Beowulf, Swedes and Geats
R. T. Farrell
For many years a critical climate has existed in which Beowulf has been seen as a tragedy of the fall of the Geats; Beowulf’s people are destroyed by the Swedes, their neighbours to the north, shortly after Beowulf is killed by the dragon. The purpose of this study is to re-examine the background of the poem, in the light of what is known about Scandinavia before the Viking Age from history, archaeology and legend. Two presumptions are basic. The first is that the Geatas are the Gautar, the inhabitants of south central Sweden, the area below the lakes Vanern and Vattern. The second is that Beowulf is a work of heroic history, i.e. a poem in which facts and chronology are subservient to the poet’s interest in heroic deeds and their value in representing the ethics of an heroic civilization. A poet writing in this mode does not disregard absolute historical fact, history, that is, as we know it. He rather sees it as less important than other considerations, if he uses it at all. He will be reasonably consistent — but within his own limits, and with his own priorities. His account will sometimes mesh reason ably well with history, as in the episode of Hygelac’s raid on the Frisian shore. But more often, his work will be a freely-woven structure in which the characters and actions of the past will be part of an ethically satisfying narrative.