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III. Early National Poetry

§ 3. Beowulf: Scandinavian Traditions; Personality of the Hero; Origin and Antiquity of the Poem; the Religious Element

By far the most important product of the national epos is Beowulf, a poem of 3183 lines, which has been preserved practically complete in a MS. of the tenth century, now in the British Museum. It will be convenient at the outset to give a brief summary of its contents.

The poem opens with a short account of the victorious Danish king Scyld Scefing, whose obsequies are described in some detail. His body was carried on board a ship, piled up with arms and treasures. The ship passed out to sea, and none knew what became of it (11. I–52). The reigns of Scyld’s son and grandson, Beowulf and Healfdene, are quickly passed over, and we are next brought to Hrothgar, the son of Healfdene. He builds a splendid hall, called Heorot, in which to entertain his numerous retinue (11. 53–100). His happiness is, however, destroyed by Grendel, a monster sprung from Cain, who attacks the hall by night and devours as many as thirty knights at a time. No one can withstand him, and, in spite of sacrificial offerings, the hall has to remain empty (11. 101–193). When Grendel’s ravages have lasted twelve years, Beowulf, a nephew of Hygelac, king of the Geatas, and a man of enormous strength, determines to go to Hrothgar’s assistance. He embarks with fourteen companions and, on reaching the Danish coast, is directed by the watchman to Hrothgar’s abode (11. 194–319). The king, on being informed of his arrival, relates how he had known and befriended Ecgtheow, Beowulf’s father. Beowulf states the object of his coming, and the visitors are invited to feast (11. 320–497). During the banquet Beowulf is taunted by Hunferth (Unferth), the king’s “orator,” with having failed in a swimming contest against a certain Breca. He replies, giving a different version of the story, according to which he was successful (11. 498–606). Then the queen (Wealhtheow) fills Beowulf’s cup, and he announces his determination to conquer or die. As night draws on, the king and his retinue leave the hall to the visitors (11. 607–665). They go to sleep, and Beowulf puts off his armour, declaring that he will not use his sword. Grendel bursts into the hall and devours one of the knights. Beowulf, however, seizes him by the arm, which he tears off after a desperate struggle, and the monster takes to flight, mortally wounded (11. 665–833). Beowulf displays the arm, and the Danes come to express their admiration of his achievement. They tell stories of heroes of the past, of Sigemund and his nephew Fitela and of the Danish prince Heremod. Then Hrothgar himself arrives, congratulates Beowulf on his victory and rewards him with rich gifts (11. 834–1062). During the feast which follows, the king’s minstrel recites the story of Hnaef and Finn (11. 1063–1159), to which we shall have to return later. The queen comes forward and, after addressing Hrothgar together with his nephew and colleague Hrothwulf, thanks Beowulf and presents him with a valuable necklace (11.1160–1232). This necklace, it is stated (11. 1202–1214), was afterwards worn by Hygelac and fell into the hands of the Franks at his death. Hrothgar and Beowulf now retire, but a number of knights settle down to sleep in the hall. During the night Grendel’s mother appears and carries off Aeschere, the king’s chief councillor (11. 1233–1306). Beowulf is summoned and the king, overwhelmed with grief, tells him what has happened and describes the place where the monsters were believed to dwell. Beowulf promises to exact vengeance (11. 1306–1399). They set out for the place, a pool overshadowed with trees, but apparently connected with the sea. Beowulf plunges into the water and reaches a cave, where he has a desperate encounter with the monster. Eventually he succeeds in killing her with a sword which he finds in the cave. He then comes upon the corpse of Grendel and cuts off its head. With this he returns to his companions, who had given him up for lost (11. 1397–1631). The head is brought in triumph to the palace, and Beowulf describes his adventure. The king praises his exploit and contrasts his spirit with that of the unfortunate prince Heremod. From this he passes to a moralising discourse on the evils of pride (1632–1784). On the following day Beowulf bids farewell to the king. They part affectionately, and the king rewards him with further gifts. Beowulf and his companions embark and return to their own land (1785–1921). The virtues of Hygd, the young wife of Hygelac, are praised, and she is contrasted with Thrytho, the wife of Offa, who, in her youth, had displayed a murderous disposition (11. 1922–1962). Beowulf greets Hygelac and gives him an account of his adventures. Part of his speech, however, is taken up with a subject which, except for a casual reference in 11. 83–85, has not been mentioned before, namely, the relations between Hrothgar and his son-in-law Ingeld, prince of the Heathobeardan. Ingeld’s father, Froda, had been slain by the Danes and he was constantly incited by an old warrior to take vengeance on the son of the slayer. Then Beowulf hands over to Hygelac and Hygd the presents which Hrothgar and Wealhtheow had given him, and Hygelac in turn rewards him with a sword and with a large share in the kingdom (11. 1963–2199).

A long period is now supposed to elapse. Hygelac has fallen, and his son Heardred has been slain by the Swedes. Then Beowulf has succeeded to the throne and reigned gloriously for fifty years (11. 2200–2210). In his old age the land of the Geatas is ravaged and his own home destroyed by a firespitting dragon which, after brooding for three hundred years over the treasure of men long since dead, has had its lair robbed by a runaway slave. Beowulf, greatly angered, resolves to attack it (11. 2210–2349). Now comes a digression referring to Beowulf’s past exploits, in the course of which we learn that he had escaped by swimming when Hygelac lost his life in the land of the Frisians. On his return Hygd offered him the throne, but he refused it in favour of the young Heardred. The latter, however, was soon slain by the Swedish king Onela, because he had granted asylum to his nephews, Eanmund and Eadgils, the sons of Ohthere. Vengeance was obtained by Beowulf later, when he supported Eadgils in a campaign which led to the king’s death (11. 2349–2396). Beowulf now approaches the dragon’s lair. He reflects on the past history of his family. Haethcyn, king of the Geatas, had accidentally killed his brother Herebeald, and their father, Hrethel, died of grief in consequence. His death was followed by war with the Swedes, in which first Haethcyn and then the Swedish king Ongentheow (Onela’s father) were slain. When Hygelac, the third brother, perished among the Frisians, Daeghrefn, a warrior of the Hugas, was crushed to death by the hero himself (11. 2397–2509). Beowulf orders his men to wait outside while he enters the dragon’s barrow alone. He is attacked by the dragon, and his sword will not bite. Wiglaf, one of his companions, now comes to the rescue; but the rest, in spite of his exhortations, flee into a wood. As the dragon darts forward again Beowulf strikes it on the head; but his sword breaks, and the dragon seizes him by the neck. Wiglaf succeeds in wounding it, and Beowulf, thus getting a moment’s respite, finishes it off with his knife (11. 2510–2709). But the hero is mortally wounded. At his request Wiglaf brings the treasure out of the lair. Beowulf gives him directions with regard to his funeral, presents him with his armour and necklace and then dies (11. 2709–2842.) The cowardly knights now return and are bitterly upbraided by Wiglaf (11. 2842–2891). A messenger brings the news to the warriors who have been waiting behind. He goes on to prophesy that, now their heroic king has fallen, the Geatas must expect hostility on all sides. With the Franks there has been no peace since Hygelac’s unfortunate expedition against the Frisians and Hetware, while the Swedes cannot forget Ongentheow’s disaster, which is now described at length. The warriors approach the barrow and inspect the treasure which has been found (11. 2891–3075). Wiglaf repeats Beowulf’s instructions, the dragon is thrown into the sea and the king’s body burnt on a great pyre. Then a huge barrow is constructed over the remains of the pyre, and all the treasure taken from the dragon’s lair is placed in it. The poem ends with an account of the mourning and the proclamation of the king’s virtues by twelve warriors who ride round the barrow.

Many of the persons and events mentioned in Beowulf are known to us also from various Scandinavian records, especially Saxo’s Danish History, Hròlfs Saga Kraka, Ynglinga Saga (with the poem Ynglingatal) and the fragments of the lost Skiöldunga Saga. Scyld, the ancestor of the Scyldungas (the Danish royal family), clearly corresponds to Skiöldr, the ancestor of the Skiöldungar, though the story told of him in Beowulf does not occur in Scandinavian literature. Healfdene and his sons Hrothgar and Halga are certainly identical with the Danish king Hafdan and his sons Hròarr (Roe) and Helgi; and there can be no doubt that Hrothwulf, Hrothgar’s nephew and colleague, is the famous Hròlfr Kraki, the son of Helgi. Hrothgar’s elder brother Heorogar is unknown, but his son Heoroweard may be identical with Hiörvar[char]r, the brother-in-law of Hròlfr. It has been plausibly suggested also that Hrethric, the son of Hrothgar, may be the same person as Hroereker (Roricus), who is generally represented as the son or successor of Ingialdr. The name of the Heathobeardan is unknown in the north, unless, possibly, a reminiscence of it is preserved in Saxo’s Hothbroddus, the name of the king who slew Roe. Their princes Froda and Ingeld, however, clearly correspond to Frò[char] (Frotho IV) and his son Ingialdr, who are represented as kings of the Danes. Even the story of the old warrior who incites Ingeld to revenge is given also by Saxo; indeed, the speaker (Starcatherus) is one of the most prominent figures in his history. Again, the Swedish prince Eadgils, the son of Ohthere, is certainly identical with the famous king of the Svear, A[char]ils, the son of Òttarr, and his conflict with Onela corresponds to the battle on lake Vener between A[char]ils and Àli. The latter is described as a Norwegian; but this is, in all probability, a mistake arising from his surname hinn Upplenzki, which was thought to refer to the Norwegian Upplönd instead of the Swedish district of the same name. The other members of the Swedish royal family, Ongentheow and Eanmund, are unknown in Scandinavian literature. The same remark applies, probably, to the whole of the royal family of the Geatas, except, perhaps, the hero himself. On the other hand, most of the persons mentioned in the minor episodes or incidentally—Sigemund and Fitela, Heremod, Eormenric, Hama, Offa—are more or less well known from various Scandinavian authorities, some also from continental sources.

With the exception of Ynglingatal, which dates probably from the ninth century, all the Scandinavian works mentioned above are quite late and, doubtless, based on tradition. Hence they give us no means of fixing the dates of the kings whose doings they record—unless one can argue from the fact that Harold the Fairhaired, who appears to have been born in 850, claimed to be descended in the eleventh generation from A[char]ils. Indeed, we have unfortunately no contemporary authorities for Swedish and Danish history before the ninth century. Several early Frankish writings, however, refer to a raid which was made upon the territories of the Chattuarii on the lower Rhine about the year 520. The raiders were defeated by Theodberht, the son of Theodric I, and their king, who is called Chohilaicus (Chlochilaicus) or Huiglaucus, was killed. This incident is, without doubt, to be identified with the disastrous expedition of Hygelac against the Franks, Hetware (Chattuarii) and Frisians, to which Beowulf contains several references. We need not hesitate, then, to conclude that most of the historical events mentioned in Beowulf are to be dated within about the first three decades of the sixth century.

In Gregory of Tours’ Historia Francorum (III, 3) and in the Gesta Regum Francorum (cap. 19) the king of the raiders is described as rex Danorum; in the Liber Monstrorum, however, as rex Getarum. As Getarum can hardly be anything but a corruption of Beowulf’s Geatas the latter description is doubtless correct. The Geatas are, in all probability, to be identified with the Gautar of Old Norse literature, i.e. the people of Götaland in the south of Sweden. It may be mentioned that Procopius, a contemporary of Theodberht, in his description (Goth. II, 15) of “Thule,” i.e. Scandinavia, speaks of the Götar (Gautoi) as a very numerous nation.

The hero himself still remains to be discussed. On the whole, though the identification is rejected by many scholars, there seems to be good reason for believing that he was the same person as Bö[char]varr Biarki, the chief of Hròlfr Kraki’s knights. In Hròlfs Saga Kraka, Biarki is represented as coming to Leire, the Danish royal residence, from Götaland, where his brother was king. Shortly after his arrival he killed an animal demon (a bear according to Saxo), which was in the habit of attacking the king’s farmyard at Yule. Again, according to Skaldskaparmàl, cap. 44 (from Skiöldunga Saga), he took part with A[char]ils in the battle against Àli. In all these points his history resembles that of Beowulf. It appears from Hròlfs Saga Kraka that Biarki had the faculty of changing into a bear. And Beowulf’s method of fighting, especially in his conflict with Daeghrefn, may point to a similar story. On the other hand, the latter part of Biarki’s career is quite different from that of Beowulf. He stayed with Hròlfr to the end and shared the death of that king. But the latter part of Beowulf’s life can hardly be regarded as historical. Indeed, his own exploits throughout are largely of a miraculous character.

There is another Scandinavian story, however, which has a very curious bearing on the earlier adventures of Beowulf. This is a passage in Grettis Saga (cap. 64 ff.), in which the hero is represented as destroying two demons, male and female. The scene is laid in Iceland; yet so close are the resemblances between the two stories, in the character of the demons, in the description of the places they inhabit and in the methods by which the hero deals with them, as well as in a number of minor details, that it is impossible to ascribe them to accident. Now Grettir seems to be a historical person who died about the year 1031. The presumption is, then, that an older story has be become attached to his name. But there is nothing in the account that gives any colour to the idea that it is actually derived from the Old English poem. More probably the origin of both stories alike is to be sought in a folk-tale, and, just as the adventures were attributed in Iceland to the historical Grettir, so in England, and, possibly, also in Denmark, at an earlier date they were associated with a historical prince of the Götar. From the occurrence of the local names Beowanham and Grendles mere in a Wiltshire charter some scholars have inferred that the story was originally told of a certain Beowa, whom they have identified with Beaw or Beo, the son of Scyld (Sceldwea) in the West Saxon genealogy. But since this person is, in all probability, identical with the first (Danish) Beowulf of the poem, and since the name Beowa may very well be a shortened form of Beowulf, while the other names are obscure, the inferenceseems to be of somewhat doubtful value. On the whole there is, perhaps, more to be said for the view that the association of Beowulf with the folk-tale arose out of some real adventure with an animal. This, however, must remain largely a matter of speculation. The fight with the dragon is, of course, common motive in folk-tales. An attempt has been made to show that Beowulf’s adventure has a specially close affinity with a story told by Saxo of the Danish king Frotho I. But the resemblance between the two stories is not very striking.

With regard to the origin and antiquity of the poem it is impossible to arrive at any definite conclusions with certainty. From investigations which have been made into its linguistic and metrical characteristics the majority of scholars hold that it was originally composed in a northern or midland dialect —though it has been preserved only in West Saxon form—and that it is at least as old as any other considerable piece of Old English poetry which we possess. The question of antiquity, however, is complicated by the doubt which is commonly felt as to the unity of the poem. Moreover, it cannot be denied that this feeling of doubt is, at least to some extent, justified. In its present form the poem must date from Christian times as it contains a considerable number of passages of distinctly Christian character. On the other hand, the relationships of the various Danish and Swedish kings can hardly have been remembered otherwise than in a more or less stereotyped form of words for more than a generation after their lifetime. Hence we are bound to conclude that the formation of the poem, or, at all events, that of the materials from which it was made up, must have occupied at least the greater part of a century.

It is generally thought that several originally separate lays have been combined in the poem, and, though no proof is obtainable, the theory in itself is not unlikely. These lays are usually supposed to have been four in number and to have dealt with the following subjects: (i) Beowulf’s fight with Grendel, (ii) the fight with Grendel’s mother, (iii) Beowulf’s return, (iv) the fight with the dragon. In view of the story in Grettis Saga I am very much inclined to doubt whether it is justifiable to separate the first two incidents. The fight with the dragon, however, is certainly quite distinct, and the part of the poem dealing with Beowulf’s reception by Hygelac may also have originally formed the subject of a separate lay. Some scholars have gone much further than this in their analysis of the poem. According to one view nearly half of it is the work of interpolators; according to another the present text is a composite one made up from two parallel versions. It is much to be doubted, however, whether any really substantial result has been obtained from these investigations into the “inner history” of the poem. The references to religion seem to afford the only safe criterion for distinguishing between earlier and later elements. Thus, it is worth nothing that in 11. 175 ff. the Danes are represented as offering heathen sacrifices, a passage which is wholly inconsistent with the sentiments afterwards attributed to Hrothgar. But at what stage in the history of the poem was the Christian element introduced?

Certainly this element seems to be too deeply interwoven in the text for us to suppose that it is due to additions made by scribes at a time when the poem had come to be written down. Indeed there is little evidence for any additions or changes of this kind. We must ascribe it, then, either to the original poet or poets or to minstrels by whom the poem was recited in later times. The extent to which the Christian element is present varies somewhat in different parts of the poem. In the last portion (11. 2200–3183) the number of lines affected by it amounts to less than four per cent., while in the section dealing with Beowulf’s return (11. 1904–2199) it is negligible. In the earlier portions, on the other hand, the percentage rises to between nine and ten, but this is partly due to four long passages. One fact worth observing is that the Christian element is about equally distributed between the speeches and the narrative. We have noticed above that, according to a theory which has much in its favour, epics are derived from “mixed” pieces, in which speeches were given in verse and narrative in prose. If Christian influence had made itself felt at this stage, we should surely have expected to find it more prominent in the narrative than in the speeches, for the latter would, presumably, be far less liable to change.

There is one curious feature in the poem which has scarcely received sufficient attention, namely the fact that, while the poet’s reflections and even the sentiments attributed to the various speakers are largely, though not entirely, Christian, the customs and ceremonies described are, almost without exception, heathen. This fact seems to point, not to a Christian work with heathen reminiscences, but to a heathen work which has undergone revision by Christian minstrels. In particular, I cannot believe that any Christian poet either could or would have composed the account of Beowulf’s funeral. It is true that we have no references to heathen gods, and hardly any to actual heathen worship. But such references would necessarily be suppressed or altered when the courts became Christian. Indeed, there is a fairly clear case of alteration in 11. 175 ff., to which I have already alluded. It may, perhaps, be urged that, if the work had been subjected to such a thorough revision, descriptions of heathen ceremonies would not have been allowed to stand. But the explanation may be that the ceremonies in question had passed out of use before the change of religion. In the case of cremation, which is the prevalent form of funeral rite found in the poem, we have good reason for believing this to be true. Hence, such passages could not excite the same repugnance among the clergy as they would have done in countries where the ceremonies were still practised.

I am disposed, then, to think that large portions at least of the poem existed in epic form before the change of faith and that the appearance of the Christian element is due to revision. The Christianity of Beowulf is of a singularly indefinite and undoctrinal type, which contrasts somewhat strongly with what is found in later Old English poetry. In explanation of this fact it has been suggested that the poem was composed or revised under the influence of the missionaries from Iona. But is there really any reason for thinking that the teaching of the Irish missionaries would tend in that direction? A more obvious explanation would be that the minstrels who introduce the Christian element had but a vague knowledge of the new faith. Except in 11. 1743 ff., where there seems to be a reference to Ephesians, vi, 16, the only passages of the Bible made use of are those relating to the Creation, the story of Cain and Abel and the Deluge. In the first case (11. 90 ff.) one can hardly help suspecting a reference to Caedmon’s hymn, and the others also may just as well have been derived from Christian poems or songs as from the Bible itself. In any case, however, the fact noted favours the conclusion that the revision took place at an earlier date.