Study Guide


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Beowulf Essay - Critical Overview

Critical Overview

A manuscript page from Beowulf Published by Gale Cengage

If the Beowulf manuscript is not the author's autograph (the author's own handwriting), as claimed by Kevin Kiernan, then the first critical appreciation we have of the poem is the manuscript itself. Someone thought enough to copy it down or to have it copied on good vellum by two fairly good scribes—incuring a sizable expense for the year 1000. Another indication of early popularity may be in its apparent influence on another Old English poem, Andreas, which survives in a manuscript kept at Exeter Cathedral in Devon since the mid-eleventh century. After that there is no sign of the poem for well over five hundred years.

Laurence Nowell acquired the eleventh-century manuscript in the 1560s and wrote his name and date on the top of the first page. The manuscript eventually appeared in the library of a family named Cotton, but it does not appear in either of the library's two catalogues (1628-29 and 1696). In 1704, Humfrey Wanley, however, recorded it in his published catalogue of manuscripts containing Old English. A century later Sharon Turner published illustrative citations and very inaccurate translations. The effective rediscovery of the poem was the work of an Icelander, G. S. Thorkelin, and a Dane, N. S. F. Grundtvig. Thorkelin had a transcription of the poem made and made a second himself. He published his edition in 1815. Grudtvig worked on and published an edition of the poem between 1815 and 1861. Perhaps the greatest single scholar of the poem, Grudtvig proposed many of the now accepted restorations of the text (emendations) and proved that Beowulf's uncle Hygelac was in fact a historical figure. For Grundtvig the poem's greatness lay in its sense of moral purpose. He approached the poem as a unified work of literature in its own terms, anticipating the major topics of modern Beowulf criticism.

After Grudtvig, scholars concentrated on clearing up problems of the poem's language and allusions. Others mined the poem as a historical and social document in the hopes of proving their often politically inspired theories about ancient Germanic life. Still others attempted to identify still older poems (lays) within it or to discover a nature myth or allegory in its action. By the opening years of the twentieth century, Beowulf was a synonym for undergraduate literary boredom. In 1915, novelist

(The entire section is 967 words.)