Background Information

Beowulf Background Information


One of the most fascinating Epics or Hero Myths I have been obsessed with in the last few years is the absorbing tale of BEOWULF. Beowulf has no one author to it since it was passed down from bard to bard in those very remote ages of the far past. I am sure that if you take your time to read this Epic and follow the development of the events, you will also be captivated by the magical and mystical atmosphere throughout the entire narration. It is prudent at times to consult your dictionary or the materials I have provided for you here so as to not miss a single detail if possible. Gradual reading and visualizing of the story will fill you with the excitement and fascination of that far-off era, long, long past. But, if you like the "Castles and Dragons" kind of experience, I guarantee you will enjoy and later appreciate this fantastic tale, manifested into Time just when the Danish and Germanic occupations of Celtic Britannia (Britain) were beginning to take place. But, to be able to truly fill your understanding of the greatness of the tale and the peoples who were there to make it crystallize historically into chronicled events, it is advisable, indeed compulsory, to extend your interests into the study of the factual and cultural knowledge offered here through the sections and documents of background information I have compiled or created myself for you. An understanding of the beginnings of the English people and Language are most fascinating and necessary to the full experience of BEOWULF.



BEOWULF comes from the OLD ENGLISH or ANGLO-SAXON Literary and Historical period of what was then ancient Britannia. This period of Old English extends from about 450 to 1066, the year of the Norman-French conquest of England led by William of Normandy (later to be known as William the Conqueror). The Germanic tribes from Europe who overran England in the second half of the fifth century AD, right after the Romans retreated from Britannia, brought with them the Old English, or, rather, the Angle, Saxon, and Jute interrelated tongues which combined and merged into ANGLO-SAXON, which in turn is also the basis of Modern English (see The English Language). They brought also a unique and specific poetic form and tradition, the formal character of which remained surprisingly constant until the end of their rule by the Norman-French invaders six centuries later (on September 28, 10666, to be exact).

Much of Old English poetry was probably intended to be chanted, with harp accompaniment, by the Anglo-Saxon scop, or bard of the times. Often bold and strong, but also mournful and elegiac in spirit, this poetry emphasizes the sorrow and ultimate futility of life and the helplessness of humans before the power of fate and the natural forces. Almost all this poetry is composed without rhyme, in a characteristic line, or verse, of four stressed syllables alternating with an indeterminate number of unstressed ones. This line strikes strangely on ears habituated to the usual modern rythmical pattern, in which the rythmical unit, or foot, theoretically consists of a constant number (either one or two) of unaccented syllables that always precede or follow any stressed syllable. Another unfamiliar but equally striking and most prominent feature in the formal character of Old English poetry is structural alliteration, or the use of syllables beginning with similar sounds in two or three of the stresses in each line.

All these qualities of form and spirit are exemplified in the epic poem Beowulf, written somewhere within the 8th century -- beginning and ending with the funeral of the great Danish king Hroðgar. Composed against a background of impending disaster, it describes the exploits of a Scandinavian culture hero, Beowulf, in destroying the monster Grendel, Grendel's mother in his youth, and later in his elderly existence, a fire-breathing dragon. In these sequences Beowulf is shown not only as a glorious hero, but as a savior of the people. The Old Germanic virtue of mutual loyalty between leader and followers is evoked effectively and touchingly in the aged Beowulf's sacrifice of his life and in the reproaches heaped on the retainers who desert him in this tragic but climactic second battle. The extraordinary artistry with which fragments of other heroic tales are incorporated to highten the main action, and "with which the whole plot is reduced to symmetry," has only recently been fully recognized.

Another feature of Beowulf is the weakening of the sense of the ultimate power of arbitrary fate. The injection of the Christian idea of dependence on a just God is evident in the epic. [That feature is typical of other Old English literature, for almost all of what survives was preserved by monastic copyists. Most of it was actually composed by religious writers after the early conversion of the people from their faith in the older Germanic divinities.]

The manuscript, written in Old English, has a different grammatical system, very different from Modern English grammar. Old English, as was Latin, was a more complex language marked by much inflection: that is, affixes on a root word can stand in for function words like pronouns, so that a noun like "stow" will indicate its grammatical place in a sentence or clause by a series of endings: "... nis Þaet heoru stow!" (That is not a pleasant place!); or "He het þa þa stowe Dominus videt" (He named that place Dominus videt; or "on manegum stowum" (in many places). In an Old English sentence, especially in the poetry, syntax (the grammatical order of words) was much more fluid than in Modern English. Finall, in the questions of spelling, the Anglo-saxon alphabet contains some unfamiliar symbols (letters) derived from ancient runes (symbols of Old Runic - Futhark).

The translation of such a language thus seems far removed from what we experience as Modern English nowadays. The telling and retelling of the narration of Beowulf constrained the invention of mnemonic devices which made Beowulf a unique piece of writing when it was finally set down on paper. Thus, very uniqe verbal and poetic patterns evolved through centuries, finalizing into a poetic form which has fortunately been preserved and handed down to us. In Beowulf and other Old English poems of the times, dramatic effect was always accomplished through the use of such devices in the actual oral performance. Technically speaking, then, when such form of poetry is written down, it is neither completely oral nor graphic, yet, it translates into an awe-inspiring experience and beautiful tale. Such is the experience with Beowulf.

"Within the poem, no distinction is made between myth and history, although it is now read as though it were 'history with fabulous elements' or 'myth with some correspondence to fact.' Beowulf cannot accurately be described as fiction or fact. It is a kind of narrative comprised of analogical episodes, people, creatures more or less human, praise, blame, lyrical moments, grim comedy and even grimmer tragedy." (Savage)

"The poem makes an icon of a former age, constructed as such very consciously by a maker of poems, literate, somewhat literate or not at all literate, from familiar elements in this particular way. Analogies are built which bridge the preChristian and Christian Germanic worlds, by making the characters in the poem noble, monotheistic preChristians, for an audience of Christian Germanic people; the poem is not anachronistic, and is, even in our terms, accurately placed according to 'history.' It is a story about 'those others who were ourselves'." (Savage)

The Geats

The Geats were Beowulf's clan - a seafaring tribe residing in the south of Sweden. As the poem suggests, the Geats appear to have been conquered and disappeared into history. The seafaring Geats appear to be the invading `Danes' of whom Gregory of Tours writes concerning an attack by Chlochilaicus (Hygelac) against the Franks in 520. Later they were connected to the Gautar people who were eventually subjugated by the Swedes in territory inland of Sweden.

Given this history, F.R. Klaeber speculates that Beowulf himself was born in about the year 495. He defeats Grendel and his mother to save Hroðgar's kingdom in 515. Following Hygelac's raid in 520, he eventually becomes king of the Geats when Heardred was killed in 533. Fifty years after that, the poem says that Beowulf is killed by the dragon, but few scholars are willing to commit to any specific date.

The Geats are referred to as the Geatas, Guð-Geatas (War-), the Sæ-Geatas (Sea-), and the Weder-Geatas (Weather-).

The Geats Family Tree

The Geats Royal Family :

Geats Places and Objects :

The Brodingas :
Breca of the Brodingas had the contest with Beowulf when they were young. Their contest is told of at Hroðgar's hall (*VIII).

The Danes

The Danes were residents of Denmark. Hroðgar's Heorot is likely to have been located on the island of Sjaelland near the present day city of Roskilde.

The Scylding line is known through Scandinavian and Anglo-Saxon sources; the Anglo-Saxon king Cnut (1016-1042, a period coincident with the composition of the Beowulf manuscript) is known to have descended from this line. The poem Widsið, with its catalogue of Germanic kings, list Hroðgar and Hroðulf as co-rulers of the Danes at Heorot, and of the marriage arrangement with Ingeld of the Heaðo-Bards.

The Danes are referred to as the Dena, Beorht-Dena (Bright-), Gar-Dena (Spear-), Hring-Dena (Ring-, Corselet-), East-Dena, Norð-Dena (North-), Suð-Dena (South-), West-Dena, Scyldings (Sons of Scyld), Ar-Scyldingas (Honour-), Here-Scyldingas (Army-), Sige-Scyldingas (Victory-), Þeod-Scyldingas (People-), and Ingwines (Ing's Friends).

The Danish Family Tree

Members of the Danish Clan :

Members of the Danish Royal Family:

Danish Places and Objects :

The Heaðo-Bards :
The Heaðo-Bards were a Germanic tribe who were at war with the Danes. Hroðgar had given his daughter Freawaru to the Heaðo-Bard leader's son, Ingeld, as a pact of peace. But, war between then broke out once again and is recounted in the poem Widsið.

The Swedes

The Swedes lived in Sweden north of the Vaner and Volter lakes, north of the Geats. Archaeology in Sweden reveals the grave mounds of Ongenþeow who was buried in 510-515, and his grandson Eadgils, buried in 575. These dates correspond with the events described in Beowulf.

Known as the Sweon (Swedes), the Scylfingas (Sons of Scylf), Guð-Scylfingas (War-), and Heaðo-Scylfingas (War-).

The Swedish Family Tree

The Swedish Royal Family :

The Fight at Finnsburh

The fragment of the Finnsburh poem and the Finnsburh reference in Beowulf somewhat overlap. The song sung during the celebration at Heorot follows the events described in the poem. This overlap in narratives is one reason why these two works are studied together.

The original manuscript of the Fight at Finnsburh is now lost, but it is known to have existed on a single leaf in the Lambeth Palace Library, page 489. The text was published in a transcription made by George Hikes in 1705.

The Fight at Finnsburh is an example of a typical Germanic `heroic lay' describing warriors' deeds in battle and the speeches of significant warriors during the battle. The poem resembles others of the same genre such as The Battle of Maldon, and is quite different from the epic form of Beowulf.

Beowulf is the only poem that associates the parties involved as Danes and Frisians.

The Healf-Denes:

The Frisians:


Grendel Illustrated

Grendel was a monster, one of a giant race which survived the great flood, slain by Beowulf. It is told that his origins stretch back to Cain, who killed Abel. He is of particular cause of trouble to Hrothgar because of his disregard for law and custom: he refuses to negotiate a peace settlement or to accept tributes of gold.

There is reference to "Grendel's Mere", "Grendel's Pit" and "Grendel's Peck" in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. The references seem to collaborate the underground or water lair of the Beowulf epic, but it is unclear what the true origins of these names were.

Grendel's mother is supposedly a smaller creature than her son. She is a vengeful creature who illustrates the constant cycle of war in the poem, even when the enemy appears to be defeated.

As part of a mythical giant race, both Grendel and his mother appear impervious to normal swords, hence the difficulty the Danes must have had in trying to deal with them. Beowulf eventually finds a sword forged by the giants themselves in order to defeat them, but their blood runs hot enough to melt even that blade.

Beowulf Historical Background

The Authorship of Beowulf

The author did not sign and date the manuscript, and no records were kept of when the poem was written. Given the lack of information pointing to the origins of the poem, scholars must deduce the text's history by the artifact that exists. But why study the authorship of the poem? Colin Chase summarizes the reasons for this quest in the prologue of the collection The Dating of Beowulf:

"The date of Beowulf, debated for almost a century, is a small question with large consequences. Does the poem provide us with an accurate if idealized view of early Germanic Culture? Or is it rather a creature of nostalgia and imagination, born of the desire of a later age to create for itself a glorious past? If we cannot decide when, between the fifth and the eleventh centuries, the poem was composed, we cannot distinguish what elements in Beowulf belong properly to the history of material culture, to the history of myth and legend, to political history, or to the development of the English literary imagination.

The quickest and easiest assumption about the origins of the poem is that it was an oral poem that was eventually transcribed and has since been passed down in the form of the manuscript. Scholars have presumed to study the poem as if it were Classical, and find much difficulty in the non-continuous narrative and the unfamilliar form. Allen Frantzen, in `Writing the Unreadable Beowulf', is uncomfortable with the way a tradition may be imposed by `canonical' editions such as the Norton Anthology; he is also critical of the quest to find a single author of the `pure' poem. Instead, he is looking for the gaps in the text that indicate to him that it had been constantly rewritten to suit the culture of that time. In effect, there may have been so many authors spanned the six centuries that the authorship remains in question; the rewriting of Beowulf continues in the postmodern period. Seamus Heaney's poetic translation is the latest.

The Audience

Paull F. Baum finds a "literary vacuum without historical perspective" when the authorship and purpose of the poem remains in question. In The Beowulf Poet he suggests that a single author had combined two folk stories with some historical events as a backdrop and some Christian doctrine to create a new form of heroic epic, or as Tolkien suggests, an "heroic-elegaic" poem. Baum even goes so far as to hypothesize an eighth-century female author of the poem as explanation for their pronounced roles, and for the lack of gory fighting (compared with the Finnsburh Fragment). The brief historical digressions and Christian coloring suggest an audience familiar with those ideas and events in the late eighth century. With the difficult language and sometimes obscure references, his conclusion is that the poem may have been a collection of folk lore and history, but intended for a small audience.

It seems clear that the origin of Beowulf stems from a mix of Scandinavian, Germanic, and Anglian influences. What is consistently unclear is which of these audiences the poem was intended for. As a story of Danes, Geats, and Swedes, one might suppose that the poem was of Scandinavian origin, finally written down in England, but there is no reference to the characters in Scandinavian lore.

Perhaps looking closely at the artifact that is Beowulf itself, the manuscript, can shed light on the authorship of the poem. Kevin S. Kiernan suggests an eleventh century origin, and that the single extant manuscript is, in fact, the first composition of the poem in his book Beowulf and the Beowulf Manuscript and summarized in his essay The Eleventh-Century Origin of Beowulf and the Beowulf Manuscript. Noting the efforts taken by the second scribe of the MS in proofreading and correcting the text of Beowulf and not the rest of the Nowell Codex, Kiernan begins to figure that the composition of the text is not a mere copy of some earlier manuscript, but the original. An abrupt shift from one scribe to the next on folio 174v suggests that two distinct poems may have been combined at the last minute.

What is most striking about the manuscript is the digression from the 20-line grid of the rest of the codex starting from folio 163 until the end of the poem. Kiernan speculates that the second scribe had completed his last two gatherings of pages before the first scribe, thus requiring him to fit more per folio than he had started with. Kiernan concludes that this is a result of two scribes trying to integrate two previously unrelated texts together. Leonard Boyle's article Beowulf and the Nowell Codex, argues that both scribes were working in concert while the Beowulf section of the Nowell Codex was some 36 lines of text unsynchronized with the manuscript they were copying; thus the discrepancies attempt to fix the foliation in terms of the whole codex.

Boyle also notes the alteration of fitt numbers could either be a mistake on the first scribe's part, or that a fitt had been deliberately omitted while copying. With fitt XXIIII missing on the manuscript, a later scribe had chosen to correct this by altering fitts XXIIII through XXVIIII. Boyle also suggests that the fitts may have recieved their numbering for the first time on this manuscript. Kiernan takes this suggestion as further proof of the authorship being contemporary with the manuscript.

Relevant Bibliography

Baum, P.F. "The Beowulf Poet" in An Anthology of Beowulf Criticism. University of Notre Dame Press. 1963.

Boyle, L. "Beowulf and the Nowell Codex" in The Dating of Beowulf, University of Toronto Press, 1997.

Chase, C. The Dating of Beowulf, University of Toronto Press, 1997.

Frantzen, A.J. "Writing the Unreadable Beowulf" in Desire for Origins. Rutgers University Press. 1990.

Kiernan, K.S. Beowulf and the Beowulf Manuscript. Rutgers University Press, 1981.

Kiernan, K.S. "The Eleventh Century Origin of Beowulf and the Beowulf Manuscript" in The Dating of Beowulf, University of Toronto Press, 1997.

Anonymous, Beowulf Klaeber, F.R. ed. D.C. Heath & Co. 1950.

The Beowulf Manuscript

There is one manuscript in which Beowulf has survived to the present day. The earliest known owner of the manuscript is an early Anglo-Saxon scholar known as Laurence Nowell, Dean of Lichfield. Some time later, it entered into the manuscript collection of Sir Robert Bruce Cotton (1571-1631) and was shelved under the bust of Roman Emperor Aulus Vitellius shelf A, position 15; hence the name Cotton Vitellius A. xv. It is a composite manuscript consisting of two codices (the Southwick Codex and the Nowell Codex) and nine different works between them. Beowulf follows three prose works in the Nowell Codex and precedes the poem Judith.

Cotton Vitellius A. xv.
The Southwick Codex
1 - The Soliloquia of St. Augustine
2 - The Gospel of Nicodemus
3 - The Debate of Solomon and Saturn
4 - St. Quintin Homily (ending lost)
The Nowell Codex
1 - The Life of St. Christopher (beginning lost)
2 - The Wonders of the East
3 - Alexander's Letter to Aristotle
4 - Beowulf
5 - Judith

In 1700, Cotton's collection was donated to the British people. By 1722, Cotton's house had deteriorated and the collection was moved to Essex House in Strand. Seven years later, it was moved again to Ashburnham House in Westminster. In 1731, Ashburnham House caught fire. Cotton Vitellius A. xv. was badly burned around the edges when it was saved by being thrown from the window with many other manuscripts.

G.J. Thorkelin, an Anglo-Saxonist from Iceland, and a hired scribe made two transcripts of Beowulf in 1787. It was not until the next century that the British Museum went about systematically repairing the books damaged by the fire. By that time, much of the text of Beowulf had crumbled away from the edges of the pages. By 1845, Cotton Vitellius A. xv. was rebound mounted on paper frames that help slow the deterioration of the edges of the pages. In 1882, Julius Zupitza produced a black-and-white facsimile and transcription of Beowulf, followed by Kemp Malone's in 1969. In 1990, work on the Electronic Beowulf, a collection of high quality digitizations with fiber-optic and ultra-violet lighting headed by Kevin Kiernan, continues at the British Library and the University of Kentucky.

When the 1969 edition of Zupitza's facsimiles went to press, the manuscript measured 195 mm high by 115-130 mm wide with a written area 175 mm high by 105 mm wide.

On the whole, the manuscript remains fairly readable, but some folios in particular had seen much neglect. Folio 179/182 is argued to be palimpsest, that is, it had been erased in preparation for reuse or revision. Here is a fragment from a preliminary scan from the Electronic Beowulf project:

Manuscript Fragment

Fig: Beowulf Manuscript Fragment

This fragment actually corresponds to what appears to be the description of the dragon. It is possible that we may never know what an Anglo-Saxon dragon would have looked like.

Some disagreement arises over the foliation, or page numbering, of Cotton Vitellius A. xv. Evidence shows that this has been attempted at least six times. At least two attempts were made before the fire of 1731, which have since burned away. The subsequent four attempts can be found on the outside corners of the manuscript, and on the paper frames. Two numbering schemes persist as more canonical. The manuscript foliation, performed sometime between 1793 and 1801, was done with two quires of the Nowell Codex out of order, and two folios of Beowulf out of place. The official foliation done in 1884 corrects these errors, but becomes somewhat problematic when converting between the two systems. The following table illustrates them:

Old Foliation
Official Foliation
129, 130 132, 122
132 to 146 134 to 148
131 149
147 to 188 150 to 191
197 192
189 to 196 193 to 200
198 201

Cotton Vitelius A. xv. was assembled in gatherings or quires of three to six vellum leaves tied together with thread. Following the fire damage and subsequent remounting of the manuscript, it is not longer possible to be certain which folios went together in quires. While it is speculated that Cotton Vitellius A. xv. is a collection of codices, with Beowulf being one of them, one might conclude that Beowulf might have been a complete work in itself at one point. However, without knowing the quires that make up the collection, Beowulf may only be an integral part.

Further Reading Off-Line Bibliography

Chase, C. The Dating of Beowulf, University of Toronto Press, 1997.
Kiernan, K.S. Beowulf and the Beowulf Manuscript. Rutgers University Press, 1981.
Thorkelin, G.J. The Thorkelin Transcripts of Beowulf. Malone, K. ed. Early English Manuscripts in Facsimile vol.1, 1951.
Zupitza, J. Beowulf (Facsimile). Oxford University Press, 1959.

Christian Coloring in Beowulf

F.A. Blackburn summarizes the possible sources for the Christian elements of the poem in his essay The Christian Coloring in the Beowulf:

  1. The poem was composed by a Christian, who had heard the stories and used them as the material of the work.
  2. The poem was composed by a Christian, who used old lays as his material.
  3. The poem was composed by a heathen, either from old stories or from old lays. At a later date it was revised by a Christian, to whom we owe the Christian allusions found in it.

Unfortunately, without records of those old stories or lays upon Beowulf may have been based, we cannot be sure which one of these is true.

   Blackburn also classifies these Christian elements:

  1. Passages containing biblical history or allusions to some scriptural narrative. These include references to Cain, Abel, and the flood.
  2. Passages containing expressions in disapproval of heathen ideas or heathen worship. There is one of these in the introduction to the Danes near the beginning of the poem.
  3. Passages containing references to doctrines distinctively Christian: references to heaven, hell, and the day of judgement. He finds ten cases.
  4. Incidental allusions to the Christian God. He finds some 53 cases.

   Looking closely at these elements, Blackburn speculates on how easily one can refigure them to be pagan by the replacement of a word or omission of a phrase, thus seeing how scribes may have done so in the past. Reversing the Christianizing process, he concludes that at some point, Beowulf may have been an entirely pagan text.

   Others choose to examine how well the Christian elements fit together and form such an integral part of the poem. Unlike other poems, such as The Wanderer or The Seafarer, in which it appears to many editors that the Christian exhortations appear [to early critics] to have been appended to the otherwise pagan poems, Beowulf has Christian elements throughout the narrative.

   Marie Padgett Hamilton, in her essay The Religious Principle, argues that the poem is consistent with Augustine's model of God's grace: that a society of the Righteous live together with one of the Reprobate on earth. This principle and the ways in which they are presented in the poem, Hamilton argues, would have been familiar to the English at that time. Beowulf's concern over his honor and wyrd -- his fate -- are concerns about Providence or Divine will. In wyrd, we can see the beginnings of a change in what was a pagan concept and its acceptance of a new Christianized meaning. On the other side, Grendel is equated to the race of Cain, and the dragon to be an incarnation of the devil. Again, these characterizations of the monstrous and evil were well known to the English.

   What is clear about the religious coloring of Beowulf is that while it is clearly Christian, there is little Christian doctrine. References are only to the Old Testament narratives and concepts easily refigured from their pagan equivalents. It seems that Beowulf tells of a period in the midst of religious change being neither entirely pagan, nor fully Christian [or to be an attempt to integrate Germanic history into an old testament time frame].

Select Bibliography
Blackburn, F.A. "The Christian Colouring in the Beowulf" in An Anthology of Beowulf Criticism. University of Notre Dame Press. 1963.
Hamilton, M.P. "The Religious Principle" in An Anthology of Beowulf Criticism. University of Notre Dame Press. 1963.
Anonymous, Beowulf Klaeber, F.R. ed. D.C. Heath & Co. 1950.



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Credits for Original Source: Mcmaster University (Anne Savage & Ben Law).


April 20, 2000.
Updated for August 25, 2000.
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Copyright © meister_z   Enterprises,  2000.