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Literature / Beowulf

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Luckily his shield protects him.note 

Hwæt. We Gardena in geardagum,
þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas 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, in Old English and modern-ish English (loosely translated to try and carry the spirit if not the exact meaning of each word), respectively.

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 (no, really, listen to it). 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.

Oh, 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. There are a few linguistic hints, like in the very first line the alliteration of "gear" (modern English "year") with g which would change to y in later Old English. 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, 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, yet still somewhat revisionist. The YouTube video, Beowulf, The Storybook Version, is relatively faithful, but very silly. DC Comics adapted the tale in the 1970s/1980s. A more recent offbeat version was a stage play "Brother Wolf" which transposed the story to the early 20th Century appalachian mountains. Beowulf is the itinerant preacher Brother Wolf, and Grendel is a demon haunting a small mountain town.

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, such as overhauling Grendel's mother into a sexy succubus-type creature who births horrible monsters when she seduces mortal men, with the dragon being her child by Beowulf and Grendel her child by Hrothgar. It seems Beowulf has a knack for inspiring artists to put their own spin on the material.

The epic provides examples of:

  • Added Alliterative Appeal: The poem is written in alliterative verse, like most early Germanic poetry. To elaborate, where "modern" poetry would have the endings of words sound similar ("rhyme") in this type of poem, the first sound of the first stressed syllable of relevant words would be the same (usually the first word in a line and the first word after a pause)
  • Ambiguously Human: As the poem barely describes Grendel and doesn't describe his mother at all, we don't know what kind of beings they were. Grendel's mother has been traditionally considered a female monster, but modern authors believe she might have been meant to be a woman warrior (the text names her as ides, aglaecwif, in which we know ides means "lady" and wif means "woman" or "female"; academia liked to translate aglaec as "monster", but given that the text also uses it to describe Bewoulf and Grendel when locked in combat, it probably means "fighter"note ; so, Grendel's mother would be simply a "lady, fighter woman"). Indeed, although Grendel is unambiguously monstrous, it was not rare in ancient Norse Mythology that human-looking characters gave birth to inhuman monsters, like Loki and his offspring.
  • Ambiguous Syntax: It's stated that Grendel's motivation to attack Heorot is the sound of the gatherings bothering him, but the text is unclear whether it's just the noise or the fact that it includes pious religious hymns that inspire hate in the ungodly creature. Adaptations tend to go with the former, especially considering the anachronism of Christianity in Scandinavia mentioned below.
  • An Arm and a Leg: Beowulf rips off Grendel's arm, causing him to bleed to death.
  • 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.
  • Avenging the Villain: Grendel's mother is (somewhat understandably) furious when she discovers that her son has been slain and seeks to avenge him by continuing where he left off and later trying to kill his killer.
  • 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.
  • 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.
    Gaeð a wyrd swa hio scel. (Fate goes ever as she will.)
  • Big "WHAT?!": The first word in the poem, and an interesting example of how meanings of words can shift. The opening "Hwæt" 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". Maria Dahvana Headley begins her 2020 translation with "Bro!") 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.
  • Boss-Arena Idiocy: Grendel's mother can't be harmed by any human-forged weapon, but she has a giant-forged sword decorating her lair which Beowulf steals and uses to decapitate her.
  • 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 victim's 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. It's still practiced (sort of) even in Western cultures; it's just called the tort of wrongful death.
  • Celibate Hero: Beowulf never marries in the 50 years he rules.
  • 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.
  • Dark Age Europe: Set in 6th century Scandinavia, making it one of very few even slightly contemporary (as in, written down within a few hundred years) surviving stories of that time. Historians think some of the monarchs mentioned in the text (except Beowulf) are probably based on real-life persons, but that's as close as most of them are willing to go.
  • Death Seeker: Beowulf's decision to have one last fight before he dies so it can be a glorious death.
  • 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 like all unholy monsters (untydras), alongside elves (ylfe), "demon-corpses" (orcneas, influencing the later orcs of fantasy) and two different kinds of giants (eotenas and gigantas, so the first is sometimes given as trolls or ogres (or sometimes as the far more prosaic Jutes), but ogre is just the French cognate of orc).
  • 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.
  • Disc-One Final Boss: Grendel is only the first of the monsters that Beowulf fights.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: Grendel killed a bunch of people because their loud celebrations annoyed him.
  • 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.
  • End of an Age: After Beowulf's death, the remaining Geatish warriors and courtiers stand there, looking at the funeral pyre, knowing their enemies are massing at their borders and their best warrior has died (arguably in an unnecessary, unwinnable fight).
    A Geat woman too sang out in grief;
    with hair bound up, she unburdened herself
    of her worst fears, a wild litany
    of nightmare and lament: her nation invaded,
    enemies on the rampage, bodies in piles,
    slavery and abasement. Heaven swallowed the smoke.
  • 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.
  • 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).
  • Glowing Eyes of Doom: Grendel is described with "a baleful light" shining from his eyes as he looks around at the sleeping Geats and preparing to attack, but perhaps he can turn it off, because he's also very stealthy.
  • 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.
  • The Good King:
    • Scyld is one. 11th line of the poem:
    "þæt wæs 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 Grendel does not use a weapon either, and Beowulf wants to beat him in a fair fight. 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, with some... uncomfortable meanings. One such phrase is from line 811: "he wæs fag wið God". Realizing that that ð 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.
  • Hijacked by Jesus: The characters anachronistically invoking God and the monsters tracing back to Cain are undoubtedly additions made by Christians to lore that predate the Conversion.
  • Howl of Sorrow:
    • Grendel lets out a terrifying scream when he realizes that he is beaten.
    • Towards the end, Beowulf's courtiers do the same, knowing they're facing a very dark future.
  • 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 Nægling (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 2247–66) 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.
  • Lazy Dragon: The dragon is described as having been sleeping on its hoard within its lair, only awakening when a thief snuck inside and stole a goblet from its treasure. (Yes, this dragon was a direct inspiration for Smaug.)
  • 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.
  • Mama Bear: Grendel's mother is not pleased when she finds that her son has been slain by Beowulf.
  • Ten Movie Plots: Monster in the House, depending on whose perspective you take. Beowulf the Geat (one of the baddest of the heroes) comes over to fight the monster Grendel that has been ravaging the Danes' 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 Geats' 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.
  • Nice Day, Deadly Night: The titular hero's first enemy is Grendel, a monster that attacks each night before slinking away come morning.
  • 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 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.
  • Old Soldier: During the third and last part of the story, Beowulf has grown old and decides he wants to kill a dragon. He goes out and does so.
  • 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 has a venomous bite.
  • Our Orcs Are Different: Among the evil descendents of Cain are the "orcneas" (alongside ylfe and two creature types vaguely analogous to giants), which are etymologically ancestral to Tolkien's orcs but whose actual nature/context is debated, interpreted as anything from living corpses to demons.
  • 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 not, which ultimately depicts them as moving back and forth between Christian and pagan practices.
  • Posthumous Character: Scyld Scefing (meaning "Scyld son of Scef, Scyld descendant of Scef, or Scyld of the Sheaf") starts the story dead. He is essentially the Beowulf of the previous generation.
  • Rags to Royalty: As the queen's name mean "foreign slave", it's implied she was a free woman overseas before being captured and married to the king.
  • Rank Scales with Asskicking: None of Beowulf's companions are slouches in a fight, though Grendel does take a couple of them down. Beowulf himself, however, is on a whole other level.
  • Rated M for Manly: Beowulf is basically the epic-hero-monster-killer archetype.
    • 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.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Wiglaf gives one to the troops who fled from the dragon rather than help their king.
  • Reluctant Monster: All the dragon wants to do is lie sleeping on its hoard. Then a runaway slave steals one of its gold chalices, and the dragon is pissed.
  • 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. The poem also contains allusions to other maybe fictional and maybe real characters that have, for the most part, been so lost that most of what we know about them comes from Beowulf itself.
  • 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.
  • Special Person, Normal Name: Danish king Hrothgar, his son Hrethric, and nephew Hrothulf have names which, when rendered in modern English, become Roger, Roderick, and Ralph, respectively.
  • Super Not-Drowning Skills: Beowulf can hold his breath underwater for a full day when diving down a lake, and fight off no less than nine monsters on the sea bottom. The latter is done during a swimming contest in full armor that takes about a week to complete.
  • 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: the narrator states in one line that Beowulf ruled as king for fifty years.
  • Too Dumb to Live: 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.
  • Unbuilt Trope: Beowulf is one of the great literary heroes, and while he is exhorted to be virtuous and compassionate in his conduct, for the first two-thirds or so of the narrative he seems to be exactly what you would expect from such an individualistic archetype; boastful, aggressive, courageous, and all but invincible. Then several decades go by, the dragon shows up, and it becomes obvious that machismo only gets you so far in life; Beowulf is by now long past his prime, and while he reconciles himself to going out in a blaze of glory against the dragon if all else fails, the text openly describes him as fearful of facing such a terrible monster (he's quite dismayed by how little protection his shield offers him against its flame, and fighting it bare-handed, as he did against Grendel, is clearly not an option). And it gets worse; Beowulf's magic sword breaks against the dragon's apparently impenetrable hide, most of his men abandon him, and he looks to be in danger of going down as little more than a Perilous Old Fool. Then his only loyal vassal, Wiglaf, explicitly disregards Beowulf's insistence that he be allowed to fight alone, and rushes to his side so that they can take down the dragon together. The battle costs Beowulf his life, the dragon's treasure turns out to be cursed and is buried alongside Beowulf's ashes, effectively making it worthless, and it's dubious if Geatland can prosper in his absence; a woman laments at his funeral that the country is now more vulnerable to its enemies.
  • 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.
  • Where the Hell Is Springfield?: There's some debate over exactly who the Geats are and where they live - the most popular explanation is that they're from modern-day Götaland in Sweden, but some academics claim that they're Gutes from Gotland or Jutes from Jutland.
  • World's Strongest Man: Beowulf is introduced this way, as a hero-adventurer searching for monsters to slay. And they couldn't pass up the opportunity to take on Grendel or his mother.
  • 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 meanwhile 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.