Beowulf Circa Eighth Century
Beowulf Circa Eighth Century
Old English epic poem. See also Beowulf Criticism.
Beowulf is the earliest surviving long poem in Old English and has been described as the greatest of its kind. Although the origins of this account of Dark Age warrior cultures and of heroes and monsters battling one another remain for the most part a mystery, many scholars agree that Beowulf was probably composed in the eighth century and that its unknown author, as well as the poem's early audience, possessed at least a basic familiarity with Christianity. The only extant manuscript of Beowulf was damaged by fire in 1731, before it could be transcribed; thus, portions of the poem are missing. This fact, along with the difficulty of rendering the poet's elusive style and many allusions to events and legends long past, has made the process of interpreting Beowulf both a challenge and a source of debate for modern literary critics.
Plot and Major Characters
The plot of Beowulf can be divided into two parts. In part one, the Geatish hero, Beowulf, who is remarkable for his extraordinary strength and courage, sails to Denmark to defeat Grendel, a terrifying monster that has been preying on the warriors—or "thanes"—of the aging Danish king, Hrothgar, at Heorot Hall. After slaying Grendel, Beowulf enjoys the gifts and banquet provided for him by the grateful Danes. Later that night, however, Grendel's avenging mother interrupts the celebration by attacking the Hall, thus obliging Beowulf to fight and kill her. Having freed Heorot of these evil menaces, Beowulf returns home. Part two is set many years later in the land of the Geats, where Beowulf has long since become king. Now, as an aging ruler himself, Beowulf must defeat a dragon that threatens his people. With the help of his faithful young retainer, Wiglaf (the rest of his men have fled in fear), Beowulf destroys the dragon but receives a mortal wound during the battle. After his cremation and burial along with the dragon's treasure hoard, ill fortune is predicted for the Geatish nation. In addition to this main plot, the narrative is also interspersed with several digressions, which allude to other heroes or stories and serve as commentary on the main action of the poem.
Among the numerous themes identified in Beowulf, a principal one is that of friendship, known in the context of the poem as comitatus, or the closeness which exists between
a ruler and his men. According to the precepts of comitatus, a leader rewards his thane—such as Beowulf in the first part of the poem or Wiglaf in the second—for his acts of courage and loyalty by granting him material gifts and high social status. Closely related to comitatus is the tradition of the feud, a custom of avenging oneself and one's people for harm done by an enemy. Critics observe that the theme of feuding applies not only to the warrior cultures represented in the poem, but also to Grendel's mother, who attacks Heorot to avenge her son's death. Finally, commentators have perceived in the somber, elegiac tone at the close of Beowulf the culmination of such themes as aging, the destructive and endless nature of feuding, the shortness and brutality of life, and the death of the pagan heroic code—a system of belief which offered immortality only through fame. Additionally, many critics have argued that the poem represents the waning of pagan traditions as they were superseded by the values of Christianity.
Largely because its exact origins are unknown, Beowulf has elicited much critical disputation. Many early critics faulted the poem's organization, arguing that Beowulf's, numerous digressions detract from its aesthetic unity. Several scholars have suggested that these divagations imply that the poem was in part edited by individuals other than the original author-monks, for example, who endeavored to give the poem a Christian rather than a pagan emphasis. Alternatively, some scholars have asserted that the poem achieves unity only if it is read as a Christian allegory with the hero, Beowulf, as a Christ-like figure. More recently, critics have argued that its themes of revenge and the brevity of life, unifying mood, and complementary structural elements—such as Beowulf's series of heroic battles—provide for coherence in the poem. The nature of the Beowulf poet has also been a source of considerable critical interest. Some have speculated as to his religious background, inquiring if the poet was Christian or pagan. Others have explored the details of the poem's composition, whether as oral or written literature. Lastly, while some critics describe the somber ending of Beowulf as a condemnation of its hero's pagan beliefs, others see the conclusion as a solemn farewell to a moral code replaced in the subsequent Christian era.
SOURCE: "The Christian Theme of Beowulf," in Medium Aevum, Vol. XXIX, No. 2, 1960, pp. 81-101.
[In the following excerpt, Goldsmith contends that the story and symbolism of Beowulf are coherent only when the poem is given a Christian interpretation rather than a secular, pagan one; however, Goldsmith warns that the character Beowulf is not meant to be regarded as Christ-like.]
The poem Beowulf as we have it contains indisputably Christian sentiments and vocabulary, and handles familiarly and allusively certain Biblical stories. Yet there lingers a belief that these are extraneous trappings, that the feeling of the poem is essentially pagan, or at the best only half-heartedly Christian. I shall seek to show that it gains considerably in coherence and significance if we allow ourselves to be guided by the poet's own emphases in the choice and presentation of the stories and his moral reflections upon them. A literate Anglo-Saxon poet would in the normal course of things have learnt to read in a monastery, where his daily reading would be much on the Psalms and certain other parts of the Bible, and where his attitude to the meaning of meaning would be formed by the traditional exegetic methods of the homilists. To such a man, Cain, the giants, the dragons, would be historical realities and at the same time symbols of spiritual strife continually existing. On...
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SOURCE: "The Function of Joy in Beowulf," in Tennessee Studies in Literature, Vol. VII, 1962, pp. 61-69.
[In the excerpt that follows, Durant defines three types or "levels" of joy in Beowulf and demonstrates how these levels work to unify the poem 's structure, present its major plots, and support some of its themes.]
Critics rarely fail to remark the heavy aura of gloom surrounding Beowulf. To Klaeber, for example, the Beowulf-poet evidences an "especial fondness" for "feelings of grief and sadness." [All citations to Beowulf are taken from Fr. Klaeber's third edition (Boston, 1950) of the poem.] Tolkien goes even so far as to style the poem an heroic-elegy. "In a sense," he writes, "all its first 3136 lines are the prelude to a dirge." Even the joy in Beowulf is largely looked upon as a foil for sorrow. Thus Adrien Bonjour observes that joyful settings often provide frameworks for anticipations of woe. Herbert Wright points up the dramatic contrasts of joy and sorrow. And Arthur Brodeur finds the joy in Beowulf to be a significant relief mechanism—a mechanism used to keep the reader fresh for the poem's periodic horrors. By no means, however, is the well-guarded gloom of Beowulf outraged by the suggestion that joy in this poem exists for its own sake. Out of a synthesis of the poem's many references to joy and rejoicing arises the suggestion that...
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SOURCE: "Narrative Technique in Beowulf," in Neophilologus, Vol. XLVII, No. 1, 1963, pp. 50-61.
[In the excerpt that follows, Culbert examines the points of view used and the excitement generated in each of Beowulf's three battles, and concludes that Beowulf's last two battles—with Grendel's mother and with the dragon, respectively—are relatively anticlimactic.]
In recent years, attention has been called to the artistry exhibited by the Beowulf-poet in his depiction of Beowulf's three fights. Through skillful use of various narrative techniques, he created interest in the accounts of the hero's combats with Grendel, Grendel's dam, and the dragon. Lumiansky, for instance, has described the use of a dramatic audience as a means of enhancing the interest of the combats. And Moorman has stated that the poet used various points of view to maintain interest in the fights. The present paper will explore further certain narrative techniques employed by the Beowulf-poet for the depiction of the three combats. It will show that the combat with Grendel is reported three times, and that each version is differentiated from the other two. Both Beowulf's other combats are likewise reported three times, but in neither case do the accounts reveal narrative artistry of as high an order as that evinced in the presentation of the fight with Grendel.
For the narration of the entire...
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SOURCE: "The Essential Paganism of Beowulf," in Modern Language Quarterly, Vol. XXVIII, No. 1, March, 1967, pp. 3-18.
[In the following excerpt, Moorman identifies a pessimistic tone running through Beowulf and argues that it is the product of a pagan rather than a Christian view of life.]
One has only to glance at the criticism devoted to Beowulf in the last sixty years to see how firmly entrenched the so-called Christian interpretation of our chief Anglo-Saxon poem has become. Specialized studies, such as M. B. McNamee's interpretation of the poem as an "allegory of salvation," Marie Hamilton's view of the poem as reflecting the Augustinian doctrines of grace and providence, and the patristical studies of D. W. Rob ertson, Jr., R. E. Kaske, and Morton W. Bloomfield, as well as the more general treatments of A. G. Brodeur and Dorothy Whitelock, have apparently solidified Frederick Klaeber's original assertion that "Predominantly Christian are the general tone of the poem and its ethical viewpoint" and have thoroughly discredited the early arguments of H. M. Chadwick and F. A. Blackburn that the Christian sentiments expressed by characters and author are mere "colorings" in a poem which "once existed as a whole without the Christian allusions" (Blackburn). And certainly no student would wish to argue against such opponents that both the Beowulf poet and his audience were not...
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SOURCE: "The Structural Unity of Beowulf: The Problem of Grendel's Mother," in Texas Studies in Literature and Language, Vol. 22, No. 3, Fall, 1980, pp. 287-303.
[In the excerpt that follows, Nitzsche discusses the contrast between Grendel's mother and the feminine ideal and also analyzes her fight with Beowulf as a transitional link between Beowulf's battle with Grendel and with the dragon.]
The episode in Beowulf involving Grendel's mother has been viewed as largely extraneous, a blot upon the thematic and structural unity of the poem. If the poem is regarded as two-part in structure, balancing contrasts between the hero's youth and old age, his rise as a retainer and his fall as a king, his battles with the Grendel family and his battle with the dragon, then her episode (which includes Hrothgar's sermon and Hygelac's welcoming court celebration with its recapitulation of earlier events) lengthens the first "half" focusing on his youth to two-thirds of the poem (lines 1-2199). [The edition of Beowulf used throughout is Frederick Klaeber, Beowulf and the Fight at Finnesburg, 3rd, ed. (Boston, 1936, with 1941 and 1950 supplements).] If the poem is regarded as three-part in structure, with each part centering on one of the three monsters or the three fights, then the brevity of her episode again mars the structural balance: her section, roughly 500 lines (1251-1784), is not as...
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SOURCE: "Beowulf: The Fight at the Center," in Allegorica, Vol. V, No. 2, Winter, 1980, pp. 125-37.
[In the following excerpt, Vaught argues that Beowulf's battle with Grendel's mother is more exciting than is his earlier battle with Grendel and that it is also more important to the poem's focus on heroism.]
Among the most helpful of recent approaches to Beowulf are those that have increased our understanding of the rise of the hero in the first part of the poem—in Tolkien's terms, the first of "two great moments in a great life … first achievement and final death." In showing how the poem attains that first "moment," the best of recent studies have drawn out implications that illuminate not only the social import of Beowulf's heroism, but the psychological and cosmological import as well. Until recently, that first moment of heroic achievement has been located in the fight with Grendel; correspondingly, the "entire episode … involving Grendel's mother has been viewed as largely extraneous, a blot upon the thematic and structural unity of the poem" [according to Jane C. Nitzsche, Tennessee Studies in Literature and Language, Vol. 22 (1980)]. The effect of this critical consensus has been to raise many unanswered questions about the poem, including several that specifically involve Grendel's mother.
In the past year, however, both Michael N. Nagler and Jane C....
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SOURCE: "Ring Composition," in "Beowulf": The Poem and Its Tradition, Harvard University Press, 1983, pp. 152-62.
[In the following excerpt, Niles explains how the author of Beowulf used a repeating structural design known as "ring composition" to organize his poem and to draw connections between characters such as Beowulf and Grendel.]
The overall structure of Beowulf was once believed to be a product of a series of mistakes or fortuituous accidents. The author (or authors, for he was multiplied) was given credit for his fine sentiments and noble style, but not for his sense of form. Like most readers today, I believe that this view is based on a misapprehension of the poet's concept of what constitutes narrative form, and I want to help lay the view to rest by examining certain ways in which the poem shows patterning in its larger structure as well as on the level of the formulaic word or phrase.
One feature of the poem's patterning that deserves attention is ring composition, a chiastic design in which the last element in a series in some way echoes the first, the next to the last the second, and so on. Often the series centers on a single kernel, which may serve as the key element, so that the design as a whole may be thought of as an ABC … X… CBA pattern capable of indefinite expansion.
In her illuminating study of the...
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SOURCE: "The Analogical Mere: Landscape and Terror in Beowulf," in English Studies, Vol. 68, No. 2, 1987, pp. 113-21.
[In the following excerpt, Butts maintains that the Beowulf poet's description of Grendel's mere, or pool, is meant to be nightmarish rather than realistic.]
The description of Grendel's mere in Hrothgar's speech to Beowulf (1345a-1379b) is an extended metaphor for terror. [The text of Beowulf used throughout this paper is that of Friedrich Klaeber's edition, Beowulf and The Fight at Finnsburg, 3rd. ed. (Lexington, Mass., 1950).] The difficulty of reconciling all the features of the landscape surrounding the mere into a realistic picture has been noted by previous commentators. But to take an unsympathetic view of the poet's accomplishment here and read the description as an unsuccessful attempt to accurately and realistically render a natural landscape is to misread it. The poet gives us Hrothgar's description not so as to present a natural landscape but in order to point to the realm of the supernatural. The supernatural, thus evoked, allows for a mode of language and thought which is ideally suited for expressing the poet's prime concern: the collective terror of men in the face of the unknown. The purpose of the poet is less to describe a particular topography than it is to communicate some sense of men's imaginative and psychological response to Grendel....
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SOURCE: "King Hrethel's Sorrow and the Limits of Heroic Action in Beowulf" in Speculum, Vol. 62, No. 4, October, 1987, pp. 829-50.
[In the excerpt that follows, Georgianna studies the lengthy, meditative speech that Beowulf gives just before his fateful battle with the dragon in the second half of the poem.]
Just prior to his last fight, Beowulf delivers a long speech on the headlands above the dragon's cave (11. 2425-37). [All references are to line numbers as given in the edition of Frederick Klaeber, Beowulf and the Fight at Finnsburg, 3rd ed. with 1st and 2nd suppls. (Boston, 1950).] It is, with the exception of his report to Hygelac on returning from Heorot, Beowulf's longest and perhaps his most puzzling speech. Little has been written about the speech as a whole; in fact, rather little attention has been paid to any of Beowulf's speeches, which is perhaps not surprising given Beowulf's stated preference for deeds over words. "It is better for a man to avenge his friend than to mourn much," Beowulf tells Hrothgar, and indeed in a heroic narrative we might ordinarily expect actions to take precedence over words. So it dismays those who would judge the poem primarily as a heroic narrative to find, as Klaeber did, that despite the hero's initial appearance as "an aggressive war hero of the Achilles or Sigfrit type," Beowulf is in fact "somewhat tame, sentimental, and fond of talking,"...
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SOURCE: "Succession and Glory in Beowulf" in Journal of English and Germanic Philology, Vol. 90, No. 4, October, 1991, pp. 491-504.
[In the following excerpt, Schrader traces Beowulf's involvement in the lines of succession for both Danish and Geatish kingship, and illustrates how earthly glory and valor serve as important but fragile marks of distinction for these pagan rulers.]
At the opening of Beowulf the poet celebrates the glory (þrym) and valor (ellen) of the ancient Danish kings (þeodcyninga, æþelingas). [All Beowulf quotations are from Beowulf and the Fight at Finnsburg, ed. Fr. Klaeber, 3d ed. (Lexington, Mass.: Heath, 1950).] For more than sixty lines he traces these qualities from their apparent beginning with Scyld Scefing to their culmination in Hrothgar, a great-grandson. This is the full Scylding line to that point, but the poem makes clear that there were earlier rulers of the Danes, presumably living before Sceaf, men such as Heremod and Hna;f. They are not mentioned until other themes require them; here the poet has established a translatio gloriae in which they have no part. The nature of the glory and the means of its transmission will have important consequences in Danish history (as presented in the poem), and similar ideas attached to succession appear in the Geatish section as well.
The celebration of...
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SOURCE: "Intemperance, Fratricide, and the Elusiveness of Grendel," in English Studies, Vol. 73, No. 3, June 1992, pp. 205-10.
[In the following excerpt, Fajardo-Acosta argues that Grendel acts as an instrument of divine punishment against the immoral Danes and that he can only be defeated by someone like Beowulf, who is virtuous and self-restrained]
One of the most difficult and baffling puzzles posed by the story of Grendel and his enmity with the Danes in Beowulf is perhaps that which refers to the extreme difficulties experienced by the Danes in disposing of the monster. The strength and size of Grendel together with his supposed invulnerability to swords and his habit of striking at night under the cover of darkness account partially for the helplessness of the Danes in dealing with their enemy. These explanations, however, cannot in any way be considered as fully satisfactory or even approach the challenge of wholly accounting for the nature of the problem. The idea that a relatively sophisticated society of warriors, such as the tribe of Hrothgar, could find no solution to the nightly ravages of Grendel and endured his outrages for nearly twelve years suggests that an investigation is required in order to clarify the precise nature of the Danes' failure to get rid of the monster. Beowulf's success in his man-to-man wrestling match with Grendel clearly points out the fact that Grendel was in...
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SOURCE: "Prey Tell: How Heroes Perceive Monsters in Beowulf," in Journal of English and Germanic Philology, Vol. 92, No. 1, January, 1993, pp. 1-16.
[In the essay that follows, Parks focuses on the ambivalent nature of all three monsters in Beowulf but particularly on that of Grendel, whose shifting status as both animalistic predator and human-like opponent adds to the terror associated with him.]
Since ancient times, the bestiality of man has been a topic of such resonance in the discourse of high culture as to suggest that it strikes upon deep tensions in the human psyche. While certain features of this problematic relationship between the human and infrahuman are fairly stable, in different eras it has been conceived through radically differing paradigms. The Christian ascetic, for example, while acknowledging the bestial within the human soul, castigated it as the source of fleshly temptations that distract the pilgrim in his ascent to God. Seeking a mechanism of relationship on the material rather than the spiritual plane, Charles Darwin shocked the religious sensibilities of his day by postulating that the kinship is genetic and evolutionary, that man is literally descended from the ape. In the last few decades, the rapidly maturing sciences of ethology and sociobiology have vastly enlarged the body of evidence concerning the social behavior of higher life forms and the role of such...
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Baker, Peter S. "Beowulf the Orator." Journal of English Linguistics 21, No. 1 (April 1988): 3-23.
Focuses on Beowulf's speeches to prove that Anglo-Saxon poets and their audiences admired flowery and highly ornamented language.
Bandy, Stephen C. "Beowulf: The Defense of Heorot." Neophilologus LVI, No. 1 (January 1972): 86-92.
Argues that because the Danes are caught sleeping when Grendel attacks they are a symbol of their own moral blindness.
Barnes, Daniel R. "Folktale Morphology and the Structure of Beowulf" Speculum XLV, No. 3 (July 1970): 416-34.
Applies classic folktale structure to the poem Beowulf to prove that it owes its origin to early folktales.
Baum, Paull F. "The Beowulf Poet." Philological Quarterly XXXIX, No. 4 (October 1960): 389-99.
Examines critical reactions to the difficult language and two-part structure of Beowulf while speculating on the nature and intentions of its unknown author.
Benson, Larry D. "The Originality of Beowulf." In The Interpretation of Narrative: Theory and Practice, edited by Morton W. Bloomfield, pp. 1-43. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1970....
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