Beowulf and the North Before the Vikings

Original Publication: People Disc – HM0232 (Photo by Haywood Magee/Getty Images)
Southwick Codex, c. 1000. Copyright: British Library

My book asks what the old poem Beowulf can tell us about the history of the North in the post-Roman period, the fifth and sixth centuries – a place and a time for which we have almost no other written sources. 

One reason I wrote it is that so many people thought this was a really bad idea. This is mostly Tolkien’s fault. Back in 1936 he told the scholarly world it had got to stop treating Beowulf as a historical document, and see it as a fantasy, about dragons and trolls and a hero who was a were-bear: because fantasy was a legitimate artistic mode. The scholarly world listened, and nodded, and that’s been the way things are ever since.

Well, let’s just ask, back in 1936, who had a strong personal motive for boosting fantasies about dragons and trolls? Someone, perhaps, who’d been writing them in secret for twenty years, and who had just gone public, only a few weeks before, by handing in The Hobbit to his publishers? In 1936, Tolkien was making a very personal point, for a very personal reason. In reality, he took Beowulf as history very seriously, and had good ideas about it, published only after he died. But they haven’t been noticed.

Another reason for writing it is a conversation I had long ago with Frands Herschend, Professor of Archaeology at Uppsala University. I mentioned to him a phrase in the poem about “taking away the mead-benches from many tribes”, and I said that must have been a way of putting local power-centres out of commission. And he looked at me and said, “But that’s just what we’re finding!” Mead-halls which have been smashed: not plundered, completely destroyed, even with an element of ritual.

We’re looking at a roll-up process, as a dominant group – in Beowulf, the Scyldings – takes over the other tribes, Helmings and Brondings, and Wylfings, and starts the process of turning them all into Danes (which we think means “the Flatlanders”).

Well, that’s what the archaeology shows, and there have been many further discoveries of which Tolkien knew nothing – some of them very dramatic – which very much strengthen the case for Beowulf-as-history.

I’d add that the period we’re talking about – and by sheer chance we can confirm this as the decades before and after about 530 – was a time when, as I put it, “the roof fell in” for Scandinavia, leading to what another archaeologist has more moderately called the “central cultural trauma” for the whole region. Famine, poverty, civil war, no-survivor vendettas. One thing that got me was a hall in south Sweden, which had been burned down with people still inside it. The bodies hadn’t been buried. Marks on the bones showed they’d been gnawed by dogs. 

A speaker in Beowulf looks forward to just this fate, only it’s put more poetically. Wolves and ravens, not just stray dogs. This “cultural trauma” is corroborated by later legends as well as archaeology, but it’s told in more detail, and sometimes much more plausibly, in Beowulf.

One thing this explains is why the Viking raids of the late 700s were such a shock. Because raiding Britain from the sea, which had been absolutely normal for centuries (where did the Anglo-Saxons come from? as raiders from across the sea): well, for about 250 years, approx. 550-800, it had STOPPED. Now we know why.

Another good question, not often asked, is why someone in England, centuries later, was so interested in what happened long ago in Denmark and Sweden that he wrote a long poem about it, and was confident that people would understand him. My book explains that too. It wasn’t just Angles and Saxons who emigrated to England, it was Scandinavians as well, people who had good reason for emigrating, and (once you look for them) there are still traces of that early pre-Viking movement. Later on, the Vikings too may have remembered it. Once they’d got their nerve back, you might say.

The best thing about my book (I think) is the way the archaeology fits so well with what it says in the poem, down even to quite minute details – as Tolkien pointed out, much later than 1936, to mostly deaf ears. I owe a great debt to Prof. Herschend and his colleagues, Dr. Kastholm and Prof. Rundkvist and Dr. Ljungkvist. Their work deserves to be much better known, and it’s not finished yet! Who knows what will be found next?

By Tom Shippey

Buy the book now, here!

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