Historical Legend in Beowulf

Jan Purnis

copyright 2000

Although Beowulf is an Old English epic, the events it relates are set in a historical time and place outside England. History provides the fabric into which Beowulf’s fabulous feats and encounters with monsters are woven. The poem takes p lace largely in sixth century Denmark and southern Sweden and deals primarily with the kingdoms of the Geats and the Danes. Supporting evidence for the historical existence of figures and events in Beowulf has been sought in outside sources. Thes e include the Widsith, an Old English poem thought to date from the seventh century which lists rulers and tribes, as well as Scandinavian writings. However, discrepancies between sources based on songs and oral histories point to the difficulties in determining fact from fiction.

The Danish royal family plays a central role in Beowulf. Scyld Scefing, the legendary founder of the Danish kingdom may have been assimilated into a folktale or myth. Heremod, Scyld’s predecessor, was possibly excluded from the Scylding ge nealogy in the poem because of the violence and arrogance that lead to his exile. Hrothgar, Danish king when Beowulf arrives, and his nephew Hrothulf are based in historic fact. In Widsith, the king and his nephew overcome an attack on Heorot by the Heathobards, but unlike in Beowulf, Heorot is not burned down at this time. In the Scandanavian sources Hrothulf is the centre of a saga praising his prowess, rather than a usurping prince causing a civil war and killing his cousin for the thr one. The great hall Heorot, symbol of a new political order founded by a providential king (Davis 99), has been placed at a village called Lejre.

The other central kingdom in the poem is the Geat kingdom. That King Hygelac won a battle at Ravenswood and was later killed while on a raid into Frankish territory is confirmed by several sources, including the late sixth-century historian Gregor y of Tours. Writing within a generation of the raid, he dates it around 523 AD. A later Scandinavian source however, claims Hygelac was a Swedish king. This may be because the Geats had been assimilated with the Swedes by that time. Though some scholar s identify them with the Jutes, etymology suggests that the Geats were the Gotar people of southern Sweden who were ethnically related to the Goths. Although evidence is lacking, the accounts of the Geats in Beowulf are thought to be more historic ally accurate and detailed than those of the Danes, possibly because the information was transmitted through a historic lay, possibly because of nearness to the events, and possibly because the audience would not have known as much about the Geats through poetry.

Beowulf himself, however, is generally assumed to be a fictitious character. The fact that his name does not fit into the customary pattern of alliteration, combined with an absence of external references and his super human feats all tend to argu e against a historical grounding. Beowulf represents a type of character common to Germanic legend, though. Critics have sought analogues for Beowulf in Hrolfs saga kraka and the Grettis saga, among others. The introduction of a new hero into a world of traditional legend, a hero who can look into the past and into the future, allows the poet to explore aspects of the early stages of the legend, reconstructing what might have happened before the main story starts (Frank 98). And by manip ulating Beowulf’s character and life story, the poet reconciles competing value systems of his own world (Davis 144).

The references to the Swedes are considered mainly historical largely due to archeological discoveries at the Uppsala and Vendel-Crow grave mounds in Sweden. Ongentheow, Onela, Ohthere, and Eadgils have been corroborated as historical figures. The wars between the Swedes and the Geats in the poem may well be authentic as the Geats seem to have ceased being an independent kingdom by the mid sixth century. Poetically, these wars provide a background against which the battle of Beowulf and the drago n is played out.

For the English audience of Beowulf, Offa and Hengest would have had a special significance. Offa was the fourth century king of the Angles when they were on the continent. He was praised for noble deeds and was the traditional ancestor of Offa II who reigned over Mercia in the latter half of the eighth century. Several critics pointing to an eighth century date for Beowulf have suggested that Offa’s inclusion in the poem served to honour Offa II.

Hengest is the only character in the poem who played a direct role in English history. After Hnaef died he became leader of the Half-Danes and is thought to be the same Hengest who went to England with Horsa in 449 at the invitation of Vortigen. I n 455 they killed Vortigen, king of the Britons, and founded the kingdom of Kent. References outside the poem describe Hengest as an exile and mercenary which agrees with how he is presented in Beowulf. The fact his name means ‘stallion’ and his brother’s means ‘horse’ may also indicate a possible connection with the cult of Odin which was associated with the worship and sacrifice of stallions (Davis 55).

Eormanric, like Hengest and Offa is a heroic figure set in the more distant past than the main events of Beowulf. Allusions to these figures give an added dimension to the historical scope of the poem. Eormanric was the king of the Ostrogoth s until they were defeated by the Huns in the late fourth century. By the time Beowulf was written, he had gained a legendary reputation of incredible wealth, far-reaching power, and tyrannical cruelty.

Germanic historical legend was highly important to the Anglo-Saxons who were more and more concerned with establishing royal genealogies linking them with their continental ancestors and thereby strengthening their legitimacy. Legendary events and figures also added an important dimension for the audience of the poem who would have shared in its knowledge. Some legends, like the Ingeld allusion, foreshadow political events; others, like Heremod are examples of how not to behave. Some serve as foi ls and some are allegorical. Legendary figures and their relationships are also used to represent tribal and inter-tribal relations. In Beowulf, the poet uses legend to create a historical past that lends an air of authenticity to the fantastic d eeds of Beowulf.

For further reading

Baker, Peter S. "Beowulf." Medieval England: An Encyclopedia. Ed. Paul E. Szarmach et al. New York: Garland Publishing, 1998.

Chambers, R.W. Beowulf: An Introduction to the Study of the Poem With a Discussion of the Stories of Offa and Finn. 3rd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1963.

Crossley-Holland, Kevin. Introduction. Beowulf. Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell Press, 1987. 7-43.

The Who’s Who glossary, time chart, and genealogical tables are useful.

Davis, Craig R. Beowulf and the Demise of Germanic Legend in England. New York: Garland Publishing, 1996.

This work deals with the influence of the ‘king-cult’ of Christianity on pagan myths and legends in England. Davis looks at the relationship between kingship and kindred in the poem.

Damico, Helen. Beowulf’s Wealthow and the Valkyrie Tradition. Madison: U of Wisconsin Press, 1984.

This work presents the results of a search to examine the extent to which Wealtheow, Hrothgar’s queen, is a stock female character of Germanic poetry, and the extent to which she is an Anglo-Saxon version of an identifiable legendary figure.

Frank, Roberta. "Germanic Legend in Old English Literature," Cambridge Companion to Old English Literature. Ed. Malcolm Godden and Michael Lapidge. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1986. 88-106.

Girvan, Ritchie. Beowulf and The Seventh Century: Language and Content. Reissued with new material. London: Methuen, 1971.

Klaeber, Fr, ed. Beowulf and the Fight at Finnsburg. 3rd ed. New York: D.C. Heath, 1936.

Newton, Sam. The Origins of Beowulf and the Pre-Viking Kingdom of East Anglia. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1993.

Niles, John D. "Myth and History." A Beowulf Handbook. Ed. Robert E. Bjork and John D. Niles. Lincoln: U of Nebraska Press, 1997. 213-232.

Niles begins his essay with a chronological survey of the search for myth or history in Beowulf, points to the difficulties involved in either search, and presents seeing the poem as a ‘mythistory’ as a workable option.

Wrenn, C.L. and W.F. Bolton. Introduction. Beowulf With the Finnesburg Fragment. 4th ed. Exeter: U of Exeter Press, 1988. 34-48.