Tuesday, 27 December 2016


Beowulf is a poem I've read quite a few times now, the first, if I recall correctly, was in high school. I've always been struck by how impressive it is, very dark and so very atmospheric. It's an English poem by an unknown author set in Scandinavia, and is possibly the oldest long poem written in the English language. It's uncertain when it was composed (some estimate that it was around the late 7th, early 8th Century), but it appears the manuscript dates somewhere between 975 and 1025 A.D. during the times of Edward the Martyr (Eadweard), Æthelred the Unready (Æþelræd Unræd) and Edmund Ironside (Eadmund) of the House of Wessex, and Sweyn Forkbeard (Svend Tveskæg) and Cnut (Knútr) of the House of Denmark, several decades before William the Conqueror and the House of Normandy.

The original text, written in Old English, is of course difficult to understand so I read the Seamus Heaney translation. Out of curiosity however, I did look up the original text and I was surprised to see I could work out one or two words. Here's how it starts:
Hwæt! Wé Gárdena in géardagum
þéodcyninga þrym gefrúnon·
hú ðá æþelingas ellen fremedon. 
Oft Scyld Scéfing sceaþena þréatum
monegum maégþum meodosetla oftéah·
egsode Eorle syððan aérest wearð
féasceaft funden hé þæs frófre gebád·
wéox under wolcnum· weorðmyndum þáh
oð þæt him aéghwylc þára ymbsittendra
ofer hronráde hýran scolde,
gomban gyldan· þæt wæs gód cyning.
"þæt wæs gód cyning" - "That was a good king" and "Oft" for "Often" were, by the way, the only bits I understood.

This "gód cyning" of the poem refers to Shield Sheafson, the founder of the royal line of Spear-Danes. After his death his son Beow or Béowulf (not Beowulf of the title) became king, then after his Halfdane (Healfdene) then Hrothgar (Hróðgár). One night a demon, Grendel, arrives and terrorises the Danes. During this time (the action takes place around 500 A.D.) Beowulf of the title, the son of Ecgtheow (Ecgþéo) and nephew of the Geatish king Hygelac (Higeláces), is regarded as a great hero, and hearing of the Danes' misfortune he decides to travel from Geatland (which would now be south Sweden) to Denmark to help Hrothgar defeat Grendel in repayment for a favour Hrothgar did for his father.

From here three great battles take place in Beowulf. The first is against Grendel, the man-eating demon who was a descendent of Cain:
Grendel was the name of this grim demon
haunting the marches, marauding round the heath
and the desolate fens; he had dwelt for a time
in misery among the banished monsters,
Cain's clan, whom the Creator had outlawed
and condemned as outcasts. For the killing of Abel
the Eternal Lord had exacted a price:
Cain got no good from committing that murder
because the Almighty made him anathema
and out of the curse of his exile there sprang
ogres and elves and evil phantoms
and the giants who strove with God
time and again until He have them their reward.
Beowulf manuscript held by the
British Library
The battle is of course bloody and fierce, and it takes place in Heorot, the great hall of Hrothgar's palace. Beowulf discovers his sword cannot pierce Grendel's skin and so Beowulf tears off Grendel's arm, killing him.

This victory is, however, short-lived: a second battle must take place between Beowulf and Grendel's mother who seeks revenge. The wetlands which she inhabits is described:
A few miles from here
a frost-stiffened wood waits and keeps watch
above a mere; the overhanging bank
is a maze of tree-roots mirrored in its surface.
At night there, something uncanny happens:
the water burns. And the mere-bottom
had never been sounded by the sons of men.
On its bank, the heather-stepper halts:
in the hart in flight from pursuing hounds
will turn to face them with firm-set horns
and die in the wood rather than dive beneath its surface. That is no good place.
When wind blows up and stormy weather
makes clouds scud and the skies weep,
out of its depths a dirty surge
is pitched towards the heavens. Now help depends
again on you and you alone.
The gap of danger where the demon waits
is still unknown to you. Seek it if you dare.
And so the battle takes place underwater and our hero defeats her, and the Danes are now free of their monsters.

This is not the end of Beowulf however, there is still one battle remaining. It takes place after some time has passed since the defeating of Grendel's mother and this time involves a dragon. Beowulf, now king of the Geats, must defeat a recently disturbed dragon, and defeat it he does but at a heavy cost: Beowulf himself is mortally wounded during the battle.

This is such an exciting poem. As Cleo points out in her post one of the things we see is the subtle beginnings of Christian motifs in literature amongst the description of what is essentially a pagan society. There is the obvious example of the monsters of the poem being descendants of Cain, but also the hero of the tale, unlike his pagan counterparts on the whole, is a good man, but also imperfect, and he defeats evil: the violent, the unjust, and the demons; those, in short, that represent deadly sins. We see what it is to be a good king: strong, moral, kind, and loyal, and how, ultimately, good will prevail. I do love Beowulf; it is dark at times, very moving, and a very gripping read.


  1. As always, excellent background to anchor the work in history. I always appreciate that about your reviews.

    This poem is one of my all-time favourites. Yet there are so many questions about it that are unanswerable. Why does Beowulf appear as a completely "new man", outside of the usual blood-feud society. Why are all the Christian reference from the Old Testament? And the questions go on.

    Thanks for the link back to my review! Your review has made me want to read this beloved poem all over again! :-)

    1. Thanks Cleo - I do love looking at the old kings and queens so that helps :)

      Interesting - why all the references from the Old Testament... That's something to ponder... Could it be more in keeping with Old Testament God? Maybe the Pagans found OT God a little easier (this was a period of transition after all). I don't know, but I'll keep it mind. May do some Googling later!


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