Get Your Premium Membership

Beowulf: Summary of the Story, the Hero, and its Historical Value

by Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th Edition

The epic of Beowulf, the most precious relic of Old English, and, indeed, of all early Germanic literature, has come down to us in a single MS., written about a.d. 1000, which contains also the Old English poem of Judith, and is bound up with other MSS. in a volume in the Cottonian collection now at the British Museum. The subject of the poem is the exploits of Beowulf, son of Ecgtheow and nephew of Hygelac, king of the “Geatas,” i.e. the people, called in Scandinavian records Gautar, from whom a part of southern Sweden has received its present name Götland.

The Story.—The following is a brief outline of the story, which naturally divides itself into five parts.

1. Beowulf, with fourteen companions, sails to Denmark, to offer his help to Hrothgar, king of the Danes, whose hall (called “Heorot”) has for twelve years been rendered uninhabitable by the ravages of a devouring monster (apparently in gigantic human shape) called Grendel, a dweller in the waste, who used nightly to force an entrance and slaughter some of the inmates. Beowulf and his friends are feasted in the long-deserted Heorot. At night the Danes withdraw, leaving the strangers alone. When all but Beowulf are asleep, Grendel enters, the iron-barred doors having yielded in a moment to his hand. One of Beowulf’s friends is killed; but Beowulf, unarmed, wrestles with the monster, and tears his arm from the shoulder. Grendel, though mortally wounded, breaks from the conqueror’s grasp, and escapes from the hall. On the morrow, his bloodstained track is followed until it ends in a distant mere.

2. All fear being now removed, the Danish king and his followers pass the night in Heorot, Beowulf and his comrades being lodged elsewhere. The hall is invaded by Grendel’s mother, who kills and carries off one of the Danish nobles. Beowulf proceeds to the mere, and, armed with sword and corslet, plunges into the water. In a vaulted chamber under the waves, he fights with Grendel’s mother, and kills her. In the vault he finds the corpse of Grendel; he cuts off the head, and brings it back in triumph.

3. Richly rewarded by Hrothgar, Beowulf returns to his native land. He is welcomed by Hygelac. and relates to him the story of his adventures, with some details not contained in the former narrative. The king bestows on him lands and honours, and during the reigns of Hygelac and his son Heardred he is the greatest man in the kingdom. When Heardred is killed in battle with the Swedes, Beowulf becomes king in his stead.

4. After Beowulf has reigned prosperously for fifty years, his country is ravaged by a fiery dragon, which inhabits an ancient burial-mound, full of costly treasure. The royal hall itself is burned to the ground. The aged king resolves to fight, unaided, with the dragon. Accompanied by eleven chosen warriors, he journeys to the barrow. Bidding his companions retire to a distance, he takes up his position near the entrance to the mound—an arched opening whence issues a boiling stream. I The dragon hears Beowulf’s shout of defiance, and rushes forth, breathing flames. The fight begins; Beowulf is all but overpowered, and the sight is so terrible that his men, all but one, seek safety in flight. The young Wiglaf, son of Weohstan, though yet untried in battle, cannot, even in obedience to his lord’s prohibition, refrain from going to his help. With Wiglaf’s aid, Beowulf slays the dragon, but not before he has received his own death-wound. Wiglaf enters the barrow, and returns to show the dying king the treasures that he has found there. With his last breath Beowulf names Wiglaf his successor, and ordains that his ashes shall be enshrined in a great mound, placed on a lofty cliff, so that it may be a mark for sailors far out at sea.

5. The news of Beowulf’s dear-bought victory is carried to the army. Amid great lamentation, the hero’s body is laid on the funeral pile and consumed. The treasures of the dragon’s hoard are buried with his ashes; and when the great mound is finished, twelve of Beowulf’s most famous warriors ride around it, celebrating the praises of the bravest, gentlest and most generous of kings.

The Hero.—Those portions of the poem that are summarized above—that is to say, those which relate the career of the hero in progressive order—contain a lucid and well-constructed story, told with a vividness of imagination and a degree of narrative skill that may with little exaggeration be called Homeric. And yet it is probable that there are few readers of Beowulf who have not felt—and there are many who after repeated perusal continue to feel—that the general impression produced by it is that of a bewildering chaos. This effect is due to the multitude and the character of the episodes. In the first place, a very great part of what the poem tells about Beowulf himself is not presented in regular sequence, but by way of retrospective mention or narration. The extent of the material thus introduced out of course may be seen from the following abstract.

When seven years old the orphaned Beowulf was adopted by his grandfather king Hrethel, the father of Hygelac, and was regarded by him with as much affection as any of his own sons. In youth, although famed for his wonderful strength of grip, he was generally despised as sluggish and unwarlike. Yet even before his encounter with Grendel, he had won renown by his swimming contest with another youth named Breca, when after battling for seven days and nights with the waves, and slaying many sea-monsters, he came to land in the country of the Finns. In the disastrous invasion of the land of the Hetware, in which Hygelac was killed, Beowulf killed many of the enemy, amongst them a chieftain of the Hugas, named Daeghrefn, apparently the slayer of Hygelac. In the retreat he once more displayed his powers as a swimmer, carrying to his ship the armour of thirty slain enemies. When he reached his native land, the widowed queen offered him the kingdom, her son Heardred being too young to rule. Beowulf, out of loyalty, refused to be made king, and acted as the guardian of Heardred during his minority, and as his counsellor after he came to man’s estate. By giving shelter to the fugitive Eadgils, a rebel against his uncle the king of the “Sweon” (the Swedes, dwelling to the north of the Gautar), Heardred brought on himself an invasion, in which he lost his life. When Beowulf became king, he supported the cause of Eadgils by force of arms; the king of the Swedes was killed, and his nephew placed on the throne.

Historical Value.—Now, with one brilliant exception—the story of the swimming-match, which is felicitously introduced and finely told—these retrospective passages are brought in more or less awkwardly, interrupt inconveniently the course of the narrative, and are too condensed and allusive in style to make any strong poetic impression. Still, they do serve to complete the portraiture of the hero’s character. There are, however, many other episodes that have nothing to do with Beowulf himself, but seem to have been inserted with a deliberate intention of making the poem into a sort of cyclopaedia of Germanic tradition. They include many particulars of what purports to be the history of the royal houses, not only of the Gautar and the Danes, but also of the Swedes, the continental 759Angles, the Ostrogoths, the Frisians and the Heathobeards, besides references to matters of unlocalized heroic story such as the exploits of Sigismund. The Saxons are not named, and the Franks appear only as a dreaded hostile power. Of Britain there is no mention; and though there are some distinctly Christian passages, they are so incongruous in tone with the rest of the poem that they must be regarded as interpolations. In general the extraneous episodes have no great appropriateness to their context, and have the appearance of being abridged versions of stories that had been related at length in poetry. Their confusing effect, for modern readers, is increased by a curiously irrelevant prologue. It begins by celebrating the ancient glories of the Danes, tells in allusive style the story of Scyld, the founder of the “Scylding” dynasty of Denmark, and praises the virtues of his son Beowulf. If this Danish Beowulf had been the hero of the poem, the opening would have been appropriate; but it seems strangely out of place as an introduction to the story of his namesake.

However detrimental these redundancies may be to the poetic beauty of the epic, they add enormously to its interest for students of Germanic history or legend. If the mass of traditions which it purports to contain be genuine, the poem is of unique importance as a source of knowledge respecting the early history of the peoples of northern Germany and Scandinavia. But the value to be assigned to Beowulf in this respect can be determined only by ascertaining its probable date, origin and manner of composition. The criticism of the Old English epic has therefore for nearly a century been justly regarded as indispensable to the investigation of Germanic antiquities.

The starting-point of all Beowulf criticism is the fact (discovered by N.F.S. Grundtvig in 1815) that one of the episodes of the poem belongs to authentic history. Gregory of Tours, who died in 594, relates that in the reign of Theodoric of Metz (511-534) the Danes invaded the kingdom, and carried off many captives and much plunder to their ships. Their king, whose name appears in the best MSS. as Chlochilaicus (other copies read Chrochilaicus, Hrodolaicus, &c.), remained on shore intending to follow afterwards, but was attacked by the Franks under Theodobert, son of Theodoric, and killed. The Franks then defeated the Danes in a naval battle, and recovered the booty. The date of these events is ascertained to have been between 512 and 520. An anonymous history written early in the eighth century (Liber Hist. Francorum, cap. 19) gives the name of the Danish king as Chochilaicus, and says that he was killed in the land of the Attoarii. Now it is related in Beowulf that Hygelac met his death in fighting against the Franks and the Hetware (the Old English form of Attoarii). The forms of the Danish king’s name given by the Frankish historians are corruptions of the name of which the primitive Germanic form was Hugilaikaz, and which by regular phonetic change became in Old EnglishHygelac, and in Old Norse Hugleikr. It is true that the invading king is said in the histories to have been a Dane, whereas the Hygelac of Beowulf belonged to the “Geatas” or Gautar. But a work called Liber Monstrorum,1 preserved in two MSS. of the 10th century, cites as an example of extraordinary stature a certain “Huiglaucus, king of the Getae,” who was killed by the Franks, and whose bones were preserved on an island at the mouth of the Rhine, and exhibited as a marvel. It is therefore evident that the personality of Hygelac, and the expedition in which, according toBeowulf, he died, belong not to the region of legend or poetic invention, but to that of historic fact.

This noteworthy result suggests the possibility that what the poem tells of Hygelac’s near relatives, and of the events of his reign and that of his successor, is based on historic fact. There is really nothing to forbid the supposition; nor is there any unlikelihood in the view that the persons mentioned as belonging to the royal houses of the Danes and Swedes had a real existence. It can be proved, at any rate, that several of the names are derived from the native traditions of these two peoples. The Danish king Hrothgar and his brother Halga, the sons of Healf-dene, appear in theHistoria Danica of Saxo as Roe (the founder of Roskilde) and Helgo, the sons of Haldanus. The Swedish princes Eadgils, son of Ohthere, and Onela, who are mentioned in Beowulf, are in the Icelandic Heimskringla called Adils son of Ottarr, and Ali; the correspondence of the names, according to the phonetic laws of Old English and Old Norse, being strictly normal. There are other points of contact between Beowulf on the one hand and the Scandinavian records on the other, confirming the conclusion that the Old English poem contains much of the historical tradition of the Gautar, the Danes and the Swedes, in its purest accessible form.

Of the hero of the poem no mention has been found elsewhere. But the name (the Icelandic form of which is Bjolfr) is genuinely Scandinavian. It was borne by one of the early settlers in Iceland, and a monk named Biuulf is commemorated in the Liber Vitae of the church of Durham. As the historical character of Hygelac has been proved, it is not unreasonable to accept the authority of the poem for the statement that his nephew Beowulf succeeded Heardred on the throne of the Gautar, and interfered in the dynastic quarrels of the Swedes. His swimming exploit among the Hetware, allowance being made for poetic exaggeration, fits remarkably well into the circumstances of the story told by Gregory of Tours; and perhaps his contest with Breca may have been an exaggeration of a real incident in his career; and even if it was originally related of some other hero, its attribution to the historical Beowulf may have been occasioned by his renown as a swimmer.

On the other hand, it would be absurd to imagine that the combats with Grendel and his mother and with the fiery dragon can be exaggerated representations of actual occurrences. These exploits belong to the domain of pure mythology. That they have been attributed to Beowulf in particular might seem to be adequately accounted for by the general tendency to connect mythical achievements with the name of any famous hero. There are, however, some facts that seem to point to a more definite explanation. The Danish king “Scyld Scefing,” whose story is told in the opening lines of the poem, and his son Beowulf, are plainly identical with Sceldwea, son of Sceaf, and his son Beaw, who appear among the ancestors of Woden in the genealogy of the kings of Wessex given in the Old English Chronicle. The story of Scyld is related, with some details not found in Beowulf, by William of Malmesbury, and, less fully, by the 10th-century English historian Ethelwerd, though it is told not of Scyld himself, but of his father Sceaf. According to William’s version, Sceaf was found, as an infant, alone in a boat without oars, which had drifted to the island of “Scandza.” The child was asleep with his head on a sheaf, and from this circumstance he obtained his name. When he grew up he reigned over the Angles at “Slaswic.” In Beowulf the same story is told of Scyld, with the addition that when he died his body was placed in a ship, laden with rich treasure, which was sent out to sea unguided. It is clear that in the original form of the tradition the name of the foundling was Scyld or Sceldwea, and that his cognomen Scefing (derived from sceaf, a sheaf) was misinterpreted as a patronymic. Sceaf, therefore, is no genuine personage of tradition, but merely an etymological figment.

The position of Sceldwea and Beaw (in Malmesbury’s Latin called Sceldius and Beowius) in the genealogy as anterior to Woden would not of itself prove that they belong to divine mythology and not to heroic legend. But there are independent reasons for believing that they were originally gods or demi-gods. It is a reasonable conjecture that the tales of victories over Grendel and the fiery dragon belong properly to the myth of Beaw. If Beowulf, the champion of the Gautar, had already become a theme of epic song, the resemblance of name might easily suggest the idea of enriching his story by adding to it the achievements of Beaw. At the same time, the tradition that the hero of these adventures was a son of Scyld, who was identified (whether rightly or wrongly) with the eponymus of the Danish dynasty of the Scyldings, may well have prompted the 760supposition that they took place in Denmark. There is, as we shall see afterwards, some ground for believing that there were circulated in England two rival poetic versions of the story of the encounters with supernatural beings: the one referring them to Beowulf the Dane, while the other (represented by the existing poem) attached them to the legend of the son of Ecgtheow, but ingeniously contrived to do some justice to the alternative tradition by laying the scene of the Grendel incident at the court of a Scylding king.

As the name of Beaw appears in the genealogies of English kings, it seems likely that the traditions of his exploits may have been brought over by the Angles from their continental home. This supposition is confirmed by evidence that seems to show that the Grendel legend was popularly current in this country. In the schedules of boundaries appended to two Old English charters there occurs mention of pools called “Grendel’s mere,” one in Wiltshire and the other in Staffordshire. The charter that mentions the Wiltshire “Grendel’s mere” speaks also of a place called Beowan ham(“Beowa’s home”), and another Wiltshire charter has a “Scyld’s tree” among the landmarks enumerated. The notion that ancient burial mounds were liable to be inhabited by dragons was common in the Germanic world: there is perhaps a trace of it in the Derbyshire place-name Drakelow, which means “dragon’s barrow.”

While, however, it thus appears that the mythic part of the Beowulf story is a portion of primeval Angle tradition, there is no proof that it was originally peculiar to the Angles; and even if it was so, it may easily have passed from them into the poetic cycles of the related peoples. There are, indeed, some reasons for suspecting that the blending of the stories of the mythic Beaw and the historical Beowulf may have been the work of Scandinavian and not of English poets. Prof. G. Sarrazin has pointed out the striking resemblance between the Scandinavian legend of Bödvarr Biarki and that of the Beowulf of the poem. In each, a hero from Gautland slays a destructive monster at the court of a Danish king, and afterwards is found fighting on the side of Eadgils (Adils) in Sweden. This coincidence cannot well be due to mere chance; but its exact significance is doubtful. On the one hand, it is possible that the English epic, which unquestionably derived its historical elements from Scandinavian song, may be indebted to the same source for its general plan, including the blending of history and myth. On the other hand, considering the late date of the authority for the Scandinavian traditions, we cannot be sure that the latter may not owe some of their material to English minstrels. There are similar alternative possibilities with regard to the explanation of the striking resemblances which certain incidents of the adventures with Grendel and the dragon bear to incidents in the narratives of Saxo and the Icelandic sagas.

Date and Origin.—It is now time to speak of the probable date and origin of the poem. The conjecture that most naturally presents itself to those who have made no special study of the question, is that an English epic treating of the deeds of a Scandinavian hero on Scandinavian ground must have been composed in the days of Norse or Danish dominion in England. This, however, is impossible. The forms under which Scandinavian names appear in the poem show clearly that these names must have entered English tradition not later than the beginning of the 7th century. It does not indeed follow that the extant poem is of so early a date; but its syntax is remarkably archaic in comparision with that of the Old English poetry of the 8th century. The hypothesis that Beowulf is in whole or in part a translation from a Scandinavian original, although still maintained by some scholars, introduces more difficulties than it solves, and must be dismissed as untenable. The limits of this article do not permit us to state and criticize the many elaborate theories that have been proposed respecting the origin of the poem. All that can be done is to set forth the view that appears to us to be most free from objection. It may be premised that although the existing MS. is written in the West-Saxon dialect, the phenomena of the language indicate transcription from an Anglian (i.e. a Northumbrian or Mercian) original; and this conclusion is supported by the fact that while the poem contains one important episode relating to the Angles, the name of the Saxons does not occur in it at all.

In its original form, Beowulf was a product of the time when poetry was composed not to be read, but to be recited in the halls of kings and nobles. Of course an entire epic could not be recited on a single occasion; nor can we suppose that it would be thought out from beginning to end before any part of it was presented to an audience. A singer who had pleased his hearers with a tale of adventure would be called on to tell them of earlier or later events in the career of the hero; and so the story would grow, until it included all that the poet knew from tradition, or could invent in harmony with it. That Beowulf is concerned with the deeds of a foreign hero is less surprising than it seems at first sight. The minstrel of early Germanic times was required to be learned not only in the traditions of his own people, but also in those of the other peoples with whom they felt their kinship. He had a double task to perform. It was not enough that his songs should give pleasure; his patrons demanded that he should recount faithfully the history and genealogy both of their own line and of those other royal houses who shared with them the same divine ancestry, and who might be connected with them by ties of marriage or warlike alliance. Probably the singer was always himself an original poet; he might often be content to reproduce the songs that he had learned, but he was doubtless free to improve or expand them as he chose, provided that his inventions did not conflict with what was supposed to be historic truth. For all we know, the intercourse of the Angles with Scandinavia, which enabled their poets to obtain new knowledge of the legends of Danes, Gautar and Swedes, may not have ceased until their conversion to Christianity in the 7th century. And even after this event, whatever may have been the attitude of churchmen towards the old heathen poetry, the kings and warriors would be slow to lose their interest in the heroic tales that had delighted their ancestors. It is probable that down to the end of the 7th century, if not still later, the court poets of Northumbria and Mercia continued to celebrate the deeds of Beowulf and of many another hero of ancient days.

Although the heathen Angles had their own runic alphabet, it is unlikely that any poetry was written down until a generation had grown up trained in the use of the Latin letters learned from Christian missionaries. We cannot determine the date at which some book-learned man, interested in poetry, took down from the lips of a minstrel one of the stories that he had been accustomed to sing. It may have been before 700; much later it can hardly have been, for the old heathen poetry, though its existence might be threatened by the influence of the church, was still in vigorous life. The epic of Beowulf was not the only one that was reduced to writing: a fragment of the song about Finn, king of the Frisians, still survives, and possibly several other heroic poems were written down about the same time. As originally dictated, Beowulf probably contained the story outlined at the beginning of this article, with the addition of one or two of the episodes relating to the hero himself—among them the legend of the swimming-match. This story had doubtless been told at greater length in verse, but its insertion in its present place is the work of a poet, not of a mere redactor. The other episodes were introduced by some later writer, who had heard recited, or perhaps had read, a multitude of the old heathen songs, the substance of which he piously sought to preserve from oblivion by weaving it in an abridged form, into the texture of the one great poem which he was transcribing. The Christian passages, which are poetically of no value, are evidently of literary origin, and may be of any date down to that of the extant MS. The curious passage which says that the subjects of Hrothgar sought deliverance from Grendel in prayer at the temple of the Devil, “because they knew not the true God,” must surely have been substituted for a passage referring sympathetically to the worship of the ancient gods.

An interesting light on the history of the written text seems to be afforded by the phenomena of the existing MS. The poem is divided into numbered sections, the length of which was probably determined by the size of the pieces of parchment of 761which an earlier exemplar consisted. Now the first fifty-two lines, which are concerned with Scyld and his son Beowulf, stand outside this numbering. It may reasonably be inferred that there once existed a written text of the poem that did not include these lines. Their substance, however, is clearly ancient. Many difficulties will be obviated if we may suppose that this passage is the beginning of a different poem, the hero of which was not Beowulf the son of Ecgtheow, but his Danish namesake. It is true that Beowulf the Scylding is mentioned at the beginning of the first numbered section; but probably the opening lines of this section have undergone alteration in order to bring them into connexion with the prefixed matter.