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How Beowulf’s Sword Is the Root for English Literature’s Swords

Written By: Allia Luzong
Published On: November 24, 2022
Edited by: Juliana Cummings

Beowulf’s sword is admittedly not unique in terms of literature as a whole. Because Anglo-Saxon culture can trace its roots back to Germanic and Scandinavian, particularly Norse/Viking origins, many of its literary themes can be found in epic poems. However, specific details about the sword and the story it comes from can establish it as at least partially true.

Beowulf’s swords set the tone for many of the ill-boding patterns that later return to haunt Beowulf, catching him off guard just before he figures out how to save the day again. 

What Is Beowulf Exactly?

Beowulf
Beowulf clad in armor with his sword – Credits: Amazon

For those hearing about Beowulf for the first time, it is the title of the epic poem Beowulf and its main character of the same name. Beowulf is a Germanic epic that talks about the monster slaying adventures of Beowulf as he triumphs against Grendel, a monster that stalks the land of Heorot. 

The story’s inclusion of Hygelac, the king of Geats (or alternatively translated as “Goths”), puts the poem’s creation sometime during the 500s C.E. But because the poem appears to have been put to paper only after the conversion to Christianity of the Anglo-Saxons, he is described as a “descendant of Cain and accursed of God”. 

Beowulf Uses Three Swords Throughout the Old English Poem

Beowulf’s swords in the poem change as he meets new friends and encounters new enemies, moving through the classic Hero’s Journey structure of storytelling. He receives the sword Hrunting during the quest to kill Grendel’s mother, his own sword Naegling, and a giant sword found within Grendel’s mother’s cave that is never named.

Unferth’s Hrunting

Hrunting original artifact drawing
Interpretation of Hrunting – Credits: Dave Stephens

Hrunting is the sword that Beowulf receives from Unferth, one of the retainers of Hrothgar. It was a rare ancient sword made with an iron blade that was said to be an heirloom of their family. Because of these, it was believed that it would not fail its wielder at their great time of need. Unfortunately, the sword fell from Beowulf’s hand during the fight against Grendel’s mother.

Hrothgar’s Nægling

Naegling-sword
Interpretation of Naegling – Credits: Museum of Fictional Literary Artifacts

Naegling is a sword that Beowulf receives from Hygelac that originally belonged to Hygelac’s father Hrethel. This was Beowulf’s “default” sword when he first began his journey. The sword has a namesake in The Inheritance Cycle, Oromir’s golden Rider’s sword.

A Sword From Grendel’s Mother’s Hoard

After killing Grendel, Beowulf found himself being hunted down by Grendel’s mother who could not accept the death of her son. He initially brings Hrunting to the battle but the sword falls from his hand, forcing him to look for a substitute weapon. He finds a giant sword in the cave among Grendel’s mother’s hoarded treasures.

How Beowulf’s Ancient Swords Affects English Literary and Media Swords Today

HruntingFGOAscension3 gray gigapixel edit
Hrunting sword in TYPE-MOON – Credits: Nikonu

Beowulf’s swords make brief appearances in the poem but their impact in such an early piece of written English literature has given them a great influence on the stories that came after. Aside from the Naegling sword in The Inheritance Cycle that was inspired by Beowulf’s sword, there’s the Hrunting sword’s appearance in Castlevania and TYPE-MOON

Conclusion

Beowulf’s swords set the tone for the rest of English literature and media, affecting the ways in which literary swords are described in fantasy media as seen in extensive descriptions of how swords look. These swords from Beowulf aid him in his classic Hero’s Journey and make fresh appearances in the shows and books that came after the epic poem.

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