Tom Shippey, The Times Literary Supplement, 18th June 1993, p.32.
After two centuries of bitter debate over the origins of Beowulf, only two facts remain unchallenged. One is that our single surviving copy of the poem was produced somewhere in England round about the year 1000. The other is that one character in the poem, Hygelac, king of the Geats (and Beowulf's maternal uncle), is plausibly to be identified, from the poem's repeated accounts of his death, with a king from the North recorded by Gregory of Tours as killed on a pirate raid against the Franks close to the year 520. Opinion has see-sawed between these two dates ever since both were established.
Rapidly attached to that argument, however, was an argument about national origin; for the poem is written in English, albeit Old English - but never mentions England and declares in line one that it is about danes….What was an English poet doing praising the Danes in the year 1000, after 150 years of Viking raid and conquest…?
In recent years, the consensus has quietly settled down to a view, largely emanating from America, that all this national feeling is an anachronistic European hang-up, and that historically, the English and the Scandinavians in the year 1000 probably got along perfectly well, at least at local level; so it would not be surprising to find an Englishman not just copying but even composing a poem friendly to the Danes in the era of svein Forkbeard and King Canute. The only trouble is that this view is as evidently marked by wishful thinking as all the earlier ones…. While it copes with one Beowulfian fact well enough - the manuscript copied c. 1000 - it does little to explain the survival of Hygelac's fame, family and political connections for over half a millennium.
Sam Newton's book plunges into this terrible quagmire of live issues and dead theories with an irrepressible enthusiasm which one might have thought had vanished from the scholarly world. He is sure the manuscript we have is a copy of something older, maybe much older….
Newton offers a thoroughly plausible scenario for the poet's interest in affairs long ago and far away; for the poem's odd contradictory-but-connected relationship with later Scandinavian story; not least, for the appallingly casual way in which the poem has sowed its caltrops of detail under the feet of charging scholars….
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