The Book section of the Economist describes the curious journey of a Dark Age epic to a firm position in the literary canon and in popular culture as well.
Few works of literature have intimidated readers as much as “Beowulf”, and few have been the cause of such obsession. The Anglo-Saxon epic of a mythic Scandinavian warrior and his monstrous foes is generally seen as the first great work in the English canon. Unfortunately, it is also one of the least accessible. These three thousand lines of dense, alliterative Old English are utterly incomprehensible to speakers of the modern variety, and even in translation the obscure Norse mythology is about as hospitable to the uninitiated reader as an axe to the skull. For most of its history, the poem has behaved like one of the monsters within it, scattering almost everyone in its path, to be confronted only by a handful of compulsive souls.
The poemâ€™s history in the popular imagination is surprisingly short, given that it is set in sixth-century Scandinavia, and may have been composed around that time: it was published just 200 years ago this year. Though the oral folktale passed for generations from bard to bard, and was written down by two unknown scribes at the dawn of the last millennium, it vanished as the Dark Ages receded. The sole surviving manuscript reappeared in the 1500s, and circulated among private collectors before finding its way into the extensive archives of Sir Robert Cotton. These were damaged by a fire at the ominously named Ashburnham House in 1731. Two decades later, in 1753, the flame-singed codex was stowed in the bowels of the British Museum, lost and long forgotten. In all this time a tiny snippet of the poem appeared only once in print.
That â€œBeowulfâ€ was ever brought to public attention at all was thanks to its chance rediscovery by Grimur Jonsson Thorkelinâ€”an Icelandic antiquarian who stumbled upon it in 1786, and devoted 29 painful years to rendering it in Latin. The tale of Thorkelin (and his ill-fated edition) has something of a Dark Ages quest about it. Having been promised the prestigious role of Keeper of the Royal Privy Archives in Copenhagen, he set sail for Britain in the hope of finding Norse fragments, and chanced upon the â€œBeowulfâ€ manuscript while scouting in London. As he set about dissecting the muscular Anglo-Saxon verse, he might have chuckled at the parallel with the warrior prince Beowulf, who had also travelled far from his Geatland home in search of gloryâ€”albeit of the sort gained by protecting the king of Denmark from man-eating foes.