Scholars working on Beowulf, the epic Anglo-Saxon poem of the late 10th to early 11th century, have long debated the exact nature of its authorship. Set in Scandinavia, the tale focuses on the hero Beowulf and his quest to defeat the terrible monster Grendel and his equally vicious mother. As if this weren’t enough, after his (spoiler alert) heroic victory against the pair, Beowulf’s troubles are not quite over as he then goes on to tackle a dragon. Some people just get all the glory.

For many years, one popular scholarly theory suggested that the text may have been composed from two separate poems, later joined together. Others, however, including J.R.R Tolkien, supported the single authorship hypothesis. Recent research has employed the most up-to-date technology to search for an answer to this question. Academics from China and the USA focused on the points in the text which some scholars argue indicate a split, and analyzed them closely using computer programmes, going into more detail than had previously been possible. Part of their work was looking at small features of the text such as slight differences in rhythm. The results indicated extensive similarities between both sides of the poem, suggesting that it was indeed the work of a single author rather than a copy-and-paste job of disparate texts.

In order to corroborate these findings, they also analysed a different text- the epic Genesis, an Old English text dealing with the biblical creation story and the fall of Satan, which is widely believed to have been the work of two poets. The research backed this up, showing different uses of pauses and compound words. Although these results are not conclusive, it is certainly interesting to see how developments in algorithms and computer programming can be game-changers in the field of literary criticism.

Applicants for English, especially those who will be studying Old English and the development of the English language as part of their course, might be interested in looking into the scholarly debates surrounding Beowulf and other Old English texts. If you are applying to the Oxford course, take note as this is especially relevant for you. Being up-to-date with the latest methods in literary analysis will also make you an impressive candidate at interview, as it is something that most other applicants will not have not looked into!

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