Eric Christiansen, English Historical Review, , pp.140-141.
The question of when Beowulf was composed, and how, has been so avidly re-opened and re-answered over the last fifteen years that the poem seems to grow more and more unfathomable just when historians grow more and more inclined to exploit it, as the mentalité-mine of the Anglo-Saxons. The first three chapters of Sam Newton's The Origins of Beowulf and the Pre- Viking Kingdom of East Anglia (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1993; pp. xi + 177. £35) provide a clear resumé and analysis of the arguments for eighth, ninth, and tenth century dates of composition, with the palaeographical, philological, literary and archaeological evidence marshalled with enviable discipline. He is disposed towards the likelihood that our text is derived from an early (pre-800) manuscript, but admits that the supporting evidence is inconclusive, and that later origins cannot be ruled out. However, he is unimpressed by the argument that an Anglo-Danish, and therefore post-900 audience was more likely to appreciate the exclusively Northern setting of the poem than the 'pre-Viking' Anglo-Saxons.
Up to this point, Mr Newton casts his hounds scientifically. It is a pleasure to watch them working. Then comes a whiff of scent, the music rings out, and the reader has to ride hard or be left behind. For the book becomes an earnest plea for the Scandinavian sympathies of the boat-burying, boar-helmeted, Swedified East Angles, grounded insecurely between North Sea and Fenland Swamp and (at least in this rather selective interpretation) culturally moored to the world of Beowulf more than were the other kingdoms. If the poet's aim was to celebrate the legendary ancestors of the patron, as many now assume, then of course it is necessary to find Geatish, or at least Danish, forebears for the East Anglian Wuffings; but the genealogy of those kings (probably composed under King Aelfwald, 713-49) includes Caesar, without naming any more 'Beowulfine' avatars than we find in in the lineages of Mercia, Essex or Wessex. There is one name common to the Wuffings and Hrothgar's line: Hroðmund. And the Wuffings have often been associated with the folkname Wylfinga of Beowulf and Widsith, and also with the wolf totem (faithful to the end of the line, as guardian of St Edmund's head?). But neither Hroðmund nor the Wylfings play a large part. in the poem: Hroðmund is mentioned once (1189), the Wylfings twice (461, 471). Mr Newton's remedy is to claim Hroðmund's mother, Wealhtheow, as a 'Wuffing princess', and to suggest that her son was to gain greater importance after the fall of his family by going into exile. So that while Beowulf mainly concerns Danes and Geats, those who claimed descent from this putative exile might have identified with his extended family circle as well. An East Anglian minister, under the rule of a possibly Wuffing abbot, in the days of King Aelfwald might therefore have been the place where poet, scribe and ancestral agenda came together, long before St Edmund's head rolled into the undergrowth or King Alfred added some Danish names to his father's pedigree. To which the sceptic answers, yes: another reminder of the multifarious connections between Scandinavia and Anglo-Saxon England, of the many conceivable origins of Beowulf, and of the highly unstable relationship between poetry and history. However, the putative adventures of Hroðmund the exile seem a tenuous thread by which to link this poem and this historical kingdom. This is by no means the first attempt to establish the link, but after thirty years or so all that emerges is a large soft mound of suggestions, made more insubstantial by the unknown quantity that constitutes East Anglian literary culture before the Danes. Beowulf would fill it to overflowing, with Felix's Life of Gutblac as the only consort. This is a most learned piece of advocacy, but it is surprising to find no consideration of the Christian theology of the poem in an investigation of its origin, when this appears to have been of immediate concern to the author, for whom the encounters of the Scyldings and Wylfings resounded 'like the echo of an ancient dirge, far-off and hopeless'. Let the sadly-uncelebrated clerks of East Anglia have their Beowulf by all means; but remember the story of Thor, who tried to pull the World-Serpent up into his little boat. It was really too big.
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