To Define and Seek Out Truth: Beowulf and Marie de France Poetry

In order to avoid the controversial “the fish is this big” in fictional epic poems and stories like Beowulf and Marie de France’s Bisclavret and Chevrefoil truth must be established at the start and throughout the piece. In Chevrefoil, in the first and third line it says, “it’s my pleasure and I want truly…the truth to tell…” (de France line 1-3) and continues onto the rest of the poem. Why is it important to establish truth at the beginning of a poem such as this? To avoid questioning what Marie de France was writing and presenting, we recognize that without that we may have taken a second glance. The negative side of mentioning truth right off the bat, however, is that the reader may then question it further. Why is that? Because without that statement of truth we would’ve simply read it as it was, without questioning its believability and reality. When it comes to Bisclavret, the literal word “truth” isn’t written right away. Rather, we are told that “long ago you heard the tale told” (de France line 5), which insists that we are able to recognize the power and truth this story holds up or else why would it continue to be told from “long ago”? In order to be continuously told, somewhere along the line those who listened and absorbed it recognized the truth and continued to share it elsewhere. Most, if not all definitions of “truth” involve the literal word in the definition: “A fact or belief that is accepted as true”, “the quality or state of being true” (Oxford languages). If something is “accepted as true”, is it that we are believing something is true because of the author, or because of the material given and read? We are always searching for the truth, whether or not falsehood is established along the way.

How does one define truth? Like many definitions, truth is difficult to attach a solid meaning onto it. However, when it comes to poetry, there is something even deeper that involves truth. David Yezzi argues that, “Poets, like journalists, historians, are after the truth. But what kind of truth, exactly, do we find in poetry?” Automatically, I am also drawn to William Wordsworth’s view on “poetic truth” and he discussed that the “poet’s truth is such that sees into [the] heart of things and enables others to see the same…and [offers] a sense of oneness” ( So then within poetry, including such as Beowulf and a few pieces from Marie de France we’re automatically drawn to the truth. Why? Simply because both pieces and authors mentioned truth quickly in the writing (Marie de France) or throughout (Beowulf) with the characters or narratives mentioning it. To obtain truth and a sense of “oneness”, the truth must then be presented and accepted by the author and readers.

In Beowulf the reader is able to absorb a different kind of truth. Rather than stating “this story is true” right at the start of this epic poem, it is sprinkled throughout. Rather than the author/narrator mentioning it however, characters within state that fact. In Benjamin Slade’s edit and translation, on lines 532, 590, 700, 871, and more, the word truth is stated: “Truth I clam that I sea-strength greater had…” (532), “I say to you in truth…” (590), “Truth is known that…” (700), “bound in truth…” (871). The main statement that brings truth into question is when the reader and characters within the poem must trust Beowulf and that he is able to do what needs to be done; kill Grendel, Grendel’s mother and then the dragon at the end. In order to defend his character, Beowulf speaks nothing but the truth to Hrothgar and anyone who may question him. Throughout most of the epic poem, Beowulf doesn’t necessarily seem desperate to convince anyone that what he tells is the truth, but rather does in such a way that they aren’t left with any doubts. To then say, “is Beowulf repetitively saying these things to avoid unearthing something about him they shouldn’t know?”, one could say no, simply because there is no hint whatsoever that points to Beowulf’s dishonesty. If anything, continuously stating these truths, Hrothgar and other important characters can trust Beowulf further and that he will be able to do what needs to be done since he’s been in similar positions before. In relation to de France’s writing, Bisclavret‘s characters engage in trusting one another too. When the character Bisclavret becomes a werewolf/”garwolf”, he originally hides it from his wife. Later, however, he can tell the truth to her and instead of reacting negatively to this statement she is more wondering why he didn’t tell her sooner. From then on in the poem, it’s clear to see that they trust one another and that they’d help at whatever cost that may be…Which is another similarity to Beowulf and that those who need him to fight trust him enough to do so even if it means harm.

These truths, in Beowulf, Bisclavret, and Chevrefoil are different in some ways, no doubt about that. But, as stated before, there is a search for the truth in poetry and there is no clear this or that as to what kind of truth it becomes. For Beowulf and poems alike, sometimes it becomes skewed if the multiple translations and edits avoid the truth as to what the story was at the start. Of course, through multiple translations and edits, it can be extremely difficult to obtain the very first truth in which the story was told. In Beowulf, there are multiple references to actual people and places – despite being a fictional story, there are still factual events that took place. Most of the ‘real’ people and places aren’t heavily observed or noted, but anyone reading can recognize those facts and begin to dive deeper into seeing this poem as a reality…Especially those who may have begun to question it in the first place. If we, as readers, can recognize and are given the origin of someone such as Grendel – which we are – what difference does that make for the reader? If we weren’t given that information that Grendel is formally known as “lord’s outcast”, would we be able to find truth in him or his story? Most likely not, because there wouldn’t be a way to form any connectivity to Grendel and his truth. But we focus on Beowulf, because first off, he’s the character we are instructed to follow (his name is in the title). But also, Grendel is seen as the enemy, so what does his truth really do for the reader? Not much, besides knowing about his origin and possibly connecting him to texts alike with a similar “outcast” character. In such a profound and clearly written poem as Beowulf, Bisclavret, and Chevrefoil, it is difficult to stretch too far outside the realm of where it began, especially when real people and places are mentioned. When it comes to different translations as well, it can also be influenced by the different interpretations down the line.

In many stories, especially poetry, different interpretations can have an impact of how the story is read and passed along. In an epic poem, such as Beowulf, the interpretations can change drastically, mainly because of the translations and how differently people read it in those languages. In a classroom full of college level students, everyone could have a different interpretation of Beowulf and their different truths of the story. One student may see the story saying, “this is such truth,” and “this is such truth” may begin to question if it is actually true at all. Why? Because it could then make the individual second guess if what they’re reading is the indeed the truth. If that statement (this is the truth and here’s why) wasn’t mentioned, then maybe one person may believe it right away. While other students and individuals may see the need for putting such a statement, because it leads them to believe in it more so than they might have before that was added in. With Beowulf and the specific lines that say “truth”, like lines 532 and 590 where there are characters that say, “Truth I claim” and that “I say to you in truth”. Readers see that as characters having a conversation about what is truth and what may not be, but it doesn’t bring any concerns because it isn’t directed at the reader, but rather at the characters individually and together through the text. It’s all up to interpretation and execution and what is said and thought, but also recognizing the truth within the text and the ‘real life’ people and events college students and others alike can see.

In conclusion, it is difficult to say whether everyone reading a certain story or poem will believe everything that is written. It is interesting to look further into the different interpretations, languages, edits, and versions passed down from a “long time ago” – as said in Marie de France’s Bisclavret. Despite something being fictional, believability still plays an important part in storytelling, especially some of which is going to be reread for generations to come. If a reader didn’t truly believe in what was being said in Beowulf, would it still be read as continuously as it has been? Probably not. Time and time again, Beowulf is observed and analyzed but ranges of ages, from high school (looking at specific snippets) to reading the poem and its entirety in college classrooms. If truth wasn’t recognized in both of de France’s works or Beowulf, then there wouldn’t be discussion of them still today. It is also important to not think too seriously and enjoy the writing that is on the page or screen. In order to obtain the knowledge and understanding of the text at hand, one must take from one’s own experience, because as most people know, the author’s authority – for the most part – goes directly out the window. Before, someone may want to know too much about what thoughts and processes the author had when writing, but, that no longer matters. As soon as the work is published and seen by other people, the author no longer has a say in what is written on the page; but rather, can sit back and see what other impressions and truths come about from those who read it. Authority then sits in the laps of those who take time and read what is given, in any situation of reading, one must totally ignore (for the most part) the author’s name on the book. No one can ask the author what he/she meant by this or that, but instead can have their own personal interpretation on the matter. Lastly, another important thing to remember when reading any sort of text is “life [and writing] is an unanswered question, but let’s still believe in the dignity and importance of the question.” – Tennessee Williams…

Works Cited

Articles, L. (1970, January 01). Wordsworth’s Views on Poetic Truth. Retrieved September 24, 2020, from

De France, Marie. Bisclavret. Translated by P. Shoaf, Judith. 1996.

De France, Marie. Chevrefoil. Translated by P. Shoaf, Judith. 1993.

Slade, B. (2006). Beowulf. Retrieved September 24, 2020, from

Yezzi, David was the Poetry Editor of The New Criterion. He is Chair of the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University, Windschuttle, K., Scruton, R., Kimball, R., & Kramer, H. (2015). “Poetry & Truth”. Retrieved September 24, 2020, from

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