This post is one of a series of posts on literature from Dark Ages Britian. For the first post in this series, click here.
As I have explained here on the blog, there are not a lot of extant manuscripts from the Early Middle Ages. But surely the most well-known is the epic poem, Beowulf.
I will admit that I have thought about writing a post on Beowulf many times and have put it off. The reason being that I hardly know where to start.
It’s a bit intimidating, to tell you the truth. There are people who have had whole careers built around this epic poem. Much better minds than mine have studied it and offered their interpretations on it, people who have read it in the original Anglo-Saxon language in which it is written. People like J.R.R. Tolkien. I feel wholly inadequate even discussing it. But, as it is such an important piece of literature originating from the times in which my novel (s) are set, I don’t feel like I should ignore it any longer.
But I chose to title this post Beowulf Basics for a reason. I’m not going to go too deep into this poem. And I certainly don’t have the knowledge to contribute to any of many scholarly debates about one aspect of it or another. I’m just going to discuss some of the things that I think are really interesting about it.
When the poem was actually composed is a matter of some debate (there’s lots of debate about many things about Beowulf!). But there are a couple of certain facts. It was written down sometime between 975 AD and 1025 AD. The author is unknown, referred to by scholars as “the Beowulf poet”. The poem is written in Anglo-Saxon (Old English), mainly in the West Saxon dialect, but is about events in Scandinavia. It’s a mix of legends and historical events and include names of some Scandinavian kings and kingdoms. Most scholars agree that some of the events mentioned (battles and the like) in the poem are historically accurate, and occur in 6th century Scandinavia. Many of the people who appear in Beowulf also are mentioned in other Scandinavian works, but not Beowulf himself.
Out of the surviving 30,000 lines of Anglo-Saxon literature, 4,000 of them are contained in this one poem, which shows you its importance in our understanding of Anglo-Saxon literature. The poem is written in typical Anglo-Saxon alliterative style. Alliterative poetry is not rhyming poetry, but it generally is composed of lines of two short phrases which have stresses on various words in a rhythmical pattern. It’s a form of poetry that is not used much any more, but it is well-suited to poems which are read aloud, which of course was true of Beowulf and other Anglo-Saxon verse.
This is hard to describe, but easier to hear. Have a listen to this short excerpt of the beginning of the poem, and you will get a sense of the rhythm of it. Note the repetitive sounds, like the “s” “f” or “m” sounds, and the way the words lift and fall in a pleasing rhythm.* It’s easier to hear it the longer you listen. By the time this short section finishes you should start to feel the rhythm.
The poem itself doesn’t have a name, but it is called Beowulf after the main character, who is a great warrior of the Geats (a kingdom that is located in modern Sweden). Beowulf comes to the aid of Hrothgar, king of the Danes. whose mead hall is under attack by the monster Grendel. Beowulf kills the monster and then also kills Grendel’s mother, who comes to the hall looking for revenge. Beowulf goes back to Geatland in triumph and eventually becomes king of the Geats. After fifty years has passed, Beowulf battles a dragon but is mortally wounded, and is mourned with great fanfare by his people. That is the very bare nuts and bolts of the story!
So, this thoroughly Scandinavian pagan hero is the subject of a thoroughly English poem, written in Old English, probably by a Christian Anglo-Saxon monk. Why was this tale treasured by the Anglo-Saxons?
It’s a fascinating window into the times. The Anglo-Saxons were of course the descendants of the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes, all Scandinavian people-groups who had begun migrating to Britain after the collapse of the Roman empire in the fifth century. These people-groups had their own legends, gods, and culture, that they brought with them to Britain. And through a process of immigration and conquest, a new society and culture began to form, synthesized out of the collision of the pagan Celtic Britons, Christian Celtic Britons, Roman Christian Britons, pagan Roman Britons, and the pagan Anglo-Saxon newcomers.
Beowulf includes hints and threads of both Christian and pagan cultures. Grendel and Grendel’s mother are said to be descendants of Cain. There are references to the flood, and to the importance of humility, generosity, and self-sacrifice. There is also a lot of references to fate, and fame, both of which were strong elements of the Germanic pagan culture of the Anglo-Saxons. Some scholars feel that the author of Beowulf is showing how the pagan culture and beliefs are much better than the new, Christian ones, while other scholars argue the opposite, that the poem shows the superiority of the Christian beliefs over the pagan ones. I’m not sure of either of these two positions, but I do believe that the poem certainly has a synthesis of both of these world-views, and is a glimpse into the mindset of the early Christian Anglo-Saxons. I believe it is because of this intermixing of old and new that this poem had such popularity among the Anglo-Saxons. Also, because don’t we all love to hear about monsters and and the heroes that defeat them, especially around the fire on a dark and stormy night?
Beowulf takes place amidst a typical Germanic warrior society, with the lords and mead halls vividly described. It has given us a snapshot of the culture of the Anglo-Saxons that has been verified by archeology and other literature from the time. In fact, archeologists have found a hall in Denmark which they feel corresponds with Heorot, King Hrothgar’s hall mentioned in the poem.
Beowulf may be one of our oldest pieces of literature, but it still fascinates us today. Even in the 21st century we are still interpreting and re-imagining this poem. In 2006 a live-action film called Beowulf and Grendel, was released, followed by a CGI version in 2007 called Beowulf (I’m not sure that Grendel’s mother was supposed to look like Angelina Jolie, but oh well…). Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands was a short-lived TV fantasy series which aired in Britain and the US in 2016.
It seems as if this story is one that is going to be part of our heritage for many more years to come. And for that, I am glad!
*The last line of that section, Þæt wæs god cyning! leaps out to our modern ears. Did it sound to you like the reader said, “that was good kinging!” to you? Well, basically, he did. The translation for that phrase is, “That was a good king!” You will find phrases and words like this standing out to you when you listen to Old English read aloud. Amazing that even after almost two centuries we can still pick out a word or two that we modern English speakers still use today.
Featured image from vvilkelyte.wixsite.com