When Beowulf was confirmed to be an “English” story

In an effort to look at something other than an adaptation of Beowulf, this week, I’m looking back through time. Just a mere 23 years, though, peering back at 1993. Why? Because this was the year when Beowulf‘s English-ness was confirmed.

David Keys tells the story in this article.

Here’s the summary: From the mid 1970s onwards, the accepted academic opinion was that Beowulf, with all of its ship burials and stories of heroics in Daneland and Geatland, was a story from the viking Danes. In other words, Beowulf was not an English story.

But, thanks to the seven years work of Dr Sam Newton, the Anglo-Saxon literature specialist, it was confirmed that Beowulf is indeed an English story about the English. Newton’s reasoning for this claim was based on his findings that there are no Scandinavian loanwords in Beowulf, that the names of the characters come from Old English templates, and that the major characters in Beowulf are revered by the early English, not the 10th century Vikings.

Newton even went so far as to say that the Anglo-Saxons and the Vikings came from the same geographic area, save that the Anglo-Saxons came over to Britain about 500 years earlier, making this poem about the very early English. And so the oldest poetry from old English was confirmed to be English.

But so what?

Well, I think that this story was newsworthy at the time (and would be today as well) because national stories are important. And that’s not something that the Americas grew out of after they were colonized within the last five centuries.

The American stories of nationhood are inescapable the world over — ideas of manifest destiny and their country being the swinging bachelor pad of democracy where anyone can be anything if they only work at it. As a Canadian, although it often seems like we’re just America’s hat up here, I know that even we have a story, albeit one that’s much more quietly told.

The Canadian story is one of resilience in nature, of diversity and acceptance in society, and of striving to be globally minded in thought.

Whenever a group of people gets together anywhere in the world they’ll eventually tell the story of how or why they got there (even when there are already people where they got to who have their own story). Why? Because stories have a great deal of power to define and celebrate in-groups. Though that’s not to say that outsiders can find a place in an already established national story.

Along with the importance of confirming that it was their own original story, Dr Newton’s work ensured that the UK had Beowulf as the basis for its story. But I think that there’s another element to the importance of claiming Beowulf as an English story. Particularly if it’s a story of the early peoples who would eventually come to Britain and form the basis of the English.

And this is it: The Anglo-Saxons, who, after centuries of mingling with other cultures and peoples, became the modern English, are not native to Britain.

Though, after centuries of living somewhere it’s all too easy to get comfortable and forget that you haven’t always been there.

What do you think the purpose of a national story or epic is?

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