Beowulf is the name given to the oldest surviving English-language poem. One of the most important works of Anglo-Saxon literature, it is a true epic, with a legendary hero: Beowulf of the Geats, a Scandinavian tribe.
The story begins when Beowulf receives a message from the Danish king asking him to come to Denmark and fight a monster called Grendel which has been terrorizing Heorot, the king’s mead hall (basically a huge private pub). The Danes are in a right pickle. I mean, nobody likes the idea of being eaten by a monster while knocking back a few pints of mead, swapping battle stories and comparing lustrous facial hair with one’s fellow Danish noblemen. Yet they just can’t bear the thought of drinking at a different pub, so Grendel continues feasting on them. In sunny Sweden, Beowulf sighs, goes, “Fine. I’ll put on a clean pair of underwear and set sail, even though the weather forecast is a bit nasty.
When he gets to Heorot he not only kills Grendel with his bare hands, but also slays Grendel’s mother (bizarrely played by Angelina Jolie in the 2007 movie version), thereby saving the Danes and receiving a free pint of mead for his troubles.
The first page of the Beowulf manuscript
Geatland, 50 years later: Just like Danny Glover’s character in Lethal Weapon, Beowulf (now king of the Geats) is all set for a nice, long retirement, possibly contemplating a Baltic cruise with his wife or a leisurely trek through Tuscany in a motor home. Then a terrifying dragon attacks the country, burning everything in its path. Beowulf once again realizes that he’s the only man who is man enough to do a man’s job and sends his soldiers away so that he can take on the dragon single-handed. All except for one trusty fighting companion, Wiglaf (in the Mel Gibson role), who teams up with Beowulf in archetypal buddy film fashion and ultimately slays the fiery beast.
Sadly, our hero is mortally wounded during the battle. As he lies dying, Beowulf commands Wiglaf to build a huge burial mound called a barrow atop a cliff so that sailors returning home will remember his heroic deeds:
A barrow bid ye the battle-fanned raise
for my ashes. ‘Twill shine by the shore of the flood,
to folk of mine memorial fair
on Hrones Headland high uplifted,
that ocean-wanderers oft may hail
Beowulf’s Barrow, as back from far
they drive their keels o’er the darkling wave.
(Modern English excerpt from Beowulf chapter, 38)
No, Wiglaf didn’t say, “Huh?” on hearing those words; he actually went and built the burial mound. Here’s a photo of it, bedecked with cows.
Beowulf’s supposed barrow, or burial mound.
Beowulf was clearly aware of his own heroism and greatness. His instructions to Wiglaf were intended to make sure that he went down in history. It makes sense, right? Build a big monument, just like countless other leaders have done in the centuries since. Yet here’s what’s interesting: the only reason that Beowulf’s heroic deeds are remembered today is because of the two unknown scribes who wrote the poem. One single copy of the work survived for over a millennium. Old English words beautifully transcribed in a crumbling manuscript have preserved the legacy of King Beowulf better than any physical monument could have.
This is the power of storytelling. It rouses emotions. It inspires. And it persists.