R.F.Yeager, Medium Ævum, 64.1 , pp.121-122.
There are several compelling reasons to read Sam Newton's study of the origins of Beowulf. One is its timeliness: it has been fifteen years since the conference on the dating of Beowulf was held at the University of Toronto, the published proceedings of which … focused and directed subsequent debate about the poem and its composition. During the last decade and a half, much has appeared in print, some of it specifically addressing the issues of Beowulf's origin, some - especially archaeological data from sites in Britain and Scandinavia - with unintentional but nonetheless significant bearing on the point. These studies Newton has consolidated and scrutinized with great thoroughness; and his use, continuation or dismissal of their arguments provides a point of fresh departure (for some time now sorely needed) for the debate over when, where and why Beowulf was produced.
A second reason to read The Origins of 'Beowulf' is its focus on elements other than the philological or poetic concerns of the Toronto conference, and studies inspired by its proceedings. Caveat lector those seeking new insights into the criticism of Beowulf may find Newton's book a disappointment at first. Except in his initial chapter, in which he takes on, quietly but cogently, the linguistic 'evidence' for dating the poem, Newton generally steers clear of such judgements. Instead, his argument shapes itself around artefacts and human leavings - grave-goods, place-names, royal genealogies - and works its patient, steady way up from the realia to an informed guess at the society whence came the poem.
In the end, Newton's patient steadiness lends credibility to his claim that Beowulf 'was composed in East Anglia during King Ælfwald's reign (ca. 713-749)' (p. x). The royal line of East Anglia, Newton reasons, traced its eponym 'Wuffa' and its foundation legend to Hroðgar's younger son Hroðmund, and through Wealhþeow his mother to the Wulfings of Beowulf. For Newton, 'Wealhþeow may represent an implicit genealogical link between the sixth century Northern world of Beowulf and its Old English audience. The suggested genealogical importance of Wealhþeow's marriage in Beowulf would have been only enhanced by her children, moreover, who would have been viewed as the living proof of the kindred allegiance of their parents' two peoples…. The listing of the name of one of her boys, Hroðmund, in the pedigree of a Wuffing king may signal an explicit East Anglian dynastic claim to descent from the Scyldings' (ibid.).
To be sure, the germ of this thesis, the Danish connection Newton pursues so meticulously, is not original to him. As he readily admits, it was first proposed by Klaeber. But that indebtedness itself suggests a measure of Newton's achievement (and, more than incidentally, another reason to read this book): Klaeber's supposition has been for long in the public domain, but only Newton has found the imaginative and scholarly means to develop it into a plausible theory of poetic origin. Whether or not one is finally convinced by Newton's assembly of evidence, he has written a provocative book. Once again, the weight of persuasion seems to have shifted to the earlier, eighth-century date for Beowulf's composition, and East Anglia (as Newton presents the case) appears the likeliest spot for its shaping.
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