Beowulf: Supplementary Materials:

Hulme, W.H., Review of The Tale of Beowulf, Modern Language Notes, 15.1 (January 1900): 22-26.


Notes on Beowulf. By Thomas Arnold, M.A. London: Longmans, Greens, and Co. 1898. 8vo, pp. 140.
The Tale of Beowulf sometime King of the Folk of the Weder Geats. Translated by William Morris and A.J. Wyatt. London: Longmans, Green, and Co. 1898. 8vo, pp. x, 191.

Tales of the Heroic Ages: Siegfried, the Hero of the North, and Beowulf, the Hero of the Anglo-Saxons. By Zenaïde A. Ragozin. Illustrated by George T. Tobin. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons. 1898. 8vo, pp. xxii, 332.

ARNOLD’S Notes will prove a valuable help to English and American students of the epic of Beowulf. While similar books1 have appeared from time to time in Germany for almost the past twenty-five years, England and America have published nothing of equal importance on Beowulf philology. True, there is little new light offered on any of the obscurities of the various Beowulf questions. In fact the author disclaims at the outset any serious attempt at original views.

1Cf. Müllenhoff’s Beowulf, and Sarrazin’s Beowulf Studien, two of the most important.

“The object of the present ‘Notes’,” he says (p. 2), “is to do what I think has not yet been done: namely, to place before the English reader the present position of Continental and British opinion on the leading Beowulf questions. To propose or enforce any views of my own, except to a very limited extent, and then chiefly in connection with the authorship, has not been attempted.”

The larger part of Arnold’s book is devoted to the examination and elucidation of the theories and opinions of Müllenhoff and Sarrazin. Moreover“the language of the poem, the nature of the story and of the episodes contained in it, the allusions to historical events, dynasties, tribes, and individuals, the date, the authorship, the possible transformations,” are all briefly discussed. There are, very properly, few attempts at the interpretation of doubtful words or disputed passages. And while the author agrees with Sarrazin in his general theory of a Scandinavian home and original for the English Beowulf, he frequently takes issue with the German critic in the matter of details, and does not hesitate to repudiate the latter’s somewhat aus der Luft gegriffene theory of the Cynewulfian authorship of Beowulf, as well as of Andreas and Guðiac.

The Frontispiece to the book is a map. “The Geography of Beowulf,” showing the, in many cases supposed, location of the places and tribes mentioned in the poem.

The Contents are conveniently arranged into nine divisions or chapters, with an “Index” appended. As the Table of Contents contains a brief outline of the subject-matter, a repetition of it here will give a sufficient idea of the scope of the book and of the character of the discussion:

I. Object of ‘Notes’—Language of the poem West-Saxon—Compared with that of Chronicle A—Scandinavian element—Diction compared with the Homeric.
II. Analysis of Beowulf—The question of interpolations—Müllenhoff’s view—Episodes—1. Fin and Hnæf—2. Wars between the Swedes and the Geatas—3. Ingeld and Freawaru.
III. Beowulf a Dano-Geatic legend—Allusions in it to Denmark—Anglen—To the Geatas or Goths—Heorot and Leire—Queen Wealhþeow—Sigemund and Here-mod—Offa and Anglen—The Geatas.
IV. Allusions to other peoples and tribes—The Headðobards—The Brondings—The Gepidæ, etc.
V. Allusions connecting Beowulf with the Nibelungen Lay.
VI. The Geography of Beowulf.
VII. Scandinavian sources—Starkad—Use by the poet of his materials.
VIII. Date of composition—Authorship of the English poem—Müllenhoff’s ‘atheteses’—How far reasonable—Different theories considered—Parallel passages in Beowulf­­ and the Cynewulfine poems compared—Parallel passages in the Andreas and Beowulf—in Guðiac and Beowulf—Priority and originality of Beowulf—Authorship of the Epos unknown.
IX. Mythological theories.

On the similarity of diction between Beowulf and the Homeric poems, and the importance of this similarity in placing the date of the composition of the poem, Arnold remarks (pp. 10-12):

“In a poem of known late date, such as Byrhtnoth, written about the end of the tenth century, the definite article is employed much more frequently. Again, the boasting of the Homeric heroes is curiously paralleled in Beowulf, especially in the passages where he sets Hunferð right as to the swimming match which he had with Breca…. There is also a Homeric colour about the description of arms, houses, clothes, etc., in Beowulf, proceeding not, of course, from direct imitation, but from parity of social circumstances and ruling ideas.  That naïve and fresh delight with which in the Homeric poems mention is made of everything made or used by man, as if the sense of the human initiative were a recent and delicious perception, and the mind were only beginning to become conscious, and to take pride in the consciousness, of the inventive skills of the race, is largely found also in Beowulf, and that to a degree not equalled by any other Anglo-Saxon poem….. The student of Beowulf will, the closer becomes his acquaintance with the poem, be more and more firmly convinced that it represents a very early stage of Anglo-Saxon culture.”

While he agrees with Sarrazin2 in laying the scene of the story “in the Danish islands, Gotland or Gautland, the southern province of Sweden, and the seas between them” (p. 13), Arnold does not seem to believe in the latter’s view3 of the identity of Heorot “with Lethra and its temple of worship.”

2 Beow. Stud. p. 4 et seq.
3 Anglia xix, 368 et seq.

“If,” he says (p. 41), “Heorot be identified with Leire, then the same place which, in Beowulf, the most ancient authority, is represented as the creation of a Danish king, and in every sense Danish, must be regarded also as the capital of the Headðobards, whom both Müllenhoff and Sarrazin believe to have been a Germanic people. Heorot, therefore, cannot be identified with Leire.”

It is further suggested (p. 42) that Leire could not have existed in the time of Hroðgar, otherwise it would have been mentioned along with Heorot in Beowulf or in Widsið, the most ancient sources we possess. In another place (p.82) Arnold says,

“the view of Sarrazin and Danish scholars that the site of Hroðgar’s mansion must be placed in close proximity to that of Leire, near the head of the Röskilde Fiord in Zealand, is now generally accepted.”

He also rejects in toto (p. 83 et seq.), the opposite theory of Bugge4 that Gautland is identical to Jutland, and that, therefore, the Geatas and Jutes are one and the same people.

4 Cf. Beilr. xij.

From meagre references in the poem itself, the author concludes (p. 111)

Beowulf, as we know it, was composed within the period 568-752. From this interval the first hundred years may be deducted, partly to allow for the lapse of time since the hero’s burial, partly because Anglo-Saxon culture, before the arrival of Christianity, and without some literary practice, could not have been equal to such a task…. This deduction made, the upper limit of time within which Beowulf was probably composed, becomes 670, and the lower limit 750.”

As to the interpolation theories of Müllenhoff and others,

“the lines 1725-1769—,” he says (p. 113), “a moral discourse put into the mouth of Hroðgar in continuation of his remarks comparing Beowulf with Heremod, are generally allowed to be an interpolation. Comparing 107-114 and 1262-1267, passages both of which refer to Cain, and speak of him as the progenitor of monsters, there seems much reason to think that one of them must be interpolated. The dull and unnecessary passage 3039-3076 is more likely to have been the addition of a stupid copyist than the work of the original writer. Many other passages we should be inclined to sacrifice to Müllenhoff’s strictures, if only the least fragment of additional evidence were forthcoming; as it is, it appears preferable to accept the text on the whole nearly as it has come down to us.”

The author still holds partially (cf. pp. 114-115) to the theory advanced in the Introduction to his edition of Beowulf (1876),

“that both the choice of subject and the grade of Culture which are met with in Beowulf, might be connected with the missionary efforts of the English Church of those days to extend Christianity in Friesland and farther east…. It does not appear improbably that it was in the interest of the spread of Christianity that the composer of Beowulf, perhaps a missioner, perhaps a layman attached to the mission, was attracted to the Scandinavian lands; that he resided there long enough to become thoroughly steeped in the folklore and local traditions; that he found the grand figure of Beowulf the Geat predominant in them; and that, weaving into an organic whole those which he found suitable to his purpose, he composed an Epic which, on his return home, must soon have become known to all the lovers of English song.”

Such a theory naturally brings him to a consideration of Sarrazin’s5 attempt to identify “this hypothetical poet” with “the celebrated Cynewulf.” On this point Arnold is “unable to share his (Sarrazin’s) opinion;” and after quoting several of the parallel passages between Beowulf and Crist, Beowulf and Juliana, Beowulf and Elene which are pointed out by Sarrzin,6 he says (p.119): “In all but one of these passages the priority of the Beowulf poet, and the indebtedness of Cynewulf, appear to me indisputable.” Again, he says (p. 120):
“Although the evidence of the parallel passages which have been examined appears to tell strongly, on the whole, for the originality and priority of the Beowulf writer as compared with Cynewulf, yet, if the style of the latter poet, estimated by means of the work certainly his, bore a manifest resemblance to that of the Epos, the theory of the identity of Cynewulf and the last interpolator of Beowulf might not be without its attractiveness. But no such resemblance exists.”

Arnold further expresses the opinion (p. 123)

“that the writer of Andreas was not Cynewulf, but that, like Cynewulf, he was a firm admirer of Beowulf, and borrowed from it many phrases and locations;” and he thinks Guðiac “was probably written by a Croyland monk, and not later than about 740.” There is“no reason for assigning it to Cynewulf…. The tone is grave and pious, but not at all excitable, the morbid and introspective tendency of Cynewulf is wholly absent. That the author was well acquainted with the Beowulf, and composed his poem later, may be considered certain.”7

5 Beow. Stud. 183 et seq.
6 Ibid. 110 et seq. cf. Engi, Sind. xxiii, 227 et seq.
7 Cf. pp. 123-127.

Comparatively little space (four pages) is devoted to the numerous “Mythological8 theories” which have been associated by German and Scandinavian scholars with the Beowulf epos. This and the general tenor of the author’s remarks would seem to indicate that he attaches very little importance to the attempts of recent German and Scandinavian critics to build up various Norse mythological theories from the vague hints in the poem itself.9 He emphasizes the fact (pp. 141-2)

“that the great ruling myths which governed the Northern mind at the time when the Scandinavian saga10 was composed, are, if not passed over in silence, yet very faintly shown in Beowulf. There is no mention of Woden, Frey, Thor, Balder, Frigga, Loki, or any other of the popular divinities. The great ‘doppel-mythus,’ as Sarrazin calls it, in which Balder and Frey, Siegfried and Gunther, Tristan and Mark, seem to belong to the same chapter of old nature-worship, finds nothing in Beowulf to correspond to it.”

8 Cf. Siever’s on Mythus u. Sage in Beowulf u. Saxo, in Berichte der königl.-Sächs, Gesellack, der Wissenschafter
9 Cf. especially Sarrazia, Beow. Stud. p. 47 et seq. Nieder, Die Dioskuren im Beowulf, Zfd. A. 42, 229 f.
10 Arnold sees no reason for holding with Sarrazin (Beow. Stud., 92 f., Engl. Stud. xxiii, 230) that Starkad was the author of the original Norse Beowulf epos (cf. p. 102 f.).

            The new edition of Morris’s translation of Beowulf is merely a reprint of the Kelmscott Press edition of 1895. Although the first edition was published four years ago, the expensiveness of the book and the small number issued, made it from the beginning all but inaccessible to students and admirers of Beowulf. In fact, if Beowulf students in this country did not happen to read the excellent review of the book in the Athenæum for August 10, 1895, its existence was probably for the most part unknown. This new edition will, therefore, be especially welcome to every one who is interested in this remarkable poem, and who is not so fortunate as to possess a copy of the original edition.

William Morris has, it seems to me, combined in his version of Beowulf two essential features of every really great translation in verse. He has successfully (for the first time in the case of Beowulf) imitated the metrical form, and reproduced as far as it is possible, the spirit of the Old English original. The rugged vigour, the healthy imagination, and the general epic tone of the original are all found in Morris’s translation. Until I had read Morris’s version I was a strong advocate of the irregular, four accent lines,11 with Cæsura, and without any effort at the preservation of the alliteration, as the best modern verse-form for Old English poetry. And unless the translator be a sympathetic, “inspired” poet, such as William Morris was, he cannot use the alliterative line with effect, while he may be able to make the irregular line of four accents more interesting to one who is reading for the thought of the poem. Such a reader will also get more of the spirit and atmosphere of the original from the smoothly flowing irregular line of four accents, because the alliterative line of itself, if not infused with the breath of inspiration, is too apt to attract the attention of the general reader to its outward form: the strongly accentuated alliterative syllables, which when continuously used, are totally foreign to the genius of modern English poetry. The fact that all modern English poets occasionally employ alliteration in order to produce some extraordinary artistic effect, does not indicate a tendency toward alliteration in modern poetry.

11 Employed by Prof. Jas. M. Garnett in his meritorious translation of Beowulf.

A literal reproduction of both the verse-form and the matter of the original may fail to transmit the spirit. Prof. Fulton12 truly says “a translation which does not seek to reproduce the manner as well as the matter of its original cannot, of course, give anything like a true and adequate idea of that original.”

And the stress that has been placed upon the literal reproduction of matter and form at the cost of that of manner or spirit is the chief defect of most of the modern versions of Beowulf. But the ideal metrical translation must have a sympathetic, comprehensive, inspired translator, who by the magic touch of genius is enabled to subordinate the matter and form of the original to, and infuse them with, the spirit of true poetic feeling.

12 Publications Mod. Lang. Assoc. xiii, p. 289. For extended discussions of the “Translation of Beowulf.” Cf. among others. Gummore, Amer. Jour. of Philol. vii, p. 46 et seq.: Garnett, Publications Mod. Lang. Assoc. vi, p. 95 et seq.: Stopford Brooks, Early English Lit.

Morris’s translation will hardly attract the general reader, and it was evidently not intended to serve as a college text-book, because the author uses too many obsolete and archaic words. Now and then one comes upon clauses and lines that are about as difficult to interpret as the original, for which even the brief vocabulary of “some words not commonly used now” does not always give sufficient help. On the whole, however, the translation of Morris gives the beauties of the original, and spirits the reader away to the romantic days of Hroðgar in Heorot and Hygelac in Geatland as no other modern version, now in existence, will do. The critic in the Athenæum13 says:

“We can well imagine that this translation of ‘Beowulf’ into rhymeless alliterative lines will seem uncouth to the general reader whose ear is familiar only with the quantitative scansion of classic movements and the accentual prosody of modern rhyme and Blank verse. But if the business of the translator of an ancient poem is to pour the old wine into new bottles with as little loss as possible of the original aroma, Mr. Morris’s efforts have been crowned with entire success…. So powerful is the vision at work in this glorious poem, that it seems the product not of a poetical artificer, but of Nature herself…. The last crowning excellence in all poetry is that it shall seem to be inspired, and one of the greatest aids to this is that the struggle between matter and form shall be so little apparent that the movement seems the inevitable outcome of him who tells the tale or sings the song.”

13 August 10, 1895.


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