I’m not alone in the belief that the epic poem “Beowulf” is among the greatest legends ever written in the English language. Many are the giants of English literature who have dissected it to unravel its secrets, not least among them being J.R.R. Tolkien, whose works of fiction were heavily inspired by the Beowulf saga. Tolkien was a professor of Anglo-Saxon and an expert on the topic of epic literature, and he’s largely credited with popularizing the legend of Beowulf, which many scholars previously regarded as being little more than a childish monster story.
This article is the first of a three-part series that gives an overview of the narrative, some critical background information, and an analysis of the lessons we can learn by studying Beowulf through the lens of masculine psychology. In the third part of this series, I delve deeper into the intimidating mere of the myth that many consider to be England’s National Epic by interpreting the themes and devices that make this thousand-year-old myth relevant to the modern man.
But before we dig into the myth itself, we must do our homework and learn a bit of history. The story’s set in approximately the 5th to 8th century C.E. All the events in the tale occur in Scandinavia, but it’s not a Scandinavian myth. It was passed down orally by skalds (storytellers) until it was finally committed to parchment by two different Christian monks around 1000 C.E in the Anglo-Saxon lands of what is now known as England. The Anglo-Saxons were a diverse collective of several Germanic tribes who had migrated to Britain from their homelands in Northern Europe due to overpopulation and a changing climate which rendered the lands of their ancestors inhospitable. Beowulf’s story is thus the product of immigrants looking back into their past to reminisce about their ancestral homelands. It’s not hard to imagine such a people’s mindset and understand how their nostalgic fondness for history was reflected in their songs and stories. As far as we know, there was only ever one single version of the tale which had ever been written down. This parchment eventually found itself in the library of Sir Robert Bruce Cotton at the ironically named Ashburnham House, which caught fire and burned down in 1731. During that event, the Beowulf manuscript was damaged, and much of its contents were lost or rendered unreadable. But luckily for us, it survived in sufficiently good condition for us to study and interpret the poem.
There are many ways to interpret the poem:
As a purely pagan legend, passed down through word of mouth by illiterate storytellers until a Christian scribe later wrote it down. This scribe was probably a monk who added some Christian references to promote the Christian faith, which had become predominant throughout Europe and displaced native European religions.
As the work of a Christian scribe, probably a monk, who inserted some Germanic pagan references into the tale to establish its setting as sometime in the heroic past, and also to bridge or perhaps contrast the new Christian faith with the old Germanic Pagan beliefs.
As the work of a scribe who was neither entirely pagan nor Christian, but rather a man who bridged the divide between the two worldviews. Perhaps he was a convert to Christianity or someone whose forebears had been Pagan and who traced the line of his people back into the days of Germanic tribes.
I think that the author was a probably Christian man who deliberately set the story against the backdrop of the Germanic Heroic Age to make it more authentic and appealing. It’s clear from the text that the author was, in fact, sympathetic to the pagan characters in the tale, especially Beowulf, even though many of his fellow Christians at that time would have written them off as being unworthy heathen savages who were condemned to everlasting torment in the belly of their God’s Hell.
To add to our ignorance, we can’t be confident that the story as it’s presented to us by the scribe is, in fact, the way that it was given to the scribe himself. It may be that the tale of Beowulf was to some degree well known among the people of that time, and the scribe merely had to commit the story to paper. However, it may also be that what we call “Beowulf” is, in fact, a collection of legends and fairy-tales which have been fused together into one single narrative revolving around one single hero.
But regardless of the author’s religious preference, it’s significant that the God of the Christians, Christ himself, is never mentioned in the narrative. The only references to biblical scripture are to the Old Testament. The characters of the poem are all Germanic Pagans, as far as we can tell. Even Beowulf, whose speeches make him appear to be the most Christian of the characters, is never confirmed as being so. He often refers to a God or a Lord of all men, but his description of this God is such that Beowulf’s God is identical with the Germanic idea of “Wyrd,” or what we might call “Fate.” Hrothgar comes closest to Monotheism in his speeches but is never stated to be a Christian outright. It wouldn’t make sense for a poem set in 6th century Sweden and Denmark to contain warrior heroes who were anything other than Pagan, as the Christianization of these lands wouldn’t occur until centuries later. It’s clear from the tone of the poem that the author was casting his net back into antiquity in the hopes of conveying some sense of the old Germanic way of life while also trying to remain faithful to the new expansive Christian worldview.
On the topic of language, the Beowulf manuscript was written in the English language, but it would be utterly unreadable for an English-speaker of today. The language is Old English or Anglo-Saxon, which was the primary language of the English peoples circa 1000 C.E. Old English is a cocktail of many Germanic dialects which fused together on the multicultural British mainland and eventually evolved into Modern English as it’s spoken today. The question of language is vital because the only surviving (heavily damaged) manuscript which recounts the story is written in a language that’s incredibly difficult to interpret with any degree of certainty. This means that our knowledge of Beowulf’s deeds, lineage, age, abilities, companions, rule, religion, and degree of historicity is patchy and open to many different interpretations. When dealing with what has been called the “English National Epic,” we must tread carefully, for few things are certain, and the events of the tale are shrouded in a mystery that’s over 1000 years old.
The saga of Beowulf begins with the building of a great Hall in Denmark, commissioned by the Danish King Hrothgar, who is (allegedly) a descendant of the legendary Scyld Scefing. Scyld was a Moses-like character who floated down a river one day as an infant, grew up to be a great warlord, slaughtered all of his people’s enemies
, and passed away in mysterious circumstances. Hrothgar is thus a member of a semi-mythical line of Danish Kings. After coming into power himself, he too experienced great fortune and earned renown as a powerful warlord and a generous King. He is hailed as a “ring-giver,” one who distributes golden rings and ornaments to his subjects so that they might share in the spoils of his reign. This was the model of kingship in the mind of the Anglo-Saxons. They regarded a generous lord as a good lord, and a selfish and mean lord unworthy of their allegiance. Hrothgar was, we are told, “a good king.” He shared his wealth with his people and handed out many gifts. Later he decided to honor himself by building a decadent mead-hall, ornamented with gold and furnished with the highest standards of craftsmanship. He named his hall “Heorot,” and many a merry feast was held within its high walls.
But those who made merry within the walls of Heorot gave little thought to those who dwelt without. One night, the sound of revelry and song carried across the moors and reached the ears of an outsider, one who was not welcomed amongst the dwellings of Danes. Grendel was his name, and some say that Grendel was a huge and malevolent demon, a descendant of Cain who committed the first murder against his own brother, for which his line was cursed. Others say that Grendel was merely a man (though a very strong one) and that he was, for reasons unknown, outcast from Hrothgar’s realm and forced to make his home in the wild, away from human civilization. Whatever the case may be, he was an “Other,” an outsider who lived beyond the walls of the Danish polis and harbored a spiteful grudge against those who made merry inside the hall.
Grendel entered Heorot one night as the Danes lay asleep inside. He grabbed thirty men and placed them in a huge sack. He took the men home to his miserable lair outside of the settlement and presumably had a rather large and gruesome feast. The following night, he struck again and slaughtered more Danes in Heorot, and every night after that, Grendel made the hall his own. It wasn’t long before people began to avoid the hall altogether for fear of the beast. King Hrothgar had to find somewhere else to sleep as he could only rule in Heorot by daylight. For twelve long years, the Danes suffered the incursion of Grendel, the outsider, inside their sacred hall, and the King was powerless to stop him.
But, as is the way of things, word of Grendel’s atrocities spread far across the land and seas until it reached the tribe of Geats in southern Sweden. One of the young Geatish warriors saw in the Dane’s struggle the opportunity to earn great glory and wealth. Beowulf was his name, and it’s said that he possessed the strength of thirty men. At this time, Beowulf was in need of glory, as his elders regarded him as a bit dim-witted and worthless. Though he was the strongest of men, he hadn’t yet proven himself or earned the honor of his peers. So, with fourteen companions, he sailed over the sea to Denmark. A watchman stood guard on the beach upon which Beowulf and his men landed their ship. From a high distant position, the Danish Coastwarden spied a longship full of foreign warriors clad in gleaming war gear. Outnumbered fourteen to one, he took up his spear, mounted his horse, and rode out to question the strange men who so boldly came uninvited to his homeland, dressed for battle. He challenged them sternly and questioned their motives, but he believed Beowulf when he claimed to have landed intending to aid the Danes in their plight with the demon, Grendel. After demonstrating his lineage, worth, and intent several times to doubtful retainers and courtiers, Beowulf found himself stood before Hrothgar, King of the Danes by daylight.
This is where Beowulf revealed himself as a man of worth, a man who backs up his many fine words with deeds of valor. Beowulf greeted Hrothgar in a courtly fashion before introducing himself as the son of Ecgtheow, who owed Hrothgar an outstanding debt since his youth, a debt that Beowulf came to repay on his dead father’s behalf. What follows in the tale is a sequence of events that make up a “Flyting.” Beowulf made a series of boasts concerning his skills as a monster slayer and destroyer of giants, the right man for the task of fighting Grendel. But there was a man in Hrothgar’s court who doubted Beowulf, whose job was to challenge him. Unferth acts as the Thyle in the Danish hall. It was the responsibility of the Thyle in Germanic societies to ascertain whether the men who make extraordinary claims in his lord’s presence could prove true on those claims. Unferth greeted Beowulf in a friendly manner at first, but he quickly turned to insult and question the truth of Beowulf’s boasts.
Unferth called Beowulf’s abilities into question and attempted to publicly disgrace and shame him in front of the Danish King. But his wits were easily bested by Beowulf, who was a master of words. Unferth was revealed to be a kinslayer, like the Biblical Cain, having killed his brother with his ancestral sword. To slay one’s kin, one’s own blood, is the greatest shame a Germanic warrior might bear. But Beowulf didn’t stop at merely shaming Unferth. He publically doubted the masculinity of all living Danish men who hid from Grendel instead of facing the demon like true men. Usually, this kind of insult would earn a foreign warrior death at the hands of his host’s warband, but Hrothgar was no fool and could see the truth in Beowulf’s words. So he gave Beowulf his hall for the night while he sneaked away with the womenfolk to sleep in safer dwellings.
Later, in the dark of night, Grendel came. Smashing the heavy doors of the hall with ease, he snatched the sleeping body of Hondscio, who slept near the door, and chewed him up like grizzled meat in front of his companions. Beowulf studied Grendel, sizing him up as his friend Hodscio was eaten alive. Then he cast aside his weapons and armor. Trusting only in his own strength, he grabbed hold of Grendel’s great arm with his bare hands. At that moment, Grendel felt a terror that he’d never known before. With the strength of thirty men, Beowulf had such a hold of the monster that he couldn’t shake loose from his grip. They wrestled in such a fury that the entire hall was broken and barely left standing.
Eventually, Grendel decided to flee. But still, the Geatish warrior had a grip on his arm and would not relent. Beowulf had seized his chance for eternal glory, and he would die sooner than he let it escape his grasp. The monster’s shoulder joint gave way first, then his sinews and flesh. Beowulf tore Grendel’s arm from his still-living body, and the monster’s blood blackened the stones of Heorot. Now missing one arm, he fled back through the door into the black night to his den in the marshes, where he lay down and gave up his miserable life.
In the morning, the King awoke to witness the severed arm of Grendel hanging from the roof of his hall. The Danes rejoiced that their curse was lifted. The court poet composed songs in Beowulf’s honor, and Hrothgar gifted him with vast amounts of wealth, even going so far as to adopt hi
m as a son (even though he already had sons, as his wife gently reminded him). Even Unferth was a bit more friendly to the Geats, and he gives Beowulf his ancestral sword, named Hrunting. Presumably, this was the sword that Unferth used to kill his brother, and as such, it was a cursed kinslaying blade that any man would be sensible to get rid of. As the feast raged on, the Danes became worried that Beowulf’s band of drunken Geatish warriors might decide that they liked Danish mead a little too much and usurp the throne by force. But, spurred on by Wealtheow, Hrothgar’s wife, the Geats proclaimed that they would leave the following day. Then everyone passed out drunk and crawled off to some bed or bench.
But when morning came, Beowulf and his men didn’t leave, for the rising sun revealed that his work was not yet complete. In the deep darkness of the night, another demon had crept into the hall, which housed the sleeping Danish men. Grendel’s mother (even monsters must have mothers), maddened with grief at her son’s murder, seized up one of King Hrothgar’s most trusted friends and dragged him away to her den. As we might expect from an aged old king who had been bent by age and weakness, Hrothgar’s grief was profound. He summons Beowulf and reveals not only that there was a second monster assaulting the hall, but surprisingly, that he also knew about Grendel’s mother’s existence and that he would lead Beowulf to her lair. Well, Beowulf didn’t care if he had to double his glory by slaying a second foe, so he agreed to meet Hrothgar’s challenge. But first, he told the aged King to get a grip of himself:
“Grieve not. Better is it for a man to avenge his friends rather than to lament overmuch. To each of us comes the end of life, but let him who can earn glory before his death.”
Wise words, and as is usual with Beowulf, he followed swiftly with action. The Danes led the party of Geats to the monster’s cave. In the cave was a deep pool filled with serpents and sea dragons. Beowulf kept his armor on this time and his helmet too. At his hip, he carried Hrunting the kinslaying blade which Unferth gifted him after the slaying of Grendel. After the customary boast, down he dived into the deep mere. Here we find more evidence of Beowulf’s superhuman ability. He seemed to breathe underwater as well as he did on land. Down to the murky depths of the pool, he delved and wrestled with Grendel’s mother in a cavern. She slashed at him with her claws and stabbed him with some cursed dagger, but his armor protected him. Hrunting, the sword of Unferth the kinslayer, failed Beowulf then when he needed it most. As he struck at the monster with the blade, it did no damage, and the hero’s sword failed him, not for the last time.
It should be noted that the sea-hag is descended from Cain, the kinslayer. It’s possible that a kinslaying weapon would make no wound upon those who bore the curse of kinslaying on their souls, but this is mere speculation on my part.
He grappled with her then in the same manner as he grappled with her son Grendel. She proved to be an equal match for Beowulf’s strength, and he almost met his end in the sea hag’s den. But then he spied in the cave a massive sword, engraved with runes of victory. It was no mere human weapon but the work of ancient giants. Grasping the blade with two hands, he struck the monster on the neck and beheaded her. As he composed himself after his fiercest battle to date, he stumbled upon the body of Grendel. The Geatish hero tended to take trophies after his victories, and so he severed Grendel’s head with the giant’s blade. However, for some reason, he didn’t take a trophy from Grendel’s mother. This is strange, considering he already had a trophy from Grendel in the form of his arm hanging from the roof of Heorot.
When Beowulf eventually swam back out of the mere and returned to shore, his comrades were greatly relieved to see him. The Danes had long since given him up for dead and returned to Heorot, but the Geats remained loyal to him and awaited his return. It took four men to carry Grendel’s head back to the hall, so great was its size. The Geats arrived back at the settlement to find the ignoble Danes feasting and drinking, as usual. Hrothgar then delivered a famous and long-winded sermon to Beowulf on the dangers of a man allowing his pride to blind him to the harsh truth of reality. He saw in Beowulf a man who would go on to achieve greatness beyond imagination and warned him to stay true to himself and his people. Using the example of his own rise to greatness and fall into degeneracy and frailty, Hrothgar implored Beowulf to remember that he would one day have to repay the gods for the good fortune they bestowed on him:
“Now for a while thy valour is in flower. But soon it will be that sickness or a sword or the fire’s touch or the water’s embrace or the shaft of spear or even dreadful old age will rob thee of thy might. Or the fire in thine eyes will fail and fade. One day it will be that thee, proud warrior, shall be by death laid low.”
In typical Danish fashion, what followed was more feasting and gift-giving and speech making to commemorate the foreign heroes and their captain’s glorious deeds. When the dawn came, the Geats packed up and prepared to return home. Hrothgar pledged to end the long-standing feud between the Geats and the Danes and swore an alliance between the two peoples because of Beowulf’s heroism. The watchman on the shore once again greeted the Geatish warband, but this time in a much friendlier manner. Before boarding his boat, Beowulf gifted a fine sword to the watchman as a gift. I think the sword that he gave away was Unferth’s blade, Hrunting, which was used in the act of kinslaying and which also failed Beowulf during his combat with the sea-hag. What man would wish to keep such an accursed blade? Upon returning to Geatland over the sea, he met King Hygelac and his wife, Hygd. Hygelac, who was secure in his house and chiefest among his champions, is thus contrasted with Hrothgar, who had to flee his own hall each night before the coming of Grendel. Beowulf formally addressed his lord and very modestly recounted the tales of his adventure. Though he had seen much of the hasty and drunken Danes and their feeble King, he didn’t criticize them to Hygelac. It’s better not to speak ill of one’s new allies. In a show of Germanic loyalty, Beowulf gifted most of his acquired treasure and wealth to Hygelac, keeping little of it for himself. Hygelac, being a good King, would be expected to distribute the wealth that Beowulf has brought home to his subjects justly and generously. This was the Germanic code. The warrior owed allegiance and tribute to his lord and King, whose duty was to give gifts and improve the fortunes of his loyal subjects. That, to the mind of the Anglo-Saxon, was a good King.
Before he left for Denmark to hunt Grendel, Beowulf was regarded as unworthy by the men of his tribe. He ate and drank his mead at the back of the mead hall, amongst those who had not disti
nguished themselves. He was thought to be a sluggard, lazy, clumsy, and lacked the respect of his companions. But by his own hand and courage, Beowulf returned to his people as a champion and a hero. He forever altered his fate by setting sail in search of glory while others stayed at home. Hygelac, good King that he was, gifted Beowulf with a fine hall on a vast tract of land. From a penniless wastrel to a landowning nobleman in the space of a few days, a man might gain much by venturing forth resolved to win or die.
This point in our tale marks a significant transition. We have seen young Beowulf, the superhuman warrior who had not yet earned any fame, venture out into the world in search of adventure. He triumphed and earned himself a place at the table with his King. But this was not the end of the tale of Beowulf. The poem continues to recount the battles and glories that the Geatish hero would achieve in old age, which will be covered in the other essays in this three-part series.
From words to deeds and from youth to age, this is a tale of balance. Hrothgar’s warning to Beowulf was to pay attention to the cyclical nature of life and fortune.
Fortune is a great wheel upon which every man sits. The wheel spins, sometimes fast and sometimes slow. Often a man seems to rise to the top of fortune’s wheel and win some glory or prize like the young Geatish hero in our story. But always the wheel turns, and the man who today is at the top will tomorrow be down at the lowest point of the cycle, in the mud and filth. There he will either fall away into obscurity or ride the wheel to the top again and witness new victories.
In this article, I have discussed Beowulf’s rise to fame and his waxing strength, but the rest of this examination of Beowulf deals with the waning of his power, his descent from living glory into legend, and the psychological insights that modern readers like you and I can gain by studying this fascinating myth. To read the rest of this series, check out my book “Unchaining The Titan: Collected Essays,” available on Amazon and in the WOODKERN Store.