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The Old English Verse 'Beowulf' Was Likely Written by a Single Author

The tale of Beowulf is thought to have been written sometime between 700 and 1000 a.d.
The tale of Beowulf is thought to have been written sometime between 700 and 1000 a.d.
(Image: © Katomi/CC BY-NC 2.0)

Over a thousand years ago, a writer (or writers) penned an epic poem about a warrior named Beowulf who must defeat an evil monster (the story is replete with power struggles, lots of killing and, yes, a fire-breathing dragon). That famous work, "Beowulf," is now one of the anchors of Old English literature.

It's unclear who wrote the poem; because certain sections are seemingly disconnected, some scholars have suggested that the piece had multiple authors. [Fossil Record: A Gallery of 'Bugged' Medieval Books]

But a new study finds evidence to the contrary. Based on a computer analysis that examined style markers in the prose, a group of researchers says that "Beowulf" was likely written by a single person, according to an April 8 report in the journal Nature Human Behaviour.

The group used a technique called "stylometry," which is a statistical way of analyzing the "style" of literature. The researchers used a computer program to analyze different style indicators such as meter, which is similar to the rhythm of a song — the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables that make up a line — as well as word choice and placement of pauses.

The team examined word choice based on "letter combinations," such as counting the number of times a combination of letters "ab" and "ac" was used throughout. The analysis also included so-called "sense pause," which is a small pause between sentences and between ideas or clauses, where punctuation marks in modern English might go, according to a statement about the study.

"Across many of the proposed breaks in the poem, we see that these measures are homogeneous," co-lead author Madison Krieger, a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University, said in the statement. "The absence of major stylistic shifts is an argument for unity," Krieger said.

Some 19th-century scholars had interpreted certain changes in the story itself as evidence of multiple authors. For example, interspersed throughout the story of Beowulf's encounter with the monster Grendel and their ensuing battles are sections describing Beowulf's swimming prowess and royalty from hundreds of years prior, according to the statement.

Also, the handwriting of the original manuscript changes midway through the work. The person who appears to have taken over also seems to have proofread the writing from the first scribe, according to the statement.

But in the 1900s, J.R.R. Tolkein, the famous writer of "Lord of the Rings," challenged this view. He wrote the lecture-turned-paper "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics" in 1936, which gave momentum to the other viewpoint that Beowulf was written by a single person. His reasoning was that the theme of Christianity is uniformly woven throughout.

"Arguments based on the poem's content or its author's supposed belief system are vital, of course, but equally important are arguments based on the nitty-gritty of stylistic details," Krieger said in the statement. In any case, he doesn't think the new study results will settle the debate about how many people wrote Beuwolf.

The team now hopes to look at other texts using this approach and to understand how English style evolved to its modern-day arrangement.

Originally published on Live Science.