An Analysis of the Epic Poem, Beowulf - Origin and Evolution of Beowulf

An Analysis of the Epic Poem, Beowulf - Origin and Evolution of Beowulf

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The Origin and Evolution of Beowulf

    The origin of Beowulf remains a mystery, as both the poet and the year of composition has eluded scholars for centuries.  Although "[it] is now widely believed that Beowulf is the work of a single poet who was Christian . . ." (preface, Heaney 29), I see Beowulf as a mosaic of many poets.  In this paper, I will argue that with each new translation of this Old English epic, a new author of Beowulf is born.  The twenty-first century poet Seamus Heaney, who translated the Beowulf on which this paper is based, injects aspects of his world into this ancient poem.  Published in the year 2 000, the inconsistency of this most modern text reveals the messy masterpiece Beowulf is today.  I believe that throughout the ages, Beowulf has been altered by each generation it touches.  I will provide evidence that the Anglo-Saxon orators, the Christian monk recorders, and the modern-day translators have all contributed to both the conservation and change of Beowulf.

Beowulf began as an oral story passed on by scops, wandering poets of the Anglo-Saxon period who recited the accounts of the great Geat warrior from memory.  This allowed for subtle or strong changes by each orator as he formed his ideal and unique Beowulf.  One example of possible change can be found in the lines,

He had been poorly regarded

for a long time, was taken by the Geats

for less than he was worth . . . (Heaney 79),

 which do not fit the protagonist who has received nothing but praise throughout the rest of the epic.  A footnote in Heaney's translation points out this idea of the "`Cinderella hero' [as an] . . . example of folklore material, probably circulating orally, that made its way into the poem" (edi...

... middle of paper ...

...Semus Heaney.  New York:  W.W. Norton & Company, 2000.  29-99.

Unknown.  "Beowulf."  Beowulf and Other Old English Poems.  Trans.  Constance B. Hieatt.  Toronto:  Bantam Books, 1983.  35.



Sometimes at pagan shrines they vowed

offering to idols, swore oaths

that the killer of souls might come to their aid

and save the people.  That was their way,

their heathenish hope; deep in their hearts

they remembered hell.  The Almighty Judge

of good deeds and bad, the Lord God,

Head of the Heavens and High King of the World,

was unknown to them.  Oh, cursed is he

who in time of trouble has to thrust his soul

in the fire's embrace, forfeiting help;

he has nowhere to turn.  But blessed is he

who after death can approach the Lord

and find friendship in the Father's embrace.

(Heaney 36)

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