Ever since Tolkien’s famous lecture in 1936, it has been generally accepted that the poem Beowulf is a fantasy, and of no use as a witness to real history. This book challenges that view, and argues that the poem provides a plausible, detailed, and consistent vision of pre-Viking history which is most unlikely to have been the poet’s invention, and which has moreover received strong corroboration from archaeology in recent years. Using the poem as a starting point, historical, archaeological, and legendary sources are combined to form a picture of events in the North in the fifth and sixth centuries: at once a Dark and a Heroic Age, and the time of the formation of nations. Among other things, this helps answer two long-unasked questions: why did the Vikings come as such a shock? And what caused the previous 250 years of security from raiders from the sea?
Preface and Acknowledgements
Introduction: Fantasy or History?
Chapter 1: Poetry and Archaeology
Chapter 2: Old Legend, New Reality
Chapter 3: The Bigger Picture
Chapter 4: The Non-National Epic?
Although this book examines the historical contexts of the Old English poem Beowulf from a variety of perspectives, it is directed not toward historians (although they are surely part of the book’s broader audience) but primarily toward students and scholars of Beowulf. The arguments of the book are presented in a very readable, accessible style, so it is also directed toward a general audience that is interested in either Beowulf or early Scandinavian history, or both.[...]Tolkien presented his British Academy lecture as a correction of what he saw as an over-emphasis on legendary history to the detriment of the poem as poem. Perhaps, if we are fortunate, Shippey’s book will contribute to a similar correction and return the historical dimensions of the poem to the center of our critical concerns. To this end, he explores these dimensions from as many perspectives as possible.~Dennis Cronan, SELIM: Journal of the Spanish Society for Medieval English Language and Literature 28 (2023): 137–40