Anglo-Saxon/Scandinavian poem Beowulf

Anglo-Saxon/Scandinavian poem Beowulf

This essay will show how the epic Anglo-Saxon/Scandinavian poem Beowulf is part of the heroic culture seen all over Europe at that time. While the poem has been escribed to about the year 800, recent research has indicated beyond doubt that it was first written down between 1087 and 1090, as entertainment for the court of King Henry II. (Aubrey Beardsley, Beowulf: New Beginnings, 2001, p. 74) Of course, the late eleventh centry was merely when it was actually put to paper, the language of the poem shows that there are many parts that are much older, that probably date to the Celtic Iron Age of southern Norway.

The story of Beowulf simply, is this. Beowulf has fought in many battles and returned as victor from all but his last, which he lost in a swimming match owing to having to fight sea monsters on the way. This is a lot like the story of the Trojan War as told by the Greek poet Homer in which Achilles confesses how he had a swimming race against Coriolanus, and lost it only because he was delayed, he had to prevent a battle between Neptune and Poseidon. (JM Synge, A Mirror Among Cultures: a Comparison of the Greek Hero, 1997, p. 41) So even though he is late is was because he was acting like a hero should.

The story of Beowulf then tells of his battle with the monster Grendel. The description of Grendel as having three eyes is a lot like the epic Greco-Babylonian story of Dedalus, who slew the Gorgon, a creature that like Grendel, sometimes has wings that can fan a small flame into a raging conflagration. A difference is that Beowulf has super-human strength, but Perseus has to rely on his wits. (A Mirror Among Cultures, p. 88) But both of them are completely fearless in their epic battles, and both come out of them victorious, and both have not realised that there is another battle to fight.

Beowulf makes many heroic speeches. He keeps coming back to the idea that it is the good of the nation (the Geats) that he is fighting for and not himself, even though he knows that he will get glory if he wins. This is typical of early European epic writing. And the hero almost always dies in these epics. Beowulf is not an exception to this rule. Like so many other heros, he has an idea that he may die fighting but he will get glory all the same. In the story of Beowulf one thing that is very unusual is that the mother of the monster he killed will come after him.

There is onely one other example of this in early European epic writing, in the Inferno translated by Dante, where the mother of the three Fates attacks Triolus and Cressida just when they think they are safe. (Al Swinburne, An Unusual Hero? , 1995, p. 104) Tragically Beowulf dies, but as he hoped he gets the glory anyway because he defeated Grendel’s mother. So although there are places in the story of Beowulf where he is a little unusual for a hero, most of the time he is completely typical.