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THE AUTHOR AND HIS TIMES
Who wrote Beowulf-the oldest known epic poem written in English-is a question that has mystified readers for centuries. It's generally thought that the poem was performed orally by the poet before a "live" audience, and that in this way it eventually passed down to readers and listeners. Another theory is that the poem was recited by memory by a "scop," a traveling entertainer who went from court to court, singing songs and telling stories, until it was finally written down at the request of a king who wanted to hear it again.
Because there are three major battle scenes in the poem, some readers believe that Beowulf was composed by three different authors. Other readers claim that the sections that take place in Denmark and the sections that occur after Beowulf returns to Geatland were the work of different authors. The majority of critics agree that because of the unified structure of the poem, with its interweaving of historical information into the flow of the main narrative, the poem was most likely composed by one person.
As you read the poem try to imagine yourself in the banquet hall of a large castle, eating and drinking with your friends. The court entertainer-much like a stand-up comedian in a nightclub-begins telling his story. Your presence in the hall means that you're probably a member of the aristocratic class, either a descendant of the founder of a particular tribe or one of your king's followers. (Anglo-Saxon society was divided into two main classes: the aristocracy and the proletariat. Beowulf, as you'll see, gives us very little information about the life of the average person in Anglo-Saxon society, but concerns itself exclusively with life in the court and on the battlefield.)
Most of the stories were written and recited during this time to entertain and instruct the members of the aristocratic class. The scop assumed that his audience was familiar with the stories of ancient times. It was his job to make them as interesting and as vivid as possible.