Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)

Epic Anglo-Saxon poem, probably composed in one of the newly Christian English kingdoms in the 8th century. The Hero's feats take place in older, heathen settings in southern Scandinavia, from which the Angles came to Britain.

The poem begins with the ship-funeral of King Scyld. His descendant Hrothgar builds a feasting-hall, Heorot. Jealous of the sound of revelry, the man-eating Demon Grendel raids Heorot and carries off those who sleep there. After 12 years, Beowulf wrestles with him bare-handed and wrenches off the monster's arm. Grendel crawls back to his swamp to die. The ensuing celebrations are devastated when Grendel's mother arrives by night to exact vengeance. She seizes Hrothgar's counsellor. Beowulf's party track her to a bloodstained mere and find the victim's head. Beowulf dives deep into the mere and fights her. The Sword he was given fails. In a dry cavern he finds another and strikes the Monster dead, then discovers and decapitates Grendel's body. The blood consumes the blade. He returns to rejoicing and is laden with gifts. In old age Beowulf is now King of the Geats. An outlaw finds a hoard of treasure in a barrow, guarded by a Dragon. He steals a cup. The dragon burns up the countryside. Beowulf and his men are led to the barrow. Beowulf fights the dragon but is burned by its fire. All but one of his companions flee. Beowulf kills the dragon but dies himself. The treasure is loaded on his funeral-pyre and a barrow is raised as a beacon for ships.

Within this story are fragments of other dragon-slayings, hero-tales and treacheries.

Beowulf is a rare survival of early Anglo-Saxon Story. Like the Celtic Arthur, Beowulf may be an historical figure who attracted legendary exploits to his name; "Beowulf", like "Arthur", may mean "bear". But, unlike Arthur's, Beowulf's story has not been much built upon by later writers – John Gardner's Grendel (1971) shifts the focus to the adversary's viewpoint. Beowulf extols a hero-code of boasting, single combat, generous gift-giving (especially of gold) and loyalty to one's lord. The style shows a sober absence of exaggeration, other than the presence of monsters. Beowulf is saved by armour made by Weland Smith, but other Weapons may be less trustworthy, as friends may prove. There is a shadow of doom over the poem, akin to Nordic Fantasy. [FS]

This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.