Tolkien was right: Scholars conclude Beowulf likely the work of single author

Illustration of Beowulf about to battle a fire-breathing dragon. A new study using a statistical technique called stylometry provides further evidence the poem was the work of a single author.

Enlarge / Illustration of
Beowulf about to battle a fire-breathing dragon. A new study using
a statistical technique called stylometry provides further evidence
the poem was the work of a single author. (credit:
Public domain
)

The epic poem Beowulf is the most famous surviving work of Old
English literature. For decades, scholars have hotly debated both
when the poem was composed and whether it was the work of a single
anonymous author (“the Beowulf poet”). Lord of the Rings’ scribe
J.R.R. Tolkien was among those who famously championed the
single-author stance. Now researchers at Harvard University have
conducted a statistical analysis and concluded that there was very
likely just one author, further bolstering Tolkien’s case. They
published their findings in a recent
paper
in Nature Human Behavior.

Set in Scandinavia, Beowulf recounts the adventures of its
titular hero. The Danish King Hrothgar’s mead hall is under attack
from a monster called Grendel. Beowulf obligingly slays the beast,
incurring the wrath of Grendel’s equally monstrous mother. He slays
her, too, and eventually becomes king of his people, the Geats.
Some 50 years after those adventures, Beowulf slays a dragon,
although he is killed in the process. Scholars believe many of the
characters are based on historical figures in sixth-century
Scandinavia.

The original manuscript dates back to between the eighth and
early 11th centuries; a more precise date is one of the most heated
academic debates
about Beowulf
. The second debate centers on whether Beowulf is
the work of many different authors, stitched together from multiple
sources, or a single person. According to Madison Krieger, a
postdoc in evolutionary dynamics at Harvard University and one of
the new paper’s authors, the questions about Beowulf’s authorship
began in earnest in 1815 with the publication of the first widely
available edition of the poem.

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Source: FS – All – Science – News
Tolkien was right: Scholars conclude Beowulf likely the work of single author