Seamus Heaney provides this useful summary of Beowulf for his translation of the Old English classic:
The poem was written in England but the events it describes are set in Scandinavia, in a “once upon a time” that is partly historical. Its hero, Beowulf, is the biggest presence among the warriors in the land of the Geats, a territory situated in what is now southern Sweden, and early in the poem Beowulf crosses the sea to the land of the Danes in order to clear their country of a man-eating monster called Grendel. From this expedition (which involves him in a second contest with Grendel’s mother) he returns in triumph and eventually rules for fifty years as king of his homeland. Then a dragon begins to terrorize the countryside and Beowulf must confront it. In a final climactic encounter, he does manage to slay the dragon, but he also meets his own death and enters the legends of his people as a warrior of high renown.
After Beowulf’s victory over Grendel, King Hrothgar gives thanks for the relief brought to his land by Beowulf. The king says,
Whoever she was
who brought forth this flower of manhood,
if she is still alive, that woman can say
that in her labour the Lord of Ages
bestowed a grace on her. So now, Beowulf,
I adopt you in my heart as a dear son (lines 941-945).
Similar praise could have been given to the mother of our Lord when He gained victory over the forces of evil and offered salvation to all men, “that in her labour the Lord of Ages/bestowed a grace on her.”
Praise was given, but with a difference. The praise lavished on Beowulf’s mother came after his heroic deed of dispatching Grendel. Praise for the mother of Jesus came prior to his birth, at the announcement of his conception. The angel Gabriel said, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God” (Lk 1:31). Elizabeth said, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” (Lk 1:42). Mary knew that “henceforth all generations will call me blessed. For He who is mighty has done great things for me, And holy is His name” (Lk 1:48, 49).
Praise for Beowulf’s mother was earned after her son was hard proven. Jesus’ work did not need to be accomplished before people began praising God for His birth, or Mary for being the one who mothered Him.
Prophets of the First Covenant had already announced what God would do. Simeon knew. He was “just and devout, waiting for the Consolation of Israel.” The Holy Spirit told him he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. When he took the Child, Jesus in his arms, in the temple, he said,
Lord, now You are letting Your servant depart in peace,
According to Your word:
For my eyes have seen Your salvation
Which You have prepared before the face of all peoples,
A light to bring revelation to the Gentiles,
And the glory of Your people Israel (Lk 2:29-32).
The people who lived by those promises knew what God intended to do before its time of fulfillment. So, the faith of those who knew the prospects of His coming gushed forth in praise beforehand.
(Beowulf, translated by Seamus Heaney, is one of my favorite books. It would be on my list of ten books to take to the proverbial desert island. I am not competent to judge the accuracy of his work against other translations, but he won the Whitebread Award in literature for his efforts.)