Beowulf is the longest (3,182 lines) and greatest poem extant in Old English, the language of the English nation prior to the Norman Conquest. Beowulf has been preserved in one manuscript, written about the year 1000. It was damaged, though not disastrously, in the fire that ravaged the Cottonian collection in 173l. The two best guesses as to the place and date of Beowulf's composition would be Northumbria during the "Age of Bede" (about 720-750) or Mercia during the reign of Offa II (757-796).
The Story of Beowulf
The poem opens by recounting the career of Scyld Scefing, a hero-king sent by God to the leaderless Danes. After Scyld's death the Danes prosper under his descendants, especially Hrothgar, who builds them a great hall, Heorot. Heorot is soon invaded by Grendel, a half-human monster, one of Cain's kin and hated by God. The Danes are helpless against Grendel's attacks until Beowulf, a young warrior of the Geats, arrives to aid them. He engages Grendel in fierce hand-to-hand combat within Heorot and destroys the monster by tearing off his ann. The Danes rejoice, but soon Grendel's mother comes to avenge her son. Beowulf and Hrothgar follow her to her lair, an eerie and hideous swamp-lake. Beowulf dives into the water and fights another furious battle with Grendel's mother in her "anti-hall" at the bottom of the lake. Beowulf's weapons fail him, but God aids him, and he kills the monster with an old sword he finds in the hall. Returning with Grendel's head to Hrothgar, Beowulf is lavishly rewarded and soon leaves for his own land, where he tells his adventures to his uncle, King Hygelac.
At this point the poet passes over 50 years to the time when Beowulf, in old age, is himself king of the Geats. The hero fights his last battle against a dragon, the guardian of a cursed treasure, who has been provoked by a chance violation of his hoard. The old king tries to fight the dragon alone, as he did Grendel, but the creature s fiery breath destroys the weapons and armor Beowulf has chosen, and he can defeat the dragon only with the aid of his young relative, Wiglaf, after all his other retainers have run away. The dragon dies but mortally wounds Beowulf, and the old king expires, gazing on the treasure. His death signals the decline of the Geats, who are surrounded by enemies made in campaigns described allusively throughout the last part of the poem. The poem ends on a note of double mourning, for Beowulf and for his nation.
There is no specific literary source for Beowulf. Many of its characters and digressions belong to the corpus of Germanic tradition that was preserved through the oral heroic poetry of the aristocratic minstrels and was first written down, and then composed in writing, during the Old English period. That some of this material is based on historical fact is attested to by documentary evidence of the period. For example, Hygelac, king of the Geats and Beowulf's uncle, is mentioned by Gregory of Tours (537-593) in his History of the Franks. However, the central episodes of Beowulf (the hero's three great battles with monsters) are related to folklore rather than history, and one can distinguish similarities between Beowulf s adventures and those in the widely disseminated "Bear's Son" tale. There may have been a character named Beowulf who performed similar deeds in an earlier heroic poem, but this is doubtful, as the Beowulf poet seems deliberately to have chosen adventures involving his hero not with other heroic figures but with nonhuman creatures of symbolic import.
Of Beowulf's author we know nothing, and we can only guess about the poem's originality. The form of Old English poetry is so conventional that distinctions between original and reworked material cannot safely be made. A sample (lines 4-11) of the traditional Germanic alliterative verse in which Beowulf is composed follows:
"Oft Scyld Scefing sceaþena þreatum,/ monegum mægþum, meodosetla ofteah,/ egsode eorlas, syððan ærest wearð/ feasceaft funden; he þæs frofre gebad,/ weox under wolcnum, weorðmyndum þah,/ oðþæt him æghwylc þara ymbsittendra/ofer hronrade hyran scolde,/gomban gyldan. Þæt wæs god cyning!"
In modern English this reads:
"Often Scyld Scefing deprived many nations, many enemy armies, of their mead benches, and became a terror among noble warriors, after first being discovered destitute. He was compensated for this beginning: he grew up and achieved great glory, until everyone in neighboring lands across the sea had to obey him and pay tribute-that was a great king!"
The half-lines into which each line is divided are linked across the break (caesura) by alliteration of the stressed syllables (marked in the first two lines). Several conventional halflines, which appear elsewhere in Old English poetry, are underlined. The poetic diction is heavily metaphorical: note the expressions "took away mead benches," meaning "defeated," and hron-rade ("whale-road") for "sea".
The structure of Beowulf is both tripartite (the three fights) and bipartite (the rise of the young hero versus the fall of the old king). Any point in the poem may therefore be seen from a double perspective: either as part of the inevitable decline and self-destruction of the noble and steadfast hero (and heroic ideal), or as a moment in life to which there exists an ironically parallel yet contrasting moment in the other half of the poem. The use made of the latter perspective is especially striking. For example, treasure is a symbol of triumphant civilization in the first part, while in the second part it becomes the cursed dragon-infested hoard, a symbol of fate and of the transitory nature of doomed civilization.
A similar principle of double perspective underlies Beowulf's Christian elements. In fighting Grendel... Beowulf is not only the death-defying Germanic hero but also God's instrument in His age-old battle against evil (Cain's kin). As God's agent, Beowulf purges heroic society (Heorot) of an evil principle (Grendel) that has come to dwell in it at its moment of apparent triumph (the building of Heorot) and against which it is powerless. Yet in fighting the dragon, Beowulf is fighting fate itself, a hostile, non-Christian fate that broods over civilization cursing ignorant man to final destruction. The world of Beowulf is thus ambiguous in its ultimate meaning; and given this uncontrollable ambiguity, Beowulfs heroism must be appreciated as an intrinsically noble response to life, rather than as a wise or even a successful one.