ARCHAEOLOGY / 'Beowulf' belongs to England after all: An early literary epic has been reclaimed from the Vikings, reports David Keys

David Keys@davidmkeys
Monday 21 September 2015 12:23

SCHOLARS are reclaiming England's first great work of literature. Over the past decade many academics had thought that the epic poem Beowulf was based on imported foreign material brought in, in oral form, by the Vikings in the 10th century, and merely translated and adapted into its still surviving English written version.

But now new research is suggesting that the work is indeed authentically English, composed in written form in the 8th century AD and based on a series of 5th- and 6th-century orally transmitted poems.

Reclaiming Beowulf for England has taken Dr Sam Newton, the Anglo-Saxon literature specialist, seven years of study. His research on the complicated historical and mythical genealogies of the epic poem's heroes shows that the major characters in Beowulf are, in fact, mostly those revered by the early English, not by 10th-century Vikings.

He also points out that most significant proper names in the poem are from ancestral English, not 10th-century Scandinavian prototypes; and that there is a complete absence of Scandinavian loan-words in Beowulf.

But most significantly, Dr Newton, who has just written a book on his findings, has carried out an unprecedentedly detailed analysis of the relationship between the famous great early 7th-century ship burials at Sutton Hoo, Suffolk, and the ship funeral described in Beowulf. Comparing the archaeological evidence with that in the poem, he concludes that the account of the funeral in Beowulf was influenced by East Anglian royal burial rights.

Royal regalia excavated at Sutton Hoo in 1939, and now in the British Museum, prove that the cultural origins of both the Sutton Hoo material and the poem are one and the same. The iconography and general design of the great royal helmet found at Sutton Hoo is uncannily similar to royal 'battle masks' described in Beowulf. Indeed 'mask' is really a more appropriate term than 'helmet' as the front of the Sutton Hoo head-gear would have entirely covered the face.

The 'battle mask' in the poem boasts images of boars above the cheek-guards. So does the Sutton Hoo example. In the poem the helmet's iron 'upper crest' is described as being 'wirum bewunden' (bound with wire). So is the Sutton Hoo version.

Referred to frequently in the Beowulf epic are gold- and gem-encrusted weapons such as Beowulf's 'mathumsweord' (treasure sword) and his other sword, his 'sincmathum' (inlaid jewelled treasure). The sword unearthed at Sutton Hoo parallels these descriptions exactly - especially the latter term. The gold decorated hilt and scabbard of the Sutton Hoo royal sword are indeed 'inlaid' with cut garnets. Even the chain mail described in Beowulf is paralleled by finds at Sutton Hoo. The poem's 'searonet seowed smithes orthancum' ('mail coat woven by the skills of the smith') has its equal at Sutton Hoo: a knee-length coat of mail from one of the site's largest burial mounds.

Royal tradition preserved in Beowulf shows that the stag was already an emblem of kingship in early Anglo-Saxon England. A key piece of royal regalia - a ceremonial sword sharpening stone adorned with a beautiful bronze stag - sends the same message from Sutton Hoo. Last but not least is the importance of the rival harp. It too features in both the poem and at Sutton Hoo. These details are in addition to the fundamental similarity of burial rite - great ship funerals - in both Beowulf and at Sutton Hoo.

Dr Newton's research - including his in- depth study of the poem's and Sutton Hoo's common cultural background - returns Beowulf to the English. It suggests that the revisionist academic consensus of the past decade has been wrong, and that earlier views, generally accepted until the mid-1970s, were, in the main, correct.

Lying behind the academic debate is one understandably confusing factor. Whether the Beowulf epic was created by the English (the Anglo-Saxon) or, as Beowulf revisionists would argue, by the Viking Danes, the events described in the poem certainly all took place in 5th- or 6th-century Denmark and adjacent areas. The confusion stems from the fact that many of the English and many of the Vikings came originally from the same area, but at different times, indeed 500 years apart. In those 500 years (between the 'English' emigration from Denmark and the 'Viking' emigration from Denmark), the language and culture of what had originally been two ethnically identical groups grew apart.

What Dr Newton's research shows is that the Beowulf story took the 'English' cultural route from Denmark to Britain, not the later Viking one. It means that the epic poem is the product of hundreds of years of development in England itself, and that the story is indeed about the roots of the early English.

Dr Sam Newton's reclaiming of Beowulf for England, The Origins of Beowulf and the Pre-Viking Kingdom of East Anglia, is published by D S Brewer at pounds 35. All the major Sutton Hoo finds, unearthed in the 1930s and in the early 1990s, can be seen at the British Museum in galleries 38 and 41. The great royal battle mask (helmet), the sword, a spectacular gold buckle, a gem-studded shield boss, a beautiful garnet, inlaid purse fitting, silver dishes, various gold and garnet- adorned royal artefacts and dozens of other items are on permanent display. British Museum Publications has published a book on the site, The Sutton Hoo Ship Burial by Angela Care Evans, pounds 6.95.

(Photograph omitted)

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