A detour into the archaeological side of the Beowulf story

Archaeological find from Lejre of a silver figurine of Odin seated on his throne.

A silver figurine of Odin seated on his throne. Image from Von Harafnisa – Eigenes Werk, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=26076283.

Last week I dug up an article by David Keys that explained how the work of Dr Sam Newton showed that Beowulf was indeed an English story. Being more familiar with the literary side of the issue than the archaeological one, I was intrigued when simonjkyte posted a comment explaining that he didn’t believe that Beowulf was an English story.

Simonjkyte based his position on the idea that the alleged early Anglo-Saxon site Spong Hill (in North Elmham, Norfolk, England) was actually a Scandinavian site. This difference of settlers could be momentously important to the origin of Beowulf. If Spong Hill was in fact a Scandinavian settlement, then there would be a permanent Scandinavian presence in Anglo-Saxon England which could be the way in which Beowulf went from being a Scandinavian story to one told, and ultimately written down, by Old English speakers.

This week, I found another David Keys piece that sheds a bit more light on the subject. Unfortunately, I don’t have as much time as I’d like for these posts, so it’s not directly about Spong Hill and who the archaeological evidence suggests its early settlers were. Instead this article is about the discovery of a hall that could have been the basis for Heorot. This hall, unsurprisingly, is in Lejre (23 miles west of modern day Copenhagen), Denmark. Here’s the link.

To sum it up, Keys’ article explains how an archaeological expedition led by Tom Christensen uncovered a handful of royal halls near Lejre. Why a handful? Apparently, the Danes of the day dismantled the halls and moved them every few generations.

What Christensen and his team found in these halls suggests trade with England and the Rhineland, and their arrangement suggests that there was indeed something that drove the Danes of the day away from one of the halls; most of them are close together, but there is one that is 500 metres to the north of the rest.

Where this article starts to clarify the true origin of the Beowulf story and how it got to England is when Keys notes that Beowulf was likely brought to England when Scandinavian settlers came in the 6th or 7th centuries AD. So, somewhat confusingly, this three year old article admits that Beowulf is of Scandinavian origin, but was then made English by being written down.

This transmission and acquisition of stories happens all the time. If something strikes a people as being particularly important, then surely they’ll write it down. Even if it winds up turning into a poem of over 3000 alliterative lines.

So I guess the thinking behind announcing Beowulf as an English story is though Beowulf‘s origin is Scandinavian, the English made it their own when they wrote it down, giving the characters characteristic English wit, highlighting (or adding?) themes of storytelling and how greatness grates to a halt in the face of death.

Of course, given the settings of Daneland and Geatland, it seems that Beowulf definitely started out as a Scandinavian story, but it was transformed by the English into something different. Something different enough to make it English.

Though that transformation through writing doesn’t make it any less problematic that writing something down in your language gives you claim to it (much like the idea that sticking your flag in a chunk of land makes it yours). For me, this underlines even more how mixed and mingled the world’s cultures are. Just as individuals are the sum of their multifarious experience, so too are countries, it seems, which makes certain politicians’ ideas of border walls and exclusion utterly ridiculous.

Who do you think owns a story when it starts out as an oral performance only and is later written down? The originator? The writer? Or by the time that the split between performed and written happens are they two different stories regardless of their shared origin?