Heroic Past and Poetic Presence
Después de la verdad — decía mi maestro — nada hay tan bello como la ficción.
Apart from truth, my teacher said, nothing is so beautiful as fiction.
—Antonio Machado, Juan de Mairena (XXII)
In his discussion of the historical elements in Beowulf, Frederick Klaeber shrewdly observes that the extent of historical truth in the material he presents “cannot be made out with certainty.” He stresses that this type of poetry was not intended to be “a record and mirror of historical happenings, ” and that we have to reckon with “all kinds of variation, shifting, and combination” in the course of its oral transmission. Nevertheless, there is “an air of reality and historical truth” in Beowulf that Klaeber finds remarkable. He does have to concede, though, that “there is only one of the events mentioned in the poem, viz. the disastrous Frankish raid of Hygelac, which we can positively claim as real history." 1. The “real history” is reflected in the account that Gregory of Tours (d. 594) gives in his Historia Francorum of a raid on Frankish territory on the Rhine estuary and the lower Rhine, sometime around 520, by Danes under their king Chlochilaicus:
The next thing which happened was that the Danes sent a fleet under their King Chlochilaich and invaded Gaul from the sea. They came ashore, laid waste one of the regions ruled by Theuderic and captured some of the inhabitants. They loaded their ships with what they had stolen and the men they had seized, and then they set sail for home. Their King remained on the shore, waiting until the boats should have gained the open sea, when he planned to go on board. When