Beowulf — what it’s actually about

Beowulf is the only epic poem to survive the Anglo-Saxons. It is the greatest (and longest) work of creative English before the age of Chaucer. It’s part of the critical vocabulary of high-flying English Literature graduates from 1936 until the 1990s. And its storyline and characters are completely misrepresented by the Robert Zemeckis film of 2007.

So, what is Beowulf, what’s it about, and why is it important?

What it is
Beowulf (pronounce it ‘Bay-O-Wulf’, not ‘Beer-wulf’ if you want to be taken seriously) is an Old English (formerly known as Anglo-Saxon) poem written between 700 and 1000 about events of the heroic age around the time of the Anglian, Saxon and Jutish migrations to Britain in the 5th century. Like most Old English poetry, we don’t know who wrote it. More exactly, we don’t know who wrote it down, or whether it was written down in one go from an oral tradition, or composed outright by an author, or edited together from previous written sources. There are examples of all three kinds of composition in the parallel Old Norse world, although we tend to believe that works composed outright tend to be later, and works written down after a period of oral retelling tend to be earliest. But nobody actually knows. The poem is 3183 lines long, and the manuscript, which survived a fire late in its life, dates from around 1010 AD.
It’s written in alliterative verse, which means that the first half of the line is linked to the second half by a common initial sound. If the link sound is a consonant, the match will be exact. However, all vowels seem to alliterate with each other. It’s also written in poetic style that uses ‘kennings’, which are short descriptive phrases which represent a noun. So the sea is referred to as ‘the swan road’, though this is actually a double-kenning, because swans do not travel on the sea, but swan-shaped ships do.

What it’s about
Beowulf has two key components — the plot, and the digressions. The digressions are as interesting as the main story-line, and account for a lot of the text. Sometimes they are told or referred to by the characters, and sometimes they are introduced directly by the author. The poem begins with a digression — the story of Scyld Scefing, and his son Beowulf, who is a different Beowulf from the main character.
The main plot is as follows: Heorot, a famous hall, is beset by a monster called Grendel who comes in the night and devours the retainers of the king Hrothgar. This is disaster for a Germanic hall. Beowulf, a young Geat warrior, determines to travel to Heorot to defeat the monster. He spends the night in the hall, and when Grendel, scenting that there are once more men in the hall, comes, he seizes him by the arm. Beowulf has the strength of thirty men in his arms, and wrenches the arm of Grendel from his body. Grendel goes back to the fens to die, but the next night Grendel’s mother appears, killing Hrothgar’s favourite warrior. The next day, Beowulf sets off with Hrothgar’s men to find Grendel’s mother. To do this, he dives into a black lake, where he engages in a Titanic battle with Grendel’s mother, first in the water and then in her cave. Eventually he seizes a sword from among the trophies of Grendel’s earlier predations, and kills the monster. Finding Grendel’s corpse, he beheads it and returns with the head to the surface, and thence to Heorot, where he is richly rewarded.
Beowulf returns to his home, eventually becoming king, where he rules in peace until a slave steals a golden cup from a dragon’s lair, which incites the dragon to devastate the land. Beowulf and his men set out to fight the dragon, but only Beowulf and a young man named Wiglaf, are brave enough to fight. Beowulf kills the dragon, but dies from the wounds he received.

Why it’s important
There are a number of reasons why this poem is important.
First, for the inglorious reason that it is our only specimen of Old English heroic epic. Were there other Old English epics? We might assume there were, as there are long supernatural-heroic stories from Scandinavia which describe the same period of history. However, we don’t have any references to them. As a piece to satisfy the curiosity of linguists, Beowulf has a lot to be said for it. We do have a number of shorter Anglo-Saxon heroic poems, including Widsith and the Battle of Maldon.

Second, because of the glimpses of other stories through the digressions. Sometimes — as in the case of the digression around Finn, king of the Frisians, and Hengist, leader of the Jutes, these connect with history, as described by Bede, or with other stories, such as the Finnsburh fragment (which describes the same events in more detail). Because we have the Finnsburh fragment and Bede’s account of Hengist, we can speculate that the other digressions in Beowulf relate to equally famous Old English heroic stories which we no longer have.

Third, because the poem connects the Anglo-Saxons to all of the supernatural-heroic Old Norse literature. More on that in a moment.

Fourth — and this is probably the reason they made it into a dodgy film — it has one of the most complete archetypally heroic narratives of any pre-modern story. Beowulf engages in three fundamental types of heroic behaviour: he waits patiently to receive the attack of a never-defeated foe, and defeats him, he searches out an even more powerful enemy in their own domain, and defeats them, and he sets out to face certain death, and defeats his final enemy as he sustains his death wounds.

This acceleration of increasing danger and dread, and the stiffening resolve of the hero as he faces it, is crucial to many heroic accounts. It’s also a pattern which is found in modern films, graphic novels, and in almost every video game. By limiting it to just three encounters, the anonymous author(s) force each episode to fulfil a number of functions, and preserve an overriding artistic unity, in spite of all the digressions.

Beowulf and the Germanic traditions
In Scandinavia, and especially Iceland, the pagan saga and mythological tradition survived well into the age of writing. In Anglo-Saxon England, Christianisation took place before widespread literacy. Beowulf is clearly a Christian-era poem, but it looks back to a pagan past.

There are essentially three kinds of Icelandic and other Norse myths and sagas. There are mythological stories, concerning the gods, such as Thor and Odin, and their enemies the giants. There are supernatural-heroic stories, such as the Burgundian cycle, where the gods may play a part as instigators, but where heroes are generally contending with supernaturally endowed but non-divine enemies. And there are naturalistic sagas, which are told as if they really happened, and where fate is the sole means of supernatural interaction. These include stories such as Hrafenkel’s saga and Burnt Njall’s saga. We have some echoes of a naturalistic saga in the Anglo-Saxon chronicle, in the Cynewulf and Cyneheard account. We have no Anglo-Saxon mythological stories, although the Runic Poem hints at them, and Anglo-Saxon was cut-off as a literary language by the Norman invasion before the development of naturalistic saga-writing.

Beowulf connects with the world of Norse supernatural-heroic stories — the Goths (Geats) are principal protagonists in the Burgundian cycle, and Hrothgar is a key figure in a number of sagas and cycles.

In conclusion…
The makers of the Beowulf cartoon movie try to portray him as a character with a fatal flaw. If you are coming to Old English from a background in Shakespeare or perhaps Greek tragedy, then the concept of a fatal flaw will be one you are well aware of. But this is really not what Germanic heroic poetry is about at all. We can read the Volsungasaga as a story of ‘all the world being against Sigurd the Volsung’, which connects with a certain kind of (mawkish) modern literature, but the thrust of Beowulf is neither that he had a fatal flaw (and certainly not the one attributed to him in the film), nor that fate conspired to get him in the end anyway. Rather — and here the film-makers did understand something — he is a hero whose heroic character is revealed through his response to danger. Beowulf is a super-hero. No real person has the strength of thirty men in his arms, or can arm wrestle a giant and tear his arm out at the shoulder. But this is not what Beowulf as a story is about. His great strength is only an issue in his first encounter. In the second encounter, he is saved first by his impregnable magic armour, and then by his skill and cunning in seizing a magical sword. In his final encounter, it is his courage alone which sustains him.

Who were the Geats?
The Geats are, simply, Goths — West Germanic peoples who were important on the North Sea and Baltic coasts, and who, in various forms, infiltrated or conquered the Roman Empire. The Goths — Goten, in their own language, Gothic — come into many Scandinavian tales. Pinning down exactly what kind of Goths the Geats were is slightly more difficult, because both Icelandic and Old English have different words for Goth and Geat. Probably the best guess is that the Geats were a branch of the Goths — sometimes identified as the Ostrogoths — rather than saying that Geats=Goths.

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