In Beowulf, the poet carefully indicates the world he is depicting in the epic is not a world with which he has direct experience. He accomplishes this sense of distance in a number of ways. The most apparent of these is the simple use of the past tense. The very first lines of the poem immediately establish the poet’s relationship to the action of the story: “So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by/and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness. We have heard of those princes’ heroic campaigns.”(l.1-3). From this statement, the reader cannot discern any connection between the poet and the actions of the Spear-Danes; he certainly did not live at the time of the Spear-Danes, and it would seem that the Spear-Danes are not a part of his past. The poet exhibits little in the way of pride at the achievements of past warriors. Even when the action moves to the narration of Beowulf’s deeds and those of his companions, the poet maintains the past tense, again reinforcing the idea that he is not narrating events from his direct experience.
The poet not only distances himself from the action of the poem, but he also makes an effort to give the characters a past of their own. The most effective way the poet achieves this is by constructing the narrative in a chronological framework. The poet establishes the collective past of the characters by providing the reader with the history of the peoples involved in the main action of the story. In presenting these origins, the characters have a past to which the reader is privy and to which the characters themselves can refer back, an important consideration in warrior societies. Warriors must be able to establish their worthiness to other warriors, as Beowulf does upon his arrival in Heorot. This would be much more difficult to present without the poet’s opening narration. Giving the characters a sense is essential for an understanding of the society of which the characters are a part.
In the epic poem "Beowulf", the author or authors created a world which was very distant from their own. Distance is created through the use of events such as feasts and celebrations, symbols representing a dark and unknown forces, and by only alluding to other events gone by.
Beowulf seems to have come from southern Sweden to England with the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes, who started arriving in the 5th century C.E. It seems to have survived orally for several centuries before being written down somewhere between the 8th and 10th centuries C.E. It survives in a single manuscript which was damaged in a fire.
The plot of the poem has three climaxes with each featuring a great fight between Beowulf and a monster; but the poem includes a great deal of other material as well. A great portion of the poem is given over to feasts and celebrations. Beowulf digresses off into about 10 other stories from Germanic history and legend—stories which are only allusively referred to, so footnotes are needed to sort them out.
Beowulf is essentially a pre-Christian poem with a few inadvertent Christian details, unavoidable because the poem was written by a Christian looking back at a pre-Christian past with admiration and some nostalgia. The poem’s definition of a “good king” is solidly Germanic, emphasizing fighting, winning treasure, and being remembered after one’s death. Beowulf’s principal enemies—trolls and dragons—are creatures from Germanic mythology associated with cold, darkness, and the wilderness; they are enemies of human values and achievements, and they reflect the hostile environments from which Germanic people came.
Beowulf’s death during his battle with the dragon is no surprise; for these Germanic peoples, all stories end in death and destruction, as does their mythology about the world itself. What makes Beowulf a hero is that he takes the dragon with him when he dies. Beowulf’s death means the destruction of his people—another reminder of the gloomy Germanic world view that is underscored by a favorite device of the poet: understatement. This creates more distance in showcasing the end of a society.
Beowulf, like all good literature, creates distance by demonstrating its richness in the number of different readings it can support. It can be a poem about humankind’s losing battle with the universe. It can be a meditation on the futility of a culture that defines itself in terms of war. It can also be an analysis of the uses and misuses of heroism within the human community.
These all support the idea that the poem creates distance.