex (so named in the 20th century by Kemp Malone); the second, containing the Beowulf MS, the Nowell Codex (so named, again by Malone, after its earliest known owner, Laurence Nowell [1520-1576], Dean of Lichfield and an early 'Saxonist' who compiled the first Anglo-Saxon dictionary and who wrote his name and the date (1563) at the top of the first folio of the codex. The Southwick Codex (again, itself almost definitely a composite codex) contains the four (prose) items: (1) The Soliloquia of St. Augustine (ascribed to King Alfred); (2) The Gospel of Nicodemus; (3) The Debate of Solomon and Saturn; (4) eleven lines of a St. Quintin Homily (fragment). The Nowell Codex contains the five items:
  (1)The Life of St. Christopher (prose fragment);
  (2)The Wonders of the East (prose, illuminated);
  (3)Alexander's Letter to Aristotle (prose);
  (4)Beowulf (verse);
  (5)Judith (verse fragment).

The Nowell Codex is also a composite book; and Kevin Kiernan offers convincing evidence that Beowulf itself originated as a separate codex (see below).

The Beowulf MS was written down circa 1000CE by two scribes in late West Saxon (the literary and posh dialect of the period). The first scribe, who writes in an Anglo-Saxon rounded insular minuscule hand with some carolignian features, copied the first three prose pieces of the Nowell Codex and a little over the first 85 pages of Beowulf (up to the word moste on line 1942 in this edition, on folio 172v). The second scribe, who writes a more conservative Anglo-Saxon square minuscule hand, copied the remainder of Beowulf (roughly 1238 lines) and the poem Judith which follows. Both scribes proof-read their writing, and the second scribe also proof-read the writing of the first scribe (see Kiernan for further details), as well as possibly making some later alterations to Beowulf (see II. below). There are currently 116 leaves in the Nowell Codex, Beowulf filling 70 of them.

The beginning of St. Christopher was already lost when Nowell put his name on the first leaf (and probably the bulk of Judith as well). Nowell probably preserved the manuscript after King Henry VIII's dissolution of the monasteries after the break with Rome. Its history prior to coming into Nowell's possession remains a blank.

During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, the Nowell Codex passed into the library of Sir Robert Cotton [1571-1631], an antiquarian; whence its British Library designation, for Cotton catalogued his books according to busts of the Roman emperors that surmounted each of his bookcases, and in the case of the codex in question, it was presided over by Vitellius. The Cotton collection was presented to the British people in 1700 by Sir John Cotton, grandson of Sir Robert. A committee of the House of Commons became trustees of the bequest and appointed Humfrey Wanley as one of the members of a commission to report on the state of the library. Wanley reported that the location of the library, in the Cotton House, was unfit and eventually, in 1722, the collection was moved to Essex House, Strand and there it remained for seven years. Though an Act of Parliament (6 Anne, c. 30) had endorsed the construction of a new building to house the collection in 1706, the Cotton Library still had no permanent home. So in 1729, after Essex House was deemed unfit, it was moved to another interim residence: the Ashburnham House in Westminster. The ill-omened name did not fail to disappoint, and in October 1731, the house caught fire. Much of the library was damaged and some volumes completely destroyed--damage resulted not only from the flames themselves, but also from the water used to extinguish the fire; the Beowulf MS was presumably saved by being thrown from the window, though it is badly burnt along its outer edges (see Syd Allan's Ashburnham House Fire page and Andrew Prescott's online article '"Their Present Miserable State of Cremation": the Restoration of the Cotton Library' for more details on the fire). The collection finally made its way in 1757 into the care of the British Museum, where it was finally provided a much-needed rebinding in August 1845, as well as having its leaves inlaid within heavy sheets of paper--the latter of which, for the most part, halted the loss of letters and words from the crumbling edges of the MS, which had previously suffered this sort of damage continually from the late 1700s until 1845.

It is unclear exactly when Beowulf began to be studied in post-Saxon times. Nowell and Cotton may or may not have paid it any attention. The first modern reference to the poem is a brief description by Humfrey Wanley (see above) who mistakenly described it as a story about Beowulf 'the Dane' who feuded with Swedish princes. This inaccurate description drew the attention of the Icelandic scholar Grímur Jónsson Thorkelin, who worked in Denmark as an archivist, eventually becoming the Royal Danish Archivist. In 1786 Thorkelin went to England to research Danish heroes in British libraries; coming across Wanley's description, he hired a professional scribe to copy the manuscript (the document now known as Thorkelin A) and later himself made a copy (Thorkelin B). These transciptions are invaluable in that they preserve almost 2000 letters which are now lost from the edges of the scorched vellum. The poem was not printed in its entirety until Thorkelin's edition (with facing Latin translation) appeared in 1815; the first complete vernacular translation (in Danish) of Nicholas Grundtvig appeared in 1820; and not until 1837 did the first complete English translation of John Mitchell Kemble (from a family of prominent actors, himself a student of the German linguist, folklorist and political activist Jacob Grimm [of the 'Brothers Grimm']). Innumerable subsequent editions and translations (into many languages) have appeared since.


   b. Construction of the manuscript: foliation
We use Kiernan's foliation in referring to the folios of the Beowulf codex, the following table provides the equivalences between the 'old' foliation, the 'new' 1884 foliation and Kiernan's 1981 foliation [essentially the 'old' foliation, with the two misplaced folios, 131 & 197, put in their proper ordering and renumbered as 147A(131) and 197A(192) respectively]:

Beowulf foliation (numbering)

Old [MS]

New [1884]

Kiernan's [1981]

129, 130

132, 133

129, 130

132-146

134-148

132-146

131

149

147A(131)

147-188

150-191

147-188

197

192

197A(192)

189-196

193-200

189-196

198

201

198

As mentioned earlier, the British Museum MS Cotton Vitellius A.xv is a composite codex, with the Nowell and Southwick codices originating as separate volumes. Kiernan suggests that both of these may themselves be composite codices, but here we are concerned with the Nowell codex (which contains Beowulf) only. This is no place to expound upon the construction of mediaeval manuscripts in detail, but a few basic facts may prove expedient: the codices are composed of sheets of vellum (specially prepared sheep-skin) which are generally folded in half and stitched together into gatherings, which are then themselves stitched together. The gatherings are constructed by placing a number of folded vellum sheets inside one another and stitching them together along the middle-fold (similar to the construction of many modern magazines & journals). Single (non-folded) sheets were sometimes also stitched into these quires (gatherings). As vellum is actually sheep skin, its two sides are not uniform in appearance, with the 'hair' side generally somewhat darker than the 'flesh' side. Unfortunately, the Ashburnham fire destroyed the majority of the original binding, making the determination of the composition of the codex uncertain.

Following Ker, the composition of the Nowell Codex has been assumed to be made up of twelve 4-sheet (bifolia, i.e. folded) quires, and two 5-sheet quires, as follows (using to Kiernan's foliation numbering):

Ker's construction of the Nowell Codex

Quire no.

Folios

no. of bifolia per quire

1

91(93)-98(100)

4

2

99(95)-106

4

3

107(115)-114(122)

4

4

115(107)-122(114)

4

5

123-128

4

(Beowulf)

129-130

6

132-139

4

7

140-147A(131)

4

8

147-154

4

9

155-162

4

10

163-170

4

11

171-178

4

12

179-188

5

13

189A(197)-198

5

14

199-206

4

This means that Beowulf begins in the middle of quire 5, suggesting that it was copied along with (and at the same time as) the three prose texts preceding it. Kiernan has proposed that Beowulf actually begins a new quire and thus that it may well have originally formed its own codex. Kiernan's proposal is as follows ('leaves', in the following table, refer to non-folded single sheets):

Kiernan's construction of the Nowell Codex

Quire no.

Folios

no. of bifolia per quire

1

91(93)-100(96)

5

2

101-106

3

3

115-122 (117 & 120 folded-on)

3 (+ 2 leaves)

4

107-114 (109 & 112 folded-on)

3 (+ 2 leaves)

5

123-128

3

6
(= Beowulf)

129-139 (133 & 136 folded-on)

4 (+ 2 leaves)

7

140-147A(131)

4

8

147-154

4

9

155-162

4

10

163-170

4

11

171-178

4

12

179-188

5

13

189A(197)-198

5

14

199-206

4



Thus, Kiernan's conclusion is that

'...Beowulf was initially a separate codex[: ] the intelligent, conscientious proofreading of Beowulf alone [i.e., and not the prose texts preceding it in the Nowell codex--BMS], by both scribes and in several stages, and the scribes' manifest efforts to copy accurately in the first place, are the best confirmation of all that Beowulf was a special poem in the early 11th century, and that it was copied in our extant MS as a separate codex'. (Kiernan 146)

Other codicological studies of the Beowulf-ms. arrive at different foliations, see further: Boyle, Clement, Gerritsen (1988, 1989, 1991), Malone.


   c. the Manuscript's Date
Additionally, there are some questions concerning the dating of the manuscript itself. The late palaeographic expert Neil Ker dates it to ca. 1000, usually interpreted as 975-1025 AD. Kiernan and Dumville both argue that in fact it is actually unlikely to have been written before 1000AD. However, Kiernan--for reasons based on codicology, palaeography, and his thesis that Beowulf itself is nearly contemporaneous with the extant MS.--places the most likely date to post-1016AD, after the ascension of Cnut to the throne of England.

David Dumville disagrees, stating:

   'Stylistically, the last observable phases of Square minuscule are to be found in manuscripts of the works of Abbot Ælfric (fl.990--ca1010), but otherwise in manuscripts which are rarely datable. Some folios containing additions, of 990 x 1010, to the Sherborne Pontifical are in a fine Square minuscule. No book (or charter) certainly datable by its contents to after A.D. 1000 is a specimen of Square minuscule....On the other hand, the new form of vernacular minuscule [e.g., like the hand of the 1st scribe of the Beo. MS.--BMS] is first found as a bookhand in the period 1001 x 1013....The clearest demonstration is provided by the script of annal 1001 in the Parker Chronicle, which must date from 1001 x 1013'. (Dumville 61-2, 54)
   'The new minuscule was not being employed as a bookhand before the first decade of the eleventh century. Square minuscule is likely to have been in use for only a very few years after A.D. 1000. The few manuscripts, like that containing Beowulf, which display contemporaneous writing in these two successive styles of Insular minuscule must therefore have been written very early in the eleventh century. There is neither evidence nor need to attribute a lingering death to Square minuscule. It is in the highest degree unlikely that the Beowulf-manuscript was written later than the death of Æthelred the Unready (1016) or earlier than the mid-point of his reign (which fell in A.D. 997)'. (Dumville 63)


Kiernan points out '[a] closely datable example of Square insular script survives in a chirograph of Bishop Byrhteh of Worcester (1033-38) leasing land to his cniht Wulfmær' (Kiernan xvii-xviii), though Greg Rose (136-9) argues that the hand is not the same type of Square minuscule as in the Beo.-ms., or that meant by Dumville.
 Kiernan also notes a number of interesting similarities between the Beo.-ms. and the ms. containing the Blickling Homilies (Princeton, Scheide Library MS 71):

   'Another case is the Blickling Homilies manuscript....which Ker assigns the same date [990-1040] for the same reasons. It is clear that neither manuscript comes from a scriptorium where uniformity of script was enforced or even encouraged, for in both manuscripts scribes with old-fashioned, Square scripts are paired with scribes with more up-to-date, Caroline tendencies. Scholars have known for over a century about the case of literary borrowing [or, at least, sharing--BMS] between the description of Grendel's mere in Beowulf and St. Paul's vision of Hell in Homily 16.... [These common features] would be most easily explained if the two manuscripts derive from the same scriptorium'. (Kiernan xix)
   'There are paleographic and codicological reasons to suspect that they do have a common provenance. ...Max Förster observed that "The hand of the second Beowulf scribe displays in overall appearance a striking resemblance to the first scribe of the Blickling Homilies, so that both must belong to approximately the same period." Förster undoubtedly recognized the many significant differences in specific letterforms, and Ker rightly omits the two manuscripts from his tally listing closely similar hands (lvii). Another difference is that the Blickling scribe was calligraphic, paying attention to details of his letterforms, whereas the Beowulf scribe was almost crudely utilitarian. ...[but] the similarities in general aspect are more immediately evident than the specific differences'. (Kiernan xix-xx)
   'Greatly contributing to the broad paleographical resemblance between the first hand of the Blickling Homilies and the second hand of Beowulf is the virtually identical size of the writing grids.....no other manuscript in the more than 400 described in Ker's Catalogue comes as close to Beowulf as the Blickling Homilies manuscript in the combination of line numbers and grid size. If both manuscripts derive from the same scriptorium, its one telling uniformity was that it produced books with text faces of the same relative size, even when the rulings vary from 20-22 lines per page'. (Kiernan xx-xxi)


Fulk, however, comments on this point that the variation in number of rulings is not as uncommon as Kiernan's discussion might suggest, for

   '...in the four Old English poetic codices, variation in the number of rulings from quire to quire is the rule rather than the exception. In the Exeter Book on hand wrote all the poetic quires, which have from twenty-one to twenty-three rulings (one time the number changes in the middle of a quire). The Vercelli Book is also in one hand, and the number of rulings varies from twenty-four to thirty-three (usually each quire has the same number of rulings throughout). Even Scribe B of the Beowulf manuscript is inconsistent, using twenty-one lines for quires twelve and thirteen, and twenty lines for Judith. Only Junius 11 shows any consistency: the main hand uses twenty-six lines throughout, in all sixteen quires plus one leaf.....in other words, the variation is unusual for this scribe [=first scribe of Beo.-MS], as far as his eleven Nowell quires go' (Fulk 348; emphasis is Fulk's)


Kiernan points to yet another interesting common feature of these two mss.-- that they are both

Beowulf is an Epic Hero Essay

469 Words2 Pages

Every epic hero possesses certain heroic characteristics. The epic poem Beowulf describes the most heroic man of the Anglo-Saxon times. Beowulf is the hero. He shows that he is a great man by always putting other things before his own needs. He is important and needed by his people and is known by many as a strong, courageous and a helpful person. He shows all of the qualities and traits that a true hero possesses.
Beowulf, like other epic heroes, possesses the following heroic qualities: epic heroes are superhuman types of beings. They show great bravery, intelligence, strength and resourcefulness. They have a strong admiration for the values of their society. They are dominant male figures and suffer severe pain, but in the end, they…show more content…

This shows Beowulf’s strength, courage and fearlessness. Through this it is evident that he possess courageous traits.
Beowulf’s strength is exemplified many times in the story. Beowulf was said to have “the strength of thirty men in his mighty handgrip.” He fought in numerous battles and returned victorious from all but his last. In his argument with Unferth, Beowulf explains the reason he lost a swimming match with his opponent Brecca. Not only had Beowulf been swimming for seven nights, he had also stopped to kill nine sea creatures in the depths of the ocean. Beowulf is also strong enough to kill the monster Grendel with his bare hands by ripping off his arm. When Beowulf is fighting Grendel’s mother, he is able to slay her by slashing the monster’s neck with a giant sword that can only be lifted by a person as strong as Beowulf. When he chops off her head, he carries it from the ocean with no difficulty, but it takes four men to lift and carry it back to Heorot. This strength is a key trait of Beowulf’s heroism.
Another heroic trait of Beowulf is his ability to put his people’s welfare before his own. Beowulf’s uncle is king of the Geats so he is sent to help kill Grendel. His actions toward Grendel show that he is willing to help others. In an epic it is usually found that the hero often determines the fate of a nation or group of people. He uses his super-human physical strength

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