Thomas D.Hill, Speculum, 4 , pp.541-543.
Beowulf is a frustrating text for historians. While it is the richest and most extended depiction of Anglo-Saxon secular life and is obviously a mine of information about Anglo-Saxon society and culture, the impasse about dating and localizing the poem - the fact that reputable scholars have proposed dates ranging from the seventh to the tenth century and the fact that there is not even a received guess about the provenance of the poem - vitiates much of the poem's value as a source of historical data. Literary scholars trained by New Criticism to ignore authors and historical contexts or schooled by the study of Germanic parallels and analogues to view the poem as a concretization of traditional forms, and hence essentially timeless, can more or less shrug off the problem of dating and authorship; but historians are bound by their disciplinary norms to take the problem of dating seriously. Sam Newton's book is a sustained attempt to situate Beowulf in a particular time and place. Although even Newton himself would concede that the problem has not been conclusively solved, the book is serious, stimulating, and does indeed advance cogent, if not compelling, arguments for Beowulf as a product of an East Anglian royal center during the pre-Viking period. Newton provides a useful summary of his book in the concluding chapter, which I quote with some excisions:
I began with [the manuscript and] argued that ... independent orthographic, lexical, and phonological indications permit the hypothesis that Beowulf may have been composed in an Anglian kingdom as early as the eighth century. In Chapter Two, I sought to demonstrate that independent comparative, historical, and archaeological considerations provide some degree of corroboration for this hypothesis.... In Chapter Three I suggested that the poem's ubiquitous Northern, especially Danish (Scylding), dynastic concerns seem curious if Beowulf were pre-Viking in origin. I argued that these concerns may have derived from the genealogical traditions of an Old English royal family which claimed descent from the Scyldings, and that a clue as to the identity of that family might be found in some of the surviving OE royal genealogies.... In Chapter Four, I considered the pedigree of Ælfwald, king of East Anglia during the first half of the eighth century, which lists the name Hroðmund in its upper reaches.... I advanced the view that its bearer may have been associated with an East Anglian dynastic foundation legend. I then turned to examine the status of Hroðmund the Scylding prince in Beowulf... I reasoned that Hroðmund could have escaped his brother's fate by following the wrecca's path into exile. In Chapter Five, I attempted to show that there are independent indications that Hroðmund's mother may have been understood to be an East Anglian dynastic ancestor.…
The proposal is then as follows: through a consideration of the relation of Beowulf to surviving Anglo-Saxon royal pedigrees, East Anglia emerges as the kingdom most likely to have fostered the poem's prominent Danish dynastic concerns.... If this proposal is acceptable, we would have grounds for the claim that Beowulf could have been composed in East Anglia during King Ælfwald's reign (ca. 713-49). (Pp. 132-33)
My abridgment of Newton's summary may make the argumentation of the book seem more arbitrary and less nuanced than in fact it is, but even this abridgment gives some sense of the flavor of the book. Its strengths are Newton's ability to integrate historical, literary, linguistic, and archaeological arguments with facility and expertise and his willingness to speculate and carry on quite lengthy chains of deduction in the service of his argument. Again, Newton argues clearly and, as the frequent use of the subjunctive in his summary suggests, is careful to distinguish between probabilistic and more compelling kinds of argumentation.
Since I am essentially sympathetic to the main lines of the argument of the book, I am less bothered than other scholars might be with the way in which Newton constructs quite lengthy sequences of argument that depend again and again on possibilities rather than certitudes. Thus, for example, Newton argues that the dynastic name Wuffing associated with the East Anglian royal family is the hypocoristic form of the Wulfings who are mentioned in Beowulf. He turns to Widsith (line 29A) for support for the proposition that Helming was an alternative for the Wulfings/Wuffings. Since Wealhtheow is described as an ides Helminga, the phrase "þeodnes dohter" in line 2174A could be understood (contra Fred Robinson in English Studies 45 ) as Helmings dohter. Thus Wealhtheow as well as Hrothmund could be associated with the East Anglian royal line.
Wuffa is the hypocoristic form of Wulf, but it is not clear that the Wuffings and the Wulfings are the same dynastic family: Sam can be the same person as Samuel, but he need not be. Again, in Widsith it is said that "Helm weold Wulfingum," not that the Wulfings were also called Helmings. Newton here constructs a crucial link in his argument without external support, assuming that Helm was not merely a ruler but also an eponymous ancestor of the people he ruled. Wealhtheow can be an ides Helminga without being either Helmings dohter or even a remote descendant of Helm himself. Fred Robinson has not - despite Newton's implications to the contrary - disavowed his 1964 paper on Beowulf 2174A; it is reprinted with additions and corrections in The Tomb of Beowulf and Other Essays (Oxford, 1994). And, finally, for a different view of the meaning and social significance of Wealhtheow's name, see Philological Quarterly 69 (1990), 106-12. Thus each of the four or five moves it takes to make Wealhtheow a Wuffing princess is debatable, and collectively this argument can only be described as boldly speculative - a sequence of hypotheses that a skeptic could easily disrupt at almost any point.
It must be said, however, that most of the argumentation in Newton's book is much more solidly grounded than this example, and even this instance gives some evidence of the intellectual exuberance and real learning that are part of the book's appeal. It is quite possible that Beowulf could have been composed in eighth-century Anglia, but even Newton does not claim to have proven this case beyond reasonable doubt. What he has done is to have written an engaging, widely learned book that makes about as good a case for this possibility as can be done. I am not fully convinced by Newton's arguments, but I am convinced that if we are ever going to solve the annoying and persistent conundrum of the dating of Beowulf, scholars are going to have to range widely and argue boldly. I would hope that this engaging and interesting book will be remembered as a significant step in enabling scholars to achieve a more secure historical understanding of Beowulf.
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