In the Old English poem Beowulf, how is the final section -- depicting Beowulf's kingship -- relevant to the first two sections?

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vangoghfan | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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In the Old English epic poem Beowulf, the final section (describing Beowulf’s period as king) has many interesting connections with the first two sections (describing Beowulf’s experiences as a young warrior).  Among those connections are the following:

  • In the first two sections, Beowulf fights two monsters: Grendel and Grendel’s mother. Each monster is somewhat more sympathetic than the monster preceding it: Grendel attacks and kills many times without provocation; Grendel’s mother attacks and kills once to avenge the death of her son; the dragon is asleep, bothering no one, until the hoard of gold it is guarding is disturbed by a thief.
  • In each of his three battles with the monsters, Beowulf is successively better armed. In his fight with Grendel, he uses no other weapon than his bare hands. In his fight with Grendel’s mother, he is very well equipped. In his fight with the dragon, he is not only heavily armed but has the assistance of a young follower, Wiglaf.
  • In the battle with Grendel, Beowulf’s men try to help him but cannot; in the battle with Grendel’s mother, Beowulf’s men would like to help him but cannot; in the battle with the dragon, Beowulf’s men – except for Wiglaf – make no attempt to help him.
  • In the first two thirds of the poem, Beowulf is a young man who readily comes to the assistance of an old and beleaguered king.  In the final third of the poem, Beowulf himself is an old and beleaguered king who is assisted by an eager young hero, Wiglaf, who in many ways resembles young Beowulf.
  • Lines near the beginning of the poem describe the elaborate funeral of a great leader (Shield Sheafson) who is buried at sea; lines late in the poem, almost near its end, describe the elaborate funeral of another great leader (Beowulf) who is buried on land. Shield Sheafson’s body is pushed out onto the ocean in a boat; Beowulf’s body is burned:

On a height they kindled the hugest of all

funeral fires; fumes of woodsmoke

billowed darkly up, the blaze roared

and drowned out their weeping, wind died down

and flames wrought havoc in the hot bone-house,

burning it to the core.   [Seamus Heaney translation]

  • Shield Sheafson is buried with a great deal of treasure; so is Beowulf.
  • Ironically, Shield’s death brings no immediate disaster to his people, whereas the Geats seem to dread what will happen to them now that Beowulf is gone.

In short, Beowulf is poem that shows evidence of real design. At the very least one can say that its structure is powerful and effective. The relations between the first two parts and the last part are often very meaningful and are sometimes richly ironic.

 

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