The subject matter is partly historical and partly mythical. The deeds and character of an actual hero may have furnished the first suggestions for the songs, which were finally elaborated into Beowulf, as we now have it. The poem was probably a long time in process of evolution, and many different scops doubtless added new episodes to the song, altering it by expansion and contraction under the inspiration of different times and places. Finally, it seems probable that some one English poet gave the work its present form, making it a more unified whole, and incorporating in it Christian opinions.
We do not know when the first scop sang of Beowulf’s exploits; but he probably began before the ancestors of the English came to England. We are unable to ascertain how long Beowulf was in process of evolution; but there is internal evidence for thinking that part of the poem could not have been composed before 500 A.D. Ten Brink, a great German authority, thinks that Beowulf was given its present form not far from 700 A.D. The unique manuscript in the British Museum is written in the West Saxon dialect of Alfred the Great’s time (849-901).
The characters, scenery, and action of Beowulf belong to the older Angle-land on the continent of Europe; but the poem is essentially English, even though the chief action is laid in what is now known as Denmark and the southern part of Sweden. Hrothgar’s hall, near which the hero performed two of his great exploits, was probably on the island of Seeland.
[Illustration: FACSIMILE OF BEGINNING OF COTTON MS. OF BEOWULF.]
Lo! we, of the Gar-Danes in distant days,
The folk-kings’ fame have found.
How deeds of daring the aethelings did.
Oft Scyld-Scefing from hosts of schathers,
From many men the mead seats [reft].
The student who wishes to enter into the spirit of the poem will do well to familiarize himself with the position of these coasts, and with a description of their natural features in winter as well as in summer. Heine says of the sea which Beowulf sailed:—
“Before me rolleth a waste of water ... and above me go rolling the storm clouds, the formless dark gray daughters of air, which from the sea in cloudy buckets scoop up the water, ever wearied lifting and lifting, and then pour it again in the sea, a mournful, wearisome business. Over the sea, flat on his face, lies the monstrous, terrible North Wind, sighing and sinking his voice as in secret, like an old grumbler; for once in good humor, unto the ocean he talks, and he tells her wonderful stories.”
Beowulf’s Three Great Exploits.—The hero of the poem engaged in three great contests, all of which were prompted by unselfishness and by a desire to relieve human misery. Beowulf had much of the spirit that animates the social worker to-day. If such a hero should live in our time, he would probably be distinguished fur social service, for fighting the forces of evil which cripple or destroy so many human beings.