Beowulf Beowulf is to England what Homer’s Iliad (see page 67) and Odyssey are to ancient Greece: It is the first great work of the English national literature—the mythical and literary record of a formative stage of English civilization. It is also an epic of the heroic sources of English culture. As such, Beowulfuses a host of traditional motifs, or recurring elements, associated with heroic literature all over the world.
The epic tells of Beowulf (his name may mean “bear”), a Geat from Sweden who crosses the sea to Denmark in a quest to rescue King Hrothgar’s people from the demonic monster Grendel. Like most early heroic literature, Beowulf is an oral epic. It was handed down, with changes and embellishments, from one minstrel to another. The stories of Beowulf, like those of all oral epics, are traditional, familiar to the audiences who crowded around the harpist-bards in the communal halls at night. They are the stories of dream and legend, archetypal tales of monsters and god-fashioned weapons, of descents to the underworld and fights with dragons, of the hero’s quest and a community threatened by the powers of evil.
The Sources of Beowulf
By the standards of Homer, whose epics run to nearly 15,000 lines, Beowulf is short—approximately 3,200 lines. It was composed in Old English, probably in Northumbria, in northeastern England, sometime between 700 and 750. The world it depicts, however, is much older, that of the early sixth century. Much of the poem’s material is based on early folk legends—some Celtic, some Scandinavian. Since the scenery described is the coast of Northumbria, not Scandinavia, it has been assumed that the poet who wrote the version that has come down to us was Northumbrian. Given the Christian elements in the epic, it is thought that this poet may have been a monk.
The only manuscript of Beowulf we have dates from the year 1000 and is now in the British Museum in London. Burned and stained, it was discovered in the eighteenth century: Somehow it had survived Henry VIII’s destruction of the monasteries two hundred years earlier.
The Translations of Beowulf Part One of the text you are about to read is from Burton Raffel’s popular 1963 translation of the epic. Part Two is from the Irish poet Seamus Heaney’s award-winning, bestselling translation of the work, published in 2000.
People, Monsters, and Places
Beowulf: a Geat, son of Edgetho (Ecgtheow) and nephew of Higlac (Hygelac), king of the Geats.
Grendel: man-eating monster who lives at the bottom of a foul mere, or mountain lake. His name might be related to the Old Norse grindill, meaning “storm,” or grenja, “bellow.”
Herot: golden guest hall built by King Hrothgar, the Danish ruler. It was decorated with the antlers of stags; the name means “hart [stag] hall.” Scholars think Herot might have been built near Lejre on the coast of Zealand, in Denmark.
Hrothgar: king of the Danes, builder of Herot. He had once befriended Beowulf’s father. His father was called Healfdane (which probably means “half Dane”).
Wiglaf: a Geat warrior, one of Beowulf’s select band and the only one to help him in his final fight.
Make the Connection
This is a story about a hero from the misty reaches of the British past, a hero who faces violence, horror, and even death to save a people in mortal danger. The epic’s events took place many centuries ago, but this story still speaks to people today, perhaps because so many of us are in need of a rescuer, a hero. Take a moment to write about a contemporary hero, real or fictional, and the challenges he or she faces. Describe your hero, and then briefly analyze him or her using these questions:
What sort of evil or oppression does your hero confront?
Why does he or she confront evil? What’s the motivation?
For whom does your hero confront evil?
What virtues does your hero represent?
The Epic Hero
Beowulf is ancient England’s hero, but he is also an archetype, or perfect example, of an epic hero. In other times, in other cultures, the hero has taken the shape of King Arthur or Gilgamesh (see page 58), or Sundiata or Joan of Arc. In modern America the hero may be a real person, like Martin Luther King, Jr., or a fictional character, like Shane in the western novel of the same name. The hero archetype in Beowulf is the dragon slayer, representing a besieged community facing evil forces that lurk in the cold darkness. Grendel, the monster lurking in the depths of the lagoon, may represent all of those threatening forces.
Beowulf, like all epic heroes, possesses superior physical strength and supremely ethical standards. He embodies the highest ideals of Anglo-Saxon culture. In his quest he must defeat monsters that embody dark, destructive powers. At the end of the quest, he is glorified by the people he has saved. If you follow current events, particularly stories concerning people who have gained freedom after years of oppression, you will still see at work this impulse to glorify those people who have set them free. You might also see this impulse in the impressive monuments—and great tourist attractions—in Washington, D.C.
The epic hero is the central figure in a long narrative that reflects the values and heroic ideals of a particular society. An epic is a quest story on a grand scale.