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The branch of the Teutonic peoples to whom Beowulf, a poem of the migrations, belongs, came to England in the fifth century. The early Angles and Saxons knew nothing of any civilisation existing in Britain; they discovered it for themselves in the fourth century, and the sea-rovers pronounced it a good land, rich in booty. By the fifth Rome had withdrawn her protecting legions, and the invaders, at first mere freebooters, who raided and sailed away, began to make winter settlements on the coasts they had pillaged, and to press inland when driven by necessity. Soon little kingdoms grew up, first Kent, then Essex and East Anglia and Northumbria. The pirates, changing their modes of life, turned settlers and farmers, and for six hundred years our literature is Anglo-Saxon. What did they carry with them into England, these newcomers? What poetry or history in which no mention is made of England, but which preserved the earlier traditions of the race? Many an old lay and ballad, many a hymn, many a battle-song no doubt, but little remains. The only indisputable specimens of that literature are Widsith, The Lament of Deor, Brunanburh, Waldhere, Finnsburh, and the incomparable Beowulf. From these the rest must be conjectured, yet from these it is not impossible to frame a conception of the races from which they emanated.
When our ancestors came to these shores they were polytheists, whose gods, not omnipotent, though powerful deities, dwelt in Asgard, where Odin, chief of the twelve mighty ones, had his Valhalla, whither he summoned all warriors who fell in battle.1 The constitution of the Saxons was a species of free monarchy, in which kingship is of the patriarchal type, and the monarch the friend and shepherd of his people. The chief or earl had his followers, the comitatus described by Tacitus, but his own distinguished descent or prowess gave him pre-eminence. Outside the comitatus stood the nation of freemen, less wealthy than the earl's retainers, but more independent, men free to speak and not unwilling to defend their words with blows. An emotional though fierce folk, warriors all, they were little given to agriculture or the peaceful arts; of many tribes probably, but tribes not inhabiting for long any fixed geographical area. These tribes met and mingled or fought, coalesced or separated into new groups, for ever in unrest. They were plunderers, when plundering was possible; they battled as they lived in smaller or larger groups, perpetually swaying back and forward as the tides of war or conquest or defeat determined. One who has read De Quincey's Revolt of the Tartars can figure to himself the movements of these untamed northern multitudes, who crossed the Rhine and Danube as the fever of battle, the scourge of famine, or who knows what strange impulse drove them. To rule among such wild and turbulent tribes was to be a wielder of weapons, a master of rude eloquence, a tempest-lover and cloud-compeller. These men knew no towns—no city or town is mentioned in Beowulf-regarding them even in the conquered lands as tombs; they felt imprisoned within walls, praelio gaudentes, they were most at home in the battle-camp or in their galleys threshing over angry seas.
1 These are Scandinavian forms. We know little or nothing about English pre-historic religion.
Curious it is that of these indubitable ancestors of ours we know almost nothing. There are the accounts given by Tacitus in his Germania, and of Jordanes, himself a Goth, in his De Rebus Geticis, written in the sixth century. But of that long history of the German peoples before they drove their terrible wedges into the vast structure of Roman civilisation, we are almost wholly ignorant. And of documents which teach us anything of their beliefs and ways of life, their methods of warfare, their social and political constitutions, there are, besides Beowulf, but few and fragmentary remains. None of the arts save that of poetry were sufficiently advanced to leave any monuments. Of their architecture and metal work, their music or drawing, we can only judge from fibulæ or pieces of armour recovered from burial mound or earthwork, or from the scanty remains of some ancient burgh. And though for many a century in their own northern lands the German races must have climbed from primitive savagery to a civilisation that contained noble elements, the long and painful progress is a matter of inference rather than of recorded facts. It is for this reason that Beowulf, even were it not an epic of high dignity and poetic worth, must rank as priceless—an historic picture, the only picture extant, of a world long departed and irrecoverable. It illuminates the vast dim tract of an unknown human story, ages of lives; it recreates for the modern man the world of Northern Europe in the pre-Christian era; it gives meaning and content to such bare outlines as are provided by historians and chroniclers; to arms and armour, jewels and ornaments recovered from ditch and barrow, to the broken timbers of old galleys, to the moats and mounds of old townships, it adds a real and living interest. From this poem alone, taken with the remains of ancient German civilisation which the museums preserve for us, is possible at least the partial reconstruction of a society which endured many a hundred years, and yet is otherwise almost wholly beyond our ken, a society whose features, however unconscious of it we may be, are still represented in the political and social order of these our islands. Here is our race in the vigour of its early prime, in this mirror we catch reflections of our own national features, for a moment the curtain is raised upon scenes of a forgotten life shared by millions through centuries of time.
It was a life in many respects like that described by Homer, though a gulf of ages separates the two poems—not less than fifteen hundred years. Homer's heroes belong to the age of bronze, Beowulf to the age of iron. Homer has the courtlier air, though the Christian poet has also somewhat softened and humanised the spirit of the times. Homer speaks of Fate much as does Beowulf, he has the same delight in weapons and armour, the arrow sings, the mail rattles with him as in the Anglo-Saxon epic, his heroes boast in the same strain; the dead Homeric hero, like Beowulf, is placed upon a funeral pyre and the ashes when the body is consumed placed in a like burial mound or barrow. For both a dirge is sung, and like ceremonies take place around the tomb. The warriors in Homer would have understood and fraternised with Beowulf and his men, have exchanged gifts with them in the same fashion as with their own countrymen, fought against or side by side with them not as strangers but men of the same world. Yet in Homer there is evidence of refinement and even luxury, of the sumptuous arts which adorn life, unknown to Beowulf. Hrothgar's hall is of wood, Troy itself was a walled city, and the palace of Priam was built of stone. Andromache in the Iliad orders her handmaidens to set a great tripod on the fire that Hector “ might have warm washing when he came home out of the battle.” In the palace of Menelaus in the Odyssey there is “ flashing of bronze through the echoing halls, and the flashing of gold and of amber and of silver and of ivory.” In the high-roofed hall of Alcinous “brazen were the walls which ran this way and that from the threshold to the inmost chamber, and round them was a frieze of blue, and golden were the doors that closed in the good house. Silver were the door-posts that were set on the brazen threshold, and silver the lintel thereupon, and the hook of the door was of gold. And on either side stood golden hounds and silver, which Hephaestus wrought by his cunning. And without the courtyard hard by the door is a great garden, of four plough-gates, and a hedge runs round on either side. And there grow tall trees blossoming, pear-trees and pomegranates, and apple-trees with bright fruit, and sweet figs, and olives in their bloom." 2
The student approaches the closer study of this noble poem as the mariner some difficult coast. The land looms up through a forbidding haze of formidable and inconclusive exegesis. For a thousand years after its completion it lay undiscovered, and when brought to light became the centre of a second and equally
1 See for a more detailed comparison Mr. Chadwick's Heroic Age, which I saw too late to make use of in this volume.
* Butcher and Lang, Odyssey, Bks. iv and vii.
heated“ Homeric” problem. First catalogued and described by Humfrey Wanley in 1705 as “a fine example of Anglo-Saxon poetry” when found by him among the manuscripts of Sir Robert Cotton-by whom it had been no doubt bought at the dispersion of some monastic library—it was damaged by the fire which destroyed many of the Cottonian manuscripts in 1731. In 1753 it passed to the keeping of the British Museum, was copied there by Thorkelin, a Danish scholar, in 1786, and the first edition of it, printed by him, with a Latin translation, appeared in 1815. Five years later it was first translated into a modern language, Danish, by Grundtvig, from the publication of whose version dates the stormy debate, darkened by personal passions, which has since raged round it, a debate whose thunders still mutter round the academic horizon.
The MS. is the work of two scribes, men of the tenth or eleventh century, who were possibly unacquainted with the language they transcribed. They wrote clearly however, and though capitals and punctuation are irregular, separate words sometimes run together, and the lines do not correspond to the verses, Beowulf may be regarded as a fine MS. There is little doubt that it was copied from a much earlier original or reproduction of an original probably of the seventh century.1
It has been argued that Beowulf was an historical person, who fell in Jutish battle in the year 340, and that the poet was his contemporary; it has been much more generally believed that he is the creation of the epic muse. Beowulf's name does not appear in history, his deeds are obviously mythical. It has been held again that he was a relative of Hygelac (identical with the Chochilaicus mentioned by Gregory of Tours), king of the Geats, who fell in battle against the Franks in the sixth century, that he gained great renown among Danes and Angles for his martial exploits in the campaign in which Hygelac perished, and that to this hero was added the fame of the mythical Beow or Beowa, of the lineage of the gods, the slayer of dragons. A mortal, by his valour grown to greatness, thus entered the
1 There are at least two intermediate stages between our MS. and the seventh century.