Beowulf - Essay By Babel
Hwæt! Wé Gárdena in géardagum, þéodcyninga þrym gefrúnon· hú ðá æþelingas ellen fremedon. '
With these words, written in Old English, the epic saga 'Beowulf' opens. It's a name familiar to most of us, whether through modern reinterpretations, a familiarity with the original story or simply as an esoteric name that has floated down the centuries to us.
Let me paint you a picture. If we are going to be dramatic, we will recall that this period of history is often referred to as 'The Dark Ages', dark as we know relatively little about it. The Roman Empire is in rapid decay and the Legions are forced back ever closer to Rome. Europe is in turmoil with whole peoples warring with one another. Gaul is overrun by the Franks. Meanwhile, in Britain, Saxons are employed as mercenaries to repel Irish and Pictish invaders. However, the Saxons want more - they want land! A huge migration/invasion gets underway, with the Saxon, Angle, Jute and Frisian peoples all flocking to Britain. After a struggle lasting approximately one hundred and fifty years, the British are penned back in Wales and England is established as a country. Dangerous, wild times indeed, times of huge migration within Europe and a time when many peoples merged with one another. It must have been important, then, for a people so far from their original homes (northern Germany and Denmark) to preserve their legends and folktales. In fact many Kings and nobles patronised bards and scholars and this may be an early clue as to the origins of Beowulf.
Beowulf concerns the Scandanavian hero of the same name who saves the Danes from the monster Grendel and later, Grendel's mother. He is praised highly in the Danish King's court and returns to become King of his own people, the Geats Geatland possibly being located in modern-day Sweden) . Fifty years later, an aged Beowulf slays a dragon threatening his people, but dies in the process. The events would appear to have been supposed to have taken place in approximately the sixth century.
However, Beowulf was not written until at least 700 A.D. There is plenty of debate amongst scholars as to the precise date of the original composition. All we can saw with certainty is that it was written somewhere between, and including, the 8th and 11th centuries. C. L. Wren (1) speculated that due to certain linguistic features, the poem was written in the first half of the 8th Century. He further speculates as to the place of its composition: 'Having established that our poem was originally Anglian - that is, that it was made in Northumbria or Mercia - we may go further, and deduce . . . that a written form of Beowulf existed no later than the middle of the 8th Century.'
Whenever it was written it seems clear that it has older origins. There is a contrast within the poem between Christian and older, Pagan references. This probably reflects the changing times that the Beowulf epic evolved through. There are references to older gods and pagan symbols, all overlaid with Christian imagery. For example, the monster Grendel is said to be of Cain's clan. During the period covering the migration into England to the eleventh century, Christianity was becoming the dominant religion in the area, gradually replacing the older religions and this almost certainly accounts for the mixed imagery.
The poet was writing from a Christian viewpoint, yet the older religions still obviously had some influence and sway, enough to remain in the epic. It's an interesting reflection on the times and the social changes that were occurring - however, the fact that Christianity is the dominant religion in the story does demonstrate its pre-eminance at this stage.
Knowing something of the background, we can take a closer look at the story itself. Beowulf is a warrior dealing with the enemies of his people, the Geats. At length he comes to the court of King Hrothgar. He tells the King that the tales of Grendel have reached his people, the Geats and are well known to mariners. In a boastful manner, typical of warriors at the time (it was a ritual before a battle to engage in taunts and boasts of your strength) he asks a boon of Hrothgar; that he be allowed to battle the monster. Furthermore, he states he will battle it weaponless, as Grendel uses no weapons. Here then is the epitome of the Germanic/Scandanavian hero, selflessly offering to slay a beast and unarmed, too. Though we can also detect in Beowulf's boasting the love of glory inherent in the warrior caste - the greater the struggle, the greater the glory. Beowulf, in taking on Grendel unarmed, stands to win great renown.
Grendel's struggles with Grendel and Grendel's mother do have more than a touch of the supernatural about them. For instance, he pursues Grendel's mother into a lake, dives under the water and after a chase and fight lasting over a day prevails. That's a long time to hold your breath! Beowulf is a superhuman though - his strength, abilities and valour are greater than the normal human being and this is what sets him apart, these qualities and the way he uses them. Small wonder, then, that a grateful Hrothgar showers Beowulf with gold, a huge tribute that Beowulf in turn gives to the King of the Geats, Hygelac.
Years later Beowulf is in turn King of the Geats. One of his people makes the terrible mistake of stealing a cup from a dragon's hoard. The dragon rises in a terrible fury, promising to take revenge on the Geats. Beowulf goes into battle once more and only slays the dragon with the help of his companion Wiglaf and at the cost of his own life. Once again Beowulf has acted selflessly and at great personal risk - and this time pays the ultimate price. He is cremated with a huge treasure trove of gold (taken from the dragon) as befits a King and warrior of Beowulf's standing.
This, then, is Beowulf's final triumph and tragedy, yet he dies as all true warriors should - in battle, for his people. Beowulf saves the Danes from Grendel and Grendel's Mother, and his own people from the Dragon. This is heroism at its height. Beowulf is mourned greatly by his people and in this mourning I think there is the acceptance of a greater period of loss to come.
There are overshadows of sorrow and pessimism throughout Beowulf, an acceptance that the fires in the Halls will die forever one day; the Kingdoms will not endure against the sea of enemies. Beowulf is a powerful bulwark against those enemies but once he is gone, the end is inevitable. I think in this we see a reflection of the situation in the real world and a hint at the reasons for the migration to Britain - it was a case of simple survival. The peoples of Northern Germany and Denmark had to move or face extinction. Beowulf as a lament as well as an epic and the reasons for the lament are all too real. Imagine the difficulties and dangers in moving your entire people to a new land, the high proportion of people who simply wouldn't survive.
Beowulf, then, is a complex poem, far more complex than I can portray here. It's about heroism and service, triumph and tragedy, victory and loss. It's a summation of many themes that were important to the peoples at the time and if we ask are these values still important to us, we'd have to answer that yes, they are. There are certain similarites in the characters of King Arthur and Beowulf, both mighty warriors and Kings who die for their Kingdoms and people. Arthur is as popular today as ever. Many action heroes today represent Beowulfian virtues, even someone as seemingly down-to-earth and modern as Bruce Willis' John McClane. In the 'Die Hard' films McClane is regularly pitted against a hoard of enemies with little weaponry and for no other reason than he's the good guy and they're the bad guys. I think Beowulf might see some of himself in characters like McClane.
Beowulf itself is popular, whether it be in translations of the epic (there are many to choose from), comic book versions, films (a film called 'Beowulf' starring Christopher Lambert was made, but bore little resemblance to the epic) or even a Star Trek episode. The USS Voyager's Doctor had a misadventure with a holodeck programme based upon Beowulf. Basically a good story is a good story and Beowulf has the lot. It probably influenced Lord of the Rings - the Rohirrim are very anglo-saxon in their look and Theoden's hall as rebdered in the movies looks very much like Hrothgar's hall should. Tolkien even uses some elements of the Beowulf saga's construction, for example alliteration, in the lay concerning the muster of Rohan. This is no surprise, considering how esteemed an anglo-saxon scholar Tolkien was.
I hope this article has given you some insight into Beowulf and what it is about. I've supplied some links for you to investigate Beowulf a bit further and there's even some sites where you can listen to Beowulf being spoken in the original anglo-saxon. Beowulf is a masterpiece, a truly epic saga that is well worth delving into to discover its wonders. I hope you enjoy the excerpt presented for you by the Poetry Guild.
Essay by Babel
(1) Beowulf, C.L. Wren (1973) George G. Harrap & Co. Ltd.
I also have to thank Teekay for her help in researching this article, no greater Beowulfian authority resides within the Outpost