This is the greatest poem of the Anglo Saxon corpus of poetry, and was written down in its current form around the year 1000, a long time after Bede wrote his history, and even longer after the supposed 6th century date of the actual events. The content of the poem is probably based on orally transmitted stories – yep, storytelling! – and was written down at some point in the early Christain period. Whether the poem was composed orally and then written down, or whether it was composed as a written poem from older sources is a source for debate. It doesn’t matter – whichever way, it is an extremely powerful work, and gives a glimpse into the mindsets of this distant world.
If you haven’t read it, I would strongly recommend that you do so: not only is it an important poem, but also a gripping story. The eponymous hero saves the day through his strength and cunning when an unholy monster and his mother threaten the security of Hrothgar’s hall, Heorot. Ironically, the hall itself is eventually destroyed by fire during the struggles for kingship that follow Beowulf’s intervention. The story then jumps to Beowulf, now a king, in his old age, and his battle with a dragon. The language is powerful and raw, and themes cover far more emotional ground than the bare bones of the story suggest.
I was lucky enough to learn Anglo Saxon whilst doing my Medieval Studies MA, and this allowed me (just about!) to read Beowulf in the original language – a swift learning curve, I can tell you, and a galling one, too. Anglo Saxon is closer to modern German or Dutch than it is to modern English, so the German and Dutch speaking students on the course swiftly pulled ahead of us native English speakers – ah well, at least it illustrated for us the shared culture that dates back to these very times! I wouldn’t expect that you would want to tackle the original, but there are many translations and retellings out there. A quick flip onto Amazon shows me the latest retelling by Seamus Heaney from 2009, and the recently released translation by Tolkien. I confess I have read neither! But whichever translation you chose, you will be delving deep into the English subconscious.
The story, however, does seem to have its roots in the reality of 6th century Denmark, and the characters appear in a number of Scandinavian sagas as well as in the English poem Widsith – including mention of Hrothgar and Hrothulf, and their war with Ingeld. These sagas tend to be more focused on the ordinary wars between the various peoples of Denmark, rather than the fascination with monsters that makes Beowulf such a compelling read.