The Scandinavian Origins of Beowulf
Updated: Mar 10, 2019
Beowulf is an Old English poem, and is the oldest writing in Old English extant. Beowulf's story is set in Scandinavia. Beowulf's tribe is the Geats, who reside in Götaland in modern Sweden. Beowulf rescues Hrothgar, the Danish King, whose mead hall in Heorot has been under attack by a troll named Grendel. After Beowulf slays Grendel, Grendel's mother attacks Hrothgar's hall. Beowulf also slays Grendel's mother. Having won great fame, Beowulf returns home to Götaland, and becomes king of the Geats. After fifty years go by, Beowulf defeats a dragon, but is mortally wounded in the battle. After his death, his attendants cremate his body in a great funeral and erect a tower in his memory. Beowulf survives in a single manuscript dated on palaeographical grounds to the late 10th or early 11th century. To see this manuscript digitized and to read about its dating, see this link: http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=cotton_ms_vitellius_a_xv
Since there is no doubt as to when we can date the one surviving manuscript to, there is considerable debate by scholars as to the dating of the "story." Scholars date the origins of the story between the 8th and 11th centuries, and the debate is heated. Those arguing for an early date believe that the Anglish Heathens brought the story over, even though the story doesn't mention the Anglish people nor the Saxons. Those arguing for the later dates believe the story to be Scandinavian in origin. The Danes ruled England in what is known as the "DaneLaw" (or DaneLag) from 868-954 AD. Cnut the Great, a Danish King, conquered England and ruled it from 1016–1035 AD. Cnut's Danish successors Ruled England through 1042 AD. The Danes ruled England in two separate periods for around 120 years.
Anglish Origins View: Those who hold to this view argue that Old English language proves its "English" origins. Therefore, the Anglish tribes who came into England (Angle-land) from Germanic lands brought this folktale with them from 420 AD onward. The story somehow survived the christianization of England (that was complete by 655 when the last Heathen king Penda was killed), and survived Danish Rule in what was known as the DaneLaw. The issues with this view are many. The historical people in the poem Beowulf are dated to the late 6th century, after the Migration to England by the Anglish was over. Arguing Anglish peoples from Germany in the 400s AD brought a Scandinavian poem containing historical Danes, Geats, and Swedes from the 580s AD, has obvious difficulty. It is more plausible that the Danes brought a story of their ethnic past, and Danish rule in England did coincide with the only manuscript of Beowulf that we have. The Danes had reasons to care about these people. The English did not, especially post christianization.
Scandinavian Origins View:
This is the view I hold, and I personally do not think the Anglish origins view holds any water. To quote Dr. John Niles, "the probable role of ethnic Danes in bringing the story across the North Sea in its primitive form can really no longer be questioned." Beowulf is about Geats, Swedes, and Danes. It is set in Denmark and Scandinavia, and Angles and Saxons are never mentioned in the poem. The story bears resemblance to the Danish Saga Hrólfs saga kraka, or the Saga of King Hrolf Kraki. While there are many differences between the story of Beowulf and the Saga of Hrolf Kraki, there are many similarities. Many of the same characters appear in their corresponding Old English forms: Hrólfr Kraki appears as Hroðulf, his father Helgi as Halga, his uncle Hróarr as Hroðgar, his grandfather Halfdan as Healfdene and their clan, the Skjöldungs, as the Scyldings. Moreover, some of their enemies also appear: Fróðo as Froda and king Aðils of Sweden as the Swedish king Eadgils. Considering the length of time the Danes ruled England, and considering the story of Beowulf is set in Denmark and Scandinavia, and the fact that England was so thoroughly Christian for a considerable time before the "Viking Invasions" and the arrival of the Great Heathen Army, Scandinavian origin is more plausible, especially given the Scandinavian willingness to learn the vernacular language of the places they conquered and resided. To quote Dr. Niles again: "Stories generally move with people; they do not waft through thin air. To the extent that people were crossing between Denmark and Britain during the period beginning circa 835 AD and continuing well into the tenth century, conditions were favorable for the dissemination of Danish cultural elements of all kinds into Britain." This certainly is true in the DaneLaw period almost a century in length, and the period when the Danish King Cnut the Great and his heirs ruled all England for over 25 years.
Excavations: Excavations at Lejre, Denmark between 1986-1988 found a large hall, and a grave mound. The poem of Beowulf mentions a large grave-mound next to Heorot. This hall is dated to circa 630 AD. In 2004-2005 more excavations were done and a second large hall was found one kilometer away which is dated to circa 550 AD, the exact time period of the story of Beowulf. The Scylding kings of Beowulf are universally acknowledged to be the far-famed Skjöldung kings of Danish tradition which is ﬁrmly localized at Lejre. There are zero other major settlements pertaining to the Viking Age in Scandinavia where there is evidence of two halls being built on separate but nearby sites, the second in succession to the ﬁrst. The size of the two halls is significant, both being half a football field in length (48 meters, over 150 feet). Beowulf claims King Hrothgar as building ‘the biggest of halls’ and "best of halls" in five different locations in the poem of Beowulf: verses 78, 146, 285, 658, 935.)
A map of the DaneLaw (or Danish Rule) in England, the Kingdom of Guthram at 892 AD.
A Map showing Cnut the Great's Rule from 1016-1035 AD
A list of scholars and books arguing for Scandinavian origin of the Beowulf story: 1. Greenblatt, Stephen; Simpson, James; David, Alfred, eds. (2012). The Norton Anthology of English Literature (Ninth ed.). New York: W. W. Norton & Company. pp. 36–39. 2. Newton, Sam (1993). The Origins of Beowulf and the Pre-Viking Kingdom of East Anglia. Woodbridge, Suffolk, ENG: Boydell & Brewer. ISBN 978-0-85991-361-4. 3. Waugh, Robin (1997). "Literacy, Royal Power, and King-Poet Relations in Old English and Old Norse Compositions". Comparative Literature. 49 (4): 289–315. doi:10.2307/1771534. JSTOR 1771534
4. My my personal favorite:“On the Danish Origins of the Beowulf Story.” From 'Anglo-Saxon England and the Continent', ed. Hans Sauer and Joanna Story. Tempe, AZ: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2011. 41–62. Pages 41-62, by John D. Niles Please join us on the Facebook Group Saxon