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The poem tells the story of Beowulf, a hero who was born in Geatland and grew up to become a warrior. He is most remembered for his heroic confrontations with monsters and beasts, most notably against Grendal and his mother, the horrors who tormented Danes throughout King Hrothgar's dominion. A mythical 6th-century Danish monarch. To repay Hrothgar, who previously looked after his father throughout the battles, Beowulf helped rescue the realm of Danes. Beowulf was able to defeat the two monstrosities. He subsequently returned to Geatland and reigned for fifty years. Then he had his final encounter with a dragon, which Beowulf vanquished. However, his wounds from that battle became the cause of his death.
Beowulf had been translated in over a dozen times since the 1800s by historians, translators, and poets. One of the poem’s most significant translations was done by Nobel Prize awardee Seamus Justin Heaney.
One very prominent interpolated story in Beowulf happens just after he tore out Grendals arm, killing him in the process. This victory earned him fame among the people, to which king Hrothgar himself compared him to two great heroes of their time: Sigemund and Heremod. Sigemund is a king and a famous monster slayer whose name is “known everywhere.”
He was utterly valiant and venturesome,
A fence round his fighters and flourished therefore
After King Heremond’s prowess declined
And his campaigns slowed down. The king was betrayed,
Ambushed in Jutland, overpowered
And done away with. The waves of his grief
Had beaten him down, made him a burden,
A source of anxiety to his own nobles:
Though also a great king, Heremod turned evil in the end. His reign ended in tyranny. Being compared to these two well-known heroes is a great praise for Beowulf, however both became a cautionary tale, a glimpse of his fate in the end because of his actions.
The epic also features legendary and historical elements, people and events that actually existed during the publication of the poem. One such character is Hygelac, Beowulf’s uncle and the king of the Geats. He was mentioned by the historian Gregory of Tours in the Historia Francorum or the History of Franks at about AD 521. It says that Hygelac commanded a raid against the Franks that killed him. He was also mentioned in the Book of Monsters, as being one of its various monsters “whom no horse could carry from the age of twelve”. He was depicted in the epic in these lines:
The Brosings’ neck-chain and bore it away
With its gems and settings to his shinning fort,
Away from Eormenric’s wiles and hatred, 1200
And thereby ensured his eternal reward.
Hygelac the Geat, grandson of Swerting,
wore this neck-ring on his last raid;
at bay under his banner, he defended the booty,
treasure he had won. Fate swept him away
because of his proud need to provoke
a feud with the Frisians.
An important element in the poem, Hygelac’s pride and material greed contrasts sharply with Beowulf’s honor and courage. In the end, he became a tyrannical king being a “burden” and a “source of anxiety” to his people. Certainly not good qualities of the great king that Beowulf aims to be. Hygelac possesed the Brosings’ neck-chain which he won as a token of war. He was killed by the Frisians due to this pride. After he was killed, Beowulf was given the same neck-chain because of the courage and honor he showed in fighting Grendel. This neck ring, a legendary element, famous in Norse Mythology is Brising’s Neck-chain (a typographical error by the scribes) the goddess Freya’s object of desire (Adams, 1936). This necklace has profound effect on the story, having given such a legendary artifact—once worn by a goddess nonetheless signifies Beowulf’s godlike strength. Then having such a history of having passed down from battlefield to battlefield is a foreshadowing of later events.
Another historical element is the story of Finn, it describes the battle at Finn’s stronghold led by Hnæf and Hengest. This tale is also the subject of the fragmentary piece of English poetry entitled The Fight at Finnsburh. In the story Hnæf’s sister, Hildeburh is married to the Frissian king Finn. When conflict rised, Hnæf was killed along with his and Hildeburh’s son. Afterwards, Hengest assumes leadership of the Danes who instead of returning home the following spring takes revenge on their leader, killing Finn in the process and taking Hildeburh back home. This story and another, which Beowulf tells to Hygelac about Ingeld and Hrothgar’s daughter talks of revenge and the failure of keeping peace even through marriage.
Another important interpolated story is king Hrothgar’s friendship to Beowulf’s father, Ecgtheow. Ecgtheow had a feud with the Wulfings by killing Heatholaf and was sentenced to an exile by his own people. To which king Hrothgar settled thus;
With his own hands he had killed Heatholaf,
Who was a Wulfing; so war was looming
And his people, in fear of it, forced him to leave.
He came away then over rolling waves
To the South Danes here, the sons of honor.
I was then in the full flush of kingship,
Establishing my sway over all the rich strongholds
Of this heroic land. Heorogar,
My older brother and the better man,
Also a son of Halfdane’s, had died.
Finally I healed the feud by paying: 470
I shipped a treasure-trove to the Wulfings
And Ecgtheow acknowledged me with oaths of allegiance.
This story speaks volumes of Beowulf’s motivation to rid Danes of the monster Grendal. Before this story was known, it would seem that Beowulf was helping king Hrothgar simply as an act of heroism. Now it may be because he also has an obligation to the king for settling his father’s feud with the Wulfings.
And lastly, the story of Beowulf and Breca’s swimming match. In this one Beowulf demonstrated his developing character—humility, because he gives credit of his accomplishments to another source and perhaps due to the belief in a Christian God, which has numerous references throughout the story including the story of creation and the story of Cain and Abel. For example when he says "yet it was given to me to stab that monster..." after successfully slaying the sea monster, he attributes this victory to someone other than himself or even to a God as seen in the following lines:
It is a great wonder
how Almighty God in His Magnificence
favours our race with rank and scope
and the gift of wisdom; His sway is wide.
Sometimes, He allows the mind of a man
of distinguished birth to follow its bent,
grants him fulfillment and felicity on earth
and forts to command in his own county.
He permits him to lord it in many lands
until the man in his unthinkingness
forgets that it will ever end for him (lines 1725-1734)
The epic presents the era’s struggle from the old to the new, as depicted in featuring old ways of honor and courage while incorporating the idea of a Christian God. Which in turn was also incorporated in the character of Beowulf. Throughout the epic his character as a great hero was evident. He has the strength, courage and honor to fight his enemies. He was well loved and praised by the people due to his deeds. He was able to overcome being a tyrannical king by seeing Heremod’s pride and greed. And he possessed humility by attributing his accomplishments to a God. As the story ends, Beowulf is mortally wounded in the fight with the dragon, he becomes both a well-loved hero and a great king:
of all the kings upon the earth
he was the man most gracious and fair-minded
kindest to his people and keenest to win fame.
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