A dragon is no idle fancy. Whatever may be his origins, in fact or invention, the dragon in legend is a potent creation of men's imagination, richer in significance than his barrow is in gold. Even to-day (despite the critics) you may find men not ignorant of tragic legend and history, who have heard of heroes and indeed seen them, who yet have been caught by the fascination of the worm.
J R R Tolkien: Beowulf The Monsters and the Critics, 1936 (quote copyrighted by HarperCollins Publishers, London)
The Old English (Anglo-Saxon) poem Beowulf is widely regarded as the first great English heroic poem, and yet its subject is not England but men and women from Germanic legend and history. It takes place in Northern Europe before Christianity had reached that part of the world. The poet, who wrote centuries later than the time of the poem's action, was a Christian and may even have been a churchman, but he claimed for his subject pre-Christian nations living in and around the lands from which the Anglo-Saxons had originally migrated to England (during the 5th century AD). He admires the characters he describes, especially the hero Beowulf, but there is poignancy in his admiration, for he knows that these brave and eloquent people were ignorant of the revelation generally believed to the essential for Christian salvation.
The manuscript in which Beowulf survives, the single copy of which today is kept in the British Library, has been dated to around the year 1000, but evidence in the manuscript itself suggests that it is a copy of an earlier copy of the poem, not an author's holograph. Throughout most of the 20th century there was widespread scholarly agreement that the original poem was most likely composed between 650 and 800, although recent research has shed some doubt on this, so that scholars are as uncertain as ever about the actual date of the poem's composition. The story told in Beowulf can roughly be devided into two parts, the latter of which this book contains, both in the original Anglo-Saxon or Old English language, and in a verse-translation by John Porter (1984). The first part describes how a powerful warrior from the land of the Geats (a Scandinavian people dwelling in southern Sweden) travels to Denmark to do battle with the man-eating ogre Grendel and his mother who are killing the thanes of King Hrothgar in a series of nocturnal attacks. Beowulf rids the Danes of their tormentors and returns to Geatland, where he puts his great strength at the service of his own people in their wars with hostile neighbours. Eventually, he becomes King of the Geats, ruling his people for fifty prosperous years, until a dragon begins to terrorise the land.
Beowulf is famed as the most sustained demonstration of the power and range of Old English poetry. It weaves together a thrilling storyline with snatches of mythological and historical events from the Age of Migration that also occur in other texts from Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse sources, and takes up themes that form the very core of Anglo-Saxon poetry in general: appreciative descriptions of valour in battle, stirring speeches, elegiac reflections on man and his world, love of the past, and a keen sense of the transience of things. Scholars have tried to distinguish between the historical and the fabulous of supernatural elements, or between history, heroic legend, and folklore. There are historical elements, eg the stories of Hygelac and of the Geatish-Swedish wars. But beyond these, the historical and the legendary merge, which may be one of the reasons for the poems continuous appeal. It is by no means certain that Beowulf, Grendel and his kin, and the dragon, were any less real to the poet and his audience than was the historical Hygelac.
Old English scholar J R R Tolkien describes this aspect very fittingly in his groundbreaking lecture "Beowulf The Monsters and the Critics", that was delivered to the British Academy in 1936, and in which he claims that the poem should be treated as an important piece of literature instead of merely a source of historical information: "Beowulf is not an actual picture of historic Denmark or Geatland or Sweden about ad 500. But it is (if with certain minor defects) on a general view a self-consistent picture, a construction bearing clearly the marks of design and thought. The whole must have succeeded admirably in creating in the minds of the poet's contemporaries the illusion of surveying a past, pagan but noble and fraught with a deep significance a past that itself had depth and reached backward into a dark antiquity of sorrow. This impression of depth is an effect and a justification of the use of episodes and allusions to old tales, mostly darker, more pagan, and desperate than the foreground."