Beowulf is the first great specimen of English literature, comparable to the Homeric poems in Greek. The text of the poem has come down to us in a late 10th-century manuscript that probably comes from the kingdom of the West Saxons. The poem itself, however, must have been composed a couple of centuries before the extant manuscript was written.
Beowulf does not deal with Englishmen but with their Germanic ancestors: the Danes and the Geats, two Southern Scandinavian tribes. The events it relates go back to the 5th and 6th century, to the time following the invasion of England by the Angles, Saxons and Jutes in 449.
The Eroic Ideal:
In the Germanic society described in Beowulf the heroic ideal is prominent: the most important qualities are strength, courage and loyalty.
The epic tone pervades the whole poem, but it is sometimes softened by a diffuse sadness mixed with Christian ideal. In this respect it is quite unlike other Old Germanic sagas. This has led some scholars to believe that the original material was put into its present form by a Christian writer. Although England is not even mentioned, the poem is characterized by that softening of the darker and more violent side of life which is peculiar to Anglo-Saxon England.
In 3182 lines, the poem relates the deeds of Beowulf, nephew of the King of the Geats. Beowulf goes to the aid of the King of Denmark, Hrothgar, whose royal place is haunted by the monster Grendel, and kills the monster and its mother. Some fifty years later, the hero fights against a dragon and, though he wins, loses his life. The most memorable scenes of Beowulf are perhaps those in which Grendel is mortally wounded and Beowulf swims down to cave of Grendel’s mother.