“Beowulf” study help

Grace Chalhoub, Staff Writer

Date of conception and composition

“Beowulf” is incomplete. Archaeologists have never managed to find more than the 3,182 lines of “Beowulf” that survived in the form of a single copy, which withstood the dissolution of monastic libraries under the reign of Henry VIII. 16th-18th century scholars attempted to preserve the one manuscript, but were unable to keep certain sections from crumbling away or disappearing. The single copy of “Beowulf” that has survived is from around the year 1000 AD; however, “Beowulf” is an older story, most likely an oral tale that a monk or minstrel later recorded.  Scholars have never ascertained when exactly “Beowulf” was conceived; most concur that the exact time period cannot be determined and that “Beowulf” originated in the broad window of 500-1000 AD. Scholars only agree that “Beowulf” had to have originated after some of the real events recorded in the poem occurred, but prior to the Norman Invasion and Battle of Hastings in 1066, because after 1066 Old English was abandoned for Middle English, and the literate commonly wrote in French.

Cultural origins

Revisionist-“Beowulf” scholars believe that “Beowulf” was brought by Vikings into England during the Viking invasions, specifically into East Anglia in the ninth century, and that it was translated into Anglo-Saxon. Others believe that “Beowulf” was conceived in England after the Viking invasions, citing some of the characters’ English names and the relationship between events at Sutton Hoo, Suffolk, such as its ship funerals and similar swords and armor to those described in “Beowulf.”


Some of the events and people in “Beowulf” were real. For example, King Hygelac and Hrothgar were real kings, both of whom died in the early half of the sixth century. The Battle of Ravenswood was a real battle that occurred in 510 AD. In general, disregarding the presence of monsters, “Beowulf” is a realistic story. Danish and Swedish warriors engaged in similar raids to the ones described in “Beowulf,”  and their halls and feasts resembled that of thriving Viking warriors according to primary sources and archaeologist finds.

Paganism and Christianity

Scandinavia was one of the last regions in Europe to convert to Christianity, slowly adopting it as the official religion between the 10th and 12th centuries (although paganism endured for a long time after the establishment of Catholicism). Therefore, “Beowulf,” while containing real historical figures and events, is not historically accurate in its Christian religiosity, for in the sixth century AD, when this poem takes place, Sweden and Denmark would have followed Norse paganism. The Christian piety was probably an English addition, and “Beowulf” resembles other Scandinavian pieces of literature adapted by English writers, such as “Hamlet,” in its marriage of pagan and Christian virtues and ideals.

Contemporary reception of “Beowulf”

While “Beowulf” is now venerated in the Western canon, “Beowulf” would not have been an uncommonly interesting or well-written story at the time of its composition. Romantic stories of brave knights fighting vicious monsters were extremely common forms of learning and entertainment. One of the main reasons that “Beowulf” is so esteemed today is because of its rarity; only 30,000 lines of Anglo-Saxon literature have survived to this day. So, while “Beowulf’s” original audience would not have been impressed by the story, it is extremely important to read and understand today in order to understand early Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian history, culture, and literature.

Works Cited