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Beowulf Fights the Three Monsters of the Far North

Beowulf Fights the Three Monsters of the Far North - origins

What is Beowulf and why was it so important?

  • Anglo-Saxon Warrior
  • Beowulf is an Old English poem about Beowulf, a Prince of Geatland (now part of Sweden) who travels to Denmark to rid King Hrothgar’s fabulous hall, Heorot, of a terrible man-eating monster. He kills the monster and the monster’s vengeful mother, receiving great honours. In later life, back home in Sweden, he confronts and kills a fire-breathing dragon, but dies in the effort. All versions of Beowulf come from this original poem. It was written in Old English, the language of the Saxons. Originally untitled, it only became known as Beowulf (after the main character) in the 19th century. It is very important because so little is known about the period in which it is written. Out of the 30,000 lines of literature left from the time of the Anglo-Saxons, nearly 4,000 lines come from the text of Beowulf. Because there was little literacy and few books at the time, this poem gives an important insight into the Anglo-Saxon settlers, their ancestry, beliefs and culture. The times during which it was written were turbulent and the combination in the poem of fantasy elements with war, betrayal and adventure may have captured the spirit of the time.

    Why is Beowulf considered an Epic Poem?

  • Anglo-Saxon Ship Reconstruction
  • An epic poem is a lengthy narrative containing events significant to a culture or nation. Where the Anglo-Saxons came from and their lineage (who they were related to) was very important to them and Beowulf may have reminded them of their Germanic roots and culture. Epic poems usually involve a Journey and, in Beowulf, the main character travels great distances to prove his strength at impossible odds. Epic poems usually begin in the middle of the story ‘in medias res’ and may look back later to earlier events. At the start of Beowulf, he arrives after the warriors have already been under attack from Grendel, a grotesque swamp creature. Like other epic poems, there is an elaborate history of characters and their lineages and descriptions of their interactions with each other. Epic poems also have grand battle-scenes, richly described and, of course, a hero! Beowulf, who has the strength of 30 men in each arm, is hired by Hrothgar to protect his domain. Not only does he kill Grendel with his bare hands, Grendel's mother with the sword of a giant that he finds in her lair, and various sea creatures, but later takes on a terrifying fire-breathing dragon, deserted by all his retainers except his kinsman Wiglaf. He is mortally wounded and buried in a tumulus or burial mound, by the sea.

    Where and when was the story composed?

  • Buckle from Sutton Hoo
  • Who composed Beowulf is a mystery and is unlikely ever to be known. There are also very few clues as to where or when it was composed. The poem is preserved in a single manuscript written around 1000. However, its telling would most likely have predated this. So where did this epic tale come from? Most people who have studied Beowulf believe it to date from somewhere between the seventh and tenth centuries. Scholars believe there are three possibilities for where it was composed: Northumbria, during the Age of Bede in the late 7th and early 8th centuries (no longer a popular theory); during King Offa's reign in Mercia in the latter half of the 8th century (because the references to the King in the poem may have been a tribute to the poet's patron) or in East Anglia during the 7th century. That the poem's origin is in East Anglia is quite a popular notion, especially since the discovery of Sutton Hoo. The ship burial is extraordinarily similar to those mentioned in Beowulf and items found in the burial ship can be closely linked with the Uppsala, the royal court of Sweden at that time. It is thought that Beowulf and the East Anglians share some ancestral lines. The East Anglian royal dynasty, the Wuffings, were descendants of the Geatish Wulfings. Beowulf contains many pagan and folkloric elements, but there are undeniably Christian themes as well; this is true also of the Sutton Hoo burial.

    When and where was the story set?

    Although Beowulf is an Old English epic, the tale it tells is set in an historical time and place outside England. The poem takes place largely in sixth century Denmark and southern Sweden and deals primarily with the kingdoms of the Geats and the Danes. At this time the Angles and Saxons had begun their migration to England. The Geats were a seafaring tribe residing in, what is now, the south of Sweden. One of the characters in the poem (Hygelac, the king of the Geats) can be identified with a warlord who invaded Francia and was killed there c.520. Hrothgar’s mead-hall, Heorot, is likely to have been located in Denmark on the island of Sjaelland. Archaeologists who have worked there have discovered a number of magnificent halls that were built around the 500s and onward, any one of which could have been Heorot.

    How much of it is true?

    Mead Hall
  • A Mead Hall Reconstruction
  • The poem deals with legends and does not distinguish between fictional elements and real historic events, such as the raid by King Hygelac into Frisia. Although there is no knowledge that Beowulf was a true man, there is certainly a great deal of Germanic history incorporated in the poem. It has been suggested that many of the characters may have been based on real historical people from 6th-century Scandinavia: Hygelac, Hrothgar, Eadgils, Ongentheow, Haethcyn, Onela, Heardred and the clans of the Scyldings and Wulfings. The Ravenswood battle which took place in 510 is real, as may be some of the other events such as the Battle on the ice of Lake Vänern. 19th-century archaeological evidence also adds weight to elements of the Beowulf story, such as Eadgil's burial at Uppsala, according to Snorri Sturluson. A mound was excavated in 1874, showing that a powerful man was buried in a large barrow, c 575, on a bear skin with two dogs and rich grave offerings.

    How would it have been told and why?

    Originally, it was most likely told orally by a professional poet who would visit the mead halls (places where the Anglo-Saxons gathered to socialise). It may have been passed on in this way through the generations before being written down. Elements of the poem may have been added at different times in the telling, or be the result of the merging together of ballads by different authors. The poem's purpose is also unclear. Germanic historical legend was highly important to the Anglo-Saxons and they were very concerned with establishing royal genealogies, linking them with their ancestors and thereby strengthening their legitimacy. Legendary events and figures would have added an important dimension for the audience, who would have understood and shared its knowledge. Other suggestions have been made that the poem is a criticism of heroic culture or, alternatively, a mourning for the loss of heroic culture, or a kind of Germanic 'Old Testament' and, even, a comment on the politics of the Saxon kingdoms. Whatever purposes may have been behind its composition, its primary purpose must have been to entertain. It seems so little is definitely known about this most intriguing tale.

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