The story of the Beowulf poem begins, probably, during the reign of Canute the Great (1016-1035), when an unidentified early English poet composed an epic poem about a Scandinavian hero who saves Denmark and its environs from a monster that has been terrorizing the country. This story would have held a special significance for old Canute since he was himself Danish, so it thus seems most likely that the text was first set down at this time. Regardless of when it was composed, however, the poem itself vanished soon after the death of Canute, when William of Normandy made his famous conquest of England in 1066.
The manuscript was of course kicking around somewhere in England after this time, but it does not reenter history until the 16th century, when it was in the possession of Laurence Nowell, an early scholar of Anglo-Saxon. But because of the profound French influence William brought with his conquest in 1066, Anglo-Saxon had all but disappeared, having blended with French and Latin to become Middle English; and even that language had morphed into a new form — early modern English, or “Shakespearean” English — by Nowell’s time. Thus, only a handful of scholars could even read the Beowulf manuscript in the 16th century, or indeed, for the few following centuries. To make matters worse, the document suffered damage during a fire in the Cotton Library at Ashburnham House in 1731; parts of the manuscript have since crumbled, leaving our only original copy of Beowulf literally in tatters. With its marginally-studied language and damaged body, the poem was not comprehensively translated until the 19th century, and somewhat ironically, the first complete translation was into Latin — still then the language of academia — whereas only scraps of the poem were available in English until J.M. Kemble’s 1837 literal translation. At this time, scholars ignored the poetics of the text and instead focused on its historic significance. Thus, the poem survived centuries of obscurity only to emerge as a novelty from a forgotten period of English history.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the first champion of Beowulf‘ as a legitimate work of literature was J.R.R. Tolkien. As a student of philology, Tolkien studied the historical and linguistic significance of the poem, but in doing so, he found himself enthralled with the poetics of the text. Later, as a professor of Anglo-Saxon, he called for serious literary criticism of the poem in order to draw attention to its successful use of poetic elements. In the landmark essay in which he voices this call, Tolkien writes,
Beowulf is indeed the most successful Old English poem because in it the elements, language, metre, theme, structure, are all most nearly in harmony.
This essay, “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics,” was ultimately successful, for scholars eventually came to recognize the epic poem for its literary significance as well as its historical and linguistic appeals. Moreover, it even had a palpable influence on many 20th century works of fiction, such as Tolkien’s own Middle-Earth writings and John Gardner’s existentialist novel, Grendel. Beowulf‘s foothold in the popular mainstream was cemented in 2000, when Nobel Poet Laureate Seamus Heaney published his successful translation.
The Influence of Beowulf
Though Beowulf has had a visible effect on many 20th century authors, it had no influence on any writers between 1066 and the 19th century. Consider the authors who lived during that massive span: to name a few, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Blake — the list goes on. English literature as we know it begins with Chaucer, who demonstrates in his Canterbury Tales that characters do not merely need to be elements of the plot or mechanisms in the explication of an allegory, but rather could be thinking, feeling personages. Before Chaucer, we have some truly terrific characters from the Western tradition — Achilles, Odysseus, a plethora of characters from the Bible, Oedipus, Medea, Aeneas, Dante — but these personages are all ultimately slaves to fate, or at least the fate dictated for them by their writers. None of these characters transcend their texts, which is to say, could plausibly exist outside their narratives. But when we consider a character like Chaucer’s Wife of Bath, we see a character who is almost too real for her tale: we all know at least one Wife of Bath, but none of us know an Odysseus.
Beowulf offers us nothing in the way of Chaucer’s thinking, feeling characters. Much like his Mediterranean counterparts, Beowulf the Geat, as represented by his text, is not plausibly realistic: his function is merely to turn the wheels in the admittedly exquisite machine of the plot. The mythic hero is important to civilizations in their early stages, and in this way Beowulf is important to English civilization, for he is literally the first epic hero of that culture. Surely, he is a much more legitimate contender than later characters for the English hero since his story was at least written in England. (The other great contender for English epic hero, King Arthur, emerges from the French tradition of Middle English: consider the title of the most vital Arthurian text, Le Morte d’Arthur.) But despite Beowulf’s status as England’s mythic hero, his text influenced none of the writers who themselves had the most profound and long-lasting influences on English literature: not Chaucer, and certainly not Shakespeare.
It is hardly Beowulf‘s fault that it had no influence upon the greatest fictive innovators in the English tradition, for the text simply wasn’t available. Indeed, if it had been, I imagine we might have had yet another Shakespearean masterpiece, Beowulf & Grendel. (If Shakespeare could turn the dusty history of an obscure pagan king into the magnificent King Lear, imagine what he could have done with a story like Beowulf: O, the soliloquies that Grendel might have spoken!) Instead, the epic poem’s influence was delayed: rather than impacting writers of the 11th-19th centuries, it has impacted writers of the 20th-21st centuries. In fact, I find it rather obvious that Tolkien’s entire corpus would not exist had Beowulf vanished into obscurity; and without Tolkien, where would contemporary fantasy literature be? If Tolkien is the father of the fantasy genre as we know it, then Beowulf is surely the grandfather.
English Hero, World Myth
Ultimately, the best curriculum for Beowulf is not a British literature course, but rather a mythology course; even World literature courses are better suited to the epic poem since it has more in common with the myths of the world than anything by, say, Chaucer or Shakespeare or any of their innumerable descendents. Beowulf rightly deserves the title of England’s first epic hero, but his story has little to do with English literature as we know it.
Whether the teachers recognize this or not, literature courses are generally designed to demonstrate influence, how ideas are passed down from writer to writer, from generation to generation. Because Beowulf‘s influence remains sleeping until the 20th century, it simply does not belong in a course alongside Chaucer, Shakespeare, et al. A true survey of “British” literature will begin with The Canterbury Tales, progress through the Bard, touch on Milton, move through the Romantics, explore the British novel as forged by Austen and Dickens, discuss the effects of the World Wars on England’s literature, and conclude with a study of a contemporary British writer like Ian McEwan or Zadie Smith. At the very least, Chaucer and Shakespeare should be covered since their effects on subsequent British literature — indeed, subsequent world literature — cannot be overstated. But Beowulf — however beautiful its poetry might be — is a relic of an England that doesn’t exist anymore, an England that was destroyed by William the Conqueror’s Norman influence. To say the least, Beowulf is not “British.”
But it is a terribly powerful piece of poetry, and it stands well among the giants of the epic: Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, Virgil’s Aeneid, and Dante’s Divine Comedy. Its influence may have been delayed, but there is no doubting its permanent status as an important work of literature.