history, literature

History through Poems: Examining Beowulf

Epic poems have incredible staying power both as literary achievements and as historical resources. The Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf is one of the foremost examples of this. Despite its mythological themes, the story offers historians a rare insight into Anglo-Saxon ideals of masculinity, heroism, and society. At the same time, it presents literary scholars with a wellspring of opportunities to analyze symbolism and metaphor, as well as a look at the progression of our literary language.

Within the literary sphere, modern Beowulf criticism finds its origins in J.R.R. Tolkien.  In his 1936 lecture at Oxford University, later transcribed as an essay, Tolkien argued:

I have read enough, I think, to venture the opinion that Beowulfiana is, while rich in many departments, specially poor in one. It is poor in criticism, criticism that is directed to the understanding of a poem as a poem.

The essay goes on to reaffirm the value of Beowulf as a historical document—when used appropriately—before deconstructing what Tolkien viewed as a misreading of the original text.  Too much of the scholarship, he claims, is centered around the illusion that Beowulf offers to the reader a “historical truth.”

Despite its roots in literary criticism, Tolkien’s lecture and subsequent essay transformed the historical study of Beowulf for decades to come. His argument brought into question the reliability of Beowulf as an historical document, which in turn also calls into question poetry in general as a source of truth. If his argument is to be believed, then poetry is dangerous as a primary source. Historians risk being overcome, in Tolkien’s words, by the “glamour of Poesis”–that is, they risk getting so caught up in the general wonder of poetry that it becomes detrimental to historical scholarship.

Nevertheless, some historical scholarship on Beowulf did appear in the decades that followed, sporadic as it might have been.  The 1980s saw a surge of interest in identifying the exact date and authorship of the poem.  Professor Zacharias P. Thundy of Northern Michigan University focused little on the content of the poem in his article “Beowulf: Date and Authorship,” instead concluding that the poem was composed between 924 and 931 in King Athelstan of Wessex’s court, likely authored by his thane Wulfgar.

Also writing during the 1980s was Patricia Poussa, a professor based out of Umeå University in Sweden.  In her article “The Date of Beowulf Reconsidered: The Tenth Century,” she too made a case for its authorship pointing toward the 900s. It was possible, she believed, that the Scandinavian themes sprang not from a pagan oral tradition, but rather from Anglo-Saxon relations with the Danish. She believed that the appeal of the poem would have been to Anglo-Danish audiences rather than to the English. This assumption drew heavily on the themes in Beowulf, meaning Poussa’s work didn’t exactly adhere to the rigid and factual approach suggested by Tolkien. Which raises the question–does that make her work inherently bad?

The Sutton Hoo helmet has often been linked to Beowulf, due to the era in which it was made and the suspected Scandinavian influence on both helmet and poem

The consensus seems to point toward a general agreement with Tolkien’s instruction. As recently as 2009, John F. Vickery argued in his book Beowulf and the Illusion of History that while “older criticism of Beowulf commonly thought that its minor episodes by and large reflected historical incidents,” the truth was that its contents had little if anything to offer historical researchers.

“A fundamental principle of Beowulf criticism is, or ought to be, that a version of a folktale . . . almost certainly underlies at least the first two of the three principal episodes of the poem and that the poem somehow became, not necessarily gradually, elegy-epic from folktale.”

John F. Vickery

Vickery’s view firmly rejects the use of Beowulf as a historical resource, expanding upon the arguments made by scholars that proceeded him.  His claim takes the argument posed by Tolkien one step further—rather than historians utilizing the poem as a strictly historical document, he believes they should not utilize it at all.

There is a problem with this argument, I think. Beowulf is and always will be a poem, making it nigh impossible to breach its elements (like monsters and dragons) from strictly historical perspective. At the same time, to prevent the historian from analyzing these devices as historically symbolic is to limit the historian’s craft. The intersection between literature and history in epic poetry should be seen not as an obstacle, but rather as a strength. Historians are, after all, story-tellers first and foremost.  So why are they so fearful of handling a story as a story?

Within historical circles, the idea that Beowulf is the result of one author bastardizing another’s work is generally accepted as having been disproven. This, combined with the philosophy that followed in Tolkien’s wake, has led to very cautious historical interpretations of the text. Whether one adheres to the idea of an oral tradition behind Beowulf or not, it cannot be disputed that it was influenced by cultural practices and ideals that pre-date it. However, to completely reject the possible oral history of the poem in favor of a strictly textual interpretation is ignorant at best. Scholars of history must learn to accept the interdisciplinary nature of the poem—it refuses to be limited to one discipline, lest its spirit be lost in the process.

To disregard Beowulf as a historical resource because of its literary nature is to create a very narrow-minded perspective of Anglo-Saxon history.  If historians rely only on that which is indisputably factual—data and formal documentation—to gather their information, they are left with a very dry and limited view of the era they are studying. Beowulf, as well as other national epics and oral histories, ought to be recognized as historical sources in all their literary complexity. In the future, scholars of history should pay close attention to the themes and motifs beyond the accepted history. While these themes may not always supply the researcher with concrete dates and events, they most certainly offer a unique glimpse into the cultures of the past. With this glimpse, we as historians might gain some knowledge of the hopes, fears, and ideals of the era. To avoid this knowledge on the basis of its literary origins is to obstruct a greater understanding of history.

4 thoughts on “History through Poems: Examining Beowulf”

  1. Kristyn, another interesting piece. When we know so little about early Anglo-Saxon culture surely any crumb of information is of value to the historical record (fictional or not). Not that I think Beowulf is a crumb. My (non expert) understanding has always been that the early English recorded a verbal Danish saga, something I have always been curious about. Do we think it was because the Anglo-Saxons were culturally identical to the Danes? (i.e. Jutes from Jutland).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. There are so many different theories about the origins of the poem and the popularity of different theories seems to wax and wane every few decades. Some people think it comes from a continental Saxon oral tradition, others from Danish visitors. The Saxons and Jutes are extremely closely related, so it’d be impossible to tell. But given how widespread most other continental Germanic myths are, and how specific Beowulf is to Anglo-Saxon England, I feel that a purely Anglo-Saxon origin is definitely worth considering as well. It’s a complicated topic but definitely fun to discuss!


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