Most people have read something about King Arthur, whether it be one of the dozens of books by pseudo-scholars claiming to know all of his knights’ names or an expert who more than likely considers Arthur a myth. The seriously curious have even been through the evidence. The problem with discussing anything about Arthur is that every aspect of the subject is so hopelessly complex that a definitive answer has proven all but impossible to win general agreement on. But saying all that hardly brings the point out very well, comparison works much better. The case of Beowulf is a relatively straightforward one by comparison, and a general concensus comparatively simple.
Beowulf is mentioned in the famous poem by that name in which he is spoken of from the Geatish perspective. As Bjowulf he can be found in Hrolf Kraki’s Saga and Bjarkarimur, where he is mentioned from the Danish and Swedish perspective, respectively. What these all have in their favor is that none of them is a retelling of another. Interpretations of the monster Grendel, of Beowulf’s relationship with the Danes, and of the relative good and bad of the various characters and dynasties change from story to story.
While Beowulf is one of the earliest English poems, it was written centuries after the sixth century events of the story (between the eighth and eleventh centuries) and has been heavily influenced by Christianity. The same goes with Hrolf Kraki’s Saga of which all copies date to the fourteenth century, while Bjarkarimur was written in the fifteenth century and is therefore even less reliable. Even though the literature of three opposing dynasties mention him, all three were written down late enough to have been influenced by each other in the sense that an invented character could have been inserted into all three tellings.
The single conclusive piece of evidence that any of the people and events of Beowulf are historical seems to be a haphazard connection. In the poem Beowulf’s king, Hygelac, is killed on a raid against the Franks. Gregory of Tours, the Frankish historian, records that a Danish king Chlochilaicus was killed on a raid against the Frisians in roughly 520. As Chlochilaicus is good Latin for Old English Hygelac, the connection is considered valid and the possibility of a second Hygelac ignored. And, as Hygelac is mentioned in all three native sources as the uncle of Beowulf it has been postulated that the famous Geat must have existed as well.
There are also lesser pieces of evidence. Heorot, the hall as described in all three works as the home of Hrothgar and his dynasty, has been found based on their descriptions. There are no major chronological difficulties between the story as it comes across in all three sources and what is known of the history.
With Beowulf there has been no conflation with myth, nor has a body of romances developed around him over the last few centuries. There are histories mixed with legendary material. Even there, with him, there is no way to be certain. Though there is a concensus that Beowulf did exists, there is no way to be certain. With Arthur, to be even that straightforward is impossible.