Throughout this blog, I’ve often written about history and Beowulf and how the two are woven together (like here and here). The post that I’m sharing this week pulls what I’ve weaved together in a tight, quick way.
This week’s post is a short piece by Jan Purnis (who appears to currently be a professor of English at the University of Regina) all about the historical figures in Beowulf. In this piece, Jan groups these figures together according to their kin group, and then explains how they are or aren’t accounted for in the historical records that we have of the early medieval period.
If you’ve read a bit about the history of the poem itself, you’ll know that there’s some controversy over when exactly Beowulf was first put together. Purnis doesn’t go into to much detail with it, but she does note that the Offa referred to in the poem could be either Offa I, fourth century king of the continental Angles, or Offa II, late eighth century ruler of Mercia (a kingdom in Britain). There was nearly 400 years between them, and in the story that runs from lines 1944-1962 the poet didn’t add an “I” or “II”. So this reference, like some others, doesn’t reveal much about when Beowulf was first thought up.
Nonetheless, Purnis’ conclusion that the poet uses their historical knowledge and references to bring an air of historicity to the wondrous Beowulf himself is a neat point. It’s the same sort of thing that historical fiction writers do today. They know the period and place that they’re writing about as best they can and then they add in their own characters or elaborate on actual figures to build a story. In my mind, this similarity just goes to show how much work has always gone into crafting stories.
Which makes me wonder why the poet wanted to write about a kind of superman whose world, as Purnis points out, was straddling the old Pagan/continental and the new Christian/British ones.
Maybe it was to legitimize the story. I mean, authority drawn from strong relation to the past was an important concept in the medieval world. In fact, that kind of legitimacy through relation to the past is a major reason why people like Offa II referred to Offa I as their ancestor (despite the 400 year and several hundred mile gap between them), and so maybe that was the theme that the poet had set out to tackle. Why then are there monsters in Beowulf? Well, who doesn’t like a good monster story?
If you want to learn more about the historical figures behind a lot of the cast of Beowulf, check out Purnis’ write up. Since it’s a bit on the academic side it comes with a list of sources for further reading, too.
If you could write a historical fiction story about any figure from history who would it be and why? Let me know in the comments! (Chaucer would be at the top of my list!)