Beowulf: The Oldest English Epic

Beowulf: The Oldest English Epic

Beowulf: The Oldest English Epic

Beowulf: The Oldest English Epic

Excerpt

The Old English Beowulf holds a unique place as the oldest epic narrative in any modern European tongue. Of unknown authorship, and dating in all probability from the early eighth century, the poem gives brilliant presentment of the spirit and embodiment of the heroic tradition. Illuminating studies of the Beowulf, in comparatively recent years, by Ker, Lawrence, Chambers, Klaeber, Malone, and others, have brought increasing appraisal of the extent to which Scandinavian backgrounds are reflected in its material, literary tradition in its structure, and Christian influence in its spirit.

Of the circumstances under which the Beowulf was composed we actually know little, though it is possible to trace with some degree of clearness the evolution of the material from which the poem is shaped. Portions of this material must have originally circulated by oral transmission. The poem itself may well have been developed from an earlier series of epic lays, though no one of these lays has survived. In any case, as Ker has pointed out, the Beowulf, in the form in which it has come down to us, is a single, unified poem. It is, he writes, 'an extant book, whatever the history of its composition may have been; the book of the adventures of Beowulf, written out fair by two scribes in the tenth century; an epic poem, with a prologue at the beginning and a judgment pronounced on the life of the hero at the end; a single book, considered as such by its transcribers, and making a claim to be so considered.'

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