Luckily, his shield protects him. Image by J. R. Skelton, 1908
|Synopsis:||The battles of Beowulf, the Geatish hero, in youth and old age (Wikipedia)|
|Genre(s):||Epic heroic poetry|
|First published:||probably somewhere between 700 and 1000|
Hwæt. We Gardena in geardagum,
LO, praise of the prowess of people-kings
—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. The Professor also reveals an acidic wit that suggests Gandalf may have been based on his creator.
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 weird 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.
Most (but not all) of the Beowulf references on this wiki are to the 2007 film Beowulf, written by Roger Avary (who co-wrote Pulp Fiction) 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.
- Alliteration: The poem is written in alliterative verse, like most Germanic poetry.
- Ambiguously Human: The poem isn't big on physical descriptions; Grendel is only briefly described, and his mother isn't described at all, so one can only guess what sort of beings they were. Modern fiction often depicts Grendel as a sub-human monstrosity or ogre, but he could just as well have been a savage barbarian. His mother is usually depicted as a hag or she-beast, or even a shapeshifting seductress, but she could have been simply a Dark Action Girl type (the text names her as aglaecwif, a pormanteau of ides which means "lady" and wif means "woman"). Of course, not much description was given to the Dragon either, but hey, everyone knows what a dragon looks like.
- 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 means "bear".
- 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, and tells the drunk he's going to hell.
- He took part in a swimming contest equipped with mail armor and a sword.
- Badass Grandpa: Beowulf is one of these during the third and last part of the story.
- Badass Normal: Why is Beowulf the only one destined to kill Grendel? Because he's a hero. It should be noted that was how the Anglo-Saxons portrayed their heroes.
- Batman Can Breathe in Space: Or "Beowulf can breath underwater".
- 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.
- Beyond the Impossible: 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.
- BFS: The sword of the giants, which Beowulf finds in the cave of Grendel's mother.
- Boss Arena Idiocy: Grendel's mother seems to have a hording problem, as her lair is full of powerful magic items, including a magic sword that he uses to kill her.
- 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.
- Well, considering that, at the time, the family of the murdered man would have been honor-bound to kill the killer, whose family would in turn been honor-bound to kill the killer's killer (lather, rinse repeat), this sort of thing was intended to prevent excessive bloodshed.
- By the Hair: Reading the original text closely that Beowulf actually uses this strategy against Grendel's mom.
- 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.
- Not being married does not necessarily mean he was chaste...
- Cool Old Guy: Hrothgar; Beowulf himself fits in the third chapter.
- Cool Sword: They aren't usually much use though, because Beowulf tends to break them because of his strength.
- Creator Provincialism: Beowulf and his men are Christians (complete with Beowulf himself having shades of a Kung Fu Jesus Messianic Archetype), but Christianity would not be introduced to Sweden until centuries after the reign of Hygelac (who was a real person).
- Cursed Treasure: Beowulf's men regard the dragon's horde as such, and decide to bury it.
- Dark Action Girl: Beowulf defeats Grendel via wrestling, but Grendel's mom proves too tough to defeat the same way.
- 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.
- Dirty Coward: Beowulf wisely brings 12 warriors with him to fight the dragon, but eleven of them flee at the sight of it, leaving only Wiglaf to help him; Beowulf's final act is to name Wiglaf his heir, and Wiglaf's first act as king is to banish those eleven cowards.
- Does This Remind You of Anything?: The dragon goes berserk after someone steals one trinket from its huge horde. Fans of the fantasy genre can easily tell what this story inspired.
- 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.
- 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, who 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.
- Everything's Worse with Bears: "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.
- Famed in Story: "The most eager for fame."
- Folk Hero: To the Geats of the story.
- 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 for a Norse hero. It saves his life in combat against Grendel.
- 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.
- Good Is Not Soft: Beowulf is a case where Good can be downright brutal.
- Gondor Calls for Aid: The Danes ask the Geats for help defeating the monster Grendel.
- Good Old Fisticuffs: Beowulf decides to fight Grendel unarmed, because the monster itself doesn't use any weapons. 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 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
- 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.
- I Call It Vera: Named Weapons are a common theme in the story, eg. Beowulf's sword Nægling (lit. nail-ling).
- Instant Awesome, Just Add Dragons: Definitely.
- 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.
- Knight of Cerebus: The dragon; while Beowulf takes down Grendel and his mother with ease, the dragon is much more of a threat, giving him the battle of his life.
- 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.
- 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 Backstory, because her name means "foreign slave".
- Mama Bear: Beowulf's mother reveals herself when she seeks revenge for her son's death.
- Missing Episode: What modern scholars know of the poem comes from one surviving original copy that belonged to its first known owner, Lawrence Nowell, and that copy was damaged due to a fire in 1791, making the text of the third chapter (often called "The Burnt Pages") incomplete. As a result, the full story may never be known.
- Monster in the House, or Over Coming 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 (a 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.
- Mutual Kill: The dragon and Beowulf.
- Name of Cain: Grendel is Cain's descendant. His mother probably is, too.
- Name's the Same: A dude who was Shield Sheaffson's son shares his name with the titular hero.
- It's fairly widely accepted that Shield's son was called Beow, and that the copyist wasn't paying attention and corrected a mistake that wasn't there.
- The translations usually shorten the first Beowulf's name to "Beow" to avoid confusion.
- 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.
- 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.
- Posthumous 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.
- Riddle for the Ages: Who was the author? When specifically was it written? What was the original title? Due to the above-mentioned damage to the original manuscript, all three facts may never be known.
- 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.
- Short Story: Compared to other poetry at the time - which tended to bore readers with endless descriptive narratives of even the smallest plot points - Beowulf is rather concise and gets to the point very quickly.
- Shout-Out: A minstrel in the poem compares Beowulf to Sigurd Fafnebane, a hero that was known throughout the Northern tribes since the 6th century. And it's fitting.
- Somebody Doesn't Love Raymond: Unferth is the only one who initially doubts Beowulf's skills; he apologizes after Grendel is slain.
- 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 formidible than the one before it.
- Sword of Plot Advancement: Just when it looks like all hope is lost, Beowulf finds a sword in the heat of battle to help him defeat Grendel's mother. Then it breaks.
- 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. Basically, the rule that states that he is the only one allowed to do anything heroic is justified.
- Better yet - he actually just stood there holding Grendel's hand, not even budging, while Grendel, the wimp, kept thrashing away. In a sense, Grendel ripped his own 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 swings them.
- Trope Maker: The dragon in this story was likely the first dragon in literature who could breathe fire, which started the trend.
- Too Dumb to Live/SchmuckBait: All the would-be Grendel slayers who show up before Beowulf 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.
- 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. It leads to his death.
- 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.
- Most likely around 1000 CE, but that is only conjecture