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Was Beowulf Real?

Instructor: David Boyles

David has a Master's in English literature and is completing a Ph.D. He has taught college English for 6 years.

''Beowulf'' is an epic poem about a legendary Anglo-Saxon king. Like many figures of legend, such as King Arthur, Beowulf was probably based in part on a real king whose story was told and embellished for generations, making it difficult to separate fact from fiction.

A Legendary King

Beowulf is a poem that was written in Old English sometime between the 8th and 11th centuries. It survives in a single manuscript copy and was written down by an anonymous author known only as the 'Beowulf poet.' Despite centuries of work by scholars since the manuscript was first discovered in the 15th century, very little is known about its background or context.

However, Beowulf remains one of the most important works of English literature. It is an epic poem set in Scandinavia that tells of the exploits of the legendary warrior-king Beowulf, who battles the monster Grendel, Grendel's mother, and finally a dragon that is threatening his kingdom.

There has long been speculation about whether Beowulf was 'real' or not. Like all legendary stories, Beowulf mixes elements of fact and fiction, and there is historical evidence for many of the events that the poem depicts. However, there has been no evidence discovered of a real Beowulf, and scholars speculate as to whether or not the 'Beowulf poet' completely invented him or not.

Legendary Storytelling

For modern readers, it can be frustrating to read a story like Beowulf that does not distinguish between what is true and what is not. That's because we now have clearly defined distinctions between stories that are fiction, like novels and short stories, and nonfiction, like history books. Today, if a book that claims to be history is found to have elements that are made up, we consider it to be a fraud.

However, this is a rather modern way of viewing storytelling. Many older civilizations did not clearly distinguish between fact and fiction. They would tell stories of their history and heroes, often orally but also in writing, that freely mixed real events with fictional elements. As the stories were repeated by generations of storytellers and writers, new elements were added to it. Literary scholars and historians call these kinds of stories about historical figures and events that contain fictional or unsubstantiated elements legends.

Beowulf and Legends

The manuscript of Beowulf that we have today in many way resembles other legendary stories, like those of King Arthur, for instance. It does mix real characters and events with stories of dragons and monsters. However, unlike with King Arthur, for which we have evidence of many written and oral stories going back hundreds of years, we only know Beowulf from this one text.

Beowulf does overlap with other legendary texts from Scandinavia, primarily the Norse sagas, a collection of legendary stories about the ancient Viking tribes of northern Europe. However, Beowulf, the character, never appears in any of these stories.

Therefore, some scholars think the 'Beowulf poet' made him up entirely and borrowed characters and events from other legendary stories. However, other scholars point out that we have only fragmentary remains of the writing from this period, so Beowulf could have appeared in other stories that were lost. And other scholars hold out hope we will find evidence of a real king on which Beowulf was based.

What is 'Real' in Beowulf

So what is real in Beowulf? Scholars have been able to verify some of the events and characters in the poem.

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