Patrick Wormald, Notes & Queries, 240 , pp.386-387.
It is hard to shake off the feeling that Old English literature's acknowledged masterpiece would be better studied if there were either more of it or less. Were Beowulf a fragment, like the Hildebrandslied, its only even remotely contemporary continental counterpart, it would not have to bear the concentrated weight of a whole academic industry; nor, therefore, to sustain the constant output of interpretation needed for submissions to American tenure committees or British Research Assessment Exercises. If it were one of several surviving specimens of its genre, then there would be more of a control on the interpretative flow. As it is, the 'Toronto Revolution' of fifteen years ago has had the effect of a re-tooling of the entire plant. A Beowulf composed somewhere near the date of its manuscript necessitates the recasting of almost every assumption or deduction bedecking the poem in its seventh/eighth-century model. Amidst all the cacophony of the modern academic machine at work, Dr Newton's is a small voice but a calm one. He wishes to make a case for the poem's origin where many were tempted to locate it for forty years after the Sutton Hoo sensation, namely early Christian East Anglia. Yet his book bears the scars of the Toronto Revolution at least to this extent: he does not claim to have proved anything; merely to have observed what is more likely, and what less.
Newton begins with a chapter on the Beowulf manuscript. This is not just another notably courteous and reasonable riposte to Kiernan's arguments for something like a holograph; but also a thoughtful review of the linguistic, metrical, and onomastic considerations which continue to persuade many scholars that the poem must have a long prehistory. Its effect, to say no more, is that late-daters may have at least as big a problem in explaining how a Viking-Age poem about Scandinavian heroes contrives to be free of Anglo-Scandinavian vocabulary and of the sound-changes affecting Scandinavian proper names by the ninth century, as do early-daters with the interval between composition in Heroic Age and copying in the Age of Ælfric. Newton's second chapter, 'The Question of the Poem's Origin', surveys Beowulf's legendary, historical, and archaeological horizons. He emphasizes the contrasts of standpoint within the Danish royal dynasty represented by English and Scandinavian traditions respectively. He notes the indications, extending beyond the famous record of the Hygelac raid in Gregory of Tours, of an early sixth-century date for such elements in the story as can be called historical. He dwells, once again, upon the number of overlaps, none individually conclusive as he fully concedes, but cumulatively as impressive as he claims, between the world evoked by the poet and that unearthed both at Sutton Hoo and increasingly nowadays in its neighbourhood.
Newton then moves on to the core of his case, which is a literary application of prosopography. Among the Anglo-Saxon royal pedigrees, the Mercian and West Saxon have often been quarried for their links with figures in the poem, but each departs in significant ways from the poet's central concerns (ch. 3). The East Anglian, by contrast, features the name Hroðmund. Such was also the name of one of the two sons of Hroðgar depicted in a famously poignant episode from the poem. He disappears altogether from Scandinavian tradition, the reason being, as Newton thinks, that he removed himself from the scene of his cousin's putsch and migrated to East Anglia (ch.4). East Anglian kings, moreover, were Wuffings, that is to say Wulfings (or Wylfings), 'kin of the wolf'; Newton's most arresting single observation is that this explains the presence of 'Caesar' among their ancestors, along with other Romanizing aspects of their image, perhaps even the legend that the head of the martyred Edmund, their last king, was guarded by a great wolf. Juxtaposing 'evidence' from Beowulf and Widsith, it turns out that Wealhðeow, Hroðmund's mother, was probably a (Scandinavian) Wylfing, whose domicile may have been in area archaeologically linked to early East Anglia, if not as clearly so as the Vendel region (ch. 5). Chapter 6 summarizes the argument, drawing attention both to the largely vanished East Anglian monastic culture that could have produced a work like Beowulf,' and even to tales of Grendel-like horrors who until recently haunted the East Anglian consciousness.
The weakness of this presentation is of course that legend is much too pliable to serve as a foundation for prosopography. Even if it formed a solider evidential base, it would support an argument that the traditions which went into the poem derived from East Anglia, not that the work was actually composed there. Newton is aware that genealogies are in the first instance political and cultural statements rather than historical records. He does not draw the conclusion he should: that claims to descent from a Hroðmund or a wolf bespeak an interest in Scandinavian themes of which the Beowulf cycle is another symptom, not necessarily any closer linkage. Again, it is fair enough to note that Felix's Life of Guthlac, whose echoes of the poem are hardly less suggestive than Sutton Hoo's, was dedicated to an East Anglian king. But it is about a Mercian prince and his reaction to stories of his heroic ancestors; one, furthermore, whose first and most important patron was the Mercian king, Æthelbald. And if there is no ship-burial on the upper waters of the Trent, there wouldn't be, would there? Like so many of Beowulf's students, Newton ends up claiming too much. But he also establishes much; above all, by showing how the poem's culture (in the widest sense) is more easily related to the obscure pre-Alfred era than to the far better-documented times of its solitary manuscript. When so much is unknown and always will be, it is useful to be reminded of what remains likely. And when great scholars have cast the onus probandi over to those contemplating a long passage of time between the scribe and the author of Beowulf, it is an achievement in itself' to have returned that unappetizing object gently to their own feet.
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