The Old English poem Beowulf tells, in a little over three thousand lines of verse, the story of a great hero of the Geat tribe, which long ago inhabited what is now part of Sweden. Beowulf hears of the protracted sufferings of the neighboring Danes at the hands of a monster called Grendel, a wildly destructive and cannibalistic ogre who bursts, night after night, into the great hall of Hrothgar, the Danish king, and tears both the place and its defenders apart. Beowulf, seeing an opportunity for heroism, resolves to go to the aid of Hrothgar and crosses the sea with the intention of taking on Grendel singlehanded. On arrival at the Danish court he does the required amount of boasting and feasting and when Grendel arrives that night Beowulf, scorning to use a weapon, wrestles with the intruder and tears off his arm.
Grendel dies, but a greater ordeal lies ahead; for his mother, a monster even more frightening to ordinary mortals though not to Beowulf, sets out to avenge him. She and Beowulf have a phantasmagorical struggle in her underwater lair, which ends when he happens to find a sword in her cave and uses it to kill her. Loaded with gifts and praise, he returns home and tells his story to his own king, Hygelac.
There follows a fifty-year gap in the story, and when we meet Beowulf again he is an old man and has himself long been the king of the Geats. Now his own kingdom is threatened by a terrible fire-breathing dragon who guards a hoard, quite in the manner of Wagner’s Fafner. Beowulf fights the dragon; all but one of his supporters flee, but the king, with this single helper, prevails, though at the cost of his own life. The dragon’s hoard is appropriated, and Beowulf is given a ceremonial burial, along with the treasure, in a conspicuous barrow on a headland. So the basic structure of the poem consists of three episodes—Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and the dragon—though with a good deal of ancillary information concerning Danes, Geats, and other Scandinavian tribes and customs.
If you are prepared to admit that it was written in English, Beowulf is by far the oldest poem of its length in our language. When struggling through it as a student I preferred to call its language Anglo-Saxon, regarding the official description, Old English, as a trick, a means of getting into an English literature course a work in a remote Germanic dialect. My instructors could be thought to have a vested interest in the poem and the language; they had gone to a lot of trouble to learnabout them, and since teaching it was to be their chief means of support they were clearly in favor of making their study compulsory. Or so it seemed, no doubt unfairly; the poem is, after all, in the language that was spoken in England for centuries, and its greatest poem must be a legitimate object …