By Kim Rendfeld
Was Beowulf the product of a poet’s lively imagination? Borrowed from tales told by the fire? Based on actual historical events? The more I look into the origins of oldest epic in the English language, the more I believe it is a combination of all of the above.
The folk might have told tales about a ruler’s death in battle on a foreign land. They might have made references to a sixth century enemy from today’s Sweden. They might have woven in objects from daily life such as harps and helmets. If the purpose was to entertain rather than educate during long winter nights, someone might have embellished the tale with a hero and monsters.
|A reenactor displays some replicas of grave goods |
from the Sutton Hoo ship-burial
Photo by Ziko van Dijk
We might never know the true origin of the oldest epic in the English language and will likely never know who wrote it. But even with its mysteries, it reveals something valuable: the culture of its writer.
Through the poem, we see that the characters in Beowulf are Christian but practice their faith differently than most modern day believers. They are much more interested in justice than mercy. When Grendel, the monster descended from Cain, wreaks havoc, they want vengeance. The pagan influence was still strong. The image of boars on a helmet was a sign of strength as well as a beast sacred to a god, and the characters burned their dead, piling grave goods on the pyre.
Whoever wrote Beowulf likely meant to entertain his contemporaries, perhaps even a lord looking for a diversion or claiming descent from the hero to assert power, but the poet left a gift for all generations.
Beowulf, translated by Seamus Heaney (very good reading, even if you’re not doing research)
The Origins of Beowulf: And the Pre-Viking Kingdom of East Anglia, by Sam Newton
Formation and Resolution of Ideological Contrast in the Early History of Scandinavia (PhD thesis) Carl Edlund Anderson. University of Cambridge, Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse & Celtic (Faculty of English)
Images via Wikimedia Commons in the public domain or used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License.
The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar (August 28, 2014, Fireship Press), a tale of the lengths a medieval mother with go to protect her children when she’s lost everything else. Her latest release is a companion to The Cross and the Dragon (2012, Fireship Press), a tale of love amid the wars and bloods of Charlemagne’s reign. For more about Kim visit her blog, Outtakes of a Historical Novelist, at kimrendfeld.wordpress.com or her website, kimrendfeld.com or send an e-mail to kim [at] kimrendfeld [dot] com.