Canon in literature has many definitions. Some argue that it refers to sacred, or religious texts, such as the Bible, Qur’an, or Torah. It’s original meaning, canon meaning “law” in Latin, refers to a code of law. Canon’s definitions and understandings have grown tremendously since then. Some arguing that canon within literature refers to sacred and religious texts aren’t wrong; I also believe that—at least in the olden days, including the Anglo-Saxon period—canon in literature largely referred to religious texts, considering how devout everyone was back then, religious texts were sure to be the most important, and most popular. This is especially true when you look at the simple fact that most Anglo-Saxon literature was steeped in Christianity, such as Beowulf and Riddle #26. But, my understanding of Canon within literature—what it means to me— are texts considered to be the most important and influential of a certain time period or place. In the Anglo-Saxon period, perhaps the most important and influential of texts is Beowulf, an epic poem that, even today, never lost its popularity and importance, with the numerous amounts of modern-day art that it’s been adapted into.
Beowulf is the longest epic poem in Old English, and the oldest epic poem in any Germanic language. Its author is unknown and is thought to have been written somewhere between the 8th-11th century. Beowulf can be argued as one of the most popular epic poems as even after all these centuries it is still popular and has been adapted into movies, video games, graphic novels, comic books, and a commentary novel. The poem Beowulf, though written many centuries ago, still contains the same universal themes of a great action-adventure story in today’s society and continues to appeal to modern audiences for many reasons. He’s a brave, strong, and powerful warrior who fights against the forces of evil and matures into a wise and noble king. These qualities are still valued nowadays, even when Western society has advanced a great deal since this poem was first written.
Beowulf has both Pagan and Christian beliefs and practices throughout the poem, with many scholars believing that since Beowulf was likely written as early as 800 AD, it was also written shortly after England had converted to Christianity, making it seem that the author was heavily familiar with both Paganism and Christianity. On the other hand, some believe that it originated within the seventh century, but the sole living manuscript of this poem was written within the eleventh century by scribes, who inserted Christianity into the story.
A few examples of this theory for instance, is that at one point the narrator describes Hrothgar as pagan who doesn’t know or believe in the “one true God”, as seen in lines 175-181: “At time they offered honor to idols at pagan temples, prayed aloud that the soul-slayer might offer assistance in the country’s distress. Such was their custom…they did not know the Maker…they did not know the Lord God.” yet all characters, including Hrothgar himself, seem to continuously thank God for their fortunes. Furthermore, the pagan concept of fate becomes confused with God’s will, so that sometimes Beowulf (and the narrator) seems to believe he can affect fate itself through bravery, courage, and determination, while at other times, either Beowulf or the narrator credits his success to God. Nevertheless, the fact that there is both pagan and Christian concepts within this epic poem, either originally written or added much later, would likely make this poem that much more valuable and popular to society, both when it was first written, and throughout the centuries.
Though not as popular or epic as Beowulf, some of the riddles within the Exeter Book Riddles, particular Riddle 26, were likely popular, fun to read and guess the answer to, both back then, as well as today. Riddle 26’s answer itself is the Bible, so it heavily centers of religion, specifically the last few lines, lines 15-28 “…widely proclaim the Protector of men—the fool cannot fault it…they will be safer and more certain of victory, bolder in heart, happier in mind…needful to men; my name is glorious, a help to heroes, and holy in myself.” Riddle 26 first talks about how “it” was an animal killed, soaked, and skinned, in order to make the book itself. It goes on to talk about a quill, taking ink and darting again and again across its pages. The final lines talk about how it will be the protector men, and that should they read it, and make use of it, it will make sure they are wiser, bolder, safer, victorious, with more friends that will be loyal and devoted, and clasp them close in a loving embrace. The riddle ends with how it is glorious, holy, and a helpful took for heroes.
Canon to me means texts considered to be the most important and influential of a certain time period or place as well as religious texts that are not necessarily holy or sacred. Most Anglo-Saxon literature was steeped in both Christianity and sometimes paganism, such as Beowulf and Riddle #26. And Beowulf is one of the most popular epic poems to date and contains the same popular themes of a great action-adventure story in today’s society and continues to appeal to modern-day audiences and will likely do so for many more centuries.
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