Saturday, 3 March 2012


History is a tricky context for Beowulf. The poem's relationship to actual events is a little less 'real' than Sharpe’s relationship to the Napoleonic wars, a little more than King Arthur’s to the actual history of the sixth-century. Michael Swanton notes that ‘some of the Beowulf-poet’s references are clearly intended to be historical, even in the context of the poem’, such as ‘the Swedish king Ongentheow, who was killed in battle by the Geats early in the sixth-century’. He goes on:
The latest externally corroborated historical reference in the poem is to the death of Hygelac, Beowulf’s own lord and uncle. We know from reliable historical sources that Hygelac was killed during a piratical raid on Frisian territory under Frankish suzerainty about the year 521 A.D. It is possible to erect a chronology based on the known date of this raid on the Rhine. Hrothgar must have reigned in Heorot during the last decades of the fifth century. Then after Hygelac’s death some time elapsed before Beowulf could be persuaded to take the Geatish throne—possibly as a puppet of the great Swedish king Onela; and then we are told that he had a long and successful reign before finally meeting his end confronting a dragon. If Beowulf can be said to have lived at all, then he must have reckoned to have died shortly after the middle of the sixth-century, say between 550 and 570 A.D. [Swanick, 7-8]
There is no ‘ Beowulf’ recorded in the histories (although some scholars think he may be a version of a Danish warrior called Bothvar Bjarki).  Maybe he is a purely fictional character; although as Swanick notes the fact that Beowulf fights supernatural monsters is not in itself a reason to dismiss his possible historicity—or else the fantastical stories that attached themselves to Charlemagne or Richard Lionheart would have us doubting their historical reality. But here's what I think.  If we take the name ‘Beowulf’ to be a version of the OE word for ‘bear’ (as some do), then it is possible the legend records something else. Beowulf’s stories share the sixth century with another mythic-historical figure, King Arthur; and it is perfectly possible that rather than being a single man, ‘Arthur’—whose name also means ‘bear’—is a conflation of stories in quasi-religious celebration of the bear-like warrior as a type. The Old English had a great deal of respect for the strength and reckless courage of the bear; not least its ability to mash-up a human being beyond all recognition. A bear-god was widely worshipped, and a warrior of particularly heedless ferocity would be honoured with the name berserkr, or ‘bear-like fighter’. Beowulf, the bear-warrior (like King Arthur, the Royal Bear), may articulate something more important to his culture than mere history.

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