‘Beowulf’ is an epic poem first written down in the Anglo-Saxon era, possibly reiterating an earlier, oral tradition tale from Geatish culture. Little is known about the author, but scholars have made inroads into determining possible details about the scop who wrote it.
What Is Beowulf?
Beowulf is an epic poem, a type of poem that includes a long narrative structure and heroic story elements. It was first written in the Anglo-Saxon era, but was probably part of an oral tradition of epic poetry long before a writer, known as the Beowulf Poet, committed it to paper.
Beowulf is the story of a heroic warrior who ultimately must battle evil twice, once in the form of a famous monster named Grendel, as well as Grendel’s mother, then later in the form of a greedy dragon, which ultimately leads to Beowulf’s death because, in his quest to prove his righteousness, he diverted from his fate-path.
Beowulf has influenced pop cultural perceptions of Viking culture for centuries. It has been, in part, an inspiration for movies, such as The Thirteenth Warrior, and books, such as J.R.R. Tolkein’s The Hobbit; even his The Lord of the Rings trilogy was clearly influenced by the poem. Despite Beowulf’s long-lasting impact on the arts and on perceptions of Viking culture, little is known about the person who first wrote it down.
Who Wrote Beowulf?
Modern scholars believe Beowulf was first written by a scop, or Old English poet. The word scop is derived from an Old Norse word referring to a bard, or someone who mocks or jokes through storytelling. The person who wrote Beowulf didn’t sign his or her work, so scholars refer to this person as the Beowulf Poet.
Due to the intrusion of medieval Christian ideology amidst the pagan imagery of Beowulf, many scholars believe the Beowulf Poet was a Christian monk in Anglo-Saxon-era England. The Geats, an old tribe of people that lived in Gotaland, a southern province of Sweden, and the people Beowulf defends in the poem, were predominantly pagan at the time the poem is believed to have originated.
Scholars can place the poem’s origins historically due to the presence of King Hygelac in the epic. Hygelac is a real historical figure who died in battle with the Franks around 515 C.E., an event depicted in Beowulf. the Beowulf Poet attributed many of Hygelac’s and other warriors’ motivations to Christian ideology, which leads many scholars to feel the scop was a monk or trained by monks. Monks were also among the few people in Anglo-Saxon-era England who could write and read extensively enough to produce a massive written work such as Beowulf.
Another theory on the authorship of Beowulf originated with a famous Beowulf scholar, Francis P. Magoun. Based on the analysis of all existing Old English poems, Magoun found that many of the passages and lines in the first half of Beowulf could be found wholesale in other Old English poems. With his theory, there’s no true author of Beowulf, but rather an editor of sorts who aggregated already existing poems and stories into one longer poem. Despite this, Magoun still believed it was a single aggregator and not a group, as the style of the aggregation is consistent in its presentation.
The authorship of Beowulf is ultimately unknown. While Beowulf itself is one of the best-known and most influential epic poems, scholars can only theorize on the type of person who wrote, or possibly aggregated, the poem. theories include a Christian monk who rewrote a pagan oral history poem, someone who aggregated existing pieces of Anglo-Saxon poems, or maybe some combination of the two. Scholars refer to the mysterious author as the Beowulf Poet.