This article is about the protagonist. For the epic story, see Beowulf.


Beowulf (/ˈbeɪəwʊlf/; Old English: Bēowulf [ˈbeːowulf]) is the titular hero of an epic poem named after him from the Middle Ages.

History

Origins in Geatland

As told in the surviving epic poem, Beowulf was the son of Ecgþeow, a warrior of the Swedish Wægmundings. Ecgþeow had slain Heaðolaf, a man from another clan (named the Wulfings) (according to Scandinavian sources, they were the ruling dynasty of the Geatish petty kingdom of Östergötland). Apparently, because the victim was from a prominent family, the weregild was set too high, and so Ecgþeow was banished and had to seek refuge among the Danes. The Danish king Hroðgar generously paid the weregild, and had Ecgþeow swear an oath.

Ecgþeow was in the service of the Geatish king Hreðel, whose daughter he married. They had Beowulf, who grew up with the Geats. Beowulf's childhood friend was Breca the Bronding "supposed to be the inhabitants of the island Brännö, lying off the coast of West Gothland in the Cattegat".[1] This would be a realistic location for a childhood friend of Beowulf, and the poem describes a swimming contest between them.

Zealand and Grendel

When King Hroðgar, his wife Wealhþeow, and his court were terrorised by the monstrous Grendel, Beowulf left Geatland (West Götaland) and sailed to Zealand with fourteen warriors in order to pay his father's debt. During the night, Grendel arrived to attack the sleeping men and devoured one of the other Geats before seizing Beowulf. As no manmade weapon could harm Grendel, Beowulf fought back with his bare hands and tore off the beast's arm. Grendel fled back to the bog to die from his wound, and his arm was attached to the wall of Heorot. The next day, Beowulf was lauded and a skald (scop) sang and compared Beowulf with the hero Sigmund.

However, during the following night Grendel's mother arrived to avenge her son's death and collect weregild. As Beowulf slept in a different building he could not stop her. He resolved to descend into the bog in order to kill her. They fought beside Grendel's corpse, and Beowulf finally won with the aid of an enchanted giant sword stolen from the lair's plundered wooden box.

Return to Geatland, kingdom, and death

Having returned to Geatland, Beowulf took part in a historic raid against the Franks with his king Hygelac. Higlac died during the raid, and Beowulf swam home in full armour. Back in Geatland, queen Hygd offered Beowulf the throne but Beowulf declined in favour of the young prince Heardred. However, Heardred received two Swedish princes, Eadgils and Eanmund who reported that they had fled their uncle Onela who had usurped the Swedish throne. This led to a Swedish invasion in which Heardred was killed. Beowulf was proclaimed king and decided to avenge Heardred and to help Eadgils become king of Sweden.

The event when Onela was slain was probably a historic event. Even though it is only briefly mentioned in Beowulf, it occurs extensively in several Scandinavian sources where it is called the Battle on the Ice of Lake Vänern. For example, Snorri Sturluson wrote:

Onela rode Raven, as they rode to the ice, but a second one, a grey one, hastened, wounded by spears, eastwards under Eadgils. [...] In this fight Onela died and a great many of his people. Then king Eadgils took from him his helmet Battle-boar and his horse Raven.

(Although, in Snorri's text the names are in their corresponding Old Norse forms).

Beowulf ruled the Geats for 50 years, until his realm was terrorised by a fire-breathing dragon after a thief stole a golden cup from its hoard of treasure. After unsuccessfully attacking the dragon with his thegns, Beowulf decided to pursue the monster into its lair at Earnanæs, but only his young Swedish relative Wiglaf dared join him. Beowulf's sword broke; but he dealt the dragon its death-blow with his dagger. He had been mortally wounded by the dragon's poisonous bite. Dying, he was carried out by Wiglaf, and with his last breaths named Wiglaf his rightful heir. His body was burned on a funeral pyre, and his ashes buried in a barrow by the sea.

The last three lines of the poem are, in Seamus Heaney's translation:

They [the Geats] said that 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.[2]

The statement is clear, except for the final word, lof-geornest ('keenest to seek fame'), which is two-edged. It is no shame for a hero to seek fame, but it may be possible to be too eager for it.[3]

Gallery

References

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