The Epic of Beowulf

Last week saw the premiere of a new ITV show in the vein of Game of Thrones, The Vikings and The Last Kingdom, Beowulf.  Whilst less intense and made to appeal to a wider audience than the other shows, many may be unaware that Beowulf isn’t just based on a classic work of literature but is, in fact, the oldest surviving epic in the English language.

No matter how interesting the TV show is and how incredible some of the fights and mythical creatures shown on screen, sadly from the first episode, at least, it appears that the show isn’t going to follow the original story too closely.

Beowulf was likely written sometime soon after 700AD in Old English and takes the form of an epic 3,000 line poem in much the same way as The Iliad or Epic of Gilgamesh.  Even though it is a British story, the events told take place across the sea from the lands of our Anglo-Saxon ancestors in what is now Denmark, Germany and also parts of Scandinavia.

 

Beowulf_geography_names

The tribes that went on to shape Northern Europe

 

Beowulf, a hero of the Geats, comes to the aid of Hrothgar, the king of the Danes, whose mead hall in Heorot has been under attack by a monster known as Grendel. After Beowulf slays him, Grendel’s mother attacks the hall and is then also defeated. Victorious, Beowulf goes home to Geatland (Götaland in modern Sweden) and later becomes king of the Geats. After a period of fifty years has passed, Beowulf defeats a dragon, but is fatally wounded in the battle. After his death, his attendants cremate his body and erect a tower on a headland in his memory.

The full poem survives in the manuscript known as the Nowell Codex, located in the British Library. It has no title in the original manuscript, but has become known by the name of the story’s protagonist. In 1731, the manuscript was badly damaged by a fire that swept through Ashburnham House in London.

The author of Beowulf is not known but it is thought possible it was written in East Anglia somewhere near the treasures of Sutton Hoo in Suffolk.  In fact, the poem doesn’t even have a title but over the centuries, it has just been given the name of its chief protagonist. For several centuries, it is thought that Beowulf was passed from generation to generation orally before it was written down in the 10th or 11th century in the copy that we still have today.

You can see below the first page of the original Beowulf story but I’ve been contacted by the British Library in London and they’ve given me a link so everyone can read the original manuscript online.   Please go to http://www.bl.uk/collection-items/beowulf

Beowulf_Cotton_MS_Vitellius_A_XV_f._132r-2

The front page of Beowulf

 

Beowulf begins with the story of King Hrothgar, who constructed the great hall Heorot for himself and his warriors. In it, he, his wife Wealhtheow, and his warriors spend their time singing and celebrating. Grendel, a troll-like monster said to be descended from the biblical Cain, is pained by the sounds of a joy he cannot share, attacks the hall, and kills and devours many of Hrothgar’s warriors while they sleep. Hrothgar and his people, helpless against Grendel, abandon Heorot.

Beowulf, a young warrior from Geatland, hears of Hrothgar’s troubles and with his king’s permission leaves his homeland to assist Hrothgar.

Beowulf and his men spend the night in Heorot. Beowulf refuses to use any weapon because he holds himself to be the equal of Grendel. When Grendel enters the hall, Beowulf, who has been feigning sleep, leaps up to clench Grendel’s hand. Grendel and Beowulf battle each other violently.Beowulf’s retainers draw their swords and rush to his aid, but their blades cannot pierce Grendel’s skin. Finally, Beowulf tears Grendel’s arm from his body at the shoulder and Grendel runs to his home in the marshes where he dies.

The next night, after celebrating Grendel’s defeat, Hrothgar, and his men sleep in Heorot. Grendel’s mother, angry that her son has been killed, sets out to get revenge. She violently kills Æschere, who is Hrothgar’s most loyal fighter.

Hrothgar, Beowulf, and their men track Grendel’s mother to her lair under a lake. Unferth, a warrior who had doubted him and wishes to make amends, presents Beowulf with his sword Hrunting. After stipulating a number of conditions to Hrothgar in case of his death (including the taking in of his kinsmen and the inheritance by Unferth of Beowulf’s estate), Beowulf jumps into the lake at the bottom of which he finds a cavern containing Grendel’s body and the remains of men that the two have killed, Grendel’s mother and Beowulf engage in fierce combat.

At first, Grendel’s mother appears to prevail. Beowulf, finding that Hrunting cannot harm his foe, puts it aside in fury. Beowulf is again saved from his opponent’s attack by his armor. Beowulf takes another sword from Grendel’s mother and slices her head off with it. Traveling further into Grendel’s mother’s lair, Beowulf discovers Grendel and severs his head. The blade of Beowulf’s sword touches Grendel’s toxic blood, and instantly dissolves so that only the hilt remains. Beowulf swims back up to the rim of the pond where his men wait in growing despair. Carrying the hilt of the sword and Grendel’s head, he presents them to Hrothgar upon his return to Heorot. Hrothgar gives Beowulf many gifts, including the sword Nægling, his family’s heirloom. The events prompt a long reflection by the king, sometimes referred to as “Hrothgar’s sermon”, in which he urges Beowulf to be wary of pride and to reward his thanes.

Beowulf returns home and eventually becomes king of his own people. One day, fifty years after Beowulf’s battle with Grendel’s mother, a slave steals a golden cup from the lair of an unnamed dragon at Earnaness. When the dragon sees that the cup has been stolen, it leaves its cave in a rage, burning everything in sight. Beowulf and his warriors come to fight the dragon, but Beowulf tells his men that he will fight the dragon alone and that they should wait on the barrow. Beowulf descends to do battle with the dragon but finds himself outmatched. His men, upon seeing this and fearing for their lives, creep back into the woods. One of his men, however, Wiglaf, who finds great distress in seeing Beowulf’s plight, comes to Beowulf’s aid. The two slay the dragon, but Beowulf is mortally wounded. After Beowulf’s death, he is ritually burned on a great pyre in Geatland while his people wail and mourn him. Afterwards, a barrow, visible from the sea, is built in his memory.

The story of Beowulf contains is primarily a work of entertainment and does not differentiate between fictional elements and real historic events, such as the raid by King Hygelac into Frisia. Scholars generally agree that many of the personalities of Beowulf also appear in Scandinavian sources. This does not only concern people such as Healfdene, Hroðgar, Halga, Hroðulf, Eadgils and Ohthere), but also clans including the Scyldings, Scylfings and Wulfings as well as some of the events such as the Battle on the Ice of Lake Vänern. The dating of the events in the poem has been confirmed by archeological excavations of the barrows indicated by Snorri Sturluson and by Swedish tradition as the graves of Ohthere (dated to 530 AD) and his son Eadgils (dated to 575 AD) in Uppland, Sweden.

In Denmark, recent archeological excavations at Lejre, where Scandinavian tradition located the seat of the Scyldings, i.e., Heorot, have revealed that a hall was built in the mid-6th century, exactly the time period of Beowulf. Three halls, each about 50 metres (164 feet) long, were found during the excavation.

The majority view appears to be that people such as King Hroðgar and the Scyldings in Beowulf are based on real historical people from 6th-century Scandinavia. Like the Finnesburg Fragment and several shorter surviving poems, Beowulf has consequently been used as a source of information about Scandinavian personalities such as Eadgils and Hygelac, and about continental Germanic personalities such as Offa, king of the continental Angles.

 

Eadgil's_barrow-2

Archeological evidence for some events and figures in Beowulf.

19th-century archeological evidence may confirm elements of the Beowulf story. Eadgils was buried at Uppsala, according to Snorri Sturluson. When Eadgils’ mound (to the left in the photo) was excavated in 1874, the finds supported Beowulf and the sagas. They showed that a powerful man was buried in a large barrow on a bear skin in around 575 ADwith two dogs and rich grave offerings. These remains include a Frankish sword adorned with gold and garnets and a tafl game with Roman pawns of ivory. He was dressed in a costly suit made of Frankish cloth with golden threads, and he wore a belt with a costly buckle. There were four cameos from the Middle East which were probably part of a casket. This would have been a burial fitting a king who was famous for his wealth in Old Norse sources. Ongenþeow’s barrow (to the right in the photo above) has not been excavated.

COMING SOON

Thank-you to everyone who voted on my book cover poll.   A few changes have been made to take note of suggestions and ideas and I’ve created a page for my upcoming book V1.  More news soon!

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About Stephen Liddell

I am a writer and traveller with a penchant for history and getting off the beaten track. With several books to my name including a #1 seller, I also write environmental, travel and history articles for magazines as well as freelance work. Recently I've appeared on BBC Radio and Bloomberg TV and am waiting on the filming of a ghost story on British TV. I run my own private UK tours company (Ye Olde England Tours) with small, private and totally customisable guided tours run by myself!
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5 Responses to The Epic of Beowulf

  1. Thank you for the history behind Beowulf, it’s something I’ve always been curious about.
    Your cover turned out great by the way.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Nice post, I’ve always rather liked Beowulf. It’s amazing how much of the old Norse history survives. I don’t know where, but somehow I got the impression that for years it was a part of the basic English literature requirement at Oxford or Cambridge that you had to read Beowulf in the original Old English. Is this true? I’m sure I wouldn’t pass, except for one line: “Than he answerode, word hord unlocke”.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m glad that you enjoyed it. I didn’t study English literature but I wouldn’t be surprised if it is required reading at Oxford or Cambridge. I know I had to read Aristotle, Plato, Hobbs, Mills and Rousseau in original English translations and some of that was quite difficult!! Reading Beowulf in a standard translation is about my limit so I’d be no better than you!

      Like

  3. Thank you for the history of Beowulf. I suppose the best historical tales are part fiction part fact, which presumably still holds true today. Love the cover as well.

    Liked by 1 person

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