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Beowulf - A Commentary

By Ben Levick

The Historical Background of Beowulf

"Hwæt! We Gardena in geardagum,
þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon."

"Listen! The fame of Danish kings
in days gone by, the daring feats
worked by those heroes are well known to us."

Only about 30,000 lines of Anglo-Saxon verse survives today. About 10% of this corpus is formed by the 3,182 lines of the epic poem Beowulf. The poem tells the story of the hero Beowulf in his fights against supernatural creatures, as well as containing many digressions ito other stories and historical events.

Books were rare and valuable items in Anglo-Saxon England, and few of the population were literate. The Anglo-Saxon poet (O.E. scop) was, therefore, not only an entertainer, but also a memory bank for the tribe or kindom's history. He (there is no evidence of female scops in England at this time, although a number of the surviving poems are monologues spoken by women) knew the old stories the first settlers had brought with them in the fifth century from their continental homelands, the legends about Germanic heroes and heroines whose lives were historical stepping-stones for their descendants and whose behaviour served as examples and warnings.

Although it is possible that there was a manuscript of Beowulf earlier than that in which it now survives, the poem is the product of a society that expected to hear poetry, not read it. The phrase 'singan and secgan' - to sing and say - occurs in several contexts and gives us a hint as to the manner in which poetry was recited. It was probably neither spoken nor sung, but intoned or chanted, probably to the accompaniment of a lyre or harp.

The Setting of Beowulf

Beowulf is set in Denmark and Sweden during the sixth century. Most of the principal action takes place in Geatland (broadly speaking this is the part of Sweden south of Lake Vättern) and the Danish island of Sjaelland (Zealand). However, the frequent digressions in the poem considerably extend the poem's geography. There are parts that involve a number of small kingdoms and tribes situated in central Sweden (the Swedes), as well as action in the rest of Denmark, northern Germany, Poland and the Low Countries.

Beowulf's encounter with Grendel takes place in King Hrothgar's hall of Heorot 'of whose splendours men would always speak'. It is known that at this time the Danish kings had their seat of power at Lejre on the Danish island of Sjaelland. Archaeologists working at Lejre have found traces of a series of great halls of exceptional size and splendour which first appear in the fifth or sixth century (the time at which Beowulf is set) and continue well into the 'Viking Age.' One of these early halls could well have been the 'real' Heorot.

The Time of Beowulf

Although there is no evidence that Beowulf himself ever existed, it seems that there were other analageous tales which provided the Beowulf-poet with the inspiration for the character. However, the poet obviosly had a deep knowledge of Germanic history and in effect the fairy-tale figure of Beowulf is fitted in not only to an existing place, but also into a precise historical context. (Much like many modern heroes such as James Bond!)

Hygelac, the king of the Geats, for instance is mentioned by the late sixth-century historian Gregory of Tours: he tells us that Hygelac (whom he calls Chlochilaichus) won a battle at Ravenswood in about 510AD and was killed when he was attacking the Frisians in about AD521. Similarly Hrothgar, Ongentheow, Haethcyn, Onela and Heardred were all historical characters.

Two characters in the poem may have had a special interest to an Anglo-Saxon audience. One is Offa, the fourth century king of the Angles who tames his wife Thryth. He also appears in the Anglo-Saxon poem'Widsith'. The other character is Hengest, who succeeds Hnaef as leader of the Half-Danes after a winter of discontent avenges Hnaef's death by killing Finn, king of the Frisians. It is almost certain that this Hengest, who also appears in 'The Finnesburgh Fragment', was the same Hengest who came to England with Horsa in AD449 at the invitation of King Vortigern to fight the Picts. The same Hengest who, as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reports, then rounded on Vortigern and the Britons, won many battles, and instigated the Kingdom of Kent. As the first recorded Anglo-Saxon settler in England, this Hengest would have been of great interest to later Anglo-Saxon audience.

Thus, the events of the poem can be seen to have been set at very specific times. Beowulf slaying Grendel and his mother would have taken place during the second decade of the sixth century. Beowulf's fight with the dragon would have taken place in the last quarter of the sixth century. Interestingly this coincides with many of the rich ship burials in at Vendel and Valsgärde in Sweden.

When and Where Was the Poem Composed?

This question is one that will probably never be answered properly. The poem survives in only one manuscript dating to about 1000AD, and there is no other reference to the hero in any other source. Although we now think of it as a great masterpiece, it seems that the Anglo-Saxons did not see it this way. Other entries in the same manuscript are three prose pieces about fantastic creatures and the poem 'Judith' in which the heroine lops off Holofernes' head and carries it off in a bag. It appears that to the Anglo-Saxons it was just another wierd and wonderful monster story.

The author of Beowulf, like most Anglo-Saxon poets, is unknown. It could have been composed by a poet working at court, or it could have been composed by a poet-monk - the preferred alternative depends on how the function of Christianity in the poem is viewed.

The difficult questions of date and place of composition are best considered together. It is clear the poem could not have been composed before 521AD because of the reference in the poem to the death of Hygelac, and probably not before about 580AD, as Beowulf's death would have been at about this date. Neither can it be later than about 1000AD as this is the date of the Beowulf manuscript. But where abouts in this period of over 400 years should we place it. There are many theories on this, and many critics have argued for the seventh century on the grounds that the Beowulf poet alludes to, and expects his audience to be familiar with, many Germanic characters and legends that would have been likely to have been forgotton in later times; others have preferred the eighth centuries, but a few critics have recently created a stir by suggesting a date as late as the tenth century.

The majority view is that Beowulf was composed in the seventh or eighth century, but being more precise depends on where one believes the poem was composed. There are three main contenders. Northumbria during the dynamic and sophisticated Age of Bede (c. 680-730AD) was once a clear favourite, but it is now perhaps the least highly favoured. Mercia during the reign of the great King Offa (757-796AD) is certainly a possibility, and necessarily the winner if one believes the Offa-digression in the poem to be the poet's way of praising his patron. The other contender, which has come seriously into the reckoning as a result of the Sutton Hoo discovery, is seventh century East Anglia. Not only was the ship burial (which dates to 625AD) uncannily like the burials of Scyld and Beowulf, but the grave goods revealed the East Anglian court of the Wuffingas to be unexpectedly sophisticated and closely linked to the Swedish royal house at Uppsala. It is now thought possible that both these royal lines shared a common ancestry. As the scholar Howell Chickering asked: 'Was it through the early East Anglian court that detailed knowledge of Scandinavian tribal history in Beowulf became available in Englan?' And one might add, was the poem composed as a way of telling East Anglians something of their semi-historical, semi-legendary Scandinavian ancestors? There is, perhaps, a good case for believing that Beowulf was composed in Suffolk, at the palace of Rendlesham, within living memory of the great ship-burial in 625AD.

"Swa begnornodon Geata leode
hlafordes hryre, heorðgeneatas,
cwædon þæt he wære wyruldcyninga
manna mildust ond monðwærust,
leodum liðost ond lofgeornost."

"Thus the Geats, his hearth companions,
grieved over the death of their lord;
they said that of all kings on earth
he was the kindest, the most gentle,
the most just to his people, the most eager for word-fame."

Beowulf Online


1. The first two-thirds of the poem describe Beowulf's defeat of the monster Grendel and his monstrous mother. This part has much in common with a folk tale well known in a slightly differing form in many countries (usually known as 'The Three Stolen Princesses.') In both there is a hero of supernatural strength (the son of a bear and a woman in the folk tale); in both the hero comes to a house possessed by a monster with a band of companions; in both a companion is killed before the hero defeats the monster; in both there is a journey 'through a hole' to an underworld, the discovery of a sword, a second monster fight.... It seems therefore that Beowulf and the surviving folk tales may derive from the same wonder-tale source, rather than from history or legend. The last part of the poem describes the old king's fight to the death with the dragon. It is impossible to say exactly where this episode originated but Germanic folklore, art and literature is littered with dragons and dragon fighters. 

2. This diversion seems somewhat superfluous, and some have suggested that this may have been the poet's way of paying a compliment to Offa's descendant and namesake, King Offa of Mercia. This line of thought only works if you accept the poem was composed in eighth century Mercia.