Beowulf Analysis

The Language and Setting of Beowulf

Since Beowulf was written in Old English, any student studying this poem will be helped by learning something of the history of this language, and understanding the basic elements of Old English poetry.

According to most historians, the Anglo-Saxon period began in 449 and ended in 1066 with the Norman conquest. This was a period of 617 years, almost three times longer than America has been a country. From this period, only some 30,000 lines of poetry remain, about the length of a long best seller. Of this number, 3,182 lines comprise the poem Beowulf.

The Anglo-Saxon language reflects a history fraught with conquest and invasion. Prior to 449, there was already a great deal of conflict in the country. The Britons fought with the Celts, the Picts, and the Scots, even before the waves of invasions by the Romans, the Angles, the Saxons and the Jutes. Although the language retained some elements of these myriad cultures, it remained largely Germanic, sharing many aspects of Old High German, the language spoken in the homeland of the invaders.

Even within the Anglo-Saxon culture there was a great deal of diversity. The invaders settled in many kingdoms, separated by geographic boundaries and by the hostile British. Because of the isolation of each of these kingdoms, sound changes and tribal and individual peculiarities flourished in the different dialects. These differences surfaced mainly in the spelling of various words. The language is frequently divided into four main dialects determined by geography. These are: Northumbrian, Mercian, West-Saxon, and Kentish. After the year 900, West-Saxon was increasingly used as the standard written language, and to this day, students learning Old English are commonly taught the spellings used by the West-Saxons.

Probably a large reason for the dominance of the language of the West-Saxons was that in the year 871 Alfred became ruler of their kingdom, by that point called “Wessex.” Alfred came to be known as a more complex and forceful ruler than any previous king. He was both innovative and devoted to his subjects. To ensure a period of peace, he married his daughter to an ealdorman of Mercia, causing a strengthening alliance within the country which allowed him to more effectively protect his subjects from outside invaders. While his main objective was to ward off Danish invasions, he was also very concerned with the state of law, religion and education within his country.

Although there is no definitive proof, it is not unlikely that Alfred was the inspiration behind one of the longest surviving Anglo-Saxon texts—The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. This is a historical account of the Anglo-Saxon history, beginning with the year 1 A.D. and the birth of Christ, and terminating in the year 1154 with the death of King Stephen. This represents the longest continuous record in Western History. The entries were recorded by monks, and told of battles, famines, monarchs, saints and religious leaders. They began as sparse entries of a sentence or two, but in later years, became extended and detailed descriptions of events. The Chronicle is remarkable in its use of the vernacular. The decline of the use of Latin in ninth century Britain made it necessary for Anglo-Saxon to become a written language, and began a process of refinement and sophistication of the language which would last until the Norman conquest.

Aside from The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Alfred is responsible for translations of biblical texts, treatises on the laws of the land, and other intellectually complicated writings. One notable work, reflecting the fact that during his reign the language became more commonly and more sophisticatedly written, explored his opinions on the necessity of education for his subjects, especially the teaching of writing and reading.

Alfred is one of the few authors of Anglo-Saxon literature about whom anything is known. Most of the work was anonymous, and much of it is quite mysterious and beautiful. Many unusual works, both of prose and of poetry, still survive to fascinate scholars. There are seven divisions of prose writing: The Anglo-Saxon chronicle; the translations of Alfred and his circle; homiletic writings; religious prose, including translations of the Old and New Testaments of the Bible; prose fiction; scientific and technical writings; and laws and charters. In the field of poetry, there are certain subjects which are commonly found: heroic subjects; historic poems; Biblical paraphrases; lives of the saints; other religious poems; short elegies and lyrics, and riddles and gnomic verse.

Closer examination of these poems reveals elements of Anglo-Saxon language usage that are unusual and very powerful. For instance, the riddles employ a practice of using the first person to speak for inanimate objects that helps to bring them alive. The subject of the riddle describes itself and asks to be identified. The answers of the riddle are frequently common, everyday things such as farm implements, items of food and drink, animals, insects, and weapons, helping to give a glimpse into the daily life of the Anglo-Saxons. For instance, one describes mead, one describes a swan, and another describes a one-eyed garlic peddler.

This method of personifying inanimate objects is expanded in one of the most unusual and beautiful of Old English poems, “The Dream of the Rood.” The...

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Beowulf The Poem (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Once, long ago in Hrothgar’s kingdom, a monster named Grendel roamed the countryside at night. Rising from his marshy home, Grendel would stalk to the hall of the king, where he would seize fifteen of Hrothgar’s sleeping warriors and devour them. Departing, he would gather fifteen more into his huge arms and carry them back to his watery lair. For twelve years this slaughter continues.

Word of the terror spreads. In the land of the Geats, ruled over by Hygelac, lives Beowulf, a man of great strength and bravery. When he hears the tale of Hrothgar’s distress, he sets sail for Denmark to rid the land of its fear. With a company of fourteen men he comes ashore and asks a coast watcher to lead him to Hrothgar’s high hall. There he is feasted in great honor while the mead cup goes around the table. Unferth reminds Beowulf of a swimming contest that Beowulf was said to have lost. Beowulf says only that he has more strength and that he also slaughtered many deadly monsters in the sea. At the close of the feast, Hrothgar and his warriors go to their rest, leaving Beowulf and his band in the hall. Then the awful Grendel comes to the hall and seizes one of the sleeping warriors. He is fated to kill no more that night, for Beowulf without shield or spear seizes the dreaded monster and wrenches off his right arm. Thus maimed, Grendel flees to his marshland home. His bloody arm is hung in Hrothgar’s hall.

The next night Grendel’s mother comes to avenge her son. Bursting into the great hall, she seizes one of the warriors, Aeschere, Hrothgar’s chief counselor, and flees with him into the night. She also takes with her the prized arm of Grendel. Beowulf is asleep in a house removed from the hall and not until morning does he learn of the monster’s visit. Then, with Hrothgar leading the way, a mournful procession approaches the dire marsh. At its edge they see the head of the ill-fated Aeschere and see the stain of blood on the water. Beowulf prepares for a descent to the home of the foe. Unferth offers Beowulf the finest sword in the kingdom and thus forfeits his own chance of brave deeds.

As Beowulf sinks beneath the waters of the marsh, he is beset on every hand by prodigious monsters. After a long swim he comes to the lair of Grendel’s mother. Failing to wound her with Unferth’s sword, he seizes the monster by the shoulder and throws her to the ground. During a grim hand-to-hand battle, in which Beowulf is being worsted, he sights a famous old sword of the giants, which he seizes and thrusts at Grendel’s mother, who falls in helpless death throes. Then Beowulf turns and sees Grendel lying weak and maimed on the floor of the lair. Quickly he swings the sword and severs Grendel’s head from his body. As he begins to swim back up to the surface of the marsh, the sword with which he has killed his enemies melts until only the head and hilt are left. On his return, the Danes rejoice and fete him with another high feast. He presents the sword hilt to Hrothgar and returns Unferth’s sword without telling that it failed him.

The time comes for Beowulf’s return to his homeland. He leaves Denmark in great glory and sails toward the land of the Geats. Once more at the court of his lord Hygelac, he is held in high esteem and is rewarded with riches and position. After many years, Beowulf himself becomes the king of the Geats. One of the Geats accidentally discovers an ancient hoard of treasure and, while its guardian dragon sleeps, carries away a golden goblet that he presents to Beowulf. The discovery of the loss causes the dragon to rise in fury and to devastate the land. Old man that he is, Beowulf determines to rid his kingdom of the dragon’s scourge. Daring the flames of the dragon’s nostrils, he smites his foe with his sword, but without effect. Once more Beowulf is forced to rely on the grip of his mighty hands. Of all his warriors only Wiglaf stands by his king; the others flee. The dragon rushes at Beowulf and sinks its teeth deeply into his neck, but Wiglaf smites the dragon with his sword, and Beowulf with his war-knife gives the dragon its deathblow.

Weak from loss of blood, the old hero is dying. His last act is to give Wiglaf a king’s collar of gold. The other warriors now come out of hiding and burn with pagan rites the body of their dead king. From the dragon’s lair they take the treasure hoard and bury it in the great mound they build over Beowulf’s ashes. Then with due ceremony they mourn the passing of the great and dauntless Beowulf.

Beowulf Places Discussed (Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

Heorot

Heorot (HEH-oh-rot). Headquarters of the aging Danish ruler Hrothgar. The great timbered hall is elaborately described, for only here can human beings be, within limits, civilized. (The unnamed great hall of the warrior-hero Beowulf’s uncle, King Hygelac of the Geats, resembles Heorot.) A great open hall with smaller divisions, Heorot is adorned with gold. Its approach is by a stone-paved road. It has benches and tables at which the retainers of Hrothgar sit. At night it is lit by torches, and its light reaches out to the surrounding wild. It is only within the king’s hall that court poets can tell and retell the heroic and dreadful tales of the northern peoples, for these tales demand a proper setting for their force and meaning. The stories give the values of the culture, both positively and negatively. They teach about the importance of loyalty and about the consequences of both loyalty and betrayal.

Here the people, or rather the nobles, carry on all the activities of human life; it is where they eat and drink and where many sleep. But it is nevertheless also close to the wild, not only in being made of wood, but in its name, for Heorot means “Hart,” or male deer—a noble animal but still animal. In being wood, like others mentioned in the poem, it can be and will be burned, with great slaughter. The humans who live here can and will be terrible to one another. Moreover, Heorot’s bright lights and noises offend Grendel, a monstrous descendant of Cain who is condemned to wander alone in the wastelands. Grendel visits Hrothgar’s hall regularly and carries off warriors to devour.

Wasteland

Wasteland. There is no description of farming or herding activities in the land around Heorot; indeed, there seem to be no human inhabitants there. Beowulf and his companions are alone as they pass through it. The great hall contains everything human in this world. Outside, the world is a great wasteland, dark forest, mists, moors, narrow dangerous paths, great, gray crags, and no animals or birds, except terrifying water monsters.

Grendel’s cave

Grendel’s cave. This underwater home of the monstrous Grendel and his mother is the opposite of Heorot. It is home to only two beings, and everything about it is unnatural. Although the entrance to the cave is by way of water, the cave itself is dry. It too is lit by a fire, but its fire is certainly uncanny. After Beowulf kills Grendel’s mother, the cave is suddenly illuminated by a magical light. Like the cave of the dragon, it is filled with many treasures; however, they do not seem to be connected with human activity in any way, not even the sword that Beowulf finds there and uses.

Dragon’s lair

Dragon’s lair. The dragon lives in a dark cave from which a dark stream of water issues. He guards a great treasure of precious materials, goblets, bowls, cups, dishes, rings, weapons, and armor. The swords are partially eaten away by time since they are iron, but most of the objects are made of gold. The hoard was accumulated and left behind by the last man of a long-forgotten community. All the treasures were created by men and are thus products of “civilization.” While they seem to give off a kind of light, they are slowly reverting to the darkness of the nonhuman.

Sea

Sea. The waters of the sea are dangerous for travelers, largely because of sea monsters but implicitly because of threat to the ships that carry men. Beowulf tells the story of his dreadful battles with these monsters. He wins these battles, but all bodies of water are nonhuman and perilous as in Beowulf’s terrifying descent into the great pool or mere where Grendel’s mother lives.

Beowulf Historical Context

The historical Hygelac died circa 521. The Beowulf manuscript was written about 1000 A.D. In the intervening centuries there was both...

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Beowulf Literary Style

Narrative Voice
Beowulf has an omniscient ("all-knowing") narrator. The narrative voice comments on the...

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Beowulf Literary Genre

This is a difficult poem to classify since it has no predecessors and nothing like it has survived. While usually considered an epic poem,...

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Beowulf Compare and Contrast

  • Anglo-Saxon period: The pre-electrical world was a world of darkness. People got up and went to bed with the sun....

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Beowulf Topics for Further Study

  • Research the rinds of the Sutton Hoo Burial excavated in 1939 and compare the burial and the treasures found to the burials and treasures...

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Beowulf Media Adaptations

  • After being the preserve of specialists for the first 150 years after its rediscovery, Beowulf began to catch the attention of...

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Beowulf What Do I Read Next?

  • The anonymous Old English poem The Battle of Maldon was composed close to the time the Beowulf manuscript was being...

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Beowulf Bibliography and Further Reading

Sources for Further Study
Alexander, Michael. "Introduction." In Beowulf: A Verse Translation. Penguin Books,...

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Beowulf Bibliography (Great Characters in Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Bjork, Robert E., and John D. Niles, eds. A “Beowulf ”Handbook. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997. Includes an essay explaining how overtly Christian and Germanic pre-Christian elements are blended in the portrait of the hero and throughout the narrative.

Booklist 96 (February 15, 2000): 1073. A review of Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Modern Critical Interpretations: “Beowulf.” New York: Chelsea House, 1987. Collection containing important essays by J. R. R. Tolkien and Fred C. Robinson establishing the importance of Christianity in shaping the themes of the poem.

Brodeur, Arthur G. The Art of “Beowulf.” Berkeley: University of California Press, 1960. From the starting point of belief in a singular author having written Beowulf, this volume provides a structural and thematic criticism of the work. It discusses diction, unity, setting, and Christian elements. A landmark reference.

Davis, Craig R. “Beowulf ”and the Demise of Germanic Legend in England. New York: Garland, 1996. Discusses ways that Christian elements are blended with Germanic religious traditions.

Goldsmith, Margaret E. The Mode and Meaning of “Beowulf.” London: Athlone Press, 1970. This book revises earlier discussions of Christian allegory in Beowulf. An attempt is made to prove the text to be an extended Christian allegory. A classic examination of the manuscript’s Christian hero pitted against evil.

The New York Review of Books 47 (July 20, 2000): 18. A review of Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf.

The New York Times Book Review 105 (February 27, 2000): 6. A review of Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf.

Nicholson, Lewis E. An Anthology of “Beowulf” Criticism. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1963. This early volume saves hours of searching through scholarly journals by presenting a comprehensive collection of widely recognized articles. It covers over two dozen aspects of the text from allegory to zoology.

Ogilvy, Jack D. A., and Donald C. Baker. Reading “Beowulf.” Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1983. This work provides a modern and thorough view of the poem. After providing the historical background for the piece, it focuses on a two-part summary of the story and a subsequent analysis of theme, versification, and style. It includes an extensive annotated bibliography as well as many illustrations.

Publishers Weekly 247 (February 21, 2000): 84. A review of Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf.

Pulvel, Martin. Cause and Effect in “Beowulf.” Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 2005. Interweaves commentary about the Christian elements of the poem throughout a discussion of the forces that motivate characters in the narrative.

Staver, Ruth Johnston. A Companion to “Beowulf.” Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2005. Series of essays providing background on the poem, including one focusing on religious elements.

Time 155 (March 20, 2000): 84. A review of Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf.

Whitelock, Dorothy. The Audience of “Beowulf.” Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1951. A transcription of a series of lectures that concentrates on the poet and audience of Beowulf in their context of early Christianity. There are several references to other scholarly works as well as translations of the actual text. It contains an extensive index.