What is the role of art, including poetry, in the poem "Beowulf?"

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jameadows eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Art in the poem "Beowulf" is often a means of honoring kings and warriors. Poetry proclaims the bravery and might of leaders. For example, at the beginning of the poem, the poet writes, "the prowess of people-kings of spear-armed Danes, in days long sped, we have heard." In other words, oral stories have been passed down through the years of the feats of the Danes in times gone by. 

When Beowulf dies at the end of the poem, his people cover his body armor and bury him with treasures, including rings, that they took from the dragon's cave. They bestow their dead leader's grave with objects of art as a way to honor him, and they also chant "dirges," or songs of mourning (which are forms of oral poetry), as a way to remember him.

Art is also a way to build a sense of community. When Hrothgar builds his famous mead hall, Heorot, he uses the hall as a place from which to dispense treasures and art, such as rings. It is also a place where minstrels perform. As the poet writes, "here harps rang out, clear song of the singer." The music and poetry that the minstrels proclaim help knit the community together. It is their sense of community and enjoyment that makes Grendel, a descendant of Cain who lives a lonely life on the moors, particularly jealous and desirous of killing them. After Beowulf and his men arrive to help purge Heorot of Grendel, the poet writes, "Oft minstrels sang blithe in Heorot." The minstrels, who sing stories in poetic forms, were vital in rallying the sprits of Hrothgar's people and the spirits of Beowulf and his Geats as they prepare to do battle with Grendel. Therefore, art, in the form of objects and in the form of poetry, was a way to knit together the community.