April 12, 2019

Beowulf authorship debate takes another turn; suggests a single author


‘Beowulf’: probably just the work of one guy. (‘Beowulf face to face with a fire-breathing dragon’; Public Domain [PD-US])

Hwæt!* This week, the all-action, Grendel-battlin’, sea-voyagin’, crown-of-Geatland-wearin’ hero Beowulf was the subject of renewed debate.

Authorship of the Scandinavian epic poem, which dates from between 1,200 and 1,300 years ago, has long been shrouded in mystery—along with the question of how many authors it had. Some scholars believe it is in fact two poems stitched together, comprised of the aforementioned Grendel-battlin’ section, and the dragon-slaying / death of Beowulf section.

However, this theory has never been proven, and many academics (as well as Lord of the Rings author J.R.R. Tolkien, who completed his own version of Beowulf in 1926) hold that it is a single-author work. Now a new study, as reported in the Guardian and elsewhere, suggests the latter may be right.

Writing in the Nature journal, a team of US- and China-based scientists working at the University of Nanjing presented “Large-scale quantitative profiling of the Old English verse tradition,” a report on their analysis of the two halves of the poem. That analysis took place on a more detailed level than has ever been attempted before: pauses, rhythmic patterns, and even groups of letters within words were examined. The results are striking: they reveal previously-hidden similarities between the two halves that suggest—but do not conclusively prove—that Beowulf is the work of one author.

Of course, the identity of Beowulf‘s creator is still unknown. As Madison Krieger, the Harvard US scholar who co-authored the project, says:

“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,”

Indeed, it seems likely that the origins of Beowulf will never truly be known—a fact that arguably makes it even more beguiling for readers today.



*predictably, scholars are divided over what this means, too.



Tom Clayton is publishing executive at Melville House UK.