What are some of the themes of the Anglo-Saxon epic poem Beowulf?

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Beowulf, despite having been preserved in only a single manuscript, exemplifies many of the concerns and themes of Anglo-Saxon culture.

First, it exists in an oral tradition in which bards were central features of aristocratic life, serving to transmit cultural and historical traditions in an era when literacy was...

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Beowulf, despite having been preserved in only a single manuscript, exemplifies many of the concerns and themes of Anglo-Saxon culture.

First, it exists in an oral tradition in which bards were central features of aristocratic life, serving to transmit cultural and historical traditions in an era when literacy was rare. In its protagonist it offers up for listeners a model of the ideal behavior of a young man coming of age and growing into a leadership position.

The first theme is one of duty and responsibility of leaders to society. Beowulf is a good leader because he is devoted to the people he leads and rules, risking pain, injury, and eventually death to protect them and those linked to them by bonds of hospitality and friendship. A major theme is that leadership is not just raw power and bossing people around, but something earned through service and part of a reciprocal relationship.

Another important theme is that a great hero must be a brave and moral person, pious, truthful, brave, and loyal. Young men should be modest as they prove themselves and older ones mentors who reward the bravery of rising leaders. Evil is seen as opposed to the will of gods of God (pagan and Christian religious themes mix in the poem) and piety and goodness both are on the side of the gods, who are just and reward good people. Community bonds and keeping one's word are key features of what it means to be good, as well as fairness and justice towards the weak.

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Anglo-Saxon poetry generally explores the exploits of an epic hero in battle - often ending the a lament for the hero's death. The battle may be based on historical events, e.g. 'The Battle of Maldon', or those of a more mythological nature, e.g. 'Beowulf'.

The themes in these poems are bravery, honour and duty, although later poetry may also have Christian themes as well.

'Beowulf' is probably the best known Anglo-Saxon epic poem - surviving in a manuscript which is kept in the British Library. The poem traces Beowulf's heroic life - epitomising the typical traits of the epic hero: bravery, greater prowess in battle than other men and a sense of duty to the people he protects.

One of the key themes in the poem, aside from bravery and leadership, is revenge:

"It seems better that each man avenge his friends than to mourn them to no end."

 

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