The Origin and Evolution of Beowulf
The origin of Beowulf remains a mystery, as both the poet and the year of composition has eluded scholars for centuries. Although "[it] is now widely believed that Beowulf is the work of a single poet who was Christian . . ." (preface, Heaney 29), I see Beowulf as a mosaic of many poets. In this paper, I will argue that with each new translation of this Old English epic, a new author of Beowulf is born. The twenty-first century poet Seamus Heaney, who translated the Beowulf on which this paper is based, injects aspects of his world into this ancient poem. Published in the year 2 000, the inconsistency of this most modern text reveals the messy masterpiece Beowulf is today. I believe that throughout the ages, Beowulf has been altered by each generation it touches. I will provide evidence that the Anglo-Saxon orators, the Christian monk recorders, and the modern-day translators have all contributed to both the conservation and change of Beowulf.
Beowulf began as an oral story passed on by scops, wandering poets of the Anglo-Saxon period who recited the accounts of the great Geat warrior from memory. This allowed for subtle or strong changes by each orator as he formed his ideal and unique Beowulf. One example of possible change can be found in the lines,
He had been poorly regarded
for a long time, was taken by the Geats
for less than he was worth . . . (Heaney 79),
which do not fit the protagonist who has received nothing but praise throughout the rest of the epic. A footnote in Heaney's translation points out this idea of the "`Cinderella hero' [as an] . . . example of folklore material, probably circulating orally, that made its way into the poem" (editor's note, Heaney 79).
Between the eighth and tenth centuries, Beowulf was first recorded by Christian monks. These men of the church, labouring to preserve Beowulf, used their editorial power to intertwine their religious beliefs with this classic verse praising Pagan life. I firmly believe the excerpt is a Christian addition. I find evidence within the entire poem to support this belief and in researching the time period in which Beowulf was first recorded, I discover a motive for the monks to make such an addition.
The strong Christian message drawn from this excerpt of Beowulf echoes like a sermon and feels out of place in this heroic epic. The poem glorifies a Pagan world characterized by violence, pride, worldly goods and a disregard for the after-life, qualities which contrast a Christian way of life. When the speaker states that the Danes, ". . . swore oaths/[to] the killer of souls . . ." (Heaney 36), he is interpreting the Pagans prayers to Heathen Gods as prayers to the devil to ". . . come to their aid/and save the people" (36). The speaker claims the ". . . High King of the World,/was unknown to them" (36). This opinion contradicts numerous lines of the poem in which the Pagans...