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A Short History Of Beowulf
The events of Beowulf, which is a single poem 3,000 lines long, takes place in the 6th century A.D. – based on the mention of a battle for which there is corroborating evidence. Though most of the story transpires in Denmark, it was told by Anglo-Saxons in northern England two hundred years after the fact. The Anglo-Saxons did not see themselves as British, but as Vikings and all their heroes were from Scandinavia.

The actual author of Beowulf is unknown. The original poem was written down on thin sheets of shaved leather. It was later copied and re-copied over the next two hundred years. By the 900s, it had been collected in a volume that also contained the story of San Christopher, a collection of outlandish anecdotes about the Far East, an alleged letter from Alexander the Great and a poem about the Biblical heroine Judith.

This volume was partially destroyed in a fire at The Cotton Library, the world's greatest collection of literature from the Middle Ages, on October 23, 1731. Not only was the document charred, but the poem's reputation suffered over the ensuing years. Written in Old English, it was deemed confusing in its mixture of pagan and Christian themes. Structurally, it was seen as flawed because it had three antagonists instead of one, the last of whom was separated from the other two by half a century.

In addition, Beowulf doesn't rhyme; it alliterates instead. It has no iambic pentameter because, according to the Anglo-Saxon storytellers, it didn't matter how many syllables a line had as long as it was short and had three alliterations in it. By comparison to ancient masterpieces like Homer's Odyssey and Virgil's Aeneid, Beowulf just seemed like bad poetry. Worse, its heroism and morality was centered on a man fighting monsters. Scholars couldn't really take a poem about trolls and dragons all that seriously.

It wasn't until the 20th century that Beowulf was reassessed by none other than J.R.R. Tolkien, the author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. In his 1936 essay "Beowulf: The Monster and the Critics,” Tolkien wrote that the problem everyone was having with Beowulf had nothing to do with its quality, but rather the fact that it was being unfairly compared to Homer and Virgil. Beowulf didn't conform to the rules of epic poetry created by the ancient Greeks and Romans because it was a Scandinavian tale with its own specific meter – not better, not worse, just different. And contrary to most scholars before him, Tolkien claimed that the 50-year gap between the fight with Grendel's mother and the battle with the dragon was exactly what gave the poem its claim on greatness. Beowulf, he wrote, was not the story of a young hero who triumphs over monsters, nor is it about an old king who dies trying to kill a dragon, but instead it is the combined tale of a man who, once young and impervious, knowingly proceeds to his own tragic death. It was precisely the two halves of the story that made it work.

Without Tolkien's reassessment, Beowulf would have remained an obscure text read only by doctoral candidates in medieval English literature. Today it is widely read in high schools across the country. Tolkien not only revived the poem's reputation, he imitated it in his own works. The Two Towers chapter, "The King of the Golden Hall," is lifted from the beginning of Beowulf. The fire-breathing dragon in Beowulf, who rises in anger after a thief steals his treasure, is mimicked in the climax of The Hobbit.

Other writers have used the poem in their own literature. Author John Gardner wrote the popular 1971 novel Grendel, a philosophical musing by the monster about the randomness of life. Michael Crichton, of Jurassic Park fame, took all the monsters out of the story and wove a historical action fantasy called Eaters of the Dead.


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