A Literary Treasure: The Oldest Surviving English Poem - Beowulf and His Epic Battles
Perhaps the oldest surviving long poem in Old English, Beowulf is commonly seen as one of the most important works of Old English Literature. While the date of the poem’s composition is still debated, the only certainty is that the physical manuscript was produced some time between 975 and 1025 AD. The author was an anonymous poet, perhaps of Anglo-Saxon descent, who is now referred to as the “Beowulf poet.” The actual poem does not have a specific title, so it has been named after the protagonist of the story. The full poem only survives in one manuscript known as the Nowell Codex. The manuscript was badly damaged in a fire at Ashburnham House in London in 1731. However, the manuscript was not destroyed in this fire and is currently housed in the British Library.
First page of Beowulf contained in the damaged Nowell Codex (Public Domain)
The Date Debate
The dating of the poem remains a point of contention among scholars. While there is a fairly concrete date for the production of the manuscript containing the poem, opinions differ on whether the poem itself is contemporary with its transcription. Perhaps there was a proto-version of the poem that was passed down through oral tradition before it was ever copied down. J.R.R. Tolkien felt strongly that the poem retains too much genuine memory of Anglo-Saxon Paganism to have been composed more than a few generations after the completion of the Christianization of England circa 700 AD. Others claim that the poem has elements that date back to a much earlier time. The manuscript was transcribed by two scribes, one of whom wrote the first 1939 lines and another who wrote the remainder. The two scribes present two distinct writing styles and while it is clear that they proofread their work, there are still numerous mistakes. This information has been used to argue that the scribes transcribed their own interpretation of the earlier oral tradition of the poem.
Beowulf and the Grendels
The poem is set in Scandinavia where the protagonist, Beowulf, a Geatish hero (from an area now part of modern Sweden), answers the call for help of the Danish king, Hrothgar. The king’s great hall, Heorot, is being attacked by the monster Grendel. This monster is pained by the sounds of a joy that he cannot take part in. One night while Hrothgar and his men are sleeping Grendel decides to put a stop to the merriment of these men and attacks the hall, killing and devouring many of Hrothgar’s men. As a result, Heorot is abandoned by those who are left and a call is made for aid. Beowulf answers this call and faces Grendel one on one, without any weapon. Beowulf’s men come to his aid in the heat of battle, but their swords cannot pierce the monster’s skin. Finally, Beowulf tears Grendel’s arm from his body and the monster retreats to the marshes and it dies.
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Vikings carrying the head of Grendel, the beast that attacked the feasting hall in ‘Beowulf’ (Public Domain)
After discovering her dead son, the mother of Grendel goes into the night seeking revenge. Hrothgar’s men sleep in Heorot believing themselves to be safe from attack. Once Grendel’s mother reaches Heorot she violently kills Aechere, one of Hrothgar’s most loyal warriors. Hrothgar along with Beowulf and his men track Grendel’s mother to her lair under the lake. After explaining to Hrothgar his wishes should he die, Beowulf jumps into the lake. at the bottom of the lake he finds a cavern containing Grendel’s body and the remains of dead men. Beowulf engages in battle with Grendel’s mother, and she appears to prevail at first. Once again finding that swords cannot pierce the skin of the monster, he throws his own sword aside and takes one from within the lair and slices her head off with it. Beowulf also decapitates the corpse of Grendel. Bringing the heads back to the surface, he presents them to Hrothgar and upon returning to Heorot Beowulf is presented with many gifts. The event prompts a long reflection by the king, known as “Hrothgar’s sermon,” in which he urges Beowulf to be wary of pride.
Beowulf fighting Grendel’s Mother beside Grendel’s body. Credit: ndhill
The Further Sagas of Beowulf
After his battles in the land of the Danes, Beowulf returns to his own people and eventually becomes king. Fifty years after the battle with Grendel’s mother, a slave steals a golden cup from the lair of a dragon at Earnanaes. Seeing that the cup has been stolen, the dragon flies into a rage, burning everything in sight. Beowulf and his warriors go to fight the dragon, but he tells his men that he will fight the dragon alone and they are to wait for him on the barrow. Engaging in battle with the dragon, Beowulf sees that he is out matched. Upon seeing this, his men fear for their lives and retreat into the woods. Only one of Beowulf’s men, Wiglaf, goes to his aid. The two slay the dragon, but Beowulf is mortally wounded. After Beowulf’s death, he is ritually burned on a pyre as was the was tradition of the time and this people of Geatland mourn his passing. Afterwards, a barrow, visible from the sea, is built in his memory.
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Wiglaf speaking to Beowulf after his battle with the dragon (Public Domain)
Historic Setting of the Poem
The events of the poem take place over most of the 6 th century, after the Anglo-Saxons had started to enter what would become England; when they still had close ties to their Germanic kinsmen. As such, the poem may have been brought to England by a person of Geatish origin. Some have suggested that the poem was first composed in the 7 th century in East Anglia, as the Sutton Hoo ship burial bares close resemblance to burials in Scandinavia and those described in the poem. Conversely, others have associated the poem with the court of King Alfred the Great, in the 9 th and 10 th centuries. While the poem was composed for entertainment, scholars agree that it intertwines legend with real-world events. Beowulf is fictional but the supporting characters also appear in Scandinavian sources, as well as some of the events. The dating of these events may have been confirmed by archaeological excavations of barrows, indicating the traditional burial practice in Scandinavia. When Eadgils’ mound was excavated in Sweden in 1874, the remains showed that a powerful man was buried in the mound ca. 575 AD, on a bear skin with two dogs and rich grave offerings. The burial would have been fitting for a famous wealthy man in Old Norse sources. Perhaps, this is the real burial of Beowulf, the great king warrior.
Top image: The codex, opened to a page of Beowulf (Public Domain)
British Museum. 2017. Digital Facsimile of the Manuscript. [Online] Available at: http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Cotton_MS_vitellius_a_xv
Flood, Alison. 2014. JRR Tolkien translation of Beowulf to be published after 90-year wait. [Online] Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/mar/19/jrr-tolkien-beowulf-translation-published
Mandal, Dattatreya. 2017. Listen to Beowulf Being Read in Original Old English. [Online] Available at: http://www.realmofhistory.com/2017/04/27/beowulf-read-original-old-english/
Savage, Anne. Beowulf in Hypertext. [Online] Available at: http://www.humanities.mcmaster.ca/~beowulf/main.html
Smelcer, John. 2014. Dragging the Monster out from the Closet: Beowulf and the English Literary Tradition. [Online] Available at: http://old.ragazine.cc/2012/01/beowulf-seth-lerer/