As millions will be seeing the new Beowulf ‘virtual-reality’ film over the holidays, I thought it would be appropriate here to consider the source manuscript itself, whose survival is itself both a wonder and a mystery.
Unlike many early popular works it survives in a single manuscript copy. Scholars refer to this as the Nowell Codex after the Elizabethan antiquarian scholar who compiled the vellum (sheep-skin) codex which includes the 3,184 line poem. Laurence Nowell was the pioneer of Anglo-Saxon Studies in England, and it’s only fitting he preserved the most important work in Old English literature. His patron was the influential Elizabethan courtier Sir William Cecil, for whom he drew some of the first maps of Britain – both large-scale and pocket atlases. This employment gave him access to private libraries, and he was able to create the first Old English dictionary, the Vocabularium Saxonicum. (He was also tutor to Cecil's protégé, the 17th Earl of Oxford who is central to the Shakespeare-authorship controversy.)
The Nowell Codex (it has his name, 'Laurence Nouell', with the date 1563, at the front) includes a Life Of Saint Christopher, a fantastical travel account called ‘Marvels Of The East,’ a translated letter from Alexander to his tutor Aristotle, a partial retelling the Biblical account of Judith – and Beowulf. The vellum codex became part of the library collection of Sir Robert Cotton, to whom we owe the survival of many early MSS. However this one nearly did not survive, only escaping a fire in 1731 because one of the rescuers threw it out the window. As it was, the binding was wrecked, the page edges were singed, and pages steadily crumbled away, eating into the text. By then it had become part of a British Library bound volume (along with another ‘composite codex’). Printing was only undertaken in 1815, using the transcription done by a visiting Icelandic scholar in 1786.
Since then, there have been many translations, retellings and commentaries, the most sought-after being those by Tolkien and poet Seamus Heaney, who also did an audio version.
But how exactly the manuscript came to be preserved is not explained. When it was found in 1563, the manuscript was then already over 5 centuries old, being dated to around 1000 AD, and perhaps transcribed from an oral saga composed five centuries before that. It has been argued it must have been special in some way to have been preserved in a Christian English society, both as a story and then as a manuscript, for it celebrates their hated, feared, pagan enemies, the Danes who brought terror and chaos to England in the Viking Age. The Vikings were a particular enemy of the monasteries which controlled the manuscripts of the time.
One possibility recently suggested by a Kent County archaeologist is that the story is set in England, in Kent, rather than Denmark. He has argued there are references to features such as a Roman road which would not apply to Denmark. The text also has a special ‘flashback’ dedicated to Hengist, the legendary but obscure leader of the English conquest, who founded the first Saxon kingdom of England in Kent. Others have argued that Beowulf’s people the Geats are the same as the Jutes (pronounced Yutes) who Bede said invaded alongside the Angles and Saxons. There is an additional argument possible here regarding Beowulf, that the core of the main ‘Grendel’ story was inspired by a real incident. But this will have to wait for another time as we have not space here to do justice to the argument, which involves an explanation of the monster Grendel’s actual biological species.