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Introductions to the Old English poem called Beowulf often begin with something of the sort: ‘Beowulf is written in West Saxon and recorded only in the Cotton Vitellius A. xv manuscript…’ One may wonder why such a work would be introduced in this rather dry and relatively uninformative manner. Unfortunately, very little can be said definitively as regards the poem’s authorship, date or location of composition, purpose, theme, &c.

On definitive ground, we can describe Beowulf as the longest surviving poem in Old English and one of the earliest European epics written in the vernacular (rather than in Latin). Written in unrhymed, four-beat alliterative metre of Old English poetry, it tells of the exploits of the hero Beowulf. The first part of the tale narrates Beowulf’s youthful adventures in Denmark battling the monstrous creature Grendel on behalf of the King Hrothgar of the Danes, and the second part narrates his later life, including his fight with a fire-dragon, during his reign as the King of Geatland (traditionally located somewhere in southern Sweden or one of the Baltic island on the east coast of Sweden).

We may say that Beowulf was composed somewhere in England between about 521 AD (the approximate date of the death of the historical model for the character Hygelac) and 1026 AD (more or less the latest possible date of the manuscript itself). We do not know for sure where in England the poem was composed. Nor do we know if the poem was composed by a single author, or whether it is the result of the merging together of ballads by different authors, nor whether the poem was significantly altered subsequent to its first written form. The poem’s purpose is also unclear – arguments have been made for a naturalistic mythic allegory, a Christian allegory, a criticism of heroic culture, a mourning for the loss of heroic culture, a Germanic ‘Old Testament’, an allegory concerning contemporary politics in one or other of the Saxon kingdoms – just to mention a few. The title Beowulf itself is an editorial convenience — the manuscript copy of the poem is untitled. We also know almost nothing about Beowulf‘s place in English literature in the Anglo-Saxon period – we do not know what popularity, if any, the poem enjoyed. Certainly, awareness of the poem seems to have disappeared entirely by the early Middle English period, and the poem does not re-enter the canon of English literature until the late 18th and early 19th centuries – which places Beowulf in an odd ancient/modern position within the history of English literature.

Beowulf, a Geat, is the hero; extraordinary swimmer & warrior. He comes to defend the Danes & King Hrothgar against monsters. His father Ecgtheow owed the Danish king because he had raised blood money for him. Beowulf repays the debt by slaying Grendel & his mother. He returns home where he eventually becomes King. Rules for 50 years. Dies after battling a dragon which had begun to terrorize the Geats. Beowulf had received his stolen cup through the gift-giving circuit. Beowulf is old & has lost some of his strength. He is aided in the battle by Wiglaf; other warriors have deserted Beowulf.

Tragic ending. Society breaks down following Beowulf’s death. People fear the Swedes will swarm their land. Also true in the England of the time of composition. People feared invasions.  Like Beowulf, the Romans were no longer there to protect them.



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