What is `Beowulf'?

 

EPIC poem, 3,000 lines long, written in England between AD 700 and 1000 in Old English (Anglo-Saxon). The story tells of the Norse hero, Beowulf, set in a "once upon a time" mythic age. Only one manuscript copy survives, nearly destroyed in 1751 by fire. The original is now in the British Library and can be visited on the library's excellent web site.

Beowulf, nobleman warrior and nephew of Hygelac, king of what would now be southern Sweden, is sent to the neighbouring kingdom of Denmark, where a blood-crazed swamp monster called Grendel has been terrorising the countryside for 20 years, butchering, then gorging on, all and sundry at the court of King Hrothgar. The bodies he can't manage to eat he keeps for later in a pouch made of dragon-skins.

In gory close combat, Beowulf vanquishes his foe, tearing off his arm and shoulder. The Danes' celebrations are cut short when Grendel's equally monstrous mother comes seeking vengeance, killing a royal counsellor and dragging his body, as well as her son's hewnoff trophy-limb, down to her underwater lair.

Beowulf, a renowned swimmer, follows. But once underwater, his trusty sword fails to perform. Just in time he sees "an ancient sword shining in the wall", kills the trolldam, cuts the head off Grendel's body and swims to the surface.

After due ceremony from King Hrothgar, Beowulf returns home.

On the death of his uncle King Hygelac, the kingdom passes to Beowulf, who rules peacefully for 50 years until the theft of a golden goblet, part of a secret hoard guarded by a sleeping dragon. Roused to terrible wrath, it belches flames that destroy Beowulf's timber hall. Although now very old, Beowulf knows only he can slay the dragon. Although protected from the dragon's breath by his shield, his sword fails to penetrate the scales. While his retinue retreats, Beowulf fights on, helped by one brave kinsman, finally slaying the dragon with a dagger to the unprotected breast.

But Beowulf is himself mortally wounded. After his death, the land is riven by war.