Authority in Beowulf and scriptures

This is the first page from the Beowulf manuscript, in Old English.

The first page of the original Beowulf manuscript, in Old English. Image from

I am, at best, a lapsed Catholic/Greek Orthodox Christian. But, I still find a lot of Christianity’s source material interesting. So, when I went searching for Beowulf news and found this post from entitled “The Use and Purposes of Scripture: Part One”, I read right through it.

In this article Henry Karlson writes about how a literal reading of scripture either as a source of history or of laws is missing the point. Instead, he argues, the contradictions and various situations concerning similar events that come up in scripture need to be read together and taken as a whole rather than merely as parts. Ultimately, to back up his take on reading scripture, Karlson refers to Beowulf. In particular, he refers to the changes that Beowulf underwent between its origins and the version we have today.

Karlson then uses this analogy to say that the changes made to the scriptures didn’t undermine its authority in the same way that the transformations that the modern Beowulf underwent haven’t undermined its authority. What kept me from just saying “pshaw, whatever” when I read this, though, was that Karlson cements this point with the idea that the Church was just practicing good storytelling when it took all of the various stories and writings that became the scriptures and joined them into a single book.

Those same story-telling principles were guiding those who tinkered with Beowulf over the centuries. After all, Beowulf was restored to a mostly complete version from a single bound copy in a book of monsters and wonders that survived being worm-eaten, burned, and generally ignored as it changed hands over and over again.

Specifically, lines of the poem were clarified, different interpretations of the scribes’ handwriting were argued about, and references to other stories, history, and contemporary culture were worked out. All you need to do to see this sort of work on Beowulf in motion is to pick up an edition from the middle of the 20th century or earlier and flip through the notes. You’ll find them full of arguments about things ranging from Beowulf’s descent into and return from the Grendels’ lair paralleling the crucifixion of Christ, to the lack of clarity about what is really going on in the Finnburh episode, to the discovery that “lindbord” in reference to shields indicated that they were made of linden wood.

And yet, the debate around which version of Beowulf is the most correct isn’t based on any historical level. Most of the changes that were made to the text are largely forgotten now. Which makes sense, since claims of authority are usually based on a version’s poetic merit. The Bible, on the other hand, is only rarely judged on its literary merits. Plus, only academics, poetry, and history fans are really interested in Beowulf, whereas more religions than I could count are constantly arguing about the authority of their version of the Christian scriptures.

In fact, as a poem and not a religious text, preferences for Beowulf just come down to which one is your personal favourite.

I really enjoy Seamus Heaney’s translation, but I’m sure that once I read more editions I’ll find another that I like even more.

The elasticity of such opinions leaves me thinking that all the various branches of Christianity are just practicing the same favouritism but on a massive scale, like people who pour their free time into a particular fandom and then build a world of fanfic around themselves and friends.

But those are just my idle thoughts. What do you think about how the authority of Beowulf versions is measured? Is it even fair to compare the authority of a poem to the authority of scripture? Let me know in the comments!

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