His story is told in one of the oldest songs of the Edda, the V OlundarkiOda and, with considerable variations, in the prose P13rekssaga (Thidrek's sage), while the Anglo-Saxon Beowulf and Deor's Lament contain allusions to it.
The subject of the poem is the exploits of Beowulf, son of Ecgtheow and nephew of Hygelac, king of the " Geatas," i.e.
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 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.
It is an amalgamation of the myth tof Beowa, the slayer of the water-demon and the dragon, with the historical legend of Beowulf, nephew and successor of Hygelac (Chochilaicus), king of the Geatas, who was defeated and slain (c. 520) while ravaging the Frisian coast.
The water-demon Grendel and the dragon (probably), by whom Beowulf is mortally wounded, have been supposed to represent the powers of autumn and darkness, the floods which at certain seasons overflow the low-lying countries on the coast of the North Sea and sweep away all human habitations; Beowulf is the hero of spring and light who, after overcoming the spirit of the raging waters, finally succumbs to the dragon of approaching winter.
Beowulf is also a culture-hero.
In Beowulf cremation is represented as the prevailing custom.
See Hipler, Literaturgeschichte des Bisthums Ermeland (Braunsberg, 1873); the Monumenta historiae Warmiensis (Mainz, 1860-1864, and Braunsberg, 1866-1872, 4 vols.); and Buchholz, Abriss einer Geschichte des Ermlands (Braunsberg, 1903.) 1 Emerka and Fridla (Beowulf, Quedlingburg Citron.), Aki and Etgard (Vilkina Saga).
Beowulf himself won fame in this campaign, and by the aid of this definite chronological datum we can place the reign of Healfdene in the last half of the 5th century, and that of Hrothgar's nephew Hrothwulf, son of Halga, about the middle of the 6th century.
So curiously alike in their general features were the sepulchral usages connected with barrow-burial over the whole of Europe, that we find the Anglo-Saxon Saga of Beowulf describing the chambered tumulus with its gigantic masonry "held fast on props, with vaults of stone," and the passage under the mound haunted by a dragon, the guardian of the treasures of heathen gold which it contained.
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.
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.
All fear being now removed, the Danish king and his followers pass the night in Heorot, Beowulf and his comrades being lodged elsewhere.
Beowulf proceeds to the mere, and, armed with sword and corslet, plunges into the water.
Richly rewarded by Hrothgar, Beowulf returns to his native land.
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.
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.
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.
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 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 Daghrefn, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 starting-point of all Beowulf criticism is the fact (discovered by N.
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).
When Heardred is killed in battle with the Swedes, Beowulf becomes king in his stead.
- 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.
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.
It is therefore evident that the personality of Hygelac, and the expedition in which, according to Beowulf, he died, belong not to the region of legend or poetic invention, but to that of historic fact.
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.
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.
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.
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 loth-century English historian Ethelwerd, though it is told not of Scyld himself, but of his father Sceaf.
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.