Beowulf was written sometime in the middle of the Dark Ages. It was about a time several centuries earlier. It's a short work - in contemporary literature it would just be the right length to make it into an anthology of short stories. But its history and rarity places it as only one of a handful of works from the period.
Let me state right now that Beowulf is a worthwhile read. I was drawn to the work because it was identified as a possible inspiration to Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. Looking at it from this viewpoint found me smiling as I read Beowulf. This work describes the Scandinavians when they were still divided into bands of warring tribes: the Scyldings (Danes), the Scylfings (Swedes), the Heathobards, the Frisians, the Heathoraemas, and Beowulf's own Weather-Geats. Witness the utter coolness of these tribal names. When I say warring, I mean they took every opportunity to hack and slash each other - it was like their demented job.
But Beowulf is not about man's war with man - that is just a backdrop. Beowulf is about monster fighting. And here is were the fun starts. There are two kinds of monsters in Beowulf: ogres and a dragon. That's it. Three monsters. In any other work of fantasy (and yes, I'm reviewing Beowulf as a work of fantasy) this would be too few. But the way that the unknown author of Beowulf handles these monsters is brilliant in the extreme. I mean, I don't even pay attention to ogres. As far as monsters go they're right down there with the orcs - rank and filers - henchmen. But not the ogres in Beowulf. The ogres are presented as truly powerful and terrible - there presence dominate the page and make for a truly exhilarating read. The dragon too is presented wonderfully but less effectively than the ogres.
Going back to the bits of Tolkien that made me smile, let me say that if you take the culture in Beowulf and dropped it in Middle Earth, lo and behold, these guys would be the men of Rohan. Down to golden Meduseld (golden Heorot in Beowulf) and the names. Hama and Eomer sound familiar? They're in Beowulf too. And guess what the kings are fond of giving to there warriors? Rings. Rings. Going back to the dragon, the ancient poet keeps referring to it as a worm and the Beowulf dragon takes over a treasure hoard and is aware if any part of the hoard gets stolen. Can anybody say Smaug? Beautiful. If you know Tolkien you will realize that this is truly one of his inspirations.
I said that Beowulf was short but I also note that it's very deep. Another Tolkein-like characteristic of the work that I observed was that Beowulf, like The Lord of the Rings, is steeped in history, there are many outtakes in Beowulf pointing to past history and foreshadowing future events. The effect is to give the tale a richness. Although Tolkein's handling of the historical backgrounders in The Lord of the Rings is more effective largely because the Beowulf poet wrote in a way that suggests that he expected readers to be familiar with the historical events surrounding Beowulf.
At the core of Beowulf is the hero himself. Here are the timeless heroic attributes: courage, gentleness, and loyalty. Presented large and effectively.
Beowulf is a strange fish. Uniquely presented, a bit of a hard read. But this fantasy precursor foreshadows the origins of a tremendously popular genre.