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...
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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...
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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....
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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,...
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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...
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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...
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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):...
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