Beowulf is the longest Anglo-Saxon (Old English) poem to have survived to the present day. In brief, it is the tale of two heroic adventures; one early in the titular hero's life; one at the end.
Although composed in England just before the Norman Conquest, it is set in Denmark and Sweden some centuries earlier, in a time of great migration and great dynastic struggle. Though many of the characters in the poem bear the names of historical figures, the main character, Beowulf, is a person with no background, either historical or fabulous. While his exploits are paralleled by other figures in literature such as Grettir, from Icelandic Saga, Beowulf enters world epic unheralded on a Danish shore, and leaves - in death - on a blood-soaked Swedish headland.
The manuscript, which contains one other long poem - Judith - is written in two hands datable on the basis of palaeography1 to the 11th Century. This manuscript required two scribes to complete it; the second scribe taking over from the first about two-thirds of the way through Beowulf and continued through Judith. Although critical consensus for three centuries had been that the manuscript is a late copy of an early original with a long (lost) history of scribal transmission, Kevin Kiernan argued persuasively in the last quarter of the 20th Century that Cotton Vitellius A xv. is actually Beowulf's author's working copy and, in fact, the only version of the poem that has ever existed.
The Language and the Verse
Oft Scyld Scefing sceaþena þreatum, monegum mægþum, meodosetla ofteah, egsode eorlas. Syððan ærest wearð feasceaft funden, he þæs frofre gebad, weox under wolcnum, weorðmyndum þah, oðþæt him æghwylc þara ymbsittendra ofer hronrade hyran scolde, gomban gyldan. þæt wæs god cyning! Beowulf, lines 4-11
The Alliterative Style
Anglo-Saxon verse is written in a form which seems very foreign to the modern reader of anything but Gerard Manley Hopkins. Anglo-Saxon verse is stress-timed, with four beats to the line, a pattern very similar to the 'sprung rhythm' of Hopkins. Old English poetry does not rhyme (except in rare cases, most notably the 'Riming Poem' of The Exeter Book, in which the rhymes come so thick and fast the poem itself is rendered almost incomprehensible) instead it alliterates its verses. Also instead of linking words by final sounds, as in rhyme, Old English poetry links words with initial sounds.
In the above passage from the opening of Beowulf, the alliteration may readily be seen: monegum mægþum, meodosetla ofteah. The initial consonants of the two stressed words of the first half line alliterate with the first stressed word of the second half line. Very rarely is there only a single alliteration in the first half-line, but occasionally there is a second alliterating word in the second half-line.
In the Old English alliterative styles, consonants are alliterated with themselves, but all vowels were taken as alliterating with each other. The break between half-lines marks the hemistich, a slight pause in the reading of the poem.
Another element of the Anglo-Saxon poetic style is the use of metaphoric terms, such as hronrade ('whale road') to mean the sea, as in the above passage. These metaphoric terms are called 'kennings', a word borrowed from Icelandic. Kennings are much more common in Icelandic literature than they are in Anglo-Saxon poetry.
In the early part of the 20th Century, Milman Parry, and later, Albert B Lord, working with illiterate Serbian and Croatian singers of modern epic poetry, developed what had come to be known as 'the Oral-formulaic Theory of Composition.' Originally a description of the actual technique of composition used by Balkan oral-poets, Parry and Lord quickly tested the theory on the epic poetry of Homer and found that many aspects of those poems that had puzzled scholars for millennia could be explained by the new theory.
During the 1950s, Francis P Magoun began testing the theory on Old English poetry and in the ensuing decades many other scholars have studied the Old English poems in the light of the oral-formulaic theory and have found it helpful. The theory does not, however, fit Old English as well as it does Ancient Greek.
Old English poetry is highly formulaic - many half-lines from the passage above appear in many other poems, and many entire scenes are obviously frameworks into which details may be plugged. As it survivied Old English poetry, however, is a literary tradition, not an oral one; while many aspects of the oral-formulaic theory fit Old English, many do not (see The Hero on the Beach). Probably there was a time of purely oral composition, something hinted at in some scenes in Beowulf and in the Caedmon story in Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English Speaking People.
To come to an understanding of Beowulf, two contrasting societies must be taken into consideration. The poem is set in a time when the people described were pagan. On the other hand, it was composed in a land that had been Christian for a number of centuries by a person who, because they were literate, must have been somehow connected to a religious house. At the beginning of the 20th Century the critical opinion tended to put more importance on the first society2. Later in the 20th Century, the critical pendulum had swung to the opposite side3.
In fact, both societies are in tension in the poem. The poem begins and ends with cremation, a rite seen as pagan by the Anglo-Saxons of Christian England. But, as Klaeber, the great editor of Beowulf writes:
The general impression we obtain from the reading of the poem is certainly the opposite of pagan barbarism. We almost seem to move in normal Christian surroundings. God's governance of the world and of every human being, the evil of sin, the doings of the devil, the last judgement, heaven and hell are ever and anon referred to as familiar topics4.
Each reader must decide how to weigh these two societies in an understanding of the poem.
Beowulf begins with an exposition. Through genealogy we are introduced to the Spear-Danes, also called the Scyldings (the Sons of Shield) a tribe of warriors lead by their ageing king Hrothgar. The tribe has had a fortunate existence until the mysterious coming of a violent creature that, as the principal action of the poem begins, is in the 12th year of his reign of terror over the Scylding royal hall, Heorot. The creature's name is Grendel.
Grendel is of human stock, descended from Cain, the son of Adam and Eve and is described as a wretch and an outcast. But he is also described by the same positive terms used to describe the hero of the poem, Beowulf. Clearly, the meeting between the two will be a great competition of near equals.
Beowulf, a thane of Higelac and the lord of the Geats, has heard of the trouble in Heorot. With his small band of trusty retainers, he sails across the sea to offer his aid to King Hrothgar. The coming of an outsider to aid them is taken as an affront by many of the Spear-Danes, but in the end, Beowulf's aid is accepted.
That evening, when Grendel comes for his usual evening meal of Hero flesh, all seems normal. The wretched warrior grabs the man asleep nearest the door and swallows him down whole, 'even hands and feet.' Still having a corner to fill, Grendel proceeds to the next man, but is surprised when his own arm is grabbed in an unbreakable grip. The next man was Beowulf and he was not asleep.
A titanic wrestling match ensues, in which the foundations of Heorot are set aquiver and finally Grendel's arm is ripped from its socket. The wretch, who was now more wretched, escapes mortally wounded into the night. Beowulf hangs Grendel's arm from the roof of the hall as a trophy. There is a tremendous party in Heorot the next evening and the Spear-Danes and their guests the Geats retire to sleep secure in the knowledge that Grendel's depredations have come to an end.
Of course, every wretch, even the spawn of Cain, has a mother. Grendel's Mother is mad and is seeking revenge. She skulks to Heorot in the middle of the night, snatches Aeschere, Hrothgar's favourite retainer, and also her son's arm.
In the morning, a coalition of Geats and Spear-Danes head off to the Haunted Mere where the Grendel clan have their underwater dwelling. The lake is as frightening as a petrochemical plant's sludge pond. Wild animals will not approach it; birds will not fly over it.
Beowulf makes a ripping speech and dives in to wrestle another monster. After struggling past a number of venomous water creatures, Beowulf is grabbed by Grendel's Mother and is hauled into her lair. Another titanic wrestling match ensues and Beowulf is very nearly defeated. Just when all seems dark, Beowulf sees a mighty sword among the bones and booty in the cave. Taking up the sword made by giants, he runs Grendel's Mother through and cuts the head from Grendel's corpse and has victory.
Beowulf returns home to Geatland with the gratitude of Hrothgar and the Spear-Danes (represented by large quantities of treasure, etc). He spends a huge amount of the poem telling his lord, Higelac, of his exploits among the Danes. Then, in a very brief bit of the poem, Higelac dies, Beowulf inherits the kingdom through a convoluted chain of succession, and a 50 year Golden Age of the Geats ruled by Beowulf goes by.
Beowulf is now an old man, but he is still vibrant. His people are prosperous and all is well in his kingdom, except...
In an old tomb inside an earthen mound a dragon rests on his hoard of gold. As long as he is not disturbed, there can be no danger. But an unnamed thief comes into the dragon's lair. There the thief (perhaps his name is Bilbo) finds a cup and takes it from the hoard. Of course, the dragon notices and lays Beowulf's kingdom waste.
Beowulf, ever the hero, despite his advanced years, sets out with a small band of cowardly retainers (and one good man) to face the dragon. To ward off the dragon's breath, Beowulf has a massive iron shield constructed for himself. Before the fight, Beowulf gives another ripping speech, then calls the dragon out.
The dragon turns out to be nastier than anyone expected. Beowulf's men run away in fright except for one, Wiglaf, who runs toward the fight. Hiding behind the massive shield, Wiglaf slashes low (Merry-like) on the dragon, causing enough distraction that Beowulf can dispatch the beast with a blow so great the dragon is left in two pieces.
But Beowulf has received a mortal wound. Commanding Wiglaf to remove the treasure from the barrow, and to construct a great mound as his memorial, Beowulf passes out of the poem which still is not quite done. Wiglaf carries out his lord's orders, rebuking the cowards for running away. The men carry out the gold, consign the dragon's corpse to the sea, and cremate Beowulf. Over Beowulf's ashes they build the great mound he had ordered and in it they place the dragon's gold, praising Beowulf as a good king.
Interspersed throughout the poem are a number of smaller stories and vignettes which are generally referred to as 'digressions.' Most are brief histories of dynastic struggles among the various Germanic tribes. These stories usually are tragic and usually parallel the events of the main story in some way. This paralleling casts a pall of doom over the already gloomy poem.
Any meaning the poem may have, of course, is a product of its meeting with the mind of a reader, and so, there have been a multitude of interpretations of the whole point of the poem. Some would argue that Beowulf is a tragic figure that ends his life in futility, chasing gold that no one lives to enjoy, and fame that will soon be forgotten. Those with an existentialist bent would see Beowulf as a great hero, thumbing his nose at the futility we all know is underlying human life. Many see the poem as a true song of praise of a hero who lived his life well and died a noble death. Most who know it think that Beowulf is a great story, if nothing else.
The modern study of Anglo-Saxon literature began in the 16th Century, but the first published mention of the manuscript containing Beowulf was not until 1705. Late in the 18th Century, Continental scholars became interested in Anglo-Saxon texts and there began a blossoming of the study of the language and, to a lesser extent, the literature.
Linguistic studies and literary archaeology dominated the interest of critics until well into the 20th Century. The study was led largely by German scholars who were driven by the same quest for Germanic national roots that unfortunately helped fuel the rise of National Socialism between the World Wars. Critics of the period mined Anglo-Saxon literature (and the other native Germanic literatures: Icelandic, Gothic, Old High German and so on) for evidence of the way the noble Germanic barbarians had lived before they became corrupted by less virile influences from the south of Europe. Christian elements of the literature were dismissed as 'colouring' and the remaining 'pure' forms were held up to the light in all their Wagnerian glory.
Under the influence of JRR Tolkien's seminal paper 'Beowulf - the Monsters and the Critics', scholars began to turn more toward reading the literature as literature rather than as historical artefact. The revelations of the horrific racist excesses of the Nazis after World War II, supported in part by previous literary and linguistic scholarship, led to a virtual abandonment of what EG Stanley termed 'the Search for Anglo-Saxon Paganism'.
There followed what might be termed a golden age of Anglo-Saxon literary criticism in general, and Beowulf criticism in particular. More recent generations of critics have been able to look again at the pagan and Christian elements of Beowulf and other Anglo-Saxon poems with greater clarity. It is becoming evident that Christianity in Anglo-Saxon England was a syncretism of the old pagan traditions and the new Christianity. This syncretism produced a religious dialect different in its particulars from any other. In this dialect, elements which once had been pagan became integral aspects of Christianity5.
Some Modern Takes on Beowulf
The film The 13th Warrior (1999) with Antonio Banderas is based on Michael Crichton's novel The Eaters of the Dead (1977). Some aspects of the plot of The Eaters of the Dead are based on some aspects of the plot of Beowulf. Both the book and the movie are much richer if experienced with a knowledge of the Old English poem.
The film Beowulf (1999) with Christopher Lambert owes any quality it might have (which is little) to the Old English poem. If one is interested in or has enjoyed the poem, stay away from this film. The only way the film may be enjoyed is with no knowledge of the Old English poem.
John Gardner's novel Grendel (1971) is based on the events of the first third of the Old English poem, up to the death of Grendel. In a nutshell, Gardner tells the story through the eyes of the monster (who, anachronistically, has a penchant for quoting George W Bush: 'Make no mistake,' he says over and over). Gardner works Grendel's mother and, ingeniously, the dragon into the story without moving beyond the death of Grendel.
Gardner was himself a scholarly critic of Old English literature and shows a great sensitivity to his source.
Legacy of Heorot (1987) and Beowulf's Children (1995)(also published as (The Dragons of Heorot), by Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle and Steven Barnes, are two science fiction takes on the story6. Legacy of Heorot draws some obvious parallels, including a monstrous alien species dubbed Grendels, but tells the story backwards. In the story, a group of colonists arrive and set up camp on a new world. Misunderstanding the ecology of the area, particularly as regards to Grendels, they inadvertently trigger a massive population boom when they kill the 'Mother Grendel,' which causes her young to suddenly develop into deadly maturity, leaving the colonists to fight them off in the hundreds.
Beowulf's Children also draws on the story, but in a more subtle way. While digging a mine, a mysterious explosion kills several people. Meanwhile, a mysterious new threat has been discovered (the 'dragon'), an unknown creature that kills both Grendels and colonists with equal efficiency. The colonists struggle to survive and understand this new threat before finally understanding, and also learning the true cause of the explosion in the mine.
JRR Tolkien, of course, used portions of Beowulf's dragon episode in a skeletal way in both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. As hinted at above, Tolkien borrowed the stealing of the cup from the dragon's hoard in The Hobbit; and Merry's role in Eowyn's battle with the Nazgul is parallel to Wiglaf's role in the dragon fight.
Even more recently, the names Beowulf and Grendel have been applied to multiprocessor computer systems.
There are a great many translations of varying quality readily available. Seamus Heaney's is a recent one which succeeds wonderfully as poetry in its own right. It should be remembered when reading a translation that one is reading an interpretation of a work, not the work itself.
The original Anglo-Saxon text, together with a public-domain translation and a great deal of supporting material may be found at Beowulf in Hypertext. Another, similar web page (with a more modern, but quirkier translation) may be found through this Guide Entry: Beowulf in Cyberspace. The Grummere translation of Beowulf is available for download from Project Gutenberg.