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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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 history by adding to it the achievements of Beaw.
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.
Sarrazin has pointed out the striking resemblance between the Scandinavian legend of Bodvarr Biarki and that of the Beowulf of the poem.
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.
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.
That Beowulf is concerned with the deeds of a foreign hero is less surprising than it seems at first sight.
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.
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 swimmiug-match.
Now the first fifty-two lines, which are concerned with Scyld and his son Beowulf, stand outside this numbering.
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.
The volume containing the Beowulf MS. (then, as now, belonging to the Cottonian collection, and numbered " Vitellius A.
Tinker, The Translations of Beowulf, 1903).
For the bibliography of the earlier literature on Beowulf, and a detailed exposition of the theories therein advocated, see R.
Ten Brink, Beowulf, Untersuchungen (1888).
Sarrazin, Beowulf-studien (1888), which advocates the strange theory that Beowulf is a translation by Cynewulf of a poem by the Danish singer Starkadr, contains, amid much that is fanciful, not a little that deserves careful consideration.
Of the latter the number has tended to diminish in the light of modern scholarship. The fashion during the 19th century set strongly in the other direction, and the " degraded gods " theory was applied not only to such conspicuous heroes as Siegfried, Dietrich and Beowulf, but to a host of minor characters, such as the good marquis Rudeger of the Nibelungenlied and our own Robin Hood (both identified with Woden Hruodperaht).
(1) Beowulf, king of the Geatas (Jutland), whose story in its present form was probably brought from the continent by the Angles.
In Beowulf we hear of a Danish king Healfdene, who had three sons, Heorogar, Hrothgar and Halga.
The hero Beowulf comes to the court of Hrothgar from the land of the G6tar, where Hygelac is king.
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.
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.