The answer to whether Beowulf is sophisticated or crude lies in establishing its historical origins. Therefore, it is important to examine the author, perhaps more so than the text. However, an examination of both reveals that author and text are anything but crude.
Beowulf, the oldest surviving English epic, dates between the eighth and tenth centuries. Despite the 200-year span when the work could have been written, its subject matter relates to events that took place centuries before. In fact, the epic poem artistically captures the events of England’s Germanic origins.
According to Norton Anthology editors, the poet, not only documented some historical facts but also succeeded in “reviving the heroic language style, and pagan world of ancient Germanic oral poetry, a world that was already remote to his contemporaries” (Norton Anthology Vol.1, 29).
The author, conjectured to be a Christian, manages to describe a pagan world, outside his everyday experience, through Christian allusions. Moreover, he does so by transcending language barriers. His text was composed in a dialect known as Marcia, while his references must have taken any number of while his references must have taken any number of lingual identities/backgrounds.
In terms of its relative meaning Norton’s Anthology editors allege the text to be “…a remarkable and difficult work even in its own day” (Norton Anthology Vol. 1, 29), more so now given the limited information on Germanic oral epics.
Secondly, as evidence of its sophistication, Beowulf is prolific with recognizable epic conventions, examples of Christian-pagan sympathy, and even creative linguistic ability. It is episodic and with only a brief history of the problems confronting the Danes, arguably begins in medias res. In fact, “…the poem turns on Beowulf’s three great fights against preternatural evil, which inhabits human society (Norton Anthology Vol. I, 30). The author successfully develops a larger than life enemy for his hero to confront. He arguably aligns the hero Beowulf with a larger trajectory of magnanimous Christians, among them, the first and most notable, Jesus Christ.
Still, epic conventions aside, the author employs rather sophisticated writing techniques. There is evidence he was a “wordsmith,” as the poem is prolific with “…hapax legomena – that is, words recorded only once in a language…” (Norton Anthology Vol. I, 29). This suggests the writer was comfortable enough with linguistics to invent words, which more aptly captured his literary intent.
In addition to his linguistic abilities, there is evidence the author of Beowulf knew how to manipulate poetic conventions. For example, his poem uses conventions common to oral poetry, like chiastic cyanghanedd in line 154 of the poem “nothing but war; how he would never,” which creates the consonant repetition of n/w/w/n (Norton Anthology Vol. I, 35).
Another example of the same technique is alternative cyanghanedd where he creates consonant repetition with line 126 of the poem, “then as dawn, brightened and the day broke,” d/b/d/b (Norton Anthology Vol. I, 35). Clearly the author is sophisticated enough a writer to emulate, in writing style, the ancient Germanic or Old English oral tradition of using certain patterns of consonants to remember lines.
Finally, as further evidence of its sophistication Beowulf is written in such a manner that it allows readers to extrapolate meaning beyond the text. That is to say, figures like Beowulf’s three enemies could symbolize, in terms of Christian convention, Satan and/or his imps. In essence, these figures are non-corporeal and evidential of the author’s successful creation of figures, which transcend his age to have meaning for future Christian audiences. In addition, the author recreates in vivid detail, a world preceding his own and simultaneously left for future generations, a glimpse into the ancient Germanic world.
Consequently, Beowulf is by no means crude when one considers the author of the work and its socio-historical background. Clearly, a sophisticated person, well read and educated on ancient German history and tradition and possessed of aesthetic ability wrote this poem. He deliberately sought to and succeeded in writing a timeless work, one that recreates a time centuries before his own while transcending, in terms of cultural relevance, any post-Christian age. In writing Beowulf, the author employs a number of techniques, which suggest a cosmopolitan viewpoint informed the work. Beowulf, complex and written by a refined author, is the antithesis of crude.
Anoymous. “Beowulf.” The Norton Anthology English Literature . Volume I. 7th edition. Ed. M.H. Abrams and Stephen Greenblatt. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2000. 29-99.