Computer Analysis Says ‘Beowulf’ Is the Work of a Single Author

Academics have argued about the origins of the Old English epic for two centuries

Beowulf First Page
The British Library

Many ancient texts are the work of multiple authors that have been mashed up into one story over the course of generations. Works like The Iliad and The Odyssey ascribed to the blind poet Homer are likely authored by generations of would-be Homers. The same goes for the Old Testament of the Bible. But new research suggests one piece of writing believed to be the work of several poets is actually the work of one wordsmith. Computer-based analysis of the Old English poem Beowulf indicates it’s the work of single author.

The origins of the epic poem about a Danish hero’s quest to kill Grendel and later the monster's vengeful mother, have been debated for centuries. The only known version of the poem came from a vellum codex, likely composed around 1000 and saved for centuries in a monastery. It wasn’t until 1815, however, that the first printed version was published. The first English edition came out in 1833.

According to a press release, scholars found the manuscript odd from the beginning, suggesting it was at least two poems stitched together. In the original manuscript the handwriting changes abruptly mid-sentence, suggesting two scribes worked on the document. And stylistically some of the poem feels disconnected, with strange sections about Beowulf's swimming ability and tales of unrelated ancient kings.

Readers noticed that from the start. ”[T]he unity of the work was almost immediately attacked,” Harvard postdoc Madison Krieger, co-author of the paper in the journal Nature Human Behavior says.

To assess the poem’s authorship, the team split the original text of Beowulf into two sections and analyzed each using cutting edge textual analysis to see if they came from two different authors. They analyzed features like the rhythm of the poem, the pauses, clusters of letters and joined words, all of which can serve as the fingerprint of an author.

Despite all the weird asides, the textual analysis indicates that the poem was written by a single author, even though it appears two different scribes wrote out the vellum manuscript. That’s in contrast to another Old English epic called Genesis, which was also believed to be by more than one author. Analysis of that poem shows noticeable differences between its various parts.

“Our work demonstrates a stylistic homogeneity of Beowulf on a level never before documented,” Krieger tells Tom Whipple at The Times. “So it’s fair to say that we’ve tipped the needle slightly more towards unitary authorship.”

The study is something of a vindication for a man who knew a thing or two about epics. In a 1936 paper, J.R.R. Tolkien argued that the poem was the work of one author, at a time when most academics believed it was the work of multiple poets. Tolkien, as it happens, relied on the poem’s content and themes for his argument, a case now bolstered by the textual analysis.

If the epic is by one creative force, it opens up a lot more questions, like what’s the deal with all the swimming and other unrelated tangents. “Maybe one of the biggest takeaways from this is about how you structured a story back then,” Krieger says in the release. “Maybe we have just lost the ability to read literature in the way people at the time would have understood it, and we should try to understand how these asides actually fit into the story.”

The textual analysis used to look at Beowulf isn’t just good at detecting ancient authors. Whipple reports that the paper authors hope similar tools can help identify social media posts written by troll farms, a use that could help stop modern-day cyber-Grendels.

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