Article

Neophilologus

, Volume 92, Issue 2, pp 321-332

Open Access This content is freely available online to anyone, anywhere at any time.

To Fall by Ambition—Grímur Thorkelín and his Beowulf Edition

  • Magnús FjalldalAffiliated withDepartment of English, Faculty of the Humanities, University of Iceland Email author 

Abstract

Grímur Jónsson Thorkelín (1752–1829), the Icelandic first editor of the Beowulf manuscript, had an unusual career that explains much about his edition. Thorkelín’s rise in the world of Danish scholarship was fast and culminated in a successful journey to Britain to look for documents relevant to Danish history. He returned with two transcripts of the hitherto neglected Beowulf manuscript, and upon his return, the position of Keeper of the Royal Privy Archives awaited him. But all was not as it seemed. Thorkelín was essentially a fraud as a scholar, a fact not lost on many of his contemporaries, and much of his advancement had been through ingratiation rather than scholarly achievement. Thorkelín was well aware that he might not have the ability to produce an edition from his transcripts, and for nearly 30 years he vacillated between caution and ambition. In the end, however, it became commonly known that he had invaluable historical materials in his possession, and then his hand was forced. The edition, when at long last it appeared in 1815, was a predictable disaster which exposed the editor for what he was and brought him misery rather than scholarly fame.