The Song of Beowulf


Epic and History

The monument to Anglo-Saxon literature has survived to this day in a copy that dates from the beginning of the XI century. But if we talk about creating a poem, scientists are talking about the period from the end of the 7th to the beginning of the 8th century.
Early medieval England was a number of Christian states in which a harmonious social structure was just emerging. The cultural climate was not completely saturated with early Christian traditions: the influence of paganism was still felt.

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This proves one important discovery by British archaeologists. In 1939, scientists discovered the Sutton Hoo necropolis in eastern England. As you know, a funerary boat with a rich treasure was found, which belonged to King Redwald. Similar burials are known only in Sweden.

The plot of the poem, of course, carried the reader in more ancient times to the Scandinavian peninsula. The world of the work is filled with battles, feats and feasts. German archaic sets the tone for the Anglo-Saxon epic.

An energetic and young warrior named Beowulf (bee wolf, aka bear) from the Scandinavian Gaut tribe learns about the mountain that overtook the King of Danes Higelak. For already 12 years, the swamp monster Grendel has attacked the capital of the kingdom of Heorot and exterminates the king’s subjects only because they feast and sing songs. Beowulf defeats the monster with his squad and robs his hand. After defeating Grendel, brave northerners have to meet with his mother, who decided to avenge the death of her child. Beowulf’s clash with The Monster Woman nearly cost the hero’s life, but when he snatched a sword from the lake, the hero knocked the beast’s mother out with a single blow.

After a triumphal victory and a grand celebration, Beowulf returns to his native land and continues to perform feats. He becomes the ruler of the Gauts and calmly rules 50 years until the fire-breathing dragon begins to devastate the kingdom. The serpent is angry with people for looting his treasury. Beowulf goes to battle with the dragon and defeats him, but having lost a lot of strength, the hero dies. The body of the glorified warrior is burned in a boat and put his ashes in a mound filled with all kinds of values.

The mythological plot of the poem is based on historical soil. The hero’s world is more than real: the tribes of Utes, Danes, Goths (“Gauts”) really inhabited Scandinavia of the first millennium AD and, of course, they were connected by various kinds of relations. There is no description of England in Beowulf. It would seem that for the Anglo-Saxon epic this is rather strange, but if we look at the monuments of medieval heroic literature, such as “The Song of the Nibelungs” or “Elder Edda”, we will notice a lot of references to Europe during the Great Migration. It can be assumed that the action of “Beowulf” dates back to the time preceding the relocation of the Saxons, Jutes and Angles to the British Isles in the 5th century.

The poem represents a certain integral composition of the Germanic world, but with separate semantic features that are characteristic of the works of Christian authors.

Motives and traditions

The poem attracts attention folklore motifs and symbolic references to Christianity. The episode with the found Skild Skewang, whose boat nails to the Danish shores, is very revealing. Local residents were in an unenviable position: they did not have a ruler. The kid grew up and became king of Denmark, giving her a new dynasty, which is rightly identified with the Skjoldungs. In gratitude, the people after the death of the king sends his body to the last voyage on the treasure boat. Moreover, it is in the direction from which the ship arrived with the baby.

Beowulf’s battles with the dragon and giants should not be emphasized — these are classical methods of mythology and fairy tales. Medieval people perceived such stories not as fiction, but as something real and tangible. The lazy and unambitious hero gained the strength of thirty people only when he matured – this again is a bright epic figure. Tests of valor, violation of prohibitions, verbal conflicts with the enemy also emphasize the “nationality” of the poem.

Christian ethics did not bypass the content of Beowulf. For example, the often-mentioned Fate is at the same time both an autonomous force and an instrument of the Almighty. There are references to biblical stories, but pagan virtues are organically woven into the outline of the poem and do not look like “false teeth”.

England VII-VIII centuries has not yet completely abandoned the traditions of German ancestors. In the human mind, changes take a long time. And in Beowulf, the author tried to convey, in plain language, to the layman at least a small fraction of Christian ideals.

Understanding the good and evil in the poem is a good field for the synthesis of pagan and Christian traditions. The bright halls of Heorot with honey feasts and cheerful songs are contrasted with dark cliffs, caves and gloomy swamps. Day is a time of festivities and joy; night is a time of deceit and evil. Grendel is an outcast, a marginal, a “descendant of Cain”, doomed to eternal torment. He is like the devil.

The work is replete with references to the “ruler of the world”, “mighty god.” It was extremely difficult and largely useless to convey theological teaching to the common people of that era. But the Old Testament stories were well adapted in the text of the heroic epic.

Nevertheless, success in battle, the extraction of wealth, glory and valor, the manifestation of fidelity and the acceptance of the trials of fate are themes that emphasize the epic nature of the work, combining early Christian and German traditions.

And old Tolkien was right …

Researchers at European early medieval literary monuments have done a tremendous job of finding the roots of Beowulf and interpreting the main subjects. The central issue that worried specialists for a long time remained the problem of the integrity of the work. Since the 19th century, it was believed that Beowulf was composed of 4 parts and recorded by various authors. This point of view was supported by the mass of references in the text to earlier events and the writings of the monks in scriptories, which corrected errors in the manuscript one after another.

But the first who suggested that the poem was the authorship of one person was the famous English writer and outstanding scientist John Ronald Roel Tolkien. In his essay, Beowulf: Monsters and Critics, the linguist saw a harmonious interweaving of Christian and pagan traditions. Analysis of this text has greatly helped the writer in his literary career. We can find a huge number of references to the Anglo-Saxon epic in the works of the main author of “high fantasy”. A flurry of criticism rejected Tolkien’s unfounded assumption, and the heated debate continued. Nevertheless, over time, scientists began to compare English early medieval texts and continue to search for curious patterns. Many years of argument have brought science to new ways of finding the truth.

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