Beowulf probably was composed in England sometime in the eighth century ad and written down circa1000 ad by a literate scop (bard) or perhaps a Christian scribe who was possibly educated in a monastery. The poem was created in the oral-formulaic tradition (or oral poetic method), probably developing over a period of time with roots in folk tales and traditional stories until a single, very talented poet put it in something very near its current form.
The poem would have been performed for audiences at court or on the road as the scop (preferred pronunciation, "shop") found audiences to support him. The scop would sing or chant the poem, rather than recite it, usually to the accompaniment of a harp. The scop's audience was probably familiar with the story and the various allusions in the poem. The poet's skill was judged by how well he could weave the stories into an effective, entertaining presentation. Performances like this are presented in Beowulf by Hrothgar's court scop, honoring Beowulf.
Note: Quotations are from Howell D. Chickering, Jr.'s dual-language (facing-page) translation, Beowulf (New York: Anchor Books, Doubleday, 1977), introduction and commentary by the translator. Lines quoted are simply indicated in parentheses. In the Anglo-Saxon, each line is separated into two parts by a caesura (indicated by spacing). Here, the extra spacing has been eliminated from brief quotes for the sake of simplicity.
Beowulf as Epic
Scholars debate almost everything about Beowulf, including the question of whether it should be considered an epic at all. An epic is a long narrative poem, composed in an elevated style, dealing with the trials and achievements of a great hero or heroes. The epic celebrates virtues of national, military, religious, cultural, political, or historical significance. The word "epic" itself comes from the Greek epos, originally meaning "word" but later "oration" or "song." Like all art, an epic may grow out of a limited context but achieves greatness in relation to its universality. Epics typically emphasize heroic action as well as the struggle between the hero's own ethos and his human failings or mortality.
All of these characteristics apply to Beowulf. The hero, Beowulf, is the title character. He represents the values of the heroic age, specifically the Germanic code of comitatus — the honor system that existed in Scandinavian countries in the fifth and sixth centuries between a king, or feudal lord, and his warriors (thanes). Thanes swore devotion to their leader and vowed to fight boldly, to the death if necessary, for him. If the leader should fall, his thanes must avenge his life. For his part, the leader rewarded his thanes with treasure, protection, and land. His generosity often was considered a virtue and a mark of character. Courage, loyalty, and reputation were other virtues for these warriors, and we can look for them as themes in the poem. The code of the comitatus is at the heart of the Beowulf epic.
Increasingly, scholars distinguish between two types of epic. The first, the primary epic, evolves from the mores, legends, or folk tales of a people and is initially developed in an oral tradition of storytelling. Secondary epics are literary. They are written from their inception and designed to appear as whole stories. Under this definition, Beowulf is a primary epic, the best evidence being that it first existed in the oral tradition. Furthermore, Beowulf does employ digressions, long speeches, journeys and quests, various trials or tests of the hero, and even divine intervention, as do classic epics. We might call Beowulf a folk epic, although some scholars prefer an emphasis on its mythological background.
Beowulf, however, differs from the classic epics of ancient Greece, the Iliad and the Odyssey, which were composed some 1,500 years before and set the standard for the epic tradition. It does not open with an invocation to a Muse, and it does not start in medias res ("in the middle of things"), although time is out of joint in the poem, especially in its last third.
Some of the devices employed by the Beowulf poet, such as frequent digressions, may seem tedious to the modern reader. To his audience, however, the list of heroes, villains, and battles were familiar. The stories of great achievements were cherished and intended to honor Beowulf's own accomplishments. Poems like this appealed to a wide audience and constituted a form of public entertainment. In Beowulf itself, we witness the captivating talents of performing storytellers; an example is the scop who sings of The Finnsburh Episode (1063-1159).
Beowulf as History
One point to remember is that the poem is not history. In a way, Beowulf's world runs parallel to history. Although it rarely refers to historical facts, the setting is similar to reality in Denmark and Sweden in the fifth and sixth centuries, the time of the action in the poem. The social structure of the comitatus did exist; and the most dominating rituals in the poem, the funerals near the beginning and at the end of the epic, have been confirmed by archaeological discovery.
The most famous of these was the Sutton Hoo dig in East Anglia in 1939. Sutton Hoo was a burial ground for one or more East Anglian kings in the early seventh century. Its contents include a ship burial reminiscent of the funeral for Scyld Scefing near the beginning of Beowulf and somewhat like the final resting place of Beowulf himself. Buried with the ship were various gold coins and pieces of armor, including an impressive helmet, a representation of which is used for the cover of Howell D. Chickering, Jr.'s paperback translation. Other artifacts include both pagan and Christian symbols, indicating the fusion of cultures in England approaching the time of the composition of the poem. We might remember that Pope Gregory, who served from 590 to 604, encouraged Christian missionaries to absorb pagan tradition into Christian ritual in order to promote a smooth transition for the pagans.
Royal ship burials, at sea or on land, were also part of the Scandinavian culture from at least the fifth century through the ninth. Another significant archaeological discovery was at Oseburg in southern Norway, just one of several in Scandinavia. The tribal feuds of the fifth and sixth centuries are well documented historically, and the death of King Hygelac in battle (circa 520) is a recorded fact.
Another custom was the concept of wergild, literally, "man-payment," the price set on a person's life according to his social or political station. If a lord or one of his top thanes (sometimes called a retainer) were killed in a feud, the fighting might go on indefinitely, one side killing for vengeance and then the other. However, the fighting could be stopped by a payment of wergild. If a leader were killed, the offending party could pay a certain amount to have the matter settled. Long before the opening of the poem, Hrothgar apparently made such a payment to buy Beowulf's father out of a feud, and part of Beowulf's motivation in coming to fight Grendel is to pay off this family obligation.
Still, getting too wrapped up in historical parallels is dangerous. While some things are realistic, others are not. The world in Beowulf is one of the imagination. We should not be too concerned about whether Beowulf can hold his breath all day or swim five nights without rest, or, for that matter, whether dragons keep treasure-troves. In Beowulf's world, they do.
Poetic Devices in Beowulf
Beowulf is an example of Anglo-Saxon poetry that is distinguished by its heavy use of alliteration. Simply put, alliteration is the repetition of initial sounds of words. For example, notice the initial h sounds in the following line: "The harrowing history haunted the heroes." In the original Beowulf, alliteration is used in almost every line. A line of the poem actually consists of two half-lines with a caesura (pause) between them. Usually, spacing indicates that pause. In the following example, notice how the words of the first half-line alliterate with each other and the first word of the second half-line:
ferdon folc-togan feorran ond nean
chieftains came from far and near
Sometimes the alliteration is more complicated and has been the subject of many advanced studies. The point for beginning students is that alliteration is as important in Beowulf as rhyme is for some later poets. Beowulf has no consistent pattern of rhyme, although occasional internal rhyme sometimes is effective and seems more than accidental.
Imagery in the poem is vivid and often fun, and frequently related through the use of kennings. Put simply, kennings are compound expressions that use characteristics to name a person or thing. One of the most popular examples is hronrade. Literally, the word means "whale-road"; the kenning, then, is for the sea or ocean, a thoroughfare for the whale. One of the strengths of the Chickering facing-page translation is that it often repeats the kennings literally. Sometimes even a beginning student can find the word in Anglo-Saxon, on the opposing page, for comparison. Following are some other examples of kennings:
hand-sporu which literally translates to "hand spike" and refers to Grendel's talon
word-hord which literally translates to "word hoard" and means "vocabulary"
ban-cofan which literally translates to "bone box" and refers to a person's body
Another device that modern readers might notice is the use of litotes, which are figures of speech in which a positive statement is made by the negative of its opposite. It is a form of understatement that is none too subtle. We might say, for example, "Abraham Lincoln was not too bad a President" when we mean to convey that he was a great President. When describing Grendel's mere (or pool), King Hrothgar says (1372) it is "Not a pleasant place!" It is, in fact, filled with horror.
Although modern works often contain poetic devices such as the simile, there are only a few similes in Beowulf. Simile often is described as a comparison between two objects, people, or ideas through the use of a comparative such as "like" or "as." One simile occurs in line 218 when the poet tells us that the ship went over the sea "like a bird." A more original, complex, extended simile (2444 ff.) compares the feelings of King Hrethel with those of a father whose son is on the gallows, the "likeness," or similarity, implied by the first line.
As poetry, Beowulf is rich in meaning. Some see it as an early celebration of Christianity. Others think it extols or condemns heroic values. English novelist and scholar J. R. R. Tolkien ("Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics," Proceedings of the British Academy, XXII , 245–95) argued that Beowulf is a balance between beginnings and endings, of youth and age, the most dominating being Beowulf's. While the poem is of value historically, it is more interesting as a powerful work of art.