[A summary of the plot of Beowulf sounds like a nursery tale of marvels. The fight with Grendel in the hall, the slaying of Grendel's mother beneath the mere, and the encounter with the fire-breathing dragon belong to the same family as the adventures of Jack the Giant Killer. Parallels to Beowulf's exploits exist in written literature and in folklore. One of the most interesting is in the Icelandic saga about the famous outlaw Grettir. Two episodes in the saga bear such a strong resemblance to the fights with Grendel and Grendel's mother that it is clear they come from the same original story. (See Saga of Grettir the Strong, translated by G. A. Hight, Everyman's Library, No. 699, pp. 86-100, 170-7.) But a bare summary of the plot of Beowulf gives a wrong impression of the style and spirit of the poem. It has epic dignity and reality in spite of the fantastic character of the main story. Some of the events and persons referred to in the poem are historical. Hygelac was a real king who fell in battle near the mouth of the Rhine between A.D. 512 and 520. His people, the Geats, probably lived in a part of what is now southern Sweden. There is, however, no evidence that Beowulf the Geat, the hero of the poem, ever existed. There is good reason to suppose that the Swedish kings and princes mentioned in the poem -- Eadgils, Onela, Ohtere, Ongentheow -- are historical. Accounts in Scandinavian literature of the wars between the Geats and Swedes (their neighbours to the north) correspond to what is told us in Beowulf of the struggle. The Danish king Healfdene and his descendants are also probably historical, and their great hall Heorot almost certainly stood at Leire in the island of Seeland. There is, however, no evidence that Healfdene's ancestors -- Scyld Scefing and Beowulf (not to be confused with the hero of the poem) -- are anything but mythical figures. Scyld Scefing may mean Scyld son of Sceaf or Scef, or Scyld with the sheaf. The story told here of Scyld coming mysteriously over the sea as a child is told later in England (by Ethelwerd in the tenth century and by William of Malmesbury in the twelfth) not of Scyld, but of Scef or Sceaf. In William of Malmesbury's account a handful of corn is at the child's head in the boat; and this gave him his name Sheaf. Sceafa appears also in the catalogue of kings in Widsith. The Scandinavian records place Scyld at the beginning of the genealogies of the Danish kings, but do not mention the story of the child in the boat. It is probable, then, that that story originally belonged to Sceaf, and that in Beowulf it has somehow been transferred to Scyld.
In this poem are many references to Christianity. Some of these seem strangely incongruous. Hrothgar's minstrel sings a religious poem about the Creation, and yet Beowulf is cremated with pagan ceremonies. This mixture of pagan and Christian usages and beliefs has been explained in several ways. Some think that the Christian passages were not in the poem at first but were added by a later hand. We cannot be certain, but it is possible that they were the work of the original poet. Christianity did not at once drive out the older faith and ideas. The Christian king Alfred loved to listen to the old Saxon songs. For a time the old and the new existed side by side in England, as they do in this English poem. A little later, Old English poetry dealt almost entirely with Christian subjects, and the monk in his cell turned poet and replaced the minstrel in hall.]