The poem is a work of fiction, but it mentions an historic event, the raid by King Hygelac into Frisia, ca 516.

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The earliest known owner is the sixteenth century scholar Laurence Nowell, after whom the manuscript is known, though its official designation is Cotton Vitellius A.

XV due to its inclusion in the catalog of Robert Bruce Cotton's holdings in the middle of the seventeenth century.

Since that time, the manuscript has suffered additional decay, and the Thorkelin transcripts remain a prized secondary source for Beowulf scholars.

Their accuracy has been called into question, however (e.g., by Chauncey Brewster Tinker in The Translations of Beowulf, a comprehensive survey of nineteenth century translations and editions of Beowulf), and the extent to which the manuscript was actually more readable in Thorkelin's time is unclear.

The poem as it is now known is a retelling of folktales from the pagan, Anglo-Saxon Oral tradition directed at a Christian audience.

It is often assumed that the work was written by a Christian monk, on the grounds that they were the only members of Anglo-Saxon society with access to writing materials.

The traditions behind the poem probably arrived in England at a time when the Anglo-Saxons were still in close dynastic and personal contacts with their Germanic kinsmen in Scandinavia and northern Germany.

While it could be said that Beowulf is the only substantial extant Old English poem that addresses pagan rather than Christian matters, there are nonetheless Christian viewpoints expressed within the poem, although the overall judgment on both Christian and heroic society is ambiguous. Tolkien's article Beowulf: The Monsters and The Critics when, for the first time, the poem was seriously examined for its literary merits, and not just scholarship about the origins of the English language, as was popular in the nineteenth century.

In historical terms the poem's characters would have been pagans.