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Medieval Imagination. Beowulf vs. Russian Mythos


When stories about Ilia Muromets, Dobrinya Nikitich, and Alyosha Popovich were told in Kievan Rus’ – the Slavic nation was dominated by the mighty city of Kyiv (modern Ukraine) from the ninth until the twelfth century. At this time old English poetry, or as it also called Anglo-Saxon was already extended from ancient oral songs to a written production in the form of Beowulf.

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Beowulf was written by an unknown writer between the eighth and eleventh centuries and appears to be a Christian rewriting of some of the oral folk tales, though is a Christian reworking of oral folk tales, sometime between the eighth and eleventh centuries though “Christian” allusions are all taken from the Old Testament. Many qualities of the oral folklore that was sung by the Germanic tribes, which were settling on the territory of modern Great Britain at the beginning of the fifth century of the Common Era, can be found in the composition structure and the plot of a Beowulf story. Probably the unknown author of the tale wrote it as the summarized version of all the oral tales about Beowulf, which were established before. Until the eighteenth century, Russian folk epics were not mentioned in literature as a written text, and only after folklore enthusiasts started to travel all over Russian Empire to record the oral folklore, written texts were created. The most famous and the oldest of Kievan Rus’ folklore which came to our days is “The Lay of Igor’s Campaign”. This is a tale, which tells about the Prince Igor’s campaign against the people of Kuman in 1185. The story is not that epic, though it is very valuable, because though it is fictional, it is based on real events and it shows feudal wars in medieval Kievan Rus’.

If we want to find closer similarities between Russian folk traditions and Beowulf we have to look at the genre of the folklore epic stories and the heroic genre songs. When looking at the Russian traditions, a closer parallel with Beowulf can be found within the genre of folk epic or narrative songs with heroic themes. These songs are called ‘’byliny’’ (rus. Былины), it is derived from a Russian verb “were” – “byli” (rus. Были). All the bylines may be divided into three groups, by the time they were created:

  1. Mythological epics – epics, which were created by the Slavic tribes way before the founding of the Kievan Rus’.
  2. The Kievan cycle (also called Vladimir cycle) – describing the events, which took place under the power of Prince Vladimir the Great
  3. Novgorod cycle – a cycle of bylines, in which the main hero is Sadko.

Byliny is often called “epic poetry”, which describes even the birth and the childhood of the main hero. As a rule it shows battles with monster, fight between the son and his father and imprisoned hero, who is ready to save the city in a moment of great danger. Mostly, the plot of the bylina often starts in royal court. For example, bylina “Dobrynya Nikitch and Vasily Kazimirovich” or “Iliya Muromets and Solovei Razboinik”. Scenes of royalty involve assembly followed with a speech, which is a repeating theme in Beowulf, appears to be a very important aspect in a tale’s structure. The same theme happens in the beginning and ending and the central plot of both tales. So, we can say that this tendency is fundamental is this kind of folklore genre. Because Kievan Rus’ was as a very big territory it was disintegrated during the Mongol invasion, that’s why bylyny were usually pretty short and disconnected songs, sang in different parts of the state and never combined together. This makes the understanding of bylyni different from the usual understanding of the word “epic’’. Greek philosopher described the “epic” structure as just a structure with two or more plots. Beowulf appears to be more then ten percents of the Anglo-Saxon poetry that remains today. A person may face many difficulties if tries to combine modern understanding of literary production and literature itself with earlier historical period. Because Russian folklore tales are pretty difficult to analyze and categorize, as the result of the oral nature, folklore researchers were trying to avoid them. Though Beowulf has reached the status of a national epic folk tale in Britain, its epic nature is still remains questioned. The plot of Beowulf is both tripartite and bipartite at one time. Every part of the story can be seen as either part of a decline or self-destruction of a brave hero. Without looking at argue around the specific classification of all medieval works as “epic,” the similarities between the Beowulf and Russian bylyni, especially “Dobrynya and the Dragon” and “Dobrynya and Vasily Kazimirovich,” are able to underline some of the themes and characterizations, which have a truly epic genre nature, can help to question or to reassert the new classification of bylyni as an “epic poetry”.

The legendary hero of Russian byliny Dobrynya Nikitch – the bogatyr, the warrior. In Russian folklore he is more known as the “dragon slayer”. He can surely be a characterization of the Vladimir cycle of byliny. “Dobrynya and the Dragon” shows the battle between the hero and the enemy of Holly Kievan Rus’ – a dragon, who is holding Christians imprisoned deep in his cave. The actual dragon slaying in this bylyni can be found between the folk tale and the epic, because the reason he is sent to the dragon is to save a maiden, but also slaying a dragon would save the society guarded by Dobrynya and sometimes can be understood as Christian allegory. On the first look, Dobrynya as the main hero does not really look as a traditional epic character. While Beowulf clearly has a goal to save Danish people by killing Grendel, Dobrynya’s journey to the dragon’s cave deep in the mountains has no reason, but in the end it appears to be a heroic quest, though the epic quest, has no final result orientation. At the beginning of Dobrynya’s bylyni there is nothing that may connect him, a peasant born child, on one side with epic heroes. As we read later Dobrynya disobeys his mother and starts a long journey to find the baby dragons and kill them, but as read further we find out that his journey is more then an adventure for himself then a heroically passed quest with any historical necessity. Also the plot of “Dobrynya and the Dragon” bylyni, like all the other bylyni plots starts without locating itself in a history of a society. One of the most important aspects of “epics” is that they always describe the establishment and the protection of people and whole society. The heart of the Beowulf’s plot is saving the state of Dane and Great societies from Grendel. Relationship with history is what makes Beowulf an “epic”: the tale starts with showing of the rising of Danes and later Grendel’s assaults on Danish hall. Though an epic quality of Beowulf is its relationship with history: the tale begins with a description of the rise of the Danes and then describes Grendel’s attacks on the Danish hall. Though this tale can be just an epic fiction, a lot of events and characters shown in it were maybe real between the fifth and the sixth centuries in Denmark and Southern Sweden. Alternatively, the bylyna of “Dobrynya and the Dragon” starts without the historical markers. After the dragon convinced Dobrynya not to kill him, we find the main hero at the court of Prince Vladimir, who is asking the warrior to save his niece from the dragon. Dobrynya leaves the court and tells his mother that Prince sent him on a great mission. When Dobrynya encounters the dragon a second time, the story goes:

“He fought with the dragon for three whole days,
But he couldn’t kill the accursed dragon.
Finally Dobrynya wanted to ride away-
A voice from the heavens then announced to Dobrynya:
“Hail to you, my young Dobrynya, Nikita’s son!
You’ve fought the dragon for three whole days –
Fight with the dragon for three more hours.”[1]

As we see, at this point the central plot of the tale shows attributes of traditional “epic”. Comparing “Dobrynya and the Dragon” to Beowulf we can find one more similarity: the reliance of the Prince Vladimir on Dobrynya Nikitich is similar to reliance of Hrothgar, king of the Danes, on Beowulf. Beowulf never looses self-confidence and never steps away from his epic journey, even when he is facing death, as it was at the end of the tale. Beowulf is “the mightiest man on earth, highborn and powerful,” and that statement never lost or forgotten.[2] After he decides to attack the dragon, who was menacing Danes, he says to his people “I risked my life often when I was young. Now I am old, but as king of the people I shall pursue this fight/ for the glory of winning”. The author himself writes that these were the last words said by Beowulf to his people, as he is fated to die. Fate is one of the characteristics of the epic genre, usually it is known to the reader from the very beginning. Alternatively, Dobrynya didn’t want to protect his people, but was sent by Prince Vladimir. Even when he is fighting the dragon he is not brave enough and wants to leave the epic quest and take the responsibility of himself. And only the voice of heaven convinces him not to give up. In the end of the tale, when Dobrynya finally defeated the dragon he married Nastasia, the only daughter of the king Nikula. Here we may compare the theme of loyalty present in Beowulf and Dobrynya Nikitich. Loyalty is one of the central themes in Beowulf; it is his guiding virtue and sometimes even a source of his inner strength. At the same time theme of loyalty does not appear that much in Russian folklore, mostly bogatyr’s as Ilia Muromets, Dobrynya and others are being sent by a king or other characters. As in Beowulf, where loyalty was one of the reasons why Beowulf defeated his foes, in Russian epic it is mostly unnatural strength and will of God on the first place.

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The Beowulf’s story starts recounting Scyld Scefling, a king, who was sent to the Danes by God. After his death, Danes prosper under his offspring. One of them, Hrothgar, builds a great hall, Heorot, which was soon invaded by Grendel, a half-human half-monster hated by God.

Beowulf appears just in time, when Danes are helpless and do not know how to end these assaults. He fights with Grendel, though Grendel seems to be stronger then Beowulf. The hero kills the monster in a quite unusual way. He killed him without any sword or other weapon, but with bare hands. He caught Grendel’s arm and squeezed it until the pain was unbearable. Monster looses his strength, body parts and his blood in this awful scene. Later he bleeds to death: “Saw that his strength was deserting him, his claws Bound fast, Higlac’s brave follower tearing at his hands.”(3) Later, Grendel’s mother tries to avenge her son, so Beowulf and Hrothgar follow her to the lake, where her lair is. During the battle with Grendel’s mother Beowulf almost died, but the aid of God helps him to take victory over her. At this point, we may compare Grendel’s mother to a one of the most famous characters of Russian byliny’s – Baba Yaga (rus. Баба Яга). In Russian folk tales she is described as an old hag, flying in her large mortar, sweeping away her tracks with a magic broom. She lives deep in the woods in a log cabin standing on a pair of chicken legs. The fence outside the cabin is made of human bones. Then door to the cabin opens only the magic phrase is said: Turn you back to the forest, your front to me.

Next, the poem starts again, when fifty years have passed and Beowulf is now old king of the Geats. When fighting his last battle with the dragon, which is guarding the cursed treasures. Beowulf defeats the monster, but only with the help of Wiglaf – his younger relative. But the dragon seriously wounded Beowulf, so the hero died. Death of Beowulf resulted into the end of Geats, who were surrounded by enemies from everywhere. So the poem ends in death of the main hero and his nation. All the events shown in a poem took place at the time, when Anglo-Saxons were migrating and settling in England. Some scholars are suggesting, that Beowulf was first composed in seventh century at the city of Rendlesham in East Anglia.

There are lots of references to the Christianity in this poem, just like in russian bylynis. Beowulf and Hrothgar are praying to the God, asking him for help in defeating Grendel. The outcome of the battle is not the result of Beowulf’s power and bravness, but just the judgement of God, so the main hero puts all his trust in God. As I already mentioned the scriptural references are mostly taken from the Old Testament, rather than the New Testament. For example, when describing the nature of Grendel the story of Cain and Abel was mentioned.But Beowulf does not mention Christ at all or the afterlife in heaven for himself and other believers. Also the funeral process does not reference to the Christianity, because warriors are buries with their treasures.


Mostly the atmosphere throughout the novel is dark and pagan. Author shows that an impersonal fate is controlling people’s destiny: Fate goes ever as fate must,” (4) says Beowulf, and a few lines later he reminds of God’s Will on everything. This is similar to Dobrynya when fighting with dragon; he was also looking for God’s help. And it is in fact only God’s voice which tells him that he is going to defeat the monster. Throughout the poem of Beowulf people have to rely only on his generosity and loyalty, and believe, that he will never give up in an attempt to save them, while in Russian epic people have to rely not on the warriors loyalty to save them, but on his loyalty to the Prince and God.

As a result of comparing Beowulf epic with some Russian folklore byliny’s we have noticed that there are many similar factor between Nordic and Kievan’ Rus’ folklore. But the difference is, that Kievan’ Rus’ oral epics were never combined in one, just as once Nordic oral tales were gathered and presented in Beowulf.


  1. “Dobrynya and the Dragon,” lines 263-9.
  2. Beowulf 197-198
  3. Beowulf line 464-466
  4. Beowulf line 455


  1. Astaf’eva, L. A. Syuzhet i Stil’ Russkikh Bylin. Moskva, 1993.
  2. Baily, James and Tatyana Ivanova. An Anthology of Russian Folk Epics. London, England: M.E. Sharpe, 1998.
  3. Wosien, Maria-Gabriele. The Russian Folk-Tale: Some Structural and Thematic Aspects. Verlag Otto Sagner: Munich, 1969.
  4. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Eds. Leitch, Cain, Finke, Johnson, McGowan, and Williams. New York, New York: Norton Company, 2001.
  5. Wosien, Maria-Gabriele. The Russian Folk-Tale: Some Structural and Thematic Aspects. Verlag Otto Sagner: Munich, 1969.

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StudyCorgi. "Medieval Imagination. Beowulf vs. Russian Mythos." November 8, 2021.


StudyCorgi. 2021. "Medieval Imagination. Beowulf vs. Russian Mythos." November 8, 2021.


StudyCorgi. (2021) 'Medieval Imagination. Beowulf vs. Russian Mythos'. 8 November.

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