‘Beowulf’ is bloody, canonical, and long — and one person wrote it, scholars say
Only one person created the monster.
That’s according to a team of researchers at Harvard, Dartmouth, and elsewhere, who determined the epic poem “Beowulf,” a staple of literature classes the world over, was written by a sole author more than a millennium ago.
The findings of the team, led by Madison Krieger, a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard’s Program for Evolutionary Dynamics, and Joseph Dexter, a Harvard PhD who’s now a Neukom fellow at Dartmouth College, were published April 8 in the journal Nature Human Behaviour, Harvard said in a statement.
While the poem itself, which features a bloody clash between the hero, Beowulf, and Grendel, a mythical monster, is wicked old, the researchers arrived at their findings with the aid of a computer and cutting-edge algorithms.
“Using a statistical approach known as stylometry, which analyzes everything from the poem’s meter to the number of times various combinations of letters show up in the text, Krieger and his colleagues found new evidence that ‘Beowulf’ is the work of a single author,” the university said.
Krieger said the research team conducted a meticulous review of the text.
“We looked at four broad categories of items in the text,” he said in the statement. “Each line has a meter, and many lines have what we call a sense pause, which is a small pause between clauses and sentences similar to the pauses we typically mark with punctuation in modern English. We also looked at aspects of word choice.”
He continued, “But it turns out one of the best markers you can measure is not at the level of words, but at the level of letter combinations. So we counted all the times the author used the combination ‘ab,’ ‘ac,’ ‘ad,’ and so on.”
Krieger added that across “many of the proposed breaks in the poem, we see that these measures are homogeneous. So as far as the actual text of Beowulf is concerned, it doesn’t act as though there is supposed to be a major stylistic change at these breaks. The absence of major stylistic shifts is an argument for unity.”
Questions surrounding authorship of “Beowulf” have long divided academics, and the debate is expected to continue, the study’s findings notwithstanding.
“If we really believe this is one coherent work by one person, what does it mean that it has these strange asides?” Krieger said. “Maybe one of the biggest takeaways from this is about how you structured a story back then. Maybe we have just lost the ability to read literature in the way people at the time would have understood it, and we should try to understand how these asides actually fit into the story.”
The study also credits Leonard Neidorf, an English professor at Nanjing University; Michelle Yakubek, who contributed as a student at MIT’s Research Science Institute; and Pramit Chaudhuri, associate professor of classics at the University of Texas at Austin.
Chaudhuri and Dexter are the codirectors of the Quantitative Criticism Lab, “a multi-institutional group devoted to developing computational approaches for the study of literature and culture,” the university said.
Right now, you might be reaching deep into the recesses of your brain to recall highlights of the grim narrative poem, as framed by your high school English teacher.
Here’s a primer:
Written more than 1,000 years ago in Old English, “Beowulf” recounts the deeds of the warrior Beowulf, who goes to the aid of the Danes after they’re terrorized by a monster called Grendel. When Beowulf slays Grendel, he’s embraced by King Hrothgar, who looks on him like a son. When Grendel’s mother arrives to avenge her son’s death, Beowulf kills her, too.
He returns to his home (in present-day Sweden), where he rules his people for 50 years until the lair of a dragon is disturbed. This time, Beowulf receives a mortal blow and although he kills the dragon, he, too, dies.
But we leave you, gentle reader, with a “Beowulf” excerpt detailing happier times for the title character, as he recounts vanquishing his adversaries with a big sword. The translation by J. Lesslie Hall is posted to the Project Gutenberg website:
“Beowulf spake, offspring of Ecgtheow:
‘Lo! we blithely have brought thee, bairn of Healfdene,
Prince of the Scyldings, these presents from ocean
Which thine eye looketh on, for an emblem of glory.
I came off alive from this, narrowly ’scaping:
In war ’neath the water the work with great pains I
Performed, and the fight had been finished quite nearly,
Had God not defended me. I failed in the battle
Aught to accomplish, aided by Hrunting,
Though that weapon was worthy, but the Wielder of earth-folk
God was fighting with me.
Gave me willingly to see on the wall a
Heavy old hand-sword hanging in splendor
(He guided most often the lorn and the friendless),
That I swung as a weapon. The wards of the house then
I killed in the conflict (when occasion was given me).
Then the battle-sword burned, the brand that was lifted,
As the blood-current sprang, hottest of war-sweats;
Seizing the hilt, from my foes I offbore it;
I avenged as I ought to their acts of malignity,
The murder of Danemen. I then make thee this promise,
Heorot is freed from monsters.
Thou’lt be able in Heorot careless to slumber
With thy throng of heroes and the thanes of thy people
Every and each, of greater and lesser,
And thou needest not fear for them from the selfsame direction
As thou formerly fearedst, oh, folk-lord of Scyldings,
End-day for earlmen.’ ”