The Epic Poem, Beowulf - Is Beowulf History or Myth?
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Many of the characters and episodes and material artifacts mentioned poetically in Beowulf are likewise presented to us from archaeological sources and from various written sources, especially Scandinavian records, thus adding credibility to the historicity of the poem. But it is obvious that Beowulf, Grendel and the Dragon clearly belong to the classification of “myth.”
In his essay “The Digressions in Beowulf” David Wright says:
Another effect of what are called the ‘historical elements’ in Beowulf – the subsidiary stories of the Danes and the Geats – is to give the poem greater depth and verisimilitude. Hrothgar, the Danish king, is a ‘historical character, and the site of his palace of Heorot has been identified with the village of Leire on the island of Seeland in Denmark. The Geat king Hygelac really existed, and his unlucky expedition against the Franks, referred to several times in the poem, is mentioned by Gregory of Tours in the Historia Francorum and has been given the approximate date of AD521 (127).
Does the above not establish in our minds an historically sound footing for the poem? “I suggested in an earlier paper that the Beowulf poet’s incentive for composing an epic about sixth-century Scyldings may have had something to do with the fact that, by the 890’s at least, Heremod, Scyld, Healfdene, and the rest, were taken to be the common ancestors both of the Anglo-Saxon royal family and of the ninth-century Danish immigrants, the Scaldingi” (Frank 60). Is not universal acceptance as truth in fact not a proof that the geneologies of the work are factual? With the exception of the hero, this literary scholar seems to agree: “He [Beowulf] appears unknown outside the poem, while virtually every other character is found in early legends” (Chickering 252). Consider the following royal burial of the Danish king, and how unrealistic it appears:
Scyld then departed at the appointed time,
still very strong, into the keeping of the Lord….
They laid down the king they had dearly loved,
their tall ring-giver, in the center of the ship,
the mighty by the mast. Great treasure was there,
bright gold and silver, gems from far lands (26-37)
But we know from archaeological evidence that the royal and aristocratic milieu of Beowulf with its lavish burials and gold-adorned armor “can no longer be dismissed as poetic exaggeration or folk memories of an age of gold before the Anglo-Saxons came to England (Cramp 114).
In 1939 there was discovered on the Sutton Hoo estate in Woodbridge, Suffolk, England, the rich burial site of a seventh century Anglo-Saxon king. It contained a ship fully equipped for the afterlife: 41 items of solid gold, now in the British Museum, also 37 coins, three unstruck coin blanks, two ingots – all of gold. There were silver utensils, jewelry and other valuable items, in a very large ship which was technologically advanced with fixed steering capablility and shorter, narrower planks for flexibility. The enormity of the investment in this burial can hardly be overstated and can only make the Beowulf versions of burial very credible, Scyld’s mentioned above and Beowulf’s mentioned here:
Then the men of the Weders built on that cliff
a memorial barrow that was high and broad,
…. The remains of the pyre
they buried in walls as splendidly worked
as men wise in skill knew how to fashion.
Within this barrow they placed jeweled rings,
all the ornaments ….
the treasure of princes, gold in the ground (3156-67)
In line 3150 the “Geatish woman” who “[wove] a grief-song, the lament [for Beowulf]” is explained as the procedure in a Viking funeral recounted by Ibn Fadlan (Cramp 115).
Sutton Hoo also contained a boar-crested helmet, a feature of the Geat warriors in the poem:
over plated cheek-guards, inlaid with gold (303-4)
Another such helmet was discovered at Benty Grange, England and dates to the sixth century (Cramp 117).
A last comment on the Sutton Hoo find: The equipment and jewelry which the warriors in Beowulf received as rewards for their heroism (“helmet and mailshirt,” “sword,” “horses and weapons,” “gold paid,”) – many of these are found in the burial site – helmets, shield mounts (from shields that long ago rotted), rings, necklaces, etc.. So the inclusion of such articles in the story of the poem was not by a stroke of imagination on the part of the poet, but rather was a conscious conformity with the historical truth as it had been handed down orally from generation to generation.
Considering now the characters of the poem, Scyld, the ancestor of the Danish royal family (the Scyldungas), bears a close resemblance to Skioldr, ancestor of the Skioldungar, although the Beowulf story itself does not occur in Scandinavian literature (Ward v1,ch3, s3, p10). Healfdene and his sons Hrothgar and Halga are mentioned in scandinavian sources as well (Chickering 280). They are identical with the Danish king Hafdan and his sons Hroarr and Helgi. There can be no doubt that Hrothulf, Hrothgar’s nephew and colleague, is the son of Helgi, Hrolfr. And Hrothgar’s son Heoroweard may be identical with Hiorvarr, the brother-in-law of Hrolfr. Hrethric, the son of Hrothgar, may be the same person as Hroereker, the successor of Ingialdr. The Heathobearden who was predicted by Beowulf to perhaps take vengeance on Hrothgar may be Hothbroddus in Saxo’s Danish History who slew Hroarr (Roe). King Froda in Beowulf and his son Ingeld, Hrothgar’s future son-in-law, correspond to King Frotho IV and his son Ingialdr, both kings of the Danes. In Beowulf the old warrior who incites Ingeld to revenge against Hrothgar is found in Saxo’s book. In Beowulf the Swedish prince Eadgils, son of Ohthere, is identical with the famous king of the Svear, A[char]ils, son of Ottarr, and his conflict with Onela corresponds to the battle of lake Vener between A[char]ils and Ali. Most of the persons mentioned in 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.
Harold the Fairheaded, born around 850, claimed to be descended in the eleventh generation from King A[char]ils. Several early Frankish writings refer to a raid made upon the Chattuarii on the lower Rhine about the year 520. The raiders were defeated and their king, Huiglaucus, killed. Is this not Hygelac and his disastrous expedition against the Franks Hetware (Chattuarii) and Frisians wherein he died? So most of the historical events mentioned in Beowulfcan be dated within the first three decades of the sixth century.
The 520AD raid on the lower Rhine, as described in the Liber Monstrorum, was headed by the rex Getarum or “king of the Geats,” making it probable that the Geats are the Gautar of Old Norse literature, the people of Gotaland in southern Sweden. Procopius from the sixth century speaks of the Gotar in Scandinavia as a very numerous nation (Ward 12).
The hero of the poem, Beowulf himself, may be the same person as Bo[char]varr Biarki, the chief of Hrolfr Kraki’s knights. In Hrolfs Saga Kraka, Biarki comes to the Danish royal residence from Gotaland where his brother was king. Shortly after his arrival he killed an animal demon (a bear according to Saxo), which used to attack the king’s farmyard at Yule.Biarki’s method of fighting was similar to Beouwulf’s. Another Scandinavian story, Grettis Saga, whose author died in 1031, presents the hero as destroying two demons, male and female, with many other resemblances between the two stories: the character of the demons, their habitat, the hero’s approach.
Archaeological excavations in Yeavering in Bernicia, the northernmost Anglo-Saxon kingdom, have uncovered evidence of a complex of seven large structures surrounded by eleven smaller structures - the royal villa mentioned by Bede of a seventh century English king (Cramp 132). Each of four of the halls are nearly one hundred feet in length, two with porches and two elaborately buttressed. The eleven surrounding halls were mostly the private halls of noble retainers. They were constructed by artisans of heavy planking and were truly magnificent. Heorot is described by the poet as: “greatest of hall-buildings;” “the hall towered high;” “many peoples … should adorn this nation’s hall;” “the high timbers” etc. Is the resemblance not obvious?
Now let us consider the other side of the coine – the mythical, fantastic, marvelous side. Is there any truth to the charge that the world of Beowulf is a never-never land created by the poet?
In Beowulf the hero is in deadly combat with Grendel’s mother in the mere. He is at the point of being killed by the monster when suddenly God shows to him the presence of a special sword nearby on the wall:
Then he saw among the armor a victory-bright blade
made by the giants, an uncracking edge,
an honor for its bearer, the best of weapons,
but longer and heavier than any other man
could have ever carried in the play of war-strokes,
ornamented, burnished, the work of giants (1557ff.)
Beowulf seizes the great weapon, made by the giants prior to the great Flood – a fantastic appeal to our imaginations - and kills the monster. Then:
had begun to melt in battle-bloody icicles;
that it melted away was as much a marvel
as ice itself when the Father unwinds
the bonds of frost, loosens the freezing
chains of water, Who keeps the power
of times and seasons; He is the true God. . . .
Already the sword had melted away,
its blade had burned up; too hot the blood
of the poisonous spirit who had died within. . . .
the wave-sword burned up, quenched in that blood (1605ff.)
A sword blade melting in the blood of its victim? Reality or fantasy? T.A. Shippey in his essay “The World of the Poem” says: “Of course the poet also delights in deliberate fantasy, in things which never happened and never could” (46). George Clark in “The War against the Monsters” calls the melting of the sword a “supernatural or extraordinary event” (104). The poet continues with the sword:
then the strange gold hilt was placed in the hand
of the gray-bearded king, wise war-leader
old work of giants. . . .
On its bright gold facings there were also runes
set down in order, engraved, inlaid,
which told for whom the sword was first worked,
its hair-keen edges, twisted gold
scrolled in the hilt, the woven snake blade(1677ff).
Chickering in his “Commentary” would have us believe that the melting sword is a reference to patristic theology, to St. Augustine’s conception of evil as ice as presented in his comments on Psalm 125 (341). I, however, tend to think that that interpretation would have been too difficult an allusion for the Anglo-Saxon audience to grasp. I simply think that the melting blade is a manifestation of the myth or fantasy associated with the sword, and further evinced through the runes on the hilt.
The fantasy is further seen in the hero’s swimming into the mere in helmet and chain mail. This is the same dress, plus sword, which Beowulf wore when he swam for “seven nights” in the open seas competing with Breca. Unferth, King Hrothgar’s counselor, asks:
“Are you the same Beowulf who challenged Breca
to a swimming match on the open sea?
There out of pride you both tested sea-ways,
through foolish boasting risked lives on the deep.
None could dissuade you, friend or foe,
keep either of you from that hapless trip,
when you went swimming out of the bay,
your arms embracing the crests, sea-currents,
flung out your hands to measure the sea-roads,
the ocean of wind. The steep seas boiled
in winter’s pourings. You both toiled seven nights
driven by the waves, and in that swimming
he overcame you, had greater strength.(499ff.)
During the Breca episode Beowulf slew nine, yes nine sea-monsters, with his sword. Could any myth or fantasy ask for more than nine monster-combats in one episode? Brian Wilkie in “Beowulf” in Literature of the Western World states:
. . . in the foreground is clearly fabulous material. Beowulf himself is part realistic Germanic warrior, part fairy-tale hero, with his supernatural strength and his ability to hold his breath under water for an entire day. . .(1272)
Shippey considers also as fantastic: (1) the robber stepping cautiously past the sleeping dragon’s head; and (2) the monster’s dream of banquet on the sea bottom (46). How could a hall be located underneath the water in the depths of the mere? How could there be lighting in this giant hall: “Then the cave-light shone out, a gleam from within, even as from heaven comes the shining light of God’s candle” (1570ff.). Is it fantasy or supernatural involvement?
Another point of mythology or fantasy in Beowulf is the monsters. Eating 30 warriors the first night and more the second, Grendel exhibits an appetite that is beyond realistic parameters. And the fiery dragon which flies about the sky at night obviously contradicts the law of gravity. Breathing out fire from flesh and bone nostrils is, of course, a violation of the laws of physics and nature. The monsters manifest supernatural qualities as they pit flesh and bone against iron weaponry, which, in a realistic scenario, would spell their immediate, unequivocal death. Shippey asks: “Why did the Beowulf poet, obviously a sophisticated artist, choose to center his epic upon three fairy-tale monsters” (1272-73)? In “Traditions and the Poem” George Clark has an answer to one of the three choices:
If we take Beowulf as a myth transformed into a heroic story (rather than as a folktale raised to heroic status), Thor might seem a reasonable model for Beowulf. Thor will fight his great enemy at the end of the world, still defending mankind from the forces of chaos and old night, and, like Beowulf, will kill his dragon and die dragon-poisoned (29).
So fantastic myth stands behind what reality will not support in the minds of the audience. In “Myth and History” John D. Niles asks: “Levi-Strauss’s question has an obverse side – ‘Where does history end and where does mythology start?’ – that is worth posing for its bearing on the poem’s main plot” (217). The poem’s putatively historical elements have been taken as factual, giving the appearances of realism to unrealistic elements.
Ian Duncan in his “Epitaphs for Aeglaecan: Narrative Strife in Beowulf” states regarding the juxtapositon of mythology and history in the poem:
If the contest of narratives has a theme, it is the failure of the mythic and imaginary mode to resolve or contain what turns out to be privileged as the mode of historical reality. To reify, externalize, mythologize our own tendencies as heroes and monsters, cancelling each other in a metaphysical arena outside time and history, is to seek refuge in a symbolic solution which here does not refuse the grim and poignant knowledge that time and history will resume, that time and history are always present to inscribe the mythic agon with the recognition of its own impossibility (119-20).
In 1994 James W. Earl found that Beowulf mourns the loss of the heroic age by appropriating the mythic eschatology of the Germanic peoples and historicizing it through the story of the Geats’ destruction. Historisized mythology. In 1989 R.D. Fulk connected some characters to Old Norse myth and to Finno-Ugric agricultural myth. In 1984 Helen Damico found that Wealhtheow is a reflex of the Old Norse mythological figure of the Valkyrie. In 1982 Paul C. Bauschatz argued that the banqueting scenes in Beowulf recall primal myths of the Norns’ nurturing functions. (Niles 215)
So we see that the world of Beowulf is in many important ways a never-never land created by the poet and by mythology. But these fictional creatures possess much realism because they are couched in an historic context that the audience is quite familiar with and quite accepting of.
Chickering, Howell D.. Beowulf A dual-Language Edition. New York: Anchor Books, 1977.
Clark, George. “The War against the Monsters” In Beowulf. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1990.
Clark, George. “Traditions and the Poem.” In Beowulf. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1990.
Cramp, Rosemary. “Beowulf and Archaeology.” In TheBeowulf Poet, edited by Donald K. Fry. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1968.
Duncan, Ian. “Epitaphs for Aeglaecan: Narrative Strife in Beowulf” In Beowulf – Modern Critical Interpretations, edited by Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987.
Frank, Roberta. “The Beowulf Poet’s Sense of History.” In Beowulf – Modern Critical Interpretations, edited by Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987.
Shippey, T.A.. “The World of the Poem.” In Beowulf – Modern Critical Interpretations, edited by Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987.
Ward & Trent, et al. The Cambridge History of English and American Literature. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1907–21; New York: Bartleby.com, 2000
Wilkie, Brian. “Beowulf.” Literature of the Western World, edited by Brian Wilkie and James Hurt. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1984.
Wright, David. “The Digressions in Beowulf.” In Readings on Beowulf, edited by Stephen P. Thompson. San Diego: Greenhaven Press,1998.