Essays and Criticism
An Overview of Themes in Beowulf
Whether we consider it to be an intentional theme or an incidental artifact of the poem's authorship and composition, the tension between its pagan and Christian elements is an over-arching feature of Beowulf. In the very first line of his text we are alerted to the fact that the poet is depicting a world that existed in the past, for his story is set "in days gone by" (l.1). Many scholars have asserted that the unknown author of Beowulf was an Anglo-Saxon Christian who wrote in the first half of the eighth century about a Scandinavian hero, Beowulf, who, in turn, purportedly lived in the sixth century, a period and culture in which pagan worship prevailed. There are, however, only scant references to the Old Testament in the poem (Grendel and his mother are characterized as being descended from the first murderer, Cain) and none whatsoever to the New Testament Jesus or any of the specifically Christian topics or symbols that predominated the thought of the early Middle Ages. Throughout the poem there are odd juxtapositions between pagan beliefs in fate and personal prowess, on the one hand, and acknowledgements of an All Mighty power or God, on the other. The Danes to whom Beowulf lends his assistance in the first half of the story express some reliance upon God, but at the same time, they practice pre-Christian rituals. Thus, when Hrothgar, the king of the Shield-Danes, learns of Beowulf's vow to help his people, he thankfully says that, "Now Holy God/has, in His goodness, guided him here/to the West-Danes, to defend us from Grendel" (ll.384-385). But as for his subjects, we have previously read that "sometimes at pagan shrines they vowed/offerings to idols, swore oaths/that the killer of souls might come to their aid/ and save the people" (ll.142-145) from scourge of the monster who has been decimating them for a dozen years. At one juncture, the teller of the tale affirms that "Almighty God rules over mankind/and always has" (ll. 699-700). Yet after Grendel is slain, the narrator muses that "all of us with souls, earth-dwellers/and children of men, must make our way/to a destination already ordained/where the body, after the banqueting/sleeps on its death bed" (ll.1004-1008). The former sounds like a statement of Christian faith, but the latter, with its implicit denial of an of an afterlife, is not congruent with Christian doctrine.
As for Beowulf himself, he seems to be both pagan and Christian in his orientation. Before...
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The Beowulf Epic
Michael Alexander, a translator of Beowulf, begins his entry on the epic in A Dictionary of Modern Critical Terms with Milton's "great argument" and "answerable style," that is, an important theme and a style to match, to define epic. He continues, "classically trained critics, expecting art to see life steadily and see it whole, look for an idealized realism and debar folklore and romance elements." Paraphrasing and then quoting the critic Northrup Frye, Alexander accepts that "these stories recapitulate the life of the individual and the race. The note of epic is its objectivity: 'It is hardly possible to overestimate the importance for western literature of the Iliad's demonstration that the fall of an enemy, no less than of a friend or leader, is tragic and not comic.'" According to this definition, Beowulf somehow combines the elements which define the epic with other elements which seem to come from the world of "Jack the Giant Killer" and "Three Billy Goats Gruff."
Beowulf is, indeed, on one level a very simple story told with great elaboration. A man of great strength, courage, and generosity fights three monsters, two when he is a young man, the third in his old age. Other more complicated human events precede these, others intervene, others will follow, but those more realistic events are all essentially background. To some earlier critics as to W. P. Kerr in Epic and Romance, the choice of a folktale...
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The Heroic Age, Ideal, and Challenge
Discovering the Poem's World
The poem imposes many delays on its central story and includes many explorations not directly related to its main business, but despite an indirect movement and moments of leisure, Beowulf creates a powerful impression of a great action moving irresistibly forward, advancing not steadily but abruptly in sudden lurches and turns toward a fearful event. Brief summaries of the "basic story" of Beowulf conceal its rich variety of forms and matter; the poem captures a vast historical scope, includes a variety of genres or modes of composition, and reveals a constant interplay of tones. The prologue separates the poem's audience from the story—long ago in another country—then presents the audience with a gratifying account of heroic success, of heroism leading to national success, of the hero as founder of a great dynasty. At the height of Scyld's brilliant career, a kingdom won, an overlordship established, and an heir engendered, the narrator proposes as a universal truth the rule that in every nation the successful aspirant to honor must do praiseworthy deeds. On these words, the narrator announces Scyld's death at the fated time, the prologue closes with his people's grief for the great king's passing.
Scyld earned the narrator's accolade—... that was a good king! (11)—early in the prologue which ends with the universal truth of mortality and an unanswerable question. Scyld returns to...
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Beowulf and Anglo-Saxon Poetry
The date of the poem remains an unsettled problem. A written version of it preceding the uniquely surviving MS may safely be postulated, and beyond doubt is the likelihood that a form of the poem was in circulation among poets of the oral tradition for some centuries before the known MS version was made. Indeed, the principal motifs of the poem's plot are motifs of widespread folklore, and parts of the story, and the figures of Beowulf and of the monsters, have analogies elsewhere in the ancient literature of North-West Europe. But the story as it survives embodies, unless we have misunderstood it, a strikingly sophisticated and deliberately structured philosophical statement which is surely the construct of one creative mind presiding in literary manner over the traditional material.
Concern with locating the elements of this traditional material in the context of early Germanic culture has characterized the preliminary stages of Beowulf criticism; but it is the location of that artistically and didactically sovereign mind in a plausible intellectual and social milieu within the evolving culture of the Anglo-Saxons to which much Beowulf scholarship continues to address itself. Though it is conventional to regard the poem as early — first, because of the obvious antiquity of some of the traditional content, then because the relatively clear landmarks of the age of Bede, or of Offa's Mercia, or of Raedwald of East Anglia...
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