Open main menu
This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.

supposition that they took place in Denmark. There is, as we shall see afterwards, some ground for believing that there were circulated in England two rival poetic versions of the story of the encounters with supernatural beings: the one referring them to Beowulf the Dane, while the other (represented by the existing poem) attached them to the legend of the son of Ecgtheow, but ingeniously contrived to do some justice to the alternative tradition by laying the scene of the Grendel incident at the court of a Scylding king.

As the name of Beaw appears in the genealogies of English kings, it seems likely that the traditions of his exploits may have been brought over by the Angles from their continental home. This supposition is confirmed by evidence that seems to show that the Grendel legend was popularly current in this country. In the schedules of boundaries appended to two Old English charters there occurs mention of pools called “Grendel’s mere,” one in Wiltshire and the other in Staffordshire. The charter that mentions the Wiltshire “Grendel’s mere” speaks also of a place called Bēowan hām (“Beowa’s home”), and another Wiltshire charter has a “Scyld’s tree” among the landmarks enumerated. The notion that ancient burial mounds were liable to be inhabited by dragons was common in the Germanic world: there is perhaps a trace of it in the Derbyshire place-name Drakelow, which means “dragon’s barrow.”

While, however, it thus appears that the mythic part of the Beowulf story is a portion of primeval Angle tradition, there is no proof that it was originally peculiar to the Angles; and even if it was so, it may easily have passed from them into the poetic cycles of the related peoples. There are, indeed, some reasons for suspecting that the blending of the stories of the mythic Beaw and the historical Beowulf may have been the work of Scandinavian and not of English poets. Prof. G. Sarrazin has pointed out the striking resemblance between the Scandinavian legend of Bödvarr Biarki and that of the Beowulf of the poem. In each, a hero from Gautland slays a destructive monster at the court of a Danish king, and afterwards is found fighting on the side of Eadgils (Adils) in Sweden. This coincidence cannot well be due to mere chance; but its exact significance is doubtful. On the one hand, it is possible that the English epic, which unquestionably derived its historical elements from Scandinavian song, may be indebted to the same source for its general plan, including the blending of history and myth. On the other hand, considering the late date of the authority for the Scandinavian traditions, we cannot be sure that the latter may not owe some of their material to English minstrels. There are similar alternative possibilities with regard to the explanation of the striking resemblances which certain incidents of the adventures with Grendel and the dragon bear to incidents in the narratives of Saxo and the Icelandic sagas.

Date and Origin.—It is now time to speak of the probable date and origin of the poem. The conjecture that most naturally presents itself to those who have made no special study of the question, is that an English epic treating of the deeds of a Scandinavian hero on Scandinavian ground must have been composed in the days of Norse or Danish dominion in England. This, however, is impossible. The forms under which Scandinavian names appear in the poem show clearly that these names must have entered English tradition not later than the beginning of the 7th century. It does not indeed follow that the extant poem is of so early a date; but its syntax is remarkably archaic in comparision with that of the Old English poetry of the 8th century. The hypothesis that Beowulf is in whole or in part a translation from a Scandinavian original, although still maintained by some scholars, introduces more difficulties than it solves, and must be dismissed as untenable. The limits of this article do not permit us to state and criticize the many elaborate theories that have been proposed respecting the origin of the poem. All that can be done is to set forth the view that appears to us to be most free from objection. It may be premised that although the existing MS. is written in the West-Saxon dialect, the phenomena of the language indicate transcription from an Anglian (i.e. a Northumbrian or Mercian) original; and this conclusion is supported by the fact that while the poem contains one important episode relating to the Angles, the name of the Saxons does not occur in it at all.

In its original form, Beowulf was a product of the time when poetry was composed not to be read, but to be recited in the halls of kings and nobles. Of course an entire epic could not be recited on a single occasion; nor can we suppose that it would be thought out from beginning to end before any part of it was presented to an audience. A singer who had pleased his hearers with a tale of adventure would be called on to tell them of earlier or later events in the career of the hero; and so the story would grow, until it included all that the poet knew from tradition, or could invent in harmony with it. That Beowulf is concerned with the deeds of a foreign hero is less surprising than it seems at first sight. The minstrel of early Germanic times was required to be learned not only in the traditions of his own people, but also in those of the other peoples with whom they felt their kinship. He had a double task to perform. It was not enough that his songs should give pleasure; his patrons demanded that he should recount faithfully the history and genealogy both of their own line and of those other royal houses who shared with them the same divine ancestry, and who might be connected with them by ties of marriage or warlike alliance. Probably the singer was always himself an original poet; he might often be content to reproduce the songs that he had learned, but he was doubtless free to improve or expand them as he chose, provided that his inventions did not conflict with what was supposed to be historic truth. For all we know, the intercourse of the Angles with Scandinavia, which enabled their poets to obtain new knowledge of the legends of Danes, Gautar and Swedes, may not have ceased until their conversion to Christianity in the 7th century. And even after this event, whatever may have been the attitude of churchmen towards the old heathen poetry, the kings and warriors would be slow to lose their interest in the heroic tales that had delighted their ancestors. It is probable that down to the end of the 7th century, if not still later, the court poets of Northumbria and Mercia continued to celebrate the deeds of Beowulf and of many another hero of ancient days.

Although the heathen Angles had their own runic alphabet, it is unlikely that any poetry was written down until a generation had grown up trained in the use of the Latin letters learned from Christian missionaries. We cannot determine the date at which some book-learned man, interested in poetry, took down from the lips of a minstrel one of the stories that he had been accustomed to sing. It may have been before 700; much later it can hardly have been, for the old heathen poetry, though its existence might be threatened by the influence of the church, was still in vigorous life. The epic of Beowulf was not the only one that was reduced to writing: a fragment of the song about Finn, king of the Frisians, still survives, and possibly several other heroic poems were written down about the same time. As originally dictated, Beowulf probably contained the story outlined at the beginning of this article, with the addition of one or two of the episodes relating to the hero himself—among them the legend of the swimming-match. This story had doubtless been told at greater length in verse, but its insertion in its present place is the work of a poet, not of a mere redactor. The other episodes were introduced by some later writer, who had heard recited, or perhaps had read, a multitude of the old heathen songs, the substance of which he piously sought to preserve from oblivion by weaving it in an abridged form, into the texture of the one great poem which he was transcribing. The Christian passages, which are poetically of no value, are evidently of literary origin, and may be of any date down to that of the extant MS. The curious passage which says that the subjects of Hrothgar sought deliverance from Grendel in prayer at the temple of the Devil, “because they knew not the true God,” must surely have been substituted for a passage referring sympathetically to the worship of the ancient gods.

An interesting light on the history of the written text seems to be afforded by the phenomena of the existing MS. The poem is divided into numbered sections, the length of which was probably determined by the size of the pieces of parchment of