England: Beowulf the dragon-slayer

Beowulf is the oldest epic in any modern language of Europe, perhaps dating from the eighth century, though the only manuscript containing it is a tenth-century document (about 1000 CE) written by two scribes. The action of the story seems to take place in the sixth century.

The Epic of Beowulf has some puzzling aspects. It is clearly an old English poem, because its language is Anglo-Saxon; but its setting is Scandinavia (Denmark, Norway, Sweden, though not Finland); one of its episodes involves the massacre of some ‘Finns’, though these are not ‘Finlanders’, but ‘Frisians’ (from the Netherlands?).

The hero Beowulf belongs to the royal family of the Geats, in southern Sweden, and Beowulf saves the king of the Danes from the predations of the monster Grendel, and his mother, a troll-wife. Beowulf also slays a dragon in his own Scandinavian Geatland, though we might have thought that this is the role of Saint George in England, or Siegfried in Germany.

It is a pagan legend, a heathenish tale, yet the Christian God takes an active part in it, though not Jesus Christ.

To throw us into complete confusion, the poet introduces two characters named Beowulf into his narrative.

The first Beowulf (mentioned in lines 18 and 53) is a king of the Scyldings, a Dane (the Scyldings, descendants of Scyld, were the Danes, as distinct from the Scylfings, the Swedes).

The second Beowulf is the one who matters; he appears long after the earlier Beowulf has passed on; he eventually becomes the king of his own people, the Geats, also known as the Weders (or the Weathers, the ‘stormers’), and the Hrethlings (descendants of Hrethel, Beowulf’s grandfather).

Whatever its sources in oral tradition (various epic lays, presumably) it stands as a unified poem, although it comprises two separate stories, with Beowulf the hero in each.

First (lines 1-2199): an adventure of Beowulf’s youth, relating his fierce struggle against two monsters (Grendel and his mother, a troll-wife) and his victory over them.

Second (lines 2200-3182): Beowulf’s battle against a fiery dragon, from which the old king emerges victorious as a dragon-slayer, and the winner of a treasure-hoard, but mortally wounded by the dragon’s fire. Still, he had a long life.

The framing device for the poem is funerary, funereal. It begins with a funeral: a viking-style send-off in a boat; they consign King Scyld to the sea with all his wealth around him. It ends with another funeral ceremony, for King Beowulf, with a funeral pyre and a barrow (not a hand-cart but a grave-mound, a tumulus). 

In the year of our Lord two thousand and seven (A.D. 2007, or 2007 of the Current Era, C.E.) Beowulf arrived at the cinema. The censor's rating for Beowulf the movie was M, for mature audiences, containing violence and sexual references (wink wink, nod nod). Beowulf the epic would rate as PGV: parental guidance required; violence may offend (but there is no sex, because they are English). That means you need your parents' permission to read it, or failing that a note from your children. Yes, there is some appalling violence (or appealing violence, for sadists) in this tale of heroic derring-do. However, it is not so much nation warring against nation with large-scale battles (as in Peter Jackson's cinematic rendering of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings), but monsters massacring merry men (we are already into the characteristic alliteration of the Beowulf epic). 

There are indeed some gory scenes, and I could censor them, simply snip them out, but in the interests of maintaining the integrity of this work of art, I will not draw a veil over them; they are meant to shock us, so as to arouse sympathy for the suffering victims. However, I will certainly not be reproducing the whole poem, and now that your thirst for blood has been whetted you will want to go and read the whole epic, or at least see the computer-enhanced version with Angelina Jolie as Grendel's mother, in high heels.

Speaking of John R.R. (Ronald) Tolkien (1892-1973), in 1936 (a good year from my point of view) he delivered a lecture of fifty printed pages in length (what, all of it at once?) entitled 'Beowulf: the monster and the critics'. He wanted people to take this poem seriously. There can be no doubt that it influenced Tolkien in the creation of his own world of imaginary beings (elves, dwarfs, hobbits, and human heroes) and their protracted struggles against monsters. Tolkien's term "middle earth" actually occurs in the epic as middanyeard (line 751): when the monster grapples with Beowulf he realizes that he had not met any man 'of harder hand-grip' on 'middle earth's extremest acres' (Michael Alexander).

Characters in Beowulf
The combination sc says sh (Scyld = Shild); in my synopsis ('storyline') I use the German spelling Sch as a compromise. 

Beow/Beowulf, not the hero (l 18, 53); a Danish king, son of Scyld, an ancestor of Hrothgar. 

Beowulf, the hero of the poem; son of Ecgtheow (Edgetheow) the Waegmunding (Waymunding); nephew of Hygelac; prince, and then king, of the Geats (as in great); slayer of the two monsters (Grendel and his mother) and the treasure-guarding dragon. The name Beowulf seems to be a combination of Bear and Wolf (and that is how we may pronounce it: Bear-Wolf).

Cain, the murderer of Abel, his younger brother (Genesis 4); in the poem (104-114; 1260-1266); the monsters (Grendel and his mother) were said to be descended from Cain, cursed by God.

Danes, Hrothgar’s people, the Scyldings; another epithet is Gar-Dena, Spear-Danes; in Zealand, between Denmark and Sweden.

Ecgtheow (edj-theio), father of Beowulf; husband of King Hrethel’s only daughter

Finn, ruler of the East Frisians, and of the Jutes

Finns, a tribe, apparently of northern Norway; not the people of Finland

Franks, tribe ruled by the Merovingian kings, on the Rhine

Frisians, a tribe in Friesland (northern Netherlands)

Geats (as in great), Beowulf’s people, in southern Sweden (Gotarike)

Grendel, a monster, of super-human size and strength; he and his mother had their lair in a foul pool near the Danes’ Heorot hall; for twelve years they terrorized the Danes; Beowulf destroyed them.

Hrothgar, king of the Danes; husband of Wealtheow; builder of Heorot hall (heorot = hart, a royal animal) near Leire in Zealand; assisted by Beowulf in combatting Grendel

Naegling, the sword used by Beowulf against the dragon

(shild), founder of the Danish royal line, the Scyldings; Danes in general

Scylfings (shilfings), the Swedish royal line; Swedes in general

Sigemund, the Volsung (or Waelsing, ‘son of Waels’); portrayed as a dragon-slayer, the role usually attributed to his son Sigurd/Siegfried

Unferth, the thyle (spokesman, counsellor) of Hrothgar; taunted Beowulf

Wiglaf, a Waymunding, kinsman and loyal companion of Beowulf against the dragon  

Wyrd, Fate 

The  names in  Beowulf are numerous, and some of them belong to the genealogies of dynasties ruling in England. Beowulf himself can not be found in any known lists of royal ancestors in that world and at that time. Sadly, the heroic Beowulf is a fiction. As they say in 1066 and all that: Bad luck.

In the venerable Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the People of the Angles (Historia Ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum), written in the eighth century, we learn that the erstwhile Roman colony  of Britannia was 'won' by Germanic tribes in the latter part of the fifth century; they were Jutes and Angles and Saxons. The Saxons came from northern Germany; the Angles and Jutes were from what is now Denmark, the peninsula below Norway and next to Sweden; the Danes of those days were in the sea-lands, between Denmark and Sweden. (No Frisians?)

The Welsh (the true British, the Celtic inhabitants of Britain) called all the newcomers  Saxons, but the Saxon King Alfred (d. 899) called his people English, and his realm came to be known as Engla-land (England). (What about the Jutes? Did they emigrate to India to make jute mats, sacks, and ropes? Note that northern Denmark is still called Jutland, Jute-land.) 

Pope Gregory the Great (as I learned in primary school) saw some fair-haired Angles (English) in the slave-market in Rome, and spoke the first Latin sentence that I learned: Non Angli sunt sed angeli (They are not Angles but angels). He sent Augustine ('Austin', not Saint Augustinus of Hippo) to convert them, in 597. The mission began in the Jutish kingdom of Kent.

01   Scyld and the Scyldings, Danes 
02  Hrothgar’s palace, the mead-hall Heorot  53-85   
03  Creation of the world and origin of monsters  86-114   
04  Grendel wreaks havoc in the land  115-143   
05  Grendel holds sway for twelve years  144-188   
06  Beowulf the Geat comes to the rescue  189-319   
07  Beowulf goes to meet King Hrothgar  320-490   
08  Unferth slights the prowess of Beowulf  491-606   
09  Queen Wealhtheow greets Beowulf in the beer-hall  607-661   
10  Beowulf confronts and defeats Grendel  662-836   
11  Grendel’s death in his fen-lair   837-852   
12  Celebration, and Song of Sigemund 
13  Grendel’s arm displayed on Heorot hall  916-989     
14  Festivities and bestowing of rewards  990-1062        
15  Feasting and Song of Finn the Frisian  1063-1159      
16  Wealhtheow bestows gifts on Beowulf in the hall  1159-1250   
17  Grendel’s mother, the troll-wife, seeks revenge  1251-1381   
18  Beowulf kills her in her watery lair 1382-1569   
19  Beowulf brings back Grendel’s head and sword  1570-1802   
20  Beowulf takes leave of King Hrothgar  1802-1887   
21  Beowulf returns home to Geatland  1888-1962   
22  Beowulf reports to his uncle, King Hygelac  1963-2199   
23  Beowulf’s fifty-year reign over the Geats  2200-2210   
24  Theft from a treasure guarded by a dragon 
25  Fiery rampage of the aggrieved dragon  2302-2344   
26  Beowulf’s past exploits recounted  2345-2509   
27  Beowulf and Wiglaf slay the dragon  2510-2709   
28  Beowulf’s last words and death   2709-2820   
29  Impending doom on the Geats foretold 
30  Beowulf’s cremation and burial  3137-3182   


[1] Schyld and the Schyldings

The first problem in translating the Anglo-Saxon text is: What does the first word mean? What, indeed, because it is the word 'what': 'Hwaet'. It is like 'Lo!', calling for attention.

Schyld and Beowulf (1-25) 

    Now then! We have heard of the fame of the kings of the Spear-Danes (Gar-Dena) in days of yore, how their princes performed valiant deeds.

    Oft did Schyld Schefing wrest their mead-benches from enemy troops, from many tribes, striking terror into the Heruli (Eorle). [Not 'earls'; they were a ferocious Germanic group employed as mercenaries by the Roman empire; he conquered various tribes and evicted them from their halls (hence the reference to 'mead-benches').]

    From the time he was first found desolate, though he received solace for that, he grew up under the cloudy sky, he thrived on honours, until everyone around him, over the whale's road, had to obey him and pay tribute. That was a good king. [He arrived as a child in a boat, like baby Moses, Sargon the Great, and Cyrus the Great.]

    Later a son was born to him to be a young man in the court, sent by God as a comfort to the people for he had noticed the cruel distress they suffered when they were leaderless for a long while (lange hwile). [God is active and provident]

    Wherefore the Lord of Life, the Ruler of Glory, granted him honour in the world.  This Beowulf, son of Schyld, was widely renowned, his fame having spread throughout the Scandinavian lands (Schedelandum). 

    So should a young man work for good while under his father's protection, by means of valuable gifts, so that when he comes of age there will be good companions standing by him. [The do ut des principle: I give so that you will give (assistance because of my generosity).]

Schyld's funeral ceremony (26-52)

    Then, at the time appointed for him, though still active, Schyld passed away into the keeping of the Lord. They carried him down to the sea....

    There stood the prince's vessel, with its curved-neck prow, icy and ready. They laid him out in it, the beloved ruler, the famed distributer of rings, in the bosom of the ship, by the mast. Much treasure, fetched from far afield, was loaded on board.

    Never have I heard of a craft more splendidly furnished with weapons of war and raiment of battle, namely swords and armour.  On his breast lay many treasures to travel with him, to fare far off on the flood.... [alliteration!]

    High over his head they set up a golden banner. They let the sea carry him; they gave him to the ocean. Their spirits were sad, their mood was mournful. Men can not say with certainty, be they councillors in halls or warriors under the sky, who was to receive that cargo.

This ceremony differs from the funeral of Beowulf at the end of the poem. Beowulf is buried in a mound with his treasure. Schyld is placed in his ship, which is laden with lustrous loot (we must have alliteration) and consigned  to the waves, to drift  off into the unknown. This is a funeral voyage, not a funeral interment. Such a lost at sea disposal of the dead is difficult to verify by archeology, but  there are cases of ship-burials in the ground, from the sixth and seventh centuries in central Sweden and on the coast of East Anglia. From the same period, in Scandinavia (including Leire, the site of this poem's  central feature, namely Heorot hall) there are pseudo-ship burials: upright stones formed the outline of a boat. At Sutton Hoo, where the royal East Anglian dynasty of the Wuffings had their burial ground, a ship was discovered in 1939 (27 metres, 80 feet). Like the ship of Schyld, it contained a set of armour, and also regalia, bowls, food, drink, money, baptismal spoons, but no body. An important element, mentioned in the sagas, is missing from the Schyld funeral: fire.

02  Hrothgar’s palace, the mead-hall Heorot  53-85   
03  Creation of the world and origin of monsters  86-114   
04  Grendel wreaks havoc in the land  115-143   
05  Grendel holds sway for twelve years  144-188   
06  Beowulf the Geat comes to the rescue  189-319   
07  Beowulf goes to meet King Hrothgar  320-490   
08  Unferth slights the prowess of Beowulf  491-606   
09  Queen Wealhtheow greets Beowulf in the beer-hall  607-661   
10  Beowulf confronts and defeats Grendel  662-836      

[11] Grendel's death in his fen-lair  837-852

 Grendel the monster (a descendant of Adam's accursed son Cain)  had lived with his mother happily enough in his marshy lair till Hrothgar built his mead-hall in their vicinity. The rowdy carousing attracted their attention, and so Grendel asserted his territorial rights and also feasted on the flesh of his disruptive neighbours; he was classed as a terrorist, and Beowulf the Great Geat was called in to wage war on terror, or its Dark-Age equivalent.

After Grendel's discomfiting at the hands of Beowulf, multitudes of people gathered at Hrothgar's hall.

    In the morning there was many a warrior around that gift-hall; leaders of the people travelled from far and near over wide ways to gaze at the wonder, the tracks of the foe. 

    His parting from life was hardly thought to be grievous by any of the men who saw the footprints of the inglorious creature, showing how he had been overcome in the fight and been put to flight, wearied and doomed, leaving traces of his life-blood all the way from there to the watery lair of the monsters.

    There the water was welling with blood....

    He laid down his life, the heathen soul, in his fen-refuge; there Hell received him.

[12]  Celebration, and Song of Sigemund  853-915

    Then Beowulf's  prowess was praised....

    One of the king's thanes, a man ... with a memory for stories, who remembered a mass of old legends, improvised a new poem about Beowulf's exploit....

    He spoke of all he had heard tell of Sigemund, the son of Waels ... whose sword pierced a wondrous serpent so that the noble iron stuck in the wall; the worm died a violent death.

This prefigures Beowulf's battle with a dragon, though this bard should not know about that! His memory for the old stories is suspect, too. Siegmund the Völsung (son of Waels here) is not credited with dragon-slaying in the literature available to us; his son Sigurd or Siegfried is the one who does that, as in Wagner's Siegfried (though it is hinted in Wagner's Ring of the Nibelung that Wotan had intended that Siegmund would kill the dragon Fafner and regain the ring and the Rhine gold).

[13]  Grendel’s arm displayed on Heorot hall  916-989 

The relic of Beowulf's struggle with Grendel was put o display.

    King Hrothgar went to the hall to make a speech; he stood on the threshold, gazed at the steep roof shining with gold, and at Grendel's hand.

It had been nailed up there as a trophy, we may presume, like a stag's head with antlers; the hall's name Heorot means 'hart, stag'; and it is described as 'antlered' or 'adorned with antlers'; in this case the emblem was a hand with claws.

    For this sight, thanks must straightway be rendered to the Almighty (Alwealden). I have suffered many afflictions and sorrows at the hands of Grendel; but God can always work wonder after wonder....

    Through the might of the Lord, a warrior has now accomplished the deed that all of us could not contrive with our own skill.

    Now then (Hwaet), whichever maiden gave birth to such a son among mankind, if she yet lives, she can say that eternal God was gracious to her in her child-bearing.  

    So, Beowulf, best of men, I will cherish you in my heart as a son.... You shall lack nothing in the world if it is in my power to grant your wish.... You yourself (Dhu dhe self) have ensured with your deeds that your glory will live for ever. May the Almighty reward you with good things, as he has just done.

[23] Beowulf’s fifty-year reign over the Geats  (2200-2210)

Paraphrasing: The Geat kingdom eventually came under Beowulf's sway, and for fifty winters he ruled it wisely and well, right into his old age.

 [24 ] Theft from a treasure guarded by a dragon  (2210-2302)

Then a fiery dragon began to fly abroad in the darkness of night and wreak wilful havoc. He guarded a treasure in a lofty stone barrow (a burial mound). Beneath it lay a concealed passage; but one man broke in and reached the heathen hoard. He seized a golden goblet. The guardian, though he had been tricked by thievish cunning while he slept, became aware of this loss, and the neighbouring folk soon discovered that the dragon was angry. Yet the wrong-doer had not gone there deliberately to steal treasure, but to take refuge. He was a runaway slave of a warrior-thane. When he went in he was terrified by what he saw, but the miserable wretch still snatched the goblet.

In this underground hall there were heaps of treasures, which in the days of yore had been carefully hidden away, the imense wealth of a past dynasty. 

    In an earlier age death overtook them, and the last of the line guarded the hoard, grieving and awaiting the same fate, but knowing that for a short while only he might have and hold the long-gathered treasures.

    A new barrow stood ready on the seashore, hard by the breakers at the headland. Into it the ring-keeper bore the earl's holdings, the hoard-worthy trove of golden objects. 

    Few were the words he spoke: Earth now that heroes can not do so, you must hold the wealth of the earls. Yes, valiant men in the past took it fro you, but baneful death in battle-slaughter has swept away each one of my people; those who have given up this life had known happiness in halls.

 25  Fiery rampage of the aggrieved dragon  2302-2344   
26  Beowulf’s past exploits recounted  2345-2509   
27  Beowulf and Wiglaf slay the dragon  2510-2709   
28  Beowulf’s last words and death   2709-2820   
29  Impending doom on the Geats foretold 
30  Beowulf’s cremation and burial  3137-3182    

If Beowulf had not done that dragon to death, he might have had a guardian for his own grave.

Interpreting  Beowulf

How to practice sophisticated interpretation on myths and legends, or on epics and sagas.

But do we really need to do this? Isn’t it satisfyingly sufficient (or sufficiently satisfying) to let the stories roll over us and penetrate deep into our psyche and stir up emotional responses? Fair enough. But if we choose to go further, here are some approaches.

First ask the question: Is it poetry or prose?
That is the difference between an epic and a saga: an epic is in verse, a saga is in prose.

Beowulf is in verse, as is the German Nibelungenlied, and the Finnish Kalevala.

The Völsung Saga and the Njál Saga are in prose. In such books, poetic verses are sometimes quoted. This also happens in the Bible. The story of Israel coming out of Egypt is narrated in the Book of Exodus (the second book in the Hebrew scriptures). It is a prose saga, we could say; but at the point where the Egyptian army is overwhelmed in the sea, it suddenly breaks into poetry (Exodus 15):

    I will sing to Yahweh, for he is highly exalted,
    horse and chariot he has thrown into the sea;
    Yahweh is my strength and my song,
    and he has become my salvation.  [and so on, verses 1b-18]

    1    One view is that poetic parts are older than the prose narrative.
This is quite probable. But does it mean that poetic epics are more reliable as factual sources than prose texts, such as chronicles (the Books of Kings and Chronicles in the Bible, for example, or the writings of the Venerable Bede on Anglo-Saxon history)?

We can only say that some would-be historians let their imaginations run riot, no matter how sincere they were in their attempt to write chronicles.

We might think that prose would be more factual than poetry, but both can express fiction.

    2    Myths are attempts to explain natural phenomena.
In the Arthurian legends, we could say that the capturing of Queen Guinevere shows the coming of winter.

Many say this view is discredited, but I think there is something in it.
The simplest definition of a myth is: a story in which gods take part.
(This would mean that all the stories in the Bible are myths! But they can still be true.)

Indian Indra or Syrian Ba`al Hadad were both gods of lightning and thunder (you can hear it rumbling in their names: Indra, Hadad) and they personified the fertilizing rainstorms.

However, the Biblical view is that the one God Yahweh controls everything, including the weather, and if his people Israel commit sin against him, then he can withhold the rain and cause devastating drought.

In the Beowulf Epic, at every point God is said to be intervening. Hrothgar, King of the Danes, says regarding Beowulf: “Holy God in his grace has sent him here to us, the Western Danes, against Grendel’s oppression, I ween.  I will offer treasures to this good man for his great courage.” (380)

The notion of Fate (Wyrd) is still hovering about, though. Speaking of the men who have been eaten by the monster, King Hrothgar says: “Wyrd has swept them into the oppression of Grendel, (but) God could easily separate the mad ravager from his deeds”. (480)

The providence and omnipotence of God is affirmed: “Wondrous to tell, in his magnanimity Almighty God deals out wisdom, territory, and lordship to mankind; he has power over all things”. (1724)

God controls the seasons, causing the ice to melt in the springtime: “The Father has power over times and seasons, and that is true Providence”. (1610)

    3     Myths contain powerful symbols
Carl Jung noted that the dreams of his patients often reflected symbols found in ancient legends. An object such as the Holy Grail was the subject of a quest, and, if the search was successful, the outcome was the integration of one’s personality. I certainly think the ancient Christian poem, the Song of the Pearl, is about perfecting oneself. The hero must seize a pearl from a serpent in the ocean; having succeeded he is given a shining robe and he returns home to be reunited with his parents and his elder brother (the three members of the Godhead, the Trinity). The pearl represents faith and the robe signifies knowledge; with these he becomes integrated, achieves wholeness. The serpent represented the forces of evil; likewise in the Bible where Satan is a serpent or a dragon.

Similarly, we have evil monsters in Beowulf. There is Grendel, and Grendel’s mother.  It is suggested that they symbolize the dangerous climate of the fens (low marshy or flooded lands): Grendel’s abode or habitat was in a fen, a swamp. When Grendel was mortally wounded by Beowulf, he returned to his fen-lair to die (the very word ‘fen’ is in the Anglo-Saxon text).

But what is the symbol of good in Beowulf? I would focus on the ring. The good ruler is a distributer of rings, to keep his people unified. The warriors wore ring-mail (hringnet), a ring-mesh coat of mail, as a protection.

Treasure is another potent and desirable thing. Treasures are guarded by a dragon in these Germanic tales. When a felon took a gold goblet from a hoard in a tomb, the guardian dragon rampaged in the region. Perhaps this is simply a warning to grave-robbers, whose crime is as old as the pyramids of the Pharaohs of Egypt. Slaying the out-of-control dragon was the cause of Beowulf’s death; the fire and fangs did their deadly work before the beast expired.

    4    Myths express tensions in society
This is my understanding of the view of Lévi-Strauss.  Anyway, by defeating the two monsters, Beowulf created peace for the Danes and the Geats.  (1854)

    5    One universal story
A Maori author once said to me that there is only one story.
I had been speaking to him about the Ancient Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh. I find the same pattern in the Syriac Song of the Pearl, or Luke’s Parable of the Prodigal Son. The hero leaves home, has many adventures and experiences adversities; he comes to his senses, and returns home older and wiser.

Beowulf left his home in Geatland and went to Zealand, where his mettle was tested, but he returned home triumphant, and lived happily ever after. Well, for fifty years, until the enraged dragon disturbed his peace.

The purpose of the journey and the struggle is to make a name for oneself, to win fame and glory. As Beowulf said before slaying Grendel’s mother:
    “As we must all expect to leave our life on this earth, we must earn some renown, if we can, before death; daring is the thing for a fighting man to be rembered by”. (M.Alexander).

Again, before confronting the dragon:
“Battles in plenty I ventured in my youth; and I shall venture this feud and again achieve glory, the guardian of my people. Old though I am, if this evil destroyer dares to come out of his earthen hall”. (M.A.)

And the last words from the narrator are: [his people the Geats] “said that he was of all the world’s kings the gentlest of men, and the most gracious, the kindest to his people, the keenest for fame”. (M.A.)

Here the poet is perhaps revealing his role as a Christian cleric, invoking Christian virtues of “gentleness, kindness, graciousness”, and proving that a pagan tale has indeed been placed in a Christian framework.

We are lucky to be able to read Beowulf. There is only one manuscript available, dating from the 11th century. This is the Cotton manuscript; it is not so called because it was written on cloth or on paper made from cotton, but because it was housed in the library of of Sir Robert Cotton. From 1712 to 1730 the library was in the Strand in London; then it was moved to Ashburnham House in Westminster (an inauspicious and portentous name: ash-burn 'em). Sure enough, in 1731 a fire consumed almost all the printed books, and the volume containing Beowulf was scorched, so that its pages became brittle. Fortunately, in 1787 a Danish scholar named Thorkelin made a transcript of the text (we can understand why a Dane would be interested in it, since its first line tells us it is a tale of the Spear-Danes). The Cotton Ms is now in the British Museum Library.  Without Thorkelin's work many words would have been lost, because of the deterioration of the pages.

Originally there were two scribes who copied Beowulf around the year 1000: one wrote lines 1-1939, and the other did the rest, to 3182. They did not write it out in verse from but ran the lines on, so that it looks like a prose saga rather than an epic poem. 

Wanley's Catalogue of 1705 describes it (in a Latin note) thus: a tale of 'the wars which Beowulf, a certain Dane, sprung from the royal stock of Scyldings, waged against the chieftains of Sweden'. There are indeed some battles in the epic, but Beowulf did not get himself mixed up in them. If I remember rightly, Beowulf the Great came from Sweden to assist the Danes in the sea lands, as a pest-exterminater. But we can see how Wanley could be misled: there were two Beowulfs in the story, and the first was indeed a Dane, a Schylding, but he took no part in the action.

Michael Swanton, Beowulf (text and prose translation) 1997

Charles Kennedy, Beowulf: the oldest English epic (verse translation) 1940/1977

Michael Alexander, Beowulf (a verse translation) 1973/2001

Seamus Heaney, Beowulf ('a new translation')