In 1936, J.R.R. Tolkien found “Beowulf”. This was before he wrote his famous Hobbit stories. He was an Oxford Scholar when he wrote “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics”. His manuscript brought the epic poem out of the dust and made it a work of art. Before that, it survived a fire and over a thousand years of neglect.
“Beowulf” is 3182 lines, each line with four accents, divided into two parts. Set in about 500 A. D. Some of the characters are based on members of Danish and Swedish royalty. Beowulf enters into the story after the action has started.
King Hrothgar of Denmark has a very prosperous kingdom. To show his appreciation to his warriors and the people of his realm, he built a mead-hall for revelry. He called it Heorot. The revelry and praises to God made Grendel angry. Grendel is a God-cursed creature that lives in the swamp. He is huge with skin impervious to arrows and swords. One night, in a rage, he attacks Heorot, catches the men asleep and kills 30 of them. After that he terrorizes Hrothgar’s kingdom, killing someone every night. Before long, he has taken possession of Heorot, but can’t touch the throne because he is God-cursed.
Across the inlet from the North Sea, Beowulf hears of Grendel and the problems Hrothgar is having. Beowulf has the strength of 30 men, young and looking for adventure. He and 13 of his men sail over to help the Danes. Beowulf battles Grendel, pulls off his arm, Grendel runs away to the swamp to die.
At first, it looks like Heorot is safe, once more. But, the next night Grendel’s mother comes looking for revenge. She grabs Aeschere, a top adviser to Hrothgar. Beowulf hunts her down and swims to the bottom of a fiery lake to kill her. After she is dead, he goes back to Heorot, now they are finally safe. When Beowulf goes back home to Geatland, he meets with his uncle, King Hygelac to tell of his adventure.
The poem reopens 50 years later. Beowulf is now the king of Geatland and his kingdom is being threatened by a dragon. During the 50 years, King Hygelac was killed in the war with the Shylfings, and his young son became king. Everyone thought Beowulf would become king, but he didn’t want to hurt the succession, so he became the young king’s adviser until the king was betrayed by a Swede. Beowulf stepped in as king and took his revenge out on the Swede who killed the young king.
Although the kingdom doesn’t want Beowulf to risk his life in going after the dragon, he does it anyway. During the fight, Beowulf is bitten. He manages to kill the dragon, but the poison from the bite kills Beowulf. Now the Geats know their time is limited as a kingdom because they don’t have the powerful Beowulf leading them anymore. The future without Beowulf looks bleak.
Beowulf is an epic poem written at some point between the eighth century and the eleventh century. The setting is in the later part of the 5th century, CE. At the beginning of the poem, the narrator tells the story of Shield Sheafson. He was a great king and warrior, and the founder of the royal line that leads to the wise King Hrothgar of Denmark. With Hrothgar as ruler, the kingdom became prosperous and experienced abounding military success.
As a way to show tribute to his warriors, Hrothgar had a great mead-hall built. It was to be large with room for his throne, and for all the people to gather, eat, drink and trade tales. He called the mead-hall Heorot. There he gave out rings and torques as gifts for young and old. Every night the walls of Heorot rang with music, stories and laughter. It was a very loud and raucous place.
The cacophonous noise did not go over well with Grendel. A half man and half fiend, Grendel is cursed by God, and he lived with monsters. He ravages the land and terrorizes the people. In a fury, he storms into Heorot and takes 30 sleeping men. The next day he returns their brutalized bodies.
The Danes live in constant fear. Each night, Grendel attacks and kills. Hrothgar can do nothing as Grendel takes over Heorot. Grendel can’t sit on the throne, though, because as a son of Cain, and cursed. Hearing about Grendel from his home, Beowulf, the son of Ecgtheow, thane of King Hygelac of Geatland, sets sail to give his aid to King Hrothgar and slay Grendel. He brings with him fourteen of his bravest warriors. When they reach the coast, the watchmen assumes Beowulf is a hero because of his proud demeanor and his armor. The guard sets a watch on the boat and leads Beowulf and his men to meet with King Hrothgar. They group is met along the way by Wulfgar, who announces them to the king. Hrothgar recognizes the name Beowulf. Ecgtheow, Beowulf’s father was Hrothgar’s friend. The king had also heard stories about Beowulf. He heard he had the strength of 30 men. Hrothgar hopes Beowulf is there to kill Grendel. Beowulf and his men are allowed to go near the king in their armor, but the weapons must be left at the door.
When Beowulf meets with the king, he pledges to kill Grendel. Hrothgar remembers Beowulf from when he was a child. Since he and Beowulf’s parents were friends he feels its good to accept the warrior. After greeting Hrothgar, Beowulf begins by giving his qualifications as a warrior. He tells how he slain trolls, sea-beasts, and enemies of the Geats. He also says that since Grendel fights without weapons, he will, too.
Hrothgar tells Beowulf of the time that his father had started a feud with the Wulfings by killing their leader, Heatholaf. To mend the rift, Hrothgar sent a treasure to the Wulfings and Beowulf’s father pledged his allegiance to him. So, Hrothgar feels it is honorable to allow Beowulf to kill Grendel. Beowulf was excited to pit his skill against Grendel. Having never been bested his bravado knew no bounds. Young and impetuous, Beowulf loved a good fight, and wanted to be the biggest and toughest in the land.
During the feast to welcome Beowulf and his men, one person did not seem to be impressed with his stories. Unferth was jealous of Beowulf. He says that he heard Beowulf lost a swimming match with Breca. Beowulf answers him with the whole story. He and Breca were swimming for 5 days and nights, when Beowulf was pulled under by a sea-monster. Luckily he was wearing his armor and carrying his sword, because he was able to kill the beast and 8 others. Afterwards, the ocean washed him ashore onto the coast of Finland. Then he ends by pointing out that he has never heard of any fight Unferth was in. Then in his bragging, Beowulf says that Grendel knows he can beat Danes, but has never come up against a Geat. Grendel will never beat the Geats.
His boasting makes the Danes feel more confident, so the merriment proceeds, with food, drink and laughter. Soon, Hrothgar’s wife the queen comes in. She brings a mug to her husband and then proceeds around the table. When she reaches Beowulf she thanks God for his arrival. Beowulf gives her a formal boast. Saying that he will either be the hero or die to try. The queen is happy with this and takes her seat next to her husband.
When night begins to fall, the Danes leave Heorot to the Geats, wishing them luck. Beowulf and his men remove their armor and lay down to wait for the arrival of Grendel. When Grendel did finally arrive his was wild for blood. He tore through the door, tearing it off its hinges, then grabbed the first Geat he found and devoured him. When Grendel thought to grab Beowulf he discovered the Geats weren’t asleep. Beowulf grabbed Grendel’s arm and began to pull it off. The screams as Grendel was trying to get away could be heard throughout the village. When Beowulf, with his superior strength, managed to yank the arm off, Grendel went screaming off into the swamp to die. Beowulf held the arm up as a bloody prize.
The next morning the Danes rejoice to see the end of Grendel. They dance around in a happy glee while the bards sing songs of Beowulf’s bravery. Whenever King Hrothgar and his wife come in he praises Beowulf and calls him the son of his heart. The king promises Beowulf great rewards for his brave deed, and thanks God for sending Beowulf to him. Beowulf’s glory did not detract from the love the people felt for their king. Before getting down to the business of repairing all the damage the battle did to the mead-hall, everyone wants to see the arm and marvels at the steel covering on the skin. It’s no wonder their weapons couldn’t stop it.
With all the men and women pitching in the mead-hall is soon repaired. Then they all set about with their congratulatory/thank you party. Heorot once again rings with merriment. The scop or bard begins to tell an of the saga of Finn. The “saga begins with the Danes losing a battle to Finn, the king of the Frisians.” The Danes sign a truce with the Frisians, the Danes will live separately but a common law
will bind them.
The Danish princess who was married to Finn was completely heart-broken. Her brother, the Danish leader, Hnaef, and he son, a Frisian warrior to cremated on the same bier. The Danes are bitter and homesick. They spend a long cold winter with the Frisians while revenge burns in their breasts. With the arrival of spring, the Danes rise up against their captors, defeating them and killing Finn. His widow, the Danish princess returns home to her family in Denmark.
After the story is finished, the queen walks in. She congratulates Beowulf and hopes he will always be a friend to her family. She hopes he will offer protection and guidance to her sons when they step into their father’s shoes. Then she gives him a torque of gold and a suit of mail as a thank you gift. She tells everyone to drink and relax. The evil is destroyed. But, one of them will meet a bad end during the night, because, an evil is still lurking in the swamp.
Grendel’s mother is grief-stricken and revengeful. She storms into Heorot looking for the killer of her son. She finds Aeschere, Hrothgar’s most trusted advisor and carries him off into the swamp while he is screaming and men are trying to attack her. She also took her son’s severed arm. Since Beowulf was given other sleeping quarters, he is late in reaching them to help. When he arrives, Hrothgar begs for his help getting his friend back and ridding them of the new beast. She has taken him into the swampy forest. Where she lives there is a magical lake that is so deep and terrifying that even animals are afraid of it. The water burns at the bottom.
Grendel agrees to go after the mother of Grendel. Donning his mail and taking up his weapons. Beowulf prepares for the hunt. Unferth loans him a sword, Hrunting. It had been tempered in blood, and never fails the hand of anyone who uses it in battle. Although Unferth knows he is not brave enough to swim to the bottom, he wants Beowulf to be prepared. Before Grendel leaves, he asks the king to look after his men and to send his gold to King Hygelac, his liege lord. And he bequeaths his inheritance to Unferth for loaning him the sword. After that, Beowulf dove into the lake.
For most of the day, Beowulf swam towards the bottom of the lake. Suddenly he is seized by Grendel’s mother. His armor prevents her from crushing him, but as she is pulling him into her lair, he is attacked by the claws of more creatures. When they reach her lair, Beowulf tries to kill her with Unferth’s sword. But, it doesn’t do the job, so in his desperation, he sees a huge sword hanging nearby. It is big enough to be wielded by a giant. He uses it to chop off her head and notices the body of Grendel nearby. In his fury for the men, Grendel killed, Beowulf cuts off Grendel’s head, too.
On the shore, the Danes see the blood Beowulf was shedding rise up to the surface. They fear for Beowulf’s life. The Danes return to Heorot in sadness thinking Beowulf dead. Only the Geats remain behind waiting for Beowulf.
In the demon’s lair, Beowulf notices the blade of the sword is beginning to melt because of the caustic blood of Grendel. He holds on to the hilt, that is encrusted with jewels and is not affected, and grabs Grendel’s head instead of all the treasures filling the lair. Then Beowulf swims to the surface. Since the monsters are both dead, the creatures he passed through before are all gone. When he reaches the surface, his friends are overjoyed to see him and help him remove his armor. They stuck Grendel’s head on a spear and it took four men to carry it. The Geats followed the path back to Heorot and arrived in triumph, carrying the grisly head. Then Beowulf told the story of his battle and presented the sword hilt to the king. It’s carvings tell the story of the first war fought when God destroyed the giants with a flood.
Hrothgar praises Beowulf and gives him advice on the dangers of power and the fragility of life. He tells Beowulf that no one is immune from danger, as his own life has proven. Then the king tells the warriors to celebrate and eat. Afterward, Beowulf goes to bed for some much-needed rest.
The next morning the Geats start to leave for home. They say their farewells, and Beowulf has Unferth’s sword returned to him, thanking him for its use. It was not the sword’s fault it wasn’t enough to destroy Grendel’s mother. King Hrothgar gives Beowulf twelve treasures and pledges a union between the Danes and the Geats of friendship and loyalty. The king thanks, Beowulf warmly and embraces him knowing they will never meet face to face again. When the Geats reach their boat, they give the man watching their boat a reward and sail off for Geatland.
When the group arrives back in Geatland, they are taken to see the king, Hygelac and his beautiful young queen, Hygd. Beowulf is hailed as the conquering hero. He relates the news from the court of King Hrothgar and tells the story of Grendel and his mother. Then Beowulf gives Hygelac, who is his uncle, a good bit of the treasure given to him by Hrothgar, including the torque given to him by the queen. Hygelac is wearing it when he falls in battle years later with the Shylfings.
Beowulf inherits the kingdom on the death of his uncle and is a fair and just ruler. He grows wiser in the 50 years he is king. All is going well until the dragon arrives.
Many, many years ago a race of man had fought so many wars, that only one man was left. He knew he was going to die, so he took all the treasure of his people and buried it. Returning the gold and silver to the ground they had come from. A dragon found the treasure in the earth and claimed it. He had been keeping it to himself for over three hundred years.
One day, a slave on the run from his master chanced to find the treasure, took a cup and in his fear, ran from the cave. He took the cup to his master as payment to be reinstated. When the dragon woke to find the cup missing, he was enraged. The dragon tore through the countryside looking for the cup, when he couldn’t find it, he began destroying farms in his path. The Geats were under siege. When the dragon burned the throne hall of Beowulf, he decided it was up to him to stop the dragon.
Beowulf was an old man, now. He had served King Hygelac faithfully, and only survived the battle that killed his king, because he could swim so strongly. When Beowulf returned to his home, Queen Hygd tried to get him to assume the throne. But, Beowulf refused to usurp Hygelac’s son, Heardred. He did agree to a council and help Heardred while he grew to become king.
When Heardred reached adulthood, he was betrayed by the Swede, Onela, who killed him and fled back to Sweden. Beowulf accepted the throne on the death of Heardred, and threw his backing to Eadgils,who was feuding with Onela. When Onela was killed, Beowulf settled into ruling his kingdom.
Now, Beowulf is ready to face one last enemy, the dragon. He gathers eleven men to help him investigate. They find the slave who stole the cup and have him show them where the dragon’s den is. As they wait for the dragon to emerge, Beowulf tells the men stories from is youth.
Finally, the dragon comes out and Beowulf bids his men to wait there while he goes down to fight the dragon. He thinks his outfit is better suited to battle a fire-breathing dragon. The battle commences and Beowulf soon learns he is not as strong as he was when he battled Grendel. He begins to lose, and the men looking on are terrified. Only one goes down to help, Wiglaf. He sees that Beowulf has been bitten and tries to stab the dragon. But, it’s not until Beowulf pulls out his knife and stabs the dragon in his soft underbelly, that the dragon finally stops.
Unfortunately, Beowulf’s victory is short-lived. The bite the dragon gave him is poisonous. He is dying, but he asks Wiglaf to go into the dragon’s lair and bring a bit of the treasure out so he can see what he died for. Then he asks Wiglaf to take his place as ruler and to ensure a burrow, or mound, for him. He wants it to be called “Beowulf’s Barrow”. Then he gives Wiglaf the collar from around his neck and dies.
When the men who fled to return, they are soundly rebuked by Wiglaf. With all the generosity Beowulf showed them, this was a terrible way to repay him. Then Wiglaf sends word of Beowulf’s death, and they prepare his funeral pyre. Then they build the barrow he asked for. Without Beowulf to protect them, the Geats expect to be attacked at any time. And they are right. They face danger from the Swedes, the Franks, and the Frisians. They lament the loss of Beowulf and recalled how they begged him not to go. His fame was much more important for their safety than he realized, and they were right. The predictions of defeat for the Geats were true. The end was coming.
Beowulf – as a young man he is brash. He searches for adventure and is always searching for glory by taking on heroic feats. He is tall with the strength of 30 men. His bravery is sometimes reckless, but normal for his culture. He is from Geatland, an island in southern Sweden. After his defeat of Grendel and his mother, he respectfully listens to advise from King Hrothgar. Although he is always looking for a challenge, he is not ambitious. When the king of Geatland, his uncle, dies, the throne is offered to Beowulf. But, he insists that the king’s son be made king instead, and he will help him.
After the young king is murdered, Beowulf steps in as king and takes his vengeance out on the killer of his king, by using politics, instead of one on one violence. He is a benevolent king for years, but when he becomes an old man, he wants to play hero one more time. In a battle with a dragon, he is poisoned and dies after killing the dragon. Although, as a character he had aged and become wiser, he still risked his life against the dragon, leaving his kingdom without his leadership and making them vulnerable.
King Hrothgar – king of Denmark and the descendant of the great king, Shield Sheafson. He is a strong leader. Benevolent and thoughtful. He builds a mead-house just so his subjects will have a safe place to get together. While they are at the tables eating and drinking, he and his wife give out gifts. He is a role model and father figure to Beowulf. When Beowulf becomes king he tries to be the kind of king Hrothgar is.
Grendel – half man, half-demon. He is the descendant of Cain, who was cursed by God in Genesis. He is very large with skin that cannot be penetrated by any weapons. His blood is toxic. He has a miserable existence in the swamps around the kingdom of Hrothgar. A ruthless and cruel creature, whenever he becomes aware of the people of Hrothgar he begins to kill them. After listening to their merriment and praise of God, he becomes enraged and kills 30 men. They terrorize the people, killing at random until he is killed by Beowulf.
King Hygelac – the king of the Geats. He has the complete loyalty of his nephew, Beowulf. As a king, he is more self-centered than King Hrothgar. He dies in battle with the Shylfings, leaving his succession in question. He also leaves a young son and wife. Never having taken the time to teach his son to be a ruler, it is left to Beowulf to teach him.
Unferth – the foil of Beowulf. Whereas Beowulf is brave and strong, Unferth is a coward and weak. He challenges Beowulf’s veracity when they meet and is very jealous. But, seeing the bravery of Beowulf he loans him his sword when Beowulf goes after Grendel’s mother.
Seamus Heaney Biography
From the about 500 AD to 700 AD the stories of Beowulf were passed down by word of mouth. Probably in the form of songs performed during gatherings. Stories of valor were the top form of entertainment at dinners, sports events, and around campfires. Although many scholars debate the idea of the story being passed through oral-formulaic composition, and there was an active discussion among scholars in the 1960’s and 70’s, it’s fairly obvious that the saga would have made an entertaining story for consumption at gatherings, especially around a fire on a cold evening in Denmark and Sweden.
At about 700 AD two unknown persons put the tales down on paper in verse. The two were located at Molmesbury Abbey. Since the stories lean toward a religious bent, we can assume the writer was a monk or priest. Also, they were the best educated at the time. In 1731, a fire destroyed some of the medieval manuscripts that were in the collection of Sir Robert Bruce Cotton (1571 – 1631) in London, Beowulf was among them. His Library was popular among notable writers of the time including, Francis Bacon (1561 – 1626) and Walter Raleigh (1552 – 1618).
It was known as the Nowell Codex, because of the 16th-century scholar, Laurence Nowell (1515 – 1571). He was a tutor in the household of William Cecil, 1st Baron Bughley (1520 – 1598), and acquired the manuscript while tutoring his ward, Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford (1550 – 1604). Then in 1936, an Oxford scholar brought it into prominence. J. R. R. Tolkien ( 1892 – 1973) found the poem and wrote Beowulf : The Monsters and the Critics. Since he was a linguist, he translated it into English. It was after this Tolkien began his tales of Middle Earth. In 2014 Tolkien’s son, Christopher, edited and published his father’s work on Beowulf entitled, Beowulf : A Translation and Commentary. It also includes Tolkien’s retelling of the story of Beowulf in his story, “Sellic Spell”.
Then in 2000, Seamus Heaney, (1939 – 2013) a Nobel Prize winning, Harvard University professor, published the newest translation of Beowulf. It was referred to as “Heaneywulf” by some. Heaney was an Irish poet. He was also a playwright and a lecturer. But, it was in his capacity as a translator that he worked his magic on Beowulf. As a professor of poetry at Oxford in 1996, he would have had ready access to the manuscript. After a fall at the age of 74, he fell ill and died. Heaney is buried in Bellaghy, County Londonderry, Ireland, at the Cemetery of St. Mary’s Church. On his tombstone are the words, “Walk on Air Against Your Better Judgment.”
In A Critical Companion to Beowulf, Andy Orchard, lists 33 “representative” translations. The epic poem has been translated into at least 23 languages.
With all these people working on one poem, it can be hard to nail down one particular author of a tale retold for so many years. But, it’s still a wondrous story and brilliantly done.