The Author of Beowulf
These Dark Age Candles are meant to be further investigations in the two epic litological digs I made over the winter – The Quest for the Holy Grail & Brunanburh 937AD. It was during my Brunanburh dig that I came to the conclusion that the great Icelandic poet, Egil Skallagrimsson, was the author of the Brunanburh poem as found in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. In one early post I offered a quiet study of the matter, while later in the dig I stumbled upon more evidence which shows that immediately after the battle, Egil is writing militaristic, kenning-heavy praise poetry to Athelstan, as in;
Low now this scion royal
Earls three hath laid. To Ella
Earth must obedient bow.
Lavish of gold, kin-glorious,
Great Athelstan victorious,
Surely, I swear, all humbled
To such high monarch yields.’
But this is the burden in the poem:
‘Reindeer-trod hills obey
Bold Athelstan’s high sway.’
Then gave Athelstan further to Egil as poet’s meed two gold rings, each weighing a mark, and therewith a costly cloak that the king himself had formerly worn.
This giving of rings even fits in with the ASC poem’s, ‘In this year King Aethelstan, Lord of warriors, ring-giver to men.’ So, using this platform as an investigation, I wondered if it could be at all possible that Egil Skallagrimsson could also have penned the great Old English epic – Beowulf. In support let us examine the following ‘flags.’
1 – Beowulf uses Icelandic folk motifs
In the introduction to Beowulf, edited by CL Wren & WF Bolton, we read the following passages;
The saga of the historical & well-authenticated Icelandic hero Grettir… attributes to him two fights against supernatural beings – the one closely resembling Beowulf’s fight with Grendel, & the other that which he had with Grendel’s mother in the demon-haunted mere. The resemblances are too close to be fortuitous; & one must suppose common folklorist elements lying behind both – since the late thirteenth-century Grettissaga cannot be supposed to have ‘borrowed’ these ideas from Beowulf, which was not known in Iceland.
What this tells us is that the author of the Icelandic Grettissaga was using the same motifs as the author of Beowulf, a situation which has baffled the academics. Peter A Jorgensen (Grendel, Grettir & Two Skaldic Stanzas: Scripta Islandica 24 / 1973) writes, ‘the most striking parallels are to be found in Beowulf’s battle with Grendel in the beleaguered Heorot, in which the hero eventually kills the intruder by tearing off its arm, & in Grettir’s fight with a monster in the harassed house at Sandhaugar, where the marauder is dispatched in the identical manner.’
If we see these folk-motifs as purely Icelandic, then we may assume that the author of Beowulf had access to Icelandic material – & thus most probably Icelandic.
2 – Haeft-mece / Heptisax
Where Wren/Bolton tell us;
There was evidently something important about a long-handled sword in the folk material which lies behind a fight with Grendel’s mother: for in Beowulf we find the unique haeft-mece & in Grettissaga an otherwise unrecorded instrument called a heptisax plays a part in the fight of Grettir against the female monster.
Jorgenson writes that most convincing;
is the occurrence of the much-discussed nonce word heptisax, found both in the second stanza & in the alleged prose expansion of the verses, corresponding to its generally accepted counterpart in Old English, the hapax legomenon Haeftmece (in Beowulf line 1457). It seems highly improbable that the word should occur only once in all of the extensive battle descriptions in Old Icelandic prose &, by chance, at precisely the same point in a narrative where the corresponding English text employs the cognate form.
There is a difference between the two poems, for in Beowulf it is the eponymous hero who uses the haeftmece, while in the Grettissaga it is the monster who wields the heptisax. In his paper Jorgenson concludes that, ‘the material to which the skaldic verses are eventually indebted stems from the same legend which also became part of the Beowulf epic.’ Again, we may suggest that the Beowulf author had access to Icelandic material – & was thus most probably Icelandic.
In Beowulf, where Hrothgar pays compensation for the death of Beowulf’s warrior, Hondscioh, at the hands of Grendel, there is a parallel in Egil’s Saga. Here, Athelstan grants Egil two chests of silver as compensation for the death of Throrolf.
4 – The Dates fit
Egil was clearly around in the mid 900s, a period when the English had a great respect for the Danes. Nicholas Jacobs (Anglo-Danish relations, poetic archaism & the Date of Beowulf:Poetica 8 1977) writes; ‘From 927 onwards the Danes constitute a widely accepted element in English society, & an English poem complimentary to them is conceivable at least Down to the resumption of raids in 980.’ Roberta Frank (Skaldic Verse & the Date of Beowulf), remarks, ‘no linguistic or historical fact compels us to anchor Beowulf before the tenth century; if we do so, it is more from our emotional commitment to an early date rather than from hard evidence. Our one secure terminus is the palaeographic dating of the manuscript to around the year 1000.’
Where Walter Goffart estimated that Beowulf could not have been written with these historical details before 923 (Johnston Staver, Ruth (2005) :Placing Beowulf on a Timeline – A Companion To Beowulf), Jacobs gives us a probable terminus ad quem of the poem when he writes, ‘the first reference by a skald to an event associated with one of the Scyldings of Beowulf occurs around 965 when Eyvindr Skaldaspillir calls gold ‘the seed corn of Fyrisplains’ alluding to the story.‘ Eyvindr was the court poet of Hakon the Good, the English-speaking foster-son of Athelstan, who may well have heard the poem at first hand. His epithet skáldaspillir means literally ‘spoiler of poets’ – which could mean plagarist.
This means that the poem was written between 923 & 965. Returning to Frank for a moment, she tells us ‘the political geography of Beowulf fits comfortably into the period between Alfred & Aethelweard,’ & also suggests the presence of the Geats in Beowulf is a 10th century skaldic theme; ‘The fact that the Geats held together as a people into the eleventh century does not pinpoint the date of Beowulf, but it does suggest that they were as known & topical in the tenth century as in any preceding one – & perhaps more so.’
All this post is meant to do is scrape a little topsoil off the Egil-wrote-Beowulf theory. The thing is, he was the greatest poet of the age, he did spend time at the Royal English Courts, the Beowulf poem does contain Icelandic motifs & the poem seems to have been composed in his lifetime. This definitely makes him a serious contender not to be dismissed with ease.
Beowulf the work of single author, research suggests
Beowulf, the epic poem of derring-do and monsters, was composed by a single author, research suggests, pouring cold water on the idea it was stitched together from two poems.
One of the most famous works in Old English, Beowulf tells of the eponymous hero who defeats the monster Grendel and his mother, thereby rescuing the Danes from a reign of terror, before returning to his homeland and later dying in a battle with a dragon.
But the poem has been the subject of a long-running debate. While some argued the work is the product of multiple poets, others – including the scholar and Lord of the Rings author JRR Tolkien – have said the evidence suggests it is a single poet’s work.
Recently the debate has resurfaced with some suggesting the poem is the result of two different works joined together – one involving Beowulf’s escapades in Denmark and one involving the dragon.
Now a study adds to a growing body of work suggesting Beowulf was composed by just one poet.
“The authorship question is a topic of perennial interest in Beowulf studies,” said Leonard Neidorf, professor of English Literature at Nanjing University and co-author of the research. “Our article reopens the question in order to apply for the first time some of the most sophisticated computational methods available for author identification.”
Writing in the journal Nature Human Behaviour, the team of researchers from the US and China report how they came to their conclusion by splitting the poem into the two pieces around the points where scholars have suggested a split, and analysing small features of the text.
While various aspects of the poem, including word use, themes and style, have been explored before, the latest study looks at even smaller features of the text and their patterns of use. These include the use of certain types of pause, the use of different rhythms, and the occurrence of words produced by joining others together – such as “bone-house” (written as ban-hus), which the authors say was used to mean the human body. The team also looked at the use of clusters of letters found within words, which are important for the sound of a poem.
The results, derived from computer-based analysis, reveal striking similarities in the way such features were used across both sections of the text. That suggests – although cannot conclusively prove – it was the work of a single poet, the researchers say.
By contrast, the Old English epic Genesis, which is believed to be the product of more than one poet, was found to have marked differences, both in terms of the patterns of the pauses and the use of compound words, between what are thought to be its constituent parts.
But mysteries remain – not least the identity of the Beowulf author. “The most that can be inferred from the language of the poem is that the author probably spoke the Mercian dialect and probably lived during the first half of the eighth century,” said Madison Krieger, co-author of the study from Harvard University.
As well as the findings about Beowulf, the team says the approach also supports the controversial claim that the Old English poem Andreas, whichcharts the dramatic exploits of St Andrew, was composed by a poet called Cynewulf, who is believed to have created at least four other works based on religion.
“With Cynewulf, our tests encourage scholars to reconsider a possibility that has not been seriously entertained in the past half century,” the researchers write.
Dr Francis Leneghan, a Beowulf expert at the University of Oxford, said the study joined a body of evidence supporting the view that Beowulf was composed by one poet. However, he said it would be useful to apply the analysis to smaller chunks of the text to test the idea that it might have been formed from many smaller poems stitched together, or that some lines might have been added over the centuries by scribes.
Leneghan said the authors’ conclusions around Andreas were less convincing, and would stir debate, noting it was thought that the author of Andreas had almost certainly read Beowulf and the works of Cynewulf. “Resemblances between Andreas and the works of Cynewulf are more likely to be the result of imitation,” he said.
Kriger stressed the results were not definitive. “We absolutely entertain the idea that Andreas could be written by a Cynewulf imitator,” he said. “Our work just suggests this might be a less likely explanation than scholars have believed in the past.”