Sunday, April 11, 2010


Brief summary from
The story of Beowulf opens by recounting the career of Scyld Scefing, a king sent by God to the Danes. After Scyld's death the Danes prosper under his descendants. One of those descendants, Hrothgar, builds the Danes a great hall called Heorot. Heorot is soon invaded by Grendel, a half-human monster who is hated by God. The Danes are helpless against these attacks until the hero Beowulf arrives to aid them. He battles Grendel in hand to hand combat in Heorot and kills the monster by tearing off its arm. Grendel's mother then comes to avenge her son. Beowulf and Hrothgar follow her to her lair in a disgusting lake, where Beowulf fights Grendel's mother in her hall at the bottom of the lake. Beowulf almost loses, but with the aid of God is eventually victorious. He is lavishly rewarded and returns to his own land where he tells his adventures to his uncle, King Hygelac. The poem then jumps fifty years into the future when Beowulf is in old age and king of the Geats. He then fights his last battle agains a dragon that is guardian of a cursed treasure. He tries to fight the dragon alone, but can only defeat it with the aid of a younger relative, Wiglaf. The dragon is killed, but mortally wounds Beowulf in the battle, and the old king passes away while gazing on the cursed treasure. The death of Beowulf marks the decline of the Geats, who are now surrounded by enemies made in previous campaigns. Consequently, the poem ends in mourning for both Beowulf and his nation.
First page of Beowulf. From 
There is one manuscript in which Beowulf has survived to the present day. The earliest known owner of the manuscript is an early Anglo-Saxon scholar known as Laurence Nowell, Dean of Lichfield. Some time later, it entered into the manuscript collection of Sir Robert Bruce Cotton (1571-1631).  It is a composite manuscript consisting of two codices (the Southwick Codex and the Nowell Codex) and nine different works between them.
The author did not sign and date the manuscript, and no records were kept of when the poem was written. Given the lack of information pointing to the origins of the poem. The quickest and easiest assumption about the origins of the poem is that it was an oral poem that was eventually transcribed and has since been passed down in the form of the manuscript. Scholars have presumed to study the poem as if it were Classical, and find much difficulty in the non-continuous narrative and the unfamilliar form.
The handwriting of the manuscript appears to be of the tenth century, but the poem itself is certainly much older. This is evident from the fact that one of the events of the story (the expedition of King Hygelac against the Hetwaras) is historical, and occurred in 512. Allowing time for the later events of the story, for the growth of tradition and myth, for the introduction of the Christian coloring, it seems probable that the poem as we now have it is the work of the late seventh century.
It seems clear that the origin of Beowulf stems from a mix of Scandinavian, Germanic, and Anglian influences. What is consistently unclear is which of these audiences the poem was intended for. As a story of Danes, Geats, and Swedes, one might suppose that the poem was of Scandinavian origin, finally written down in England, but there is no reference to the characters in Scandinavian lore. 
What makes Beowulf significantly different from these other works is not the portrayal of warfare, but the exaltation of peace and peace-keeping through the rule of powerful kings.  From chapter XI:

He spied in hall the hero-band,
kin and clansmen clustered asleep,
hardy liegemen. Then laughed his heart;
for the monster was minded, ere morn should dawn,
savage, to sever the soul of each,
life from body, since lusty banquet
waited his will! But Wyrd forbade him
to seize any more of men on earth
after that evening. Eagerly watched
Hygelac's kinsman his cursed foe,
how he would fare in fell attack.
Not that the monster was minded to pause!
Straightway he seized a sleeping warrior
for the first, and tore him fiercely asunder,
the bone-frame bit, drank blood in streams,
swallowed him piecemeal: swiftly thus
the lifeless corse was clear devoured,
e'en feet and hands. Then farther he hied;
for the hardy hero with hand he grasped,
felt for the foe with fiendish claw,
for the hero reclining, -- who clutched it boldly,
prompt to answer, propped on his arm.
Soon then saw that shepherd-of-evils
that never he met in this middle-world,
in the ways of earth, another wight
with heavier hand-gripe; at heart he feared,
sorrowed in soul, -- none the sooner escaped!

References for this post:
Beowulf in hypertext
Beowulf, translated out of the Old English  by Chauncey Brewster Tinker, New York, 1902

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