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Literature: Beowulf

Hwt. We Gardena in geardagum,
eodcyninga, rym gefrunon,
hu a elingas ellen fremedon.

LO, praise of the prowess of people-kings
of spear-armed Danes, in days long sped,
we have heard, and what honor the athelings won!
—Opening lines of Beowulf

Beowulf is the oldest surviving work of fiction in the English language - so old, in fact, that the language it's written in is barely recognizable as English. It recounts two stories from the life of its eponymous Geatish hero: how, as a young man, he visited Denmark and slew the monster Grendel, then faced the wrath of Grendel's even more monstrous mother; and how, toward the end of his life back in Geatland, he was the only man who dared fight a rampaging dragon.

And did we mention that it's a poem?

Beowulf is probably the most famous of all Old English literature, and is a staple of university English programs. It is usually read in translation, as it is not only written in a very old form of English, it makes heavy use of a poetic register that is quite different from prose. No one knows precisely when it was written, much less where the story originated. Certain lines of the text involve a clearly Christian narrator commenting on the pre-Christian Paganism of the characters, therefore the text is believed to have been the work of a monk recalling a much older story. The only known manuscript contains two distinct styles of writing, indicating more than one scribe was involved in the transcription. This manuscript was also damaged in a fire in 1731, so certain lines of text are obliterated and their contents purely left to conjecture.

In 1936, a lecture by J. R. R. Tolkien, "Beowulf: the Monsters and the Critics" had a lasting influence on Beowulf research. Lewis E. Nicholson said that the article Tolkien wrote about Beowulf is "widely recognized as a turning point in Beowulfian criticism", noting that Tolkien established the primacy of the poetic nature of the work as opposed to the purely linguistic elements. At the time, the consensus of scholarship considered Beowulf childish because they considered battles with monsters rather than realistic tribal warfare to be not worthy of study; needless to say the Creator of Middle Earth was having none of that. Tolkien argued that the author of Beowulf was addressing human destiny in general, not as limited by particular tribal politics, and therefore the monsters were essential to the poem. Where Beowulf does deal with specific tribal struggles, as at Finnsburg, Tolkien argued firmly against reading in fantastic elements. In the essay, Tolkien also revealed how highly he regarded Beowulf: "Beowulf is among my most valued sources," and this influence can be seen in The Lord of the Rings.note 

The story has been adapted many times. Some of the adaptations have been quite offbeat: they include John Gardner's novel Grendel, from the point of view of the monster; Michael Crichton's novel Eaters of the Dead (filmed as The 13th Warrior), which purported to tell the historical events that inspired the Grendel plot; and the 1999 sci-fi film starring Christopher Lambert. The 2005 film Beowulf & Grendel was comparatively faithful. The YouTube video, Beowulf, The Storybook Version, is relatively faithful, but very silly. DC Comics adapted the tale in the 1970s/1980s.

Most (but not all) of the Beowulf references on this wiki are to the 2007 film Beowulf, written by Roger Avary and Neil Gaiman, directed by Robert Zemeckis, and starring Ray Winstone. The screenplay for this has similarly unusual diversions from the original story, to say the least. It seems Beowulf has a knack for inspiring artists to put their own spin on the material. This could perhaps be owing to the somewhat alien worldview in which the piece was written.

The epic provides examples of:

  • Added Alliterative Appeal: The poem is written in alliterative verse, like most Germanic poetry.
  • The Atoner: Unferth insults and belittles Beowulf while drunk the night before he fights Grendel, but, once the monster is slain, he apologizes and tries to make up for it by giving him his family magic sword to fight the monster's mother with. It proves completely useless, since she's immune to weapons made by human hands, but it's the thought that counts.
  • Author Filibuster: Did you know that a proper ruler should always be benevolent, open-minded, and willing to honour his people who honour him in return? No? Don't worry, the poem will make sure you don't forget it.
  • Authority Equals Asskicking: Beowulf, of course.
  • Awesome McCoolname: The hero's name is a kenning for "bear". Its literal meaning is "bee-wolf" — the animal that acts like a wolf toward bees.
  • Badass:
    • Beowulf tells a story early on in which he kills nine sea monsters with only his sword while underwater.
    • Again on the "Beowulf's lungs are the size of train cars" theme, he swims to the bottom of a pool which is so deep it takes him almost a whole day to get to the bottom. His friends are apparently used to this, as they only start to get worried after many hours have passed.
  • Badass Boast: Unferth, one of Hrothgar's men calls Beowulf a loser for losing a swimming contest. Beowulf responds that he got ambushed and had to stay on the sea floor ruining the shit of nine monsters (he took part in a swimming contest equipped with mail armor and a sword), and tells the drunk he's going to hell.
  • Badass Grandpa: Beowulf is one of these during the third and last part of the story.
  • Batman Can Breathe in Space: Or "Beowulf can breath underwater".
  • Bears Are Bad News: "Beowulf" is a kenning (wordplay) for bear. "Wulf" basically just meant 'predator' in Old English, so the literal meaning is 'Predator of Bees' or 'Enemy of Bees'. Basically, Beowulf is like a wolf with bees in its mouth, and when it howls, it shoots bees at you.
  • Because Destiny Says So: The most important word in the poem is wyrd, which means fate. Beowulf relies less on his Super Strength and more on the favour of fate before his battle with Grendel.
  • Big "WHAT?!": The first word in the poem, and an interesting example of how meanings of words can shift. The opening "Hwt" literally translates into modern English as "What". At this time in English the word "what" was generally used in an exclamatory sense, as an attention grabber, and in this case is usually understood as a shouted exclamation. When Beowulf is translated into modern English the first word is usually rendered as "Lo!" or "Hark!" or "Listen!". (Seamus Heaney opens his popular translation with a more restrained "So".) This use of "what" is commonly regarded as obsolete but still pops up on occasion.
  • BFS: The sword of the giants, which Beowulf finds in the cave of Grendel's mother.
  • Book Ends: As has been noted many a time before, the story begins with a funeral and it will end with one.
  • Buy Them Off: Wergeld, or "man price" is a custom of the time that if a man killed another man he could essentially buy exemption from the deceased family, which was widely acceptable at the time. Such practices are quite common in non-Western cultures, and they were paid to prevent generational feuding within a legal framework.
  • Celibate Hero: Beowulf never marries in the 50 years he rules. As many an English professor is fond of pointing out, the only "action" Beowulf gets with a woman is with Grendel's mother.
  • Cool Old Guy: Hrothgar.
  • Cool Sword: Subverted - they may be quenched in blood rather than water and be like poison to normal humans, but they aren't usually much use, because Beowulf tends to break them because of his strength. Grendel's Mother is totally immune to human-crafted weapons of any kind, too.
  • Death Seeker: Beowulf's decision to have one last fight before he dies.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Beowulf himself.
    Beowulf: Well, friend Unferth, you had your say about Breca and me. But it was mostly beer that was doing the talking.
  • Decapitation Presentation: After defeating Grendel's mother in her lair Beowulf decapitates Grendel's corpse and carries the head back to Heorot.
  • The Descendants of Cain: The monster Grendel and his mother are said to be descended from Cain, alongside "ogres and elves and evil phantoms" as well as "giants".
  • Deus ex Machina: The Giant's sword that kills Grendel's mother was only mentioned moments before Beowulf takes it and kills her with it. She couldn't be harmed by weapons made by man, but she conveniently kept a sword crafted by Giants (which would be able to harm her) above the door.
  • Downer Ending: Beowulf dies in the fight against the dragon, and it's implied that, without their leader, the Geats will be conquered by their Swedish neighbors. Of course, Saxons love reminding their readers of the fate after.
  • Dragon Hoard: The dragon is attracted by gold and makes his home on a treasure hidden in a barrow because that is how dragons roll. There is also a reference to another dragon hoard won by the dragonslayer Sigemund [sic] by killing a dragon in a cave.
  • Due to the Dead: An important motif in the story, especially Beowulf's funeral at the end. He's buried with the gold he rescues from the dragon because the Geats feel he deserves no less.
  • Establishing Character Moment: We first learn just who Beowulf is when we learn that as a boy, he participated in a swimming contest across the sea. In armour. Which he only lost because he was too busy beating up sea monsters.
  • Even Bad Men Love Their Mamas: Grendel basically lives in his mother's basement.
  • The Exile: Beowulf's father Ecgtheow once lived at Hrothgar's court as an exile. This is why Hrothgar regards Beowulf as an old friend, and one of Beowulf's motives for assisting him.
  • Famed in Story: "The most eager for fame."
  • Flashback: Used on occasion, such as when the story of how the dragon got his treasure is told or how Beowulf became king is explained.
  • Folk Hero: To the Geats of the story.
  • Foreshadowing: The story opens with a funeral, and ends with a funeral. Beowulf tells a story of having to fight monsters underwater, and then has to fight monsters underwater. The story of Sigemund fighting the dragon is sung, and Beowulf dies fighting a dragon.
  • Franchise Zombie: Some scholars have read into the various tales of Beowulf's past achievements to conclude that there were more episodes to this saga, lost to history or having only existed in oral tradition. It's suggested that Beowulf was killed by the dragon as a way to finish off the series.
  • A Friend in Need: Wiglaf is the only one of the troop who helps Beowulf in his fight with the dragon. The two are depicted as closer than he is with the others (they're relatives).
  • Genre Savvy: Beowulf is remarkably unfond of unnecessary combat, wenching, and getting roaring drunk at wild parties for a Norse hero. It saves his life in combat against Grendel, since he's awake, alert, and completely energized for his brawl instead of as drunk as the man Grendel eats.
  • God Save Us from the Queen!: Modthryth, who had any man who looked her in the eye tortured to death. She became better after marrying her husband Offa.
  • Gold Makes Everything Shiny: Gold rings, gold cups and gold-plated swords, armour and shields are repeatedly and fondly described.
  • Gondor Calls for Aid: The Danes ask the Geats for help defeating the monster Grendel.
  • The Good King:
    • Scyld is one. 11th line of the poem:
    "t ws gōd cyning!" ("That was a good king!")
    • The exact same thing is said of Beowulf 2,379 lines later.
  • Good Old Fisticuffs: Beowulf decides to fight Grendel unarmed, because he doesn't have the luxury of drawing a weapon while he waits on the floor pretending to be asleep. The fight culminates in Beowulf ripping Grendel's arm off.
  • Have a Gay Old Time: There are a few phrases in the Old English poem that look like they can almost pass for Modern English. One such phrase is from line 811: "he ws fag wi God". Realizing that that is used in Old English to spell th, the line seems like it says, "He [Grendel] was a fag with God". However, "fag" in Old English means "enemy" and has nothing to do with the modern word, so the line actually means "He was an enemy of God".
  • The Hero Dies: Beowulf is mortally wounded fighting the dragon.
  • Heroic Fantasy: Ur Example in English literature.
  • Heroic RROD: Beowulf exerts himself far too much in his fight with the dragon, by which time he's an old man and can't handle it anymore. This leads to his death.
  • Howl of Sorrow: Grendel lets out a terrifying scream when he realizes that he is beaten.
  • Humanoid Abomination: Grendel and his mother are described as the descendants of Cain, but are no longer human.
  • I Call It "Vera": Named Weapons are a common theme in the story, eg. Beowulf's sword Ngling (lit. nail-ling).
  • It Was a Gift: Both the king and queen give Beowulf rings after his victory. It's worth mentioning that this was a common practice at the time, with the king being referred to multiple times as the "ring-giver".
  • I Will Tear Your Arms Off: Beowulf during his fight with Grendel.
  • Last of His Kind: The "Lay of the Last Survivor" (lines 224766) is a flashback to how the last remaining descendant of a forgotten people walls up the riches of his extinct race in a barrow. This is the treasure that will later be occupied by the dragon.
  • Lock and Load Montage: The extensive description of Beowulf donning his armor in a ritualistic fashion may be among the earliest examples of the trope.
  • Made a Slave: is just hinted at in the queen's Back Story, because her name means "foreign slave".
  • Monster in the House or Overcoming the Monster, depending on whose perspective you take. Beowulf the Geat (one of the baddest of the Big Damn Heroes) comes over to fight the monster Grendel that has been ravaging the Dane's house for 12 years, i.e. he comes over and they've got a monster in their house.
  • Meaningful Funeral: Beow's funeral at the beginning echoes Beowulf's at the end, which in turn signifies the end of the Geat's hegemony and the rise of the Swedes.
  • Meaningful Name: Just about everyone, which was standard for the Anglo-Saxons. Eg. Unferth (an intitially villainous character) means something like "un-peace" or "no soul", Ecgtheow means "edge-servant" (ie. someone skilled with a sword), and so on.
  • The Mentor: Hrothgar, who becomes something of a father figure to Beowulf.
  • Mid-Season Upgrade: Beouwulf receives the Naegling after the Time Skip, because Unferth's Hrunting got destroyed in his battle against Grendel's mother.
  • Mutual Kill: The dragon and Beowulf.
  • Narrative Poem
  • No Name Given: Grendel is the only antagonist given a name, despite being the least powerful of the three.
  • No Title: The original manuscript has no title. "Beowulf" is merely the name given to it by scholars.
  • Offered the Crown: Beowulf is offered the crown by Hygelac's widow, who is trying to pass over her own son, Heardred. Beowulf refuses, and does not become king until Heardred is killed in combat.
  • Older and Wiser: Beowulf in the third act.
  • Older Is Better: Many of the weapons, helmets, armours, standards and cups mentioned are prized heirlooms and passed around and down generations for a long time. It is suggested they were forged by Giants.
  • Old Retainer: Wiglaf is the only warrior to remain with Beowulf during his fight with the dragon; the rest are cowards and flee.
  • Our Dragons Are Different: While the dragon conforms to the fairly conventional image of a cave-dwelling, fire-breathing, gold-hoarding, winged reptile, it has also a rather unique characteristic in that it is a nocturnal creature. It also had a venomous bite.
  • Politically Correct History: Beowulf and Hrothgar invoke God, even though 6th century Scandinavia was untouched by Christianity. The chronicler writing the story seems indecisive as to whether or not he should retroject his own Christian religious practices onto the characters or to depict them as moving back and forth between Christian and pagan practices.
  • Post Humous Character: Scyld Scefing (meaning "Shield Sheafing") starts the story dead. He is essentially the Beowulf of the previous generation.
  • Proud Warrior Race Guy: Everyone.
  • Rags to Royalty: see Made a Slave.
  • Rated M for Manly: Beowulf is this trope.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Wiglaf gives one to the troops who fled from the dragon rather than help their king.
  • Reptiles Are Abhorrent: When the lake that Grendel's mother lives in is described, we know it's a bad place because it's described as being infested with all kinds of reptiles, including, but not limited to, sea dragons, serpents, and wild beasts.
  • Royals Who Actually Do Something: Of course, kings in that era became kings by proving themselves in combat. Hrothgar is capable, but can't do anything, because ... he's not a hero. (No, seriously.) Of course, there is also Beowulf himself, once the rest of the king's line is dead in inter-tribal feuding and he takes the throne himself.
  • Shout-Out: A minstrel in the poem compares Beowulf to the dragonslayer "Sigemund". And it's fitting, as Beowulf will eventually face a dragon himself.
  • Spell My Name with an "S": Various characters have had their names translated in several different ways across different translations. For example, the king of Geatland is most commonly named "Hygelac", but at least one translation uses "Higlac". Then there's Hrothgar's great-grandfather, who has been variously called "Scyld", "Shild", or "Shield". Beowulf's father's name has been translated as "Ecgtheow" and "Edgetho". Not even the eponymous hero himself is immune - while "Beowulf" is universally accepted as the translation, some passages in the original poem spell it as "Biowulf". The reason for this lies in that Anglo-Saxon, like most ancient languages, had no set spelling conventions. Authors wrote what they heard, and the latter part of the manuscript was copied by a second author at some point. It's entirely possible he spoke a different dialect than the original author.
  • Sorting Algorithm of Evil: Each of the three monsters (Grendel, Grendel's Mother, and the dragon) is more formidable than the one before it.
  • Super Strength: Beowulf has the strength of 30 men in just the grip of one hand. He is able to wrestle Grendel to a stand-still before ripping his arm off. Toward the end, it is said that Beowulf constantly breaks his swords — he could never find one sturdy enough to long withstand the force with which he could swing them.
  • Time Skip: With amazing brevity: "He ruled well / for fifty winters"
  • Too Dumb to Live/Schmuck Bait: All the would-be Grendel slayers who show up before Beowulf, plus the men who come with him, think it's an excellent idea to get drunk and party at Heorot knowing full well the monster attacks at night when everyone is drunk and asleep. Beowulf stays with them, knowing damn well this is the perfect way to lure Grendel in.
  • Trope Codifier: Both for the English language itself, and for the heroic fantasy literature that centuries later drew inspiration from it.
  • Unexpected Successor: Beowulf himself. As a man of honor, he refuses to usurp the throne from his increasingly blunder-prone relatives, and ultimately becomes king only once everyone in the line before him has been killed off in inter-tribal warfare.
  • Viking Funeral: The funeral of King Scyld Scefing of Denmark. This is quite possibly the Trope Maker, even though Scyld's funeral boat is not set on fire.
  • The Wise Prince: Hrothgar, and later Beowulf.
  • World of Badass: Although Beowulf manages to stand out anyway.
  • World's Strongest Man: Beowulf is introduced this way.
  • Wrecked Weapon: Twice in the story, Beowulf's sword falters when he needs it most, and the narrator notes this is a perennial problem for him, since his Super Strength causes them to snap. It leads to his death the second time.
  • You Can't Fight Fate: Death will get you one day, and the only thing you can do in the mean while is be as good and great a man as you can.
  • Youth Is Wasted on the Dumb: A key part of Beowulf's Character Development is discovering how rash he was as a younger man and how he makes a much better king now that he's older. When he goes out to fight the dragon, it is to save his people from "the sky-plague" as much as it is to have one last glorious adventure.

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