An Analysis of the Arguably Unified Poem, Beowulf
Beowulf as a less than unified work, more important for its historical and philological content than its literary merit, and critics after him regard Beowulf as a unified work of art. For example, of the critics who discuss the poem as a whole in An Anthology of Beowulf Criticism, most agree pace Tolkien that Beowulf is a unified poem, even if they argue so on different grounds.
Burton Raffel's introduction to his own translation offers a particularly exuberant example of post-Tolkien Beowulf criticism:
[W]e are remarkably lucky to have [Beowulf]: not only is it unique, the sole survivor of what might have been a thriving epic tradition, but it is great poetry. Approached as an archaeological relic, it is fascinating. Taken as a linguistic document, it is a marvel ... But Beowulf's position as a great poem must remain primary; the other purposes it serves are important but peripheral to this central fact of sheer literary merit. (x)
This view of Beowulf has become so common that its unity is taken by many critics as a self-evident fact. As one might expect, however, the certainty of this view is not apodictic. The issue of unity is one naturally raised by the critics, because Beowulf presents certain difficulties for critical analysis. The manuscript support for the poem is limited to one damaged copy written in two hands and provides little help in determining its origin and authorship. The poem itself has two parts that differ in content. The first part contains many allusions to the Old Testament, implying the presence of a Christian author. The monsters of part one are evil, being linked by ancestry with Cain. Part two, however, makes no clear reference to the Old Testament, and its single monster is not so much evil as it is amoral. Moreover, digressions interrupt the main narrative throughout the poem without necessarily helping the narrative along. It is primarily for these reasons that critics prior to Tolkien argue against the unity of Beowulf.
Though this paper agrees more with Tolkien and Raffel, it does not assume the self-evident unity of Beowulf; rather it will briefly review and assess the main issues relevant to the question of the poem's unity, of which there are three: (1) Beowulf's structure, (2) the significance of its subject matter, and (3) its thematic unity. One possible caveat here is that modern ideas about artistic unity do not apply to Beowulf. H. L. Rogers makes this claim, for example. However, Aristotle presented sophisticated ideas about poetic unity long before Beowulf, and hence there is no reason to believe that Old English authors had "primitive" notions of artistic unity. Moreover, those who argue against the single authorship of Beowulf already apply "modern" standards of unity to support their case, as Rogers indeed does. Thus there should be no great objection to applying these standards in support of the opposing view.