What are some possible questions concerning the opening passage of Beowulf, and how might those questions be answered?
One good way to generate questions and answers about any work of literature is to ask yourself how the work is written (in other words, what stylistic techniques it uses) and what it is about (in other words, what themes it explores).
Take the opening passage of Beowulf, for instance (in the Seamus Heaney translation). This passage employs a number of characteristic themes of the poem and uses a number of typical stylistic traits.
For example, the very first line – “So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by” – implies a number of themes that will be important in the rest of the poem. The word “Spear” implies that war will be a prominent theme. The word “Danes” implies that the Danish people (and various Scandinavian tribes in general) will be a major focus of the work. Meanwhile, the phrase “in days gone by” suggests that the past will be a key concern in this entire poem. Just the opening line of the poem, then, suggests a great deal about some of the themes the poem will explore.
The same is true of the next two lines:
and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness.
We have heard of those princes’ heroic campaigns. (2-3)
These lines reiterate some of the themes already implied in line one, and they add a few more characteristic themes. Thus, the references to “kings” and “princes” suggest that royalty and hierarchy will be important topics in this work, and indeed throughout the poem the author is concerned with the strengths and weaknesses of various rulers or important men, such as the Danish king Hrothgar and the Geatish hero (and eventual king) Beowulf.
Meanwhile, the reference to “heroic campaigns” reinforces the theme of war (already implied in the opening line), while the use of words such as “courage” and “heroic” implies that bravery and heroism will be major topics of the rest of the poem. Simply by reading the first three lines of Beowulf, then, we can get a good sense of the thematic “flavor” of the rest of the work. This will be a poem dealing with tribes in the past who were ruled by kings who ideally displayed courage and greatness as they led their people in battle.
The next three lines reinforce many of these themes while also revealing several important aspects of the poem’s style:
There was Shield Sheafson, a scourge of many tribes,
a wrecker of mead-benches, rampaging among foes.
This terror of the hall-troops had come far. (4-6)
Thematically, these next three lines present us with a particular king fighting particular tribes and displaying courage and heroism in doing so. In other words, these three lines reinforce many of the themes already implied in the first three lines. But notice also the use of alliteration in these lines: “Shield Sheafson”; “wrecker . . . rampaging”; “terror . . . troops.” Alliteration is one of the main stylistic traits of Old English poetry, as is the use of such compound phrases as “mead-benches” and “hall-troops.”
Alliteration had also been used in the first three lines in such words as “Danes” and “days” and also “kings” and “courage” as well as “have,” “heard,” and “heroic.” In just the first six lines of the poem, then, the poet has used many themes and several stylistic traits that will characterize the entire poem from beginning to end.