Beowulf: The Anglo-Saxons’ action hero

It’s the ultimate Anglo-Saxon epic: a mighty tale of war, vengeance and monster-battling which, a millennium later, inspired JRR Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. But how far is Beowulf rooted in history? Eleanor Parker answers key questions on the poem

Giant of literature: A page from the 'Beowulf' manuscript. The story is fictional but some of the characters within it were real people, and others were believed to be the ancestors of Anglo-Saxon and Danish kings. (Photo by Alamy)

Beowulf is an epic tale that continues to fire the imaginations of readers a millennium after it was written. Why is the poem still so relevant today?

Since it was first translated into modern English in the 19th century, Beowulf has become by far the best-known piece of Anglo-Saxon literature. It has inspired movies, novels and even comic books; there seems to be no limit to the ways the story can be reimagined. Furthermore, it was perhaps the single greatest formative influence on JRR Tolkien, which means it has played a huge part in the development of the modern fantasy genre, from The Lord of the Rings right through to Game of Thrones.

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When and where was Beowulf written?

The short answer is we don’t know, other than that it was in Anglo-Saxon England. The dating and origins of Beowulf are much discussed but still unresolved, though many theories have been put forward. We know the poem was set down in a manuscript around AD 1000, and was probably first composed many years earlier – perhaps as early as the eighth century. Some aspects of it might also have existed in oral tradition before the text reached its surviving form, but we can only speculate about that.

What happens in the poem?

Beowulf is set in early medieval Denmark and Sweden around the sixth century AD. The story begins with a king of the Danes, Hrothgar, whose royal hall is being attacked by a monster, a shadowy fen-dwelling creature named Grendel. The monster is enraged by the sound of mirth in the hall, and comes at night to capture and eat Hrothgar’s men. Hrothgar, an old, respected king, is in despair, until a young warrior turns up from across the sea to offer help in defeating the intruder. He is Beowulf, a Geat (the Geats lived in what is now southern Sweden), and he wants to prove himself by taking on this challenge.

Lying in wait by night in the hall, Beowulf surprises Grendel, wrestling the demon and tearing off its arm with his bare hands. The wounded creature retreats, and everyone thinks the threat is over – but they are celebrating too soon. Grendel’s mother comes next, thirsting to avenge the harm done to her son, and this time Beowulf has to descend into her watery lair to fight her. After a vicious struggle he manages to triumph, rescuing Hrothgar and his people.

Triumphant, Beowulf returns to his home laden with rewards from a grateful Hrothgar. He eventually becomes king there, but after many years he faces another threat, this time to his own people, in the shape of a dragon. Though now an old man, Beowulf decides to take on the dragon himself and succeeds in killing it and winning its treasure. But in doing so he is also slain. The poem ends with his funeral and the grief of his people at the loss of their beloved king.

Is Beowulf based on real historical events?

The poem’s main story – of Beowulf and the monsters he fights – is of course fictional, but some of the people it mentions were real figures. Beowulf is said to be related to a Geatish king named Hygelac, who is known from other sources to have lived in the early sixth century. Beowulf himself does not appear in any other texts, but many of the other characters feature in semi-legendary histories and sagas about medieval Scandinavia, while some were also considered to be the ancestors of Anglo-Saxon and Danish kings.

And, of course, the peoples mentioned in the poem – the Danes, Geats and Swedes – are very much real. Though the story contains fantastical elements, it takes place in the real world, in a fairly well-defined historical period, which makes it a compelling mixture of history and legend.

Why might the poem have entertained an Anglo-Saxon audience?

The story itself has a powerful appeal, with the tension of the fights with the monsters, the poignancy of Beowulf’s death and the relationships between the characters. The poem’s language is also beautifully lyrical, with evocative descriptions of the mead hall, Beowulf’s sea journeys and the dragon’s treasure hoard.

But Beowulf is not just an exciting and well-told story. It explores themes that are widespread in Anglo-Saxon literature, such as the human experience of time and loss, both within individual lives and collectively, across centuries. It celebrates and critiques the glamour and danger of a masculine warrior society, where violent deeds can win glory but also cause terrible harm.

A key aspect of the poem’s appeal to an Anglo-Saxon audience would have been its historical and geographical setting. Many Anglo-Saxon elites believed they were descended from settlers who had come to England from the very parts of northern Europe where Beowulf takes place, around the time the poem is set. Whether or not this was true, it was a culturally important myth, and it probably meant Beowulf was understood to be in some sense a story about the ancestors of the poet and his audience.

Though the story is fantastical, it takes place in the real world – it’s a compelling mix of fact and legend

What happened to Beowulf after the Anglo-Saxon period?

We simply don’t know. We don’t have any evidence to show that Beowulf was known at all between the Anglo-Saxon era and the 16th century. The manuscript surfaced in the Elizabethan era, bounced around the collections of a few antiquities scholars, and was damaged in a library fire in 1731.

The first complete translation into modern English was by John Mitchell Kemble in 1837. Scholars immediately recognised the poem’s importance and were keen to pronounce it an epic of English literature, but many did not know what to make of it: some were puzzled by its allusive, digressive style, while others criticised its mixing of legend and history. Though intensively studied by Victorian scholars, it did not become widely read by non- specialists until the 20th century.

A key turning-point was the championship of JRR Tolkien, whose 1936 lecture Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics trumpeted its literary value. Meanwhile, the poem’s dragon and treasure-hoard, its evocation of a lost past, and its elegiac tone had a profound influence on Tolkien’s own imagination as he wrote The Lord of the Rings. In the second half of the 20th century, translations by well-known writers such as Seamus Heaney brought the poem to a wider audience. Though it was slow to gain popularity, Beowulf has now been translated more than 300 times. Its manuscript is housed in the British Library.

What can Beowulf tell us about Anglo- Saxon culture?

In some ways, the poem is describing a society that had already passed away by the time it was written, so we have to be careful in using it as evidence for Anglo-Saxon England. The poet was deliberately writing about a time and place distant from his own society, so what he describes is largely based on his imagining of long-ago Scandinavia, not contemporary Anglo-Saxon England.

However, there are aspects of the world of Beowulf that do seem closely related to Anglo-Saxon life. Many of its descriptions inscribed swords, elaborately decorated royal halls – have been confirmed by modern archaeological discoveries such as Sutton Hoo and the Staffordshire Hoard. They would perhaps already have been archaic by the time the poem was written, but it suggests the poet was careful to get the details right. In the poem, these items play a role by creating a tangible sense of the past, in which weapons and items of treasure carry with them their own names, legends and history.

Is Beowulf linked to any other early medieval legends?

The story has features that are also found in medieval Scandinavian literature. ‘Beowulf’ probably means ‘bee-wolf’ – a poetic word for ‘bear’ – and stories about bear-human warriors who fight monsters appear elsewhere in medieval Norse and English literature.

The poem frequently alludes to other stories from Germanic legend. While we can identify some of these legends from other sources, some are now mysterious to us – though they must have been familiar to the poet’s audience. Beowulf begins by telling the story of Scyld Scefing, a legendary ancestor of Danish and English kings who, as a child, was found drifting alone in a boat, before growing up to become a great king. The poem recounts how, after his death, Scyld was sent out to sea again in a ship laden with treasure, though “no one can say who received that cargo”. We are being encouraged to compare Scyld with Beowulf – the two funerals bookend the poem, and the same judgment is made on both: þæt wæs god cyning (“that was a good king”). We are perhaps being asked to decide for ourselves what it means to be a ‘good king’ in this kind of society.

Sometimes it is characters within the poem who make allusions to other legends, suggesting a culture in which oral tradition and historical parallels are highly prized. For example, Hrothgar warns Beowulf not to be like the wicked king Heremod, whose anger and arrogance almost destroyed his people. These are characters who are conscious of their own place in history and are trying to learn from its stories.

When the Danes are celebrating Beowulf’s victory over Grendel, a poet at Hrothgar’s court praises the warrior by comparing him to Sigemund, a great hero from Germanic legend. In this poem within a poem, we are told how Sigemund famously killed a dragon, which seems to hint to the audience what awaits Beowulf many years later. The poet is said to be “a man full of glorious words, with a memory for stories, who remembered a great many old legends and told them in new words”; this could easily be a description of the author of Beowulf himself.

All of these allusions produce the impression of a rich and colourful tapestry of ancient legends, in which Beowulf’s story is just one thread.

Does the poem have a particular philosophy or mindset?

Perhaps surprisingly for a story about warriors and monsters, Beowulf is a profoundly philosophical poem. It explores the ethics of kingship and the behaviour of warriors. Bad rulers oppress their people, put their own interests first and are tyrannical; good rulers are generous and prudent, and take time to reflect on their decisions. We are shown that warriors ought to be brave but not reckless, loyal to their companions and true to their promises.

The poem meditates on the limitations of human power, especially on the fact that it all must come to an end. Even great heroes die

In reflecting on these stories of warriors and kings, Beowulf is interested in different kinds of power, and exploring how physical strength, mental determination and political sovereignty should each best be used. The poem also meditates on the limitations of human power, especially on the fact that it all must come to an end. Even great heroes die. Beowulf has the strength of 30 men and becomes a mighty king, but he is still only human. He doesn’t have power over the natural world or the seasons, or over death. Since earthly power is restricted in this way, human rulers need to learn to understand their own limits and act wisely within them.

Is there a religious message wrapped up in the story?

It’s important to understand that Beowulf is a Christian poem about pagan characters. It’s set in a period before the Scandinavian peoples had converted to Christianity, but the poet and his audience were themselves Christians. Despite this, the poet is sympathetic towards his pagan characters.

Beowulf strikes a delicate balance. The characters we are meant to admire, including the hero, express beliefs about God that would not be alien to Christian thought: they are presented as believing not in the Norse pantheon of gods (as we might expect) but in a single, all-powerful creator who governs world events. “God, the guardian of glory, may ever work wonder after wonder,” says Hrothgar after Beowulf’s victory. An Anglo-Saxon Christian audience would have recognised and felt sympathy for these ideas. But at the same time, the poem is clear that the characters are still pagans and cannot hope for Christian salvation.

The story is given added poignancy by the fact that, when Beowulf dies, it really is the end; his body is turned to smoke on his funeral pyre. The only afterlife he can hope for is to be remembered by his people.

Eleanor Parker teaches Old and Middle English literature at Brasenose College, University of Oxford.

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This article was first published in the November 2019 edition of BBC History Magazine