Composition and dating: Primarily from the poet's conspicuous Christian commentary, scholars date the poem sometime in the early- to mid-eighth century (roughly 750 A.D.), the period when Christianity began really to overtake the paganism of the early Anglo-Saxon British peoples. An imperfect tenth-century manuscript is the oldest surviving manuscript. The author is unknown, but stylistic evidence indicates that Beowulf is the work of a single author, almost certainly a learned and well-read Christian clergyman of Angle tribal origins (the "Anglo"in "Anglo-Saxon").
Historical importance: While earlier writings in the Old English vernacular have survived, including a variety of religious poetry, verse lists of rulers and places, legal documents, common sayings and spells, riddles, love poems, meditations, and brief tales or songs of kings and other legendary heroes, Beowulf is easily the most important literary work in the Old English tongue, and it is accepted as both "the first major poem in a European vernacular language" (Drabble 90) and "the chief literary monument of the Old English period" (Baugh 92).
Literary quality: Translations into modern English such as ours in the Norton text often approximate the poem's alliterative verse structure (dependent on repetition of sounds within lines and halves of lines), but scholars of Old English assert uniformly that the full power and stylistic grace of the poetry are fully evident only in its original language. Stylistically, the Beowulf author is considered a rare and true master of his artistic craft. The parallel structuring of the two primary episodes of Beowulf's youthful encounters with Grendel and his mother and his later confrontation with the dragon is also much admired by literary scholars. There is clear artistry in the ways the two primary episodes balance, mirror, expand, and compare and contrast the central theme of heroism in youth and age (Baugh 94).
Historical setting: The story is set in sixth-century Scandinavia. Beowulf's tribe, the Geats, were a Germanic tribe in southern Sweden, and Hrothgar, whose people Beowulf defends in the first episode of the poem, is a Dane (as in the people of Denmark). Beowulf's Geatish king, Hygelac, is an actual historical figure, and the events in Beowulf are described in Germanic legends and myths with varying degrees of historical basis in Nordic, German, and other Old English literature as well (Drabble 90). Beowulf mixes historical fact and legendary or mythical fiction liberally and extensively, drawing upon fifth- and sixth-century traditions of three Scandinavian peoples, the Geats, Danes, and Swedes.
The pagan, and also the Christian: Historically, the Germanic Scandinavian tribes held pagan beliefs in the period of the action of the poem (the 500s), but the Beowulf poet clearly emphasizes Christian morals and ideals in thought and behavior. Especially in the latter portion of the poem, Beowulf becomes a Christ-like figure who sacrifices himself in order to save his people. The poem as a whole is a spiritualized glorification of the heroic age of the Germanic culture which the Angles and Saxons brought with them when they settled in the Christian Roman province of Britannia in the fifth and sixth centuries.
The purpose: Beowulf seems clearly intended to celebrate and sustain the cultural heritage of the early Anglo-Saxon British by glorifying traditions from their Germanic origins in the distant past (200-300 years previous to the time of composition). It is of vital importance to keep in mind that this poem, written in the 700s, is a story of the distant past—circa 520 A.D. The "English" people of the time when the poem was composed, descended from the Angles and Saxons as they were, were now centuries removed from the period described in the poem. Although it is an English composition, it hearkens back to the original Scandinavia from which their forefathers came.
Reading points: As you read, consider or be on the lookout for the following:
Different qualities or aspects of heroism, in Beowulf and in other characters.
Conspicuously Christian ideals, beliefs, or behavior. More narrowly, consider Beowulf's reliance on Old Testament ideals in comparison with New Testament beliefs.
Pagan notions of honor and revenge—and especially pagan ideals in conflict with Christian ones.
The importance of the poem's purpose in glorifying a past that precedes formation of the author's contemporary English "nationality."
Features or aspects of Beowulf found in other tales or traditions of myth or legend.
Features or aspects of Beowulf common in imaginative works from our own time (novels, movies, television shows, etc.).
Ways that Beowulf, old as it is, may be considered still relevant for modern readers.
For more on Beowulf:
An extensive collection of links to a variety of online Beowulf resources is available at http://www.heorot.dk/beo-links.html. To hear a reading of the first section of the poem in the original Old English, visit https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_K13GJkGvDw.
Works Cited (and consulted)