The Old English epic poem Beowulf has inspired well-known works of popular culture, from J. R. R. Tolkien’s epic fantasies to Grendel, John Gardner’s clever retelling of the tale from the villain’s point of view. It tells the rollicking tale of a hero who defeats two monsters and a dragon. But does the story contain a kernel of historical truth? And what can it teach us about early English society?
Beowulf ‘s unknown poet-chronicler drew on real people and events from the heroic tradition of northern Europe to explore the importance of loyalty between rulers and their warriors. The poem also depicts the dire consequences of betrayal and the legacy of a king who dies heirless: Civil war follows when Beowulf dies without a son.
The poem’s themes would have resonated strongly with early English rulers who faced perpetual threats to their authority, often from within their own families, as well as from their followers, constantly worried about maintaining their honor and their warrior status.
Historian Jennifer Paxton, a scholar of English and Irish history, explores how Beowulf provides a window into a society that struggled to balance the competitive forces that the warrior ethos often unleashed.
Paxton is clinical associate professor of history, associate dean of undergraduate studies, and director of the University Honors Program at the Catholic University of America.
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