Paull F. Baum (essay date 1960)

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SOURCE: “The Beowulf Poet,” in Philological Quarterly, Vol. XXXIX, No. 4, October, 1960, pp. 389-99.


[In the essay below, Baum explores the possible audience for which Beowulf was composed and argues that internal evidence suggests the poet intended to create a “quasi-heroic” poem for his own enjoyment, with the hope that others might also be pleased with his work.]


Some years ago (1936) Professor Tolkien, in his British Academy lecture, created an academic stir with his complaints that the scholars had been too busy about their own concerns and had neglected the criticism of Beowulf as a poem.1 Latterly, Miss Whitelock (1951) attempted to recreate the ‘audience’ of Beowulf in the interests of bringing forward its date from the early to the late eighth century.2 Though the two subjects are not closely related, one may be used to throw light on the other.


Tolkien was attacked and defended, but the questions are still open—and little wonder, for the critical handicaps are forbidding. The language of the poem is difficult, partly owing to the state of the text and partly because the poet chose to make it so. Very few, even of the specialists, can pretend to such a feeling for style as we bring to the appreciation of later English poets; and the others are dependent on translations of uncertain merit and fidelity. Knowing so little about whom the poet addressed, we cannot easily estimate the responses he expected: what seems remote to us may well have seemed simple to them. It would help a good deal if we knew whether he wrote to please himself, to satisfy an inner need, or for recitation to a listening audience capable of following with pleasure and understanding his often cryptic language and his often intricate plan of narrative, his ironies, and his exhilarating methods of reticence and indirection. Moreover, Beowulf is unique. Being the first of its kind in the vernacular, it has an honored position, but it exists, for us, in a kind of literary vacuum without historical perspective. Nothing is certainly known of its author or of his ‘audience.’ And its survival in a single manuscript and a different dialect some two and a half centuries after its original composition tells us little; it does not signify a continuous history of recitation or reading.



There are really two poems: one about Beowulf and the Danes, the other, roughly half as long, about Beowulf and the Geats. They have in common the same hero, first as a youth then as an old man, overcoming first two water-monsters and later a fire-drake. The earlier victories appear to be successful, though in delivering the Danes from Grendel and his Mother the hero has left them a prey to subsequent disaster; he has established his renown, which was paramount, but as the savior of a nation in distress his achievement was only temporary. His later victory has also a tragic irony: it brings his own death and so opens the way to disaster for his own people. Thus the two poems, or parts of the same poem, share a single theme: that beyond the hero's bravery there are forces which he cannot subdue. Valor is vanity in the end. So much any reflective reader may see.


The plan of Part I looks simple: the Danish setting, the hero's journey and reception, his fight and the celebration of his victory, his second fight and the following celebration, his return home and report of his adventures. But such is the poet's chosen method that he disguises the symmetry by making his concluding point (Hroðgar's plan to heal a feud with the Heaðobards) look like an irrelevance. This is the result of pursuing two themes at once, the plight of the Danes and their deliverance by the hero—with the necessary interchange of background and foreground. For the rest, having not much story to tell and meaning to tell none as story, the poet took his raw materials from the old ‘lays,’ and combining them with history and with folklore created something new, not exactly a heroic poem, (for there is less of that sheer delight in man-to-man fighting than we expect in heroic poems; compare the tone of the Finnsburgh Fragment with the poet's treatment of the same situation) and certainly not an epic, but a modification or adaptation to suit himself—a mixture of pagan matter treated in a somewhat non-pagan manner and of heroic matter from the legendary and historic past along with court ceremonies as he understood them. The actual fighting, including Beowulf's recapitulation, occupies less than one-tenth of the whole.


Part II, with less than a thousand lines, is another poem with the same hero. No significant differences in vocabulary, syntax, style, or meter have been found, and in the face of an improbable assumption of two men writing at about the same time in the same, or almost the same, manner, it must be taken for granted that both poems are by the same author. There are small linkages, but the subject and planning of the two Parts are different; there is a wholly new cast of characters, the emphasis is shifted, the polarity is altered. Part I had a beginning, a middle, and an end. Part II is less simple, it is more confused, the so-called digressions occupy relatively much more space (besides being more puzzling to the modern reader), and the whole is more gloomy, not only with the hero's death but also with the presage of disaster for his race.



One of the ‘intentions’ attributed to the poet is the portrayal of a virtuous pagan who might be said to manifest some of the high qualities inculcated by the new religion; and this might imply, or even signify, a semi-didactic purpose. Perhaps, as some have thought, he felt the zeal of a new convert; but if so, one would have expected him to go further. Or perhaps, as Gang conjectures, “Beowulf, so far from being a Christianized epic, is an attempt at a sort of secular Saints' Life,” as though to prove that the heathen legends contained, latent, “a great deal of sound doctrine and Christian morality.” Perhaps; or, since the divine guidance of the world, though prepotent, evidently—from the turn of events among Danes, Swedes, and Geats—leaves room for family and dynastic distress (gyrn æfter gomene), the poet's aim might be a warning to his contemporaries, pointing a deadly parallel to the local wars he saw all about him and their inevitable outcome. Or, even more narrowly, he might mean to show that the supernatural forces which threaten mortal man can be overcome—Grendel driven off and finally beheaded, his Mother killed in her hidden haunt, the Dragon tumbled lifeless over the cliff—but the human conflicts, treachery and cowardice against loyalty and bravery, bring ineluctable doom. But if so, the poet has left these inferences to our ingenious interpretation. He was too much the artist to certify a “palpable design.”


The symbolic or parabolic interpretations have a distinguished history. They go back at least to Grundtvig and they seem now to be taken for granted.3 They are only suspect when they are applied to raise the epic level of the poem and to dignify the monsters—otherwise crude and merely folklorish—by assuming that they stood in the poet's mind for the dark forces of evil which oppress mankind and thus acquire in the reader's mind a Satanic stature. This “usury of our own minds” should not be allowed to crystallize into dogma.


Nor need we stop with the monsters. For example, if Hroðgar thought it necessary to warn Beowulf against pride, it is a short step to discovering a psychic disturbance in his own predicament. He himself has been guilty; he has erected his splendid meadhall and God is punishing him with Grendel. Grendel is specially irritated by the revelry and the sound of the harp. And Beowulf? Unbidden—or so we may suppose, though the poet is not altogether perspicuous on this point—he has crossed the seas and freed Heorot of its plague, and has thus interfered with divine justice and punishment, just as he did later when he became entangled with the accursed hoard. Moreover, Hroðgar's warning goes unheeded, for Beowulf at the end of a long and prosperous reign interferes again and stubbornly insists on fighting the Dragon in spite of his advanced age. Pride must have its fall and he is punished both by the humiliation of having to depend on Wiglaf and by his own death.


Moreover, the poem may be read not as an exaltation of manly valor and fortitude but a lament for the hopelessness of the human lot—“an heroic-elegiac poem” (Tolkien), beginning with a burial, ending with a cremation, and all that seemed so heroic in between coming to naught. But then, by superimposing a Christian orientation on those noble heathens, the poet compromised his Christian faith in God's goodness; or perhaps one should say he acknowledged the pessimism latent in Christian doctrine, a resignation to the evils of the world, without being able to hold out the hopes of relief and salvation in another life.4 Thus as critical latitude broadens, puzzling difficulties deepen.


One might go further. Beowulf is, as Chambers said, a poem of ambiguities; and in every ambiguity may lurk a secret meaning. For example, Beowulf encounters in Part I the evils of water (especially with Grendel's Mother) and in Part II the evils of fire (the fire-drake and his cremation). With this there is a chiastic balance which ought to be significant; for in Part I Heorot's destruction by fire is prophesied and in Part II the Dragon is pushed over into the sea. And, assuming a little different position, one notes that Grendel is the agent, not the enemy of God; he was sent to punish the Danes and the poet was only adding his touch of cunning subtlety when he said Godes yrre bær.


One more speculation. Taking a leaf from Samuel Butler, one could argue that the poet was a woman, a learned abbess inspired, say, by Hild's success with Cædmon—or why not Hild herself? Feminine authorship would account for many things in the poem: the absence of gory fighting and lust of battle; the vagueness of detail in the wrestling match with Grendel and in the encounter with his Mother and in the final contest with the Dragon, so much interrupted by Beowulf's speeches; the touches of pathos here and there, the implied sympathy with Hildeburh, and with the Dragon; the praise of queen Hugd and queen Wealhþeow; in general, “the poet's sympathy with weak and unfortunate beings” (Klaeber); Beowulf's interest in the gold ornaments from the hoard; the feeling for harsh landscape on the way to Grendel's mere; the delicate reticence about the parentage of Fitela; the absence of gluttony and lechery (though there is abundance of mead and the duguð get drunk, drunkenness leads to nothing worse than noise and some reckless talk); the celebrations of victory in Part I by singing and racing, with none of the grosser indulgences; the pervasive manner of indirection; the extraordinary amount of talking and the tendencies to ‘digress’; the pessimistic judgment on men's inability to rule successfully at home and abroad (the hero's long reign is only an apparent exception; it was far from peaceful); the crowning attribute of mildness in Beowulf; and much more. An enthusiast could write convincingly on this topic.


These, and other such hypotheses, do no harm if they are not taken too seriously. They testify to our critical industry and also—which is the point here—to our uncertainty about the fundamental criteria of the poem. They emphasize its enigmas.



A poem assumes readers, but since in the eighth century the Beowulf poet could hardly expect any considerable number of readers and since then poetry was commonly recited, read aloud with some sort of musical accompaniment—

                    þær wæs hearpan sweg,
swutol sang scopes—

it is usually taken for granted that the Beowulf poet cast himself in the role of scop and both recited his poem to a group of listeners and hoped that others would do the same. Miss Whitelock has computed that the poem “could easily be delivered in three sittings,” and it only remains to inquire who the listeners would be. This question she has faced with courage and great learning; she presents her case with shrewd caution, avoiding over-confidence: “it would be unsafe to argue that any part of England was in the eighth century insufficiently advanced in intellectual attainments for a sophisticated poem like Beowulf to have been composed there and appreciated.” Most admirable caution, though one might have hoped for a more positive conclusion. “The audience,” she says, “would doubtless consist of both veterans and young men” in the royal retinue, as well as “an audience of sportsmen.” They would probably be Christians. Remembering Alcuin's Quid Hinieldus cum Christo, she seems not to have included a monastic audience. (One wonders how much Alcuin knew about Ingeld. Saxo's spelling is Ingellus.) The men on the mead-bench are slightly disguised as veterans and young men: they would have to be more temperate than the celebrants in Heorot.


For such an “advanced” audience two requisites must be met: one, a group both interested in the fearless exploits of a heathen hero, modified for Christian ears, who fought ogres and a dragon in the long ago, and sufficiently familiar with Geatish and Swedish feuds and with continental legends and sagas—Sigemund and Heremod, Hengest and the Heaðobards, and so forth—to be able to absorb easily and with pleasure the poet's somewhat abrupt allusions; and secondly, a group capable of the concentrated attention necessary to follow, while listening, a narrative as involved and circuitous (“circumambient,” “static” with the illusion of forward movement), in a style as compressed and often cryptic, as that of Beowulf. The reasoning assumes not only a group of listeners knowledgeable on all the many topics to which the poet points and passes, as well equipped as the poet himself, and sufficiently able to fill in all that he leaves out or hints at, but a fortiori nimble-minded enough (“alert”) while listening to, say, three sequences of about 1000 lines each, to pick up and drop at need the several allusions historical and traditional without losing the main pattern, to adjust and readjust their attention in rapid alternation to diverse matters without sacrificing their interest in the principal concern. Could such a listening audience ever have existed? Did ever a poet before or since ask so much of one?


The ‘argument’ was succinctly put, long ago, by Gummere: “The style of reference to the death of Hæthcyn shows how familiar the whole story must have been.”5 Miss Whitelock elaborates this. At every turn she insists that the poem would not be intelligible unless the audience was well informed—on Christian doctrine, for example, to understand a Biblical reference (the giants of Exodus), or on the subsequent history of Hroðgar's strife with his own son-in-law to catch the hint of þenden (1019), and so on. “To an audience that did not know that Hrothulf killed Hrethric, the whole section [1164 ff.] would be pointless.” She dwells at length on the fourfold account of Hygelac's Frisian raid. It would ask a good deal for the audience to pick up the second hint eleven hundred and forty lines after the first unless they were well acquainted with Frankish tradition and Geatish history. It assumes “the likelihood that the poet could rely on his hearers' previous knowledge of the Geatish kings as on that of the Danish kings, and could leave it to them to supply more than he chose to tell them”—while they listened for what was coming next. And finally, “if even a few of the claims I have made are true, we must assume a subtle and sophisticated poet, and an alert and intelligent audience” later than the age of Bede.


Those elements of the minstrel style which the poet made use of, and his picture of the improvising scop at Hroðgar's court will not have deceived him, or us. He was not composing an enlarged tripartite ‘lay.’ “The first concern of heroic poetry,” says Bowra, “is to tell of action, … bards … avoid … not merely moralizing comments and description of things and places for description's sake, but anything that smacks of ulterior or symbolic intentions”; “the listening audience requires single moods and effects, without complications.” A bard has to hold the audience's attention, “to make everything clear and interesting.”6 This hardly describes the Beowulf poet and his work. The “discontinuity of action” (Tolkien) and the calculated double movement of Part II especially, with its rapid interchange of present (Beowulf and the Dragon) and the historical past is the last thing a scop would submit to a group of listeners. Miss Whitelock's “we must assume” is therefore circular: if the poet wrote for an audience, the audience must have been waiting.

Who will, may hear Sordello's story told.



We are still in the dark about the poet's intentions. If we knew anything precise about those lost ‘lays’ we might guess a little about his originality. Did he invent Grendel's Mother, for instance? and why did he give her no name? The supernatural elements were, one assumes, in the ‘lays’ and he accepted them; they are the folklore coefficient of heroic saga. The Scandinavian settings were, one assumes also, in his ‘lays’ and he had to accept them and try his best to make them interesting to his Anglian ‘audience.’ He would celebrate a hero whose life was dominated by a (pagan) desire for fame, who won fame by overcoming superhuman opponents, and whose last act was to order a burial mound on a conspicuous headland as a monument to his fame, and whose epitaph was lofgeornost. But he would raise what might seem like a tale of adventure “above mere story telling”; he would make it a poem and load every rift with ore. So he avoided continuous narrative, intercalated fragments of story with recondite, enriching, sometimes teasing, allusions and with forward and backward glances into the historical backgrounds, and arrayed it all in a highly ornate, alembicated style, with some vestiges of the minstrel formulas to set it off. These have an odd look alongside his methods of “syntactic correlation, parallel and antithetic structure, parenthesis, and climactic progression” (Klaeber). His style is one of the poet's glories—and impediments. It makes his poem a tour de force, which he must have enjoyed writing and hoped others would enjoy—enjoy the peculiar strain he put upon language and relish the tension of keeping pace with his structural convolutions. But this combination is so curious, so original, in the sense of being contrived, that the whole seems more like an artifact than a poem created out of the artist's experience.


When, finally, one thinks of the modern reader, Beowulf suffers the drawbacks of all subjects drawn from Northern myth and legend. The Greek and Roman world is too much with us. The subject of the poem is unsympathetic to our taste and the cultivation of a taste for it is a burden. Its people are alien to us. The tribal conflicts of sixth-century Danes and Swedes have no recognizable place on our stage of history. Their names have no familiar associations; and for our confusion there are twenty-six personal names beginning with H———. We have some acquaintance with literary dragons, but our imagination can do little with ogres and trolls; and what is more, none of the characters in the story makes an empathic appeal to us. Only by intervals is there a touch of human feeling or anything that speaks directly to us. There is no conception of character tested in significant human situations or any clear sense of tragic conflict, man against man or man against fate, with a catharsis which ennobles the victim through his sacrifice and the reader through contemplation of victory in death. (The hero's end is confused, for the reader, by his involvement with the heathen hoard.) The divided spirit of Hroðgar; the plight of that terrible old Ongenþeow, his queen captured and rescued and his death at the hands of a young man; the graciousness of Wealhþeow; the pathos of Hildeburh and the indecision of Hengest; the little comedy (if it be comedy) of Unferð—these seem to us undeveloped possibilities. We can see them but they are offered in passing. Like the tragic glimpses of Heremod and young Dryð, and all the so-called digressions, they are absorbed into the main ‘narrative’—smaller or larger pieces of color, purple or crimson or black—with little attention to their emotional or psychological interest. Whether functional or decorative or both at once, they appear suddenly and are gone quickly, and one hardly has time to enjoy them. The poet evidently set great store by them, but his touch-and-go use of them robs them of their power. The one major character for whom we are invited to feel sympathy is the Dragon.


All this and more would make for the dulness and dimness which the late Middleton Murry saw in the poem.7 But dulness and dimness are relative terms, and it is worth recalling that to some Racine is dull, his characters a seeming vehicle for rhetorical declamation. To your French critic Shakespeare is chaos. Even Prometheus Bound is a strange work unless one brings to it the right kind of sympathetic understanding; Prometheus on his rock and the Oceanides singing would be, if we were not brought up on them, as remote as Hroðgar and his trolls or Beowulf and his Dragon. The language of Aeschylus is as difficult, until one has learned it, as the language of Beowulf.


As literature, said Mr. Murry, Beowulf is “an antediluvian curiosity,” and Professor Gilbert Highet, speaking as a classicist, says that “artistically Beowulf is a rude and comparatively unskilled poem.”8 Well, it must be conceded that Beowulf is a foreign masterpiece, as foreign to modern taste in subject and manner as in language. It has, however, affinities with much of Donne and some of Browning, and it looks forward, curiously, to the very modern handling of time-sequence. But it cannot be translated into our idiom because we have no language corresponding to its ideas and emotions and we have no ideas and emotions to fit its peculiar language. The poet seems to have created many of his own difficulties. He had, one surmises, his own taste of chaos and in his fashion revived it, recreated it, while at the same time he looked back to a time of ideal loyalties and heroism. Simplicity, clarity, and elegant organization were luxuries he could not afford if he was to communicate what he felt the need of expressing. Why did he try? He could expect few silent readers in his own day. He adopted a tense crowded style and a convoluted method of narration, the very antithesis of a minstrel's, most unsuited for oral recitation, and if he looked for an audience of listeners he was extraordinarily, not to say stubbornly, sanguine. But all the signs point (they can hardly be called evidence but they are all we have) to a very individual man, a serious and gifted poet, steeped in the older pagan tradition from the continent, moved perhaps by a pious desire to compromise his two religions, and above all delighting in his unusual skill with language (as all poets do)—all the signs point to such a poet sitting down to compose a quasi-heroic poem to please himself, in the quiet expectation of pleasing also just that “fit audience though few.” Shelley said of Prometheus Unbound that it was “never intended for more than five or six persons.” It may seem odd to picture such an ivory-towered poet in the eighth century, but Beowulf is unique in every sense, and in the balance of probabilities the scales incline to even this unlikely assumption: a poet as individual and apart as his style, his plan, and his subject.



  1. J. R. R. Tolkien, “Beowulf: the Monsters and the Critics,” Proc. of the British Academy, xxii (1936), 245-295. This has been called a “masterful defence of the monsters against the critics.” It was attacked by T. M. Gang, “Approaches to Beowulf,RES, iii (1952), 1-12, and defended by A. Bonjour, “Monsters Crouching and Critics Rampant,” PMLA, lxviii (1953), 304-312. Cf. also Arthur G. Brodeur, “The Structure and Unity of Beowulf,PMLA, lxviii (1953), 1183-95. Also cf. J. R. Hulbert, “The Genesis of Beowulf: a Caveat,” PMLA, lxvi (1951), 1168-76, which shows how far we are from agreement on even the essential points, and warns against the dangers of “a new orthodoxy.”

  2. Dorothy Whitelock, The Audience of Beowulf (Oxford, 1951).

  3. Cf. H. V. Routh, God, Man and Epic Poetry (Cambridge, 1927), i, 13, 17, 21; Malone, English Studies, xxix (1948), 161-72; Klaeber, 1, li; Tolkien passim; Arthur T. DuBois, PMLA, xlix (1934), 374-405 and ibid., lxxii (1957), 819-822.

  4. The poet shows some knowledge of the Old Testament (which aligns him with Cædmon) but none of the New (which distinguishes him from Cynewulf). The Sermon on the Mount and the Epistles of Paul have not touched him. The doctrines and dogmas of the Church—sin and redemption, revelation, a future life—have left little mark on his poem; at least he found no place for them. For obvious reasons there are no miracles; but the friends of Bede would have cleansed Heorot with Holy Water and vanquished the Dragon with a sign of the Cross. Beowulf seems to have followed St. Paul's exhortation to avoid women—thereby unfortunately leaving the succession open.

  5. The Oldest English Epic (New York, 1910), p. 129.

  6. C. M. Bowra, Heroic Poetry (London, 1952), pp. 48, 55, 215.

  7. J. Middleton Murry, a review of the translation by C. K. Moncrieff, in The Nation and the Athenœum, 22 October 1921.

  8. Gilbert Highet, The Classical Tradition (Oxford, 1949), p. 24.


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Old English poem, circa eighth century. See also Beowulf Poetry Criticism.

Hailed as the first major poem in English literature, Beowulf relates the adventures of its Scandinavian hero, at the same time presenting a detailed description of the life and mood of the age during which it was written. Little is known for certain regarding the author, the date, motivation, or method of the poem's composition. Modern critics continue to debate such issues, focusing on the Christian and pagan elements of the poem, its concern with heroic values, and its formulaic structure. The question of whether the poem's composition was contemporary with the creation of the only known manuscript is also a hotly debated issue among scholars.

Textual History


The original Beowulf manuscript dates from 975 to 1000, and is included in a volume containing a total of five works in Old English. Basing this view on historical, linguistic, and stylistic evidence, many critics agree that the poem was composed in the eighth, or perhaps the ninth century, with the extant manuscript representing a later version of the poem. It has also been suggested that a written version may predate the eighth-century poem, with a possible composition date of 685 to 725, and that an oral version of the poem may have been composed even earlier. In 1731, after joining the manuscript collection of Sir Robert Cotton, the Beowulf manuscript was damaged in a fire. A gradual deterioration of letters and words began, although it was stemmed in the nineteenth century. Two transcriptions were made from the manuscript in 1786-87 by Icelander Grímur Jónsson Thorkelin, and are considered invaluable, as they capture portions of the text later lost. These transcriptions served as the basis of the first printed edition of Beowulf and are incorporated in modern versions of the poem.

Plot and Major Characters


Although the narrative of Beowulf is not linear and contains long digressions concerning Geatish and Danish history, the plot of the poem is easily summarized. Beowulf, nephew to the King of the Geats, Hygelac, learns that a monster known as Grendel regularly raids Heorot, the Danish hall of King Hrothgar. Along with his men, Beowulf travels by sea to Denmark in order to rid the land of the dangerous beast Grendel. Beowulf succeeds, but Grendel's mother then resumes her offspring's attacks on the Danes. After traveling to the monster's underwater lair, Beowulf slays Grendel's mother and is generously rewarded with Danish treasure and acclaim. He then returns to the court of King Hygelac, goes to war with the Geats, and is eventually made king. Having served fifty years as the Geatish ruler, Beowulf defends the Geats from the attacks of a firedrake. Abandoned by his men, Beowulf nevertheless pursues the dragon, finally killing it with the help of his loyal retainer, Wiglaf. Beowulf discovers the dragon's treasure, then dies of his wounds. His people raise a funeral pyre, and the poem ends with the praising of the hero.

Major Themes


Scholars have identified numerous themes in Beowulf, many related to the portrayal of the Germanic comitatus relationship, a code of social behavior stressing the reciprocity enjoyed between a lord and his thanes. In return for protection provided by the lord, the thanes owe service and loyalty. Such themes as order versus chaos and reward and revenge are dramatized through the depiction of this relationship. The role of the monsters also underscores the poet's emphasis on the theme of good versus evil. Other thematic concerns include the role of women in kinship bonds, the use of treasure as a societal bond, the function of the narrator in poem, the nature of heroism and social responsibility, and the purpose of the quest motif.

Critical Reception


A number of questions surrounding the composition of Beowulf still inspire modern critical debate. Paull F. Baum examines several of these issues, arguing that the manuscript's date being so much later than the original composition, combined with the fact that the manuscript is written in a different dialect from the original, indicate that the poem lacks a continuous history of reading or recitation. Furthermore, while many believe that Beowulf was recited rather than read, the poem's length makes this assumption unlikely. Baum insists that the evidence suggests a poem composed for the enjoyment of its author, with the expectation that others might also take pleasure in it. While many scholars, including Baum, hold that the poem was composed much earlier than the date of the manuscript, others contend that the manuscript and the poem's composition are contemporaneous. Kevin S. Kiernan makes this argument, citing historical and linguistic evidence for his assertion that both the poem and the manuscript were created in the early eleventh century. Another issue surrounding the poem's composition is the method by which it was created. Some critics maintain that the original poem was an oral composition, while others believe that it made its first appearance in written form. Alain Renoir has studied the motifs of Beowulf, including the underwater fight and the monster's attack on a human dwelling, demonstrating that the poet's use of these devices shows that he was familiar with the traditional methods of oral-formulaic composition. Renoir stresses that this familiarity does not necessarily indicate that the poem was composed orally. J. D. A. Ogilvy similarly comments that it is improbable that Beowulf—as a whole, or even in smaller units—was composed orally. Stephen S. Evans, on the other hand, asserts that an oral form (dating from 685 to 725) of the poem preceded a written version. The original pagan poem was extensively modified, Evans argues, by Christian oral poets sometime between 625 and 700 in order to create a work better suited to a Christian audience.


Like Evans, many critics have explored the Christian aspects of the poem, particularly the juxtaposition of Christian and pagan elements. Larry D. Benson notes that although some critics appear certain that Beowulf is the work of a Christian author, rather than a pagan work later modified by a Christian scribe, the question is far from settled. The pagan elements of the poem, including Beowulf's funeral ship, the observance of omens, and the practice of cremation, seem to create an inconsistent tone in the poem. Benson maintains that this apparent contradiction stems from modern assumptions about the poet's attitude toward paganism. The Christian Englishmen of the time, assures Benson, viewed the Germanic pagan with interest, and the sympathetic treatment of the pagan values in Beowulf provides a framework that allowed the Christian to admire the pagan. Likewise, Stanley B. Greenfield suggests that the Christian author of Beowulf viewed the poem's heroic world with kindness and sympathy and even lauded the ethical and social values of that world. Greenfield feels that Beowulf and his world are presented as flawed in an effort to humanize them and elicit a more emotional response from the audience. Margaret E. Goldsmith takes a different approach in explaining the coexistence of Christian and pagan symbols in the poem, contending that the poet was cognizant of the ambivalence of the symbolism used, especially Heorot and the treasure. The great hall and the treasure seem to embody grandeur and wealth, the hero's reward, while to the Christian audience they exemplify man's pride and are to be viewed as costly and worthless. Bernard Felix Huppé similarly emphasizes the poem's Christian message, maintaining that Beowulf may have been used as a Christian apologetic, highlighting the error of English ancestral ways.


While some critics continue to be interested in the Christian attitudes of the poem and the poet's possible motivation, others focus on the style and structure of the poem. Eric Gerald Stanley praises the poet's vocabulary, word choice, and manipulation of complex sentences. In Stanley's view, Beowulf's superiority rests on the “concord between the poet's mode of thinking and his mode of expression.” John Leyerle studies the poem as a poetic analogue to Anglo-Saxon art–characterized by interlace designwork notable for its complexity– contemporary with the poem's composition. Leyerle marshals ample evidence to demonstrate that interlace designs had stylistic and structural literary parallels in England, and argues that the function of various episodes in Beowulf becomes apparent only when the likelihood of analogous design is accepted. The themes of the poem, argues Leyerle, are threaded together to form an intricate interlace that cannot be undone without losing the design of the whole poem. Like Leyerle, Kathryn Hume recognizes the poem's interlace structure and suggests that this structure supports the creation of moral and thematic juxtapositions, rather than a simple heroic narrative. J. D. A. Ogilvy analyzes the formulaic structure of the poem, noting in particular the use of traditional epithets and phrases, its sentence formula, its use of larger rhetorical patterns, and the formulaic elaboration of the poem's various themes.

Eric Stanley (essay date 1966)

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 SOURCE: “Beowulf,” in Continuations and Beginnings: Studies in Old English Literature, edited by Eric Gerald Stanley, Thomas Nelson and Sons Ltd., 1966, pp. 104-41.


[In the essay below, Stanley offers an overview of the poem's style and imagery, and attempts to discern the way in which Anglo-Saxons may have regarded Beowulf.]


We have no traditional approach to Beowulf.1 We are entirely ignorant of the author's intentions except for what we may claim to be able to infer from the poem itself. Even the subject and the form of the poem are in doubt; words like epic and elegy are applied to it, epic because it is heroic, early and fairly long, and elegy because it commemorates and mourns men who were honoured in their generations and were the glory of their times. Some have seen the poem in its entirety as an exemplum in illustration of Hrothgar's great ‘sermon’ (lines 1700-84); others have held that the poem celebrates a dynasty of kings, gloriously founded by Beowulf son of Ecgtheow, a Wægmunding like his successor Wiglaf, whose nobility of purpose was, as the poet tells us (lines 2600f.), such that nothing could make him turn aside the claims of kinship.


We are ignorant of the reception the poem had among the Anglo-Saxons, how widely it was known or how highly it was regarded. Those modern readers who see in Beowulf the personification of the Anglo-Saxon heroic ideal must be surprised that, as far as our evidence goes, only a couple of Anglo-Saxons bore his name. There is some evidence that Beowulf may to some extent have served one other Old English poet, the poet of Andreas, as a model.


If we wish, we can compare Beowulf with other Old English poems. We may find that Beowulf is not only longer but also better than the others. That is not necessarily high praise; we may try to turn this relative praise into something more nearly absolute by protesting that the poem is the product of a great age, the age of Bede, an age which knew artistic achievements of the kind buried at Sutton Hoo, an age in which art and learning were united to produce great gospel books like the Lindisfarne Gospels, now in the British Museum, and the Codex Amiatinus, now at Florence. Even so, we cannot tell how good Beowulf was compared with the best works of that age. Is it not possible that at a time when the country was full of poems, no longer extant, of the stature of Paradise Lost, Beowulf (which happens to survive) had the standing roughly of Davenant's Gondibert or Cowley's Davideis? Or are we to believe that some special dispensation preserves the best of every age? That, surely, is a romantic superstition: from the thirteenth century to the sixteenth, and after, Old English was not sufficiently understood for an Old English text to be preserved deliberately because of its literary merit.2 And more particularly, the fire which on 23 October 1731 raged in the Cotton Library at Ashburnham House in Westminster is not likely to have held back from doing worse harm to MS Vitellius A xv, the Beowulf Manuscript, than to scorch its edges, merely because the first taste the fire got of the poem convinced it of the excellence of Beowulf as a work of literature.


The evidence of the Anglo-Saxons' own interest in the poem lies chiefly in the manuscript itself. It is of the late tenth or early eleventh century, a long time after the composition of the poem, which is usually thought to have taken place no later than the eighth century. Several copyings (probably made in different parts of England where different dialects of Old English were spoken) lie between the only extant manuscript and the author's original. Of course, we cannot be sure what in each case made them copy the poem; as far as the extant manuscript is concerned, however, it seems that a finer sense of its value as poetry was less to the fore than its associations with monsters. The manuscript contains also some prose texts. One of them is a life of the dog-headed St Christopher, in the course of which we learn that the saint was twelve fathoms tall—twelve cubits, or roughly eighteen feet, in the Latin source—and he is treated and behaves accordingly. Another text in the manuscript is about The Wonders of the East; the monsters there are so numerous and so varied that strangely tall men are among the lesser marvels.3


A third text in the manuscript, Letter of Alexander the Great to Aristotle, has its monsters too; though it is disappointing to find that where the Old English text has a great battle between men and water monsters, nicras, the Latin source reads something like hippopotami for the Old English nicras.


Now a dragon and water monsters belong to the Beowulf story, and in England Beowulf's king, Hygelac of the Geats, was renowned because he was exceptionally tall. In a book, probably roughly contemporary with Beowulf, called Liber Monstrorum or De Monstris et de Belluis (‘Book of Monsters’ or ‘Of Monsters and Wild Beasts’) the following passage occurs:

And there are monsters of wonderful size; such as King Higlacus who ruled the Getæ and was killed by the Franks, whom from his twelfth year no horse could carry. His bones are preserved on an island in the Rhine, where it flows forth into the ocean, and are shown to those who come from afar as a miracle.4

It has been shown that the Liber Monstrorum is English in origin. It preserves a reasonably good form of Hygelac's name and a form of the name of his people, the Geats, not remembered otherwise (as far as our evidence goes) on the Continent at that time. It is not an unreasonable speculation to think it possible that the centre which produced the Liber Monstrorum would have been interested in the subject-matter of Beowulf; the direction of that interest runs parallel with that shown by those who put together (long after the composition of the poem5) the material in our Beowulf Manuscript. A dragon, monsters, strangely tall men, these excited the Anglo-Saxons and seem to have done so over a long period. Nothing more literary than that is needed to explain the preservation of the poem.


All this need not redound to the glory of Beowulf as a literary masterpiece. It might seem rather to confirm the most cynical opinions about the intolerably naive views of the Anglo-Saxons, who delighted in those parts of the poem of which many modern apologists are most ashamed, and that includes the dragon.


Dragons are a common occurrence in the Bible; and in the Vulgate the word draco comes not only on the numerous occasions when the Authorised Version has dragon, but also often when the Authorised Version has serpent. It is not difficult to find in the Bible confirmation for the view that the dragon (or the serpent) is in league with the devil. Revelation 20:2 makes the dragon one with the devil: ‘And he laid hold on the dragon, that old serpent, which is the Devil, and Satan, and bound him a thousand years.’ The dragon in Beowulf, however, does not seem at all like that; it is very much more like the dragon of another book of the Bible, that of the story of Bel and the Dragon in the Book of Daniel.6 Daniel among the Babylonians has destroyed their brass and clay idol, Bel. Verses 23-7 tell the next event, an historical event:

And in that same place there was a great dragon, which they of Babylon worshipped. And the king said unto Daniel, Wilt thou also say that this is of brass? lo, he liveth, he eateth and drinketh; thou canst not say that he is no living god: therefore worship him. Then said Daniel unto the king, I will worship the Lord my God for he is the living God. But give me leave, O king, and I shall slay this dragon without sword or staff. The king said, I give thee leave. Then Daniel took pitch, and fat, and hair, and did seethe them together, and made lumps thereof: this he put in the dragon's mouth, and so the dragon burst in sunder: And Daniel said, Lo, these are the gods ye worship.

The dragon in Beowulf is more like that: lo, he liveth, he eateth and drinketh, and can be destroyed, by Daniel's trick or by the courage of men like Beowulf and Wiglaf—suitably protected by a flame-proof shield. And when dragons perish they may burst in sunder like that of Babylon or melt in their own heat like that slain by Sigemund (Beowulf 897). The dragon slain by Beowulf (as much as that slain by Daniel) is an evil adversary; but the words used by the poet to describe it, niðdraca (2273), se laða (2305), manscaða (2514), inwitgæst (2670), and the like, seem less definitely links with hell than the words used by the poet of the fiendish brood of Grendel and his mother. The killing of the dragon is described as a terrible exploit from which men who at other times bear themselves valiantly may shrink: their fear is of a real being, a monstrously powerful creature—mercifully rare on this earth.7


It seems inconceivable that the poet of Beowulf should have intended to sublimate his evil dragon into draconity, making what has reality in the Bible into something abstract or symbolic, something acceptable to a twentieth-century audience willing to swallow monsters only as myths or symbols. Moreover, however we ourselves may wish to read Beowulf, of one thing we can be pretty sure on the evidence of the manuscript: the Anglo-Saxons read the poem as an account of Beowulf the monster-slayer, and preserved it with other accounts of monsters.


Nevertheless, it would be a highly imperceptive reading of Beowulf which finds in it nothing except monster-slaying. We may not go all the way with Klaeber when he says, ‘The poet would not have selected so singular a fable if it had not been exceptionally well-suited to Christianisation’;8 yet that judgment points in the right direction. Most of us now think tales of monsters a low order of literature, unless redeemed in the handling. The poet of Beowulf handles his story with literary artistry; he has made the story rich with spirituality. That has led some modern critics to look away from the reality of the monsters, to make them be wholly the powers of darkness towards which they tend (and from which Grendel's race is derived).


It is worth considering at the very outset one clear example of the poet's great skill in handling the customary material of Old English verse. Jacob Grimm, writing of Old English poetry with particular reference to Elene, said:

The way in which battles and war, the favourite occupation of our antiquity, are described deserves our attention before all else. There is something glorious in every battle-scene. Wolf, eagle and raven with joyous cry go forward in the van of the army, scenting their prey.9

In Old English poetry the wolf, the eagle and the raven occur as satellites of battle some sixteen times in all. Wherever they come they convey the expectation of slaughter. The lean wolf leaves the forest for that, and the wings of eagle and raven, dark and glistening with dew, seem to reflect impending carnage. The Beowulf poet uses the same imagery at the end of the speech which near the end of the poem foretells the destruction of the Geatish nation now that Beowulf is dead:

                                                  Forðon sceall gar wesan
monig morgenceald                    mundum bewunden,
hæfen on handa,                    nalles hearpan sweg
wigend weccean,                    ac se wonna hrefn
fus ofer fægum                    fela reordian,
earne secgan,                    hu him æt æte speow,
þenden he wið wulf                    wæl reafode.



In no other poem is an attempt made to establish a relationship between the beasts of battle: they are attendants of carnage operating singly though pursuing the same end. In Beowulf they are more than that: there is on the one hand the grim conversation between the birds, and on the other the cadaverous eating match. The purposeful combination of the beasts of battle expresses effectively the certainty that the Geats shall be extirpated:11 the three will have much to tell of things to their liking.


Other poets may refer to the beasts of battle to convey lustily the impending downfall of an enemy; the poet of Beowulf invokes them when friends must fall. If, as may well be, the beasts of battle first had a place in poems exulting in the overthrow of an enemy, like that of the Danes in The Battle of Brunanburh (60-5) and of the Assyrians in Judith (204-12, 294-6), the formulas turn sour in the hands of the poet of Beowulf, who uses them to call up all that is most abhorrent to warriors. There is deliberate artistry in that.


It would be pleasant to think that the poet's art did not remain unrecognised in Anglo-Saxon times. There is, outside the context of the Beowulf Manuscript itself, only one point which might provide evidence of how the Anglo-Saxons themselves regarded the poem: there seems to be some connection between Beowulf and one other of the longer Old English poems, Andreas. Klaeber surveys the material in the introduction (pp. cx ff.) of his edition of Beowulf and so does Mr K. R. Brooks, the most recent editor of Andreas, in the introduction to his edition. Parallels have been adduced between Beowulf and Old English poems other than Andreas, but they seem less striking than those with Andreas, nothing that cannot be readily explained as arising from the fact that Beowulf and Andreas share their poetic traditions with other Old English poems.12 Often traditional phrases were available to an Old English poet for subjects occurring frequently in traditional poetry. Some of the details which Andreas shares with Beowulf can be ascribed to that cause. For example, Heorot, the Danish hall in Beowulf (82), like the Temple of Jerusalem (Andreas 668), is described as heah ond horngeap. There are stræte stanfage in Andreas (1236) and stræt wæs stanfag in Beowulf (320). Such parallels do not provide evidence of indebtedness; after all, if ‘lofty and wide-gabled’ represents an ideal in a hall and if roads paved with stones in the Roman manner are an impressive sight it is not very surprising that two suitable and alliterating epithets should be used of a hall in a number of Old English poems and that stræt should come in collocation with stanfah in more places than one.


Nevertheless, when due allowance has been made for what may be derived independently from the common poetic heritage of the nation, there remain one or two parallels that do seem to be the result of one poet imitating the other. It should be possible to deduce from this special relationship between Beowulf and Andreas something that might help us to evaluate how Beowulf was regarded by at least one other Anglo-Saxon.


Perhaps the clearest of the parallels connecting Beowulf and Andreas are the words ealuscerwen (Beowulf 769) and meoduscerwen (Andreas 1526) and the opening lines of the two poems. The Beowulf poet's use of the word ealuscerwen almost certainly implies the image of Death's bitter cup.13 In his use of the word the image lies all in the word ealuscerwen itself. Literally ealu means ‘ale’ and meodu means ‘mead’, and scerwen probably means ‘dispensing’ or possibly ‘privation’ (though the meaning ‘privation’ would not fit the context of meoduscerwen in Andreas at all well). The words do not occur except here. In the Beowulf context ealuscerwen refers to disaster: ale is a bitter drink. When the poet of Andreas uses the word meoduscerwen he labours away at the image. He applies it to a sea-flood overwhelming a multitude. The bitterness implicit in the Beowulf image is made explicit in Andreas as a biter beorþegu (1533), ‘bitter beer-drinking’, and he further exploits the metaphor by a reference to a sorgbyrþen (1532), ‘brewing of sorrow’. Unfortunately for the image, when the Andreas poet was introducing the idea expressed by the Beowulf poet as ealuscerwen, he happened to be writing a second half-line, following a first half-line which used m-alliteration, myclade mereflod, ‘the sea-flood increased’; and so forgetting that mead (unlike the ale of ealuscerwen) is a sweet honey-drink quite unconnected with brewings of sorrow and bitter beer-drinking, he wrote meoduscerwen. If his use of that word is indebted to Beowulf it is clear that he bungled what he borrowed. A skilful versifier would have found no difficulty in producing a first half-line with vocalic alliteration to allow the use of the Beowulf word ealuscerwen in the second half-line: that word is presumed in the clumsy exploitation of the image in Andreas.


A comparison of the opening lines of Beowulf with those of Andreas reveals further similarities which it would be difficult to explain simply by reference to their common poetic inheritance:

Hwæt, we Gardena                    in geardagum,
þeodcyninga                    þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas                    ellen fremedon!

Beowulf 1-3

Hwæt, we gefrunan                    on fyrndagum
twelfe under tunglum                    tireadige hæleð,
þeodnes þegnas.                    No hira þrym alæg … 

Andreas 1-314


The opening word hwæt is common as the opening word of many Old English poems, and that both Beowulf and Andreas begin with the same word is of no special significance. The formula we (…) gefrunon is also a common one in Old English verse, but the two poets handle it quite differently. In the Beowulf opening the two verbs gefrunon and fremedon play no part in the alliteration of the lines in which they come. The complex alliterative scheme rests on nouns: Gar alliterates with gear, dena with dagum, both second elements of compounds; þeod alliterates with þrym, and the initial vowels of æþelingas and ellen alliterate. The sense requires Spear-Danes and days of yore, the glory of a nation's kings, princes and deeds of valour to be stressed. The metre requires those syllables to be stressed which are emphasised also by the sense, and the alliteration reinforces the stress. By its positioning, the subject we at the beginning of the clause and the verb gefrunon at the end, the phrase we … gefrunon frames the glory of the Spear-Danes' royal dynasty in days of yore, and leads on to the next clause. It is quite different in Andreas. His word-order is pedestrian; his statement merely asserts, first, the apostles' existence, secondly, their glory. Without in any way complicating the alliteration the poet tells us that he has heard tell of twelve glorious heroes under the stars in distant days, the Lord's retainers; the word þrym comes in the next sentence: their glory did not fail. The ingredients of the two openings are similar, but they have been used with differing degrees of skill. The devices available to Anglo-Saxon poets are used together in Beowulf to produce that harmony of sense and metre which it is possible for Old English poets to achieve if they know how to exploit the relative freedom of word-order permitted in verse. There is nothing wrong with Andreas—unless it is wrong for the opening of a poem to lack every distinction.


It is not always profitable to look for modern analogies and to transfer subjective judgments of poems of one age to poems of another. It is not possible to say how high in absolute terms Beowulf is to be rated, where it might be allowed to stand in relation to Paradise Lost, for example. Even so, it is perhaps possible to discern that the poet of Beowulf achieved something that was achieved also in the opening of Paradise Lost; and that the difference between the opening of Beowulf and that of Andreas (whatever its degree) is something of the kind of difference between the opening which begins ‘Of Man's first Disobedience’ and:

I sing the Man who Judah's Sceptre bore
In that right Hand which held the Crook
Who from best Poet, best of Kings did grow;
The two chief Gifts Heav'n could
on Man bestow.

That is the opening of Cowley's Davideis. It was published earlier than Paradise Lost, so that there can be no question of Cowley's being indebted to Milton—and there is of course not much similarity. There is similarity between the opening of Beowulf and that of Andreas, and to assume indebtedness is a likelier explanation than any other that might explain the similarity.


The dating of Old English poems is tricky. Andreas is generally held to be later than Beowulf. The possibility that Andreas is imitated in Beowulf is unlikely; the fact that ealuscerwen fits its context in Beowulf well whereas meoduscerwen fits its context in Andreas badly may be regarded as sufficient evidence that (if there is indebtedness at all) the borrowing is from Beowulf into Andreas. It seems inconceivable also that the successfully ornate opening of Beowulf should owe anything to the indifferent opening of Andreas. There are, of course, instances of a better poet borrowing from a worse. Thus, Lord Lyttleton's line

Poured forth his unpremeditated strain

(from James Thomson's Castle of Indolence, Canto I, stanza lxviii) does seem to have contributed something to the opening stanza of Shelley's To a Skylark, written in 1820, nearly three-quarters of a century later:

                    That from heaven or near it
                                        Pourest thy full heart
In profuse strains of unpremeditated art.

But the line from The Castle of Indolence is sufficiently competent for it to have jingled in Shelley's mind even if the possibility of conscious borrowing were to be ruled out by those who know about Shelley. It is difficult to believe that the mind of the Beowulf poet was chiming with memories of Andreas.


It seems likely, therefore, that one Old English poet, the poet of Andreas, drew on Beowulf. Can we base anything on such borrowing in our attempt to establish whether or not Beowulf was highly regarded by the Anglo-Saxons? A first reaction, to base nothing on what a poetical dunderhead like the poet of Andreas may happen to choose as his models, should probably be rejected as too hasty. An inferior versifier's critical acumen may well be better than his practice, not merely on account of the general principle that one need not be a hen to know if an egg is rotten, but rather on account of the particular principle that many who do not themselves excel in an art nevertheless make sensitive critics of other practitioners, their failure having given them better insight into what success is possible. There is something in the view that imitation implies admiration; the imitation of Beowulf in Andreas is testimony to the regard in which one Anglo-Saxon, whose own efforts made him a competent judge of what we now call Old English literature, seems to have held the poem. We have a right to show greater faith in him, for all his faults as a poet, than in the monster-mongers who preserved the poem. It is poor evidence of the original reception of the poem: we have no better evidence.


If we have little to go on in assessing the original reception of the poem, we have still our own judgment to tell us that in Beowulf certain details of poetic expression are put to better use than in other poems of the Old English period. In this kind of comparative analysis we cannot be sure that the details we single out for praise would, in fact, have been among things considered important by the Anglo-Saxons themselves.


The superior use made by the poet of Beowulf of the beasts of battle has been cited already as an example of the poet's special skill. The poet uses the traditional material of Old English verse with an aptness which makes it often seem the fresh product of his mind. His skill shows itself in his exploitation of the resources of the Old English poetic vocabulary, in his manipulation of complicated sentences, and in his use of the alliterative metre to convey his meaning effectively. These particulars are in the first place aspects of the poet's art of expression and therefore only less immediately aspects of what is being expressed. We have no means of knowing how these things were valued by the Anglo-Saxons themselves, and we may find that if we value these accomplishments of poetic expression highly and turn to them as criteria for judging the merits of Old English verse we may come to think less well of such pieces as The Battle of Maldon, The Dream of the Rood, and The Later Genesis, however good these may be at communicating pathos and passion.


Comparison must occupy an important place in any analysis of the poetic art of Beowulf. But there is a limit to what can be subjected to comparison. This is especially true of Old English poetic vocabulary, the greatest glories of which may well be the coinages: they were created to fill a special need and cannot for that reason be compared. In the Beowulf passage which ends in the figure of the beasts of battle, for example, the word morgenceald (302215) ‘morning-cold’ demonstrates what can be done with words in Old English verse. The adjective applies to the hand-gripped spear, and satisfactorily communicates the clammy fear of the Geatish warriors as they wake to their last battle. The substantival and adjectival compounds used by the Beowulf poet have often been singled out for their excellence.16 G. Storm's careful discussion of a small group of adjectives, including words like ‘lordless’, ‘joyless’, ‘soulless’, well illustrates the poet's skill with words. Thirty years before Storms's analysis of words ending in -leas Hoops discussed compounds beginning with ær-. He suggested convincingly that in words like ærgod (the first element of which means ‘previously’ and the second means ‘good’) the prefix ær- means ‘old and venerable’, so that the compound ærgod, for example, means ‘excellent as things were formerly’; it does not mean ‘formerly good, but not so good now’. Weohstan, Wiglaf's father—a most important personage if the poem should in any way be thought of as celebrating a dynasty—is described (line 2622) as ærfæder. The meaning of the word is ‘father, old and venerable’—not ‘a good old man but a little senile’ like Goodman Verges in Dogberry's eyes. The poet describes ancient treasure as ærgestreon, ærgeweorc, ærwela; and we know from descriptions of ancient treasure in Beowulf that it was admired for excellence, presumably because some of the skill that made the treasure in former times was not to be found among the poet's contemporaries. From the poet's use of the prefix ær- we can see his attitude to le temps perdu some part of which may be recalled as the hand touches the hilt of an ancient sword great in associations and glorious in workmanship (cf. 1677-98).


These are detailed points, and Beowulf is rich in such points. Compounds are a common occurrence in the poem. On average there is a compound every other line of the poem. This very high frequency is, of course, of some interest in itself. It would be of greater interest if we could tell which of them the poet coined. Klaeber, in the excellent glossary to his edition of the poem, indicates by means of a double dagger those words which do not occur outside the poem. It is likely enough that the poet made up many of these compounds, but we can never be sure that any particular compound which we think bears the stamp of his individuality, morgenceald for example, might not have been more widespread. Too much has been lost. In a few cases we know that a word only found in Beowulf must have had wider currency in English at one time. Thus the adjective niðhedig (3165), ‘hostile thinking’, only comes in Beowulf; but the cognate niðhugdig occurs in Old Saxon (Heliand 1056). Similarly the word nydgestealla (882), ‘companion in need’, occurs in Beowulf alone of extant Old English texts; but Old High German forms of the word (e.g. notgistallo, Otfrid's Evangelienbuch IV, xvi, 4) are not uncommon. It is best, therefore, not to praise the Beowulf poet's originality in coining words. We must content ourselves with praising that he used words aptly.


The way in which the poet manipulates complicated sentences distinguishes his work among Old English poets (though other Old English poems also contain long sentences). If we take the Beowulf Manuscript as our starting-point, the organisation of ideas can be discerned to some extent from the rudimentary punctuation and sporadic capitalisation, rudimentary and sporadic, that is, when compared with modern editions. Except for that, no help is given to the reader, who has to rely on his familiarity with the alliterative metre to guide him to correct metrical phrasing, and in Old English verse metrical phrases correspond to meaningful phrases. Since the poem is written continuously like prose (that is, not in lines of verse) it is obvious that the Anglo-Saxon readers of the manuscript must have been helped by the metre to a meaningful reading of the poem.


In selecting the passage which covers lines 864 to 886 for the following discussion the hope is that, though perhaps no individual passage can be called typical of Beowulf, nothing atypical will have been chosen. In Klaeber's edition the lines are printed as follows (ignoring the macrons and other diacritics he uses):

Hwilum heaþorofe                    hleapan leton,
on geflit faran                    fealwe mearas,
ðær him foldwegas                    fægere þuhton,
cystum cuðe.                    Hwilum cyninges þegn,
guma gilphlæden,                    gidda gemyndig,
se ðe ealfela                    ealdgesegena
worn gemunde,                    word oþer fand
soðe gebunden;                    secg eft ongan
sið Beowulfes                    snyttrum styrian,
ond on sped wrecan                    spel gerade,
wordum wrixlan;                    welhwylc gecwæð,
þæt he fram Sigemunde[s]                    secgan hyrde
ellendædum,                    uncuþes fela,
Wælsinges gewin,                    wide siðas,
þara þe gumena bearn                    gearwe ne wiston,
fæhðe ond fyrena,                    buton Fitela mid hine,
þonne he swulces hwæt                    secgan wolde,
eam his nefan,                    swa hie a wæron
æt niða gehwam                    nydgesteallan;
hæfdon ealfela                    eotena cynnes
sweordum gesæged.                    Sigemunde gesprong
æfter deaðdæge                    dom unlytel,
syþðan wiges heard …(17)

In the manuscript the following punctuation is used. Hwilum (864) is preceded by a punctuation mark and the word begins with a capital. There is a mark of punctuation after wiston (878), but the mark is less prominent than that preceding Hwilum (864) and fæhðe (879) has no initial capital. There is again a prominent mark of punctuation after gesteallan (882) and the next word, Hæfdon (883), begins with a capital. The next mark of punctuation, again prominent, comes after unlytel (885), and the next word, Syþðan (886), begins with a capital.


A comparison of the manuscript punctuation with Klaeber's shows that, though there is some correspondence, the manuscript punctuation is insufficient to enable a modern reader to grasp the meaning at the kind of speed needed for reading the poem to an audience. Yet there is nothing unusual about the punctuation of this passage or of the rest of the poem. It is not known if the punctuation of the manuscript goes back to the poet; there is no need to claim authorial authority for the punctuation for the present purpose, which is to consider how an Anglo-Saxon reader of the manuscript would have understood the text before him in spite of the sparseness of marks of punctuation, and how the author's characteristic style might be particularly well suited for the kind of reading which an Anglo-Saxon reader used to alliterative verse might have achieved.


An Anglo-Saxon reader of the poem had to rely on the metrical phrasing for a meaningful delivery. We may assume him to have been familiar with alliterative verse, and for that reason he can have had no difficulty in splitting up the text into the units we call half-lines and lines. The poet's syntax depends on the metre for its clarity, so that his art of discourse is poetic not only in his exploitation of the vocabulary available to him, but poetic also in the more prosaic virtue of clarity. This is not lowering the dignity of the word poetic: what is involved is the characteristic sentence paragraph of the Beowulf poet; that is, the poet depends on the metre for his ability to formulate his ideas at length and for his complexity of utterance.18 It may well be that those Old English prose writers, ælfric and Wulfstan among them, who at times wrote metrical prose, did so partly because they gained in clarity of expression, but mainly because metrical phrasing would more easily enable their readers to achieve meaningful delivery; however, the use to which metre is put in Old English prose has only an indirect bearing on the present discussion.


In all Old English verse, words which have the function of joining phrases or clauses or sentences (that is, metrically unstressed connectives) precede the first stressed syllable of the half-line in which they come. This is simply the result of the fact that the beginning of phrases, clauses and sentences must coincide with the beginning of metrical phrases: a break within a half-line is not tolerated. As in any other passage of Old English verse, the connectives, e.g. hwilum (867), buton (879), þonne (880), come in the initial dip of the half-line. Hwilum at line 864 is (or, at least, could be) stressed; that is borne out by the alliteration of the line, h-alliteration, in which Hwilum shares. The word does so also at line 2107, and at line 2020 it takes part in cross-alliteration. It follows that hwilum, though not always stressed, is stressable; and stressable particles when they are in fact not stressed must come in the first dip (i.e. unstressed position) of the clause.19 When, as at line 867 for example, the stressable particle (here hwilum) is a connective it must come in the dip which precedes the first stress of the clause.


Though there are exceptions,20 the vast majority of clusters of three or more unstressed syllables come in the position between the last stress of a half-line and the first stress of the following half-line. Not more than one unstressed syllable may end a half-line (except insofar as an additional unstressed syllable may be required for resolution of the last stressed syllable of the half-line). It follows that an Old English reader who comes upon a cluster of syllables consisting of words (or parts of words) which are unstressable and particles which are occasionally stressed will recognise that he is very probably at the beginning of a clause, even though he is reading a manuscript which, by modern standards, is insufficiently punctuated and not split up into lines and half-lines of verse.


Unstressed syllables in clusters may be regarded as signals to tell the reader how the construction of the sentence continues. The dip at the beginning of a half-line is a signalising position, especially clear when it is used in excess of the minimum requirements of the metre.21 All this applies to all Old English verse. There is every reason for thinking that the poets knew what syntactical advantages were to be derived from the regularity of metre.


The method of composition in Beowulf is usually additive and annexive. That is not to say that the poet simply tacks phrase to phrase without premeditation. Though sentences in which the subordinate clauses precede their main clause are not very common in the poem there are enough of them (examples occur at lines 1368-72 and 1822-30) to show that the poet's complexity of utterance is premeditated. Other examples of complex sentence structure include the embedding of one clause within another, as occurs, for instance, at lines 867-71, where (however we may relate word oðer fand/soðe gebunden to what precedes it) the relative clause se ðe ealfela ealdgesegena/worn gemunde comes between cyninges þegn, the subject, and its verb. Other examples are to be found at lines 731b, 1613b, 1831b, and 2855b. Nevertheless the commonest shape of long sentences in the poem begins with the main clause, and clauses and phrases are added and annexed one after the other.


Correlatives enable Old English poets to construct their very long sentences. Modern editors not infrequently punctuate passages containing a pair of correlatives as two separate sentences, each beginning with a correlative. An example is provided by Klaeber's punctuation of lines 864ff., where he has two sentences each beginning with Hwilum. Modern writers on the whole prefer a set of logically connected short sentences to a single long sentence containing them all, and Klaeber's punctuation accords well with their practice. His punctuation is unexceptionable, as long as we remember that the reference of the correlative at each of its two occurrences is not identical: at its first occurrence the reference of hwilum is forward, at its second occurrence it refers back. The meaning of hwilum at its first occurrence is ‘at certain times (which are to be given)’, at its second occurrence ‘at other times (than those already named)’. When the word first occurs the reader or listener cannot know if there is going to be another occurrence of the word; for hwilum does exist in constructions other than correlative constructions (just as ‘at certain times’ does). An Anglo-Saxon reader or listener would know the way in which the word hwilum could be used. The first occurrence would alert him for any second occurrence. At both occurrences here the word comes at the beginning of the clause, in the dip at line 867 and in what could be the dip (if we knew more about the rules of double-alliteration involving particles) at line 864. The initial dip of a clause is a signalising position. At line 916, fifty-odd lines away from the first occurrence of hwilum the word comes again, also in the signalising position:

Hwilum flitende                    fealwe stræte
mearum mæton.

There is good reason for thinking that hwilum here (though Klaeber makes it begin a new paragraph) refers back to the two earlier occurrences of the word. They introduce related ideas (though the use of hwilum at line 916 is not strictly correlative)—and we cannot call the whole passage from lines 864 to 917 one single sentence, because the passage consists of an organism greater than is covered by our concept of a sentence, a concept for practical purposes defined by practical rules of permissible punctuation. By utilising the initial dips of clauses, occupying them with connectives—hwilum, for example—the poet is able to embark on a complex idea, extending it over one sentence or two or more, without losing lucidity, even if (as in the case of Anglo-Saxon manuscripts) the punctuation is only rudimentary.


The device of variation acts in the same direction, though not at such length. Variation, as usually defined, is prosodically of stressed units only: it does not include personal pronouns, for example. In the passage under discussion the subject cyninges þegn (867) is varied by guma gilphlæden (868), which adds to the description of the king's retainer, and is varied further by secg (871), which continues the idea, lucidly enabling the reader to follow the sense of the passage without the help of punctuation; and secg is taken up by the pronoun he (875), though that is not strictly ‘variation’.


There is more to the sentence than that. The word gemyndig (868) is echoed paronomastically by gemunde (870); the adjective gilphlæden is varied and made explicit by gidda gemyndig (868), and the word gidda dependent on gemyndig is varied by ealfela ealdgesegena/worn (869f.) dependent on gemunde. Whatever it may mean, the phrase word oþer fand (870) is answered across Klaeber's semi-colon by wordum (874); wordum, a dative plural used adverbially, goes with the infinitive wrixlan, and is parallel to snyttrum (872) which goes with the infinitive styrian. It would not be difficult to go on: there is more to the passage; and almost every passage in the poem can be analysed in this way. Of course, it is not likely that the original audience would have apprehended these interweavings at a first hearing. Their effect is twofold: these interweavings enable the poet to proceed in an additive and annexive progress, which is far from simple and can nevertheless be understood; and they give to his verse a peculiar density of texture, only rarely found in Old English verse outside Beowulf.


It is pleasing to trace in the totality of the poem the patterns which we discern in a small part of it. Conversely, it is pleasing to find in a short passage of the poem the patterns which seem to underlie the structure of the poem as a whole. Professor J. R. R. Tolkien has said that ‘Beowulf is indeed the most successful Old English poem because in it the elements, language, metre, theme, structure, are all most nearly in harmony’.22 But the overall pattern which he selects in illustration of this statement is balance: that is, the static principle which to his mind governs the total structure of the poem as much as it governs the individual lines with their ‘opposition between two halves of roughly equivalent phonetic weight, and significant content, which are more often rhythmically contrasted than similar’.23 There are many ways of regarding the poem. If there is a balance either in the smaller units or in the total structure of the poem it is perceived only on looking back. As the poem advances, as it is read or heard, it is surely a continuum: the listening ear strains for what is to come. The adding of bit to bit in that continuum and the diversity of the means by which the continuity is attained provide evidence of the poet's art.


The passage under discussion is a good example of the poet's skill in sentence structure. It is also an excellent example of how he uses an additive and annexive method of progression for a much larger unit. The general statement of what the king's retainer does (867-77), with its specific statement (868-71) about the traditional nature of what he sings, is followed by a statement (871-4) that Beowulf is the subject still in the account of Sigemund the dragon-slayer and his fame; and that Beowulf is still the subject of the song even when it proceeds to speak of Heremod, the Saul-like king of the Danes, is made clear when at line 913 the singer reverts to Beowulf.24 The modern reader (waylaid and beset by linguistic difficulties and background notes of exceptional length) thinks the transitions sudden. The forward-listening members of the original audience, told at the beginning of the song that it is of Beowulf, make the connection and apprehend the unity. It is of great importance for an understanding of how the poem compares with other Old English poems to realise that it is unusual in Old English verse other than Beowulf to attempt such long organisms. In Beowulf the attempt is successful because the poet exploits all the devices of Old English versification (including the syntax peculiar to Old English verse) to prepare the listener for long units and to give them clarity.


Twice in the course of Beowulf the poet gives expression to a poetic ideal, once in the passage some aspects of which have been discussed already, lines 867-74, and once at lines 2105-14. The former is a difficult passage: we are not sure what is meant by the two half-lines word oþer fand/soðe gebunden; but its beginning is clear. The other passage, lines 2105-14 is easier:

Þær wæs gidd ond gleo;                    gomela
felafricgende                    feorran rehte;
hwilum hildedeor                    hearpan wynne,
gomenwudu grette,                    hwilum gyd awræc
soð ond sarlic,                    hwilum syllic spell
rehte æfter rihte                    rumheort cyning;
hwilum eft ongan                    eldo gebunden,
gomel guðwiga                    gioguðe cwiðan,
hildestrengo;                    hreðer inne weoll,
þonne he wintrum frod                    worn gemunde.(25)

A comparison of these two passages shows that they have much in common. The singer tells a wondrous tale, syllic spell, true and sad, soð and sarlic. And in both passages the emphasis is on the memory. In the first passage the phrase soðe gebunden may refer to the technicality of alliteration, ‘truly linked’; on the other hand, soð ond sarlic of the second passage may lead us to prefer the translation ‘bound in truth’ for soðe gebunden. The phrase æfter rihte in the second passage should probably be regarded as a vague statement, meaning ‘according to what is right’, rather than a specific reference to accurate alliteration. The best explanation of the words wordum wrixlan does seem to be26 to regard it as a reference to the ‘weaving of words’ in the rhetorical devices of variation, specifically, and paronomasia, more generally.


There is good reason for taking the two passages together, for they both refer to the same occasion. The first is the poet's account of the festivities at Heorot after Beowulf's defeat of Grendel, the second is Beowulf's own account to Hygelac, his king, of what is presumably a later stage of the same festivities. It is an ideal picture of a society deeply rooted in its traditions, recalling past events to provide fit comparison for present deeds of glory.


The crux word oðer fand (870) has sometimes been interpreted in contradistinction to ealdgesegen (869); that is, ‘he composed new words’ in contradistinction to ‘he remembered a great multitude of old traditions’. That view is not accepted by Professor Else von Schaubert in her edition of the poem, and the reasons of syntax which led her to reject it (and which led Klaeber to follow her in the second supplement (p. 466f.) of his edition) seem convincing. In any case, there is nothing that might lead one to the view that old traditions in new words represents an ideal among the Anglo-Saxons; and, even if it were possible to parallel in Old English the meaning ‘new’ for oþer, that alone would make one doubt the interpretation. This is the value of Professor F. P. Magoun's application to Old English poetry of the theories relating to preliterate poetic composition, and this, as Professor C. L. Wrenn has shown,27 is one important aspect of the miracle of Cædmon: that Old English had only one form of poetic utterance; it was aristocratic and traditional whatever the subject and whatever the mood. According to Bede, Cædmon was the first in England to take Christian themes as subjects for that traditional poetry. Since traditional diction is as much a part of the definition of Old English verse as the use of regular rhythms and the use of regular alliteration, Christ, Lucifer, the saints and the Patriarchs appear as Germanic liege-lords with their retainers. That is the reason for the Germanisation of the Orient, as Heusler called it. The audience expected what they were used to, and the poet supplied it: there was no other way of telling in verse of the deeds of men.


So far we have considered the means of poetic expression and the use made of them by the poet of Beowulf. The passage selected for closer analysis contains a statement of the poet's ideal in poetry, the singing of a song about deeds performed that day. The singer in Heorot is the poet's fiction, part of his picture of the society of the past. Before we consider that picture as a whole we must take issue with the application to Beowulf of theories which may help to explain some of the characteristics of oral poetry such as is found in the Balkans. That poetry makes use of a stock of formulas traditionally associated with it. Old English verse, like the verse of related Germanic tribes, for example the Old Saxons, is formulaic. Formulas found again and again in different Old English poems, a seemingly unique phrase found in the same or a very similar form in some other poem, all confirm that Old English poets draw not merely on an ancient hoard of poetic words, but also on an ancient hoard of whole poetic phrases when they wish to give expression to something already expressed in a set formula. No doubt, very often the availability of a formula will influence poets to make use of it.


As we have seen, in descriptions of battles poets introduce in traditional terms something on the beasts of battle. The traditional formulaic element is available for a very wide range of ideas, at times for an absence of ideas, as when they introduce some tag like heard under helme, ‘strong under his helmet’, to describe—very vaguely—some hero, or under heofones hwealf, ‘under the arch of heaven’, to localise—very vaguely—some action. The origin of the use of such phrases may well lie in the characteristics of oral poetry, the product of an extemporising singer. This has been the opinion of scholars for a long time. It is sufficient to quote A. F. C. Vilmar's view of a hundred and twenty years ago:

These formulas, which rest as much on ancient tradition as they characterise oral tradition, create the refreshing impression that what we are concerned with here is nothing invented, nothing artificial or fictive, no mere book-learning, but rather a living tale which wholly fills the teller and stands at all times at his command.28

Vilmar distinguishes the traditional origin of the formulas of Germanic verse, and their connection with oral poetry, from the impression given by their use. That is an important distinction to be borne in mind when we come to Beowulf; that poem survives in written form only: whether we think it the work of an extemporising poet or of a man who composes pen in hand depends on our response to the impression made on us by the poem.


Professor F. P. Magoun's discussion29 of oral-formulaic versification has deepened our understanding of the kind of poetry that underlies the Old English poetry surviving in such manuscripts as have been preserved. To understand the use of tags and set phrases, whole half-lines of verse used repeatedly, it is useful to know about some kinds of preliterate composition. But we should not necessarily assume that what applies to the poetry of a genuinely preliterate society has an immediate and direct bearing on the elaborately literate poetry of the Anglo-Saxons. When we come to Beowulf, I agree with Professor Kemp Malone: ‘The Beowulf poet was no minstrel, strumming a harp and composing verse as he strummed.’30 Though the devices of sense and sound, variation and paronomasia, could in themselves be explained as the vehicles of an associative imagination working extempore, when they come, as in Beowulf, in combination with the careful exploitation of every aspect of what was available to an Old English poet, it seems more likely that this highly wrought poem is the product of a lettered poet, or at least of a slow, non-extemporising poet.


In his analysis of Old English verse Professor Magoun has made crucial use of the example of Cædmon.31 It may be worth considering Cædmon again to see if we are really presented by Bede with ‘the case history of an Anglo-Saxon oral singer’ in the sense in which Magoun and his school interpret that phrase. We have the authority of Bede for the fact that Cædmon was illiterate. Except for the nine lines of his Hymn none of his poems survives. Even so, we know from Bede's account that he recited his orally composed verses to his teachers who acted as scribes. We are told also that they were long poems. However, nothing in Bede's account suggests that Cædmon composed extempore before an audience; nothing suggests even that he composed harp in hand; nothing suggests that he composed long poems other than bit by bit. Bede's famous phrase that Cædmon composing was like a clean beast ruminating, quasi mundum animal ruminando, calls to mind slow and deliberate, many-stomached digestion, remouthing again and again the same material. This does not support Magoun: not even the case of Cædmon, the illiterate neat-herd. We have no account of how the Beowulf poet went about his work. Nevertheless, the product of his art, with its sophisticated interweaving of devices, and the mechanics of elaborate, long, sentence-like structures composed with metrical precision, all aptly matching a subtle and complex set of ideas, makes one doubt that Beowulf should have been the work of an oral singer.


Magoun makes a distinction between good and bad oral verse, by saying that ‘a good singer is one able to make better use of the common fund of formulas than the indifferent or poor singer’.32 This is obvious enough: the putting together is part of the art. Aptness and organisation make suitable criteria for judging a poem. More recently a disciple of Magoun's, writing ‘On the Possibility of Criticizing Old English Poetry’, has told us,

Our praise is misplaced when we would offer it to the poet for the wording of a verse or line, as much misplaced as if we should praise Yeats for inventing the words of his poems.33

This seems misguided. The wording is not the same as the words. There is a degree of contrivance and invention in putting together words and phrases from the hoard of oral formulas. There is invention in the use of compounds, and we can judge that invention by the criteria of aptness and organisation. We are not in a position to know which individual phrase or compound is new, but we are in a position to detect good use made of traditional language. In Beowulf good use is made of it; in Andreas less so. Regardless of whether the technique of composition is fully extempore, or slow composition refined by revision, or even written composition painfully corrected, putting together words from the customary poetic vocabulary of the nation, making use of customary compounds and phrases can lead to good poetry or bad.


As we have seen, the Beowulf poet himself twice gives expression to a poetic ideal: the creative activity of the singers thought by him worth the attention of heroes in Heorot consists in the memory of ancient strife recalled in language that lies beyond the tickle of novelty. These idealised singers belong to the glorious past, to which oral poetry also belonged.


The poet does not advert to this ideal simpliciter, but uses the scop's song to bring out also certain ulteriors, perhaps the crimes of Sigemund (879), perhaps the hopes men had of Heremod (909-13). The Beowulf poet is sophisticated: his art cannot be identified with the scop's. The scop sings extempore a song in praise of Beowulf. So the poet imagines him as he peoples the heroic past; but that in no way implies that he, like his creature, Hrothgar's singer, also sings extempore.34


When we consider the Beowulf poet's treatment of Hrothgar's scop we should perhaps distinguish two phases in the use of formulaic poetry: the oral and the written. The oral stage, that of the scop in Heorot, is well described by Magoun. It is fully extempore; the minstrel as he stands before his audience composes with the use of ready-made formulas. Sometimes he introduces old tags, virtually meaningless; much of the time he describes traditional happenings, battles or feasting for example, in traditional words and phrases. Sometimes a minstrel working in the oral-formulaic tradition coined a phrase, for every phrase must have been new before it grew old, and one man can coin a multitude of phrases for use by himself at first and later for use by others in admiring imitation. Nevertheless, tradition is tenacious and change slow in that kind of literature; and in any case we have no means of knowing what is new.


Much has been said of the singers, and less of the audience. For a hearer (as for a reader) there are many ways of feeling pleasure in poetry; but, at one level of appreciation at least, a great part of the pleasure seems to lie in pleasurable recognition of the expected and pleasurable surprise at the unexpected. An audience used to formulaic verse is presumably conditioned to feeling pleasure in recognition of the familiar.35 It is characteristic of the secondary stage in the use of formulaic poetry that it still draws on the formulas descended from the primary, the extemporising stage of poetic composition, partly because there is no other conception of poetry and partly because the audience demands the traditional. The Christian poetry of the Anglo-Saxons may well have been written to supply a audience's craving for what they had always had.


Gregory the Great wrote for the guidance of St Augustine that well-constructed pagan temples in England should not be destroyed but dedicated to the glory of Christ, so that the nation, seeing their temples preserved, might gather with a new spirit more familiarly in the places to which they were accustomed. In the extant Anglo-Saxon verse we see the customary poetic formulas of the nation deliberately, artificially even, put to a new use. Tags like heard under helme ‘strong under his helmet’, ecg wæs iren ‘its blade was of iron’, maðma mænigeo ‘a multitude of treasures’, serve as reminders of an old order, and as such have new meaning. In origin they may have been the hums and haws of hesitating poetic extemporisation: in their new context they have become living tokens of a heroic past which the Christian present still wears among its ornaments.


A long time ago Adolf Ebert wrote of the Anglo-Saxons:

The quick acceptance and ready assimilation of the civilisation of Latin Christianity, assimilation moreover which soon turned into prolific learned activity in Latin, was not merely a consequence of the great talent of this Germanic nation: it presupposes a higher degree of indigenous refinement. This refinement, of course, was not of a scholarly nature; but rather a refinement of disposition, a refinement of the affections, and a refinement of the imagination.36

It would perhaps be too fanciful to say that Gregory sensed this refinement when he saw the English slave-boys for sale in Rome, and took to punning on angels and Angles. We know, however, that he thought their outward appearance so full of grace that he lamented the darkness of their souls; and he must have thought them capable of responding to missionary efforts. The conversion of the English became the object of his special zeal; he laboured to fill the minds and altars of the nation with a different spirit; he condemned in them only that they were pagan. It is not likely that when the English neophytes looked back they would condemn and despise the past which had nurtured them and given them a mind to apprehend the new faith. Their past did not lack nobility, and when they came to sing of God and his saints they turned to the past to furnish them with the means of expression. In the vernacular they had no other means.


It goes deeper than that. When the Anglo-Saxons turned to their language to express their thoughts they would have found, if they had been capable of such Humboldtian reasoning, that it had been at work already, and had shaped not merely their thoughts but also the mode of perception that underlay them. There is a statement of Wilhelm von Humboldt's which seems highly pertinent to the study of Old English literature:

Since languages, or at least their constituent parts …, are transmitted by one age to the next, and since we can speak of incipient languages only by going right outside the range of our experience, it follows that the relationship in which the past stands to the present reaches down into the uttermost depths of all that shapes the present.37

We delude ourselves if we believe that we can catch a nation in its infancy and hear its first babblings. When in the fifth century the Anglo-Saxon tribes left their Continental homes they brought with them a group of closely related, ancient dialects including the tribes' poetic word-hoard, their oral-formulaic stockpile. Centuries earlier, Tacitus, writing of the Germanic tribes in general, refers to song as the vehicle of their tribal memory, that is, of their history. We have evidence that some memory of the origin of the nation in northern lands was preserved, and survived to be recorded in definite form by Bede and in the genealogies of the English royal dynasties.


Beowulf, both as a young man and as king, is represented as embodying the traditional ideals of the nation. The language in which this ideal is expounded is the traditional diction in the traditional metre of the English. Of course, the poem owes a great deal to Christianity, but it does not owe everything to Christianity; the language in which the ideal is expressed and the mode of perception by means of which the Anglo-Saxons were able to grasp the ideals of the new faith, relating them to their indigenous ideals, go back to the pagan past.


In the passage we have been considering (lines 864-915) the ideal seems absolute. Beowulf has triumphed against an evil being, has deserved the gratitude of a good and wise king, and his merit calls forth a song of praise from a panegyrist filled with the memory of ancient traditions. The poet presents the scop to us as singing the hero's praise in the traditional manner in the traditional poetic medium. Secg eft ongan/sið Beowulfes snyttrum styrian (871-2), we are told; surely, we may expect something about Beowulf himself. Instead we get the ideal which is embodied in Beowulf expressed in terms of Sigemund and Heremod. The relevance of Sigemund, the dragon-slayer, is not made explicit, it is too obvious to need explanation; but how love fell to Beowulf whereas iniquity took possession of Heremod is clearly stated. It would be going too far to claim that a traditionalist, such as the Beowulf poet imagines Hrothgar's minstrel to be, could only have praised Beowulf by borrowing some of the actual words which belong to the praise of men like Sigemund or to the dispraise of men like Heremod. All that we have the right to claim is that the merit of Beowulf, however it might have been expressed, could only have been perceived in terms which had their application to earlier heroes. There is a special directness in the Beowulf poet's adduction of Sigemund and Heremod. The poet's associative habit of mind working in the same direction as his annexive syntax, which is in part based on the devices of the alliterative metre, leads him to take for granted the transitions. Without expressing the transitions he puts down directly the whole of the circumstances of a comparable or contrasting personage or situation. Other poets might have stripped the parallel of some of the words in which it is expressed and taken them over for their own use. The poet of Beowulf takes over the parallel whole, perhaps because he is conscious that he perceives the hero of his poem at this point as being all that, in descriptions known to him, made Sigemund glorious and all that Heremod was not.


A number of the passages in the poem referred to by critics of Beowulf as ‘digressions and episodes’ owe their place to the poet's habit of mind. Far from being intrusions or excrescences they are the result of his directness of expression. The sorrow to be experienced by Wealhtheow, Hrothgar's queen, who presumably lives to see the treacherous enmity of Hrothulf to her poor sons, is expressed, not by telling us proleptically how she suffered, but how her parallel, Hildeburh suffered when her son and brother and later her lord were slain (lines 1063-1191). The poet makes it appear by his use of Hildeburh's manifold sorrows that she is the locus classicus of a queen's suffering in intestine strife. There is, of course, a strong element of foreboding in all this: as Hildeburh mourned, so shall Wealhtheow. The poet shapes his account of the wars between Finn (Hildeburh's husband) on the one hand and Hnæf (Hildeburh's brother) and Hengest (who succeeds Hnæf) on the other to bring out to the full the misery of Hildeburh.


At the first appearance of Hygd, Hygelac's young and gracious queen, she is described chiefly by the device which the poet had used when he drew on the evil Heremod to expound the virtues of Beowulf. The mind of Modthryth, the untamed shrew, was disgraced by every opposite of Hygd's many graces (lines 1925-62, especially 1929-43). Here, as in the case of Heremod, the transition is abrupt, the connection is not made explicit, so that some of the best critics of the poem suspect (unnecessarily, it seems to me) a gap.38 Once again, the abruptness is the result of the directness with which the poet habitually lays the past under contribution to set forth the present: his mode of perception of the present is as much part of his heritage as the language in which he expresses it. It has been suggested39 that the reference in this passage to Offa, the legendary king of Angle, may be in the nature of a compliment to Offa of Mercia, his historical descendant. Offa of Angle is praised in a very similar way in the Old English poem Widsith. If, as seems very likely, this is the correct analysis of why Offa of Angle is twice praised in Old English verse, it follows that two Old English poets at least, and Offa of Mercia too if he understood their praise, were accustomed to direct reference to the glorious past for an exposition of the present; those not very close kinsmen of the then reigning king of Mercia who gave the new-born Offa his name must have looked back similarly (as royal families do in name-giving). In Beowulf, however, this is not just an occasional device for a graceful compliment: the poem is about the past and is furnished with instances drawn from the past.

It is not to be inferred from all this that the Beowulf poet, going to his nation's word-hoard, has come away with something equivalent to the Elgin Marbles, where his fellow poets were content to pick up bits and pieces the size of acanthus leaves or vine-leaf scrolls. Whatever the poet of Beowulf takes over, little units and large ones, he moulds and modulates to suit his specific purpose. In the same way as he makes apt use of the smaller units and organises them well, so he does not leave the larger units strewn about unhewn and unaltered in his work like a scatter of erratic boulders.


We know, merely through the poet's choice of subject, that he resembles the ideal minstrel whom he presents to us on two occasions in this, that he too delights in the exercise of a well-stored memory deeply imbued with traditions, enshrined also in some of the genealogies of the Anglo-Saxons by which their kings appear as descendants of Scyld. The genealogies contain some of the Danish names in the poem: Beow,40 Scyld, Sceaf, and Heremod. It seems likely that before these names, all appearing as ancestors of Woden, were incorporated in the genealogies, Woden must have been euhemerised (as he is explicitly in the Chronicle of æthelweard, almost certainly a member of the West Saxon royal house living in the tenth century). This act of euhemerisation is clear evidence that members of the royal families took these genealogies seriously, even in Christian times. The extension of the genealogies beyond Woden, though presumably quite unhistorical, shows that they wished to associate these figures, of whom they knew (Beowulf is witness to that), with their own royal dynasties. Beowulf could well have been written late enough for at least some of the Danes mentioned in the poem to have been regarded by the poet and his audience as ancestors of Anglo-Saxon kings in England.41


It is likely that the rulers who knew of their ancient descent were stirred by the memory of glorious deeds of those men from whom they were descended. The use to which the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle puts Offa's genealogy in the annal for the year of his accession (in 757) seems to indicate a deliberate exploitation of the list of kings going back to Woden as contributing to the glorification of Offa. If, as is natural, Anglo-Saxon rulers delighted in the ancient nobility of their dynasty their retainers must have been aware of these traditions also. The beginning of the poem with its piece of Danish history is relevant to England, to English kings and therefore to their retainers, as much as the Trojan origins of the British dynasty relevantly introduce poems, like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, on British themes.


There is evidence that there was in Anglo-Saxon England a considerable knowledge of the legends of the Germanic heroic age. Interest in these legends is not likely to have been swiftly reduced when Christianity came, and the poet of Beowulf was able to rely on his audience's familiarity with the ancient traditions to such an extent that he introduced allusive references and not fully coherent accounts of feuds, apparently without needing to fear that he would not be understood. The Finn Episode (lines 1063-1159) could not be understood by an audience not already familiar with the facts; perhaps the original audience was familiar with these events because (if the Hengest of the Episode was identified with the Hengest of the Anglo-Saxon Settlement) the feud was held to belong to proto-Kentish history.42 The wars between the Geats and the Swedes are not told by the poet in chronological sequence, but allusively and selectively. In lines 2177-89 praise of Beowulf and a reference to his ignominious youth encloses an allusion to Heremod, who had been trusted in his youth: change came to both of them. The allusion is missed by anyone who fails to seize on Heremod as one pattern of evil in a king.


As the poet's ideal minstrel relates Beowulf's merit, gained from present exploits in Denmark, to the merit of past figures, Sigemund and Heremod, so the poet analyses a Christian ideal, appropriate to the English audience for whom he is writing, in terms of an ideal figure of the past: Beowulf. The language which he uses, the traditional poetic vocabulary of the Anglo-Saxons, with many formulas expected by the audience to whom no other language seemed fit for poetry, has led the poet to seek his material outside Christian story in the Germanic traditions to which his language had had its first, its most direct application. His habit of mind which finds expression in an annexive syntax, such as goes well with the alliterative metre, is associative. He does not always make explicit how his associations are linked to his main theme, no more than the minstrel does in Heorot who fails to make explicit why in singing the praise of Beowulf he should recall what he heard tell of Sigemund's exploits and the tyranny of Heremod.


The excellence of the poem is in large measure due to the concord between the poet's mode of thinking and his mode of expression. An associative imagination works well in annexive syntax: each is the cause of the other's excellence. At the same time, he is good with the smaller units, the words and formulas which all Anglo-Saxon poets had to handle. Perhaps there is a deeper reason why Beowulf is satisfactory. The Christian poet chose to write of the Germanic past. His ideal king is Beowulf the monster-slayer, whom he compared, not with Daniel, but with Sigemund, and contrasted, not with Saul, but with Heremod.


His success lies in that choice. The elements of Old English poetic diction, the words and the traditional phrases feel at home in the world which they first celebrated in song.43 Old English poetic diction is retrospective: it looks back to the civilisation that gave it shape and which in turn it helped to shape. Heusler44 said rightly of the Germanisation in Old English verse of Genesis and of Exodus, of the legends of St Andrew and of St Helena's Invention of the Cross, of Christ even (of whom The Dream of the Rood (lines 39-41) reports ‘that the young hero armed himself, strong and fierce of mind he mounted the high gallows, brave in the sight of many’), that all this Germanisation was not taken seriously. But the language of his poetry is something a poet must feel serious about. The Germanisation of biblical narrative is a good device only where its spirit can be accepted as part of a fuller transformation. In the account of the Crucifixion in The Dream of the Rood the ideal raised by the Germanising language clashes with the idea of the Crucifixion.


There are good things in Old English verse, in the Elegies especially, but also in some of the saints' lives, the second part of Guthlac, for example; but it is difficult to see how the inapposite application of the Germanic battle-style to Christian themes could ever have called forth critical praise. The beginning of Andreas reads in rough translation:

Lo, we heard tell of twelve in far-off days under the stars, glorious heroes, the Lord's retainers. Their glory did not fail in warfare, whenever banners clashed … They were men famous on earth, eager leaders of nations, men active in the army, warriors renowned whenever in the field of assault buckler and hand defended the helmet on the plain of destiny.

Here is a poet who can do the big bow-wow like any man going. But he was writing of those twelve whom Christ ordained with the words, ‘Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves’ (Matthew 10:16).


The Beowulf poet avoided that mistake.


So far we have been less concerned with what the Beowulf poet says than with how he says it. The poem is obviously about the past. In Professor Tolkien's words:

When new Beowulf was already antiquarian, in a good sense, and it now produces a singular effect. For it is now to us itself ancient; and yet its maker was telling of things already old and weighted with regret, and he expended his art in making keen that touch upon the heart which sorrows have that are both poignant and remote.45

The sadness of the poem lies in that. But there is glory in it too, such as is proper to a noble society presented as an ideal. Beowulf himself is of heroic stature. His strength and valour, made manifest in every exploit, his wisdom, his regard for the etiquette of an aristocratic society, his long victorious reign, the assurance of his speeches and the nobility of his intentions, all these are the proper ingredients of heroism; and that the heroic ideal embodied in Beowulf goes deeper still follows from his loyalty to Hygelac, his king, and to Heardred, Hygelac's son (2373-9), from his mildness, praised by his survivors (3180-2), and from the speech, modestly expressed, in which, surveying a world of deceit and murderous perfidy, he finds himself at the end of his days unperjured and guiltless of the blood of kinsmen (2736-43). He is the ideal ruler of a society held together by bonds of love and service. Though less fashionable now as a theme for literature, strength is emphasised in the poem and is gloried in. Beowulf brought strength to Hrothgar, the aged king of the Danes, bowed down with care for his people; and with strength he survived the proud Frisian raid in which Hygelac was slain; with strength also he kept the Swedes out of the land of the Geats.


It seems as if the poet's intended audience looked back to the nation's past (as adumbrated in the royal genealogies), and took pleasure in it. The poet gratifies his audience's idealising love of the Germanic past. The opening of the poem by means of its specific references to the ancestors of kings in England plays on an audience's memory of the past. There is in the poem a strong element of regret for a noble order which will never come back.


I have said elsewhere46 that it seems to me that, though the poet presents the heroic ideal of his people lovingly, he presents it as ultimately unavailing and therefore not worth ambition. Perhaps there is a hint even that Beowulf, being a pagan too eager in the hour of his death for posthumous fame and the sight of gold—what else can pagans think about when they die?—will not, for all his virtues, be saved from everlasting damnation in hell. Once the modern reader feels that hint he ceases to read the poem simply as the Germanic heroic ideal presented elegiacally. What is implied is that the poet is aware of the fact that the pagan heroic ideal stands in conflict with the ascetic ideal of Christianity, as it was known in the English monasteries of the poet's time. By the standards of that higher ideal the heroic ideal is insufficient. The poet, however, nowhere states unambiguously (except at lines 175-88) that the pagan ideal he presents is insufficient, and some readers will be reluctant to read the poem in that way (especially if they first delete lines 175-88 as an interpolation).


We have no means of telling who the poet's first audience was: perhaps in some royal hall, where the lord and his men still delighted in the ancient nobility of the dynasty; or perhaps in some monastery to which a king retired, as we know King Sigeberht of East Anglia did when he gave up his throne in the second quarter of the seventh century, and as King Ethelred of Mercia did in 704, and Ceolwulf of Northumbria in 737, and Eadberht of Northumbria in 758. Kings like these proved by their abdication that they thought the pagan glory of pledging in the hall, of victory in the field, of treasure-giving and of loyalty to an earthly throne, a vain ideal. A poet might have written a poem like Beowulf for one of many courts, to teach a king wisdom, or for some monastery whose refectory contained a man descended from a line of Spear-Danes and not contemptuous of that ancestry. It is only a guess; but that is the kind of original audience that would have heard Beowulf with understanding.



  1. I wish to thank Professors Randolph Quirk and Geoffrey Shepherd for reading this essay in typescript, and for their help and criticism.

  2. Two pieces of evidence, neither of them conclusive, that Old English verse may have ceased to be fully understood as early as the twelfth century are Simeon of Durham's misunderstanding of Bede's Death Song (cf. M. Förster, Archiv 135 (1917), 282-4) and a possible misunderstanding of The Battle of Maldon in the Liber Eliensis (cf. Camden Society, 3rd Series, 92 (1962), 134f., footnotes). Cf. also K. Sisam, The Structure of Beowulf, 1965, pp. 70f.

  3. ‘There are dragons born which are a hundred and fifty feet long. They are as big as great stone pillars. On account of the size of those dragons no man can easily travel into that land.’ EETS os 161, 59.

  4. Quoted from Dorothy Whitelock, The Audience of Beowulf, p. 46. Professor Whitelock's discussion of the relationship between the Liber Monstrorum and Beowulf is of fundamental importance in this connection.

  5. See the important discussion by Kenneth Sisam, ‘The Compilation of the Beowulf Manuscript’, in Studies, 1953.

  6. In the Authorised Version the story is relegated to the Apocrypha, for excellent textual reasons.

  7. Cf. W. W. Lawrence, Beowulf and Epic Tradition, p. 207; T. M. Gang, RES ns 3 (1952), 6ff.; K. Sisam, RES ns 9 (1958), 128-40, and also his The Structure of Beowulf, 1965, p. 25.

  8. Anglia 36 (1912), 195.

  9. Andreas und Elene, 1840, p. xxvii. For recent discussions of the beasts of battle, considered from widely different points of view, see F. P. Magoun, Jr., Neuphilologische Mitteilungen 56 (1955), 81-90, E. G. Stanley, Anglia 73 (1956), 442f., A Bonjour, PMLA 72 (1957), 563-73 (and Twelve Beowulf Papers, 1962, ch. X). For Grimm's discussion see E. G. Stanley, Notes and Queries 209 (1964), 244.

  10. ‘Therefore many a morning-cold spear must be gripped, raised by the hand; not the sound of the harp shall awaken the warriors, but the black raven, eager in pursuit of doomed men, shall speak of many things, tell the eagle how he prospered at the feast when in competition with the wolf he despoiled the slain.’ R. Quirk (in Early English and Norse Studies Presented to Hugh Smith, 1963, p. 166) also selects this passage (3014-27) to demonstrate the excellence of Beowulf: ‘We see here the use of incongruous collocations to form a critical undercurrent of a kind which notably enriches Beowulf from time to time and which is prominent among the features making it a great poem.’

  11. For a different view, see K. Sisam, The Structure of Beowulf, 1965, pp. 54-9.

  12. Cf. A. F. C. Vilmar, Deutsche Altertümer im Heliand, etc., Marburg 1845, ‘Epische form’ (pp. 3ff. of the edition of 1862); and, more recently, F. P. Magoun, Jr., Spec. 28 (1953), 446-67. See also H. Schabram, ‘Andreas und Beowulf’, Nachrichten der Giessener Hochschulgesellschaft 34 (1965), 201-18.

  13. See G. V. Smithers, English and Germanic Studies 4 (1952), 67-75.

  14. See p. 137 below for a translation.

  15. See p. 109 above.

  16. An excellent account of the diction of Beowulf is provided by A. G. Brodeur, The Art of Beowulf, 1959, ch. I. See also G. Storms in Studies in Old English Literature in Honor of Arthur G. Brodeur, 1963, pp. 171-86, and J. Hoops, Beowulfstudien, 1932, pp. 20-24. Among earlier studies, O. Krackow, Die Nominalcomposita als Kunstmittel im altenglischen Epos, 1903, is still useful.

  17. ‘At times men famed in battle made their bay horses gallop, run races where paths seemed suitable, known for their excellence. At times the king's retainer, a man filled with high rhetoric, with the memory of songs, who remembered a multitudinous wealth of ancient traditions, came upon other words (?) bound in truth (?). The man did then tell with art the exploit of Beowulf, set forth with happy skill a well-told tale, weaving words; he said all that he heard tell of Sigemund's deeds of valour, much of things unknown, the Wælsing's strife, distant exploits, of such things, hostility and crimes, as the sons of men knew little of, had Fitela not been with him whenever he wished to tell something of such a matter, uncle to nephew, friends in need as they were at all times in every enmity. They had laid low a numerous race of giants with their swords. No little glory came to Sigemund after his hour of death when bold in battle. …’

  18. See A. Campbell's important ‘The Old English Epic Style’, in English and Medieval Studies Presented to J. R. R. Tolkien, 1962, especially in this connection pp. 19f.

  19. See H. Kuhn, Beiträge 57 (1933), 1-109 (summarised in English by D. Slay, TPS 1952, 1-14).

  20. Cf. E. Sievers, Altgermanische Metrik, 1893, §82; an example of an exceptionally long multisyllabic medial dip (given by Sievers) is sealde þam þe he wolde (Beowulf 3055).

  21. Cf. J. Ries, Die Wortstellung im Beowulf, 1907, pp. 72-5, who rightly insists on the similarity of verse and prose in this respect. The difference lies in the greater regularity and, therefore, predictability of verse. For a discussion, not always convincing, of the style and syntax of Beowulf, cf. S. O. Andrew, Syntax and Style in Old English, 1940, and the same author's Postscript on Beowulf, 1948. The earlier book is especially good on co-ordinate clauses in Beowulf; ch. VIII (on asyndetic co-ordinate clauses) deals with an important aspect of the additive style of Beowulf, a characteristic uncommon elsewhere in Old English verse, as Andrew notes.

  22. Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics, 1936, p. 31 (PBA 22 (1936), 273).

  23. Tolkien, loc. cit.

  24. See J. Hoops, Beowulfstudien, 1932, pp. 52-5.

  25. ‘There was singing and revelry: the aged Scylding, a man of wide learning, told of far-off things; at times the man brave in battle touched his joyful, pleasure-giving harp of wood; at times he set forth a song true and sad; at times the magnanimous king told a wondrous story according to what is right; at other times the aged warrior, in the grip of years, did lament his youth, his strength in battle; his heart within him was moved whenever he, old in years, recalled a multitude of memories.’

  26. But cf. the use of the phrase at line 366 (and elsewhere in verse), where the meaning is quite unspecifically ‘to converse’.

  27. ‘The Poetry of Cædmon’, PBA 33 (1946).

  28. Op. cit., 1862 ed., p. 5.

  29. Spec. 28 (1953), 446-67.

  30. ESts. 41 (1960), 5 (quoted by A. Bonjour, Twelve Beowulf Papers, 1962, p. 149). See also A. G. Brodeur, The Art of Beowulf, 1959, ch. I.

  31. F. P. Magoun, Jr., ‘Bede's Story of Cædman: The Case History of an Anglo-Saxon Oral Singer’, Spec. 30 (1955), 49-63.

  32. Op. cit., p. 447.

  33. R. P. Creed, Texas Studies in Literature and Language 3 (1961), 98.

  34. For a different view, cf. R. P. Creed, Studies in Old English Literature in Honor of Arthur G. Brodeur, 1963, pp. 44-52.

  35. Cf. in this connection R. Quirk's important paper ‘Poetic language and Old English metre’ in Early English and Norse Studies Presented to Hugh Smith, 1963, pp. 150-71.

  36. Allgemeine Geschichte der Literatur des Mittelalters im Abendlande, III (1887), p. 3.

  37. Sprachphilosophische Werke, ed. H. Steinthal, 1883, p. 225.

  38. Among others, K. Sisam, Studies, p. 41 (reprinting RES 22 (1946), 266); D. Whitelock, The Audience of Beowulf, 1951, pp. 58ff.; E. von Schaubert (in the Kommentar to her edition (1961), pp. 114f.) has a fuller list of critics who suspect a gap here.

  39. By D. Whitelock, loc. cit.

  40. For the view that the name Beowulf at lines 18 and 53 is probably an error for Beow see A. J. Bliss, The Metre of Beowulf, 1958, p. 58, as well as the editions.

  41. For a comprehensive and fundamental account of the genealogies, see K. Sisam, PBA 39 (1953), 287-348.

  42. Cf. K. Sisam, Studies, p. 136.

  43. F. P. Magoun (in Studies in Medieval Literature in Honor of A. C. Baugh, ed. by MacEdward Leach, 1961, pp. 280-2) suggests that the merits, which, he claims, all readers of Old English poetry see in The Battle of Maldon, are grounded on the harmony of subject matter and diction in that poem.

  44. Die altgermanische Heldendichtung, 1926, p. 140:

  45. Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics, pp. 35f. (277f.).

  46. Studies in Old English Literature in Honor of Arthur G. Brodeur, ed. by Stanley B. Greenfield, 1963, pp. 136-51.

Select Bibliography


Extensive bibliographies are to be found in Klaeber's edition of the poem and in Chambers's Beowulf: An Introduction. The following list of books and articles has therefore been kept very brief. Most of what is included must be regarded as indispensable for an understanding of the aspect of the poem under which it is listed.

The Manuscript

K. Malone, The Nowell Codex, EEMF XII, 1963.

J. Zupitza and N. Davis, Beowulf Reproduced in Facsimile, EETS 245 (1959).

Max Förster, ‘Die Beowulf-Handschrift’, Berichte der Sächsischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 71 (1919).

K. Sisam, Studies, 61-96, 288-90.


F. Klaeber, Beowulf and the Fight at Finnsburg, 3rd ed. with supplements, 1951.

E. V. K. Dobbie, Beowulf and Judith, ASPR IV, New York 1953 (London 1954).

E. v. Schaubert, Beowulf, 17th ed., 1958-9.

C. L. Wrenn, Beowulf with the Finnesburg Fragment, 2nd ed., 1958.


J. R. Clark Hall, Beowulf and the Finnesburg Fragment, new edition by C. L. Wrenn, with Prefatory Remarks by J. R. R. Tolkien, 1950.

E. Morgan, Beowulf: A Verse Translation, 1952 (paperback 1962).

Important books on the poem

R. W. Chambers, Beowulf: An Introduction to the Study of the Poem, 3rd ed. with a supplement by C. L. Wrenn, 1959.

D. Whitelock, The Audience of Beowulf, 1951.

A. G. Brodeur, The Art of Beowulf, 1959.

The Metre of Beowulf

E. Sievers, Beiträge 10 (1884), 209-314, 451-545.

J. C. Pope, The Rhythm of Beowulf, 1942.

A. J. Bliss, The Metre of Beowulf, 2nd ed., 1962.

There is a useful Anthology of Beowulf Criticism, ed. by L. E. Nicholson, 1963, which includes some various pieces of early and recent criticism; other pieces, including the full text of Margaret E. Goldsmith's ‘The Christian Perspective in Beowulf’ are to be found in Studies in Old English Literature in Honor of Arthur G. Brodeur, ed. by S. B. Greenfield, 1963. Stanley B. Greenfield's A Critical History of Old English Literature, New York 1965, surveys some older and more recent Beowulf scholarship in a chapter devoted to ‘Secular Heroic Poetry’. Kenneth Sisam's The Structure of Beowulf, Oxford 1965, is referred to in footnotes added in proof.


Anglia Beiblatt: Beiblatt zur Anglia

Archiv: Archiv für des Studium der neueren Sprachen und Literaturen

ASPR: The Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records, edited by G. P. Krapp and E. V. K. Dobbie

Beiträge: Beiträge zur Geschichte der deutschen Sprache und Literatur

BM Add.: British Museum Additional Manuscript

BN: Bibliothèque Nationale

CCC: Corpus Christi College

CCCC: Corpus Christi College, Cambridge

Chadwick Mem. Sts.: The Early Cultures of North-West Europe (H. M. Chadwick Memorial Studies), edited by Sir Cyril Fox and Bruce Dickins, Cambridge 1950

CL: Comparative Literature

EEMF: Early English Manuscripts in Facsimile, edited by B. Colgrave, Kemp Malone and K. Schibsbye

EETS: Early English Text Society

EETS os: Early English Text Society, Original Series

EETS es: Early English Text Society, Extra Series

EHD: English Historical Documents, edited by D. C. Douglas

EHR: English Historical Review

EIC: Essays in Criticism

ESts.: English Studies

Grein-Wülker, Prosa: Bibliothek der angelsächsischen Prosa, edited by Ch. W. M. Grein, R. P. Wülker, et al.

JEGP: Journal of English and Germanic Philology

JTS: Journal of Theological Studies

Ker, N. R., Catalogue: Catalogue of Manuscripts Containing Anglo-Saxon, by N. R. Ker, Oxford 1957

Mæ: Medium ævum

Med. & Ren. Sts.: Medieval and Renaissance Studies

Methuen's OE. Lib.: Methuen's Old English Library, edited by A. H. Smith and F. Norman

Migne, PL: J. P. Migne, Patrologia Latina

Migne, PG: J. P. Migne, Patrologia Graeca

MLN: Modern Language Notes

MLQ: Modern Language Quarterly

MLR: Modern Language Review

MP: Modern Philology

PBA: Proceedings of the British Academy

PMLA: Publications of the Modern Language Association of America

Polity: Wulfstan's Institutes of Polity, Civil and Ecclesiastical (edited by K. Jost in Swiss Studies in English, vol. 47)

PQ: Philological Quarterly

Q & F: Quellen und Forschungen zur Sprach- und Culturgeschichte der germanischen Völker

RES: Review of English Studies

RES ns: Review of English Studies, New Series

Rolls Series: Rerum Britannicarum Medii ævi Scriptores or Chronicles and Memorials of Great Britain and Ireland during the Middle Ages

Sisam, K., Studies: Studies in the History of Old English Literature, by K. Sisam, Oxford 1953

SP: Studies in Philology

Spec.: Speculum

TPS: Transactions of the Philological Society

Trad.: Traditio

Wanley, Catalogue: Antiquæ Literaturæ Septentrionalis Liber Alter seu Humphredi Wanleii Librorum Vett. Septentrionalium, qui in Angliæ Bibliothecis extant … Catalogus Historico-Criticus, Oxford 1705

YSE: Yale Studies in English

Principal Works

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Beowulf, the Oldest English Epic (translated by Charles W. Kennedy) 1940

Beowulf: A Verse Translation into Modern English (translated by Edwin Morgan) 1952

Beowulf (translated by David Wright) 1957

Beowulf (translated by Burton Raffel) 1963

Beowulf: A New Translation (translated by E. Talbot Donaldson) 1966

Beowulf (translated by Mark Alexander) 1973

Beowulf: A Dual Language Edition (translated by Howell D. Chickering, Jr.) 1977

Beowulf (translated by Albert W. Haley) 1978

Beowulf: A Verse Translation with Treasures of the Ancient North (translated by Marijane Osborn) 1983

Beowulf (translated by Kevin Crossley-Holland) 1984

Beowulf: A New Verse Translation (translated by Seamus Heaney) 2000

John Leyerle (essay date 1967)

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SOURCE: “The Interlace Structure of Beowulf,” in University of Toronto Quarterly, Vol. XXXVII, No. 1, October, 1967, pp. 1-17.


[In the following essay, Leyerle argues that the structure of Beowulf is analogous to the patterns of interlace decorative art common in Anglo-Saxon art of the seventh and eighth centuries. When the likelihood of this parallel is accepted, Leyerle states, the function of otherwise confusing episodes of the poem becomes apparent.]


In the time since Norman Garmonsway [On February 28, 1967, Norman Garmonsway, Visiting Professor of English at University College in the University of Toronto, died suddenly. This paper, in a slightly different form, was read on March 30 in West Hall of the College in place of a lecture on Canute that Professor Garmonsway was to have delivered on that day.] died I have reflected about what I could say that would not embarrass the spirit of the man I wish to honour. He was reticent about himself and I shall be brief. I rarely heard him refer to his distinguished career at King's College, London, for when he spoke of his work, it was always of what lay ahead. His characteristic manner was understatement, like that of the early literature of the north that he knew so well and loved. He was a man who preferred to listen rather than to talk, but he was quick to praise and encourage. He had the virtues of Chaucer's Clerk of Oxenford mixed with a gentle humour.

Noght o word spak he moore than was neede,
And that was seyd in forme and reverence,
And short and quyk and ful of hy sentence;
Sownynge in moral vertu was his speche,
And gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche.

Toronto is a better place for his having lived and worked among us. This paper concerns material he was teaching this year, the relation between early art and poetry in England. I should like to dedicate it to his memory.



Beowulf is a poem of rapid shifts in subject and time. Events are fragmented into parts and are taken with little regard to chronological order. The details are rich, but the pattern does not present a linear structure, a lack discussed with distaste by many.1 This lecture will attempt to show that the structure of Beowulf is a poetic analogue of the interlace designs common in Anglo-Saxon art of the seventh and eighth centuries. Beowulf was composed in the early eighth century in the Midlands or North of England, exactly the time and place where interlace decoration reached a complexity of design and skill in execution never equalled since and, indeed, hardly ever approached. Interlace designs go back to prehistoric Mesopotamia; in one form or another they are characteristic of the art of all races.2


The bands may be plaited together to form a braid or rope pattern, a design that appears, for example, on borders of the Franks Casket, a whalebone coffer made in Northumbria about the year 700. Interlace is made when the bands are turned back on themselves to form knots or breaks that interrupt, so to speak, the linear flow of the bands. The south face of the Bewcastle Cross from Cumberland has three panels of knot work; this cross is dated before 710.3 The bottom panel … has two distinct knots formed by two bands and connected together, a pattern that is identical to that on folio 94v of the Lindisfarne Gospels. …4 There are about a thousand separate pieces of stone surviving from pre-Norman Northumbrian crosses. One need only leaf through W. G. Collingwood's Northumbrian Crosses of the Pre-Norman Age (London, 1927) to be struck by the appearance of one interlace design after another, despite the fact that such patterns are relatively difficult to execute in stone, especially when there is any undercutting.


When the bands are cut, the free ends are often elaborated into zoomorphic heads, seen in a very simple stage of development on the Abingdon Brooch …, dated in the early seventh century.5 In more complex designs the stylized heads take on a pronounced zoomorphic character, often derived from eagles or wolves; the bodies of these creatures extend into curvilinear ribbon trails that form the interlace design. The heads often bite into the bands or back on to a free end, as on the seventh-century Windsor dagger pommel which has an open design with clear separation between the bands. … When the bands are drawn together more tightly, the pattern becomes harder to follow, as on the great gold buckle from Sutton Hoo, also of the seventh century. … The interlace on the buckle is not symmetrical. The weave is drawn tighter and the zoomorphic heads are less prominent than on the Windsor dagger pommel.


In further development of the zoomorphs, the ribbon trails develop limbs on their serpentine bodies. These limbed lacertines have a coiled and woven appearance and look very like dragons even when they have no wings and have canine heads. The abundant appearance of lacertines in early Anglo-Saxon design may well have reinforced belief in the existence of dragons, thought of as uncommon creatures not met with every day, much as we might think of a hippopotamus or iguana. An example of vigorous treatment of such lacertines may be seen on folio 192v of the Book of Durrow … ; this manuscript is generally dated in the middle or second half of the seventh century and is often ascribed to Iona. The design is similar to that found on the hilt of the Crundale sword, found in Kent; it dates from the early seventh century. … A detail from the seventh-century pins from Witham, Lincolnshire …, shows a similar design, although the zoomorphs are distinctly canine. In the lacertine design on folio 110v of the St. Chad Gospels, which were probably written between the Severn and the Welsh marches in the late seventh or early eighth centuries …, the zoormorphs are clearly derived from birds, despite the ears. Designs over an entire folio are called carpet pages after their resemblance to woven tapestries. Perhaps the finest carpet pages are found in the Lindisfarne Gospels of about 700; in the later years of the Anglo-Saxon period it was thought to have been the work of angels since no mortal could execute such complex designs so faultlessly. Folio 94v is reproduced in Plate VIII. The entire design of the knot work is done with only two ribbons. The generally circular pattern is elaborated with intricate weaving, but the circular knots—which might be thought of as episodes, if I may look forward for a moment—are tied with relatively long straight bands that bind these knots together in the total pattern of the page. With patience and a steady eye one can follow a band through the entire knot-work design of this page. Occasionally the lacertines become recognizable dragons as on the Gandersheim Casket. It is carved from walrus teeth and probably was made at Ely in the second half of the eighth or early ninth century. … The casket is small and the skill shown in carving on such miniature scale is impressive.


From the early Anglo-Saxon period there are thousands of interlace designs surviving in illuminations of manuscripts, in carving on bone, ivory and stone, and in metal work for weapons and jewellery. They are so prolific that the seventh and eighth centuries might justly be known as the interlace period. In one artifact after another the complexity and precision of design are as striking as the technical skill of execution. Recognition of this high level of artistic achievement is important for it dispells the widely held view, largely the prejudice of ignorance, that early Anglo-Saxon art is vigorous, but wild and primitive. As the interlace designs show, there is vigour to be sure, but it is controlled with geometric precision and executed with technical competence of very high order. Apart from such direct analogies as the one presented in this lecture, study of Anglo-Saxon art is most useful as an aid to the reassessment of early English literature because it is an important reminder that the society was capable of artistic achievements of a high order which can be looked for in the poetry as well.



The pervasive importance of interlace designs in early Anglo-Saxon art establishes the historical possibility that a parallel may be found in poetry of the same culture. The historical probability for the parallel, a rather more important matter, can be established from seventh- and eighth-century Latin writers in England. There is ample evidence that interlace design has literary parallels in both style and structure.


Stylistic interlace is a characteristic of Aldhelm and especially of Alcuin. They weave direct statement and classical tags together to produce verbal braids in which allusive literary references from the past cross and recross with the present subject.6 The device is self-conscious and the poets describe the technique with the phrases fingere serta or texere serta, “to fashion or weave intertwinings.” Serta (related to Sanscrit sarat, “thread” and to Greek sειρα, “rope”) is from the past participle of serere, “to interweave, entwine, or interlace.” The past participle of texere, “to weave, braid, interlace,” is textus, the etymon of our words text and textile. The connection is so obvious that no one thinks of it. In basic meaning, then, a poetic text is a weaving of words to form, in effect, a verbal carpet page.


The passage in Beowulf about the scop's praise of Beowulf describes a recital in which a literary past, the exploits of Sigemund and Heremod, is intertwined with the present, Beowulf's killing of Grendel. This episode is extended and might equally be considered as an example of simple structural interlace. The scop is said to wordum wrixlan, “vary words” (874); the verb wrixlan is found elswhere in this sense, for example in Riddle 8 of the Exeter Book. Klaeber calls such variation “the very soul of the Old English poetical style” (lxv); it involves multiple statement of a subject in several different words or phrases, each of which typically describes a different aspect of the subject. When variation on two or more subjects is combined, the result is stylistic interlace, the interweaving of two or more strands of variation. This may be what Cynewulf refers to in Elene when he writes ic … wordcræftum wæf, “I wove words” (1236-7). An example from Beowulf will serve to illustrate stylistic interlace:

                                                                                No þæt læsest wæs
hondgemot[a]                    þær mon Hygelac sloh,
syððan Geata cyning                    guðe ræsum,
freawine folca                    Freslondum on,
Hreðles eafora                    hiorodryncum swealt,
bille gebeaten.


Although awkward in modern English, a translation following the original order of phrases shows the stylistic interlace.

                                                            That was not the least
of hand-to-hand encounters where Hygelac was killed,
when the king of the Geats in the rush of battle,
the beloved friend of the people, in Frisia,
the son of Hreðel died bloodily,
struck down with the sword.

Hygelac, Geata cyning, freawine folca, and Hreðles eafora make one strand; mon … sloh, hiorodryncum swealt, and bille gebeaten make a second strand; þær, guðe ræsum, and Freslondum on make the third. The three strands are woven together into a stylistic braid. This feature of style is familiar to readers of Anglo-Saxon poetry and is the literary counterpart for interlace designs in art that are decorative rather than structural. Designs on a sword, coffer or cross are decoration applied to an object whose structure arises from other considerations.


At a structural level, literary interlace has a counterpart in tapestries where positional patterning of threads establishes the shape and design of the fabric, whether the medium is thread in textile or words in a text. Unfortunately cloth perishes easily and only a few fragments of Anglo-Saxon tapestry survive although the early English were famous for their weaving and needle work which was referred to on the continent simply as opus Anglicum with no other description. Since tapestry examples are lost, decorative interlace must serve here as graphic presentation of the principle of structural interlace, a concept difficult to explain or grasp without such a visual analogue.


Rhetoricians of the classical period distinguished between natural and artificial order, but emphasized the former as being especially effective for oral delivery since they were chiefly concerned with the orator. In the Scholia Vindobonensia, an eighth-century commentary on the Ars Poetica of Horace, there is a passage on artificial order of great interest to the subject of interlace structure in Anglo-Saxon poetry. The authorship of the Scholia is unknown, but its editor attributes it to Alcuin or one of his school.7 The passage is a comment on four lines of the Ars Poetica.

Ordinis haec virtus erit et venus, aut ego fallor,
ut iam nunc dicat iam nunc debentia dici,
pleraque differat et praesens in tempus omittat,
hoc amet, hoc spernat promissi carminis auctor.


Of order, this will be the excellence and charm, unless I am mistaken, that the author of the long-promised poem shall say at the moment what ought to be said at the moment and shall put off and omit many things for the present, loving this and scorning that.

The commentator was particularly interested in the last line, which he regards as having the force of an independent hortatory subjunctive; he takes hoc … hoc in the strong sense of “on the one hand … on the other” which would have been expressed by hoc … ille in classical Latin.

Hoc, id est, ut nunc dicat iam debentia dici quantum ad naturalem ordinem; amet auctor promissi carminis, id est, amet artificialem ordinem. Hoc, id est, contrarium ordinis artificialis, id est, ordinem naturalem spernat auctor promissi carminis; hoc breviter dicit. Nam sententia talis est: quicunque promittit se facturum bonum carmen et lucidum habere ordinem, amet artificialem ordinem et spernat naturalem. Omnis ordo aut naturalis aut artificialis est. Naturalis ordo est, si quis narret rem ordine quo gesta est; artificialis ordo est, si quis non incipit a principio rei gestae, sed a medio, ut Virgilius in Aeneide quaedam in futuro dicenda anticipat et quaedam in praesenti dicenda in posterum differt.8

Hoc, that is, he should say now what ought to have been said before according to natural order; amet auctor promissi carminis, that is, should love artificial order. Hoc, that is, the opposite of artificial order, that is, spernat auctor promissi carminis natural order; Horace says this briefly. For the meaning is as follows: whoever undertakes to make a good poem having clear order should love artificial order and scorn natural order. Every order is either natural or artificial; artificial order is when one does not begin from the beginning of an exploit but from the middle, as does Virgil in the Aeneid when he anticipates some things which should have been told later and puts off until later some things which should have been told in the present.

This comment extends the source into a doctrine on the suitability of artificial order for poetry concerned with martial material (res gesta) and takes an epic (the Aeneid) as an example. What I have called interlace structure is, in more general terms, complex artificial order, with the word complex in its etymological sense of woven together. Interlace design is a dominant aspect of eighth-century Anglo-Saxon visual art and the Scholia Vindobonensia present convincing evidence that the same design principle was applied to narrative poetry.


Alcuin's two lives of St. Willibrord provide instructive examples of natural and artificial order.9 The prose version begins with an account of Willibrord's parents and gives a chronological account of the Saint's life, death, and the subsequent miracles at his tomb. The poem, on the other hand, plunges in medias res with an account of Willibrord's visit to Pippin; the details of the Saint's early life are placed at the end. The poem is in simple artificial order, and in the Preface Alcuin states that it is for private study but that the prose version is for public reading. The same logic is followed in Alcuin's Disputatio de Rhetorica which deals only with natural order since it is intended for instruction in public oral discourse.10 On the basis of this preference for natural order in work intended for oral delivery, an argument might be made that Beowulf was meant for private study since it has complex artificial order.


Before I turn to the poem, a brief summary of my argument thus far may be helpful. In the visual arts of the seventh and eighth centuries interlace designs reached an artistic perfection in England that was never equalled again. Interlace appears so regularly on sculpture, jewellery, weapons, and in manuscript illuminations that it is the dominant characteristic of this art. There is clear evidence that a parallel technique of word-weaving was used as a stylistic device in both Latin and Old English poems of the period. Finally there is the specific statement of the Scholia Vindobonensia that artificial order was preferred for narrative poetry. Such artificial order I have called interlace structure because the term has historical probability and critical usefulness in reading Beowulf.



Beowulf is a work of art consistent with the artistic culture that it reflects and from which it came, eighth-century England. It is a lacertine interlace, a complex structure of great technical skill, but it is woven with relatively few strands. When Beowulf is read in its own artistic context as an interlace structure, it can be recognized as a literary work parallel to the carpet pages of the Lindisfarne Gospels, having a technical excellence in design and execution that makes it the literary equivalent of that artistic masterpiece.


Examples of narrative threads, intersected by other material, are easy to perceive in the poem once the structural principle is understood. The full account of Hygelac's Frisian expedition is segmented into four episodes, 1202-14, 2354-68, 2501-9 and 2913-21, in which chronology is ignored. The poet interlaces these episodes to achieve juxtapositions impossible in a linear narrative. In the first episode the gift of a precious golden torque to Beowulf for killing Grendel is interrupted by an allusion to its loss years later when Hygelac is killed. Hygelac's death seeking Frisian treasure foreshadows Beowulf's death seeking the dragon's hoard. The transience of gold and its connection with violence are obvious. In the second episode Beowulf's preparations to face the dragon are intersected by another allusion to Hygelac's expedition; each is an example of rash action and each ends in the death of a king. The third episode comes as Beowulf recalls how he went in front of Hygelac

ana on orde,                    ond swa to aldre sceall
sæcce fremman,                    þenden þis sweord þolað.


alone in the van and so will I always
act in battle while this sword holds out.

He had needed no sword to crush Dæghrefn, the slayer of Hygelac; against the dragon his sword Nægling fails. The pattern is the same as for the fights with Grendel whom he had killed with his hands and with Grendel's mother against whom the sword Hrunting fails. Beowulf's trust in a sword against Grendel's mother had nearly cost him his life; against the dragon it does. The last episode comes in the speech of the messenger who states that the fall of Beowulf will bring affliction to the Geats from their enemies. Among them, the messenger warns, are the Frisians seeking revenge for Hygelac's raid years before. Hygelac's death led to the virtual annihilation of his raiding force; Beowulf's death leads to the virtual annihilation of all the Geats. The four Hygelac episodes, like all the narrative elements in the poem, have positional significance; unravel the threads and the whole fabric falls apart. An episode cannot be taken out of context—may I remind you again of the etymology of the word—without impairing the interwoven design. This design reveals the meaning of coincidence, the recurrence of human behaviour, and the circularity of time, partly through the coincidence, recurrence, and circularity of the medium itself—the interlace structure. It allows for the intersection of narrative events without regard for their distance in chronological time and shows the interrelated significances of episodes without the need for any explicit comment by the poet. The significance of the connections is left for the audience to work out for itself. Understatement is thus inherent in interlace structure, a characteristic that fits the heroic temper of the north.


The Hygelac episodes contribute to what I believe is the major theme of Beowulf, “the fatal contradiction at the core of heroic society. The hero follows a code that exalts indomitable will and valour in the individual, but society requires a king who acts for the common good, not for his own glory.”11 Only two periods in Beowulf's life are told in linear narrative; they are the few days, perhaps a week, when he fights Grendel and his mother and the last few days when he fights the dragon. This treatment emphasizes Beowulf's heroic grandeur, his glorious deeds, and his predilection for monster-fighting. However, this main narrative is constantly intersected by episodes which present these deeds from a different perspective. The Hygelac episodes show the social consequences of rash action in a king and they become more frequent as the dragon fight develops. Hygelac's Frisian raid was a historical event; the history of this age provides many parallels. In 685 Ecgfrið, King of Northumbria, led a raiding party against the advice of his friends deep into Pictish territory. Caught in mountainous narrows at a place called Nechtanesmere on May 20, he and most of his army were killed, a disaster that ended English ascendency in the north. The main theme of Beowulf thus had relevance to a major recent event in the society that most probably produced it. Ecgfrið's brother Aldfrið, a man famed for his learning and skill as a poet, ruled from 685 to 704; Bede says that he re-established his ruined and diminished kingdom nobly,12 a stable reign that made possible the learning and scholarship of eighth-century Northumbria, the golden age of Bede and Alcuin.


At first the episodes give little more than a hint that Beowulf's heroic susceptibility may have calamitous consequences for his people. The references to Sigemund and Heremod after Beowulf kills Grendel foreshadow Beowulf's later career as king. He kills a dragon, as Sigemund did, and leaves the Geats to suffer national calamity, as Heremod left the Danes to suffer fyrenðearfe (14), “terrible distress.”13 In the second part of the poem Beowulf's preparations to fight the dragon are constantly intersected by allusions to the Swedish wars, ominous warnings of the full consequences to the Geats of Beowulf's dragon fight. In this way the poet undercuts Beowulf's single-minded preoccupation with the dragon by interlacing a stream of more and more pointed episodes about the human threats to his people, a far more serious danger than the dragon poses. Beowulf wins glory by his heroic exploit in killing the dragon, but brings dire affliction on his people, as Wiglaf quite explicitly states.

Oft sceall eorl monig                    anes willan
wræc adreogan,                    swa us geworden is.


Often many men must suffer distress
For the willfulness of one alone, as has happened to us.

Of particular interest to my subject is the way in which the interlace design, in and of itself, makes a contribution to the main theme. Because of the many lines given to the monsters and to Beowulf's preparations to fight them, they are the largest thread in the design, like the zoomorphs on the Windsor dagger pommel or the dragons on the Gandersheim casket. Monster-fighting thus pre-empts the reader's attention just as it pre-empts Beowulf's; the reader gets caught up in the heroic ethos like the hero and easily misses the warnings. In a sense the reader is led to repeat the error, one all too easy in heroic society, hardly noticing that glorious action by a leader often carries a terrible price for his followers.


The monsters are the elongated lacertine elements that thread through the action of the poem making symmetrical patterns characteristic of interlace structure. Beowulf's fights against Grendel's mother and against the monsters in the Breca episode are clear examples. During the swimming match Beowulf, protected by his armour, is dragged to the ocean floor. Fate gives him victory and he kills niceras nigene (575), “nine water monsters,” with his sword; this prevents them from feasting on him as they intended. After the battle, light comes and the sea grows calm. This is almost a précis of the later underwater fight against Grendel's mother; the pattern is the same, though told in greater detail.


Once the probability of parallel design is recognized, the function of some episodes becomes clearer. The Finnesburh lay, for example, is probably a cautionary tale for the Danes and Geats. Beowulf and his Geats visit Hroðgar and his Danes in Heorot to assist in defending the hall against an eoten, Grendel. During the first evening they share the hall Unferð issues an insulting challenge to which Beowulf makes a wounding reply stating that Unferð had killed his own brothers. This deed associates him with Cain, the archetypal fratricide, and Cain's descendant, Gendel. The defence of the hall is successful and Grendel is killed. At the victory celebration the scop recites a lay about the visit of Hnæf and his Half-Danes to Finn and his Frisians in Finnesburh. They fall to quarrelling and slaughter each other. In this episode the word eoten occurs three times in the genitive plural form eotena and once in the dative plural eotenum. These forms are often taken as referring to the Jutes, although no one can say what they are doing there or what part they play. More likely the references are to monsters. At line 1088 the Frisians and Danes surviving from the first battle are said each to control half of the hall wið eotena bearn, which probably means “against the giants' kin.” Quite possibly the Half-Danes go to Finnesburh to help the Frisians hold their hall against monsters, a situation which would explain why Finn did not burn out the Half-Danes when the fighting started. The hall was their joint protection against the monsters. After the lay Wealhþeow makes two moving pleas (1169-87 and 1216-31) for good faith and firm friendship in Heorot, especially between the Geats and the Danes. She clearly takes the scop's lay as a warning and fears being afflicted like Hildeburh. Just before she speaks, Unferð is described as sitting at Hroðgar's feet; he is a figure of discord as shown by his name, which means “mar-peace”, and by his behaviour. The queen might well be concerned lest insults between Dane and Geat be renewed and lead to fighting. From all this emerges an interesting connection. In Beowulf monsters are closely associated with the slaying of friends and kinsmen.14 They function in part as an outward objectification and sign of society beset by internecine slaughter between friend and kin.


The Finnesburh episode and the situation in Heorot are part of another theme that forms a thread of the interlace design of Beowulf—visits to a hall. A guest should go to the hall with friendly intent and be given food and entertainment of poetry by his host. Grendel inverts this order. He visits Heorot in rage, angered by the scop's song of creation, and makes food of his unwilling hosts. Hroðgar cannot dispense men's lives in Heorot, but Grendel does little else. He is an eoten, or “eater,” and swallows up the society he visits almost as if he were an allegorical figure for internecine strife. In a similar way Grendel's mother visits Heorot and devours æschere; in return Beowulf visits her hall beneath the mere, kills her, and brings back the head of Grendel. The Heaþobard episode concerning Ingeld and the battle that breaks out when the Danes visit his hall is another appearance of this thematic thread. Hroðgar gives his daughter Freawaru to Ingeld in marriage, hoping to end the feud between the two tribes, but an implacable old warrior sees a Dane wearing a sword that once belonged to the father of a young Heaþobard warrior. He incites the youth to revenge and the feud breaks out again; in the end the Heaþobards are decimated and Heorot is burnt. Other hall visits may be noted briefly. A slave visits the hall of the dragon and steals a cup; the dragon burns halls of the Geats in angry retribution, a token of the fate in store for Geatish society soon to be destroyed by war. Beowulf attacks the dragon who dies in the door of his hall fighting in self-defence.


Another theme of the poem is that of women as the bond of kinship. The women often become the bond themselves by marrying into another tribe, like Wealhþeow, Hildeburh, and Freawaru. This tie often has great tension put on it when the woman's blood relations visit the hall of her husband and old enmities between the tribes arise, as happens in the Finnesburh and Heaþobard episodes. The marriage then gives occasion for old wounds to open, even after an interval of years, and produces a result exactly opposite to its intent. On the other hand, women can be implacable in revenge as Grendel's mother is. Þryð (or Modþryð) is also implacable at first in resisting marriage; she causes her would-be husbands to be killed. Afterwards her father sends her over the sea as wife to Offa who checks her savage acts and she becomes a freoðuwebbe, “peace-weaver,” knitting up her kinsmen rather than refusing all ties. In general the women are cynna gemyndig, “intent on kinship,” as the poet says of Wealhþeow (613). They preserve the tie of kin or revenge it when given cause.


Another tie that binds society is treasure, especially gold; but, like kinship, it is also a cause of strife. Treasure is not sought for selfish avarice, but to enable a hero to win fame in gaining treasure for his lord and his lord to win fame dispensing it as a beaga bryttan, a “dispenser of treasure,” from the gifstol, “gift throne.” The gift and receipt of treasure are a tie between a lord and his retainer, an outward sign of the agreement between them. The strength and security of heroic society depend on the symbolic circulation of treasure. A lord offers support and sustenance to his retainer who agrees in turn to fight unwaveringly for his lord, a bond of contractual force in heroic society. Injury or slaughter of a man had a monetary price and could be atoned by wergild, “man payment.” The monsters are outside this society; for them treasure is an object to be hoarded under ground. They receive no gifts and do not dispense them. The poet states ironically that none need expect handsome recompense for the slaughter that Grendel inflicts. Hroðgar is the one who pays the wergild for the Geat, Hondscio, killed by Grendel in the Danish cause. The relation of the monsters to gifstolas presents an interesting parallel in the interlace design. The dragon burns the gifstol Geata (2327), an act that implies his disruption of the entire social order of Beowulf's comitatus. The full extent of this disruption appears when all but one of Beowulf's chosen retainers desert him in his last battle. Grendel, on the other hand, occupies Heorot, but he is not able to cause complete disruption of Hroðgar's comitatus, however ineffective it is against him. The sense of lines 168-9, a much disputed passage, thus seems likely to be that Grendel cannot destroy Hroðgar's gifstol (168), thought of as the objectification of the Danish comitatus.


The poem is also concerned with a society's gain of treasure as well as its loss. When a king seeks treasure himself, the cost may be ruinous for his people. Hygelac's Frisian raid and Beowulf's dragon fight are examples. Although Grendel's cave is rich in treasure, Beowulf takes away only a golden sword hilt and the severed head of Grendel; his object is to gain revenge, not treasure. Hroðgar's speech to Beowulf after his return contains warnings on pride in heroic exploits and on the ease with which gold can make a man stingy, hoarding his gold like a monster; either way the comitatus is apt to suffer. Heremod, who ended mid eotenum, is an example. When treasure passes outside the society where it is a bond, it becomes useless. The treasure in Scyld's funeral ship, the golden torque lost in Frisia, the lay of the last survivor, and the dragon's hoard buried with Beowulf are examples. Treasure had some positive force in heroic society, but it casts a baleful glitter in the poem because it is associated with monsters, fighting, the death of kings, and funerals.


These various themes are some of the threads that form the interlace structure of Beowulf. Often several are present together, as in the Finnesburh episode or in the final dragon fight. The themes make a complex, tightly-knotted lacertine interlace that cannot be untied without losing the design and form of the whole. The tension and force of the poem arise from the way the themes cross and juxtapose. Few comments are needed from the poet because significance comes from the intersections and conjunctions of the design. To the Beowulf poet, as to many other writers, the relations between events are more significant than their temporal sequence and he used a structure that gave him great freedom to manipulate time and concentrate on the complex interconnections of events. Although the poem has to be lingered over and gives up its secrets slowly, the principle of its interlace structure helps to reveal the interwoven coherence of the episodes as well as the total design of the poem in all its complex resonances and reverberations of meaning. There are no digressions in Beowulf.


The structural interlace of Beowulf, like the visual interlace patterns of the same culture, has great technical excellence, but is not to be regarded as an isolated phenomenon. The term is specifically applied to literature in the late middle ages. Robert Manning states in his Chronicle (1338) that he writes in a clear and simple style so that he will be readily understood; others, he says, use quante Inglis in complicated schemes of ryme couwee or strangere or enterlace.15Entrelacement was a feature of prose romances, especially those in the Arthurian tradition, as Eugène Vinaver has recently shown.16


The term interlace may be taken in a larger sense; it is an organizing principle closer to the workings of the human imagination proceeding in its atemporal way from one associative idea to the next than to the Aristotelian order of parts belonging to a temporal sequence with a beginning, middle, and end. If internal human experience of the imagination is taken as the basis, the Aristotelian canon of natural order as moving in chronological progression is really ordo artificialis, not the other way around as the rhetoricians taught. The human imagination moves in atemporal, associative patterns like the literary interlace. Don Quixote presents a useful illustration. The Don, supposedly mad, is brought home in a cage on wheels at the end of Part I. He could be taken as the interlacing fecundity of the associative mind, caught in the skull-cage, reacting with complex atemporal imagination, weaving sensory impressions with literary experience. The Canon of Toledo who rides along outside mouthing Aristotelian criticism of romances is, as his name suggests, an uncomprehending set of external rules, or canons, sent to bedevil and torment the poetic imagination.


There is a substantial amount of literature having interlace structure, if I may extend the term without presenting evidence here. Mediaeval dream poetry, such as Le Roman de la Rose and Piers Plowman, is largely a mixture of literary and imaginative experience with an atemporal interlace structure as are many complex romances, especially those with allegorical content like the Faerie Queene. The allegorical impulse in literature is often presented with an interlace structure because it is imaginative, literary and atemporal. Stream-of-consciousness novels frequently have something like interlace structures as well, for the same reasons.17


Like the poem, this lecture will make an end as it began. Scyld's glorious accomplishments and ship funeral at the opening of the poem mark the start of a dynasty and a period of prosperity for the Danes after the leaderless affliction they suffer following the death of Heremod. The funeral in the Finnesburh episode begins the period of affliction of the Half-Danes and presages the destruction of Finn's dynasty. At the end of the poem Beowulf's death begins a period of affliction for the Geats. The poem ends as it began with a funeral, the return of the interlace design to its start. The sudden reversals inherent in the structure as one theme intersects another without regard to time give to the whole poem a sense of transience about the world and all that is in it as beginnings and endings are juxtaposed; this is the much-remarked elegiac texture of Beowulf. Scyld's mysterious arrival as a child is placed beside his mysterious departure in death over the seas. A description of Heorot's construction is followed by an allusion to its destruction. The gift of a golden torque, by its loss. Beowulf's victories over monsters, by his defeat by a monster. With each reversal the elegiac texture is tightened, reminding us of impermanence and change, extending even to the greatest of heroes, Beowulf, a man mourned by those who remain behind as

manna mildust                    ond mon(ðw)ærust,
leodum liðost                    ond lofgeornost.


the most gentle and kind of men,
most generous to his people and most anxious for praise.

A bright and golden age of a magnanimous man vanishes, even as it seems hardly to have begun.

The jawes of darkness do devoure it up:
So quicke bright things come to confusion.

[Mids. I. i. 148-9]



  1. For example, see F. P. Magoun, Jr., “Beowulf A1: A Folk-Variant,” ARV: Tidskrit för Nordisk Folkminnesforskning, XIV (1958), 95-101, or Beowulf and the Fight at Finnsburg, ed. Fr. Klaeber, 3rd edition (Boston, 1950), li-lviii. All quotations are from this edition.

  2. For an account of the origin of these designs, see Nils Åberg, The Occident and the Orient in the Art of the Seventh Century, Part I, The British Isles, Kungl. Vitterhets Historie och Antikvitets Akademiens Handlingar, Del. 56:1 (Stockholm, 1943). An admirable account of such designs is given by R. L. S. Bruce-Mitford in Codex Lindisfarnensis, ed. T. D. Kendrick, et al. (Olten and Lausanne, 1956-60), II, iv, vii-x, 197-260.

  3. Lawrence Stone, Sculpture in Britain ([London], 1955), 13.

  4. I wish to thank Professor Michael Sheehan of the Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies at Toronto for helping me assemble the slides used in the lecture and Miss Ann Hutchison of the University of Toronto for help in assembling the prints used to make the plates.

  5. Ronald Jessup, Anglo-Saxon Jewellery (London, 1950), 116.

  6. See Peter Dale Scott, “Alcuin as a Poet,” UTQ, 33 (1964), 233-57.

  7. Scholia Vindobonensia ad Horatii Artem Poeticam, ed. Josephus Zechmeister (Vienna, 1877), iii. I wish to acknowledge my considerable debt to Paula Neuss of the University of Kent at Canterbury for research assistance in eighth-century Latin authors and for constructive criticism throughout the work for this lecture.

  8. Zechmeister, 4-5, repunctuated.

  9. De Vita Sancti Willibrordi Archiepiscopi, ed. B. Krvsch and W. Levison, MGH, Scriptores Rerum Merov. (Hanover and Leipzig, 1919), VII, 113-41; this is the prose version. De Vita Willibrordi Episcopi, ed. E. Dümmler, MGH, Poetarum Latinorum Medii Aevi, I (Berlin, 1881), 207-20.

  10. Ed. and trans. Wilbur S. Howell (Princeton, 1941), Section 22.

  11. John Leyerle, “Beowulf the Hero and the King,” Medium ævum, 34 (1965), 89.

  12. Historia Ecclesiastica, ed. C. Plummer (Oxford, 1896), IV, xxiv, Vol. I, 268. See F. M. Stenton, Anglo-Saxon England, 2nd edition (Oxford, 1950), 85-9.

  13. See “Beowulf the Hero and the King,” 101.

  14. Heremod's story fits this context, too, for he kills his table companions and dies mid eotenum (902).

  15. Ed. F. J. Furnivall (London, 1887). See lines 71-128.

  16. “Form and Meaning in Medieval Romance,” The Presidential Address of the Modern Humanities Research Association (1966).

  17. Interlace structure in later texts will be the subject of a larger work now in preparation. I wish to thank Mrs. Medora Bennett of the University of Toronto for help in the final preparation of this article for press.

Further Reading

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Fry, Donald K. “Beowulf” and “The Fight at Finnsburh”: A Bibliography. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1969, 221 p.

Bibliography including extensive subject classifications, compiler's remarks, and notices of reviews.

Short, Douglas D. “Beowulf” Scholarship: An Annotated Bibliography. New York: Garland Publishing, 1980, 353 p.

Bibliography offering detailed annotations and a selection of listings dating from 1705 through 1949, and a more comprehensive listing from 1950 through 1978.


Clark, George. Beowulf. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1990, 169 p.

Book-length analysis of the poem, including discussion of the heroic nature of the poem, the battles with monsters, and kingship.

Cox, Betty S. Cruces of “Beowulf.” The Hague: Mouton, 1971, 192 p.

Examination of textual and interpretative issues within the context of the widely-held belief that the poem is a work of art addressed by a Christian poet to a Christian audience.

Earl, James W. “The Necessity of Evil in Beowulf.South Atlantic Bulletin XLIV, No. 1 (January, 1979): 81-98.

Argues that Grendel functions as an evil creature, but one who serves a positive function in the molding of Hrothgar's moral vision, as well as the moral vision of the poet.

Fajardo-Acosta, Fidel. The Condemnation of Heroism in the Tragedy of Beowulf: A Study in the Characterization of the Epic. Studies in Epic and Romance Literature, Vol. 2. Lewiston, N.Y.: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1989, 215 p.

Studies the significance of the name and character of Beowulf and Grendel; of the symbol of the wolf; and of the fratricide motif.

Fulk, R. D., ed. Interpretations of “Beowulf”: A Critical Anthology. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991, 282 p.

Collection of critical essays dating from the 1920s through the 1980s, focusing on a variety of subjects, including the Christian elements of Beowulf, its formulaic structure, its epic nature, and the nature and role of the monsters.

Gulley, Ervene F. “The Concept of Nature in Beowulf.Thoth 11, No. 1 (Fall 1970): 16-30.

Studies the concept of nature from the point of view of the Germanic people of the period during which the poem was written, as well as the poet's artistic use of nature. Gulley maintains that within the artistic confines of the poem, nature serves as a source of imagery; connects narrative portions; generates and emphasizes mood and theme; and creates a sense of realism.

Haarder, Andreas. “Beowulf”: The Appeal of a Poem. Akademisk Forlag, 1975, 340 p.

Provides an extended discussion of the poem's artistic merit.

Hill, John M. The Cultural World in “Beowulf.” Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1995, 224 p.

Examines society and culture within the poem, investigating feudal settlements, the temporal world, the jural world, the psychological world, and the concept of honor.

Howlett, David R. “Form and Genre in Beowulf.Studia Neophilologica XLVI, No. 2 (1974): 309-25.

Analyzes details within the poem that suggest various sources which may have influenced its form and structure.

Irving, Edward B., Jr. Rereading “Beowulf.” Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1989, 183 p.

Discusses recent approaches to Beowulf and its oral nature; examines its oral modes of characterization and narrative construction; and studies the hall (Heorot) as a unifying symbol within the poem.

Lapidge, Michael. “Beowulf and the Psychology of Terror.” Heroic Poetry in the Anglo-Saxon Period: Studies in Honor of Jess B. Bessinger, Jr., edited by Helen Damico and John Leyerle, pp. 373-402. Studies in Medieval Culture XXXII. Kalamazoo, Mich.: Western Michigan University, 1993.

Contends that Beowulf is not a heroic poem because the poet is less concerned with heroic action than with reflection on human lives and conduct. Investigates the poet's interest in “the workings of the human mind,” particularly his depiction of Grendel and the monster's advancing on the great hall, Heorot.

Lee, Alvin A. Gold-Hall and Earth-Dragon: “Beowulf” as Metaphor. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998, 279 p.

Analyzes the way in which the poem's figurative language and verbal structure support the extended metaphor of the poem.

Leyerle, John. “Beowulf the Hero and the King.” Medium Ævum XXXIV, No. 2 (1965): 89-102.

Demonstrates the way in which the episodes of the poem are connected to create structural unity, and examines the major theme of the poem. Leyerle describes this theme as the contradiction between the heroic code—which praises individual valor—and society's desire to have a king who acts on behalf of the common good, not personal glory.

McNamee, M. B. “Beowulf—An Allegory of Salvation?” JEGP LIX, No. 2 (April 1960): 190-207.

Examines the evidence supporting the theory that Beowulf is a Christian allegory, and argues that viewing the poem in this manner reveals its great artistic unity.

Overing, Gillian R. Language, Sign, and Gender in “Beowulf.” Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1990, 137 p.

Investigates the Beowulf poet's use of textual effects, metonymy, and kenning; the interlace structure and symbols used in the text; and gender issues— specifically, the way desire operates within the narrative.

Robinson, Fred C. “Beowulf” and the Appositive Style. Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1985, 106 p.

Discusses the appositive style and structure of Beowulf, arguing that this style enabled the poet to express from his Christian point of view the pagan heroic life. Robinson explains that grammatical appositions are often called “variations,” and consist of poetic compounds, amphiboles, and a variety of narrative devices that are used in a suggestive, rather than an equivocal manner.

Stanley, Eric Gerald. In the Foreground: “Beowulf.” Rochester, N.Y.: D. S. Brewer, 1994, 273 p.

Examines the poem's critical history, dating, and poetics.

Tietjen, Mary C. Wilson. “God, Fate, and the Hero of Beowulf.JEGP LXXI, No. 2 (April 1975): 159-71.

Analyzes the Christian and pagan elements of the poem and asserts that the poet's attitude and tone are both Christian and pagan. The heroic ideal prevails, explains Tietjen, while the Christian notion of grace is also a significant component within the text.

Tripp, Raymond P., Jr. Literary Essays on Language and Meaning in the Poem Called “Beowulf.” Lewiston, N.Y.: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1992, 300 p.

A selection of essays exploring and elucidating various constructions and specific words, lines, or concepts within the poem.

Additional coverage of Beowulf is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism, Vol. 1, and Epics for Students.

Larry D. Benson (essay date 1967)

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SOURCE: “The Pagan Coloring of Beowulf,” in Contradictions: From “Beowulf” to Chaucer; Selected Studies of Larry D. Benson, edited by Theodore M. Andersson and Stephen A. Barney, Scolar Press, 1995, pp. 15-31.

[In the essay below, originally written in 1967, Benson studies the apparent conflict in Beowulf between Christian and pagan elements, observing that modern assumptions concerning the attitude of the Christian poet and his audience toward paganism are incorrect. Benson goes on to argue that understanding the relationship between Christian Englishmen and Germanic pagans allows us to view the poem as a framework within which Christians could contemplate the idea of the “good pagan.”]

The old theory that Beowulf is an essentially pagan work only slightly colored with the Christianity of a later scribe has now been dead for many years, and critics today generally agree that the poem is the unified work of a Christian author.1 Indeed, most of the elements in Beowulf that once supplied arguments for its essential paganism—the function of Wyrd, the emphasis on the comitatus, the duty of revenge—are now recognized not as pagan but as secular values that were easily incorporated into the framework of Anglo-Saxon Christianity.2 Likewise, though the stories of Beowulf and the monsters probably originated in pagan times, it is now generally acknowledged that they have been assimilated into a Christian world view with the monsters allied with the devil and Beowulf (or so Friedrich Klaeber and others have held) fitted to the pattern of Christ himself.3 Yet the ghost of the old pagan-versus-Christian dispute still lingers, for along with the Christian and Christianized secular elements the poem does contain some indisputably pagan features that have remained intractable to modern criticism. Moreover, the knockings of that spirit have become steadily more insistent, for the more deeply Christian the meanings of Beowulf are discovered to be, the more difficult become the still-unanswered questions raised by H. M. Chadwick in 1912: “If the poem preserves its original form and is the work of a Christian, it is difficult to see why the poet should go out of his way in v. 175 ff. to represent the Danes as offering heathen sacrifices. … Again why should he lay Beowulf himself to rest with heathen obsequies, described in all possible detail … ?”4 Why, one must ask, should the poet's whole representation of the Danes and Geats include all the other details that Chadwick notes—the funeral ship (27 ff.), the observation of omens (204), and the use of cremation (1108 ff., 2124 ff., 3137 ff.)?5

The intrusion of these pagan elements into an otherwise completely Christian work presents more difficult problems than the simple matter of factual inconsistency. Certainly the poet is inconsistent in first showing us the Danes listening to the Christian account of the Creation and then, a few lines later, telling us that they knew nothing of God and sacrificed to idols. That is only the sort of historical inaccuracy that one expects in medieval poetry; Chaucer and Shakespeare confused pagan and Christian elements in much the same way.6 Poets (especially medieval poets) are responsible for total aesthetic effect rather than documentary accuracy. The difficulty in Beowulf is that the pagan elements seem to confound the aesthetic effect, to destroy the consistency of tone. Instead of casually mixing pagan and Christian, as so many medieval poets do, the Beowulf poet goes out of his way to draw our attention to the Danes' heathen sacrifices. Furthermore, the paganism that he describes is not simply literary or historical; it was a still strong and threatening force in his own day. For him to present his characters as heathens is, so we assume, to show them in the worst of possible lights. Alcuin, in his famous letter to the monks at Lindisfarne, defines for us the Christian Englishman's attitude toward the pagans: Quid Hinieldus cum Christo? Angusta est domus: utrosque tenere non poterit. Non vult rex celestis cum paganis et perditis nominetenus regibus communionem habere “what has Ingeld to do with Christ? Narrow is the house; it cannot hold both. The King of Heaven wants no fellowship at all with pagan and damned kings.”7 Given this attitude toward the heathens, our poet's insistence that his characters are both emphatically pagan and exceptionally good seems self-contradictory, and that apparent contradiction has seemed to many critics a touch of feebleness at the very heart of the poem, so feeble that even his warmest admirers have been forced either to fall back on the old theory of scribal tampering or to conclude that the poet simply blundered.8

The blunder may be our own, for the apparent contradiction arises, not from the poem itself, but from our assumptions about the meaning of paganism to the poet and his audience. These assumptions have been based on our knowledge of one letter by Alcuin, written in a spirit of reforming zeal at the end of the eighth century, and scattered comments by Bede, who is not quite so inflexible in his attitude toward pagans as his doctrinal pronouncements make him seem.9 The extreme distaste for everything pagan that these comments exhibit is not typical of the age to which the composition of Beowulf is usually assigned; beginning in the last years of the seventh century and extending throughout the eighth, the dominant attitude of Christian Englishmen toward the Germanic pagans was one of interest, sympathy, and occasionally even admiration. This was the period during which the English church was engaged in an intense missionary activity on the Continent, sending missionaries in significant numbers first to the Frisians and Danes and then to the Old Saxons and the tribes in central Germany. This major undertaking, the great interest that it aroused in England, and the attitude it fostered toward pagandom has received relatively little attention from students of Beowulf; yet it can shed considerable light on the problems raised by the pagan elements in the poem, revealing artistry where we thought we detected blunders.


The missionary activity of the English church began by accident when Wilfred, on his way to Rome to protest his deposition as Bishop of York, landed in Frisia to avoid falling into the hands of his political enemies and spent the winter of 678-79 as guest of the pagan king Aldgisl.10 He preached the gospel to the heathens, apparently with some success, and then traveled on to Rome. He returned to England, where he occupied a number of sees during his contentious career, but evidently he always maintained an interest in the missionary work in Frisia. In 697 he consecrated a bishop, Suidbert, for the Frisian mission, and the founder of the most successful mission there was Willibrord, who had been Wilfred's student at Ripon and whom Wilfred visited when he again passed through Frisia in 703.

The next missionary effort came from English monks living in Ireland. As Bede tells it, the mission began with the plan of Egbert, who proposuit animo pluribus prodesse; id est, inito opere apostolico, verbum Dei aliquibus earum quae nondum audierant gentibus evangelizando committere: quarum in Germania plurimas noverat esse nationes, a quibus Angli vel Saxones qui nunc Brittaniam incolunt, genus et originem duxisse noscuntur; unde hactenus a vicina gente Brettonum corrupte Garmani nuncupantur. Sunt autem Fresones, Rugini, Danai, Hunni, Antiqui Saxones, Boructuari: sunt alii perplures eisdem in partibus populi paganis adhuc ritibus servientes … “set his mind on doing good to many; that is, by undertaking the apostolic work, to preach to some of those peoples that had not yet heard the word of God; he knew that there were several such nations in Germany, from which the Angles or Saxons who now inhabit Britain are known to have taken their stock and origin; hence, by the neighboring race of the Britons they are to this day corruptly called ‘Garmani.’ There are the Frisians, the Rugini, the Danes, the Huns, the Old Saxons, the Boructuari; there are many other peoples in these same parts still in servitude to pagan rites. …”11 Egbert was deterred from this undertaking by a series of visions and a shipwreck. Yet he had established the plan, basing it on the idea of the kinship between the insular and Continental “Garmani” that was to remain a basic motivation of this missionary work. One of his disciples, Wictbert, took up the task next and preached for two years, though without success, to the Frisians and to their king Rathbod.12

The next year, 690, Willibrord, who had spent several years in Ireland as a pupil of Egbert after his studies at Ripon, set out for Frisia with a company of twelve English missionaries.13 Shortly thereafter, two more English priests, both named Hewald (known as “White” and “Black” Hewald, from the colors of their hair), journeyed to the Continent and met martyrdom among the Old Saxons (whose alderman, though a pagan, was incensed at this murder and avenged their deaths).14 But despite this setback the mission flourished. Suidbert, one of Willibroard's twelve helpers, was consecrated bishop by Wilfred and carried the mission to the Boructuari, and Willibrord received the pallium at Rome and extended his work in Frisia. He carried the gospel even to the Danes, whose king, Ongendus, received him with “every mark of honor” but was unimpressed by his preaching.15 Nevertheless, Willibrord brought back with him from Denmark thirty Danish youths whom he instructed in the Christian faith, and on his return journey he visited and desecrated the famous pagan shrine at Heligoland. At the time Bede was writing, Willibrord still lived among his converted flock in Frisia, one of the heroes of the English church.

The next and greatest stage in the movement was the mission of Boniface.16 With two companions he sailed with a trader from London to Frisia in 716. He spent the winter among the Frisians and, meeting with no success, returned to England. After a trip to Rome he went again to Frisia, preaching in places as yet untouched by missionaries. He succeeded Willibrord as leader of the movement and turned his attention to the Old Saxons. From Britain an “exceedingly large number of holy men came to his aid, among them readers, writers, and learned men trained in the other arts.”17 In his last years he went back to Frisia and, pushing farther into heathendom, was martyred near the border of Denmark in 754. He was succeeded by Lull, another Englishman, and the missionary effort of the English church continued unabated throughout the eighth century; the later intellectual expeditions of scholars such as Alcuin were only extensions of the movement that Wilfred and Willibrord began.

One of the most remarkable features of these missions was the close relation that they all maintained with the homeland. We have already noted Wilfred's continuing interest in Frisia and the fact that Suidbert returned to England to be consecrated a bishop at Wilfred's hands. We also know that another of Willibrord's helpers visited Lindisfarne, and in general, even though Willibrord's correspondence does not survive, there is evidence of frequent intercourse between his mission and England.18 Likewise, it is probable that a good many other Englishmen joined him, for the missionary expeditions were fairly large, involving not one or two wandering preachers but the mission suorum tantum stipatus clientum numero ‘accompanied only by a number of servants,’ including armed soldiers.19 Boniface's letters do survive, as do those of his successor, Lull, and beginning with the first quarter of the eighth century, we have ample evidence for Levison's assertion that “the continental mission was regarded as a national undertaking of the whole English people. …”20 It was to England that Boniface looked for advice, books, and the help of prayer, and his correspondents included clergy and laymen alike from Thanet to Lindisfarne. On one occasion he addressed a letter, which we shall shortly examine, to the entire English nation. The nation responded by turning its eyes to the pagan Continent—hoping for the conversion of the heathen, for the prayers of the missionaries, or like King Ethelbert of Kent, for a pair of falcons of the sort that Boniface had sent along with shields and spears as a gift to the king of Mercia.21


The extent and intensity of this traffic with the Continent has long been known, but this knowledge has had little effect on the study of Beowulf. This is largely because the English missions have been considered only in relation to the history of the plot. As early as 1816 Outzen proposed that the missions in Frisia supplied the route by which the story of Beowulf reached the poet.22 The more recent discovery of the possible English origin of the Liber Monstrorum with its account of Hygelac, which probably came to England by way of Frisia, has led critics to reflect anew that a good many Englishmen of the late seventh and eighth centuries must have seen or heard of Hygelac's grave on that island in the mouth of the Frisian Rhine.23 It does seem likely that English travelers would have brought home some tales of Hygelac and Hrothgar, of Finn, and perhaps even of Beowulf—if not the tales our poet used, at least some related tales that helped kindle new interest in the old materials. Likewise, the Frisians, that “great trading people of the North” who dealt with Christian London on the west and pagan Scandinavia on the east,24 are the most likely means by which tales of the Swedes and stories of Sigmund would have reached England. We know that the Frisians had a recognized class of minstrels,25 and it would be surprising if their store of songs did not include at least some of the tales used in Beowulf. Yet this is only conjecture, and critics have rightly set aside the impossible task of tracing the exact sources of the plot and have turned their attention elsewhere.

Unfortunately, in turning away from the Continent as a contemporary source for the poet's plot, they have also turned away from it as a source of the poet's knowledge of heathen customs, such as the burials in Beowulf. The study of Beowulf has been needlessly complicated by a search of the English past for the possible hints and memories upon which the poet could have based his accounts of pagan funerals. Even the Sutton Hoo discovery has been of little help; but on the Continent, where the English missionaries were working, pagan burials both by cremation and by interment in mounds continued throughout the eighth century, as we know from laws directed against anyone who corpus defuncti hominis secundum ritum paganorum flamma consumi fecerit et ossa eius ad cinerem redierit “has had the body of a deceased man consumed by flame and returned his bones to ashes according to the rite of the pagans” or who buried the dead ad tumulus paganorum “at pagan grave-mounds.”26 Likewise, such practices as augury and sacrificing to idols might reflect a memory of England's own past but are more likely based on some knowledge of the Germanic pagans themselves, for throughout the Continent divination and idol-worship were widely and persistently practiced.27 That Christians of this period were interested in learning about such practices is shown by the contemporary references to pagan beliefs that have survived,28 and certainly some information of this sort must have been a common subject of conversation whenever a cleric or trader returned to England with news of the missions. We cannot be sure that any of the poet's plot reached him by this route, but we can be positive that he had at his disposal a good deal of information about the pagans that he chose to celebrate.

More important to the student confronted with the problem of the poet's characterization of his pagans is the attitude toward the Germanic heathen which the missionaries maintained and encouraged among their supporters in England. They had none of Alcuin's disdain, and from Egbert to Lull one of the prime motives for the missions was the sympathy fostered by the kinship between the English and nostra gens, the Germanic tribes on the Continent.29 This sympathy appears in Bede's account of Egbert's decision to become a missionary, quoted above, and it is stated even more emphatically in the celebrated letter that Boniface wrote in 738 to the whole English nation, from the bishops to the laymen, immo generaliter omnibus catholicis “indeed, to all Catholics in general”: Fraternitatis vestrae clementiam intimis obsecramus precibus … ut deus et dominus noster lesus Christus, ‘qui vult omnes homines salvos fieri et ad agnitionem Dei venire,’ convertat ad catholicam fidem corda paganorum Saxonum, et resipiscant a diabuli laqueis, a quibus capti tenentur, et adgregentur filiis matris ecclesiae. Miseremini illorum, quia et ipsi solent dicere: ‘De uno sanguine et de uno osse sumus’ “We implore the mercy of your brotherhood with deepest prayers [that you pray] … that God and Our Lord Jesus Christ, ‘who wants all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of God,’ may turn the hearts of the pagan Saxons to the Catholic faith, and that they may repent of the devilish snares by which they are held captive, and be joined to the sons of Mother Church. Have mercy upon them, for they themselves are accustomed to say, ‘We are of one blood and one bone.’”30 The tone of this letter, its certainty that the pagan Saxons are damned if they are not converted, and its intense sympathy with their plight is almost the same as that which we find in one of the most difficult passages in Beowulf, the poet's overt comment on the Danes' idol worship:

                                                            Swylc wæs þeaw hyra,
hæþenra hyht;                    helle gemundon
in modsefan,                    Metod hie ne cuþon,
dæda Demend,                    ne wiston hie Drihten God,
ne hie huru heofena Helm                    herian ne cuþon,
wuldres Waldend.                    Wa bið þæm ðe
þurh sliðne nið                    sawle bescufan
in fyres fæþm,                    frofre ne wenan,
wihte gewendan!                    Wel bið þæm þe
æfter deaðdæge                    Drihten secean
ond to Fæder fæþmum                    freoðo wilnian!(31)


Such was their custom, the hope of the heathens; they remembered hell in their minds, they did not know the Ruler, the Judge of Deeds, nor did they know the Lord God, nor indeed did they know how to praise the Protector of Heaven, the Ruler of Glory. Woe be to him who must, in terrible affliction, thrust his soul into the embrace of fire, expect no consolation, no change at all! Well is it for him who, after the day of death, can seek the Lord and ask for peace in the embrace of the Father!

Critics have often suggested that these lines must refer to some relapse into idolatry, but the remarkable quality of this passage is its tone of compassion, and a return to idolatry is a sin for which compassion is not the appropriate emotion.32 To describe such relapses even the gentle Bede employs the conventional image of the “dog returning to his own vomit.”33 It is to those who have not had a chance to know of God, ne wiston hie Drihten God, that one can be compassionate. Their sin, as the missionaries repeatedly tell us, is “ignorance.” They are “blundering in the darkness,” ensnared in devilish errors through no fault of their own. The poet's insistence on the Danes' ignorance of God (ne wiston, ne cuþon) places them clearly with those blameless and pitiful heathens of whom Boniface speaks.

The poet's sudden shift from the past tense, which he uses to refer to the Danes, to a more generalized present provides an even more important link between his fictional pagans and those real pagans still living on the Continent in his own time. If there is a “Christian excursus” in Beowulf, it is not in the account of the sacrifices themselves but in the lines beginning Wa bið þæm, for the changed tense shows that the object of the poet's compassion includes not only those long-dead Danes in his poem but also those heathens who exist at the moment he is speaking and who are compelled—sceal—through ignorance to thrust their souls in fyres fæþm. Their plight is made even sadder by the parallel consideration of those—perhaps their kinsmen—whose lot is the happier because they may Drihten secean. Marie P. Hamilton has suggested that “by presenting Scandinavian men of good will as looking in the main to the governance of God he [the poet] might bring them within the sympathetic ken of their English cousins.”34 This is true enough, but given the English attitude toward Continental heathens, it may also be that the poet engages his audience's sympathy for his characters by emphasizing their very paganism. Certainly in this “excursive” passage he seems to step aside from the course of his narrative to draw attention to the similarity between the Danes in Beowulf and the real Danes whose salvation had become a matter of widespread concern.

The characters in Beowulf are men of good will, despite their paganism, and this has seemed to most critics the central contradiction in the poem. In the face of the attitude represented by Alcuin the only way out of this dilemma seems to be that proposed by Charles Donahue: the possibility that the poet was touched by the Pelagian heresy, which taught that pious heathens could be saved for their natural goodness and thus made it possible for a Christian to admire a native heathen hero.35 Donahue shows that in early medieval Ireland some native heroes were regarded as having lived under the “natural law,” virtuous even though heathen and eligible for salvation because they were born outside the Judaic and Christian dispensations. Yet in England and on the Continent, as Donahue also shows, a strict Augustinian orthodoxy prevailed. Bede, writing an attack on the Pelagian heresy, states flatly that even the great philosophers nullam veram virtutem nec nullam veram sapientiam habere potuerunt. In quantum vero vel gustum aliquem sapientiae cujuslibet, vel virtutis imaginem habebant, totum hoc desuper acceperunt “could have no true virtue or knowledge of God. Indeed, insofar as they had any taste of knowledge or image of virtue, they received it from above.”36 The second sentence seems to grant that the pagans may have some virtue after all, but even so Bede affirms that all those born outside the Judaeo-Christian law are damned, even those born between Adam and Moses, quia regnavit mors ab Adam usque Moysen, etiam in eos qui non peccaverunt “since Death ruled from Adam until Moses, even over those who had not sinned.”37 This was the attitude the missionaries upheld. In the famous near-baptism of Rathbod a touch of Pelagianism would have saved that “Scourge of Christians” and made the conversion of Frisia much easier, but when Rathbod, with one foot in the water, turned to ask Bishop Wulfram whether he would meet his ancestors in heaven, Wulfram said they were in hell, Rathbod withdrew his foot, and the great chance was lost.38 Boniface was as orthodox as Wulfram and Bede, and when it came to his attention that a Celtic bishop named Clement was teaching that Christ brought all from hell, “believers and unbelievers, those who praised God and the worshippers of idols,” he lost no time in bringing the matter to the attention of Rome, where the “folly” was roundly condemned in 745.39 The fact that Boniface and Bede paid so much attention to this heresy may indicate that Pelagianism was more widespread than is usually thought. The lives of the early missionaries, who were trained in Ireland, show that relations between the English and Celtic churches were quite close despite their differences, and the works of Pelagius himself were circulating in England (some even under the name of Augustine).40

However, we need not hunt for heresy to explain the poet's presentation of his heroes as both virtuous and pagan, for despite the Pelagian dispute (which turns really on the functions of nature and grace) even the most orthodox eighth-century churchmen could regard the pagans as quite virtuous, following the natural law and lacking only the knowledge of God necessary for salvation. The Translatio Sancti Alexandri puts this most clearly in its account of the Saxons: Legibus etiam ad vindictam malefactorum optimis utebantur. Et multa utilia atque secundum legem naturae honesta in morum probitate habere studuerunt, quae eis ad veram beatitudinem promerendam proficere potuissent, si ignorantiam creatoris sui non haberent, et a veritate culturae illius non essent alieni “indeed, they made use of excellent laws for the punishment of wrongdoers. And they were diligent to maintain in their conduct a very useful and, according to the law of nature, decent probity, which would have helped them to a truly deserved blessedness, if they had not been ignorant of their Creator and were not alien to true religion.”41 The praise for Germanic institutions in this work is drawn from Tacitus, and among early Latin writers—Horace, Tacitus, Martianus Capella—there was a slender tradition of idealizing the Germanic pagans for their good morals and institutions.42 As early as the fifth century one finds Christian writers employing this idealized view. Salvianus writes of the Goths and Vandals who were attacking the Empire: tantum apud illos profecit studium castimoniae, tantum seueritas disciplinae, non solum quod ipsi casti sunt, sed, ut rem dicamus nouam, rem incredibilem, rem paene etiam inauditam, castos etiam Romanos esse fecerunt “so much did the zeal for chastity prevail among them, so great was the severity of their discipline, that not only were they chaste themselves, but—to say a new thing, a thing incredible, a thing almost unheard of—they made even the Romans chaste.”43

In addition to the weight of this minor tradition of the “honest Germanic pagan,” some of the missionaries must have been led to accept the idea that virtue can exist among the pagans simply from meeting an occasional good heathen, like this Frisian nobleman of the early eighth century: qui quamvis fidem sanctae Trinitatis nondum sciret, erat tamen adiutor pauperum, defensor oppressorum, in iuditio quoque iustus “though he did not yet know the faith of the Holy Trinity, he was nevertheless a helper of paupers, a defender of the oppressed, and also just in pronouncing judgments.”44 Such decent men, of the sort that exist in all societies, often performed acts of kindness to the missionaries, even when they refused the chance to be converted, and they must frequently have impressed the English priests with their natural goodness.45 They thus exemplified the most important source of the idea that pagans observe the natural law, the statements in the Bible itself, which taught that the gentiles “show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another” (Rom. 2:15).

Boniface drew on all three sources—the literary tradition represented by Tacitus, his own knowledge, and the Bible—in what must have been the most famous use of natural law in the eighth century, his letter to King Ethelbald of Mercia. Ethelbald's loose sexual conduct had become an international scandal, and it was a matter of concern to English churchmen (and probably laymen) on both sides of the Channel. Finally (around 745-46), Boniface wrote directly to the king, rebuking him for his sin: Quod non solum a christianis, sed etiam a paganis in obprobrium et verecundiam deputatur. Quia ipsi pagani verum Deum ignorantes naturaliter, quae legis sunt et quod ab initio Deus constituit, custodiunt in hac re … Cum ergo gentiles, qui Deum nesciunt et legem non habent iuxta dictum apostoli, naturaliter ea quae legis sunt faciunt et ostendunt opus legis scriptum in cordibus suis. … “which not only by Christians but even by pagans is held in shame and contempt. For these pagans, ignorant of the true God, by nature maintain in this matter those things which are lawful and what God established in the beginning. … When thus the gentiles, who do not know God and have no law according to the word of the apostle, do by nature what is lawful and show the work of the law written in their hearts. …”46 Since Boniface himself, the persecutor of the heretical Clement, held this opinion, we need have no lingering doubts about the theological respectability of admiring the virtues of the pagans. Even Bede, despite his doctrinal rigidity, found some admirable pagans in the course of his history, and he held that at least one unbaptized pagan had been saved.47 Certainly the author of Beowulf, even if he was a cleric addressing a clerical audience, would have encountered no difficulty in presenting his characters as both virtuous and pagan.


In the light of what we now know of attitudes toward the pagans in the late seventh and eighth centuries, it appears that the paganism of the poet's characters may have been a positive advantage to him rather than the insuperable difficulty that it seemed to early critics. Those critics assumed that Beowulf was originally and essentially pagan, and what pagan elements the poem contains were therefore most easily explained as mere undigested lumps of primitive matter. We are still accustomed to think of the pagan elements as part of the original essence of the poem, the Christian elements as additions—beautifully integrated, but additions nevertheless. Yet our reading of the poem does not accord with our theory. Christianity is part of the very fabric of Beowulf; the pagan elements are not. When we examine those elements that are actually pagan rather than secular, references to practices that ceased altogether or became criminal with the introduction of Christianity—augury, cremation, the worship of idols—we find that they are few in number and easily isolable. Their removal would harm but not destroy the poem (which may explain why good critics have wanted to take some of them out), for one cannot imagine Beowulf in anything like its present state without its Christian basis, but one can easily conceive of it without its few touches of paganism. Without them, it would simply be a more ordinary medieval poem, a narrative in which the past is seen through the eyes of the present, as Chaucer viewed Troy in Troilus or Shakespeare ancient Denmark in Hamlet. The tales that the poet used must have come to him in that more ordinary state, originally created in pagan times but insensibly altered to fit the requirements of new audiences by each succeeding generation of oral poets.48 Probably it was the Beowulf poet who deepened the Christian meanings when he reshaped the inherited material; but probably it was also he who added the “pagan coloring,” drawing on contemporary information about the Germanic pagans and on the prevalent attitude toward them to add both interest and a new dimension of meaning to his materials.

The most obvious advantage that the poet gained by his use of pagan materials is that of “local color.” He was able to capitalize on the general interest in pagandom that the missions had aroused, and by providing vivid, even sensational, accounts of rites such as cremation of which his audience had only heard, he was able to engage their attention for his more important purposes. For those more sober members of his audience who, like the later Alcuin, could see no good in stories of pagan kings, the very reminders that the kings in Beowulf are pagan serve to build interest and sympathy, for the poem functions as a kind of proof of the missionaries' reports that the heathens are indeed virtuous, while the pagan elements have something of the same function as Boniface's letter to the English nation, emphasizing the perilous condition of these good heroes and thus appealing for a compassionate, serious consideration of their state. Perhaps that is why the “Christian excursus” comes so early in the poem, providing the framework within which the good Christian can ponder the deeds of the good pagans.

There must have been a good many more in the poet's audience who, like the monks at Lindisfarne, simply enjoyed a good secular tale, and for them most of all the touches of paganism are means of building interest and sympathy in the dual purpose of this poem. Beowulf is now recognized as a skillful blend of secular and religious values; it is simultaneously a celebration of the ideal Germanic warrior and a statement of Christian morality.49 These values were not necessarily opposed, as poems like The Dream of the Rood show, but they were nevertheless quite different. Aldhelm apparently recognized this, for we are told that he would stand at crossroads, singing the old songs until he had gathered crowds for his more edifying discourses.50 The Beowulf poet seems to employ his secular materials in the same way, using his tales of monster killing as an occasion for a meditation on life and on the meaning of victory and defeat. For those who were drawn to listen primarily to hear again the deeds of heroes, the insistence on the paganism of those heroes provided the larger context of that present day, helping to reinforce the point of Hrothgar's sermon that strength alone is not enough and to state the further requirement that even that “intelligent monotheist” cannot meet, that to strength and natural piety must be added the New Law of Christ. In this way the touches of paganism in Beowulf place the fictional ironies and tragedy of the poem within the dimension of the real irony and tragedy of Germanic history as it was viewed by an eighth-century audience newly aware of the sad condition of their Continental kinsmen to whom the gospel had not yet been preached. Thus the poet builds a link between the doomed heroes of his poem and the sad but admirable pagans of his own time, whose way of life seemed likewise fated to disappear before the apparently certain victory of the Church.

The final irony of Beowulf is that which Wyrd visited on the poet himself, when the pagans he celebrated swept down to destroy their Christian kinsmen in England. After the burning of Lindisfarne in 793, it would be another two centuries before English missionaries would again set out for the Continent and the attitude toward pagandom expressed in Beowulf would again be appropriate. We can only speculate, but it may be that we owe the survival of the poem to its touches of paganism, for the only manuscript in which it survives was written at that other moment in English history, around the year 1000, when English churchmen were again concerned with the fate of their heathen kinsmen in northern Europe.51


  1. William Whallon, “The Christianity of Beowulf,Modern Philology 60 (1962): 81-94, argues that the poet is a very naive Christian who knows little except for the tales of the Old Testament, but this is as close as critics today come to assuming a pagan author. For a full discussion see E. G. Stanley, “The Search for Anglo-Saxon Paganism,” Notes and Queries, N.S. 11 (1964): 205-9, 242-50, 282-87, 324-33, 455-63, and 12 (1965): 9-17, 203-7, 285-93, 322-27, especially 11: 326-31.

  2. On Wyrd see, for example, Alan H. Roper, “Boethius and the Three Fates of Beowulf,Philological Quarterly 41 (1962): 386-400; on revenge see Dorothy Whitelock, The Audience of Beowulf (Oxford: Clarendon, 1951), pp. 13-17; the comitatus is, of course, found throughout Old English religious poetry (e.g., Andreas).

  3. Beowulf and the Fight at Finnsburg, ed. Friedrich Klaeber (3rd ed.; Boston: D. C. Heath, 1950), cxxi: “in recounting the life and portraying the character of the exemplary leader … he [the poet] was almost inevitably reminded of the person of the Savior. …”

  4. The Heroic Age (Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press, 1912), 53.

  5. Ibid., 52-53; I have included Scyld's funeral ship, although it seems to represent the departure of a legendary hero, as Klaeber suggests, rather than a real burial like that of Baldr.

  6. Marie P. Hamilton, “The Religious Principle in Beowulf,PMLA 61 (1946): 309-31; reprinted in An Anthology of Beowulf Criticism, ed. L. E. Nicholson (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1963), 125; in The Knight's Tale Chaucer shows his essentially Christian characters worshipping in pagan shrines.

  7. Alcuin, Albini Epistolae, ed. E. L. Dümmler, in Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Epistolae (Berlin: Weidmann, 1895), 4, letter 124, 183.

  8. For example, J. R. R. Tolkien, “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics,” Proceedings of the British Academy 22 (1937): 245-95; reprinted in An Anthology of Beowulf Criticism (note 6), 101-2. In his edition of Beowulf and the Fight at Finnsburg, note to ll. 175-88, Klaeber holds that the poet “failed to live up to his own modernized representation of [the Danes].”

  9. Chadwick, The Heroic Age, 73; his work is still the most recent full discussion of the problem, and it has been accepted without question.

  10. Eddius Stephanus, Vita Wilfridi Episcopi, cap. 28, in Rerum Britannicarum Medii Aevi Scriptores, ed. James Raine (The Historians of the Church of York and Its Archbishops, vol. 1 [London, 1879]), 71:38. For a full account of the missions in Frisia see Wilhelm Levison, England and the Continent in the Eighth Century (Oxford: Clarendon, 1946): 45-69. Translations of some of the relevant materials are provided in The Anglo-Saxon Missionaries in Germany, ed. and trans. C. H. Talbot (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1954).

  11. Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum, V, ix, in Opera Historica, trans. John Edward King (New York: W. Heinemann, 1930), 2:234; the translations of Bede in this essay, however, are mine.

  12. Ibid., 238-40.

  13. Ibid., V, x-xi, pp. 240-52; Alcuin, Vita Willibrordi, ed. Wilhelm Levison, in Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Scriptores Rerum Merovingicarum (Hanover: Hahn, 1919) 7:81-141.

  14. Bede, Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum, V, x (2:244).

  15. The Anglo-Saxon Missionaries in Germany (note 10), p. 9, notes that this king has been identified with Ongentheow in Beowulf, but I can find no basis for the identification.

  16. Levison, England and the Continent (note 10), 70-93. Willibald, Vita S. Bonifacii, ed. G. H. Pertz, in Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Scriptores (Hanover: Hahn, 1829), 2:331-53.

  17. Willibald, Vita S. Bonifacii, cap. 6 (340-42), trans. Talbot, in The Anglo-Saxon Missionaries in Germany, 47.

  18. Levison, England and the Continent (note 10) 61.

  19. Hermann Lau, Die angelsächsische Missionsweise im Zeitalter des Bonifaz (Kiel: J. M. Hansen, 1909), 39.

  20. England and the Continent, 92.

  21. Die Briefe des heiligen Bonifatius und Lullus, ed. Michael Tangl, in Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Epistolae Selectae (Berlin: Weidmann, 1916),1, letter 105; trans. Ephraim Emerton, in The Letters of St. Boniface (Records of Civilization: Sources and Studies 31 [New York: Columbia University Press, 1940]), 177-79.

  22. See Beowulf and the Fight at Finnsburg, ed. Klaeber, p. cxvi, n. 1, for a summary of early scholars' views on this question.

  23. Antoine Thomas, “Un manuscrit inutilisé du Liber Monstrorum,Bulletin du Cange: Archivum Latinitatis Medii Aevi 1 (1925): 232-45; Whitelock, The Audience of Beowulf, 50; Kenneth Sisam, Studies in the History of Old English Literature (Oxford: Clarendon, 1953), 288-90.

  24. Matts Dreijer, Häuptlinge, Kaufleute, und Missionare im Norden vor Tausend Jahren (Skrifter Utgivna av Ålands Kulturstiftelse 2 [Mariehamn, 1960]), 71-80.

  25. Cf. Bernlef who joined St. Liudger's retinue and was “loved by his neighbors because he was of an open and free nature, and would repeat the actions of the men of old and the contests of kings, singing to his harp,” Vita Liudgeri, ed. G. H. Pertz, in Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Scriptores 2: 403; cited and trans. W. P. Ker, in The Dark Ages (New York: New American Library, 1958), 57.

  26. On Sutton Hoo in relation to the burials in Beowulf see the Supplement by C. L. Wrenn, “Recent Work on Beowulf to 1958,” especially p. 513, in R. W. Chambers, Beowulf: An Introduction (3d ed.; Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press, 1959); for the Continental sources quoted in the text see Capitulatio de Partibus Saxoniae in Texte zur germanischen Bekehrungsgeschichte, ed. Wolfgang Lange (Tübingen: Niemeyer, 1962), 154-55, nos. 7, 22. This text dates from about 789.

  27. They are frequently mentioned in the texts collected in Texte zur germanischen Bekehrungsgeschichte, ed. Lange; e.g. Dicta Pirmini (written between 718 and 724), 90-91.

  28. In the ninth century more extended accounts of the pagans were written, such as the Translatio Sancti Alexandri, ed. G. H. Pertz, in Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Scriptores 2 (note 16), 673-81, and the Indiculus Superstitionum et Paganiarum, ed. G. H. Pertz, in Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Leges (Hanover: Hahn, 1835) 1: 19-20.

  29. Lau, Die angelsächsische Missionsweise im Zeitalter des Bonifaz, 3, quotes an Englishman, Wigbert, writing to Lull (Die Briefe des heiligen Bonifatius und Lullus, letter 137).

  30. Die Briefe des heiligen Bonifatius und Lullus, letter 46.

  31. The text is from Beowulf and the Fight at Finnsburg, ed. Klaeber.

  32. For example, Whitelock, The Audience of Beowulf, 78-79.

  33. Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum (note 11), II, v (1:228): Quo utroque [Eadbald and his wife] scelere occasionem dedit ad priorem vomitum revertendi ‘by both crimes [Eadbald and his wife] he gave occasion for returning to the previous vomit.’ Cf. Caesarius of Arles, Sermones, in Texte zur germanischen Bekehrungsgeschichte, ed. Lange, 61; Prov. 26:11.

  34. “The Religious Principle in Beowulf,” in An Anthology of Beowulf Criticism (note 6), 125.

  35. “Beowulf, Ireland, and the Natural Good,” Traditio 7 (1949-51): 263-77.

  36. In Cantica Canticorum, in The Complete Works of the Venerable Bede, ed. J. A. Giles (London, 1844): 9:197. The desuper is a reminder that even a pagan like Ongendus (see n. 45) or Beowulf can be touched by grace.

  37. Ibid., 199.

  38. Annales Xantenses, in Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Scriptores (note 28), 2: 221.

  39. Die Briefe des heiligen Bonifatius und Lullus, letter 59.

  40. Sister M. Thomas Aquinas Carroll, The Venerable Bede: His Spiritual Teachings (Catholic University of America Studies in Medieval History, N.S. 9 [Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1946]), 95. For a further discussion of this doctrine in relation to Beowulf see the suggestive article by Morton Bloomfield, “Patristics and Old English Literature: Notes on Some Poems,” Comparative Literature 14 (1962): 36-43; reprinted in Studies in Old English Literature in Honor of Arthur G. Brodeur, ed. Stanley B. Greenfield (Eugene, Ore: University of Oregon Books, 1963), 36-43, and in An Anthology of Beowulf Criticism (note 6), 367-72. In writing the present article, I have had the benefit of Bloomfield's suggestions and criticisms.

  41. Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Scriptores (note 16), 2: 675.

  42. Horace Odes III.xxiv (referring to Getae); Tacitus Germania; Martianus Capella, De Nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii, ed. F. Eyssenhardt (Leipzig: Teubner, 1866), 227-28, 240. Adam of Bremen takes the references in Horace and Martianus to refer to the Danes and the Geats: see History of the Archbishops of Hamburg-Bremen, trans. F. J. Tschan (Records of Civilization: Sources and Studies 53 [New York: Columbia University Press, 1959]), 195, 199, 204.

  43. De gubernatione Dei, in Texte zur germanischen Bekehrungsgeschichte, ed. Lange, 16. Bede takes a somewhat similar view when he (following Gildas) speaks of the Saxon invaders as agents of God's just vengeance for the crimes of the Celtic Christians: Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum (note 11), 1, xiv-xv (1: 64-74).

  44. Vita S. Liudgeri (note 16), II, 405.

  45. See, for example, the alderman who avenged the two Hewalds (see n. 14), the Danish king Ongendus who, though a pagan, “nevertheless, through divine intervention, received the herald of truth with every mark of honour” (trans. Talbot, in The Anglo-Saxon Missionaries in Germany, 9), the pagans who spare the lives of St. Lebuinus (ed. G. H. Pertz, Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Scriptores [note 16], 2: 363) and of St. Willehad (2: 381), those pagans prudentia naturali ‘with natural wisdom’ reported in the Historia Translationis Sanctae Pusinnae (ibid., 2: 681) and the pagan Frisians who honorably received Wilfred: Cujus loci incolae, nondum imbuti fide Christi, solo humanitatis affectu eos obvii benigne suscepere, et relevantes lassitudinem ipsorum quaeque necessitas exigebat gratis obtulere “the inhabitants of this place, not yet filled with the faith of Christ, moved by human kindness alone, received them kindly along the way and, relieving their weariness, brought them freely whatever necessity required,” Breviloquium Vitae S. Wilfridi, (note 10) 71:231 (cf. Vita Wilfridi, cap. 26-27, pp. 37-58, in the same volume).

  46. Die Briefe des heiligen Bonifatius und Lullus, letter 73. In parts of the letter not quoted Boniface draws on Tacitus for his account of the pagans' attitude toward adultery, and he draws on his own experience by extending that account to cover also the Wends; in the passage quoted Boniface cites the Bible.

  47. Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum (note 11), I, vii: a pagan who refuses to execute St. Alban is himself executed, de quo nimirum constat, quia etsi fonte baptismatis non est ablutus sui tamen est sanguinis lavacro mundatus “of whom it is clearly apparent that though he was not bathed in the baptismal font yet he was cleansed by the washing of his own blood” (1: 43). Likewise, Edwin before his baptism is described as a man of “extraordinary sagacity” (II, ix).

  48. Cf. Albert B. Lord, The Singer of Tales (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1960), 100: “I believe that once we know the facts of oral composition we must cease trying to find an original of any traditional song. From one point of view each performance is an original.”

  49. Arthur G. Brodeur, The Art of Beowulf (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1959), demonstrates that Beowulf and Hrothgar are “exemplars of an ideal and a course of conduct in harmony with both the best traditions of antiquity and the highest ideal of Christian Englishmen” (185).

  50. However, William of Malmesbury is our only authority for the story.

  51. Cf. Adam of Bremen, History of the Archbishops (note 42), 80-93; Dreijer, Häuptlinge, Kaufleute, und Missionare im Norden vor Tausend Jahren (note 24), 199-207.

Margaret E. Goldsmith (essay date 1970)

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SOURCE: “The Marriage of Traditions in Beowulf: Secular Symbolism and Religious Allegory,” in The Mode and Meaning of “Beowulf,” The Athlone Press, 1970, pp. 60-96.

[In the essay that follows, Goldsmith examines the ways in which the influence of Christianity accounted for a shift in the function of heroic poetry and altered the meaning of the secular symbols traditionally used in heroic poetry generally, and in Beowulfin particular.]

My attention has so far been given to the Christian climate of thought revealed in writings made in religious centres in early Anglo-Saxon England. It is now time to consider what kinds of poetic expression and what theories of the nature of poetry could have been at the disposal of the maker of Beowulf, and how far these were compatible with the attitudes inculcated in the Latin learning of the schools.

It must be admitted from the start that all statements made about native Germanic poetry anterior to Beowulf are inferential. The ‘Germanic heroic epic’ is an academic construct, since there are no direct, and, what is more important, no uncontaminated sources of information about pagan oral poetry. Of early evidence, there is the brief mention by Tacitus of the carmina antiqua which served as oral historical records among the Germani, and the battle-songs of ‘Hercules’ which they chanted before fighting.1 The custom of preserving in verse the memory of the gods and kings and their great battles is reasonably presumed to have continued right up to the period when written annals and lettered poetry took their place—save that the pagan gods were replaced by the Lord of Hosts. The long memories of the poets could perpetuate the names of kings and heroes for three or four hundred years, as is proved by the two surviving fragments of early secular heroic verse, The Fight at Finnsburh and Waldere, and the two scopic songs Widsith and Deor, which, though not themselves heroic lays, include the names of ancient legendary heroes. All these short pieces now survive in late tenth-century manuscripts, but are thought to have been composed by the eighth century, Widsith and Finnsburh perhaps being older than Beowulf.2 These poems are characterized by formulaic diction, a basically similar metrical form, a highly allusive style and a narrow range of subject-matter. Only the fragments of Waldere by their style give reason to think that in its entirety this was a poem of some length. But in this longer poem there are references to the Christian God,3 which suggests that Waldere, like Beowulf, is of mixed ancestry. We therefore have no evidence at all that the unlettered Anglo-Saxon poets composed songs of epic length and complexity. The one surviving secular piece from Germany, the Hildebrandslied,4 is a short self-contained lay which does nothing to contradict the impression given by the English corpus that longer poems were first made upon Latin models, or at least by educated men familiar with Latin poetry.

This impression is strengthened by the results of modern studies of living oral poetry and the techniques used by oral poets today. One might quote on this point Professor F. P. Magoun, who certainly cannot be accused of bias in favour of a literary Beowulf, since the article quoted is an attempt to explain away the fact that Beowulf presents an abnormal structure for an oral composition:

Seldom if ever does a folk-singer, composing extemporaneously without benefit of writing materials, compose a cyclic poem, that is, sing in a single session or series of sessions a story which he or she feels is a unit dealing with several consecutive events in a character's life. … In view of a general lack of cyclic composition in oral singing the apparent cyclic character of the Beowulf material in Brit. Mus. MS Cotton Vitellius A. XV is a priori immediately suspect …5

Magoun's explanation of the curious form of ‘the Beowulf material’ is that it was put together from separate lays with transition verses ‘by some anthologizing scribe’. It will be evident, however, that if one begins with the hypothesis of a lettered poet working with inherited verse-material about Beowulf, there is no abnormality to be explained.

The studies mentioned by Magoun have added further evidence to conclusions earlier drawn from the Homeric poems and other ancient compositions. These indicate that at a certain stage of cultural development, illiterate societies produce, and preserve in oral form, public poetry which acts as a stabilizing factor in the political and social life of the group. It incorporates religious myths, dynastic history, and customs and moral values admired by the society. (Later, when the ruling classes have become literate, oral poetry becomes the prerogative of folk entertainers and the songs become more romantic in type.) It has often been observed that some parts of the Old Testament have the mythic and social qualities I have mentioned. To find something similar today, one must turn to the emergent countries, where warrior societies built upon the clan system still produce such poetry. Recent research into living poetry among the tribes of the Congo by Dr Jan Vansina6 reveals some very interesting resemblances to the remnants of Germanic tribal poetry, and may help us to realize that primitive poetry of this sort is far from plain or simple in its modes of expression, though simple enough in its message. It seems to me that some of Vansina's informed generalizations about the nature of oral poetry correct some current opinions derived from vestigial folk-singing among more developed nations. In the first place, Vansina finds no marked difference between written and oral literature except for a greater frequency of repetition in oral compositions. He comments on the formal structures inherent in a given literary category, and the conventions of style, which include allusions, stock phrases and many kinds of rhetorical device. He particularly notes: ‘Dans les cultures illettrées, une des figures de style les plus appréciées est l'expression symbolique.’7 His comments on ‘symbolic statements’ and ‘poetic allusion’, in primitive socieities generally, may incline us to believe that the obscurities, veiled allusions and dramatic ironies found in Beowulf by modern critics are natural to poetry dependent on such an oral tradition as has been described, and should certainly not be dismissed as figments of over-subtle modern criticism.

Voiler sa pensée est dans beaucoup de cultures et pour beaucoup d'auteurs un artifice de style très apprécié. Déjà le symbolisme n'est au fond qu'une technique pour exprimer par circonlocutions une pensée qu'on ne veut pas traduire directement. Mais en dehors des cas de symbolisme que tous les participants à la culture peuvent comprendre il existe une série d'artifices, les allusions poétiques, qui restent incompréhensibles pour tous ceux qui ne connaissent pas à l'avance une partie ou la totalité des faits dont le témoignage rend compte.8

Vansina gives illustrations from Rwanda poetry, which he says are by no means exceptional.

Dans presque toutes les cultures on pourrait citer des exemples analogues. Il résulte de l'emploi des allusions poétiques, que pour les comprendre il faut disposer de traditions historiques parallèles au poème qui en sont un commentaire explicatif.9

The familiar sound of all these statements to students of Germanic heroic poetry needs no underlining. Vansina also discusses stock phrases and stereotyped motifs in the African oral texts, and again the similarity with Germanic poetry is striking. His explanation of the use of these devices is germane to my general argument about the nature of Beowulf: ‘Les lieux-communs à proprement parler apparaissent dans des textes qui traduisent des idéaux culturels acceptés par tous les tenants de la culture.’10 The complex stereotypes form the motifs of episodes; one thinks of the washing ashore of an infant in a boat as probably such a motif in Beowulf. Vansina explains the inclusion of such motifs:

Il semble bien que ces clichés complexes ne soient que des procédés purement littéraires pour expliquer un fait historique connu, pour colorer le récit ou pour rendre compte d'un événement désagréable du passé sans choquer les valeurs et les idéaux culturels du moment.11

Vansina's study brings out very clearly that an initiated illiterate audience can accept and enjoy in poetry much that is obscure and allusive or symbolic in expression. If one supposes that the Anglo-Saxon nobility enjoyed similar qualities in the secular poetry recited to them, not only is the style of Beowulf what one would expect, but the obscurity and ambiguity of some other Old English poems such as The Seafarer and Exodus becomes less remarkable in works composed for laymen. Altogether, the apparent ease with which biblical and exegetical symbolism was absorbed by the Anglo-Saxons is much more understandable if the secular poetic tradition contained the elements Vansina mentions.12 My purpose in this chapter is to demonstrate the fundamental way in which the change of cultural ideals at the Conversion altered the function of heroic poetry, and at the same time inevitably changed the meaning of traditional secular symbols. In gaining a spiritual dimension, such poetry became potentially, almost necessarily, allegorical.13

In the learned tradition, Virgil's Æneid was the great model for a heroic poet. The Æneid, though vastly more sophisticated, fulfils the secular functions I have been speaking of. It upholds the ruler by celebrating his predecessors and by showing that the gods destined him to reign. It presents in its ancient heroes a pattern of moral conduct. In many respects it would seem to be a fitting model for a Christian epic poet. But it has, inescapably, a pagan religious foundation, which early Christian scholars naturally found repellent, though they could not bring themselves to reject the Æneid from the educational curriculum. Instead, they followed the lead of the pagan commentators Servius and Macrobius in discovering symbolic meaning in the more superstitious passages of the epic, so that the Æneid came to be read in the Christian schools as a historical epic with allegorical elements.14

It would scarcely be an exaggeration to say that every literate poet in Europe from the fourth century onwards was influenced by Virgil, yet though Christian epic poems in Latin appeared, there were no secular epics by Christian authors at that time. The reason is not far to seek. Christendom as a realm on earth to be upheld and defended was a concept not yet formed, and the heroes whose memories were perpetuated in Christian poetry were either the Old Testament figuræ of Christ, or the Lord and his apostles, or those famous later disciples who renounced wordly honours and fought their battles with the invisible hosts of the Enemy. A secular Christian epic would have been a contradiction in terms in a cultural environment dominated by the monastic ideal, but the way was still open for the advancement of God's kingdom through allegory. In England and the Germanic countries generally, there was the further obstacle that the ancestral heroes were pagan; again, allegorical treatment would permit the celebration of their nobility and valour, because it could be believed that the good men of the past also fought the Enemy. In fact, since there could not be a legitimate marriage between the politico-social heroic poetry of the secular tradition and the epic saint's Life which celebrates a hero of the invisible Kingdom, the product of such a strange union must, like Beowulf, laud a hero who inhabits two worlds, and is not quite at ease in either.

Sulpicius Severus, author of the influential Vita S. Martini, plainly states the contrast between the aims of secular and religious writers, the one celebrating great men, the other, the saints. He speaks of the examples of great men whose memory is preserved in literature, but he regards the reading of such secular work as profitless: …

for, in truth, those who evaluate life by present actions have given their hope to fables and their souls to tombs … hence it seems to me that I shall make a work of some worth, if I write the life of a very holy man which will be an example for others in the future: through which readers will be inspired towards true wisdom and heavenly warfare and divine virtue. In this we are also thinking of our own advantage, as thus we may look for, not worthless remembrance by men, but eternal reward from God.15

The above passage may have influenced the writer of a discourse on Psalm 52: 1-4 once attributed to Bede: the work begins with a short statement of his purpose in writing: …

When I marked many clerics established in places of learning giving so much time to the acquisition of knowledge of secular compositions, which studiously teach their hearers to desire carnal things and to strive for worldly glory … I decided that I myself would collect those literary works through which I might encourage some people towards the pattern of the holy faith, towards concern for the love and fear of God, towards the purity of spiritual life, towards devotion to humility and charity, towards penance for wrongdoers and amendment of their ways.16

This purpose is served by a discourse made up of a string of biblical parables, similitudes and exempla taken from the common stock, their inclusion justified by the doctrine that God is to be seen in his creation: …

For since the visible things were created by God such that any understanding or seeking God can easily be taught in these to recognise the invisible, to inquire (of God) is to test someone subtly through those same visible things, to discover whether he loves and fears him by obeying his commandments, or whether he serves his own pleasure by accepting diabolical illusions.17

The Beowulf poet quite probably knew the Vita S. Martini, which Colgrave groups with the Vita S. Pauli, the Vita S. Antonii and Gregory's Dialogi as works ‘which had much influence on all writers of saints' lives of the seventh, eighth and later centuries’.18 And I do not doubt that he also knew material like that assembled in the Ps.-Bede discourse. It will now, I think, be plain that Beowulf, if the religious element were removed, would fall into Sulpicius's category of secular works which offer the examples of great men for emulation and celebrate worldly glory. Beowulf himself earns and receives that inanem ab hominibus memoriam which Sulpicius contrasts with the æternum præmium which those who follow the example of the saints may hope to gain. Without the religious element, the poem would most surely teach its audience pro obtinendi mundi gloria contendere but with its ‘Christian colouring’ it seems to me to lead them ad veram sapientiam et cælestem militiam divinamque virtutem. How is this done? Obviously not by an added and extraneous condemnation of everything that the narrative has extolled, but instead by the more subtle use of the ambiguities and ironies which the two scales of values generate when the audience is brought to look through the one at the other. I believe that Beowulf is shown being tested as Ps.-Bede describes, through a ‘diabolical illusion’: the treasure hoard. The poet achieves this effect by exploiting the plurality of meanings which inheres in symbols and the essential irony of the visibilia, that ‘what appears is so unlike what is’.19 No sceptical reader need think that a use of symbols in the manner I have described would be alien to the mind of an Anglo-Saxon author. It seems to me quite congruent with the treatment of persons, objects and events in commentaries upon the Bible, remembering the arbitrary and occasionally antithetical meanings which may be attached to a single symbolic word or event.

At this point, some theoretical discussion is required to explain the nature of the symbolism we are concerned with and its relation to the allegory I have postulated. Vansina's use of the word symbol needed no explanation: it implied simply the substitution of a veiled term for a literal one.20 Some of the substitutions he quotes are quite trivial, others would deserve the name of symbolism on almost any definition: for example, the rumbling of a storm as sign of the coming of a king in war (the king being the tribal rainmaker), or the loss of a tribal drum signifying the break-up of a kingdom.21 The latter example brings to mind Mrs Winifred Nowottny's statement on symbolism in her book The Language Poets Use:

It is as though … the poet were trying to leap out of the medium of language altogether and to make his meaning speak through objects instead of through words. Even though he does not tell us what the object X stands for, or even that it does stand for anything, he makes us believe that it means, to him at least, something beyond itself.22

This statement will serve very well as a point of departure. It will be recalled that my explanation of the purpose of Aldhelm's riddles in Chapter 2 involved this ‘speaking through objects’, and my examples of the symbols used in religious teaching could be so described. There is, I need hardly say, a profound difference between Aldhelm's speaking universe and a drum which speaks of a tribal kingdom, in respect of their philosophical implications, but as literary devices they can be classified together. Because of this, a social and political poem which uses symbolism of the latter sort can be enlarged to include religious symbolism without much violence to its surface literary integrity. This, I believe, is what happened in the making of Beowulf.

Augustine's literary theory in De doctrina christiana makes no fundamental distinction between secular and sacred symbols; he divides them into signa naturalia (such as smoke signifying fire) and signa data (which include all kinds of communication through sound or gesture, picture or object).23 Among his illustrative examples are the dragon-standards of the army which per oculos insinuant voluntatem ducum ‘indicate to the eye the generals' intent', the perfumed ointment poured over Christ's feet, and the woman touching the hem of his garment.24 These, which nowadays would probably be called symbolic objects or symbolic gestures, he uses to illustrate the various ways in which meaning can be conveyed, before he introduces the reader to the obscurities and ambiguities of Scripture. Augustine also warns his readers that similitudes in the Bible may sometimes have contrary meanings, one good, the other bad, as in the example of the lion, which signifies Christ in the Apocalypse 5: 5, and the Devil in 1 Peter 5: 8.25 He moves on from figures to tropes, with a special mention of allegoria, ænigma and parabola, and a special paragraph on hironia.26 It is evident from this classification and also from his explanation of allegoria in De Trinitate,27 that ‘allegory’ for him was a general term for a literary device aliud ex alio significare, which included in its sub-classes both irony and enigma, the latter being an obscure allegory. A student brought up on De doctrina christiana would therefore have a very different conception of allegory from the modern student, who tends to think primarily in terms of personification allegory and the clothing of an abstract theme in a fictional dress.28 Bede agrees with Augustine in regarding allegoria as a class of tropes including irony and enigma. He also rather unsuccessfully tries to find a theoretical category into which to fit the famous ‘four senses’ found in Scripture; his difficulty, of course, is that these multiplex tropes do not identify themselves by any formal sign and completely resist rhetorical classification.29 (He puts them, quite wrongly, under asteismus; Augustine is content to include them under ænigma.)

In view of the attitudes to literary composition revealed here, one would not expect an allegorical work composed in Bede's time or thereabouts either to identify itself by formal signs or to preserve consistent levels of meaning. Allegory to these scholars was not a literary form, but, in the convenient phrase adopted by Angus Fletcher, ‘a symbolic mode’ of thinking and writing.30 It is quite clear from the works I have just quoted that there was no theoretical separation of symbol and allegory; an allegorical work was simply one in which there was a great deal of hidden or obscure meaning conveyed in parable, enigma, proverb or almost any kind of metaphorical or ironic statement. When allegory is conceived in this way, the distinction between allegorical interpretation (of Scripture or of pagan writers) and allegorical creation (in new compositions) dissolves away. Fletcher, though in another context, makes a penetrating statement on this point:

The modern question as to how we relate the interpretative and the creative activities could not arise before a break-up of the medieval world-view. Modern empirical science, on the other hand, depends in part on the disjunction of creative (imaginative and synthetic) and interpretative (empirical and analytic) mind, a major intellectual shift which might explain the modern distaste for allegory.31

A great deal of modern argument about the possible existence of allegorical meaning in Old English secular compositions has developed simply from confusion of terms and failure to accept allegory as a literary mode rather than a form.

Much confusion has been caused by the existence of the ‘four senses’ or ‘planes of meaning’ in scriptural interpretation. The first point to be noted is that though the great exegetes recognized the coexistence of different kinds of meaning in scriptural passages, they were not always sure how to differentiate these kinds, and in practice they might find two, three or four planes of meaning in some verses, and only literal meaning in others. For example, Augustine in the De utilitate credendi distinguishes four senses which he calls historical, ætiological, analogical and allegorical, covering respectively the actual Old Testament event, its cause, its agreement with the doctrine of the New Testament, and its figurative meaning. (His example is Abraham's two wives signifying the two covenants.)32 As to the existence of these senses in a given text, he suggests the proper direction of scholarly enquiry in a series of rhetorical questions in the tract De vera religione:

Do some [scriptural stories] signify visible events, others the motions of the mind, others the law of eternity, or are some found in which all these are to be discovered?33

Gregory, explaining his own method in the dedicatory letter to the Moralia,34 has a slightly different system; he distinguishes historical, typological, and moral-allegorical kinds of interpretation, which may be applicable severally or in conjunction. Bede in his commentaries compiles from the work of his predecessors; in his homilies, which are based on New Testament texts, he recognizes historical, moral, and spiritual or mystical meaning.35

In one homily, Bede makes an unusually clear distinction between the different ways in which a story can be understood. He uses the changing of the water into wine at the Marriage at Cana as an allegory of the transformation of the meaning of the Old Testament stories by the significance of the life of Christ. The six vessels are six Old Testament stories from which the Jews drew, and any man can draw, moral lessons: this is the water. From the same six vessels the Christian can draw a more precious spiritual nourishment: this is the wine.36 The spiritual meaning comes from the typological relationship between the acts of Noah, Isaac and the other figurœ in the stories and the acts of Christ himself:37 the kind of prophetic symbolism already mentioned above as the subject of pictures brought by Benedict Biscop from Rome to Jarrow. There are of course two kinds of symbolism involved in Bede's homily. Each of the Old Testament stories is symbolic in its own right, and it teaches a moral lesson, as the religious pictures might. But each in conjunction with a New Testament story reveals typological symbolism and teaches a spiritual lesson.

Beowulf, I suggest, is a symbolic history from which one can draw the refreshing water of moral lessons; some critics have been tempted to suppose that one might also draw wine, by treating Beowulf as figura or ‘type’ of Christ like Noah or Isaac. They are, I believe, mistaken. Beowulf and Hrothgar are quite probably modelled on Old Testament characters, and are, like them, moral examples. But this resemblance does not make them a part of prophetic sacred history. Typological interpretation in the strict sense has no certain place outside of the inspired Scriptures.38 It might, I suppose, be legitimately extended to poems in which Christ himself is the hero, such as the Old English Phoenix, or to a paraphrase of part of the Old Testament in which the figura occurred in the source. It could only be extended to the acts of a man living in the Christian era by someone who had an incomplete grasp of the theory of typological interpretation. There is, I believe, an intended relationship between Beowulf and the warrior-Christ, but it is not a direct and simple one.39

It is true that no line was drawn at that period, as in modern times, between the mythical and legendary parts of the Old Testament narrative and later history properly so called, as witness, for example, the Chronica40 of Sulpicius Severus, whose views on the purpose of literature have been quoted above. His compact history of the world includes Cain's murder of Abel, the miscegenation which spawned the giants, and the Flood, just as the ‘historical’ poem of Beowulf does, and proceeds through such events—to take a few at random—as the burning of Rome under Nero, the finding of the Cross by Helena, and several notable synods of the Church, down to doctrinal controversies in his own day. This work was not intended to be a church history; it is a Christian's view of the history of mankind; and though there is no separation of biblical history and later events there is a line of demarcation between the era of prophecy which led up to the Incarnation and the Christian era which followed. Typology in the patristic sense of the word belongs only to the era of prophecy. There is in the holy men of the world before Christ a partial revelation of the pattern of perfection; after the life of Christ the witness of holy men is imitation of Christ; the word ‘type’ in its narrow exegetical sense can no longer apply.

Christian literature is naturally full of reminiscences of New Testament incidents and sayings. To recognize these is not the same thing as to discover figuræ Christi in the heroes of the works concerned. I quote in support of this contention that great student of medieval symbolism, Rosemond Tuve, who has discussed this question in relation to Guyon in The Faerie Queene. She speaks of Spenser's use of allegorical images to indicate

that we are to read them with this reach into ultimate questions. We recognise them as instruments for the discussion of just such matters—but able to speak in the present of the timeless, and locally of the universal. I do not mean that images repeat the story they told in the past. It does not turn Guyon into a ‘Christ-figure’ when in Canto vii. 9 Spenser directs us to see the parallel with Christ's three temptations. Rather, this indicates the amplitude of the issue and states a doctrine about the relation between all human temptations and Christ's.41

This quotation seems to me to point to the right way to read Beowulf's descent into the world of his demonic adversaries, which recalls Christ's descent into hell in rather the same way as Guyon's temptations recall the temptations of Christ. It indicates the allegorical amplitude of the issue, but it does not turn Beowulf into a ‘type’ of Christ.

If we put aside typological significance as inappropriate to Beowulf, we are left with the other kinds of allegorical meaning, the moral and the spiritual. One might distinguish these as appertaining to right conduct upon earth, and that conduct viewed in the perspective of eternal life and man's relationship with God. I think that the Beowulf poet is intermittently writing on both these planes.

It should by now be evident that when I speak of Beowulf as an allegory of the life of man I mean something rather different from what C. S. Lewis had in mind when he said of Fulgentius's Expositio Virgilianae continentiae, ‘The whole story of the Æneid is interpreted as an allegory of the life of man’.42 Fulgentius's interpretation of the Æneid calls for a far greater degree of abstraction than I find in Beowulf, and all the incidents are treated as images in the progress of a life. Whether Fulgentius was available to the Beowulf poet remains uncertain. There is no positive evidence that the Mitologiae and the Virgilianae continentia were known in England before the ninth or tenth century.43 An instance in Bede of the Fulgentian method, namely, his allegorizing of the fabled nature of Cerberus, merely demonstrates a similar approach to the pagan myths, since Bede does not follow Fulgentius in his interpretation of the monster's three heads.44 One might deduce that Bede would have found the work of Fulgentius congenial in some respects; his lack of reference to the mythographer's books is therefore significant. Aldhelm, who uses allegorical beasts as symbols of the vices,45 would undoubtedly have been interested in Fulgentius had he known his compositions, but he betrays no acquaintance with them. On the whole, it seems unlikely that Fulgentius had direct influence on the Anglo-Saxon poets; those who were able to read the Æneid probably found latent symbolic significance in particular objects or actions rather than a continuous didactic underthought. Æneas's descent into the underworld had received particular attention from religious writers;46 this could have provided a model for the allegorical treatment of Beowulf's descent into the hellish depths of the mere. It must, however, be said that the supposed Virgilian reminiscences in this part of Beowulf are rather dubious.

A minor but interesting question which pertains to the Beowulf poet's conception of allegory is whether or not he employs personification allegory in his poem. Virgil provides a model for the occasional appearance of abstractions in living form, notably in the vices which cluster round the portals of Hades.47 There is nothing quite of this kind in Beowulf, but as Professor Bloomfield has pointed out, the names Unferth and Hygd could suggest that these characters were invented to fill the role the names connote.48 It seems to me rather more in keeping with the poet's general practice to suppose that the characters had a traditional part to play and the names were perhaps modified to underline the nature of that part. Personified vices in beast form, on the other hand, such as appear in the battle with the vices at the end of Aldhelm's De virginitate,49 might well have guided the poet to awareness of the allegorical potential of Beowulf's monster-fights.

I have now, I hope, shown that allegoria in Bede's time was not a category of formal structure, but a mode of figurative writing which might inhere only intermittently in a given work, and that it involved moral and spiritual symbols and figurative passages. The allegory in Beowulf, as I believe, is intermittent and concerns only one aspect of man's life, the contest with the Enemy. Though the poet quite probably knew the Æneid with its accompanying symbolic commentaries, there are no signs that he was influenced by it except in the most general way; for the kind of subject he was interested in, the saint's Life, the Bible as read by the commentators, and perhaps the psycho-machia type of allegory, would provide him with sufficient models for the religious aspect of his composition.

In a rather different respect, the way in which the æneid was read may have offered the Beowulf poet a pattern. It provided an authoritative warrant for the composition of a historical epic with moral and philosophical symbolism and with divine intervention. Whether or not Beowulf can be called an epic depends entirely on whether one sets up a theoretical category distinguished by certain formal requirements. It is of course much shorter and more restricted in its range than the classical epic, but I suppose that by the standard of the time it would have been included in the epic genre. Its shortness would hardly have been a bar, since Homer's reputation was perpetuated in Western Europe through the Ilias Latina, a first-century Latin abridgment of the Iliad in 1070 lines.50 According to the definitions given by Isidore of Seville, which Bede used in his own brief literary treatise, Beowulf would belong to the heroica species of the genus commune (i.e. that in which both poet and characters speak). Our poet performs his function well according to Isidore's definition of the poet's task:

A poet's function lies in this, that he presents things which have actually taken place transformed into other images through oblique and figurative modes of expression, adding beauty.51

I now turn more particularly to the means by which the poet transforms the gesta in Beowulf and gives the historical narrative a new significance.52 It will be useful to return to Rosemond Tuve's criticism of the Faerie Queene. She speaks of Spenser's employment of classical symbols, such as the golden apples, which

evoke all those sad stretches of human history when men's concupiscence, for power of all kinds, had brought all the great typical ‘ensaumples of mind intemperate’ to their various eternities of frustrated desire. He uses what he calls ‘the present fate’ of these long-dead persons to tell the powerful who have not yet left their mortal state for that other, ‘how to use their present state’; this is evidence that he wishes us to read allegorically of the relations between a virtue Temperance and what can happen to a soul, and not merely morally of a character Guyon and his confrontation of covetous desires.53

One cannot press the analogy with the Faerie Queene very far, but some of Tuve's observations appear to me also appropriate to Beowulf. The poem is undoubtedly addressed to the powerful and is designed to warn them of the dangers attendant upon power; I believe that the hero's ‘confrontation of covetous desires’ when he fights for the buried hoard is to be read as an image of the soul's struggle and not merely morally of a character Beowulf. Tuve reminds us that the images carry their history with them, to deepen the conviction ‘that all things though fully present to the senses are meaningful beyond what sense reports’.54 The dusty gold of Mammon's cave has a long line of predecessors, among which I do not think it wrong to place the rust-eaten treasures for which Beowulf fought. The modern reader is unhappily ill-equipped with material in which to trace the history of the images used by the Beowulf poet, but some of the associations of dragon and treasure in classical and Christian writings can be recovered so as to deepen their meaning for us.

Tuve also recognizes that a poet writing in this mode must sometimes guide his readers by ‘outright conceptual statement.’ She cites ‘Here is the fountaine of the worldes good’ (F.Q. 7, 38).55 The equivalent in Beowulf is the blunt observation,

                                                                      Sinc eaðe mæg,
gold on grund(e),                    gumcynnes gehwone
oferhigian,                    hyde se ðe wille.


The audience has been prepared for this by the didactic matter in Hrothgar's admonition, which by reaching ‘into the area … of man's metaphysical situation’56 requires the hearer to think of Beowulf's subsequent life in terms of the bellum intestinum. Thus Beowulf's dragon-fight can be read as an image of the interior struggle of the king with the Enemy. The symbolic significance of Beowulf's great contests will require a separate chapter: in what remains of this, I shall examine the purely secular symbols which the poet makes the instruments of his purpose.

It is rather obvious that the rhythmic, alliterative, and syntactic frames within which an Anglo-Saxon poet has to work inhibit precise utterance; the compound word is more useful to him than the corresponding phrase, and inevitably less specific; a range of interchangeable words is required by the metre, so that fine distinctions are worn away; and the traditional vocabulary is relatively small. All these handicaps notwithstanding, a satisfying communication is apparently achieved; and this can only be through the lighting-up of part of the spectrum of associations shared by poet and audience. As Vansina's observations showed, traditional oral poetry is one means by which a people preserves its social stability and its cultural ideals. The associations of the stylized diction are familiar and predictable, and necessarily so. This was presumably true of the oral poetry of the heathen Anglo-Saxons. But upon their conversion to Christianity, they did not discard their inherited poetry. A very strange state of affairs is thus brought about when the traditional diction serves both the old and the new ideals. It is not simply that the vocabulary has to be enlarged and adapted; more curious and interesting is that it has to accommodate the paradoxes of Christianity: that man's home is elþeodigra eard,57 that the strong are weak and the rich poor, that the tangible sword snaps and the helmet splits, but the invisible shield of faith endures. The trappings of life remain as before and the poets retain the words for them, but their significance as symbols becomes ambivalent. In general, symbols of magnificence and grandeur will take on connotations of pride and mutability, and symbols of military prowess connotations of strife and vainglory. In addition, the old vocabulary is analogically stretched to provide a language for the invisible and eternal world. Words like woroldcyning, wuldorfull, dream and dom take on two aspects, changing as the poet shortens or lengthens his focus. Beowulf as a poem about the departed world has its own particular ambivalence.

There are, I suggest, a number of objects, persons and actions in the narrative to which the term symbol (in Nowottny's sense) can be applied, because they are given prominence in a manner not actually called for by the movement of the plot: such objects as Scyld's funeral boat, Grendel's hand, Hrethel's sword, such persons as Heremod and Hama, such actions as the arming of Beowulf.58 For convenience in discussing them, it will be useful to class these symbols according as they have primarily religious, mythic,59 social, or contextual significance. The categories are not, of course, exclusive: the second may impinge on the first, and the fourth embraces the others. The first three are probably inherited by the poet with his source material, the last comes as near as this public poetry allows to revealing the personal concerns of the poet. His interests are indicated by the selection and disposition of the material to hand; the relative importance accorded to the life of Sigemund and the funeral of Hnæf, for example, can be taken as evidence of particular preoccupations of the author, since neither is demanded by the action. I take for granted that once the Creator is introduced into the narrative, a perspective is opened through the whole history of the created world; the natural elements may speak of their Maker and the historical events speak of his purposes.

The poem opens with praise of the might of the Danes in geardagum, represented through the symbolic person of Scyld.60 It is remarkable that the mysterious and exciting life of this royal hero is so slightly treated in comparison with his obsequies. The episode of the child in the boat, which as an ancient mythic, or social, symbolic motif may have recorded in a veiled form a profound change in the Danish way of life, is used by the poet chiefly to illustrate the power of God in effecting reversals of fortune and bringing comfort to the afflicted. The reversal of fortune is pointed by the contrast of the two boats, but of the two only the funeral ship is fully described, so that Scyld's mysterious origins and subsequent prosperity are quite overshadowed by the scene of his death. The heiti for God, Liffrea (auctor vitœ),61 places emphasis on the fact that the provision of an heir for Scyld and the continuation of the royal line were signs of God's care for the unhappy nation; the second name, wuldres Wealdend (17),62 may have the double aspect I have spoken of, praising the Lord who dispensed earthly glory to Scyld as well as the Lord who rules in Glory in his heavenly Kingdom. The effect of the two phrases in conjunction is like that of the prayer Deus, et temporalis vitœ auctor et œternœ, miserere.63 In birth and in death, man lies in God's hand: this is the affirmation made by the poet as he surveys the pagan king's prosperous career and magnificent parting from life. By this simple means he opens the perspective of eternity, and the brilliant foreground picture of Scyld's costly foreign spoils shades from a symbol of magnificent power into a symbol of transience.

The funeral ship is one of the most memorable secular symbols of the poem: isig and utfus (33), it gathers into itself the human feelings which accompany death. Both epithets have figurative meaning, icy coldness evoking misery, the readiness for a journey figuring the parting from life; nevertheless it would be wrong, I think, to empty them of literal meaning;64 the boat shining with ice and straining at the mooring-ropes is beautiful, as the treasure is brilliant, because the poet is keenly aware of the beauty of the created world and the works of men's hands. It is the great strength of Beowulf as a poem that it does not become abstract. What more does the poet achieve with the boat-symbol? Some of its potency depends perhaps on its universal significance; it is not simply a reminiscence of an ancient custom (which a Christian poet could hardly wish to revive for its own sake), but as Cope says,

The boat is a universal symbol connected with both birth and death—cradle and coffin are alike special cases of a boat. We are reminded of such diverse examples as the boat-crib of Moses and the ship-burials of Germanic peoples right back to the Bronze Age.65

As universal symbols framing a life, Scyld's two boats form a brilliant contrast between the destitution of the child and the wealth of the old man. But even here there are ironic undertones. The use of litotes (43-4) sets up in the mind two opposed possibilities; the words assert what the syntax denies, that Scyld in death was no better furnished than the destitute child. The reader of The Book of Job who remembers the words, Nudus egressus sum de utero matris meæ, et nudus revertar illuc ‘Naked came I out of my mother's womb, and naked shall I return thither’ (Job 1: 21) will be well aware that the treasure passed into the sea's keeping; though Scyld remained on Frean wære (27). This latter phrase seems deliberately chosen to stress God's continuous governance of mankind without introducing the issue of salvation.66

Other ships appear in the course of the narrative, the return of a treasure-laden keel serving as a sign of victory and the victor's reward in the stories of Sigemund and Hengest as well as the story of Heorot. The faint memory of the loading of Scyld's treasure-ship may intrude its shadow in these other scenes; it is very striking that the piling of the treasure round the dead man is much more fully treated than Scyld's death, and of actual funeral rites there is nothing at all. The ships in the poem are not described objectively; like Scyld's cold and deathly funeral ship, the others reflect some of the emotions of the seamen. Beowulf's ship beginning the adventure presses on eagerly, and Hengest's ship is the prisoner of winter.67 Of itself, Scyld's funeral ship could hardly act as memento mori in the way I have suggested, but the dark shadow is soon reinforced by other scenes in which the splendour of gold is accompanied by the thought of death.

The second great symbol of the poem is the royal hall which Scyld's descendant Hrothgar caused to be built. The narrative moves with great economy through the king's ancestry and his early successes in war, so that the building of Heorot becomes the dominant feature of the king's life-story. Hrothgar conceives the idea of having his men build the largest hall in the world, where he will hold court and dispense his bounty (67-73). The huge project needs the labours of craftsmen from many nations, and when it is finished it is a towering landmark (81 f.). He names it Heorot, and lives liberally and in convivial splendour within, at the centre of his great court. Heorot is a monument to Hrothgar's power, success and wealth. He is a good and generous ruler, and as a social symbol Heorot reflects nothing but the greatness of the king. Its name ‘Hart’ appears to connote royalty,68 the descriptive terms horngeap (82) and hornreced (704), whatever their literal meanings, help to build an image of the majestic beast with wide-curving antlers, hornum trum (cp. 1369). That the name Heorot has some symbolic significance we cannot doubt, for no other hall is given a name. I am inclined to relate that significance to the associations given to the beast by the Latin fabulists and later woven into the Bestiaries, because these associations consort remarkably well with what I take to be the Beowulf poet's view of splendid palaces. Some years ago, C. S. Lewis offered the suggestion that a fable by Phædrus perhaps had something to do with Beowulf's dragon.69 The evidence concerning the dragon is discussed in Chapter 4. I do not wish to anticipate that argument here, because the connection is at best unproven, but if the one fabled beast is acceptable, so perhaps is the other. In any case, the moral meaning which Phædrus and later fabulists found in the hart is one which any hunter of a reflective turn of mind might independently reach when he came upon a stag caught in a thicket. The animal's stance suggests pride in his spreading antlers, and when he is trapped by them, the moralist would find it hard to resist the thought that his pride was his undoing.70 Is it too far-fetched to suppose that Heorot's towering gables drew Grendel to its doors and so brought death among the Danes?

It is convenient here to mention in passing that the hart as a Christian religious symbol deriving from Psalm 41: 2, Sicut cervus desiderat ad fontes aquarum ita desiderat anima mea ad te Deus ‘As the hart panteth after the fountains of waters, so my soul panteth after thee, O God’, seems to me to be unrelated to Heorot. The hard-pressed hart of line 1369 is more problematical. An Anglo-Saxon educated as I have described could not fail to know this symbol for the thirsting soul, but it is not drawn into the allegory of Beowulf.71

What I am suggesting is that the symbolism of the name Heorot could reinforce the moral attitude conveyed by the poet's juxtaposition of its building and its coming ruin (74-85). It was regal and magnificent, and as durable as good craftsmen could make it (cp. 770-82) but the poet reminds his hearers that within the lifetime of the builders it was maliciously destroyed by fire (cp. 781 f.). Thus the social symbol summing up the magnificence of a line of great kings is altered by a single stroke into a symbol of þeos læne gesceaft in which nothing endures. It may also, as I have suggested elsewhere, act as an eschatological symbol, bringing to mind a subject zealously treated by Anglo-Saxon poets, namely the destruction of the cities of earth and the engulfing of the wealth of kings by the devouring fire which was expected to bring the world to an end in some not distant time.72

Contextually, Heorot acts as an image of the Danish court, first in its splendour, then in its uselessness during Grendel's persecution of the Danes. At the conclusion of the Grendel story, the hall bears the marks of Grendel's ferocious strength (997-1000). The cracks and breaks are partly masked by gold hangings which are brought out for the feast of celebration. On the surface, the court at Heorot is brilliant and splendid, but half-hidden enmities are hinted (1017-19) and as the company assembles for the feast, the author, in a rather longer moral statement than he usually permits himself, speaks of death:

                                                  No þæt yðe byð
to befleonne,                    fremme se þe wille,
ac gesecan sceal                    sawlberendra,
nyde genydde,                    niþða bearna,
grundbuendra                    gearwe stowe,
þær his lichoma                    legerbedde fæst
swefeþ æfter symle.


By his brilliant placing of two quite commonplace images, escaping from death and sleeping after the feast of life,73 the poet makes his hearers aware that just as Grendel vainly ran away from death over the wastes, and now after his monstrous feasting lies asleep in death, so the Danes, sitting now at the table, rejoicing that the shadow has been lifted from Heorot with the defeat of Grendel, have not escaped death after all, because the feud is not over (cp. 1251-5). And the Grendel feud has its echo in the bloody thoughts of Hrothulf which at a later time end Hrothgar's renewed hopes of a settled time of peace ahead. The cracks in the fabric of Heorot are an image of the treacherous hatreds which are already—to judge by the setting and tone of Wealhtheow's speech (1162-91)—making rifts in the concord of the kinsmen.

The other royal halls which appear in the poem have no recognizable identity. The Geatish royal hall is burnt down by the dragon without any preliminary description of it or prophecy of its destruction. These facts make the emphasis on Hrothgar's hall more striking and justify my inclusion of it among the symbols of the poem. The furnishings of the hall consist of ornamental hangings, a high seat, benches, beds and pillows, and drinking-cups. Some of these may be inferred to have symbolic significance, since the poet does not describe them as objects interesting in themselves and there is no detailed account of feasting or ceremonial. For example, the passing of the cup honours the king's guests, and with this piece of social ritual the poet succeeds in giving an impression of civilized conviviality.

Deeper meaning seems possible in two particular objects belonging to social life, namely the gifstol of line 168, and the fæted wæge of line 2282, which was brought from the dragon's hoard. I postpone discussion of the gifstol to Chapter 4, because the interpretation of the word has bearing upon the poet's conception of Grendel. The gilded cup could have come into the story simply as the cause of contention between the dragon and the Geats, but the symbolism of the cup in religious writing seems to indicate an allegorical significance; I believe it to be a reminder of Adam's þoculum mortis and, as such, a symbol of cupidity. My reasons for looking upon it in this way are bound up with exegetical interpretation of the war with the Serpent-Dragon, which is treated apropos of Beowulf's contest in Chapter 7.

Swords and armour have an important place in the poem. Their costly materials and fine workmanship are often praised by the poet, and he records, without adverse comment, that Beowulf's mail-coat was Weland's work and that three of the swords were forged by the giants; he also describes the boar-images which surmounted the warriors' helmets as protective talismans. One may guess that these three elements were more prominent in his source-material, since they smack of heathen superstition and magic, if not of pagan worship. They add an exciting air of antiquity to the story and there is no sign that the poet himself believed in their magical power. His obvious veneration for great craftsmanship is a very different matter, enhancing the stature of the heroes and magnifying the perilous adventures in which even these stout accoutrements failed those who bore them.

The poet's attitude to the boar-figures which adorned his warriors' helmets has some interest for his handling of a remnant of pagan superstition in the poem. Beowulf's own helmet, rather fully described in the careful preparations for his dive into the mere, had boar-figures round its crown:

                                                                                swa hine fyrndagum
worhte wæpna smið,                    wundrum teode,
besette swinlicum,                    þæt hine syþðan
brond ne beadomecas                    bitan ne meahton.


The ancient smiths believed in the protective power of the boar, but if one looks rather closely at the poem, one observes that nowhere in the action does the wearing of such a helmet affect the course of events. There is instead a mute denial of the power of the boar in the scene of Hnæf's funeral, where the slain men's gold-adorned helmets lie on the pyre:

Æt þæm ade wæs                    eþgesyne
swatfah syrce,                    swyn ealgylden,
eofer irenheard,                    æþeling manig
wundum awyrded;                    sume on wæle crungon.


Shields are surprisingly unimportant in Beowulf, until one remembers that Beowulf prefers to wrestle, and there are otherwise very few of the conventional cut-and-thrust combats of battle in the poem. The one memorable shield is the huge device which protected both Beowulf and Wiglaf from the dragon's fire (2675-7). Its function was to give cover to Beowulf until he was near enough to strike at the dragon, and this it did, but, like his sword, it failed him at the last (2570-2). I have already published74 the opinion that the great shield represents the strongest human defence a man can make, and that its meaning in the allegory is that without spiritual defences (scutum fidei)75 no man can successfully oppose the Dragon. The development of this religious aspect of the poem is treated in Chapters 6 and 7 below.

The sword is a potent symbol of varying significance in Beowulf. In the society depicted, a good sword is a sign of the prowess of the wearer; such are Unferth's Hrunting, lent to Beowulf in recognition that the Geat was the better man, and the sword of Hrethel presented to the hero on his triumphant return from Heorot. Probably also traditional is the use of a sword as signal of a re-kindling feud: such are the sword which roused Hengest, the sword which incited Ingeld's man to kill his father's slayer, and the sword Eanmundes laf which Wiglaf bore. This last example is contextually used to very subtle effect, drawing together the scattered incidents which had marked the progress of the Geatish feud with the Swedes during Beowulf's lifetime, and representing—in something the same fashion as the cracks in the walls of Heorot—at the moment when the dragon is felled, the imminent strife with the Swedes which will make an end of the tribe.

The swords which Beowulf possesses all fail him, and my observations on the iron shield in the allegory would apply also to the sword. In a quite different category is the sword which Beowulf found in the underwater hall. With this giant-made sword he beheaded his giant adversaries, and in so doing destroyed the sword, save for the curiously-patterned hilt which he took back to Heorot. I regard this as an important element in the allegory. As a symbol of the prowess of the giants, its wasting away in the corrosive blood of the slain Grendel kin has an obvious significance, but the enduring hilt brought back to the world of men has a much more complex story to tell. The ramifications of this story of the feud of the giants with God will be explored in my next chapter.

The giant sword is not said to have had magical power, nor is magical immunity offered as a reason for Hrunting's failure to bite on the giantess's hide.76 The audience is left to think that the extraordinary weight of the ancient weapon gave Beowulf's blow the necessary force. The description of its melting blade merits special notice: the poet has focused attention upon it by his simile of the melting of icicles in the spring. The simile, beautiful and apt as it is for the change that comes over the hard iron, is remarkable in another respect. The presence of God in this dark infernal place under gynne grund (1551) is gradually manifested, first by the line,

rodera Rædend hit on ryht gesced,


then by the appearance of light as bright as day,

efne swa of hefene                    hadre scineð
rodores candel.(77)

(1571 f.)

Then, with the simile I have mentioned, thought of the Father's control over all times and seasons turns the mind away from the curious wonder of the melting blade to the annual miracle of melting ice, and the giant sword and the power of the giant race become small in the comparison.

Beowulf carries the hilt of the wonderful sword to Heorot, together with Grendel's head, and in presenting these trophies to Hrothgar he ascribes his escape from the monster to God's protection (1658) and his sight of the giant weapon to God's favour (1661-2). The hilt is described: it is decorated with serpentine patterning and runic letters. Thus an aura of mysterious and malevolent antiquity is created about it, and at its centre is the engraved picture of God's retribution on the giants in the days of Noah. I pass over for the present the meaning of this backward extension of the feud with the giants into Old Testament times, to show the complex of symbolic meaning given to the giant sword, which is for the Danes a symbol of victorious revenge in the feud, for Beowulf a symbol of God's protective care for those who fight in his battles, and for the audience a symbol of the enduring cosmic war in which Beowulf's contests are brief incidents.

Weapons and armour, being costly and valued possessions, also appear in the poem as a species of wealth. Like the beagas which are prized as much for the status they confer upon the wearer as for their intrinsic value, the splendid accoutrements are symbols of social relationships in the society depicted. They signal the munificence of the royal giver as much as the worth and deserts of the great warrior who receives them. The poet openly approves the ancestral custom of dispensing rich gifts from the throne,78 and considerable attention is given to the princely gifts which were conferred on Beowulf in recognition of his triumphs.79 To a Christian poet, riches were the means through which a man could exercise the virtue of charitable giving and therefore were not invariably evil, but as the cupidity of man was potent for harm, great treasures were a source of danger. The evil which treasure could beget was both moral and spiritual, as causing violent quarrels for possession, and as contaminating the soul of the possessor. The Beowulf poet treats all these aspects of treasure while not losing sight of its social importance, principally by emphasizing the brevity of a man's possession of costly objects, and by making them the focal point in stories of bloodshed and death. The spiritual danger inherent in accumulated wealth is a major theme in the latter part of the poem.

Standing out among the regal gifts described in the tale of Heorot is the healsbeah (1195) which Queen Wealhtheow gave to Beowulf. Like the sword Eanmundes laf (2611) in the later story of the Geats, it acts as a linking symbol in a series of historical incidents. The necklace stands as a symbol for treasure as plunder, in the way that Eanmund's sword stands as a symbol of fraternal strife.

The necklace given to Beowulf reflects nothing but glory on the hero; in the social sphere it speaks of his pre-eminent achievements, in the moral sphere it shows him untouched by personal vanity or covetousness, since he does not try to keep it for himself. Hygelac later received it, and wore it on the plundering expedition which cost him his life. His premature death set in train the events which led to the death of Eanmund and the resurgence of Swedish power and enmity which Beowulf's own reign could only temporarily hold back. At the level of historical narrative therefore, the necklace serves as a useful means of uniting the histories of the Danes and the Geats. At the moral level it points the contrast between Beowulf and Hygelac. It is also made to act as a symbol of the vanity of human life. Between the queen's presentation (1192-6) and the applause of the company (1214) are sandwiched two stories of robbery and death80 which dim the brightness of the jewel in just the way that the prophecy of consuming flame casts the shadow of death over gold-adorned Heorot (80-5).

The first of these interposed stories remains very obscure, since the incident of the necklace does not occur in any of the legends concerning Hama which survive in later German and Norse epic and saga.81 The allusion is made still more obscure by the vagueness of the two phrases to þœre byrhtan byrig (1199) and geceas ecne rœd (1201). The identity of the burg is quite unknown, and the meaning of the latter phrase is doubtful. In the present state of knowledge, one can only conjecture what the poet intended by the reference to Hama. Comparison with the structurally rather similar treatment of Sigemund and Heremod (874-915) suggests that some contrast between Hama and Hygelac is intended; the line

syþðan he for wlenco wean ahsode


implies an adverse judgment on the king's action, which would support any interpretation of Hama as an admirable person in spite of his carrying off the Brosings' (Brísings'?) necklace. The unpleasant word searoniðas (1200) alienates sympathy from the wronged Eormenric, and the phrase geceas ecne rœd seems to imply that he made a good end.82 Whatever the lost details of the story, the effect of the two interposed incidents is undoubtedly to remind the hearers that man's possession of wealth is short-lived in the perspective of eternal reward. I think it can be seen that the poet deliberately created this effect, because he has separated the matter of the robbing of Hygelac's corpse on the battlefield from Beowulf's reminiscent account of his revenge on the despoiler (2503 f.). In the more natural later position, the incident would have enhanced Beowulf's reputation as an ideal retainer and winner of treasure rather better than in its present place: one cannot avoid the conclusion that the notes of tragic irony in the happy scene at Heorot were integral to the poet's theme, and that praise of Beowulf was only one element in that theme.

I come now to the last of the great secular symbols of the poem, and the most controversial in significance: the burial mound with its hidden treasure-hoard. There are only two such monuments in the poem, the one inhabited by the dragon, and the other raised over Beowulf's ashes as his memorial. This fact is in itself worth remarking. The other heroes whose death is recorded have no memorial; for Hnæf and his kinsmen there is no compensatory ritual of remembrance, only the ugly bursting of their bodies in the flame, and their epitaph: wœs hira blœd scacen (1124). Beowulf's blœd would be remembered as long as the mound remained on Hronesness (cp. 2800-8), and in a secular society that is the most that a man could ask or deserve. The poet's interest in funerals does not involve him in repetitions; each is different in conception and effect. Scyld's passing speaks of the mystery of the unknown otherworld, Hnæf's pyre is a frightening image of physical destruction, Beowulf's funeral fire is blotted out by the great beacon of earth which is his grave and his glory.

The feature common to all three funeral descriptions is the placing of treasure with the dead, and the Christian poet does not censure the practice. He speaks through the treasure itself. Scyld's vast wealth goes into unknown hands (50-2), Hnæf's treasure is swallowed up in the devouring fire (1122-4). Only of Beowulf's hard-won gold does the poet say in his own voice,

forleton eorla gestreon                    eorðan healdan,
gold on greote,                    þær hit nu gen lifað
eldum swa unnyt                    swa h(it ær)or wæs.


This is a kind of epitaph upon the treasure; consigned to earth, it is seen at the last to be intrinsically worthless, though a man should give his life for it.

The burial of a treasure within the new-made tomb which the dragon afterwards made his lair is an incident which belongs to a different imaginary world from the rest of the poem. The other funeral-treasures belong to the heroic world as it was remembered; the Sutton Hoo burial might have been within living memory when Beowulf was composed,83 and other less elaborately furnished graves were possibly known to the poet and those he wrote for; gold on greote was no imaginary thing. Though the Sutton Hoo deposit appears to have been a cenotaph, it is presumed that the grave goods were intended for the use of their royal owner in the next world. The burial of the treasure which became the dragon's hoard is, in contrast, a motiveless gesture, irrational in a different way from the second burial of the same treasure, since among the pagan Geats such an action could be thought to honour their king.

My justification for taking this view of the burial of the dragon's hoard lies in the nature of the character who commits it to the grave. He does not exist as a quasi-historical person like the other characters in the poem. His nearest kin is the nameless old man who grieves for his hanged son (2444 ff.). The nameless father can be absorbed into the narrative, because he exists only in a simile. He is a literary device and pretends to be nothing more. But the man who buries the treasure inhabits the same world as the exile and the wise man in The Wanderer.84 They are faceless speakers invented by the poets to give utterance to some universal human feeling. Each is a persona of the poet, given no more individuality than his condition requires—in this they differ sharply from dramatic characters who speak in soliloquy, or the central figures in dramatic monologues. The uncomfortable truth about the man who buries the hoard is that he too is a literary device, but he needs to be more than this, because the story of the rifled hoard begins with him. He has to be believed in, like Scyld or Sigemund, as a remote historical person, but the poet has here allowed his theme to take charge of the narrative, and the beautiful elegy almost blinds one to the unreality of the whole episode.

The ritual action has no other celebrants, and no social or religious significance. Professor Smithers has interestingly argued that this scene is the garbling of a pagan story in which the last owner of the treasure was himself transformed into a dragon—as happened to several Norsemen in similar circumstances, according to the sagas.85 But one has to admit that the Beowulf poet has altogether erased any possible former connection between man and dragon, and the critical problem remains. The burial of the treasure of a lost tribe is the improbable excuse for the lament Heald þu nu hruse … (2247-66). Man must return the treasure to earth because no other has claim upon it. It is an image signifying that the worth of gold-plated sword and goblet, helmet and armour derives from their use by men. When the heroes are dead, their treasures begin to decay. Inert, tarnished and crumbling, the buried treasure becomes for the poet a focal symbol for the transience of the material world. A critic may carp, but the bold device succeeds. Before Beowulf sets out to win the hoard, the poet has planted doubt as to whether it is worth the winning. In the outcome, his victory does not ameliorate the lot of anyone concerned, and the second burial of the treasure symbolically re-enacts the tragedy of the lost race.

The hoard, as I see it, is from the outset conceived as a symbol of transience. Another element in the conception is indicated by the epithet hœðen (2216, 2276). The word is elsewhere applied to Grendel and to the idolatrous Danes; the use of it for the treasure might be an oblique condemnation of the pagan custom of burying grave goods, but it undoubtedly gives a general atmosphere of evil to the hoard.

I come now to the most curious aspect of the treasure-hoard as symbol, the curse upon it. The oddity about the curse is that the poet makes no good use of it, and it becomes a literary blemish. Without it, there is a satisfying moral sequence; with it, there is a conflict of causes which obscures the circumstances of Beowulf's end. I have shown that this hoard was from the first mention associated with death; the imagined owner, with a sentimental attachment to his possessions which the Anglo-Saxon audience might find understandable, made a grave for the treasure of his dead tribe. The consequence of his act was the appearance of the dragon, and ultimately Beowulf's death and the ruin of the Geatish people stem from the burial of the hoard. The curse, as it is reported, sealed up the gold in the tomb until God should grant the power to touch it to some man of his choosing (3051-7). It looks as though the poet was working with intractable material, since his faith required an affirmation of God's power to break the ancient spell, but his moral and his religious theme are considerably weakened by the existence of the spell, and even more by the proviso that God could prevent its dire effect. One may wonder why he kept the curse in the story at all. Two reasons suggest themselves: the first, that the heathen þeodnas mœre, by invoking evil powers to protect their hoard (3069 f.), were thought to have called the dragon into being; the second, more prosaic, possibility is that the curse was a well-known feature of the given story which the poet felt obliged to include. Having brought it in, he could make no effective use of it, since if Beowulf was estranged from God it needed no curse to consign him to hell-bonds, and if on the other hand he remained uncorrupted by the gold, he retained his Lord's favour and would be divinely protected from the curse. An operative curse belongs to a poem of a different kind, in which the characters are unwitting victims of fate, and such a conception could not be harmonized with the doctrine of God's watchful care for mankind expressly affirmed more than once in Beowulf.

The inconsistency between the þeodnas mœre who sang the incantation and the lone survivor who buried the hoard is a very clear sign that in this part of the poem the author's thoughts were dominated by his theme, to the detriment of the narrative. Uppermost is the doctrine that the burial of the hoard was itself a wrong action. The lone survivor's imagined gesture and the curse upon despoilers each sprang from men's desire to store up possessions even when they have no use for them. This is the characteristic desire of the dragon of European fable, as will be shown in the next chapter. Every pile of gold is potentially dangerous to mankind, as readers of St Antony's Life were reminded, for when the saint found gold in his path he passed by as though going over fire, knowing it for another temptation of the Enemy.86

I think it is fair to conclude from the transformation of the secular materials I have described that the poet was very much aware of the ambivalence of his symbols, which reflect the paradox of earthly life as it was then understood. The two great symbols, Heorot and the treasure, embody the magnificence and the wealth which are a hero's reward. But in the longer perspective they can be seen to be the images of man's pride and cupidity, the two fundamental sins which tie the carnal man to earth. To their possessors they seem to be durable; to the Christian audience they are presented as brilliant and destructible, costly and without worth.


  1. Tacitus, Germania, c. 3; quoted by Wrenn, OE Literature, pp. 74-5.

  2. For a convenient summary of their contents and scholarly opinion on the dating, see Wrenn, op. cit., pp. 76-83 and pp. 85-90.

  3. Wrenn, op. cit., p. 87, says ‘Its definitely Christian references to God … would seem, perhaps, to point to a clerical maker’.

  4. Edited by E. von Steinmeyer, Die kleineren althochdeutschen Sprachdenkmäler (Leipzig, 1916).

  5. F. P. Magoun, ‘Béowulf B: a Folk-Poem on Béowulf's Death’, in Early English and Norse Studies presented to H. Smith, ed. A. Brown and P. Foote, pp. 128-9. His observation that one finds no cyclic poem in Old Icelandic (p. 129) is also pertinent.

  6. Jan Vansina, De la tradition orale.

  7. ibid., p. 63.

  8. ibid., p. 64.

  9. ibid., p. 65.

  10. ibid.

  11. ibid., p. 67.

  12. Apart from Beowulf itself, the remains of Germanic secular poetry are too short to provide a clear general picture, but the allusive style is very marked in Deor and Widsith.

  13. I use the word ‘allegorical’ here in a very broad sense, which could be defined as ‘saying one thing in order to mean something beyond that one thing’ (cp. Angus Fletcher, Allegory: the Theory of a Symbolic Mode, p. 4). For further definition of the kinds of allegory and symbolism in Beowulf, see below, pp. 68 ff.

  14. cp. D. P. A. Comparetti, The Study of Vergil in the Middle Ages, trans. E. F. M. Beneke (London, 1895), especially pp. 57 and 59. For details of the symbolic meanings found in æneid VI, see P. Courcelle, ‘Les Pères devant les Enfers. Virgiliens’, Archives d'Histoire Doctrinale et Littéraire du Moyen Age.

  15. Sulpicius Severus, Vita S. Martini, ed. C. Halm, 110 f.

  16. PL 93, 1103.

  17. PL 93, 1109; cp. Ps. 52: 3 and p. 52, above.

  18. B. Colgrave, Felix's Life of Saint Guthlac, p. 16.

  19. The phrase is from Christopher Fry. A Phoenix too Frequent (Oxford, 1946), p. 31.

  20. See p. 63

  21. One is reminded of the loss of meodosetla signifying the end of tribal independence in Beowulf (5).

  22. W. Nowottny, The Language Poets Use, p. 175.

  23. Augustine, De doctrina christiana, ed. W. M. Green, p. 34.

  24. Augustine, ibid., p. 35.

  25. ibid., p. 100. Had he not been writing for beginners in biblical study, he might have included also St Peter's ambivalent symbols which mean one thing to the faithful and something quite other to the unbeliever, viz., the corner-stone which is the foundation of a spiritual edifice to the Christian and a stumbling-block to the unbeliever (1 Pet. 2: 7-9), and the Flood-waters which prophesy baptism and salvation to the former and destruction to the latter (1 Pet. 3: 20-2); cp. Jean Daniélou, Bible et Liturgie pp. 89-104.

  26. Augustine, op. cit., p. 103.

  27. Augustine, De Trinitate, PL 42, 1068, on the text 1 Cor. 13: 12. Here he compares in ænigmate with in allegoria (Gal. 4: 24), explaining that translators who did not wish to use the Greek word have employed the circumlocution which signify one thing by another.

  28. Personification allegory was of course also known to the Anglo-Saxons from Virgil's use of it and from Prudentius's Psychomachia. The last part of Aldhelm's verse De virginitate is written in this mode; see MGH AA xv, pp. 452-71.

  29. Bede, De schematibus et tropis sacræ scripturæ, PL 90, 184-6. His definition is as follows:

    Allegoria est tropus quo aliud significatur quam dicitur.

    Allegory is a trope in which something other is signified than what is said.

    Among the kinds, he brings in the four senses thus:

    Item allegoria verbi, sive operis, aliquando historicam rem, aliquando typicam, aliquando tropologicam, id est moralem rationem, aliquando anagogen, hoc est sensum ad superiora ducentem, figurate denuntiant.

    In like manner they intimate in a figure allegory of word or deed, sometimes a historical matter, sometimes a prefiguration, sometimes a tropological matter (that is, a moral concern), sometimes an anagogical relation (that is the sense guiding us to things above).

  30. Fletcher, op. cit., pp. 2-3, takes very much Augustine's general view based on the linguistic process involved in making an allegory: ‘In the simplest terms, allegory says one thing and means another. It destroys the normal expectation we have about language, that our words “mean what they say” … In this sense we see how allegory is properly considered a mode: it is a fundamental process of encoding our speech. For the very reason that it is a fundamental process of encoding our speech. For the very reason that it is a radical linguistic procedure it can appear in all sorts of different works …’

  31. Fletcher, op. cit., p. 135.

  32. Augustine, De utilitate credendi, ed. J. Zycha, 1, 70.

  33. Augustine, De vera religione, ed. W. M. Green, pp. 7 f.

  34. Gregory, Moralia, PL 75, 513:

    Sciendum vero est, quod quædam historica expositione transcurrimus, et per allegoriam quædam typical investigatione perscrutamur; quædam per sola allegoricæ moralitatis instrumenta discutimus; non nulla autem per cuncta simul sollicitus exquirentes, tripliciter indagamus.

    It is to be recognized that we hasten over some things in a historical exposition and we scrutinize some by the use of allegory in search of typological significance; some we discuss only as instruments of moral allegory; on the other hand, some we explore in three ways, carefully looking for all these senses together.

  35. Bede, Homeliæ, CCSL 72, passim.

  36. ibid., Liber Primus, Homelia 14, pp. 95-104. There is further complexity in the homily in that each of the O.T. stories represents one of the Ages of the World. The homilies also include a good deal of incidental symbolism. One example contrasts dove and raven, which could conceivably shed light upon the raven who wakes the men of Heorot:

    Habent autem oscula et corvi, sed laniant, quod columba omnino non facit: significantes eos qui loquuntur pacem cum proximo suo, mali autem sunt in cordibus eorum. Ravens too have kisses, but they tear with them, which the dove never does, signifying those who speak peace with their neighbour but evil thoughts are in their hearts. (Hom. 1, 15, p. 107). One remembers the hints of hidden hostility in lines 1164 and 1015 ff. of the poem.

  37. For a clear explanation of the theory of figura, see E. Auerbach, Mimesis, trans. W. R. Trask (Princeton, 1953), pp. 73-5.

  38. Auerbach, op. cit., sees ‘figural thinking’ in Dante's view of the universal Roman monarchy as the earthly anticipation of the Kingdom of God. ‘An event taken as a figure preserves its literal and historical meaning’ (p. 196). As I have sai elsewhere (Neophil. 1964, p. 67) an Augustinian view of history perhaps underlies the symbolic treatment of events in Beowulf. But it is difficult to believe that an Anglo-Saxon poet saw the wars of the Swedes and Geats as part of the divine plan of salvation, or that he disregarded the fact that Beowulf lived after the Incarnation, from which the figuræ Christi take their meaning.

  39. For further discussion of this matter, see pp. 241 ff., below.

  40. Sulpicius Serverus, Opera, ed. cit., pp. 1-105.

  41. Rosemond Tuve, Allegorical Imagery, pp. 32-3. Professor Tuve makes a clear distinction between a moralization and an allegory in discussing late medieval and Renaissance texts. I do not think such a distinction is valid for Old English poetry, and I have not used ‘allegory’ in Tuve's more precise sense, following her own principle: ‘It is as well to repeat periodically that we do not seek to define allegory as if it were some changeless essence, and then in turn use the definition to admit or shut out poems from the category. We seek something quite limited and historical—what was involved in reading allegorically to certain writers at a given time, and for reasons we can trace.’ (ibid., p. 33).

  42. C. S. Lewis, The Allegory of Love: a study in medieval tradition, pp. 84 f.

  43. Alcuin's catalogue of authors in the library at York includes the name Fulgentius, but it is by no means certain that the mythographer was intended. For discussion of the extant works ascribed to Fulgentius and argument against identifying the mythographer and the Bishop of Ruspe, see M. L. W. Laistner, ‘Fulgentius in the Carolingian Age’, in The Intellectual Heritage of the early Middle Ages, ed. C. G. Starr (New York, 1957), pp. 202-15.

  44. Fulgentius had related the three heads to three kinds of contention in the world (Opera, ed. R. Helm, Leipzig, 1898, pp. 20 and 98 f.); Bede interprets the Dog of Hell as Avaritia, and its three heads as the three kinds of concupiscence in 1 Jo. 2: 16. (Ep. Ecg., Plummer 1, 422 f.).

  45. cp. pp. 76 and 135, below.

  46. See P. Courcelle, op. cit., for the patristic treatment of the scene.

  47. æneid VI, 273-89.

  48. M. W. Bloomfield, ‘Beowulf and Christian Allegory, An Interpretation’, Traditio 7 (1949-51), 410-15. He suggests that Unferth = Discordia, as in Prudentius's Psychomachia. As Prudentius is thinking in terms of schism and heresy within the Church, the connection is not very likely.

  49. Aldhelm, De virginitate, MGH AA xv, 452-471, lines 2446-2914; see also p. 135, below.

  50. E. Curtius, European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, p. 49.

  51. Isidore, Etymologiae, ed. W. M. Lindsay; De Poetis, Book 8b, 7.

  52. I do not of course imply that he was working with raw historical material; no doubt a good deal of transformation had been effected by the oral poets who transmitted the matter.

  53. Tuve, op. cit., pp. 32 f. See my observations above, p. 74, n. 1, on her use of the word ‘allegory’.

  54. Tuve, ibid., p. 32.

  55. ibid.

  56. ibid., p. 17.

  57. cp. The Seafarer (38) where the paradox is exploited by the poet. See also the discussion of the phrase by P. L. Henry in The Early English and Celtic Lyric (Belfast, 1966), pp. 195 ff., following up a suggestion by Professor C. L. Wrenn.

  58. Of the objects and persons mentioned, Grendel's greedy and grasping hand and Hrethel's symbol of prowess require no special comment; for Heremod, cp. pp. 184 ff., for Hama, p. 91, for Beowulf's weapons and armour, pp. 86 f.; Scyld's funeral boat is treated here.

  59. I use the word mythic here in the sense ‘pertaining to an anonymous story telling of origins and destinies’; cp. R. Wellek and A. Warren, Theory of Literature, 3rd ed. (Peregrine Books, 1963), p. 191. Under this definition both Scyld and Cain are mythic symbolic persons.

  60. In geardagum (1) is to be noted, as clearly placing the story in remote time.

  61. For Latin equivalents to the OE names for God, see F. Klaeber ‘Die Christlichen Elemente im Beowulf’. He draws upon the liturgy and Latin hymnaries and the earlier work of J. W. Rankin, ‘A Study of the Kennings in Anglo-Saxon poetry’.

  62. Rankin, op. cit. notes the parallel development of Latin gloria in Christian use.

  63. The prayer quoted is among Orationes tempore belli in The Gelasian Sacramentary (ed. H. A. Wilson, London, 1893, pp. 275 f.). It reads:

    Deus, et temporalis vitae auctor et aeternae, miserere supplicium in tua protectione fidentium, ut per virtute brachii tui omnibus qui nobis adversantur revictis, nec in terrenis nec a caelestibus possimus excludi.

    O God, author of life both temporal and eternal, have mercy upon the suffering of the faithful within thy protection, that we, having conquered through the strength of thine arm all who oppose us, may not be hindered in things earthly nor from things heavenly.

    It is not possible to establish whether this particular prayer was in use where the Beowulf poet was educated, but rather similar prayers also occur in The Gregorian Sacramentary revised by Alcuin (ed. H. A. Wilson, London, 1915). In both prayer-books the enemy attacks are attributed to the sins of the nation. (e.g. Gelasian, p. 273, Gregorian, pp. 198 f.) For the circulation of these two prayer-books, see Deanesly, Pre-Conquest Church, pp. 156-9. My point is that such prayers represent a current attitude towards God's giving or withholding success in war which is relevant to the whole of Beowulf.

  64. E. G. Stanley, in ‘OE poetic diction and the interpretation of The Wanderer, The Seafarer, and The Penitent's Prayer’, Angl. 73 (1955) 441, suggests that isig (Beow. 33) is the equivalent of winterceald, figuratively evocative of sorrow. However, there seems no good reason also to reject the literal ‘icy’, since the season of Scyld's death is not otherwise mentioned, and the beginning of spring with its breaking-up of the ice would fit the circumstances.

  65. Gilbert Cope, Symbolism in the Bible and the Church, p. 36.

  66. The word wær is used of God's covenant with Abraham in the OE Genesis (2204); apart from its general sense of ‘protection’ here it may therefore have associations suggesting a pre-Christian man's relationship with God.

  67. Wind and weather likewise mirror the feelings of men, as for example in the struggle with the sea (545-8) followed by the peace and brightness of morning (569-72); when Beowulf voyages, the wind is with him (217, 1907-9).

  68. Wrenn calls attention to the bronze stag found in the Sutton Hoo deposit, apparently designed to be carried as a standard (Beowulf, p. 314). The use of hornas in Finnsburh (7) shows that a derived sense ‘gable’ had developed, but the name ‘Heorot’ would surely recall the older meaning of horn. The epithet banfag (780) also brings the stag to mind.

  69. C. S. Lewis, The Discarded Image, p. 152.

  70. See The Fables of Phaedrus, ed. C. H. Nall (London, 1895), pp. 7 f., Cervus ad Fontem.

  71. As Augustine's examples showed, a biblical scholar had no difficulty in accepting contrary meanings for the same symbol in different contexts. D. W. Robertson finds in the hunted hart a symbol of the faithful soul which will not enter the waters of cupidity; for discussion of Robertson's argument, see pp. 120 f., below.

  72. cp. The Judgment scene in Christ II, especially 811-14 (ASPR iii, 25), also Phoenix 500-8 (ibid., p. 108).

  73. A variant of the same image is used of the sea-beasts cheated of their supper and put to sleep by the sword in lines 562-7. (The Andreas poet also uses it of the dead cannibals (1002 f.), perhaps in imitation of Beowulf.)

  74. In ‘The Christian Perspective in Beowulf’, Brodeur Studies, p. 85.

  75. cp. Eph. 6: 16.

  76. The swords of Eofor and Wiglaf are also described as eotenisc (2616, 2979), so the word obviously carried no necessary connotation of magical properties—for Eofor at least fought in ordinary human wars. Grendel had put a spell upon swords (804), but he uses no magical arts against Beowulf, so he is hardly more of a magician than the ancient princes who wove a spell about the hoard (3051 ff. and 3069 ff.). That Anglo-Saxons of the period believed in the power of incantations may be inferred from the Act of the synod of Clofesho (747) which commands the bishop to travel about his diocese forbidding pagan observances, including incantations. (cited by Whitelock, Audience, p. 79.)

  77. The significance of the light in the allegory is further discussed in Chapter 8.

  78. See, for example, line 80 f. and cp. 20 f.

  79. The whole passage from line 1020 to 1055 describes the rewards given to Beowulf and his men.

  80. It is likely that some of the poet's audience would sympathize with the plundering. Guthlac's early life was spent in such enterprises, and his biographer Felix shows no disapproval (since he gave back a third part of his booty), Vita Guthlaci, ed. cit., p. 80. The author of Guthlac A, on the other hand, describes how the saint's evil angel incites him to join a raiding band,

                                                                swa doð wræcmæcgas
    þa þe ne bimurnað monnes feore
    þæs þe him to honda huþe gelædeð
    butan hy þy reafe rædan motan.


    It was presumably one of the tasks of the early Anglo-Saxon church to dissuade young princes from taking up a life of pillage.

  81. For a general survey of the references to Hama in early literature, see R. W. Chambers, Widsith (Cambridge, 1912), pp. 52-7. The sources seem to be agreed that Hama lived by plunder and that he acquired treasure; in Widsith he rules with Wudga over a people (129-30), which may suggest, as Chambers thinks (p. 223), that ‘the bright city’ of Beowulf (1199) was his own stronghold.

  82. The phrase is discussed with similar phrases in Chapter 5, pp. 167 ff., below.

  83. For a convenient survey of articles on the Sutton Hoo Ship-Burial, see the Supplement by C. L. Wrenn to R. W. Chambers, Beowulf: An Introduction, 3rd edition.

  84. See p. 2, above.

  85. G. V. Smithers, The Making of Beowulf, p. 11; see also p. 103, below.

  86. Athanasius, Vita S. Antonii, PG 26, 862.


The following shortened forms of titles of books, periodicals, etc. are used throughout the footnotes and the practice of the notes generally is to omit details of publication if the work cited is listed in the Select Bibliography.

ASPR: Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records Series

ASS: Acta Sanctorum Bollandiana

(Bede) HE: Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum

(Bede) Ep. Ecg.: Epistola Bedae ad Ecgbertum Episcopum

Beiträge: Beiträge zur Geschichte der Deutschen Sprache und Literatur

Brodeur, Art: A. G. Brodeur, The Art of Beowulf

Brodeur Studies: Studies in Old English Literature in honor of Arthur G. Brodeur

CSEL: Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum

CL: Comparative Literature

CCSL: Corpus Christionorum Series Latina

Continuations: Continuations and Beginnings: Studies in Old English Literature, ed. E. G. Stanley

Deanesly, Pre-Conquest Church: Margaret Deanesly, The Pre-Conquest Church in England

Dobbie, Beowulf: E. v. K. Dobbie, ed. Beowulf and Judith, ASPR IV

Donahue, Traditio, 1949-51: Charles Donahue, ‘Beowulf, Ireland and the Natural Good’, Traditio, 7 (1949-51)

Donahue, Traditio, 1965: Charles Donahue, ‘Beowulf and Christian Tradition: a reconsideration from a Celtic Stance’, Traditio, 21 (1965)

Godfrey, AS Church: J. Godfrey, The Church in Anglo-Saxon England

Gregory, Moralia: Sancti Gregorii Magni Moralium Libri, sive Expositio in Librum B. Job

Kenney, Sources: J. F. Kenney, The Sources for the Early History of Ireland, vol. 1, Ecclesiastical

Klaeber, Angl. 1912: F. Klaeber, ‘Die Christlichen Elemente im Beowulf’, Anglia, 35 and 36 (1912)

Klaeber, Beowulf: F. Klaeber, ed., Beowulf and the Fight at Finnsburg

Laistner, Thought: M. L. W. Laistner, Thought and Letters in Western Europe, A.D. 500-900

Magoun Studies: Medieval and Linguistic Studies in honor of Francis P. Magoun, Jr.

MGH: Monumenta Germaniae Historica

MGH AA: Auctores Antiquissimi

MGH Ep.: Epistolae

MGH Ep. Kar.: Epistolae Karolini Aevi

MGH Ep. Mer.: Epistolae Merowingici et Karolini Aevi

MGH Poet.: Poetarum Latinorum Medii Aevi

Ogilvy, Anglo-Latin Writers: J. D. A. Ogilvy, Books known to Anglo-Latin Writers from Aldhelm to Alcuin

PG: J. P. Migne, ed. Patrologia Graeca

PL: J. P. Migne, ed. Patrologia Latina

Rankin, JEGP, 1909: J. W. Rankin, ‘A Study of the Kennings in Anglo-Saxon Poetry’, JEGP, 8 (1909) and 9 (1910)

von Schaubert, Beowulf: Else von Schaubert, ed. Heyne-Schückings Beowulf

Sisam, Structure: Kenneth Sisam, The Structure of Beowulf

Sisam, Studies: Kenneth Sisam, Studies in the History of Old English Literature

Tolkien, Monsters: J. R. R. Tolkien, Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics

Whitelock, Audience: Dorothy Whitelock, The Audience of Beowulf

Wrenn, Beowulf: C. L. Wrenn, ed. Beowulf

Wrenn, OE Literature: C. L. Wrenn, A Study of Old English Literature

Gwyn Jones (essay date 1972)

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SOURCE: “Hero with Monsters,” in Kings, Beasts, and Heroes, Oxford University Press, 1972, pp. 3-26.

[In the essay below, Jones investigates the folklore motifs which support the epical and heroic nature of Beowulf.]

The old english poem Beowulf is one of the most precious relics of the early literature of England, and justly prized for a number and variety of reasons. For a start it is unique, in that no other poem of its size and kind has survived either in Old English or in the other Germanic literary languages to which English is related. Had it somewhere in its manuscript history succumbed to those perils of age, neglect, and fire to which we know it has been exposed, we should be left to speculate whether in fact the poets of any branch of the Germanic people were capable of composing a long sustained poem on a theme drawn from the world of pre-Christian Germanic tradition. In the light of such phenomena as the Sigurd lays of the Poetic Edda, the Latin Waltharius, the upturned horn of story which is Saxo's Danish History, and the Christian witness of the Old English Andreas, we might assume that they were, yet always be uneasy in the assumption. So the manuscript in which Beowulf is preserved, British Museum, Cotton Vitellius A 15, is a primary document not only for the English, but for the Germans, the Scandinavians, and their descendants in the New World as in the Old, with its proof that their ancestors had mastered the art of prolonged verse narrative and attempted that elevated mode of poetry which for the moment we may be content to describe as epic.

Moreover, this is a poem with claims on our regard far beyond its power of manuscript survival. It is most easily described as a poem of an epical and heroic nature, and in respect of its incident and action provides a notable synthesis of Germanic heroic legend and international wondertale as this latter was viewed in a Germanic context. Some have read it as pagan myth, others as Christian allegory, while some consider that its story remembers myth though its poet did not. Though not a true history, it touches closely on the matter of history, the triumphs and tribulations of kings, the winning of wars and loss of a kingdom, and has been pressed into service as a ‘Gesta Danorum, Sveorum, Gothorumque’, for the first half of the sixth century. Structurally, to a modern eye, it is less than perfect; even so its story of a young hero is compelling, of an old hero moving. It offers a noble picture of an age, its assumptions and behaviour, its hierarchical bases, and the gold-decked splendour of its warrior class. It conducts its protagonist through diverse settings and episodes, by land and sea, at court and in battle, in contests with monsters and courtesies with his peers. And our poet has time for much more than adventures and monster-riddings. He was conscious, like other Anglo-Saxon poets, of the world's lack of duration. Life, he knows, is fleeting; all things are hastening to their end. Warrior and corslet crumble side by side, fair maiden moulders in her fair array; the steed that paws the stronghold yard, the falcon winging through the hall, must falter and fall; rust frets and earth devours the toil of giants and works of wondrous smiths. Also, he was deeply concerned with values: the bonds that prevented society flying apart, heroic conventions, the claims of piety, a warrior's worth and woman's excellence, the qualities of good kingship, the means to fame. In the aged Hrothgar's words to Beowulf, we like the poem's hero are bidden: ‘Know what manly virtue is.’ In short, Beowulf is a poem of multiple source and episode, which combines the attractions of a brave tale with high moral seriousness, and offers a reading of life and experience. And finally, it is by any standards a good, even a fine poem; and there have been many to think it a great one—less for its movement and action, or fable, than because they find it a statement about human life and values by an artist who—by virtue of his technical ability, his command of words and metre, his power to present narrative, argument, reflection, mood, and feeling in verse—has given lasting significance to the thing he wrote, which is now the thing we read. Which means that Beowulf is worthy of our esteem for the reasons, no more, no less, for which we esteem all fine poetry.

We have by implication described Beowulf as a long sustained poem. To be precise, its length is 3,182 lines of Old English alliterative verse. There is so marked a break before line 2,200 that some scholars have thought that the concluding 983 lines, with their account of the Geat-Swedish wars, Beowulf's fight with a dragon, his death and funeral obsequies, were not part of the poet's original design, and either grew out of his ruminations during the writing of what we will call Part One, to which some such descriptive subtitle as ‘Beowulf's Youthful Exploits’ or ‘Young Beowulf in Denmark’ is commonly applied, or were added to Part One by a different poet. The first idea is possible but unprovable; the second appears altogether unlikely. Since we know nothing of the author as a person, and next to nothing of him as an author, and since we stand in ignorance of when and where and how and in what circumstance he composed his poem, we are of necessity confined to conjecture in respect of the poem's structure, and in modesty bound to admit that even the best conjecture may be wide of the mark. What we do know is that Beowulf is preserved in a manuscript copied about the year 1000, and that from what we know of the history of Old English alliterative verse it could hardly have been composed before the very late seventh century. The likeliest speculations have been in favour of the age of Bede (c. 680-730) in Northumbria; the reign of king Offa (757-96) in Mercia; and—since the discovery in the Sutton Hoo ship burial or cenotaph in East Anglia of a rich range of Vendel-style artefacts, helmet, sword, standard, shield, gold ornaments, all strongly reminiscent of artefacts described in Beowulf—the reign of an East Anglian king in the late seventh or early eighth century. There is no way of settling between these three claims, and we are left to conclude that some time in or near the eighth century an unknown person to whom for convenience sake we accord the title of ‘author’, composed, or put together, or in some way set his seal on the poem we call Beowulf, and that this poem was to all intents and purposes the one copied down in Cotton Vitellius A 15, alongside three pieces of Old English prose and a fragment of the poem known as Judith. Essentially, that is, we are considering the one and only surviving manuscript version of Beowulf, and this because no other course makes sense.1

If this by formal definition is what Beowulf is, we may now ask ourselves, What is it about? Or if that is a question which invites a too complex answer just now let us replace it with, What story does it tell? In essence, the following.

A young man in the kingdom of the Geats, Beowulf by name, learns that a famed but ageing king of the Danes, whose name is Hrothgar, is denied the use of his royal hall Heorot by a monstrous creature called Grendel. He goes to Heorot with some companions, and fatally injures Grendel when he next attacks the hall by night.

The following night the hall is attacked by a second monster, Grendel's Mother, while Beowulf is sleeping elsewhere. He pursues her to her lair, which is at the bottom of a mere, kills her, and cuts off the head of the first monster, whom he finds lying there dead. He receives a rich reward from Hrothgar, and returns to his own home in triumph.

In later days, when Beowulf has become king of the Geats and ruled them well for fifty years, their land is ravaged by a dragon. Beowulf kills this dragon with the help of a companion, but dies of his injuries.

The immediate virtue of a summary as spare and undeviating as this is that it shows how Beowulf's first two exploits are linked together, while the third is removed in time, place, and also in kind. The first two are found in lines 1-2199, the third in lines 2200-3182. For convenience sake we will identify them by the titles (unknown to the scribe) of ‘Young Beowulf in Denmark’ and ‘Beowulf's Fight with the Dragon’.

As we have indicated, and will show in more detail later on, the basic story of Part One is enlarged, dignified, diversified, and often obscured by other story-material. For example, there is a pseudo-historical or, if the adjective is preferred, legendary preamble about the royal house of the Danes and the mysterious origin of the Scyldings. There is also a small amount of firm historical information about the Geats, their kings, and their warrings. There are several elaborately retailed scenes at the Danish court, in one of which Beowulf is verbally assailed by an enigmatic courtier named Unferth, and defends himself with a ‘gab’ or gilp about his skill and endurance as a swimmer and killer of sea-beasts, and in another of which the feasters in hall are regaled with the disaster-laden story of Finn the Frisian, Hnaef the Half-Dane, and the lady Hildeburh, wife of the one, sister of the other, and destined to forfeit them both, and her sons along with them. Elsewhere a minstrel tells of Sigemund son of Waels, Sigmund the Volsung, how he killed a dragon, so that he won fame and treasure, and of Heremod, a king among the Danes, how he was a burden to his people, so that they drove him away. There is a fairly determined retelling, in the guise of a foretelling, of the story of the Heathobard prince Ingeld's ill-fated marriage to Hrothgar's daughter Freawaru, and an interpolation even more intrusive when the poet elusively and puzzlingly tells of the vindictiveness of the lady Thryth (Modthrytho) and how she grew kinder after her marriage to king Offa. There is an old man's homily on the dangers of excessive pride addressed by Hrothgar to Beowulf, and warnings aplenty against faithlessness, impiety, cowardice, and greed. We are freely advised of the world's mutability and the transitoriness of all created things. But despite the interest and importance of all these matters, the basic story of Beowulf, Part One, is that set out above; and since Panzer's decisively documented but not overwarmly welcomed Studien zum germanischen Sagengeschichte: I. Beowulf appeared in 1910, we have been aware that its origins lie not in early Germanic heroic tradition, and certainly not in nature myths, but in the world of wondertale or popular story. And since the publication of Antti Aarne and Stith Thompson's The Types of the Folktale, 1928 and 1961, and Stith Thompson's Motif-Index of Folk-Literature, 1932-6 and 1955-8, we know from which airt and region of that world.

The essential primitive story-material of the first part of Beowulf is that comprised in the folktale-type listed by Aarne and Thompson as ‘The Three Stolen Princesses’. The apparent unlikeliness of the connection in the light of the title alone is a tax we must pay on the two scholars' immense and beneficial ordering of what had earlier been seen as an almost ungraspable mass of oral and written popular story. Unfortunately for the student of Beowulf their essay in scientific classification led them to abandon the title ‘The Bear's Son’ (under which earlier scholars including Panzer and Chambers had grouped the cognate folktale material), so that in The Types of the Folktale the Bear's Son motifs must be sought under the main head of ‘The Three Stolen Princesses’, Type 301, and to a considerably lesser extent under ‘Strong John’, Type 650A. There are interesting resemblances between the opening sections of these two, but unless in combination with the somewhat similar 301A (see A-T pp. 92-3) ‘Strong John’ does not include the hero's pursuit of a monster underground, his adventures there, and the circumstances attendant on his return to the upper world. That ‘The Three Stolen Princesses’ is an elaborate and complicated type of folktale, incorporating a great many motifs and episodes, and tolerating a considerable choice of alternatives by the story-teller without losing its story line, is immediately apparent when we read not only the analysis printed in The Types of the Folktale (2nd revision, Helsinki, 1961), but the motif-analysis supplied by Stith Thompson so as to display the ‘anatomy of the tale’. These are transcribed in full so that what is taken over from story and motifs and what is omitted may be seen in perspective and proportion.


I. The Hero is of supernatural origin and strength: (a) son of a bear who has stolen his mother; (b) of a dwarf or robber from whom the boy rescues himself and his mother; (c) the son of a man and a she-bear or [d] cow; or (e) engendered by the eating of fruit, (f) by the wind or (g) from a burning piece of wood. (h) He grows supernaturally strong and is unruly.

II. The Descent. (a) With two extraordinary companions (b) he comes to a house in the woods, or (b1) a bridge; the monster who owns it punishes the companions but is defeated by the hero, (c) who is let down through a well into a lower world.—Alternative beginning of the tale: (d) The third prince, where his elder brothers have failed, (e) overcomes at night the monster who steals from the king's apple-tree, and (f) follows him through a hole into the lower world.

III. Stolen Maidens. (a) Three princesses are stolen by a monster. (b) The hero goes to rescue them.

IV. Rescue. (a) In the lower world, with a sword which he finds there, he conquers several monsters and rescues three maidens. (b) The maidens are pulled up by the hero's companions and stolen.

V. Betrayal of Hero. (a) He himself is left below by his treacherous companions, but he reaches the upper world through the help of (b) a spirit whose ear he bites to get magic power to fly or (c) a bird, (d) to whom he feeds his own flesh; or (e) he is pulled up.

VI. Recognition. He is recognized by the princesses when he arrives on the wedding day. (b) He is in disguise and (c) sends his dogs to steal from the wedding feast; or (d) he presents rings, (e) clothing, or (f) other tokens, secures the punishment of the impostors and marries one of the princesses.2

However, in thus digging for the deepest roots of Beowulf's story it is important not to fall into ancient error or new superstition. Demonstrably Beowulf is not ‘The Three Stolen Princesses’ retold in Old English verse. There are no stolen princesses, as in section III, so none can be rescued and wed; much of section V and practically all of section VI is consequently missing; and in section II we must manage without an apple-tree. This need not discomfit us: our concern is with those elements of the story which entered Beowulf, not those that fell by the story-teller's wayside. More than 600 versions or variants of ‘The Three Stolen Princesses’ have been recorded, a small proportion of them as void of princesses as Beowulf, and others where it is not the king's apple-tree but his palace which is prey to a monster who is injured and pursued by the hero. ‘The Three Stolen Princesses’ is itself an enormously variable complex of story-telling, and in addition it is far from being the complete story material of our poem. If then we now attempt a further summary of the first part of Beowulf, it is not in order to restore the rightly discarded view of earlier critics that the poem is a ‘wild folktale’ (which emphatically it is not), but to show how much of its subject matter, and how much of what is distinctive in the story it tells, must be related to a well-known, widespread, and many times reshaped and retold popular wondertale, and that unless we allow for this we shall not always know why our poet is doing what he is, nor fairly assess how well he is doing it. With an eye to the Aarne-Thompson analysis of ‘The Three Stolen Princesses’, we may now expand our earlier summary of Part One thus:

A hero of noble origin and superhuman strength, with the name of a bear (if, as appears likely, Beowulf = Beo-wulf, the Wolf or Foe of Bees, i.e. the Bear), the attributes of a bear, and the troublesome boyhood typical of the Bear's Son, goes with his companions to cleanse a king's hall which is under night-attack by a monster. The monster kills one of the hero's companions, but the hero fatally injures him by tearing off his arm. In the morning a band of warriors follow his bloody tracks to a mere whose waters they see are stained with his life's blood. They return home rejoicing.

That night, while the hero is sleeping elsewhere, a second monster attacks the hall, and a second time a companion is slain. With a number of companions the hero pursues the new monster's tracks to a mere whose waters are stained with blood, and in an underground hall, with a sword which he finds there, he overcomes a she-monster and cuts off the head of the male monster he had fatally injured before. Some of his companions do not wait for his return; without good reason they leave the scene; but he gets safely up again with a precious swordhilt and the male monster's severed head. He receives his promised reward and returns to his own home in triumph.

But a tale's strength is in its telling, and its success registers not by summary but in the heart of a hearer. At this point we need to know something of how well and by what means the Beowulf poet has managed his story so far.

The poem's opening is formal and stately. We shall not meet our hero for a while, and even our first monster must stand expectant in the wings. For the beginning of the poem is antecedent to the beginning of its story. We have a prologue to traverse, whose concern is with Scyld, the legendary founder of the Danish Scylding (that is, Skjöldung) dynasty, who came from over the water a helpless child, to wax and thrive and cheer a troubled people, and at his life's end returned to the unknown source of his being. The relevance of this prologue to the rest of the poem has been contested: some see in its account of the funeral of an aged and beloved king a sad and distanced foreshowing of the funeral of another aged and beloved king at the poem's end; but this assumes a long memory, and most readers, one imagines, enjoy it separately and for its own sake, as a notable set-piece in the epic tradition, lofty in tone, elegiac in quality, and burthened with its proper mystery.

Then Scyld departed at the appointed hour, a great and mighty prince, to fare into the Lord's keeping. His beloved comrades carried him to the seaflood, as he had himself requested when the Scyldings' friend still ruled with his word. A well-loved leader of his country, he had held power for a long time. A ship waited there at the landing-place, icy and eager to be away, the king's own vessel, and they laid down their treasure-giver in her bosom, their glorious lord by the mast. There was many a treasure there, ornaments fetched from afar. I have never heard of a ship more handsomely decked with weapons of war and armour, swords and corslets. A multitude of precious things lay on his breast, which must make a far journey with him into the sea's dominion. For indeed they did not furnish him with lesser gifts and national treasures than those others did who sent him forth in the beginning over the sea alone, when he was still a child. Further, they set a golden standard high above his head, let the sea take him, gave him to the ocean. Their hearts were sad within them, their minds laden with grief. None can tell for sure, counsellors in hall or heroes under heaven, who received that freight


If Prologue there must be (and ours is the first age of readers to be dubious of such courtesies) this can hardly be bettered; and once it is over we soon reach the three requisites of the basic wondertale of the first part of Beowulf: a royal hall, a monster who plagues it, and a hero who arrives to cleanse it. It was a hall built for magnificence and joy, the bestowal of gifts and drinking of wine, the sound of the harp and the minstrel's clear song. The monster was a creature of darkness, exiled from happiness and accursed of God, the destroyer and devourer of our human kind. Like the Norse draugr or animated corpse, he is in human form but devoid of humanity, though his size, shape, appearance, are what we make of them. Some draugar have a horrible smell, are rough-coated, or catlike, prodigal of blood and vomit; but of Grendel we are informed only that a horrid light most like to flame shone from his eyes, that it would require four strong men to carry his severed head, that the fingers of his torn-off arm were shod with long nails hard as steel—and that steel would not bite on him. When he first raids Hrothgar's hall, the antlered Heorot (Hart), he kills or carries off thirty fighting-men and eats them in his lair. Later we are told how he carried a glove or pouch at his belt to hold the victims. The hero who destroys him is a gallant young prince from far off, with thirty men's strength in his handgrip, and furbished in mind as in body for the task he undertakes. His very chivalry and pride, excessive as Byrhtnoth's at Maldon, serve their wondertale purpose, for he dispenses with sword and shield against an enemy who bears neither, and engages with him on his own terms, hand to hand—the only terms, as it happens, on which success may be won.

Then came Grendel stalking off the moor under the misty hill-slopes; he bore God's anger. … He came on under the clouds until he clearly recognized the wine-chamber, the gold-hall of men, shining with beaten gold. … The warlike creature, bereft of joy, came journeying to the hall. Though secured with forged bands the door sprang wide on the instant, as soon as he touched it with his hands. With havoc in mind, all swollen with rage, he dashed open the hall-entrance.

Swiftly then the fiend stepped on to the coloured floor, moved forward in anger. A horrid light shone from his eyes, most like to fire. Inside the hall he saw many warriors, a band of kinsmen sleeping all together, a brotherhood of fighting-men. His heart laughed within him; the loathsome creature planned before day came to part each one of them life from limb, now that he could hope to eat his fill.

But it was no longer his fate that he should devour more of mankind after that night. Hygelac's mighty kinsman was watching how this foul adversary would set about his brusque assault. The monster had no mind to delay, but promptly seized one sleeping man for a start, tore him unhindered, bit into his flesh, drank blood from his veins, swallowed him mouthful by mouthful, and had soon devoured the entire corpse, feet, hands, and all. He advanced still nearer, reached with his hands for the brave-hearted man where he lay, the fiend stretched out his claws towards him. Beowulf gave him a brisk and hostile welcome, propped himself on his arm. That pastmaster of wickedness soon realized that never in all this world, in any corner of earth, had he met with a stronger grip from any other man. He felt fear in head and heart, but might escape none the sooner for that. He longed to be gone, make tracks for his hiding-place, seek the noisy swarming-place of devils. His situation here was something he had never met with before in all the days of his life. And now Hygelac's brave kinsman remembered his evening's talk; he drew himself upright, and embraced him hard. His fingers burst: the giant was striving to get out, the hero pressed forward. If only he might, the infamous creature wanted to get farther into the open and flee to his fen-refuge. He knew that the power of his fingers was in the grip of a fierce foeman. It was a sorry journey that pernicious foe made to Heorot …

… A din arose, and was ever renewed. Terrible fear filled the North-Danes, every man of them that heard the wailing from the wall, God's adversary yelling his frightful lay, his song void of victory, hell's captive lamenting his hurt. He had him firmly in hand who was strongest in might of all men in that day and age. … His parting from life in this world and time was to be wretched; the alien spirit must travel a far way into the power of fiends. For now God's adversary, who before with joyful heart wrought so much violence on mankind, discovered that his bodily frame could not help him, but that Hygelac's brave thane had him in hand. So long as life was in him each was hateful to the other. The horrid creature suffered a hurt in his body; a widening wound grew visible at his shoulder; the sinews sprang apart, the tendons burst. Glory in battle was ordained for Beowulf. Grendel, hurt to death, must take flight away from there into the fen-refuges, seek his joyless dwelling. He knew only too well that he had reached the end of his life, his count of days


The poet shows the same intense and steady purpose in his tale of Grendel's Mother, when after the joy and feasting that celebrated her son's death she arrived at Heorot, rescued the bloody trophy of Beowulf's success, killed a retainer where he lay sleeping, and left his severed head on the sea-cliff near her underwater home. Much care is given both to the scene and fashion of Beowulf's second exploit: the stony approach with its tall crags and narrow paths; the gloomy mere described in advance by king Hrothgar (see p. 57 below); the water burdened with sea-dragons and the shore from which beasts and monsters plunged sullenly away from the warhorn's challenge. Likewise Beowulf's preparations: his woven mailshirt, shining helm and glittering sword; his lordly speech commending his men and treasure to Hrothgar's care, his warblade to its owner should death be his lot; his vow to win fame or perish in pursuit of it. Then, his preparations made and farewells taken, he dives down through the water for a long while of day. As soon as he reaches the bottom he is grappled with by its repulsive tenant. She fails to hurt his body with her sharp fingers, as do the seamonsters with their tusks as she drags him to her dwelling. There, free from the flood as in a water-spider's bubble, he finds that his sword, brave blade that it is, will not bite on her; they wrestle and he flings her to the ground, but her strength is too great, he takes a fall, she throws herself upon him and seeks his vitals with her stabbing knife. In vain—God and his corslet protect him, he gets back on his feet, and sees then ‘amid the armour a blade blessed with victory, an old sword made by etins, doughty of edge, the glory of warriors; it was the choicest of weapons, save that it was bigger than any other man could carry into battle, good and splendid, the work of giants.’ With this he struck her so fiercely on the neck that her bones broke and the huge blade sheared through her body. A light shone forth, and by it he saw where Grendel lay dead, so struck off his head.

Meanwhile the Danes on the cliff above, observing the waters stained with blood, despaired of his life and rode sorrowfully for home. The Geats, sick at heart, stayed on, expectant of woe. Far below Beowulf observed a great marvel. The swordblade with which he had destroyed his foes began to melt away ‘in battle icicles’, long drips of gore, till only the ornamented hilt was left. It was with this and Grendel's head that he swam back up to daylight and met his rejoicing comrades.

The wondertale central to the first part of Beowulf, we have said, is that of the hero who rids the king's hall of the monster that plagues it, pursues it into some kind of lower world, and there is involved with another monster or monsters. The wondertale central to the second part of Beowulf is that of the dragon-killer. For the bases of Part Two, ‘Beowulf's Fight with the Dragon’, no extensive documentation is necessary. That a man fights a dragon is a commonplace of story, and appears in medieval literature as myth, folktale, heroic legend, saint's life, onomastic anecdote, romance, and quasi-history. So many heroes over so many centuries killed so many dragons, from Frotho and Fridlevus to Ragnarr Hairybreeks, and from Sigurd to St George, that the presence of one, or even two, dragons in a poem inclined to monsters excites no surprise. In general the dragon of north Germanic story is a creature of such ill presage, so steeped in evil, hell-bent on mayhem, and deeply involved with a treasure of gold, that on any one of these counts, much less all three, it must prove an adversary worthy of Sigemund early in the poem and of Beowulf nearer its close. It was a boast of king Volsung as of Hrolf Kraki, of Bothvar Bjarki as of Starkad the Old, that they never fled from fire or iron, and the flaming spew of a fire-drake was fire at its most legendary and horrendous. Our poet might have found a fitter and more consummatory foe for Beowulf's last adventure, because more famous, baleful, or legend-fraught, but it is hard to think of one. Bear, boar, draugr, a Swedish dreng or Frankish kemper, would all appear less primal and less awful. A man is a man, and a beast is a beast, but a dragon is a dragon is a dragon.

Is, not necessarily was. A number of scholars are coming to believe that Beowulf's three folktale exploits are in their nature closely connected: not two plus one, but an integrated three, either bound together by their not infrequent attribution to this or that member of a monster-slaying family; or by the recurrence in northern sources of apparent trinities of man-monster, woman-monster, and dragon-monster in human or animal shape; or by the identification of dragon with draugr (plural draugar, the animated dead), so that Beowulf's fight with the dragon is merely a variant on his fight with that other draugr Grendel and his Mother.3 Some of this could be true, and more of it can be argued at length, with analogues, parallels, and a little pleading to help. That a number of Norse stories reveal affinities and relationships between draugr, dragon, and a woman-troll is demonstrable, and as more and more stories are read with this in mind the demonstration will strengthen. Equally there is no doubt that Beowulf's closest parallels in Germanic wondertale fought with adversaries showing a family likeness to Beowulf's best known foes. Bothvar Bjarki, declaredly a Bear's Son, fought with the living dead (maybe with one, the enigmatic Agnarr, certainly with an army of them at Lejre); with a winged monster at a foreign king's court (which he kills); and at a pinch he may be considered to have fought with a woman troll, Skuld, who at a further pinch may be considered to have killed him—matters dealt with in the third part of this book. Grettir, the hero of the fourteenth-century Icelandic Grettis Saga Ásmundarsonar, fought with draugar twice and with a trollwoman; he also went down into a cave under a waterfall and was betrayed by a helping companion whose task it was to safeguard the rope which should bring him back up again. The correspondences between those parts of Beowulf which tell of Beowulf's fight with Grendel and Grendel's Mother at Heorot in Denmark, and those parts of Grettis Saga which tell of Grettir's fight with Glam in Forsæludal and with the trollwife at Eyjardalsá in Bardardal in Iceland, are impressively close and universally acknowledged, and a further substantial body of analogues has been discovered in medieval saga and romance.4 For example, Bósa Saga ok Herrautðs, Hálfdans Saga Eysteinssonar, Harðar Saga ok Hólmverjar, Gullþóris Saga, Orms þáttr Stórólfssonar, and Samsons Saga Fagra in the North, and the romance Wigalois farther south, all supply parallels sometimes close, sometimes not. Expectedly, when we are dealing with a widespread and enduring wondertale, partial reminiscence and residual detail will be found frequently and in many places.

But to stay with Beowulf: its author was seized of a body of wondertale (some of its features likewise observable in myth) whose shape and features and general development in a Germanic context we readily discern, and craftsman that he was he made good use of this to help produce the poem which is his masterpiece. That is, he committed himself to a hero who as a young man achieved two related monster-killings at the court of a foreign king, and as an old man achieved a monster-killing in his own and native land. This last achievement brought about his own death. His foe was a dragon, and that this draca had physical affinities with draugr or ketta is not indicated.5 Admittedly one would be troubled to draw the dragon in any detail,6 but as much can be said of Grendel and Grendel's Mother. For a man who cannot have seen an original our poet does very well indeed. And the hero-monster confrontation is perfect. The dragon was in his right place, fulfilling his proper function (Draca sceal on hlœwe, frod, frœtum wlanc: ‘A dragon shall live in a mound, old and proud of his ornaments’). So too was Beowulf, the people's guardian. That such dread veterans of the wars prove fatal to each other was a thing foredoomed, and the deaths of man and creature conclude a heroic story with heroic propriety.7

The fight and its preliminaries, as is usual with our poet, are formally deployed and heavily embellished. There is a deal of historical reference to hostilities between Geats and Swedes, Geats and Franks, whose significance is touched on below (see p. 33ff.); the deeply-troubled king discourses with an old man's wisdom of past events, present intentions, and future prospects; at a fitting time he delivers his gilp, his vaunting speech, as a hero should; we hear much of the dragon's treasure-hoard, its origins in sorrow and its enduring uselessness to men; and the Geat comitatus, that band of the king's chosen comrades who should rightly have died for him, is brought grievously to prominence by its cowardice and disloyalty. Conversely we watch a young hero, Beowulf's successor to the gift-stool of the Geats, bearing himself as a brave man should. The fight itself is soon over. With a huge iron shield made specially for the occasion the still mighty king, swelling with rage, shouts his challenge to the dragon inside his mound; the foe, three hundred years gold's guardian, quickly emerges, and the fight takes place in three desperate rounds. In the first Beowulf is forced to give ground; in the second he is so obviously getting the worse of it that his retainers flee to the shelter of a wood, and only Wiglaf hurries down to help his hard-pressed lord. In the third his sword snaps, the dragon bites him mortally in the neck, but Wiglaf pierces the dragon's unarmoured underbelly, and with the last of his strength the old man draws his sax and severs him at the middle. This is a handsome apportioning of glory for veteran and bachelor, nor is the firedrake without lurid splendour in life and a stricken majesty in death.

Beowulf's slayer lay there too, the dread earth-dragon, emptied of life and whelmed in ruin. No longer might the coiled serpent reign over his hoard of treasure, but the edges of swords, hard, battle-notched, offspring of hammers, had demolished him, so that the far-flier sank to the ground near his treasure hall, stilled by his wounds. Not now did he wheel sporting in air at midnight, reveal his face exulting in riches, but he fell to earth through the might of the war-leader's hand


If we were now to summarize the story and substance of Beowulf along lines different from those of wondertale and Germanic heroic legend, and show that its bases and controls lay elsewhere, in myth (a task many times embarked on with results between the unlikely and the impossible),8 or in northern history (a venture notoriously self-defeating), we should at least answer the well-known stricture of some well-known critics that the Beowulf poet was so little the master of his material that he placed the irrelevancies (the monsters) at the poem's centre, and the serious things (the historical, pseudo-historical, and legendary elements) on its outer edges. The monsters are at the centre because the centre is their proper place. Granted that our author saw Beowulf as a king, and hero of a heroic poem, we cannot fail to see that behind this conventionally-accoutred figure falls the long shadow of the strong hero of folktale, wave-piercer, scourge of sea-beasts, cleanser of a house, grappler with a monstrous arm, finder of a wondrous sword, destroyer of giants and merewife, to say nothing of dragon-slayer later. It follows that we must accept Beowulf for what it is, and judge it by the canons of criticism appropriate to it. Had its author proposed to write an epic after the fashion of Homer, to withstand a summary after the fashion of Aristotle, he would have chosen a different hero, from a different milieu, and set him to different adventures. Had he proposed to recount a myth of a divine being performing cosmic tasks he would not have made his god into a man achieving non-cosmic adventures. Had he proposed to write a historical poem, and we accept under that head historical tradition and legendary history, he would not have given his poem up to fabulous monsters and the achievement of non-historical tasks.

That said, we repeat that it was not our author's intention to repeat a folktale in folktale manner. Not only is our ignorance complete as to what version or versions of the monster stories counted most with him, but we cannot be sure to what extent he recognized the monster stories as different in kind from legendary and historical tradition. However, unless we are to assume without a shred of evidence that some utterly vanished predecessor had already produced an utterly vanished version of the same story, and that our author merely retold it as he knew it—and a more arbitrary and unhelpful assumption could hardly be devised—unless we wander after will-o'-the wisps like this, it seems reasonable to conclude that he gratefully accepted the guiding lines of well-established folktales and the freedom to add non-folktale episodes and dissertations; established his story within the boundaries of a carefully portrayed heroic society, with the decisive changes of emphasis and tone sequent on such a transfer; for reasons we can guess at provided his hero with a geographical and historical setting; and gave story and hero a moral significance beyond the requirements or tolerance of folktale. So that if we at last proceed to summarize the poem as it presently exists we have the following:


The poem opens with the story of Scyld, the eponymous founder of the Danish Scylding dynasty, who came from over the sea a helpless child, and was returned to it after a glorious reign. His great-grandson king Hrothgar builds a mighty hall Heorot for magnificence and joy, but it is invaded by a monster in giant human form called Grendel, who kills no fewer than thirty men in each of his opening assaults, and by his continuing malignancy denies Hrothgar the use of his hall by night for twelve long years. Danish wisdom and valour alike avail nothing.

News of the king's affliction comes to the ears of Beowulf, the nephew of Hygelac, king of the Geats, and with the approval of his peers he makes a sea-journey to Heorot with fourteen chosen companions. Beowulf has, we are told, the strength of thirty men in his handgrip. In Denmark he declares his purpose, and is given an honourable welcome, excpet that during the feast that follows a Danish courtier named Unferth calls his skill and valour in question. By way of reply Beowulf tells how he outswam Breca in a seven-day swimming contest and slew nine monsters with his drawn sword. He vows that this time again he will conquer or die. And conquer by strength alone, without shield or sword.

As the shadows thicken the Danes retire from the hall, leaving its defence to Beowulf and his Geats. All save Beowulf fall asleep. He alone, when Grendel came stalking off the moors, sees him enter and devour a sleeping warrior.9 He reaches for Beowulf, and they fight hand-to-hand until Beowulf tears the monster's arm off at the shoulder, and Grendel must flee, dying, to his fen-refuge. Men followed his tracks there the next morning, and as they returned the minstrel sang to them the contrasting tales of the hero Sigemund and his nephew Fitela and of the cruel and unhappy king Heremod. At Heorot all are joyful as they survey Beowulf's bloody trophy; there is oratory and feasting and a hero's reward for his deed. A minstrel tells the tragic tale of Finn. Queen Wealhtheow gives Beowulf precious gifts, including the torque which we are told king Hygelac the Geat would wear on his fatal expedition to Frisia. That evening the Danish chivalry re-occupies the hall.

Disastrously. This time Heorot is raided by Grendel's Mother, who in a night-scene of anguish and uproar carries off a Danish retainer and recovers her son's arm. Beowulf, who has been sleeping elsewhere, is summoned to the royal presence, heartens the Danes, and promises to track down the she-monster. He does so, accompanied by his Geats and a troop of Danes led by Hrothgar, and when they reach the blood-stained mere he plunges down alone to find her. He is attacked, but vainly, by sea-beasts as she grapples with him and drags him to her dwelling. The struggle in her underwater hall is hard and long; his sword, a choice weapon lent him by his earlier detractor Unferth, will not bite on her, and it is only when he has resort to a wondrous sword reposing in the lair itself that he prevails and kills her. He sees Grendel lying dead and cuts off his head. Meantime the discouraged Danes, seeing blood come up through the waters of the mere, take themselves off.10 His own men stay on, sick at heart. He makes a safe return with Grendel's head and the hilt of the wondrous sword, whose blade had melted away after contact with Grendel's venomous blood, and they make their way to Heorot with these spoils. Hrothgar makes a long descant on mutability and moderation, and the next morning Beowulf receives his promised reward and takes his leave.

Down at the shore the Geats load their ship with horses, weapons, and treasures, hoist sail, and proceed to their own country, their king Hygelac, and his queen Hygd. The poet discourses of Thryth (Modthrytho), who appears to have been a perilous maiden before marriage and a gracious queen thereafter. Beowulf tells Hygelac about his adventures, and is led to speculate on what must be the ill consequences of a proposed dynastic marriage between Hrothgar's daughter Freawaru and Froda's son, the Heathobeard prince Ingeld. He then bestows on Hygelac and Hygd the gifts he had received from king Hrothgar and queen Wealhtheow. Despite the doubts suggested by his unprofitable youth (which we now hear mentioned for the first time) he has shown himself glorious, and Hygelac rewards him with his own father's sword, a vast estate, a hall, and a princely throne.


After the death in battle of Hygelac and his son Heardred, Beowulf became king over the Geats and ruled them well for fifty years, till one of his subjects stole a precious cup from a dragon's treasure-hoard and the dragon visited his vengeance upon the country-side.

Old now, troubled in mind, yet valiant as ever, Beowulf determines to protect his people and meet the dragon in single combat. He has a shield of iron (it would require the strength of thirty men to manage it) made to this end, and while he awaits battle reviews past history: the slaughter of Hygelac and his Geats on a raid into Frisia, from which Beowulf alone escaped by a stupendous feat of swimming; the death of Heardred at the hands of the Swedes, and of king Haethcyn before him; the cruel mishaps which had brought Hygelac to the throne in the first place; Beowulf's role as Hygelac's champion; his clash with Grendel. He tells his eleven companions that this time too he will win fame or death.

He now challenges the dragon to come out and fight. It is a sore encounter. One only of his companions comes to his aid, young Wiglaf; despite his reminding them of the obligations owed to loyalty, gratitude, reputation, and love, the other ten flee into the forest. Beowulf and Wiglaf kill the dragon when he makes his third onset, but Beowulf is hurt to death. He has just time to see the dragon's treasure before he dies.

Wiglaf announces his death to the cowards and bitterly reproves them a second time. A messenger reminds the main body of the Geats of the ill-will existing between them and the Franks since Hygelac's time, and surveys the long history of the Geat-Swedish wars. Nothing but disaster lies ahead for the Geat people. At Wiglaf's command they prepare Beowulf's funeral pyre, celebrate his obsequies, and erect a mighty barrow over their well-loved king.


  1. (a) ‘With all this, however, the poem continues to possess at least an apparent and external unity. It is an extant book, whatever the history of its composition may have been; the book of the adventures of Beowulf, written out by two scribes in the tenth century; an epic poem, with a prologue at the beginning, and a judgement pronounced on the life of the hero at the end; a single book, considered as such by its transcribers and making a claim to be so considered’ (W. P. Ker, Epic and Romance, p. 158).

    (b) ‘I deal with the structure of the poem as it stands in MS. Vitellius A. xv, copied round about the year 1000, assuming that its text represents approximately the form given to the story by one man—original poet, or poet-editor, or accomplished reciter able to adapt and vary existing stories in verse’ (K. Sisam, The Structure of Beowulf, p. 2).

  2. The motifs are given with their reference to Stith Thompson, Motif-Index of Folk-Literature, 6 vols., Copenhagen and Bloomington, Indiana, 1955-8. The italics here as in the story-analysis above have been supplied by the present writer.

    I. L114. Hero (heroine) of unpromising habits. F610. Remarkably strong man. B631. Human offspring from marriage to animal. B635.1. The Bear's Son. Human son of woman who marries a bear acquires bear characteristics. F611.1.1. Strong man son of bear who has stolen his mother. F611.1.2. Strong man son of woman and dwarf. F611.1.5. Strong man son of man and she-bear. F611.1.6. Strong man son of man and mare. F611.1.8. Strong hero engendered by eating fruit. F611.1.9. Strong hero engendered by the wind. F611.1.10. Strong hero engendered from burning brand. F611.2.1. Strong hero suckled by animal. T615. Supernatural growth. L114.3. Unruly hero.

    II. F601. Extraordinary companions. A group of men with extraordinary powers travels together. G475.1. Ogre attacks intruders in house in woods. G475.2. Ogre attacks intruders on bridge. H1471. Watch for devastating monster. Uoungest alone successful. F451.5.2. Malevolent dwarf. F102.1. Hero shoots monster (or animal) and follows it into lower world. N773. Adventure from following animal to cave (lower world). F92. Pit entrance to lower world. Entrance through pit, hole, spring or cavern. F96. Rope to lower world. F80. Journey to lower world.

    III. R11.1. Princess (maiden) abducted by monster (ogre). H1385.1. Quest for stolen princess.

    IV. R111.2.1. Princess(es) rescued from lower world. F601.3. Extraordinary companions betray hero. K1935. Impostors steal rescued princess.

    V. K1931.2. Impostors abandon hero in lower world. K677. Hero tests the rope on which he is to be pulled to upper world. K963. Rope cut and victim dropped. K1932. Impostors claim reward (prize) earned by hero. K1933. Impostor forces oath of secrecy. D2135.2. Magic air journey from biting ear. B542.1.1. Eagle carries men to safety. F101.3. Return from lower world on eagle. B322.1. Hero feeds own flesh to helpful animal. The hero is carried on the back of an eagle who demands food. The hero finally feeds part of his own flesh.

    VI. K1816.0.3.1. Hero in menial disguise at heroine's wedding. T68.1. Princess offered as prize to rescuer. T161. Year's respite from unwelcome marriage. N681. Husband (lover) arrives home just as wife (mistress) is to marry another. H151.2. Attention drawn by helpful animal's theft of food from wedding table; recognition follows. H83. Rescue tokens. Proof that hero has succeeded in rescue. H80. Identification by tokens. H94. Identification by ring. H111. Identification by garment H113. Identification by handkerchief. Q262. Impostor punished. L161. Lowly hero marries princess.

  3. J. Fontenrose, Python, A Study of Delphic Myth and its Origins, California, 1959, Appendix 5, ‘The Combat in Germanic Myth and Legend’, pp. 524-34, sees Grendel as ‘the Thanatos of German pagans’ and his Mother as ‘the old Chaos-Hag almost intact’. He considers the second part of the poem to be in large measure a parallel of the first.

    ‘The dragon need not detain us as long as Grendel did; for the tale runs parallel in many respects. Beowulf is now an aged man who dies in the moment of victory, protecting his own Geatish land this time against the destroyer. The Beowulf poet's purpose resembles that of the Gilgamesh poet: the mightiest hero cannot finally conquer death, but must in the end succumb to destiny. But the poet's creation belongs to literature; the tale that he used belongs to myth. Wiglaf, Beowulf's kinsman, the last of his house, who stood beside the hero in this combat, was truly victor in the fray; for he plunged his sword into the dragon's soft underbelly, delivering a mortal wound; then Beowulf, now near death from a poisoned wound, drew his knife and cut the monster in two. Beowulf, dying, gave his armor to Wiglaf as to a son; for he had no sons of his own. Therefore I place this combat under subtype II, wherein it is the slain god's son who fights and kills the monster.

    ‘The dragon coincides fairly closely with the Grendel pair, and his tale with theirs, in the following respects. (1) He raided at night, spreading death and devastation far and wide among the Geats, and had to get back to his lair before dawn. (2) He lived in a dark cavern underground, beneath a burial mound on a rocky promontory beside the sea. (3) There he guarded an immense treasure. (4) He was huge of size, fifty feet long, and (5) he breathed forth blasts of flame. (6) Beowulf went to the barrow's rocky mouth to meet Firedrake, as we shall henceforth call him. (7) His companions fled, all except Wiglaf; much as years before his comrades at the mere's edge thought him dead and went back to Heorot. (8) Firedrake was fought and killed, and (9) his body was cut into two parts and cast into the sea. (10) The victor Wiglaf wielded a marvellous sword that giants had forged. Recalling the preceding discussion we can see some correspondence also in that (11) the victor succeeded to the throne, and (12) the Geats mourned the dead Beowulf.’

    This seems to me unconvincing on two chief counts. First, Professor Fontenrose's demonstration of myth reads still more like a demonstration of wondertale and heroic legend. Second, the correspondences between the two stories are too general to be impressive. Nos. 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6 lack all urgency; nos. 8 and 12 would appear unavoidable in a story involving the deaths of two such protagonists; no. 7 I would relate to such heroic convention as we find in the Battle of Maldon rather than to folktale, much less myth; and no. 10 is a commonplace. This leaves no. 1, for which see the reference to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle on p. 33 below; no. 9, whose second half is unremarkable; and no. 11, which requires special pleading.

    Undoubtedly we need to widen our view of the structure of Beowulf if we accept that its two parts are variant expressions of the same myth. But I see no sign that such identification was ever in the poet's mind. For him Grendel and Grendel's Mother were one traditional set of supernatural adversaries, and the Dragon a different kettle of fish altogether.

  4. For translations see in particular G. N. Garmonsway and Jacqueline Simpson, Beowulf and its Analogues, 1968. See too G. V. Smithers, The Making of Beowulf, 1961, and Nora K. Chadwick, ‘The Monsters and Beowulf’, in The Anglo-Saxons, edited by Peter Clemoes, 1959, pp. 171-203.

  5. G. V. Smithers in The Making of Beowulf argues strongly on different grounds from Professor Fontenrose that the dragon is a variant of the draugr or ‘creature who haunts a grave-mound after death’, and that in story-terms he is to be identified with the ‘last survivor’ who laid up in a mound the treasure he would henceforth watch over in the shape of a dragon. But the poem distinguishes between these two absolutely:

    So the sad-hearted man proclaimed his sorrows, lone survivor of them all, and wandered joyless day and night till death's tide touched at his heart. The old foe of the half-light found the joyous hoard standing open, he who seeks out barrows all afire, flies by night a naked nithdrake wrapped in flame—dwellers round about fear him greatly. He must seek a treasure in the earth where ancient in years he watches over the heathen gold—and is none the better off for it.


    Professor Smithers accepts that ‘To the author of Beowulf it was no longer clear that the dragon was identical with the “last survivor” and therefore had been a human being.’ Either the poet misunderstood this part of his story material or it was already blurred for him. I would put it more strongly: in Beowulf the last survivor is the last survivor, the dragon is a dragon, and the poet sees neither as anything else at any time. For him the dragon is not a draugr, and the second part of his poem is not a variant on Part One.

    I offer two (I fear) unfairly brief comments on Professor Smithers' remarks on the unity of the poem (p. 12). That Beowulf is ‘genetically’ a unity follows, I think, from the circumstance that one and the same hero undertakes wonder-tale ridding-tasks against supernatural adversaries, whether we consider Grendel, Grendel's Mother, and the Dragon as draugar or not. The poem can be an ‘aesthetic’ unity only in so far as its unity is aesthetic, that is, apparent in terms of its own art form, and this, I suspect, cannot be demonstrated by finding a significance in the second part of the poem of which its poet was unaware.

  6. It is likely that the Germanic dragon owed something to the horse, and the representation of his head to a shrilling, grinning horsehead. His body seems to have been thought of as narrow and serpentlike. Our Beowulf dragon has been given one canine characteristic—the way in which from time to time he turns back into the barrow looking for his vanished treasure just as a dog turns back from time to time to where he knows he left his vanished bone (2293-300).

  7. This is one of several contexts where the inquirer will be both wiser and better-informed if he re-reads J. R. R. Tolkien's ‘Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics’ (Sir Israel Gollancz Memorial Lecture, British Academy, 1936).

  8. The most memorable lines of approach have been, I think, these:

    (1) The Beow of the Anglo-Saxon genealogies, son of Scyld or Sceldwa and descendant of Sceaf (beow, grain, barley: sceaf, sheaf), was apparently a god of agriculture and fertility. The first Beowulf of our poem (18-57 only), son of Scyld, a descendant of Scef, and father of Healfdene, may be identified with Beow. The stories of this Beow-Beowulf's struggles with monsters are the myths proper to a god of agriculture and fertility, and have in a manner unknown, a place unmarked, and a time unrecorded, been transferred to Beowulf son of Ecgtheow, who may therefore be seen as a divine person established in myth.

    (2) The same Beow conducts as before to Beow-Beowulf, and so to the hero of our poem who is to be seen as a divine protector of mankind from the destructive forces of nature. Grendel is the spoiling sea, or more specifically the in-rushing spring-tides of the North Sea or, more recently, the Baltic; his Mother is the sea's hostile depth; the Dragon represents the onset of fierce weather towards winter, inimical and deathly. Or the nature-myths may be of marsh, swamp and fen, or the terror-haunted darkness of the northern night, tamed or defeated by sky-god, sun-god, weather-god, or such other god as Beowulf can be identified with.

    (3) As vegetation-god and sun-god grow victims of our modern contagion of disbelief and fade from field and sky, the esoteric interpreters of Beowulf have taken fresh heart and new bearings, this time in the fields of pagan (Germanic) or Christian mythology. The reference points are Heorot-Asgard-Eden; Grendel's kin-the Jotuns-Moral Evil; Beowulf-Thor-Christ; Dragon-Midgarthsormr-Satan; with such additions as are yielded by Herebeald-Balder, Hama and the Brosinga mene, and the like. For a precise allegorical Christian interpretation see the footnote on p. 40 below, and for a comment p. xxiii above and pp. 48-9 below.

    (4) There remains the detailed summary of Beowulf Part One, and the equation of Beowulf Part Two with Beowulf Part One (see pp. 16-17 n. above), made by Fontenrose, who sees Beowulf's fights with Grendel and Grendel's Mother, and thereafter his fight with the Dragon, as variants of a subtype of the combat myth which he traces through the ancient world in Europe and Asia from his starting-point in the Homeric Hymn to Apollo which records that Apollo fought with a she-dragon, and in Simonides and the pseudo-Julian which record that Apollo killed a he-dragon named Python. We can be grateful to Professor Fontenrose for so eruditely displaying the Apollo-Python story as a possible area of reference for Germanic myth and wondertale; and once more we may agree that husks and sheddings of myth are discoverable in our poem; but his summary of Beowulf as myth seems to me on the whole to show that it is heroic legend and wondertale with remote and largely forgotten mythical antecedents for some of its features. Also there are numerous places where we do not read the poem in the same way.

  9. That the companions shall fall sound asleep, and Beowulf make no move to prevent the devouring of his follower, are incidents inexplicable in the context of a heroic poem unless we recognize them for what they are: gaunt and unassimilable folktale motifs which the Beowulf poet found he could neither reject nor rationalize.

  10. Here, unlike the residual grotesqueries of the companions falling asleep at Heorot, and Beowulf watching Grendel devour his friend and retainer Hondscio, the poet has neatly rationalized, or used a rationalization of, the folktale motif of the deserting companions.

Elisabeth M. Liggins (essay date 1973)

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SOURCE: “Revenge and Reward as Recurrent Motives in Beowulf,” in Neuphilologische Mitteilungen, Vol. LXXIV, No. 2, 1973, pp. 193-213.

[In the essay below, Liggins argues that the pattern of reference to vengeance and reward—both earthly and divine—in Beowulf emphasizes the poem's sense of order. She stresses however, that there is a dearth of evidence indicating that the poet intended to convey this sense of order. Rather, the poet's interest in the “duty of vengeance” imbues the poem with an internal orderliness.]

In the Introduction to his edition of Beowulf, C. L. Wrenn discusses the parallels between the Finn Episode and the tale of Ingeld, of which one is that”they both treat of the supreme necessity of vengeance for a slain leader to be taken by a faithful member of his comitatus”,1 and he also suggests that one purpose of the Finn Episode may be to illustrate”the great Germanic duty of vengeance for a slain leader of one's comitatus” which”is not at all fully illustrated by the events of the hero's life dealt with in Beowulf”.2

The treatment of vengeance in these two episodes is very powerful, both within the scope of each tale itself and in its bearing on the poem as a whole. The opening lines of the Finn Episode are not concerned with the moral duty of vengeance, but they pick out the other elements of violence and poignancy as they might appear in the case of the warriors and then in the situation of Hildeburh: sudden disaster (se fær), death at the decree of inexorable fate (feallan scolde and hie on gebyrd hruron), treachery (Ne huru Hildeburh herian þorfte / Eotena treowe), the injustice of suffering and the loss of kindred (unsynnum wearð / beloren leofum … bearnum ond broðrum).3 The tragedy of Hildeburh, whose happiness and security are destroyed in the conflict between the two groups with whom she has ties of the deepest affection and loyalty as both kinswoman and subject, is summarized in a phrase which concentrates on her sorrow, without reference to moral issues, and which, moreover, is itself almost impersonal in tone, þæt wæs geomuru ides. A variation of þæt wæs god cyning, the comment expresses no overt sympathy, and assumes that her dignity will remain constant, however deep are her sufferings. Indeed, the next reference to Hildeburh shows her giving orders at the cremation:

Het ða Hildeburh                    æt Hnæfes
hire selfre sunu                    sweoloðe befæstan,
banfatu bærnan,                    ond on bæl don
eame on eaxle


Only when that has been attended to is she permitted to display her emotions and even then the expression of her grief becomes a part of the formal ceremony:

                                                            Ides gnornode,
geomrode giddum


The details of the fighting are of much less importance in the poem than the emotions of the protagonists, and, particularly, than those of Hengest, whose situation and temperament make him one of the most complex and interesting of all the heroic figures in Beowulf. His dilemma, as a partner to the compact with Finn4 and as the one upon whose shoulders falls the duty of avenging the leader, is one incapable of easy solution. It is brilliantly suggested in the passage of atmospheric writing (lines 1127 ff.), in which the poet divides his attention between the brooding, turbulent-spirited leader and the bleak, violent weather of winter, which both echoes his own mood and in large measure causes it by the inactivity it forces upon him. Man and nature are brought together violently in the opening lines, with the strongly evocative epithet for winter:

                                                                                Hengest ða gyt
wælfagne winter                    wunode mid Finne
[ea]l unhlitme


His thoughts of home are in part nostalgic (and to some extent, perhaps, emotional memories of the dead leader whose duty had been to defend his land have been transmuted to longings for the land itself), and in part, perhaps, very practical, in Hengest's awareness of the impossibility of travel either for those who would be able to return after the battle with Finn or, if we accept one suggestion,5 for reinforcements of Danes to come to his aid before the battle:

                                                                      eard gemunde,
þeah þe ne meahte                    on mere drifan
hringedstefnan,—                    holm storme weol,
won wið winde,                    winter yþe beleac


The coming of spring both brings with it the possibility of action which alone can lift Hengest's depression and also symbolizes the lightening of his spirit. (The dual significance here resembles that in the case of winter.) It is only after the poet has marked the change of season and implied the joy which this usually brings to mankind that he turns to Hengest. In his case, the beauty of spring for its own sake means nothing, but the relief he feels comes from the opportunity to take positive action at last, to purge his feelings of guilt by performing his duty of vengeance:

                                                                                Da wæs winter scacen,
fæger foldan bearm;                    fundode wrecca,
gist of geardum;                    he to gyrnwræce
swiðor þohte                    þonne to sælade,
gif he torngemot                    þurhteon mihte,
þæt he Eotena bearn                    irne gemunde


His feelings of relief and the overwhelming force of the memory of Hnæf perhaps obliterate any last thoughts of the temporary, and hated, bond with Finn. The poet gives no hint, though in his attitude towards the Frisian leader there is a certain ambivalence. His own approbation is unqualified for Hengest and for the Danish viewpoint that, no matter how honourable are the terms offered by the Frisians, an alliance with them is no substitute for independence and for a single bond of loyalty to their own leader, but his sympathy for Finn comes through very clearly in

Swylce ferhðfrecan                    Fin eft begeat
sweordbealo sliðen                    æt his selfes ham


just as it had been implied earlier in his account of Finn's generous treatment of the Danes after the first battle and in his reference to Hildeburh's happy married life. Finn's appreciation of the difficult and galling situation of the Danes is implied in his willing agreement to the condition that his own men should never, through enmity or malice (þurh inwitsearo) remind the visitors of their subjection to the slayer of their lord, and that any Frisian who transgressed should be immediately put to death.

But the poet's sympathy seems to vanish suddenly as he summarizes the report of Guthlaf and Oslaf, and the death of Finn is hurried over in half a dozen words (though this of course is in agreement with the scant attention paid in the Episode to physical action). The ethics of the last attack are ignored, perhaps because the poet had no wish to commit himself, perhaps because he saw no problem there.

Within the framework of the whole poem, the Finn Episode emphasizes the point that tragedy and death are never far away. The happiness of Hildeburh cannot last, and the triumph of Beowulf will eventually be replaced by at least partial defeat and by death. The tale of Finn is told as part of healgamen and the tragic outcome is given in the opening lines. There may possibly be word-play between the gid oft wrecen (1065) by Hrothgar's scop as he entertains the warriors at this feast of triumph and the very different kind of gid uttered beside Hnæf's pyre (1118), and also between the sense of mænan in l. 1067,

ðonne healgamen                    Hroþgares scop
æfter medobence                    mænan scolde,

and that in which it is applied to the two Danes of old,

siþðan grimne gripe                    Guðlaf ond
æfter sæsiðe                    sorge mændon,
ætwiton                    weana dæl


Beyond this, one may perhaps see a contrast between the faithfulness of the Danes to their dead lord and the cowardice of the Geats of the last part of the poem, who, with the shining exception of Wiglaf, desert their living leader in his time of desperate need.

The Ingeld story is concerned with vengeance for a slain parent, not specifically with that for a leader, and it is apparently not Ingeld, the bridegroom, who makes the first move. However, the prince is named separately when Beowulf speaks of the resentment of the Heathobards against the Danish nobles who so tactlessly wear the arms of those whom they had overcome:

Mæg þæs þonne ofþyncan                    ðcodne
ond þegna gehwam                    þara leoda,
þonne he mid fæmnan                    on flett gæð:
dryhtbearn Dena,                    duguða biwenede


Both here and in the Finn Episode, the warrior who actively begins the second stage of the quarrel is urged on by somebody else. Here it is an eald æscwiga (2042) who makes an inflammatory speech. Lines 1142-44 have been interpreted in a number of different ways, but the most widely accepted one sees the laying of the sword in Hengest's lap as a symbolic act reminding him of his duty. There is something especially appropriate in this (apparently) silent reminder to the introspective leader. It is as though his thoughts are suddenly given visible form. Whether by chance or by the poet's deliberate design this is more subtly powerful in these particular circumstances than a speech could have been. The Heathobard's action is more hotheaded, provoked by the sight of the thoughtless or arrogant visitors and by the beer at the feast, whereas there is an implication of cooler and more deliberate action by Hengest and his party, but in both cases the memory of the earlier battle is bitter and the desire for vengeance strong. In both episodes, the dead man is avenged, though subsequent events are different: whereas the Finn tale is brought to an end with a second fight leading to the destruction of the leader and his men and the lady's return to her own people, in that of Ingeld there is clear reference only to a single encounter. (However, mention of the breaking of the aðsweord (2064) seems to imply further bloodshed and there are suggestions of more reprisals at a still later date when Ingeld's love for his wife has cooled in his grief for the slaughter of his men.)

Although it is in these two episodes that the duty of vengeance appears most strongly, it is important in a number of other interludes. Moreover, in most of the exploits of Beowulf, it is used in a new way, in his struggles with non-human creatures: with the sea-monsters, with Grendel, Grendel's mother and finally the dragon. Sometimes the poet uses words that specifically mean “vengeance”, “avenge”, “revenge”. At other times he does not do so, but, while nothing can be proved, it seems highly probable that in any counter-attack upon an enemy who had previously been victorious, the notion of revenge or of vengeance would play an important part. That the desire was very long-lived is shown by Wiglaf's reference to the threat which the Franks and Frisians will offer once the news of Beowulf's death has become known: the memory still rankled of the raids which the Geats had made upon the Franks more than half a century before. In them Hygelac, after initial victories, was slain (lines 2913 ff); however, his death was itself followed by an act of vengeance, for Beowulf, fulfilling a double obligation, as kinsman and as thane, had at once killed Dæghrefn, who may well have been the actual slayer of Hygelac (lines 2501 ff). The Swedes, too, says Wiglaf, may be expected to renew their ancient feuds (ll. 2922-23, 2999-3007).

The complicated story of the wars between Geats and Swedes is a pattern of revenge (and its concomitant, reward for the loyal service of thanes). The attack made upon the Geats at Hreosnabeorh by the arrogant Swedes, after the death of Hrethel, is followed by the vengeance of the Geats, who raid Sweden and capture Ongentheow's queen. In reprisal, Ongentheow again engages with his enemies at Ravenswood, kills Hæthcyn, the son of Hrethel, releases his wife, and pursues the leaderless Geats. He besieges them all night long, with threats of wholesale destruction in the morning. At daybreak Hygelac, Hæthcyn's younger brother, arrives with reinforcements, and the battle is resumed. Ongentheow's powers of resistance are already lowered by his knowledge of Hygelac's prowess, and the Geat, for his part, is inflamed by his desire to avenge the one who was both his near kinsman and his lord:

Þæt mægwine                    mine gewræcan,
fæhðe ond fyrene,                    swa hyt gefræge


In this case Hygelac does not personally slay the Swedish ruler but, in his capacity as new leader of the Geats, is responsible for seeing that this is done. It is the brothers Eofor and Wulf who actually engage Ongentheow. Wulf strikes the first mighty blow, and, despite its effect, the Swede immediately repays it with even more violence:

                                                                      Næs he forht swa ðeh,
gomela Scilfing,                    ac forgeald hraðe
wyrsan wrixle                    wælhlem þone,
syþðan þeodcyning                    þyder oncirde


Wulf is too badly wounded to return the blow,

Ne meahte se snella                    sunu Wonredes
ealdum ceorle                    ondslyht giofan


and the responsibility for retaliation therefore passes to his brother Eofor, who now has the double duty of avenging his leader's death and his brother's wounding. Having slain Ongentheow, he strips him of byrnie, sword and helmet and hands the armour to Hygelac. On their return home, Hygelac rewards the brothers for their services with magnificent gifts and to Eofor he also gives the hand of his only daughter. The pattern has been completed, with the aggressors punished and services recompensed. There is no bitterness and the bravery of Ongentheow is fully acknowledged. The fighting is very much a pitting of the strength of one man against another. Eofor takes no part until his brother has been disabled.

Years later, the Geats and Swedes again become involved in a fierce quarrel, when the young Geatish king, Heardred, gives shelter at his court to the Swedish princes Eanmund and Eadgils, who had fled when their uncle, Onela, seized the throne. Seeking revenge for this unfriendly act (at this stage the Geats do not seem to have been directly involved in the quarrel), Onela invades Geatland, killing both Heardred and Eanmund. A couple of years later, Eadgils with Geatish support marches against his uncle, in retaliation for Onela's seizing of the throne, killing of Eanmund and exile of himself:

                                                                                he gewræc syþðan
cealdum cearsiðum,                    cyning ealdre bineat


The crime of usurpation has been punished at last. But the seeds of further trouble between Swedes and Geats have been sown.

On many occasions, the poet refers to Beowulf's fights with the various monsters in terms appropriate to the code of revenge. This conception appears in Beowulf's account of his struggle with the sea-beasts, which is a kind of self-recommendation to Hrothgar and which serves as a prelude to his later and even more desperate encounters. He concludes the brief tale of his victory over the giants and water-demons with the comment

wræc Wedera nið                    —wean ahsodon—,
forgrand gramum


which transforms his actions from mere deeds of bravado and turns them into a sacred duty, concerning not only the safety of his people but also their honour. He thus establishes his right to ask for the privilege of fighting Grendel, not in the role of an adventurer but in that of a saviour, of one who, if the Lord wills it, may be able to “cleanse” Heorot (and the same word, fælsian, is used by the poet after he has succeeded (825)). It is probably significant that he offers himself in this role only to Hrothgar; in his earlier speech to the coastguard he says simply:

                                                                      Ic þæs Hroðgar mæg
þurh rumne sefan                    ræd gelæran,
hu he frod ond god                    feond oferswyðeþ


and he tells Wulfgar that he will declare the real purpose of his journey to the prince alone:

Wille ic asecgan                    sunu Healfdenes,
mærum þeodne                    min ærende,
aldre þinum … 


In Beowulf's reply to Unferth's taunting speech, there is a strong suggestion that Grendel's attacks on the Danes may be a direct consequence of Unferth's treachery, but I shall return later to the matter of Divine Vengeance.

The revenge theme comes out strongly in the case of Grendel's mother. The first reference to her when she attacks Heorot is in the role of avenger and it is interesting that this motive is immediately ascribed to her by the Danes and Geats; in fact, she is called a wrecend before she is identified in any other way, by name, sex, or relationship to Grendel:

                                                            Þæt gesyne wearþ,
widcuþ werum,                    þætte wrecend þa
lifde æfter laþum


Grendel may be laþ, but he is still entitled to an avenger. And when the poet returns to her again fourteen lines later, after an interpolation dealing with Cain, the origins of the evil spirits and a brief recapitulation of the fight between Beowulf and Grendel, he makes the same point:

                                                                      Ond his modor þa gyt
gifre ond galgmod                    gegan wolde
sorhfulne sið,                    sunu deoð wrecan


Even though Hrothgar is filled with grief for æschere, and although Grendel's mother is to him wælgæst wæfre and atol æse wlanc, he still thinks of her action in similar terms, and even, to some extent, sees Beowulf's defeat of Grendel from her point of view:

                                                                                Heo þa fæhðe wræc,
þe þu gystran niht                    Grendel cwealdest
þurh hæstne had                    heardum clammum,
forþan he to lange                    leode mine
wanode ond wyrde.                    He æt wige gecrang
ealdres scyldig,                    ond nu oþer cwom
mihtig manscaða,                    wolde hyre mæg wrecan … 


(Here, Beowulf's action is seen as the result and the punishment of Grendel's long series of raids, but the poet's “sympathy” seems to be more with the bereaved mother who for the moment is raised to human dignity.) At the climax of the underwater struggle, when Grendel's mother sits on top of Beowulf and draws her knife, the poet pauses briefly to add wolde hire bearn wrecan, / angan eaferan (lines 1546-47). Despite the fact that he happens to be the one who first attracts the attention of the creature when she realizes that she is discovered, there is perhaps a certain ironic justice in the slaying of æschere:

Se wæs Hroþgare                     hæleþa
on gesiðes had                    be sæm tweonum


The death of a son has been avenged by the death of a specially beloved thane. But even if the choice of this victim is only the working of chance, the poet is specific enough, a few lines later, in drawing up a balance sheet in terms of the obligations of the code of revenge:

                                                                                Ne wæs þæt gewrixle til,
þæt hie on ba healfa                    bicgan scoldon
freonda feorum!


Beowulf sees the coming struggle with Grendel's mother as an act of vengeance (and so accords her a certain human dignity by implying that she is to be considered as the offending party in a feud) when he takes the situation which follows the death of æschere as a particular example of a common case:

                                                                                Selre bið æghwæm,
þæt he his freond wrece,                    þonne he
fela murne


In his later account of the underwater fight, the slaying of the female and the beheading of Grendel are regarded as acts of vengeance, not for the killing of any one man but for the long series of deeds of violence and destruction:

                                                                      fyrendæda wræc,
deaðcwealm Denigea,                    swa hit gedefe wæs.


Beowulf's report to Hygelac also presents both sides of the operation of the code of revenge. In the opening lines he gives the gist of the news that his lord is anxious to hear, when, after a reference to the many sorrowful deeds done by Grendel to the Danes, he says ic ðæt eall gewræc (line 2005). Later he can afford to be generous to his adversaries and even to spare a thought for the sorrow of the monstrous woman as she goes about her duty of revenge:

                                                                      þa wæs eft hraðe
gearo gyrnwræce                    Grendeles modor,
siðode sorhfull;                    sunu deað fornam,
wighete Wedra.                    Wif unhyre
hyre bearn gewræc,                    beorn acwealde
ellenlice;                    þær wæs æschere,
frodan fyrnwitan                    feorh uðgenge


The emphasis is laid upon her grief and even upon her courage and the reference to æschere is almost cursory.

The theme of vengeance appears several times in the story of the dragon. When he is disturbed by the fugitive, the dragon at once plans revenge:

                                                                                wolde guman findan,
þone þe him on sweofote                    sare geteode


and when he discovers the theft of the flagon, he at once begins to ravage the countryside:

wolde se laða                    lige forgyldan
drincfæt dyre


As soon as Beowulf learns of his depredations, he plans revenge (lines 2335-36). Up to this point, vengeance has been taken (by the dragon) for the breach of privacy and for the theft of valuable objects and planned (by Beowulf) for widespread destruction of property. The crimes have been of increasing gravity and each is met by a punishment, not by a closely-matching act of vengeance. In the last case the progression continues, and now it is life that is at stake. To save his country and his people Beowulf attacks the dragon and quickly wounds him. But the dragon fights back until each mortally wounds the other and the feud between dragon and humans is brought to an end. Wiglaf had played his part in aiding his leader, but ascribes the credit to Beowulf alone, in words that once more use the language of the code of revenge:

                                                                      hwæðre him God uðe,
sigora Waldend,                    þæt he hyne sylfne gewræc
ana mid ecge,                    þa him wæs elnes þearf


It is fitting that he should have avenged himself. The implication is that no other was able to do so, for Wiglaf lacked experience and the other Geats had fled from the scene. For Wiglaf to have succeeded alone when his leader had failed would perhaps have detracted from Beowulf's own glory, and would moreover have been out of harmony with the poet's prophecy of the impending collapse of the Geats. It is a part of Beowulf's supremacy that even in old age and close to death he alone can avenge himself.

Forming a variation on the theme of vengeance are the cases in which, for different reasons, such action is impossible and the grief of the relatives is accordingly exacerbated. Twice, in the course of a speech made near the end of his life, does Beowulf refer to the accidental slaying of Herebeald by his younger brother Hæthcyn and to the impossibility of seeking compensation, either by money or by human life:

Þæt wæs feohleas gefeoht,                    fyrenum
hreðre hygemeðe;                    sceolde hwæðre
swa þeah
æðeling unwrecen                    ealdres linnan


The somewhat generalized statement here is replaced by one of greater poignancy in the second reference, when Beowulf is concerned with the grief and helplessness of the old father, who finds relief only in death (lines 2462-71). The intervening lines (2444-62) picture the sorrow of the man whose son has been hung, and who has to bear the weight of his death in circumstances where there can be no vengeance and who has also to suffer the knowledge of his guilt. Both this nameless father and Hrethel are isolated from men by their impotence even more than by their grief; neither can put into practice the advice which Beowulf as a young man had offered to Hrothgar in Heorot:

Ne sorga, snotor guma!                    Selre bið æghwæm,
þæt he his freond wrece,                    þonne he
fela murne


(This third case of an old man unable to take vengeance for the death of one who, though not his son, was specially dear to him, presents a number of contrasts with the other two. Here he is prevented from taking action not because of any legal restrictions but because of old age and physical inability. Here the foe is a supernatural one whose power no ordinary man could expect to overcome. But here there is a champion at hand, a man of another race but one who owes Hrothgar a debt for the protection the Danes had given to his own father, Ecgtheow, in bygone years, and, though the chance of success seems slight, vengeance is at least possible.) Another variation is found in a brief reference in lines 2618-19:

                                                                                no ymbe ða fæhðe spræc,
þeah ðe he his broðor bearn                    abredwade.

Wihstan has slain Eanmund, the nephew of Onela, but he is rewarded by the uncle, not punished, since Eanmund, as an exile, has forfeited all his natural rights. Rebellion against his ruler cancels out family ties.

The alternative method of settling a feud—by a money payment—appears several times in the poem, both in the main action and in episodes. Hrothgar cannot avenge the death of Hondscio, but, at the celebration banquet which follows the fight with Grendel, he not only rewards the living Geats but also promises to make a money payment on behalf of the dead one:

                                                                      þone ænne heht
golde forgyldan,                    þone ðe Grendel ær
mane acwealde


Hrothgar had settled Ecgtheow's feud with the Wylfings by means of money (lines 470-72). Such payments were intended to put a stop to violence and, from being a substitute for revenge, they could easily become a means of buying off a would-be attacker. Grendel's blood-lust is not to be satisfied, however:

                                                            sibbe ne wolde
wið manna hwone                    mægenes Deniga,
feorhbealo feorran,                    fea þingian


Finn's offer that the Danes should share in the use of a hall and in the distribution of treasure rather than that the battle should continue between the two weakened sides is a further variation in methods of compounding a dispute.

The poet sometimes applies the terminology of the civil law code to cases where the methods are much more direct:

                                                                                Ne wæs þæt gewrixle til,
þæt hie on ba healfa                    bicgan scoldon
freonda feorum


where the “purchasers” are Hrothgar and Grendel's mother. Grendel's death at the hands of Beowulf is seen as a just punishment:

                                                                                He æt wige gecrang
ealdres scyldig


though he is given a curious dignity when his planned snatch-and-run raid is seen as wig, or when Beowulf vows:

                                                                      ond nu wið Grendel sceal,
wið þam aglæcan                    ana gehegan
ðing wið þyrse


The cycle of acts of vengeance between warring tribes could also be brought to an end—at least temporarily—by a marriage alliance. Freawaru's betrothal to Ingeld was an act of expediency, by which Hrothgar calculated

þæt he mid ðy wife                    wælfæhða
sæcca gesette


The reference to the bongar two lines later confirms that this has been a blood-feud, and Beowulf comments on the frequency with which the strong instinct to reopen the feud in active fighting quickly prevails (lines 2029-31).

When Beowulf arrives at Heorot, both Hrothgar's answer to Wulfgar (the first speech we have heard from the king) and his reply to Beowulf's greeting begin with a reference to Ecgtheow and then pass on to the depredations of Grendel. Although reminiscence is natural enough in an old man trying to construct a framework of familiar material into which he can fit a new acquaintance, and although there is no specific reference6 to a return by Beowulf for services rendered to his father in the past, there is at least a strong implication that Beowulf is partly motivated by this awareness of a debt which can only be paid by his own actions. The concept of return for services, in the form either of material rewards or of further service, is closely allied to that of vengeance, and is a basic one in the organization of Germanic society.

There are frequent references to the generosity of a leader and some also to the lack of it (for example, to the meanness of Heremod—lines 1719-20). The remuneration may or may not be related to a specific act on the part of the recipient; it is when it is so related that it is most clearly the obverse of vengeance. In general, the ruler rewards his thanes with gold, with treasures and occasionally with armour, while the thane repays his lord with loyal service. But a special obligation may carry a special reward. When Beowulf kills Grendel and saves the Danes from threatened destruction, Hrothgar takes him into his own family:

                                                                      Nu ic, Beowulf, þec,
secg betsta,                    me for sunu wylle
freogan on ferhþe;                    heald forð tela
niwe sibbe


In his emotion, this is what the old king mentions first and, in one sense, the material gifts are thought of as a consequence of this relationship:

                                                                      Ne bið þe [n]ænigre gad
worolde wilna,                    þe ic geweald hæbbe.


Sometimes a promise of reward is made in advance of the service, as when Hrothgar, before he sees Beowulf for the first time, tells Wulfgar, the messenger:

                                                                      Ic þæm godan sceal
for his modþræce                    madmas beodan


and this promise is repeated to Beowulf himself, in lines 660-61. The fulfilment of the promise is narrated in lines 1020-49 and 1193-96 (while in 1173-74 Wealhtheow urges Hrothgar to be generous in his gifts to the company of Geats as a whole). Later, Beowulf speaks of it again in his report to Hygelac (lines 2101-04). Similarly, before Beowulf's struggle with Grendel's mother Hrothgar promises a further reward of gold and treasures if the young man survives (lines 1380-82, and again 2134, when Beowulf reports to Hygelac). This time there is no narrative of the celebration feast and we hear of the actual bestowal of the gifts from Beowulf's lips (lines 2142-43 and 2145-47). Hygelac rewards Eofor and Wulf with great treasures for their service in slaying Ongentheow (lines 2989ff.) and Ongentheow's son, Onela, rewards Wihstan with helmet, byrnie and famous sword for his action in killing Eanmund. It is not only for martial deeds that rewards are given: the gentle Wealhtheow implores Beowulf not to excite her young sons too much, and promises a reward, which may or may not be monetary (lines 1219-20).

To receive a reward for services already rendered does not, as it were, finalize the account. On the contrary, a new cycle of obligation is begun. Beowulf tells how he with his shining sword repaid Hygelac for the treasures and land given by the prince (lines 2490-93). The fullest development of this theme of the retainers' duty to requite the generosity of their lord is found in the last five hundred lines of the poem, in the contrast between the behaviour of Wiglaf and that of the rest of the Geats. As Beowulf and the dragon come together in the second stage of their encounter, the hero's plight is briefly and dramatically described. Though encircled by flames, he takes heart in the thought of his responsibility to his people. In violent contrast with this is the action of his followers, who, with one exception, flee to the woods to save their own lives:

                                                                      nearo ðrowode
fyre befongen                    se ðe ær folce weold.
Nealles him on heape                    handgesteallan,
æðelinga bearn                    ymbe gestodon
hildecystum,                    ac hy on holt bugon,
ealdre burgan


(And the point is made again in lines 2882-83). The poet dwells much longer on what we may call the positive side, on the immediate response of the faithful Wiglaf:

                                                                      geseah his mondryhten
under heregriman                    hat þrowian.
Gemunde ða ða are,                    þe he him ær
wicstede weligne                    Wægmundinga,
folcrihta gehwylc,                    swa his fæder ahte


and on some of the details of his fight. Having shown his own valour, and in a pause in the battle, Wiglaf expresses his grief in a speech whose whole theme is the obligation of the thanes to the lord who has given them rings and treasures and the disgrace of abandoning him in his time of need:

Ic ðæt mæl geman,                    þær
we medu þegun,
þonne we geheton                    ussum hlaforde
in biorsele,                    ðe us ðas beagas geaf,
þæt we him ða guðgetawa                    gyldan
gif him þyslicu                    þearf gelumpe,
helmas ond heard sweord



                                                                                Nu is se dæg cumen,
þæt ure mandryhten                    mægenes behofað,
godra guðrinca … 
… God wat on mec,
þæt me is micle leofre,                    þæt
minne lichaman
mid minne goldgyfan                    gled fæðmie


When Beowulf is dead, the last offices are seen as the final opportunity for his men to repay the gifts of their lord:

                                                                                Nu is ofost betost,
þæt we þeodcyning                    þær
ond þone gebringan,                    þe us beagas geaf,
on adfære


Though it is in the last part of the poem that the theme of the thane's obligations to his lord is developed most fully, the mutual relationship is epitomized in the moralizing sentiments of the introductory fitt when the poet interrupts his account of Scyld and his son to comment

Swa sceal geong guma                    gode gewyrcean,
fromum feohgiftum                    on fæder bearme,
þæt hine on ylde                    eft gewunigen
wilgesiþas,                    þonne wig cume,
leode gelæsten;                    lofdædum sceal
in mægþa gehwære                    man geþeon


In the last clause the duties of lord and of thane are neatly drawn together. The bond of loyalty must be proved by deeds on each side.

The obligation of one who is both relative and thane is expressed—ironically as events prove—by Wealhtheow, in her speech of confidence in Hrothulf (lines 1180-87).

For the most part we see Beowulf receiving rewards for his exceptional services to the Danes with whom his bond is a somewhat loose one, but in a long reminiscing speech he recalls how he repaid the generosity of his own lord, Hygelac, in a normal lord-thane situation:

Ic him þa maðmas,                    þe he me
geald æt guðe,                    swa me gifeðe wæs,
leohtan sweorde;                    he me lond forgeaf,
eard eðelwyn


Sometimes the lord's generosity takes the form not of gifts but of protection or of other services to his thanes or to members of other tribes who have come to his court. So Beowulf, before going out to his encounter with Grendel's mother, can ask Hrothgar to assume responsibility for the young Geats, if he himself should not return:

gif ic æt þearfe                     þinre scolde
aldre linnan,                    þæt ðu me a wære
forðgewitenum                    on fæder stæle.
Wes þu mundbora                    minum magoþegnum,
hondgesellum,                    gif mec hild nime;
swylce þu ða madmas,                    þe þu me
Hroðgar leofa,                    Higelace onsend


And, after his return, Hrothgar reaffirms his gratitude:

                                                                                Ic þe sceal mine gelæstan
freode, swa wit furðum spræcon


Beowulf, by his generous treatment, makes amends to Eadgils for the losses he has suffered:

Se ðæs leodhryres                    lean gemunde
uferan dogrum,                    Eadgilse wearð
feasceaftum freond


Rewards may be given, too, for slighter services faithfully performed, as when Beowulf, in his capacity as leader of the band of adventurers, gives a sword, bound with gold, to the Danish batweard who has guarded the Geatish ship (lines 1900-01).

Allied to the idea of reward is that of compensation for injuries or ill-fortune suffered, as in the military successes of Scyld Scefing which the poet sees as atoning for his destitute childhood (lines 4-11), or the good fortune which was brought to the Danes by Scyld's son, the first Beowulf,

… þone God sende
folce to frofre;                    fyrenðearfe ongeat,
þe hie ær drugon                    aldorlease
lange hwile;                    him þæs Liffrea,
wuldres Wealdend                    woroldare forgeaf


In a small group of examples, the notion of “reward” is ironically applied to the struggle between Beowulf and the Grendel-kin. Once the payment is made by Grendel's mother, when Beowulf has thrown her to the floor:

Heo him eft hraþe                    andlean forgeald
grimman grapum                    ond him togeanes feng


When Beowulf decapitates Grendel's body, the poet comments that this is in return for the monster's depredations, He him þæs lean forgeald (line 1584), and Beowulf reports his success to Hrothgar in similar terms:

To lang ys to reccenne,                    hu ic ðam leodsceaðan
yfla gehwylces                    ondlean forgeald


In line 1577 the verb forgyldan alone is applied to Beowulf's actions:

                                                                      … he hraþe wolde
Grendle forgyldan                    guðræsa fela
ðara þe he geworhte                    to West-Denum
oftor micle                    þonne on ænne sið


while Beowulf

                                                                      forgeald hraðe
wyrsan wrixle                    wælhlem þone


The “reward” for evil is, thus, vengeance.

Both rewards and retribution may be dispensed also by superhuman forces, either by Wyrd or by God. The act of repayment may be implied, as in the maxim,

                                                                      Wyrd oft nereð
unfægne eorl,                    þonne his ellen deah!


or Hrothgar's confident assertion to Beowulf that, despite his ravages, Grendel may eventually be overcome:

                                                                      God eaþe mæg
þone dolsceaðan                    dæda getwæfan!


(Similarly with lines 106-110 (of Cain), 168-69 (of Grendel), 587-601 (of Unferth, whose act in slaying his brother is claimed by Beowulf to be the cause of Grendel's continued depredations), 977-79 (of Grendel on Judgment Day), 1263-65 (of Cain), which all concern punishments, and with 1553-56 (which tell how Beowulf, having once displayed his strength and determination, receives divine assistance). In lines 1724-27 the poet speaks of the lavishness of God which far exceeds mere human deserts:

                                                            Wundor is to secganne,
hu mihtig God                    manna cynne
þurh sidne sefan                    snyttru bryttað,
eard ond eorlscipe.

In some places, the direct vocabulary of reward is used, either literally, as in Hrothgar's wish for Beowulf,

                                                                      Alwalda þec
gode forgylde,                    swa he nu gyt dyde!


or ironically, as in the two references to the giants,

swylce gigantas,                    þa wið Gode wunnon
lange þrage;                    he him ðæs lean forgeald



… syþðan flod ofsloh,
gifen geotende                    giganta cyn,
.....… him þæs endelean
þurh wæteres wylm                    Waldend sealde


Most of the references to divine vengeance and rewards are found in the first part of the poem. The dragon has, in fact, no theological connections; however, Beowulf's first thought is that the series of raids are intended as a punishment for some offence he himself has committed against the Lord:

wende se wisa,                    þæt he Wealdende
ofer ealde riht                    ecean Dryhtne
bitre gebulge


Occasionally, retribution is exacted by somebody who does not appear to have any natural right to do so. So Wiglaf prophesies that the cowardice of the Scyldings will be quickly followed by the seizing of all property and the removal of the privileges normally enjoyed by a landowner,

                                                                                syþðan æðelingas
feorran gefricgean                    fleam eowerne,
domleasan dæd


though here the implication of punishment is doubtless combined with that of opportunism when the weakness of a once powerful tribe has become apparent. The ambivalent role of Grendel appears in Beowulf's reference to Unferth's fratricide, when the creature who is elsewhere depicted as the enemy of God seems to become the instrument of His vengeance. One can only conjecture whether the poet is indulging in a subtle piece of theology or whether he is merely being inconsistent.

The poet's brief recapitulation of the story of the dragon's crime and punishment neatly stresses the moral by concluding the summary with the retribution, even though to do this means a disturbance of the chronology of the earlier full narrative of the battle:

Þa wæs gesyne,                    þæt
se sið ne ðah
þam ðe unrihte                    inne gehydde
wræte under wealle.                    Weard ær ofsloh
feara sumne;                    þa sio fæhð gewearð
gewrecen wraðlice


There is, of course, no evidence to prove that the poet thought in terms of any overall purpose apart from that of the main narrative of two principal episodes in Beowulf's career, and allusions to revenge are natural enough in heroic tales of the age. But at the same time, the references to revenge taken or not taken, to conflicting loyalties in blood-feuds, to vengeance for crimes, and to rewards for loyalty are so frequent in the main narrative, in all the major episodes and in several of the briefer ones that they help to give the poem a continuity and a pattern just as much as do the many references to Hygelac or to such things as the contrasts between good and evil or joy and sorrow, to sapientia et fortitudo, or to the pattern of Beowulf's three great fights against the monsters.7 The poet may or may not have planned or recognized this, but his own keen interest in situations involving the duty of vengeance helped to give his poem a certain internal orderliness and shape apart from the parallelisms within its central narrative.


  1. C. L. Wrenn, Beowulf, with the Finnesburg Fragment, revised and enlarged ed. (London, 1958), p. 74.

  2. Ibid., p. 75.

  3. All quotations are from F. Klaeber, Beowulf and the Fight at Finnsburg, 3rd. ed. (Boston, 1950).

  4. The problems involved in the treaty are not relevant to my subject, and hence are not discussed.

  5. F. Klaeber, Beowulf and the Fight at Finnsburg (1st ed.), p. 220; R. A. Williams, The Finn Episode in Beowulf, (Cambridge, 1924), pp. 101 f.; K. Malone, JEGPh XXV, 169, ELH X, 282f.; and A. G. Brodeur, Essays and Studies (University of California Publications in English, Vol. XIV), p. 27.

  6. There would, of course, be such a reference if MS fere fyhtum (457) is a mistake for for gewyrhtum, as suggested by Trautmann, followed by Chambers and Klaeber.

  7. See, for example, A. E. Du Bois, ‘The Unity of Beowulf’, PMLA XLIX, 374-405; A. G. Brodeur, ‘The Structure and Unity of Beowulf’, PMLA LXVIII, 1183-95; Kemp Malone, ‘Beowulf’, English Studies XXIX, 169-72; H. G. Wright, ‘Good and Evil; Light and Darkness; Joy and Sorrow in Beowulf’, RES, N. S. VIII, 1-11; R. E. Kaske, ‘Sapientia et Fortitudo as the Controlling Theme of Beowulf’, Studies in Philology LV, 423-56; H. L. Rogers, ‘Beowulf's Three Great Fights’, RES, N.S. VI, 339-55.

Ramond J. S. Grant (essay date 1975)

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SOURCE: “Beowulf and the World of Heroic Elegy,” in Leeds Studies in English, Vol. 8, 1975, pp. 45-75.

[In the essay that follows, Grant asserts that Beowulf cannot be viewed as an entirely Christian poem because it also embraces pagan values, and it is by these values that Beowulf is ultimately judged. The fact that the poet finds these values inadequate, Grant states, generates the elegiac tone of the poem.]

Beowulf has justifiably attracted much critical opinion, some of which is valuable, some irrelevant, some absorbing, some tedious. I should like now to give some further reconsideration to the poem itself as it survives in BM MS Cotton Vitellius A. xv. I propose to discuss the text as a unified work of art by one poet and with a Christian colouring which is no mere interpolation. By “the poet” I mean the author who gave the poem its present form and heroico-elegiac tone.

The excavations at Sutton Hoo in 1939 and the subsequent work of numismatists dated the ship-burial as about 650-60 ad (although following re-excavation the current dating is somewhat earlier, around 625-30),1 and this strengthened the impression that the poem was written in the age of Bede (c. 672-735). Dorothy Whitelock2 has shown that Lawrence, Tolkien, Chambers, Klaeber and Girvan all argue for a date around 700; she herself, however, argues persuasively that a date in the eighth century, even in the late eighth century, is to be preferred on cultural, religious and historical grounds. A compromise such as c. 750 serves my purposes well enough. Although scholarly disagreements also centre round the poem's sources, origin, dialect, textual readings and historicity of persons,3 these are irrelevant to the poem as a work of literature.

Looking at the text itself, Beowulf takes us back to an age of heroes and valiant deeds. We behold a hero in action, moving on an elemental plane, combatting the powers of darkness, seeking to define his existence as a human being, performing deeds of valour with an epic grandeur that is nevertheless described in elegiac mood. Beowulf is a Geat, a hero set in the heroic past of the Anglo-Saxons in their original homeland among their Germanic forebears, yet there is little point in a map of seventh-century Scandinavia, for the background against which symbolic heroic deeds are performed is an equally symbolic one—Middanȝeard, Middle Earth. The main action concerns Beowulf's slaying of two supernatural beings, Grendel and his Dam, in Denmark, and later, in his old age, of the fire-dragon in his own kingdom. The poet alludes also to many other stories from the heroic age, two of which, the Scylding dynastic struggles and the Geats' wars with the Swedes and Franks, are given especial prominence, but the main action, which is to be viewed against a traditional, heroic, pseudo-historical background, is fantastic, elemental and primal, and can also be viewed artistically and philosophically against the archetypal backcloth of Middle Earth.

The cosmology of Beowulf is the normal Germanic one of the human world as an enclosure defended against Chaos. In Norse sources, better preserved than Old English ones on this point,4 we read of the human Miðgarðr, contrasted with Ásgarðr, the citadel of the æsir rising in the centre of the circle of Miðgarðr, and with Útgarðr, the outer circle, the icy barrier of the world, the home of the giants, one remove from Niflheimr and the gulfs of Chaos. In Beowulf, the work of a Christian poet, there is no Ásgarðr, but we deal with the same Middle Earth of man and listen with the heroes to the sea crashing on the rocks and the surges of Chaos booming on the dykes of the world. As J.R.R. Tolkien5 wrote:

… we may still, against his great scene, hung with tapestries woven of ancient tales of ruin, see the hæleð walk. When we have read his poem, as a poem, rather than as a collection of episodes, we perceive that he who wrote hæleð under heofenum may have meant in dictionary terms ‘heroes under heaven’, or ‘mighty men upon earth’, but he and his hearers were thinking of the eormengrund, the great earth, ringed with garsecg, the shoreless sea, beneath the sky's inaccessible roof; whereon, as in a little circle of light about their halls, men with courage as their stay went forward to that battle with the hostile world and the offspring of the dark which ends for all, even the kings and champions, in defeat. That even this ‘geography’, once held as a material fact, could now be classed as a mere folk-tale affects its value very little. It transcends astronomy. Not that astronomy has done anything to make the island seem more secure or the outer seas less formidable.

This is the primal world of nature, and early interpretations of Beowulf were along the lines of nature myth. K. Müllenhof6 tells us that Grendel and his Dam represent the North Sea flooding the coastal regions in the spring while Beowulf represents a friendly divinity who seeks to combat their onslaughts; summer peace is seen in Beowulf's long reign over the Geats, the attacks of autumn are seen in the fire-dragon and the cold of winter is seen in the hero's death. Chaos then is come again.

While it is too simplistic to view the poem thus purely as nature myth, there is no doubt that primitive myths of creation and of the cosmic battle between Chaos and Righteousness are behind some of the symbolic patterns of Beowulf. F. Klaeber7 points us to the landscape of Beowulf in his introduction:

Elements of nature are introduced as a background for human action or as symbols of sentiment. Nightfall, dawn, the advent of spring signalize new stages in the narrative. The storm on the wintry ocean accompanies the struggle of the courageous swimmers. The swirl of the blood-stained lake tells of deadly conflict (847 ff., 1422, 1593 ff.). The funeral ship is covered with ice (33), and frost-bound trees hang over the forbidding water (1363). The moors of the dreary desert, steep stone-banks, windy headlands, mist and darkness are fit surroundings for the lonely, wretched stalkers of mystery. ‘Joyless’ (821) is their abode. Strikingly picturesque and emotional in quality is the one elaborate landscape picture representing the Grendel lake (1357 ff.), which conveys all the horror of the somber scenery and forcefully appeals to our imagination—a justly celebrated masterpiece of English nature poetry.

In Beowulf, then, Chaos and Unreason are represented by images of fire, the sea, and darkness, all encroaching upon the land and the light, upon the created human world.

Let us first consider the image of fire. In Old Norse and Germanic mythologies, the Ragnarøkr or Götterdämmerung—the Twilight of the Gods—is attended by fire; Surtr, the fire-god, raises his flaming sword, and the earth and the heavens are consumed by discreating fire.8 In the Christianized Beowulf, fire stands for hell-fire and the Apocalypse; we are told of the Danes:

                                                                                Wa bið þæm ðe sceal
þurh sliðne nið                    sawle bescufan
in fðres fæþm,                    frofre ne wenan
wihte gewendan!

(11. 183-6)

When Grendel arrives in Heorot to devour the sleeping Geats, fire flares in his gaze:

                                                                      Raþe æfter þon
on fagne flor                    feond treddode,
eode yrre-mod;                    him of eagum stod
ligge gelicost                    leoht unfæger.

(11. 724-7)

By defeating Grendel, Beowulf purges Heorot of the forces of destruction, if only for a while—we are made conscious that Heorot will eventually be consumed by flames in the fatal feud with the Heathobards (11. 81-5). In the underwater cave of Grendel and his Dam, a flame burns perpetually, by the light of which Beowulf perceives Grendel's mother (11. 1516-17); the dragon slain by Sigemund (1. 897) melts in its own fiery heat, and Beowulf's final enemy, who wounds him mortally, is a fire-dragon. Finally, Beowulf himself is consumed by flames—the forces of Chaos which he was able to stave off for so long finally have their way with the hero:

                    Him ða gegiredan                    Geata
ad on eorðan                    unwaclicne,
helm[um] behongen,                    hilde-bordum,
beorhtum byrnum,                    swa he bena wæs;
alegdon ða tomiddes                    mærne þeoden
hæleð hiofende,                    hlaford leofne.
Ongunnon þa on beorge                    bæl-fyra mæst
wigend weccan                    wudu-rec
sweart ofer swioðole,                    swogende
woþe bewunden                    —wind-blond gelæg—
oðþæt he ða ban-hus                    gebrocen hæfde,
hat on hreðre.

(ll. 3137-48)

The next archetypal image is the sea, which is inhabited by Grendel and his mother, by vicious sea-monsters and by the giants who were destroyed in the Flood of Genesis (cf. vi. 4, 12, 17), reference to which is made in the inscription engraved on the blade of the ancient sword which Beowulf brings from the cave of Grendel's Dam:

                    Hroðgar maðelode,                    hylt
ealde lafe.                    On ðæm wæs or writen
fyrn-gewinnes,                    syþðan flod ofsloh,
gifen geotende,                    giganta cyn;
frecne geferdon;                    þæt wæs fremde þeod
ecean Dryhtne;                    him þæs ende-lean
þurh wæteres wylm                    Waldend sealde.

(ll. 1687-93)

It is in the waters that Beowulf fights monsters in the company of Breca. Unferth,9 whose name means “Un-peace”, “Discord”, is here a Chaos figure, giving a false acount of Beowulf's swimming-contest with Breca (ll. 506-24). Beowulf, in a long description (ll. 530-81), gives the correct version of the story and tells how he slew sea-monsters by night. Beowulf thus establishes his credentials as a hero and is accorded the hero-worship he deserves, just as in the Odyssey Book VIII Odysseus, the guest of the Phaeacians, is insulted on purpose by Euryalus while observing an athletic contest and is thus given an opportunity of showing his mettle.10

It is, then, the duty of heroes in this mythical, archetypal world to combat evil beasts in the waters. Beowulf battles with the sea-beast, Grendel's Dam, in the mere; the wounded Grendel goes home to the waters; Hrothgar's guards watch the sea, for it is thence attacks come, not from the land. And when Beowulf is buried after being consumed by fire, it is beside the sea.

The third archetypal image of Chaos is darkness. When we first meet Grendel, we are given a description of his origin from Cain, the original murderer and begetter of giant broods, then see him setting off for Heorot in the darkness (ll. 115-17), he keeps up his attacks for twelve years, in the night (ll. 159-63). In like manner, the fire-dragon, infuriated by the theft of a goblet from his barrow, waits for night in order to take vengeance:

                                                                      Hord-weard onbad
earfoðlice,                    oððæt æfen cwom.
Wæs ða gebolgen                    beorges hyrde,
wolde se laða                    lige
drinc-fæt dyre.                    Þa wæs dæg
wyrme on willan;                    no on wealle læ[n]g
bidan wolde,                    ac mid bæle for,
fyre gefysed.

(ll. 2302-09)

These evil and monstrous deeds have to take place at night, for such evil cannot stand the light of common day, the light of God.

Light is used throughout the poem as an image of creation. Immediately after the building of Heorot, the scop sings a song of creation, a song about God's rescuing of Middle Earth from the waters and lighting it with the sun and the moon to create life:

                    Da se ellen-gæst                    earfoðlice
þrage geþolde,                    se þe in þystrum
þæt he dogora gehwam                    dream gehyrde
hludne in healle                    þær wæs hearpan
swutol sang scopes.                    Sægde, se þe cuþe
frumsceaft fira                    feorran reccan,
cwæð þæt se Ælmihtiga                    eorðan
wlite-beorhtne wang,                    swa wæter bebugeð:
gesette sige-hreþig                    sunnan ond monan
leoman to leohte                    land-buendum,
ond gefrætwade                    foldan sceatas
leomum ond leafum;                    lif eac gesceop
cynna gehwylcum,                    þara ðe cwice hwyrfaþ.

(ll. 86-98)

This is the usual picture of the Anglo-Saxon world, painted by means of images of light and of warmth, fire under control. It is a commonplace to compare this passage with the famous passage in the Old English translation of Bede's Ecclesiastical History11 containing the description of life presented to Edwin of Northumbria by one of his thegns in 627 in favour of the new religion being preached by Paulinus:

Þyslic me is gesewen, þu cyning, þis andwearde lif manna on earðan to wiðmetenesse þære tide, þe us uncuð is, swylc swa þu æt swæsendum sitte mid þinum ealdormannum 7 þegnum on wintertide, 7 sie fýr onælæd 7 þin heall gewyrmed, 7 hit rine 7 sniwe 7 styrme ute; cume an spearwa 7 hrædlice þæt hus þurhfleo, cume þurh oþre duru in, þurh oþre ut gewite. Hwæt he on þa tid, þe he inne bið, ne bið hrinen mid þy storme þæs wintres; ac þæt bið an eagan brythm 7 þæt læsste fæc, ac he sona of wintra on þone winter eft cymeð. Swa þonne þis monna lif to medmiclum fæce ætyweð; hwæt þær foregange, oððe hwæt þær æfterfylige, we ne cunnun. Forðon gif þeos lar owiht cuðlicre 7 gerisenlicre brenge, þæs weorþe is þæt we þære fylgen.

So, in Heorot, light, warmth and a hymn of creation stand for a human society attuned, for a brief while at least, to cosmic order and God's will. Heorot is splendid, decked with gold; its radiance now gleams over many lands. It is a Jerusalem on earth, such as is described in Solomon and Saturn; similar descriptions of Biblical cities occur in Genesis A, Judith and Andreas.12 In Beowulf, the treasure shines; the standard which Wiglaf takes from the fire-dragon's barrow to the dying Beowulf, reminiscent of that first standard by which Scyld is buried, shines as an image of kingship giving light to men. Irving13 points to the use of light as an image of human life and hall-joy in The Wanderer, and the archetypes of such images are those in Genesis i., 3, 4, 9 and 10.

Let us consider how these images of Chaos and Order operate throughout Beowulf. The circle of light representing human life is constantly under attack by Chaos—there is frost on the funeral boat that is to carry Scyld back to the waters whence he came; there is frost on the bough of the tree by the mere; Grendel, his Dam and the fire-dragon attack the land and the hall of light in the darkness, trying to extend the field of influence of Chaos; Grendel's Dam drags Beowulf down into the depths of the mere; the episode of Finn has treachery in the dark; winter and storm oppress Hengest and prevent his taking action; and the battle of Ravenswood traps the lordless Geats for a long, miserable night.

Beowulf's first journey to Denmark and his return thence are both easy because they take place during the day, on the surface of the water; the hero is described as laȝu-cræftiȝ mon (l. 209) nevertheless. The land reached after the first voyage is a splendid one, with a fine road leading to the shining Heorot.

In the Breca episode, Beowulf is assailed by sea-monsters, storm, wind, and darkness:

Da wit ætsomne                    on sæ wæron
fif nihta fyrst,                    oþþæt unc flod
wado weallende,                    wedera cealdost,
nipende niht,                    ond norþan wind
heaðo-grim ondhwearf.                    Hreo
wræon yþa.

(ll. 544-8)

Note the images of cold, darkness and tumultuous ocean, followed by the description of victory:

ac on mergenne                     mecum wunde
be yð-lafe                    uppe lægon,
sweordum aswefede,                    þæt
syþðan na
ymb brontne ford                    brim-liðende
lade ne letton.                    Leoht eastan com,
beorht beacen Godes;                    brimu swaþredon
þæt ic sæ-næssas                    geseon mihte,
windige weallas.

(ll. 565-72)

The sun comes up, after the battle, and the seas calm.

Similarly, the mere where Grendel and his mother dwell (ll.1357-76) is worth nothing,14 with its impression of water, wind and darkness, with fire glowing under the water; the hart (OE heorot) will not enter the waters—the light of the hall (Heorot) or of God will not yet penetrate Chaos. When Beowulf jumps in, he is assailed by all sorts of sea-beasts seeking to rend him, the worst of them all being, of course, Grendel's Dam. When Beowulf slays her, however,

                    Lixte se leoma                    leoht inne
efne swa of hefene                    hadre scineð
rodores candel.

(ll. 1570-2)

When Beowulf swims back up through the waters, they are ordinary waters once more and now purged of monsters. The whole picture of the mere is reminiscent of the lake of Hell in the apocryphal Visio Pauli (and in the vernacular version of the Visio Pauli contained in the seventeenth Blickling Homily of the tenth century)15 and the parallel confirms the interpretation of this part of Beowulf—Beowulf has harrowed Hell.

wæron yð-gebland                    eal gefælsod,
eacne eardas,                    þa se ellor-gast
oflet lif-dagas                    ond þas lænan gesceaft.

(ll. 1620-2)

To emphasize this, we learn:

                                                                                Þa þæt sweord ongan
æfter heaþo-swate                    hilde-gicelum,
wig-bil wanian.                    Þæt wæs wundra sum,
þæt hit eal gemealt                    ise gelicost,
þonne forstes bend                    Fæder onlæteð
onwindeð wæl-rapas,                    se geweald hafað
sæla ond mæla;                    þæt is soð

(ll. 1605-11)

When Beowulf and the Geats ride back from the mere after Grendel's flight, morning joy pervades the poem, and when Beowulf sails home again to the land of the Geats, the sun again shines brightly.

In this dark world of Beowulf, then, the function of a hero is to aid God in his maintenance of creation. God's powers are strangely limited in this poem; we have references to the Old Testament, but not to the New Testament except for the Apocalypse. D. Whitelock has argued that such a limited position is unlikely since conversions usually begin with the major doctrines of New Testament Christianity and pass later to the detailed stories of the Old Testament. Yet Beowulf does not mention Christ at all, let alone the great Christian dogmas of the Incarnation, Passion, Crucifixion, Resurrection and Salvation of Mankind.16 K. Sisam has pointed out that the Old English taste was for the Old Testament and Revelations; Bede tells us that when Caedmon sang the first-ever Anglo-Saxon religious poem at Whitby, he sang further of Genesis and of the future judgment as well as of the life of Christ.17 It is to the point to consider to which parts of scripture the Beowulf poet has restricted himself, and why.

The Anglo-Saxons were almost obsessed, in their homiletic writings and poems, with the Day of Judgment and the ways of death of men who have gone before. Lines 80-4 of The Wanderer, for example, list the ways of death, and similar passages occur in four Old English homilies.18 They are all based on the Biblical account of the Apocalypse:

And the sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and hell gave up their dead that were in them; and they were judged every one according to their works.

[Apocalypse xx. 13]

The New Testament continues with a note of hope:

And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes: and death shall be no more, nor mourning, nor crying, nor sorrow shall be any more, for the former things are passed away.

[Apocalypse xxi. 4]

But until that Day, the powers of darkness will prevail, and it is precisely these powers mentioned in the Apocalypse that Beowulf must combat. The circle of light that is human life is constantly under attack by the powers of Chaos and darkness, and the hero fends them off as well as he can, purging Heorot and Grendel's mere, fighting monsters in the waters, harrowing Hell in order that God's light may shine the more clearly upon His creation.

But man appears on earth, almost by accident, for a short time only. At the end of the poem, the images of Chaos all turn upon Beowulf: a fire-dragon flying by night brings fire to the land, fire which eventually devours the hero's corpse; the only light comes from the treasure of an earthly king and will not succour the dying hero; and the land he dies on is a headland near the sea. In a world where God is little more than wyrd, nothing is left for the hero save death.19 Beowulf's last action is to command that his barrow be built on the headland as a beacon to guide other mariners across the ocean.

In a world which knows not the Christ who walks upon the waters, who preaches peace and mercy, who makes gentle jokes about little sparrows or the lilies of the field, life is brief and transitory—lif is læne. This is the true theme of the poem, and underlies its entire elegiac aspect. For example, in the Finnsburg episode, the reference to the return of spring is not trite, but vital:

                                                            holm storme weol,
won wið winde;                    winter yþe beleac
is-gebinde,                    oþðæt oþer com
gear in geardas,                    swa nu gyt do[i]ð.

(ll. 1131-34)

Whatever men do in the slaughter-stained winter, the cycle of the seasons is not at all disturbed. The regular order of nature is not affected by monsters or by men—that is the pity of it.

It is, I think, valuable in studying this poem of monsters and men to consider their functions in turn, to view them against the background of the heroic world I have delineated and then attempt a final assessment of the poem.

Any study of the archetypal imagery of Beowulf must come to grips with the problem of the monsters and what they represent. The poem has come under attack in the past because of its concentration on monsters when in actual fact monsters are precisely what the poet chose to write on. The attack was launched by W.P. Ker:20

In construction it is curiously weak, in a sense preposterous; for while the main story is simplicity itself, the merest commonplace of heroic legend, all about it, in the historic allusions, there are revelations of a whole world of tragedy, plots different in import from that of Beowulf, more like the tragic themes of Iceland. Yet with this radical defect, a disproportion that puts the irrelevances in the centre and the serious things on the outer edges, the poem of Beowulf is unmistakably heroic and weighty. The thing itself is cheap; the moral and the spirit of it can only be matched among the noblest authors.

Tolkien quotes the charge made by R.W. Chambers21 in his discussion of the Ingeld allusion:

Nothing [Chambers says] could better show the disproportion of Beowulf which ‘puts the irrelevances in the centre and the serious things on the outer edges’, than this passing allusion to the story of Ingeld. For in this conflict between plighted troth and the duty of revenge we have a situation which the old heroic poets loved, and would not have sold for a wilderness of dragons.

C. S. Lewis,22 too, seizes on this point:

Hengest, who ought to have been the Aeneas of our epic if the poet had had Virgil's notion of an epic subject, is mentioned only parenthetically.

All such critics seem to regret the fact that the Beowulf poet has not told some of the heroic tales mentioned in Widsith or Deor instead of talking at length about monsters. Their question is, ‘Why did he not tell the whole Scylding story and not put the irrelevant monsters to the outer edges?’ To sum up, they assume, of course, that what is important to them was what was important to the poet; the real problem, surely, is to decide what the poet's purpose was.

Tolkien's famous paper is very important in this regard, for it was the first strong claim that the main theme of Beowulf is the important one and that the background has been kept, quite correctly, in the background. One must suspend disbelief in monsters when reading Beowulf and accept that the poet is not telling a fairy-story but treating of a theme worth taking trouble over. In a world lacking our modern communications and our scientific knowledge, and which seems to be centred on a tiny explored area surrounded by forests and wastes, the Anglo-Saxons might well peer fearfully into the darkness and imagine all sorts of monsters lurking in the shadows.

Once again, the Old English translation of Bede's Ecclesiastical History23 is helpful. In Book III, Athelwald of Northumbria gives Bishop Cælin land on which to erect a monastery:

Þa gefultmode se biscop þæs cyninges willan, 7 him stowe geceas mynster to getimbrigenne in heawum morum uppe, in þæm wæs má gesegen sceaðoena deagolnesse 7 wildeora fernisse þonne monna eardungstow. Da æfter Esaies witedome, in þæm cleofum, þe ær dracan eardodon, wære úpyrnende grownes hreodes 7 rixa: þæt is to ongeotonne, þætte acende wæron wæstmas godra dæda, þær ær oðþe wildeor eardedon oððe mæn wunedon wildeorlice lifigan.

This is allegory, but a less sophisticated people would take it literally. Similarly, in Felix's mid-eighth-century Latin Life of St. Guthlac, translated into Old English in the 11th century, Guthlac goes to the fens on the Granta River near Cambridge in emulation of the Christian martyrs setting off into the desert, and he is assaulted by portents and terrors of unknown shape, by monsters and the phantoms of demons; men could not inhabit an island there ‘on account of the unknown monsters of the wasteland and terrors of diverse shapes’.24 Conversion to Christianity did not kill belief in monsters, but then, why should it?25 It is not education so much as the spread of settlements that eventually killed belief in monsters. The poet probably set his tale in Denmark and the land of the Geats to lend verisimilitude to his monsters through distance in the same way as later ages were able to conceive of Dracula and Frankenstein in places remote from civilisation such as Transylvania.

It is worth considering for a few moments the contents of the Beowulf manuscript, BM Cotton Vitellius A. xv.26 It starts with the latter part of a homily on St. Christopher, who is described in the Latin original as twelve cubits high and in the Anglo-Saxon version as twelve fathoms! He is not only a giant, but a monster with a dog's head. The Old English Martyrology27 tells us that ‘he had a dog's head, and his locks were extraordinarily long, and his eyes gleamed as bright as the morning star, and his teeth were as sharp as a boar's tusks.’

Christopher is thus described as one of the race of dog-headed cannibals, the Cynocephali, and the healfhundingas are also dealt with in the next two (prose) works in the manuscript, The Wonders of the East and Alexander's Letter to Aristotle.28 A lively interest in monsters is therefore continued in Beowulf. The history of Beowulf's lord, Hygelac, in the (eighth-century?) Liber Monstrorum29 helps to confirm this conjecture:

Concerning King Huiglaucus of the Getae, and his amazing hugeness.

Now there are also these monsters of amazing hugeness, namely, King Huiglaucus, who ruled the Getae and was slain by the Franks. Even when he was twelve years old, no horse could carry him. His bones are preserved on an island in the Rhine, where it flows into the sea, and are shown as a prodigy to people who come from afar.30

It would distort Beowulf to take this idea of Hygelac as a monster too far, but there is surely in BM MS Cotton Vitellius A. xv and in this description of Hygelac sufficient to suggest that the manuscript was compiled by someone interested in the theme of monsters.

Granted the suspension of disbelief and granted a genuine belief in monsters by the audience of Beowulf, one must ask, ‘Why are there monsters and dragons in a divinely-created world?’ The poet is surely attempting to answer the one great problem of philosophy—the existence of evil in the world.

The Cotton gnomic poem31 tells us:

                              Draca sceal on hlæwe,
frod, frætwum wlanc.
                              þyrs sceal on fenne gewunian
ana innan lande.

The Beowulf dragon thus runs true to type, for he is old, likes treasure and stays in a barrow. On the other hand, Grendel is a þyrs and also runs true to type, living in the fens and feeling alone. The poet of a Christian era would have to explain to his audience how such animals came about in a Christian creation, and it is therefore no accident that early in the poem, just after the introduction relating who the Scyldings were, the scop sings a song of creation in Heorot. Human happiness of this sort would annoy any self-respecting monster, for spirits who lurk in darkness envy human happiness, but we notice that Grendel does not simply attack Heorot because he is the archetypal party-pooper; he attacks when he hears a song of creation. This is quite deliberate on the part of the poet; other bards in the poem sing of the heroes of the past, but this scop sings of creation, thus indicating that the Danes are Christians and and that it is this that annoys Grendel:

                    Da se ellen-gæst                    earfoðlice
þrage geþolode,                    se þe in þystrum
þæt he dogora gehwam                    dream gehyrde
hludne in healle;                    þær wæs hearpan
swutol sang scopes.                    Sægde, se þe cuþe
frumsceaft fira                    feorran reccan,
cwæð þæt seÆlmihtiga                    eorðan
wlite-beorhtne wang,                    swa wæter bebugeð:
gesette sige-hreþig                    sunnan ond monan
leoman to leohte                    land-buendum,
ond gefrætwade                    foldan sceatas
leomum ond leafum;                    lif eac gesceop
cynna gehwylcum,                    þara ðe cwice hwyrfaþ.

(11. 85-98)

This is based ultimately on the Vulgate version of Genesis i. 20 and 30, and this is the question stated directly—God made all creatures that move alive and thought it good; the monsters are not good, so God did not make them. Where, then, did they come from?

The early English church offered three answers to the problem. The first is based on an early interpretation of Genesis vi. 2 by Justin Martyr, who took the words filii dei to refer to the fallen angels. According to this view, the fallen angels produced demons and evil broods; the Flood destroyed their bodies, but their spirits lived on. In Guthlac A the saint struggles with demons in his fenland retreat, and the demons are described as the descendants of Lucifer, the warriors of the ancient enemy, who had been using the area as a rest-home. In Guthlac B the saint's tormentors are devils, sometimes in the form of beasts, sometimes in human form, sometimes dragons.32 This explanation, however, it not used by the Beowulf poet.

The second, the view of the Beowulf poet, is that the monsters were the brood of Cain, the archetypal murderer. This was the view of the Irish church, and it was Irish monks who first converted the English in the north.33 So, having introduced us to the story of Genesis and creation in the song sung in Heorot, the poet introduces us to the first villain of the poem, Grendel:

Wæs se grimma gæst                    Grendel haten,
mære mearc-stapa,                    se þe moras heold,
fen ond fæsten;                    fifel-cynnes eard
won-sæli wer                    weardode hwile,
siþðan him scyppend                    forscrifen hæfde
in Caines cynne—                    þone cwealm gewræc
ece Drihten,                    þæs þe he abel slog.
Ne gefeah he þære fæhðe,                    ac
he hine feor forwræc,
Metod for þy mane,                    man-cynne fram.
no he þone gif-stol                    gretan moste,
maþðum for Metode,                    ne his myne wisse.
Þanon untydras                    ealle onwocon,
eotenas ond ylfe                    ond orcne-as,
swylce gigantas,                    þa
wið Gode wunnon
lange þrage;                    he
him ðæs lean forgeald.

(ll. 102-14, 168-9)34

The poet backs up this descent from Cain by referring to it again when Hrothgar finds the tale of the ancient strife when flood destroyed the race of giants written on the sword which Beowulf brings up from the mere (ll. 1687 ff.). The other specific reference to Cain occurs in the passage which introduces us to Grendel's Dam:

                                                            Grendles modor,
ides, aglæc-wif                    yrmþe gemunde,
se þe wæter-egesan                    wunian scolde,
cealde streamas,                    siþðan Cain wearð
to ecg-banan                    angan breþer,
fæderen-mæge;                    he þa fag gewat,
morþre gemearcod,                    man-dream fleo[ha]n,
westen warode.                    Þanon woc fela
geosceaft-gasta;                    wæs þæra Grendel
heoro-wearh hetelic,                    se æt Heorote fand
wæccendne wer                    wiges bidan.

(ll. 1258-68)

The Beowulf poet would seem to assume that his hearers are familiar with Biblical stories just as much as they are familiar with heroic legends. This belief in the monsters' descending from Cain is based upon another interpretation of Genesis vi. 2: ‘The sons of God seeing the daughters of men, that they were fair, took to themselves wives of all which they chose.’ This was taken to refer to the union of the descendants of Seth with those of Cain, and Genesis vi. 4, ‘Now giants were upon the earth in those days’, implied that the giants destroyed by the flood were to be identified with the descendants of Cain. Only the giants were destroyed by the flood, and the evil broods of sea-monsters lived on; a flood, after all, would not particularly distress Grendel and his Dam. This interpretation of Genesis is given in Bede's commentary on Genesis35 and in the Old English poem Genesis.36

The third answer is that Noah's wicked son Ham was the first person to be cursed after the flood; Irish sources suggest that he then gave birth to all the monsters. The deluge drowned the descendants of Cain, but then the monsters descended from Ham were conceived. This descent from Ham is not, as I have shown, the view of the Beowulf poet, but it seems to have been the view of the Beowulf scribe, for both of the references in the poem to Cain are blundered; 1. 107 reads caines, altered from cames, and 1. 1261 reads camp—obviously the scribe was familiar with the Ham theory.37

The poet, then, has the minstrel in Heorot sing of creation, partly to raise this matter and partly to illustrate the theme that creation is God's. The monsters ‘were not coeval with God; they did not exist before the creation of the world; they were not part of that creation; they were the offspring of sinful humanity, the progeny of the first murderer’.38 Heroes like Beowulf do God's work by combatting such monsters:

Þær him aglæca                    ætgræpe
hwæþre he gemunde                    mægenes strenge,
gim-fæste gife,                    ðe him God sealde,
ond him to Anwaldan                    are gelyfde,
frofre ond fultum;                    ðy he þone feond ofercwom,
gehnægde helle-gast.

(11. 1269-74)

Tolkien39 points out that:

At this point new Scripture and old tradition touched and ignited. It is for this reason that these elements of Scripture alone appear in a poem dealing of design with the noble pagan of old days. For they are precisely the elements which bear upon this theme. Man alien in a hostile world, engaged in a struggle which he cannot win while the world lasts, is assured that his foes are the foes also of Dryhten, that his courage noble in itself is also the highest loyalty: so said thyle and clerk.

Grendel is described in terms used elsewhere to describe the devil, for example, zodes andsaca, se ellenzæst, wiht unhælo, feond mancynnes, helle hæfton, atol azlæca, deorc deaþscua, helruna, synscaða, manscaða. This does not, of course, mean that he is the devil, for that would make Beowulf Christ and we know where that can lead. Grendel is simply the enemy of God and the antithesis of Beowulf.

Grendel's Dam is of the same order of evil as her son, but she is not described in such terms of theological guilt as Grendel. She comes to Heorot to take revenge for her son's death when she carries off the Danish counsellor æschere, and this gives her a small excuse. She is to be regarded as a monster too, representing evil and descended of Cain, as we are specifically reminded. Beowulf has more trouble dispatching the female of the species as one might expect, and artistically a worse battle is required to avoid anticlimax.

The problem is the dragon. Tolkien40 seems to think all three monsters are of a similar order and kindred significance. T.M. Gang41 objects that the dragon is of a different order altogether from Grendel and his Dam; the dragon is never specifically named as the enemy of God, rather he is a figure of impending doom at the end of the poem. The vexed question is whether or not the dragon is an untydre, whether or not he, too, is descended of Cain. Sisam points out that in some passages of Scripture and Christian writings the devil is represented by a dragon, but the fire-dragon is not very like the dragon of the Apocalypse; Sisam42 draws our attention to Augustine of Hippo's view that the devil is represented by the lion propter impetus and by draco propter insidias, thinking of the traditional wiliness of the serpent rather than the fiery breath of the Beowulf dragon.

Tolkien43 maintains that the conception of the dragon approaches draconitas rather than draco. Pace Tolkien, the dragon here is draco rather than draconitas, for the dragon is simply the animal dragon of the Cotton gnome. After the poignant lay of the last survivor and the burial of the treasure of the ancient people, the dawn-flier finds the barrow and settles on it as he should by his very nature. The dragon is all animal in Beowulf; his feelings and emotions are not analysed as in the cases of Grendel and his mother, for he has not thoughts, only animal behaviour. Look how he acts when he wakes and finds the thief's footprints:

                                                            Hord-weard sohte
georne æfter grunde,                    wolde guman findan,
þone þe him on sweofote                    sare geteode;
hat ond hreoh-mod                    hlæw oft ymbe-hwearf,
ealne utanweardne;                    ne ðær ænig mon
on þære westenne;                    hwæðre wiges gefeh,
beaduwe weorces;                    hwilum
on beorh æthwearf,
sinc-fæt sohte.

(ll. 2293-2300)

This is a dog who has lost his bone.

When considering the use of monsters in Beowulf, I am not at all convinced that the study of parallels in other Germanic literatures44 is particularly relevant or helpful, for none of them are of the same date as the Beowulf poem and in none of them are the monsters what W.P. Ker would call ‘in the centre.’ For example, the dragon-slayings in the O.H.G. Nibelungenlied and the corresponding O.N. sources do describe Sigurðr (Siegfried) gaining an immense treasure by killing a dragon, but the heroes are not renowned principally for the dragon-control service they offer—that emphasis comes only with Wagner. Nothing of import is gained by a consideration of Sigurðr's fights in Fáfnismál, Völsunga saga, Þiðreks saga or Snorri's Edda, of Ragnar's matter-of-fact serpent slaying in Ragnars saga Loðbrókar or of Frotho's exploits in Saxo's Gesta Danorum. It is similarly a critical commonplace to compare the Grendel fight with Grettir's struggle with Glam in Grettis saga or the parallel battles of Orm, Böðvarr Bjarki, Þorstein, Gull-þórir or Samson. Yet even with the closest parallel from a much later century, we see that the fight with Glam is not central to Grettis saga as the fights are in Beowulf and that Grettir is cursed for his success where Beowulf is praised for a task seen in quite a different light. The best thing to do is to rely on the descriptions of the monsters given us in Beowulf itself.

It might be objected that the poet's descriptions of the monsters are rather vague, but, after all, the early mediaeval taste was for conceptualisation rather than for visualisation along the lines of the Renaissance poets. Closeness of detail helps one to visualise the monsters in Spenser,45 Sin and Death in Paradise Lost, Ariosto's Hippogriff, Drayton's monsters in PolyAlbion, and so forth, monsters influenced perhaps by the art of the Renaissance in heraldry, emblem books or the paintings of Giotto. The Renaissance response becomes an intellectual one where the Beowulf poet by his deliberate lack of such detail elicits an emotional response; he leaves the monsters vague, suggesting that in the primal darkness one may see two weird creatures of damnation in human shape and a fire-dragon breathing flame—the rest is left to the imagination of an audience that believes implicitly in monsters and their monstrosity.

The function of the monsters is, I think, now clear. We can answer the question ‘Why does the Beowulf poet not have his hero fight other champions of other nations to get glory?’ The answer is that the poet wants him to fight monsters and dragons. The monsters represent the offspring of Cain and are Chaos figures, belonging to the sea and the darkness, so a hero has no alternative but to aid God in the maintenance of His creation by opposing such creatures of damnation; the dragon, a fire image of Chaos, represents the final enemy, death, which no-one, not even Beowulf, can defeat. He is not Christ. As Tolkien46 has put it:

We do not deny the worth of the hero by accepting Grendel and the dragon. Let us by all means esteem the old heroes: men caught in the chains of circumstance or of their own character, torn between duties equally sacred, dying with their backs to the wall. But Beowulf, I fancy, plays a larger part than is recognized in helping us to esteem them … But though with sympathy and patience we might gather, from a line here or a tone there, the background of imagination which gives to this indomitability, this paradox of defeat inevitable yet unacknowledged, its full significance, it is in Beowulf that a poet has devoted a whole poem to the theme, and has drawn the struggle in different proportions, so that we may see man at war with the hostile world, and his inevitable overthrow in Time. The particular is on the outer edge, the essential in the centre.

C.S. Lewis47 also gets to the heart of the matter:

The fall of Virgil's Troy is a catastrophe, the end of an epoch. Urbs antiqua ruit—“an ancient city, empress of long ages, falls.” For Homer it is all in the day's work. Beowulf strikes the same note. Once the king is dead, we know what is in store for us: that little island of happiness, like many another before it and many another in the years that follow, is submerged, and the great tide of the Heroic Age rolls over it … In Homer the background of accepted, matter-of-fact despair is, after all, a background. In Beowulf that fundamental darkness comes out into the foreground and is partly embodied in the monsters. And against those monsters the hero fights. No one in Homer had fought against the darkness.

Thus the world of Beowulf is a tiny circle of light on land surrounded by darkness and the restless, relentless ocean, an island universe rescued from Chaos by creation but only temporarily, an uneasy equilibrium between the forces of evil, represented by images of the sea, darkness and discreating fire, and the forces of good, represented by the land, the light and the warmth of the hearth-fire, an unstable stability, a fixity that is infixity, a portion of time wrested from eternity and thereby made miserable.

The God of the poem, the God only of the Old Testament and the Apocalypse, does not seem to care particularly about man, an experiment gone wrong which should, perhaps, be abandoned. The function of a hero (as mentioned more briefly above) is to aid the limited power of God in the maintenance of creation by battling against God's adversaries, the Chaos monsters Grendel and his Dam, and inevitable death in the shape of the fire of the fire-dragon and of the funeral pyre. In this mighty endeavour, a hero gets himself no real reward and ultimately no real success; lif is læne: eal scæceð leoht and lif somod, ‘life is transitory: light and life together all hasten away’.48 The tone is aptly dignified, for the poem is an elegy.

J.C. Maxwell49 tells us that King Lear is ‘a Christian play about a pagan world’; the setting and the actions are pagan, but the values are Christian. King Lear, morally blind and spiritually depleted at the beginning of the play, learns sanity through madness and gains the Christian values of humility, brotherhood, love and mercy. In Marlowe's phrase, he is, at the end of the play, ‘on the way to heaven’. He is permitted to learn Christian patience through suffering. Beowulf is also a Christian work of a Christian poet about a pagan world, but here the values of the poem are pagan. The God of the New Testament is missing from the poem, so Beowulf cannot learn Christian patience; yet, since the poem is Christian in that we have in it the God of the Old Testament and of the Apocalypse, Beowulf is denied even stoic patience. All that is left for him is pessimism and death after a heroism of uncertain value.

Throughout the poem we are given to understand that beyond the instability of this world there is stability, outside time there is eternity. After the fearful winter at Finnsburg, spring returns as usual, swa nu gyt do[i]ð (l. 1134). Compare also

                                                                                          Metod eallum weold
gumena cynnes,                    swa he nu git do[i]ð

(ll. 1057-8)

Wolde dom Godes                    dædum rædan
gumena gehwylcum,                    swa he nu gen do[i]ð

(ll. 2858-9)

and Beowulf's last words—‘Ic him æfter sceal!’

Those critics who try to insist that Beowulf is purely a Christian poem point to the following facts. The universe is God's, and men on earth recognize this. The Danes in the newly-built Heorot listen to a song of creation (ll. 90-100); Beowulf, in the Breca episode, calls the sun beorht beacen Godes (l. 570); a son Beowulf is sent to Scyld by God (l. 13); glory in fight is granted to Beowulf against Grendel by God (l. 819); and Hrothgar's speech points out that Heremod was given strength by God but misused the gift (ll. 1716-20). This long speech of Hrothgar's to Beowulf is often with justification referred to as Hrothgar's sermon. Gazing on the sword-hilt Beowulf brings from Grendel's cave, with its message about the giants drowned in the flood of Genesis, Hrothgar proceeds to a mediaeval exemplum in which comparison with Sigemund praises the hero, comparison with Heremod warns him about the dangers of pride (ll. 1761-8).

The poet himself preaches us a sermon when the Danes pray to idols for help against Grendel. We have seen the Danes listen to a song of creation, and we have heard Christian speeches from the coast-guard, Wealtheow and Hrothgar, referring to a God they now seem not to know:

Hwilum hie geheton æt hærg-trafum
wig-weorþunga,                    wordum bædon,
þæt him gast-bona                    geoce gefremede
wið þeod-þreaum.                    Swylc wæs þeaw
hæþenra hyht;                    helle gemundon
in mod-sefan,                    Metod hie ne cuþon,
dæda Demend,                    ne wiston hie Drihten God
ne hie huru heofena Helm                     herian
ne cuþon,
wuldres Waldend.

(ll. 175-88)

Such reversion to heathen habits by Christians sometimes happened in times of stress; compare, for example, the following account from the Old English version of Bede's Ecclesiastical History50 of the relapse to paganism of the East Saxons during a pestilence in AD 665:

Seo ilce mægð þa Eastseaxna mid þy heo wæced wæs mid þy wæle þære foresprecenan deaðlicnesse, ða Sighere mid þy dæle his folces, þe he heold, forlet þa gerynu þæs Cristnan geleafan 7 to hæðenisse wæs gehwyrfed. Forðon þe se seolfa cyning 7 his aldormen 7 monige of his folce lufodon þis deaðlice líf 7 þæt towearde ne sohton, ne þæt furðum gelefdon, þæt hit ó wære. Þa ongunnon heo þa heargas edniwian, þa ðe ær forlætene wæron, 7 deofolgild weorþian 7 gebiddan, swa swa heo þurh þas þing meahton from þam woole 7 fram þære deaþlicnesse gescilde beon.

Trust in God and gratitude to Him is expressed several times in the poem. The coast-guard entrusts Beowulf and his companions to God (ll. 316-18), and Hrothgar's immediate reaction to the news of the hero's arrival is that Beowulf must have been sent by God to aid the West Danes. Wealhtheow, Hygelac, Wiglaf, and Beowulf (during his escape from the mere) make similar remarks. All these observations might be dismissed as merely the commonplace of conversation, but it is not so easy to dismiss Beowulf's speech before his fight with Grendel (ll. 685-8), telling us that the holy God may decree the triumph to whichever side seems meet to him, or his speech after the battle (ll. 977-9), pointing out that God will sentence Grendel at the Last Judgment.

Beowulf does not make as many references to God as Hrothgar does until the second part of the poem when he is himself the leader of a people facing disaster. He wonders what he has done to so sorely anger the Almighty (ll. 2329-32) in much the same way as the Old English homilists Ælfric and Wulfstan were to do later. Such instances could be multiplied easily, for the poet tells his audience quite clearly that Beowulf, Hrothgar and their peoples are Christians and that what one does in this world determines one's fate in the next. Klaeber51 even argues that Beowulf is a Christ figure and others tell us that the poem is a psalm about redemption in which Beowulf is Christ and Grendel is the Devil.52 Such critics in my opinion go to absurd lengths to examine only part of the evidence supplied in the poem on this matter; for an allegorical Christ, Beowulf surely does and says some very strange things! Here, we are told, we have a Christian poem written for Christians by a Christian poet and including frequent references to God in the person of the poet and in the speeches of the characters, a psalm about creation, a sermon about heathenism from the poet and a sermon on pride from Hrothgar.

I maintain, however, that Beowulf cannot be interpreted as a Christian poem in the fullest sense, for its values are pagan; by these values Beowulf is judged, and it is these values that are found wanting and lend the poem its elegiac tone. The poem equates the pagan idea of Fate, of Wyrd, with Old Testament Christianity, which it would be quite impossible to do with New Testament Christianity. Admittedly there is a stability and order in eternity, but not here on earth; whatever takes place on earth, in Heorot, in Grendel's cave, in Finnsburg, does not affect the divine order one way or another. Men and monsters may do as they may—the universe shrugs. There is a song of creation, but it is Grendel, not God, who hears it. Light from God shines on the waters after the Breca episode and light lances through the waters of Grendel's mere after the slaying of his mother, but only after Beowulf has done all the work; there is not yet a Christ to harrow Hell—man has to do it himself. There is not yet a Christ to conquer death.

Again, Hrothgar preaches a sermon against pride and urging humility, but these values are not specifically Christian. They are part of the gnomic wisdom of the comitatus. I have already pointed out that such a list of ways of death is Apocalyptic and may be paralleled in several Judgment Day homilies and Biblical passages, and also that a similar list is contained in the Old English elegy, The Wanderer. Tolkien points to a parallel in another elegy, The Seafarer,53 and this so-called sum figure is developed in great elaboration in The Fates of Men54 in the Exeter Book, a terrifying danse macabre in which we have listed for us all the possible ways of death—falling from a tree, war, plague, murder, old age, being torn by the wolf or the eagle, being burned on the funeral pyre or drowned at sea, being hanged for a crime, and so on. These I regard also as the gnomic wisdom of the comitatus. Beowulf himself, towards the end of the poem, in an elegiac passage just before his final battle, considers the feelings of the bereaved father looking on the hanging body of his son (ll. 2444-59). Hrothgar's sermon exhorts the hero to accept knowledge of human limitation, as signalled by death. In the Iliad, Achilles goes out at last to avenge Patroclus by killing Hector, knowing he will thus bring about his own early death; Beowulf sets off to face the fire-dragon knowing he will die—what makes him heroic is the fact that he still goes, not any knowledge of pride.

It is common practice to regard the poet's sermon about the Danes' lapse from Christianity to paganism as an interpolation; both Tolkien and Whitelock adopt this solution.55 But I take it to be an expression of the fact that the Danes cannot really distinguish between God and Wyrd. Their song of creation and their prayers to God have not dispatched Grendel, so why not try an appeal in another court, at another shrine? Scarcely encouraging Christianity is the fate of one of Beowulf's men; the hero's troop go to sleep in Heorot, secure in their faith in the protection of God, yet Grendel enters and devours Hondscio without any objection from the Deity or his representative, Beowulf.

Finally, it is true that Beowulf and the other characters in the poem make frequent references to God and utter Christian gnomes, but they utter an equal number of gnomes about Wyrd and see no contradiction therein. For them, Wyrd and God are the same thing. For example, Beowulf tells Hrothgar,

                                                            ðær gelyfan sceal
Dryhtnes dome                    se þe hine deað nimeð.

(ll. 440-1)

and later:

Gæð a wyrd swa hio scel!

(l. 455)

Beowulf refers to the sun as beacen Godes, ‘the beacon of God’, then utters a pagan gnome:

                                                            Leoht eastan com,
beorht beacen Godes;                    brimu swaþredon
þæt ic sæ-næssas                    geseon mihte,
windige weallas.                    Wyrd oft nereð
unfægne eorl,                    þonne his ellen deah.

(ll. 569-73)

Beowulf attributes his victory over the sea-monsters to fate, saying, Hwæþere me gesælde, Yet it was granted me … (l. 574), and in telling Hygelac about his survival in Grendel's mere remarks, næs ic fæge þa gyt, ‘I was not doomed as yet’ (l. 2141). The poet himself comments on the man who escaped the dragon:

Swa mæg unfæge                    eaðe gidigan
wean ond wræc-sið,                    se ðe Waldendes
hyldo gehealdeþ.

(ll. 2291-3)

This is in a world in which God and Wyrd are equated; this is Christianity, but without Christ. Therefore, in this sense, Beowulf is not a Christian poem. ‘What is it, then?’, one might ask, and my reply must be Tolkien's; it is a heroic elegy.

Despite incidents, speeches and motifs which bring to mind corresponding parts of the epics of Homer and Virgil, Beowulf is not an epic. The scale is correct, the speeches are long enough in all conscience, and we follow the fortunes of a hero with whose destiny that of an entire people is inseparably linked, but we have no gods and goddesses, no divine intervention, no romantic interest; for example, Beowulf is not given a hero's reward by Wealhtheow. Above all, we do not have battles between armies or champions as the main theme. Nor is the poem heroic in the usual sense of the word, for the same reasons. Our hero's monster fights are central to the poem where they would normally be mere incidents in a long list of battles. The heroic world is present, but only in the background (the family strife within the Scylding dynasty, the wars between the Geats and the Swedes, the wars between the Geats and the Franks, the story of Sigemund, the stories of Heremod, Finnsburg, Ravenswood) and this is what differentiates Beowulf.

The things that are heroic, however, are vitally important—the social structure based on the comitatus, the exaggerated rituals of courtesy, the traditional knowledge of the people and their values, the concept of the hero. We first read of the comitatus in chapters 14 and 15 of Tacitus' Germania,56 and it is the basis of all Germanic heroic societies. The king or chieftain gives the gesiths and geneatas of his comitatus rings, food, shelter and protection; hlaford derives from hlafweard, ‘the protector/provider of the bread.’ In return for these bounties, the thanes of the comitatus serve their lord in time of war, honour his name, and die by his side if they must; Byrhtnoth's men stand firm at Maldon, Harold's at Senlac Hill. So in Beowulf Hrothgar is the lord of the Danes, the protector of earls, the giver of rings. Hygelac, then Beowulf, perform the same function among the Geats. Gnomes throughout the poem point to the concept of the comitatus:

Swa sceal geong guma                    gode gewyrcean,
fromum feoh-giftum                    on fæder bearme,
þæt hine on ylde                    eft gewunigen
wil-gesiþas,                    þonne wig cume,
leode gelæsten;                    lof-dædum sceal
in mægþa gehwæm                    man geþeo[ha]n.

(ll. 20-5)

And when Beowulf has killed the fire-dragon, the poet remarks:

                                        Swylc sceolde secg wesan,
þegn æt ðearfe!—

(ll. 2708-9)

Absence of the comitatus is a common motif in elegy; The Ruin, The Wanderer, The Seafarer are all put on the lips of those who are outside their comitatus, and Beowulf includes the lay of the last survivor who is bereft of his comitatus. Grendel has no such comitatus, since God threw Cain far from mankind, so when he is referred to in terms usually reserved for exiles the poem has great irony; when the figure of Chaos takes over Heorot, we similarly get an inversion pattern—he cannot approach the throne, he will not pay wergild for those he has slain, but when he controls Heorot he is ironically described as healðegen (l. 142).

Beowulf's comitatus accompanies him over the sea to Denmark and his thanes try uselessly to aid their lord against Grendel. During the second fight, they simply wait for Beowulf by the mere, and during the third battle they desert Beowulf altogether. The only person to help him against the dragon is Wiglaf, who is bound to him also by the bond of kinship. Wiglaf's speeches to the deserters show how the comitatus should have behaved (ll. 2633-91) while his second speech ends with a gnome:

                                                            Deað bið sella
eorla gehwylcum                    þonne edwit-lif!

(ll. 2890-1)

Anglo-Saxon verse has two collections of such gnomes in the Cotton manuscript and the Exeter Book. These pieces of traditional wisdom record the knowledge of the comitatus and define its values. The names of things are important; when you can name something, you can say something about it and add to the store of knowledge. The Norse god Oðinn hung nine days and nine nights over the gulf of Chaos for knowledge; he stole the mead of poetry from the giants; he gave his right eye to Mimir to drink from her well of knowledge, and in the guise of the Wanderer he travelled the earth in search of knowledge and a true love. The Völuspá, or Prophecy of the Sibyll, which tells of the Ragnarøkr, the Doom of the Gods, has the refrain, Vitu þér enn eða hvat? ‘Know ye more, or what?’57

So in Beowulf the gnomes define the poet's world. The gnomes about the nature of a draca or a þyrs explored earlier showed that the dragon and Grendel and his Dam fitted the Cotton definitions. We can see now that Beowulf and Hrothgar fill the definitions of a good king, the comitatus does not meet the definition of a true comitatus, and so on. Towards the climax of the poem, gnomes come thick and fast:

                                                  swa sceal æghwylc mon
alætan læn-dagas.

(ll. 2590-1)

                                                  Sinc eaðe mæg,
gold on grunde,                    gum-cynnes gehwone
oferhigian                    hyde se ðe wylle!

(ll. 2764-6)

                                                  swa hit gedefe
þæt mon his wine-dryhten                    wordum herge,
ferhðum freoge,                    þonne he forþ scile
of lic-haman                    læded

(ll. 3174-7)

Gnomes and genealogies put together give us the heroic code and define the roles of heroes and kings and their elaborate behaviour. When Beowulf and his men arrive in Denmark, they have to declare their lineage to the coast-guard, who shows them the way to Heorot. There they have to declare their lineage to Wulfgar to ask permission to enter when surely there is nothing Hrothgar wants more then the coming of a hero. Beowulf and his thanes must leave their spears and shields outside the hall, but are permitted to take their short swords with them into the presence. Hrothgar finds it necessary now to point out that he was a benefactor of Ecgtheow, father of Beowulf, and the ruffled feathers of Unferth, the local champion who has failed to fight Grendel, have to be soothed. To save Hrothgar's face, Hrothgar is described as a valiant battle warrior, most famous of fighters. When Wealhtheow later brings in the cup of beer, she offers it first to Hrothgar, for she is cynna gemyndig (l. 613), ‘mindful of courtly etiquette’.

Based on all these points, the code of the comitatus is quite clear and simple—be mindful of the obligations of kin and of comitatus. Loyalty and bravery are valued above all else. Since death comes to all but the gnomes tell no more that is certain, an honourable death is the highest morality of the heroic honour-value. The gnomes of the Battle of Maldon give this code its finest expression:

Hize sceal þe heardra, heorte þe cenre,
mod sceal þe mare, þe ure mæzen lytlað.(58)

These gnomes express the limit of the knowledge of the Anglo-Saxon comitatus, and its honour-value was capable of turning the greatest of defeats, death itself, into a virtue. In this connection Tolkien59 quotes in part W.P. Ker on the code of the Vikings:

The last word of the Northmen before their entry into the larger world of Southern culture, their last independent guess at the secret of the Universe, is given in the Twilight of the Gods. As far as it goes, and as a working theory, it is absolutely impregnable. It is the assertion of the individual freedom against all the terrors and temptations of the world. It is absolute resistance, perfect because without hope. The Northern gods have an exultant extravagance in their warfare which makes them more like Titans than Olympians; only they are on the right side, though it is not the side that wins. The winning side is Chaos and Unreason; but the gods, who are defeated, think that defeat is not refutation.

But applied to Beowulf this is a distortion. This is where Tolkien starts to go wrong, for the Old Norse Völuspá ends with the coming of a new earth, Gimle, and all the gods will live again with men in a new Paradise. Beowulf dies alone, without gods or men by his side, and cannot hope for any such future Elysium.

This is where the heroic poem shades into elegy, for all the heroic matters discussed fail Beowulf in the end. Just as the archetypal images of water and fire turn on him as he is burnt on a headland within sight of the sea and with Wiglaf ironically bathing his face with water, so all the values of the comitatus desert Beowulf. His men let him down and will not fight the dragon alongside him; he turned up as a hero to help Hrothgar, but no hero is at hand to help him in his extremity.60 The gnomes tell him that he must die, and that earthly glory must pass away, but no more than that. His ancestral weapon lets him down, for his sword snaps as he smites the dragon. Genealogy lets him down, for he has no son; he must die childless since succession on earth would be a substitute for that immortality which belongs to elegy:

Nu ic suna minum                    syllan wolde
guð-gewædu,                    þær me gifee swa
ænig yrfe-weard                    æfter wurde,
lice gelenge.

(ll. 2729-32)

Further, Wiglaf is the last of the race, paralleling the last survivor of the previous human race:

þu eart ende-laf                    usses cynnes,
Wægmundinga;                    ealle wyrd forspeon
mine magas                    to metodsceafte,
eorlas on elne;                    ic him æfter sceal.

(ll. 2813-16)

This is the final gnome Beowulf has to tell.

Beowulf pathetically asks to see and touch the dragon's treasure, but he can do this only for an instant, and it is a sign of the frailty of mortality and the vanity of human wishes in any event. His honour-value as a person is intact but valueless if the context for it, the comitatus, is finished. For Beowulf there will be no Gimle; this brave man, dying for a comitatus that does not appreciate him, has nothing left. Faced with the onrush of the powers of darkness and the relentless flood of Chaos, all he can do is face death with dignity.

This is the very stuff of heroism, but no-one in the poem knows what heroism is. We learn of Beowulf's unhappy life when his special qualities were not appreciated (ll. 2177-89). This man, who is the strongest of men in might in this life's day, who is so powerful that he breaks every sword he uses, is no ordinary man—he has to go where the clarion call of glory summons him. Hygelac does not understand this, however:

Hu lomp eow on lade,                    leofa Biowulf,
þa ðu færinga                    feorr gehogodest
sæcce secean                    ofer sealt wæter,
hilde to Hiorote?                    Ac áðu Hroðgare
wid-cuðne wean                    wihte
mærum ðeodne?                    Ic ðæs mod-ceare
sorh-wylmum seað,                    siðe ne truwode
leofes mannes.                    Ic ðe lange bæd,
þæt ðu þone wæl-gæst                    wihte
ne grette,
lete Suð-Dene                    sylfe geweorðan
guðe wið Grendel.                    Gode ic þanc secge,
þæs ðe ic ðe gesundne                    geseon moste.

(ll. 1987-98)

But Beowulf has to go. His final battle, however, is for his people, not for glory; the concept of the hero itself is now out of date. The whole poem ends ironically:

Swa begnornodon                    Geata leode
hlafordes hryre,                    heorð-geneatas;
cwædon þæt he wære                    wyruld-cyninga,
manna mildust                    ond mon-þwærust,
leodum liðost                    ond lof-geornost.

(ll. 3178-82)

‘The most eager for fame’—they simply do not understand. Beowulf has to die, as he has done everything else, alone. As Tolkien puts it, ‘He is a man, and that for him and many is sufficient tragedy’.61

If this is the stuff of heroism, it is also the stuff of elegy, heroic elegy. The opening of the poem sets the tone of dignity and elegy for the whole. The funeral of an ancestor, surrendered once again to the Chaos whence he came for a brief sojourn, looks forward to the end of the poem, to the funeral of Beowulf himself. Scyld's name means ‘shield’, and Beowulf is the ‘shield of his people’ against the fire-dragon; to emphasize this, he makes a special shield of metal for the combat.62 Further, Scyld is buried beneath a standard, and from the dragon's barrow Wiglaf brings Beowulf a standard. To clinch matters, the half-line formula describing Scyld Scefing, ‘þæt wæs god cyning’ (l. 11), is repeated of Beowulf before his final battle (l. 2390).

To summarize my previous arguments, we are constantly reminded how transitory is earthly glory. Heorot, the moment it is built, is described being destroyed by flames. When Beowulf slays Grendel, a minstrel sings of the death of Sigemund, the dragon-slayer; when Beowulf kills Grendel's Dam, Hrothgar preaches him a sermon on the theme ‘remember thou art mortal!’ Costly treasure, symbol of mortality, is given to Beowulf after both victories, and before the final battle we have the interlude of the lay of the last survivor burying treasure no longer of use to his race:

Heald þu nu hruse,                    nu hæleð
ne mostan,
eorla æhte.                    Hwæt hyt ær on ðe
gode begeaton.                    Guð-deað fornam,
feorh-bealo frecne,                    fyra
leoda minra,                    þara ðe þis
[lif] ofgeaf,
gesawon sele-dream;                    nah, hwa sweord wege
oððe feormie                    fæted
drync-fæt deore                    duguð ellor scoc.

(ll. 2247-54)

Once this tone has been set, it is maintained for the last part of the poem until it finally comes to rest after Beowulf's funeral:

þa ymbe hlæw riodan                    hilde-deore,
æþelinga bearn,                    ealra twelfe,
woldon ceare cwiðan,                    kyning
word-gyd wrecan                    ond ymb wer sprecan.

(ll. 3169-72)

But this is not just the funeral of one hero; it is also the funeral of what he represents—a secular society or at least a Christian society that knows not Christ. It is a Ragnarøkr without Oðinn; an Apocalypse without a God of love; an elegy for man. Thus the world of Beowulf comes to an end with elegiac dignity and a reminder that lif is læne.


  1. See R. Bruce-Mitford, The Sutton Hoo Ship-Burial: A Handbook 2nd ed., (London, 1972), pp. 54-9.

  2. The Audience of Beowulf (Oxford U.P., 1951, reprint 1967), pp. 22 ff. See also Wrenn, Beowulf, pp. 32-7, and R.W. Chambers BeowulfAn Introduction with a supplement by C.L. Wrenn 3rd ed., (Cambridge U.P., 1963), pp. 486 ff., 531 ff.

  3. On, for example, the historicity, see Wrenn, Beowulf, pp. 47-9.

  4. For a convenient diagram of Norse cosmography, see E.V. Gordon, An Introduction to Old Norse, 2nd ed., (Oxford, 1957, reprint 1966), p. 196. More detailed information may be found in E.O.G. Turville-Petre, Myth and Religion of the North (London, 1964).

  5. Beowulf—the Monsters and the Critics”, Proceedings of the British Academy 22 (1936), 245-95; (O.U.P. reprint 1958, 1960), p. 3. Reprinted also in The Beowulf Poet, ed. D.K. Fry, (Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1968), pp. 8-56, and An Anthology of Beowulf Criticism, ed. L.E. Nicholson, (Notre Dame U.P., 1963, reprint 1971), pp. 51-103.

  6. Beovulf: Untersuchungen über das angelsächsische Epos und die älteste Geschichte der germanischen Seevölker (Berlin, 1889).

  7. Beowulf and the Fight at Finnsburg (3rd ed., Boston, 1922, reprint 1950), p. lx.

  8. See Gordon, An Introduction to Old Norse, pp. 17-20 for the relevant portions of Voluspá as quoted by Snorri in Gylfaginning, the first part of his Prose Edda of 1223. For a modern English translation, see The Prose Edda of Snorri Sturluson, trans. J.I. Young, (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1966), pp. 86-90.

  9. Some uncertainty attends the etymology of the name ‘Unferth’ and the role of þyle; see, for example, J.L. Rosier, “Design for Treachery: The Unferth Intrigue”, P.M.L.A. 77 (1962), 1-8; N.E. Eliason, “The Thyle and Scop in Beowulf”, Speculum 38 (1963), 267-84; J.L. Baird, “Unferth the þyle”, Medium Evum 39 (1970), 1-12; F.C. Robinson, “Personal Names in Medieval Narrative and the Name Unferth in Beowulf”, in Essays in Honor of Richebourg Gaillard McWilliams, ed. H. Creed, Birmingham-Southern College Bulletin 63, (1970), 43-8; and M.W. Bloomfield, “Beowulf and Christian Allegory: An Interpretation of Unferth”, Traditio 7 (1949-51), 410-15.

  10. This parallel between Beowulf and Odysseus is noted by E.B. Irving, Jr., A Reading of Beowulf (Yale, 1968), pp. 67-8. On this and other parallels between the two heroes, see A.B. Lord, “Beowulf and Odysseus”, Franciplegius: Medieval and Linguistic Studies in Honor of Francis Peabody Magoun, Jr., ed. J.B. Bessinger, Jr., and R.P. Creed (New York U.P., 1965), pp. 86-91.

  11. The Old English Version of Bede's Ecclesiastical History of The English People, ed. T. Miller, EETS, OS 95 (1890, reprint 1959), I., i., pp. 134-7.

  12. See D.K. Crowne, “The Hero on the Beach—An Example of Composition by Theme in Anglo-Saxon Poetry”, Neuphilologische Mitteilungen 61 (1960), 362-72, and G. Clark, “The Traveler Recognizes his Goal: A Theme in Anglo-Saxon Poetry”, J.E.G.P. 64 (1965), 645-59.

  13. A Reading of Beowulf, pp. 204-5, quoting The Wanderer, 11. 94-6.

  14. Such an extended description of landscape is rare in Old English poetry; that of the Happy Land in The Phoenix comes to mind as the only parallel. It is also rare in Old Norse literature, where the one example I can think of is Grettir's sojourn in winter beneath the Geitland glacier in ch. 61 of Grettis saga. For editions of Grettis saga see R.C. Boer, Altnordische sagabibliothek (Halle, 1900) and G. Jónsson, Íslenzk Fornrit 7 (Reykjavik, 1936); and translation by G.A. Hight, The Saga of Grettir the Strong (London 1914, reprint 1929).

  15. See Wrenn, Beowulf, p. 210.

  16. Audience, pp. 6 ff.

  17. The Structure of Beowulf (Oxford, 1965, revised ed. 1966), pp. 75 ff.

  18. See the list of passages in J.E. Cross, “On The Wanderer Lines 80-84”, Vetenskaps-Societetens i Lund Arsbok (1958-9), 85 ff., and add the unpublished homily in praise of St. Michael in the margins of pp. 402-17 of Cambridge, Corpus Christi College MS 41. One stanza relevant here reads, in part: “7 wonne arisað ealle ða deadan ðe eorðe forswealȝ, oððe sæ bescente, oððe fir forbærnde, oððe wildeor abiton, oððe fuȝlas on lande tobæren, oððe wirmas on eorðan fræten. I hope to publish this homily in full. See also M.R. James, The Apocryphal New Testament (Oxford, 1924), p.512, the Ethiopic Apocalypse of Peter and the following, more extended passage on p. 522 from The Second Book of the Sibylline Oracles of the late second or third century and, according to James, based on the Apocalypse of Peter: “Then shall the great angel Uriel break the monstrous bars framed of unyielding and unbroken adamant, of the brazen gates of Hades, and cast them down straightway, and bring forth to judgment all the sorrowful forms, yea, of the ghosts of the ancient Titans, and of the giants, and all whom the flood overtook. And all whom the wave of the sea hath destroyed in the waters, and all whom beasts and creeping things and fowls have feasted on: all these shall he bring to the judgment seat; and again those whom flesh-devouring fire hath consumed in the flames, them also shall he gather and set before God's seat”.

  19. For a less pessimistic view than my own, see B. Mitchell, “‘Until the Dragon Comes …’ Some Thoughts on Beowulf”, Neophilologus 47 (1963), 122-38, especially 131-3. The joys of which Mitchell speaks are certainly present in the poem but for me render it more poignant. I can see only one conclusion to draw and only one interpretation of the final word of the poem, lofgeornost; the heroic summum bonum of the impermanent bubble reputation comes a poor second to Christian eternal life.

  20. The Dark Ages (Edinburgh and London, 1923), p. 253.

  21. Widsith: A Study in Old English Heroic Legend (Cambridge, 1912), p. 79.

  22. A Preface to Paradise Lost (London, 1942, 9th impression 1956), p. 28.

  23. Miller, Old English Bede, I, ii., pp. 230-1.

  24. See Audience, pp. 75-6, for the quotation from B. Colgrave, Felix's Life of St. Guthlac, (p. 88).

  25. There are plenty of Biblical references to monsters; the Apocalypse, the story of Jonah and the whale, Behemoth, the Leviathan, and so on. I am grateful to a colleague, Dr. Jean MacIntyre, for bringing to my attention Job xxxi: 21-2, which contains an interesting parallel to the fight with Grendel: “Si levavi super pupillum manum meam, etiam cum viderem me in porta superiorem: Humerus meus a junctura sua cadat, et brachium meum cum suis ossibus confringatur”. “If I have lifted up my hand against the fatherless, even when I saw myself superior in the gate: Let my shoulder fall from its joint, and let my arm with its bones be broken.” For the inability of modern science to help Beowulf scholars with the monsters see S.M. Garn and W.D. Block, “The Limited Nutritional Value of Cannibalism”, American Anthropology 72 (1970), 106.

  26. See Audience, p. 51, and Sisam, “The Beowulf Manuscript” in Studies in the History of Old English Literature (Oxford U.P., 1953, reprint 1962), pp. 65-8, detailed description by N.R. Ker, Catalogue of Manuscripts Containing Anglo-Saxon (Oxford, 1957), pp. 281-3.

  27. Ed. G. Herzfeld, EETS, OS 116 (1900), p. 66 and note (p. 229).

  28. See Three Old English Prose Texts in MS. Cotton Vitellius A xv, ed. S. Rypins, EETS, OS 161 (1924) for editions of The Letter of Alexander the Great to Aristotle (pp. 1-50), The Wonders of the East (pp. 51-67) and The Life of St. Christopher (pp. 68-76).

  29. See Audience, pp. 46-53. The history of Hygelac may also be found in Saxo Grammaticus' Danish History (c. 1200), Snorri Sturluson's Heimskringla (c. 1223-35), Ynglinga saga in Old Norse and two other earlier Frankish works—Gregory of Tours's (d. 594) History of the Franks, the Book of the History of the Franks (Gesta Francorum) c. 727. For the relevant extracts from these works, see Beowulf and its Analogues, ed. G.N. Garmonsway and J. Simpson, (London and New York, 1968), pp. 112-15.

  30. Garmonsway and Simpson, Beowulf and its Analogues, p. 113.

  31. Sweet's Anglo-Saxon Reader, rev. D. Whitelock, (Oxford, 1967), p. 175, 11. 26-7, 42-3.

  32. See Audience, pp. 80-1. In Felix's Latin Life of St. Guthlac the saint addresses his tormentors as ‘the seed of Cain’, but the Old English poems omit this reference altogether.

  33. On the Irish tradition, see further O.F. Emerson, “Legends of Cain, especially in Old and Middle English”, P.M.L.A. 21 (1906), 831-929, especially 878-83, 888-94, 916-26, and J. Carney, “The Irish Elements in Beowulf”, Studies in Irish Literature and History (Dublin, 1955), pp. 102-12.

  34. I accept the suggestion of Wrenn, Beowulf, p. 69, that ll. 168-9 are out of place and I follow him in inserting them between ll. 110 and 111.

  35. Venerabilis Bedae Commentaria in Scripturas—Sacras Genesis, ed. J.A. Giles, I., p. 92, and In Pentateuchum Commentarii, Migne, Patrologia Latina, XCI, cols. 210 ff, 219 ff.

  36. Genesis A in The Junius Manuscript, ed. G.P. Krapp, The Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records 1 (New York, Columbia U.P., 1931, reprint 1964), pp. 39-40, ll. 1248-62.

  37. Wrenn misses the error in l. 107 (Klaeber, Beowulf, p. 5). On the Cham/Cain confusion, see further Emerson, “Legends”, 925, who discusses Alcuin's Interrogationes et Responsiones in Genesin and other examples.

  38. Audience, p. 77.

  39. “Monsters and Critics”, p. 27. On pp. 36-8, Tolkien gathers the epithets for Grendel and discusses them fully. See also J.L. Baird, “Grendel the Exile”, Neuphilologische Mitteilungen 67 (1966), 375-81.

  40. “Monsters and Critics”, p. 33.

  41. “Approaches to Beowulf”, R.E.S. N S 3 (1952), 1-12.

  42. Sisam, Structure, p. 25, n.l. For the most recent extensive argument for aligning the Beowulf dragon and the Christian dragon-devil see M.E. Goldsmith, The Mode and Meaning of ‘Beowulf’ (London, 1970), pp. 124-45.

  43. “Monsters and Critics”, p. 17.

  44. The relevant extracts from the parallels cited in this paragraph may be found in R.W. Chambers, Beowulf—An Introduction, and in Garmonsway and Simpson, Beowulf and its Analogues.

  45. Compare, for example, Spenser's description of the dragon in The Faerie Queene, ed. J.C. Smith and E. de Selincourt (Oxford U.P., London, 1912, reprint 1959), p. 58, I., xi., 10-12, and his descriptions of Corflambo, Orgoglio, Discord, Lust, Error, Duessa stripped.

  46. “Monsters and Critics”, pp. 17, 18.

  47. Preface to Paradise Lost, pp. 29, 30.

  48. Quoted by Tolkien, “Monsters and Critics”, p. 18. I am grateful to Professor Whitelock for identifying his source for me as Widsith, ll. 141-2.

  49. “The Technique of Invocation in King Lear”, M.L.R. 45 (1950), 142.

  50. Miller, Old English Bede, I., ii., pp. 250-1.

  51. Beowulf, pp. cxx-cxxi.

  52. For the most extreme views, see G.G. Walsh, Medieval Humanism (New York, 1942), pp. 54 ff.; A. Cabaniss, “Beowulf and the Liturgy”, J.E.G.P. 54 (1955), 195-201; M.B. McNamee, S.J., “Beowulf - An Allegory of Salvation?”, J.E.G.P. (1960), 190-207.

  53. “Monsters and Critics”, pp. 39-40, Appendix B. See further J.E. Cross, “‘Ubi Sunt’ Passages in Old English—Sources and Relationships”, Vetenskaps-Societetens i Lund Arsbok (1956), 26-44.

  54. The Exeter Book, ed. G.P. Krapp and E.V.K. Dobbie, The Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records 3 (New York, Columbia U.P., 1936), pp. 154-5, ll. 10-63.

  55. “Monsters and Critics”, pp. 45-7, Appendix C, and Audience, pp. 78-9.

  56. Cornelii Taciti, De Origine et Situ Germanorum, ed. J.G.C. Anderson (Oxford, 1938, reprint 1970), pp. 12-13. See also L.L. Schüucking, “Das Konigsideal im Beowulf”, Englische Studien 67 (1932), 1 ff.

  57. See Gordon, An Introduction to Old Norse, p. 19.

  58. Ed. E.V. Gordon (London, 1937, reprint 1967), p. 61, ll. 312-13.

  59. “Monsters and Critics”, p. 21.

  60. True, Wiglaf comes to his aid, but his action is in no way similar to Beowulf's coming from overseas to take over the fighting completely from Hrothgar. That concept of the hero is now out of date, and Wiglaf's heroism is certainly not of the same order.

  61. “Monsters and Critics”, p. 18.

  62. See Irving, A Reading of Beowulf, p. 217, on the parallels between Beowulf and Scyld and the play on Scyld/scyld.

Throughout, quotations from Beowulf are taken from the edition by C.L. Wrenn (London, 1953, rev. 1958, reprint 1959).

Kathryn Hume (essay date 1975)

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SOURCE: “The Theme and Structure of Beowulf,” in Studies in Philology, Vol. LXXII, No. 1, January, 1975, pp. 1-27.

[In the following essay, Hume maintains that Beowulf's construction emphasizes the author's concern with theme, rather than with the hero or the action. The major thematic issue of the poem, Hume states, is the threat to social order.]


What is Beowulf about? Ever since Turner, Conybeare, and Grundtvig impressed Beowulf's name on this titleless poem, the natural answer has been “Beowulf, the hero.” This assumption, so simple and inevitable as to be almost unconscious, lies behind most subsequent criticism, and is responsible for much that makes it contradictory and unsatisfactory. Actually, the author's handling of Beowulf and his selection of events neither suggest nor suit a hero-centered design.

No Heldenleben could overlook the steps in the edwenden from sleac, unfrom youth to monster queller; at the very least we might expect to be told as much about the transformation as appears in Viga-Glum's Saga. The author could hardly fail to make much of the rise to kingship, particularly since it was complicated by moral dilemmas concerning Heardred and Onela of a sort which would have delighted later saga writers. An ordinary celebration of a hero would probably have dilated upon the vengeance Beowulf exacted for the death of Hygelac, his beloved uncle and king.1 Sherman Kuhn is correct in stating that the facts for a coherent life of Beowulf are present,2 but the information appears in allusive and fragmented form—interlaced—and interlace narrative technique is better suited to the creation of juxtapositions of a moral or thematic nature than for simple heroic narrative.3

Were the poem centered on Beowulf himself, we would expect to learn something about him as a person. Instead, we hear his public pronouncements and watch his attempts to deal with three monsters. Virtually nothing else is given us: few private thoughts or personal hopes or misgivings; no characterizing features except extraordinary strength. Beowulf does not even have a striking possession used by the author to build our sense of his heroic presence. His helmet has boars on it (l. 1453), but so do those of his men (l. 303).4 His corselet is Welandes geweorc (l. 455), but except for a later testimonial to its efficacy, nothing is made of that fact. His sword is of so little import that he does not use it in the first two fights and breaks it in the third. Beowulf's relations with other people are all public and formal; and though we infer deep feeling for Hygelac, we witness no more personal an exchange than might take place between any staff commander and scout. We do not know if Beowulf ever married. He is his actions in three fights and their immediate contexts, and little else besides.

If one argues that the piece is not really hero- but rather action-oriented, other objections have to be met. The notorious lack of suspense is not consonant with adventure for its own sake. Nor can an action-centered reading explain the long passages describing Swedish wars or the elegiac digressions on the old man and last survivor. Moreover, a sad ending is so foreign to the adventure-story pattern that anyone treating the poem purely as an entertaining tale would have to consider whether something more were not hinted at in the melancholy of the conclusion.

Assumptions of hero- or action-orientation underlie many readings of the poem despite the complete inability of either approach to account for the poem's structure. There are three fights, each occupying one third of the whole; however, they take place at only two stages in Beowulf's life, in two countries, and involve only two kinds of monster. That critics should disagree over whether the structure has two parts or three is hardly surprising. Those concentrating on the hero tend to see two, those on action usually prefer three.5 But neither camp has produced a structural analysis which does not, by implication, damn the poet for gross incompetence, or leave the critic with a logically awkward position. Tolkien, for instance, who considers the structure one of the work's most admirable strengths, believes the poem to reflect “two moments in a great life, rising and setting … youth and age.”6 But if the poet meant to play life's extremes against each other, balancing them like verse half-lines, why are the two movements not more similar in length and plot-construction? Is the Grendel's mother episode anything but an excrescence in a youth/age dichotomy, or indeed in any two-part reading? If, on the other hand, the poet was more concerned with the monsters in a three-part action than with the hero, why should the first two antagonists be so similar? No critic of either persuasion has succeeded in explaining the nature and sequence of the monsters. Why are two so alike? Why does a dragon come last? Why three? Concentration on hero or action reduces the antagonists to mere folktale monstrosities, and to inexplicability.

Because nothing of Beowulf's life is presented in detail except his attempts to deal with monsters; because of the author's suppressions and omissions (exceedingly odd by any biographical standard); and because the three antagonists bulk so large in the poem, logic suggests that the poem's concern will be determined by whatever significance the poet assigns to the monsters, and that the poet's interest in Beowulf is not in him as a person, however heroic, but in his stand against his adversaries. Every feature of the poem's construction supposes concern with a theme rather than hero or action, and the clue to the theme seems to lie in the prominence and nature of the monsters.

The thematic approach to Beowulf is not new, though critics using it rarely seem aware of the changes in perspective which their stance demands, or of the corollaries such changes suggest. A representative spread of proposed themes would include the offerings of Schücking (Königsideal), Gradon (exemplary heroic action and the influence of Fortune's mutability), Kaske (sapientia and fortitudo), Goldsmith (pride and covetousness), Lee (hell's possession of middle-earth), Leyerle (the fatal contradiction at the core of heroic society), Kahrl and O'Loughlin (feuding), and Halverson (order versus chaos).7 Such thematic interpretations share, to a greater or lesser degree, one drawback: they tend to rest for supportive evidence on relatively few lines, and consequently the resultant readings, as can be seen, are wildly varied—indeed are often mutually exclusive—and none has gained general acceptance. Most students of the poem would agree that such readings are useful for sensitizing us to the poem's nuances, but that they are weak on broader issues. By failing to explain the role of Grendel's mother or the Swedish wars, or to account for the number, kind, and ordering of the monsters, most such readings have greatly lessened their claims to consideration as total and self-sufficient interpretations.

Because the logical objections to hero- or action-orientation are so strong, it seems unlikely that they can offer more light on the poem. The thematic approach however is not thus limited on theoretical grounds, and indeed idea-orientation seems called for by such features as the interlace-style. I will attempt, therefore, to establish a thematic reading able to withstand the objections just raised. The controlling theme of the poem, I believe, is threats to social order. Specifically, these threats are troublemaking, revenge, and war—problems inescapably inherent in this kind of heroic society, yet profoundly inimical to its existence. The poem's structure is simply the progressive sequence of these threats, each embodied in a suitable monster. In Beowulf's conduct, we see the best responses possible within this society. Stated so bluntly, such a reading sounds over-schematic and indifferent to the poem's emotional complexity. Indubitably too, “threats to social order” lacks the catchy appeal of sapientia and fortitudo, or youth and age, or man versus death. But this concept of the subject can greatly sharpen our grasp of the interrelation of the poem's parts and assist in explaining the function of apparently extraneous details.


If we examine the monsters in terms of their motives and the effects they have on those humans unfortunate enough to cross them, a definite pattern emerges. Grendel is driven by two intertwined motives. The first is a kind of envy—the envy of one dreamum bedæled for those living in wynn, of the dweller in darkness for those in light, of one from the lonely moors for those of the hall. He may envy their more harmonious relations with the Creator, even as Cain envied Abel. Such differences fill him with a lust to destroy. The second motive, less easily described but arguably more important, is the twist of character which leaves him untouched by all the usual social restraints and inhibitions against violence toward others. Not only does he kill freely, he even enjoys the act: his eyes light up (ll. 726-7), his mod ahlog (l. 730), he lust wigeð (l. 599).8 For whatever reasons of heredity or environment, he has the killer mentality which characterizes most of the deliberate troublemakers in heroic narrative. Thjostolf and Hrapp in Njal's Saga systematically say and do the unforgivable, and enjoy the results. So too does Egil Skallagrimsson, albeit successfully. Many a king's berserk or arrogant man-at-arms in the sagas conforms to the type. So apparently does Unferth.

Being a larger-than-life embodiment of the Cain-principle, Grendel's effect is proportionately hyperbolical. A troublemaker in a hall makes a sham of all expressions of brotherhood and solidarity. He undermines his lord's power and control. He causes bad feeling with his insults and taunts, and eventually he starts quarrels which lead to somebody's death. Grendel does all this and more. He literally makes hollow the hall and all its promise of social joy by rendering it uninhabitable at night. He undercuts Hrothgar's rule until only a feeble travesty of royal power remains, and of course he murders retainers at will. Though he must, by virtue of his monstrous nature, operate from outside, his symbolic equivalence to a force normally found within society is underlined by his human shape and by the author's ironic treatment of him as a healðegn.9 Like Cain, Grendel is an originator of feuds. Feuds do not start unless some interested party has a streak of unreasonableness, whether as aggressor or as injured party unwilling to accept fair compensation. Grendel, in his mentality, his descent from Cain, and his effect, is a personification of such unreason.

Grendel's mother represents the sequent force which complicates a feud once it is started. As is generally recognized, she has one simple motive—revenge. This too is often an unreasoning emotional drive. To everyone else, Grendel is a vicious killer whose death was an unmixed blessing. The lady of the mere only knows that her son is dead. The revenge principle cannot come into play until a feud has been initiated, but once invoked, can carry on and extend the scope of the violence indefinitely. In a typical saga act of vengeance, she comes when totally unexpected, falls upon those sleeping, and kills a man who bears no direct responsibility for her son's death. What makes vengeance so uncontrollable and tragic is the fact that it is directed by the same laudable forces which help create and ensure social order in a violent world—the desire to conserve and protect kin or allies. Exercised blindly, without regard for higher justice, however, this desire destroys social harmony as surely as does the troublemaker.

Folktales, because of their rapid pacing, can repeat an event or figure, and the incremental effect will be pleasing. What works in the Bear's Son Tale because description is minimal, however, is aesthetically clumsy in Beowulf. Grendel and his mother are simply too like each other for the good of the narrative, despite the pains the author took to vary them. Their similarity upsets our sense of the poem's structure; the later shift to a dragon is made to seem more of a discontinuity than is warranted just because of his differing species. This flaw has to be recognized and admitted. If my reading of the monsters' significance is correct, however, we can at least explain how the author got himself boxed into this corner. If the second adversary is to represent the revenge-principle, then Beowulf must do something which would incur vengeful retaliation. Were the second monster from a different land and period in his career, the author would have had to construct an elaborate setting to account for Beowulf's deserving such enmity, and would, moreover, have been hard pressed to concoct one in which Beowulf was as guiltless of wrongful aggression as here. The evidence of the analogues suggests that the author found ready to hand a monstrous relation living with the Grendel-counterpart, and decided that a mother would be ideally suited to the economical development of his thematic pattern.10 She qualifies as an avenger precisely because she is Grendel's relative and is naturally therefore very like him.

Reasons for the third monster not being just another of Grendel's kin lie in the typical interests and weapons of dragons. Draca sceal on hlæwe, / frod, frætwum wlanc.11 The desire to possess gold motivates him, and his reaction when robbed is to exact appalling retribution by burning Beowulf's great hall as well as the lesser buildings of the land. If, judged by motive and effect, Grendel is the originator of feuds and his mother an unreasoning wreaker of vengeance, the dragon represents war,12 more specifically the sort of war which can upset the balance of social order. Civil war has that effect; so does fighting on home territory against an invader. Even an unsuccessful foreign venture like Hygelac's rash Frisian raid may also prove so costly in important lives that it too can be said to upset the balance. The dragon behaves like an invader, firing the countryside and burning buildings. Since such national wars often followed as extensions of smaller feuds, the dragon logically comes third in this progression of threats to social order.

The author does not seem to have counted successful foreign fighting as evil in quite the same way as he does these other types of war. A king had to extract wealth from someone if he was to maintain order in his own realm. Without rings to give, he could not hope to keep his retainers loyal. The fatal flaw in heroic social theory may not have been the code of individual honor13 (which was in theory subject to reason and higher justice), but the necessity of waging wars to replenish a kingdom's coffers with immediate spoil and future tribute. Such wars may not bring instant trouble to the victor, but they lay it up for the future. Beowulf managed through his long reign to keep others from preying on his people—næs se folccyning, / ymbesittendra ðnig ðara, / þe mec guðwinum gretan dorste (ll. 2733-5)—and apparently gained enough gold to keep his kingdom prosperous and peaceful, but he and his predecessors incurred such envy and hatred from neighboring lands that the messenger expects invasion once news of the king's death spreads.

If a good man and the abstraction “troublemaking” are given heroic shapes and matched in contest, we expect the good man to win, for troublemaking is not a sin likely to overcome him. Likewise, with luck and God's grace, he may avoid being swept up by the wild dictates of revenge. Undoubtedly he will have to undertake occasional revenges, even as Beowulf agreed to face Grendel's mother, but he will act decisively and without malice, and without unreasonable obstinacy. But the good man cannot avoid taking part in war. He cannot, within heroic society, eradicate this threat to order; at best he can hope to minimize the possible miseries to his own people, and no nation can expect to succeed in war forever. Hence Beowulf's attempt to root out the third threat to society is a kind of stand off: as king, he has kept war from disturbing the harmony of his society, so he can rightfully defeat the dragon. But success at expense of rival nations is self-limiting. Too much of it, and envious neighbors will band together to gain revenge and plunder. Beowulf is overcome at the height of his triumph, precisely as his realm will be. But his death is no personal defeat, as we can sense from the magnificence of his last effort. Tolkien is surely right when he insists that the dragon is aesthetically “the right end for Beowulf” (p. 276). Had Beowulf been killed by one of the monsters while yet a young man, his death would have been tragic; that he should die so when old, especially when taking his antagonist with him and leaving treasure for his people, is the highest blaze of glory achievable within the heroic framework, Or, in terms of his motives and effects, þæt wæs god cyning.


Judged by their deeds, the monsters appear to represent the three forces most inimical to heroic social order. Even in physical shape and sequence, they fit a pattern: the two threats usually offered by single individuals within a society are given man-like form and are related, as befits the logical tie between instigation and revenge. That war should succeed feuding conforms to actual practice: Ecgtheow was refused refuge by the Geats lest he bring war on his protectors. Though the dragon's differing species is initially disconcerting, we can admit his extraordinary aptness to his role. Not only are his tactics those of war, but so is his concern with wealth. He is even encased in armor.

But the poem is not reducible to its three fights alone. Interpreters must also examine the other strands of narrative. “Historical” episodes are interwoven with the contests, some being mentioned only once; others, like Hygelac's raid, recurrently. And there are a number of set pieces whose contextual relevance is problematical: Hrothgar's sermon, the old man's lament, the lay of the last survivor. Allusions to other heroes form another body of referential matter. To be taken at all seriously, a thematic interpretation must account for the presence of such material. Most thematic interpreters have not even tried to be thorough. Halverson (order versus chaos) and Kahrl and O'Loughlin (feuding) are best able to be so because of the broad applicability of their themes, and obviously this reading resembles theirs. But I believe that more precise distinctions and arrangements are actually present, that the subsidiary material in each movement is specifically relevant to the monster.

The poem's first movement is preceded by the Scyld episode, generally considered a prelude to the total work, a variant equivalent to Beowulf's own life pattern rather than a narrowly relevant introit to the Grendel story. But it functions as both. The activity most important to Scyld's winning the poet's accolade þæt wæs god cyning seems to be his successful foreign fighting: he drove away or subjugated his neighbors and milked tribute from them. He also brought internal order after an interregnum, and left an heir of age to rule the realm. His people appreciated this combination of luck, policy, and success, and gave him a splendid funeral; thanks to him, they could afford such a gesture. His treasury, which his heirs increased through war (l. 64), led to the construction of Heorot and the subsequent envy of Grendel. If envy breeds feud on the personal level and war on the national, then we get in the Scyld passage the evidence we need to see the inevitability of the progressive rise to success and fall to misery which will occupy the Danes from Scyld's appearance to the Heathobard's burning of Heorot. The social problems, as well as the overall life pattern, are indeed the same for Scyld and Beowulf, but Scyld's deeds are also important to the precarious state in which Beowulf finds Denmark.

Cain's relevance to Grendel has already been mentioned. Both originate feuds for no defensible reason: Cain the first to distress the harmony of creation, Grendel the first to challenge successfully the Danish prosperity founded by Scyld. And within the hall, Unferth, brother-slayer and troublemaker, sits at the feet of the Lord of the Scyldings, his presence boding ill for the future. Another referential figure apparently akin to these is Ecgtheow. Hrothgar wishes to interpret Beowulf's arrival as a gesture of thanks, not of pity, and so reminds the hero Gesloh þin fæder fæhðe mæste (l. 459)—Ecgtheow started a feud with the Wilfings and made the peninsular regions too hot to hold him. Hrothgar takes credit for sheltering Beowulf's father and composing the feud. Sigemund and Heremod are two other outside figures the poet seems to bring into this pattern. The Sigemund allusion can be justified purely on grounds of immediate local relevance: as part of celebrating Beowulf's exploit, the harper sings of another killer of monsters and eotena cynnes (l. 883). Despite the generally favorable nature of the reference, the author attributes to the harper songs concerning divers fæhðe ond fyrena (l. 879) not generally known. This may imply that the harper knew of traditions attributing feud-starting crimes to Sigemund, for the same phrase, fæhðe ond fyrene, is used of Grendel (l. 137). The Heremod passage can also be justified on aesthetic grounds, but the import of the accusing description is that Heremod became a problem, an aldorcearu or a threat to the very lives of his people, and therefore may be said to exemplify the willingness to kill and the unreason which characterize other external figures alluded to in the Grendel movement. All the currents and undercurrents of the poem's first movement concern the starting of trouble; Beowulf works to eradicate it. Specifically, in real-life terms, he meets and bests a quarrelsome drunken troublemaker without indulging in complementary violence; and in the heightened terms of the heroic agon, he defeats the feud originator Grendel.

If the poet was indeed fitting his material thematically to three monsters, we might expect abrupt and aesthetically awkward shifts as he passed from one to the next. He seems, however, to have forestalled the difficulty by providing two intermodulatory set pieces: the Finn story and Beowulf's prediction concerning Danish-Heathobard relations. That which transposes the thematic key from starting feuds to revenge, the Finnsburg story, is told as hall entertainment after Grendel's defeat and before his mother's foray. The first steps in the Finnsburg clash are unclear; all we can determine is that a solemn treaty was made, that the exigencies of winter kept the two parties penned together, and that Hengest, as spring approached, decided to seek revenge for his fallen lord despite his oaths. That the story has other artistic purposes has long been recognized. Wealtheow's joy is as doomed as Hildeburgh's, for she and her old husband are blindly determined, against custom and reason, that their young son shall inherit the Scylding throne despite the presence of Hrothulf, an adult and ambitious prince.14 The episode serves more than one function, but by the author's choice of details—little on the origins of the strife, much on the treaty and Hengest's change of mind—the revenge motif is insinuated into our thoughts before the second monster arrives, and her appearance is therefore a satisfaction to our halfroused expectations, not an awkward surprise.

Trouble is more easily checked before revenge complicates the picture than after. A good man can curb his behavior and avoid starting feuds, but he may not be able to avoid being sucked into quarrels through the actions of his relatives. Moreover, treacherous slaughter can make even a mild man thirst for vengeance if its victim is a beloved son or brother. For reasons such as these, any figure signifying revenge ought to be more difficult to overcome than one representing troublemaking. Simply within oneself, the latter is easier to control than the former. Beowulf is very hard pressed by the merewif, but with luck and God's grace he accomplishes his task. Because there are no close relatives left, the feud he has undertaken on another's behalf is ended for good. In terms of his own conduct, Beowulf is completely successful: it is not his fault (as Kahrl observes) that though he can rescue the Danes from monsters, he cannot save them from themselves.

The main action in this second movement is uncomplicated. What is problematical is the series of remarks Hrothgar makes while handling the hilt Beowulf has presented to him. The speech is clearly relevant to interpretations centered on ideal kingship, and indirectly to the theme of sapientia and fortitudo. It can be treated as a warning by those who consider Beowulf's fight with the dragon proof that his judgment has been twisted by ofermod. The words may be read as a device of characterization: the old man retreats to minatory moralizing when this embodiment of youth, strength, valor, and wisdom makes him feel his own shortcomings. The sentiments do not, however, have any direct bearing on troublemaking, revenge, or war, as I freely admit. However, Hrothgar five times touches on a complementary concern—the giving of gold. After a few words of formal praise, he says to Beowulf Ic þe sceal mine gelæstan / freode, swa wit furðum spræcon (ll. 1706-7). Given Hrothgar's notions of kingly gratitude and the phrase swa wit furðum spræcon, the implication is that Hrothgar wishes to tell Beowulf that fit gifts will be forthcoming, for their last two exchanges prior to Beowulf's descent into the mere concerned just this matter of treasure. Hrothgar promised reward for this second, unanticipated fight (ll. 1380-2) and later Beowulf asked for assurance that should he die, the treasure would be sent to Hygelac (ll. 1482-7).

Following the rhetorical convention of contrast, Hrothgar mentions Heremod, and it becomes clear that he was indeed a Cain- and Grendel-like figure who killed often and unreasonably—breat bolgenmod beodgeneatas, / eaxlgesteallan (ll. 1713-4). However, another characteristic emerges also: nallas beagas geaf / Denum æfter dome (ll. 1719-20). Hrothgar underlines the enormity of this niggardliness and of Heremod's consequent suffering by exclaiming Du þe lær be þon, / gumcyste ongit! (ll. 1722-3).

Then Hrothgar expatiates on the ruler who is given everything by a beneficent God. After describing the hypothetical ruler's blessings and the degeneration of outlook which gradually darkens his mind, Hrothgar gets down to specific results and the first is nallas on gylp seleð / fætte beagas (ll. 1749-50). Ultimately, Hrothgar points out, someone else will inherit se þe unmurnlice madmas dæleþ, / eorles ærgestreon (ll. 1756-7). Again, Hrothgar admonishes Bebeorh þe ðone bealonið, Beowulf leofa (l. 1758).

The substance of his disquisition on the fates of men and the reference to his own experience seems to be his insistence that for one who has faithfully dealt out treasure, help will come should trouble arise. Naturally such help comes because of a man's reputation for generous dealing. Hrothgar ends his speech with yet another assurance that payment will be forthcoming: unc sceal worn fela / maþ ma gemænra, siþðan morgen bið (ll. 1783-4). Gold giving is not Hrothgar's only theme by any means, but it plays a more central part than is generally realized among all the warnings about failing strength, pride, and the inevitability of death. He states the cardinal commandment enjoined upon a king by his position and the customs of the time. Just as a dragon must guard a hoard, Cyning sceal on healle / beagas dælan.15 This imperative—reward good conduct fittingly—helps a king overcome trouble and feuds, and thus strengthen social order. The same laudable rule, however, involves him in wars to win the wealth to give rewards.

Just as the first and second movements are bridged by an intermodulatory set piece—the Finnsburg Episode—the second and third are similarly spanned, this time by Beowulf's prediction concerning Danish-Heathobard relations. The former charts the development from uneasy treaty to revenge; Beowulf's prophecy takes the two nations from fragile truce to war. The fight is sparked, appropriately enough, by a piece of war-spoil. Though details of the enmity are difficult to untangle, lines 81-5 imply that ultimately the Heathobard Ingeld sets Heorot to the torch, the quintessential act of war, since it destroys the symbolic heart of a nation. Beowulf's forecast raises fairly definite expectations of the theme the author wishes next to consider.

The third movement gives the impression of separateness. Beowulf has changed. From being young, he is now exceedingly old. From being the king's nephew, he has risen through tragedy and political confusion to be king. He is not in Denmark (mostly an island-nation with natural boundaries) but in Sweden, where there are no easily defensible territorial divisions, and where neighbors are hereditary foes. Moreover, the monsters differ in the two locales. If my reading is correct, the three sections should seem more equivalent. What accounts for the separation of the third part?

The change in location presumably follows from two traditions: the author seems to have known some story of Swedish wars and either found Beowulf part of the tale, or decided to graft him into it. Also inherited in all probability was a form of the Bear's Son Tale localized in Denmark, perhaps some progenitor of the Bothvar Bjarki story. That Beowulf should prove his heroism away from his native land upsets none of our aesthetic assumptions; in folktale (and, later, romance) such a test archetypally takes place in a distant or special realm. We would feel no unease at two adventures, one Danish and one Swedish (AB), nor at three in three separate lands (ABC), nor at the Danish sequence followed by a homecoming but no dragon (aBa). What the author has given us—AAB—is unsymmetrical. But the related nature of troublemaking and vengeance, and the necessity of Beowulf's attracting a vengeful attack without reproach to his conduct, make it expedient and economical to tie the first two thematic concerns together.

As for Beowulf's being old and a king, those developments are also logically explicable. The ruler, not the hero, is the figure who decides whether to make war or not, fends off invasions, and has to concern himself with the state of his treasury. If he is to keep the loyalty and praise of his retainers, he must always be on the watch for wealth which can be obtained with as little loss to his men as possible, and must choose whether to risk battle for the gold or not. Beowulf's being advanced to lordship for a thematic consideration of war is virtually necessary, but being king at the beginning would have precluded his rightfully risking his life to free some other realm of its monsters. Goldsmith and Leyerle even argue that his foray against the dragon is improper for a king. By the tenets of later social theories, that is correct; but I question whether the logic of the later theories applies to Beowulf and to primitive kingship. The protection that Beowulf's name affords his people against hostile neighbors will last only as long as he proves powerful. A dragon unchecked in its ravages would invite invasion as readily as news of his death. Even had Beowulf failed to kill the beast, his willing gift of his life for his realm must be counted to his credit, and since he manages to kill his adversary, he seems to me to deserve nothing but admiration. Leyerle disagrees; but I would say that Beowulf cuts a much better figure than Hrothgar in a similar situation.

Beowulf's shift in age seems best explained by reference to audience response. Had Beowulf died young, or even in his prime, the effect produced would have been that of pathos, of lament for potential unfulfilled. We would feel pity for the hero and our thoughts would center on this personal tragedy. Beowulf's dying as he does reduces the pathetic and personal element to negligible proportions. To die heroically instead of in his bed is no loss to him.16 He is very old, and any span hypothetically left to his frame is borrowed time. He is spared the frustration of living beyond his power—and even granting Hrothgar all dignity and virtue, the Danish king is a man who has outlived his usefulness.17 Beowulf's dying old transfers our focus from the personal aspects of his death to larger problems—social order, the unstable nature of earthly good, dilemmas of conduct, and other such general concerns.

The dragon harms the Geat nation as a war would, with hall burning and fire raising. His reason for invading is one of the usual reasons for belligerence: some of his wealth has been stolen. Once he is pulled into the quarrel, Beowulf's concerns are those of any conscientious king—protecting his people and winning treasure for his realm. The very partial nature of his success and the messenger's foreboding concerning the fate of the nation all fit the interpretation of the dragon's symbolizing war. The pattern of episodic allusions confirms this impression, for the referential layer persistently draws our attention to the endless national bickerings between Swedes and Geats. Interpretative problems arise not concerning this main action, but rather in peripheral matters: the treasure, the lay of the last survivor, and the old man's lament. The first is a major crux, the latter two are passages of great emotional power, but sufficiently removed from the subject proposed here to deserve commentary.

The hoard is morally problematical. Those critics taking an ascetic Christian stance can condemn treasure as evil. Those willing to grant positive virtues to the wynn and dream which it can be used to support will see in what Beowulf wins the potentiality for great good. The meaning of the whole poem turns on the significance of the treasure, for Beowulf must be either praised or damned for his attitude toward it.

How we are meant to view the treasure is difficult to determine for two reasons. The first is the validity of strict Christian evaluation; the second, the poet's obscure and possibly contradictory statements about the hoard's origins and the curse laid upon it. That Beowulf is extremely eager to see what he has won is undeniable. His state of mind is revealed in lines 2747-51, when he tells Wiglaf to bring some of the gold out, and lines 2794-801, where he thanks God þæs ðe ic moste minum leodum / ær swyltdæge swylc gestrynan, and talks about bartering his life for the gold. In a monkish context, such sentiments would indeed suggest grave spiritual shortcomings, even imminent damnation. But if gold is handled here as it seems to be in the rest of the poem, then Beowulf's concern does not condemn him. The social theory he has lived by is flawed logically as well as by the standards of caritas, but he himself has done admirably in upholding and extending its best features, and his joy at winning treasure whose acquisition has lost his people so few lives is in keeping with his ideal behavior throughout.18

The curse on the treasure complicates the picture. Former owners demanded þæt se secg wære synnum scildig, / hergum geheaðerod, hellbendum fæst, / wommum gewitnad, se þone wong strude (ll. 3071-3). The absoluteness of this curse is mitigated by three factors. The first concerns the murkiness with which religion is portrayed in the poem; whatever Beowulf's spiritual status may be, the curse is purely pagan, placed on gold that is several times referred to as heathen. Whether the Christian author would have believed such a spell to have power over so virtuous a man as Beowulf is uncertain, and even if he did, we should not read into hellbendum the Christian Hell. Secondly, the author himself has left Beowulf a loophole: ðam hringsele hrinan ne moste / gumena ænig, nefne God sylfa, / sigora Soðcyning sealde þam ðe he wolde / —he is manna gehyld—hord openian (ll. 3053-6). This seems to suggest that no man would be able to get to (hrinan) the treasure unless he had God's favor; by implication, Beowulf's success means that he had divine support, and since the author describes the condition in his own narrative voice, he is granting to Beowulf aid from the Christian God, which might be thought to be more than enough to offset a heathen curse. Finally, there is Scandinavian precedent for heroes plundering tomb-hoards, most of which were presumably bespelled, without thereby being damned for desecration.19 Perhaps risking his life in struggle with the resident draugr gives a hero a right to the wealth which is denied to the mere grave robber. Very possibly, the curse of former owners does not condemn Beowulf to Hell, and indeed may not even be responsible for his death, as Smithers and Goldsmith argue. That an old man dies in a dragon fight does not mean that God has forsaken him; he cannot live forever.

The lay of the last survivor tells us something of the treasure's earlier history. War, guðdeað, has carried off all his people. The echoing emptiness, both physically of the hall and spiritually of the mind, is feelingly expressed. There is no social joy, and as death approaches, he puts the treasure in the earth, perhaps to help prevent its falling into the hands of his nation's foes. Later, when war threatens to destroy the Geats, Wiglaf prescribes the same measure, and the wealth is once again consigned to earth, possibly to prevent the anticipated invaders from making off with it. We see in this passage an unhappy awareness, couched in lyric-lament terms, that war cannot always be carried out successfully, a topic which recurs as a mournful motif whenever Hygelac's Frisian raid comes up. Allusions to that appear throughout the poem, not just in the war-movement. They remind us of how one foolish move can work toward the destruction of a society, even though that society's continued well-being demanded the action.

The old man's lament (ll. 2444-62) is actually not a monologue but an epic simile, a hypothetical portrait tangentially relevant to Hrethel. The amount of time Beowulf spends musing aloud on Hrethel, one of whose sons killed another, and on an old man whose son is hanged, is difficult to explain on logical grounds. Neither has any bearing on the dragon or on Swedish wars. True, the lamenting tone is appropriate for one whose mind is feeling wæfre ond wælfus (l. 2420), but both vignettes are more illuminating if viewed as an expression by Beowulf of the frustration an old man feels when that which he cares for is taken from him. The man whose son is hanged feels that the hall is silent, the wind whistles through the rafters, and that no harp can pierce the shell of his grief. The dragon may have taken lives, some possibly dear. Beowulf's great hall is a charred shell through whose scorched, broken beams the wind sighs. No harp can gladden. Were Beowulf like Hrethel, he might very well pine and die from sorrow. He might live in the past like the last survivor, and withdraw to nurse his grief. He might, like Hrothgar, live out a travesty version of his once great power. But Beowulf is determined to act, and is lucky in having an external foe.


As this reading suggests, the poem never moves away from its pervasive concern with the maintenance of stability in an heroic society. Most of the seemingly extraneous referential material is actually directly relevant to the action of the movement in which it appears. The exceptions are minor. The concerns of Hrothgar's sermon are very natural coming from a king, regardless of immediate context. Recurring references to Hygelac's Frisian raid are justifiable both because of its importance to Beowulf's career and thematically as a many-sided negative example. Hygelac is mindless fortitudo to Hrothgar's strengthless sapientia, while Beowulf combines both. Hygelac is the overreaching king who wastes his life without profit to his realm, the ruler who loses treasure (his torque) rather than gaining it. He is not evil, as is Heremod, the other king to be mentioned several times in similar fashion. Rather, he represents the mistakes a good heroic king can make. These two and Hrothgar all serve to make plain the superiority of Beowulf's modes of conduct in each of the crises he faces.

A number of questions remain: they cannot be answered with certainty, but must be acknowledged. Would an Anglo-Saxon audience react positively or negatively to this picture of a flawed heroic society? Should we presume powerful Christian presuppositions in the poem's original audience? Was the composition of the poem so non-literary as to make elaborate literary interpretation misguided? What would make an Anglo-Saxon poet take up the subject of threats to social order?

Because the heroic society is portrayed as flawed, is the poem meant as a Christian treatise of rejection? A number of recent readers have taken this stand.20 The objections to such a conclusion are forceful. The worlds of harp and hall, of gold-giving, of love between lord and retainer, are too feelingly and attractively rendered to provoke sweeping condemnation. Flawed these joys may be, and insecure, but nonetheless they are real, and within the context of the poem, they are all that stands between man and the outer darkness. For the story's characters, as for Bede's sparrow, the hall is shelter from the lashing storm, and the society in it is better than the alternative chaos. The most likely audience reaction seems to me to be at least moderate admiration. We may consider, too, that the society of the original audience, heroic in its assumptions but undistinguished and unstable-seeming to one living in it, would tell against rejection of a more glamorous and satisfactory heroic society which supposedly existed in the past.

Conceivably, the author's desire was to provoke rejection of all secular societies, past or present. He would expect the audience to know what ideal Christian life should be like. A critic espousing this general approach will stress the “tragic,” “hopeless,” “doomed” tone of the ending. But Beowulf's death need not be interpreted as tragedy. His people are due for a fall; but the fall is no more absolute than their triumph. Winning general condemnation of a way of life is better done in bleaker terms than the Beowulf-poet has used, terms which elicit less respect and admiration, less sense that the men portrayed in the story were greater in distress, as well as in joy, than their descendants.

Could religious presuppositions have overridden the natural reaction? Possibly; but it is one thing to say that men in the eighth and ninth centuries were good Christians, and quite another to assume an elaborately learned and exegetical habit of response to works not patently religious. To such an audience, gold may be invariably evil; Heorot may be Babel or Babylon; Beowulf may be covetous, or proud, or simply damned because pagan. The audience may have had at its command obscure details from the apocryphal Book of Enoch concerning the descendants of Cain, but if that was the standard of response which could be expected, why, as Halverson observes, does the author keep reminding us that Cain slew his brother Abel, and why did the scribe keep mispelling the name?21 Can the intellectual background for complex exegesis be expected from any but a few churchmen, who might in any case have agreed with Alcuin that Ingeld had nothing to do with Christ? Was this patently heroic poem written for such churchmen, or for laymen and those monks Alcuin was rebuking? The nation may well have been obedient to the physical demands of Christianity—church attendance, fasts, and penance—without achieving much expertise in theological profundities. Perhaps the dragon should be read as Satan and Beowulf's interest in the treasure construed as avarice, but such readings seem basically to distort the poem's natural heroic strain.

The kind of thematic reading proposed here can account for the content and structure of the poem as we have it, whereas few of the passages read exegetically by recent critics are unambiguously theological—an argument for caution in exegesis. But the thematic reading is open to challenge on external grounds by the ultra-conservative and the oral formulaicist alike. If the story was originally assembled from independent works and handed down with little but minor alterations from one generation of scop to the next, then we would not expect an ideaorientation. The Liedertheorie, by denying single, self-conscious authorship, explodes assumptions of artistic and thematic unity, and my interpretation's aptness to the poem would be coincidental. Even if the poem were composed by oral formulaic means, we would expect action- or hero-orientation to dictate the inherited story-line. But if either variety of non-literary composition was employed, then most Beowulf-criticism is invalid, just as it may be if a strict Christian outlook was expected to control the audience response. But whether educated monks would have been as reverently determined to preserve unlettered composition precisely as delivered is a question worth considering. The acrostic games of Cynewulf suggest that poetry imitating or using oral stylistic conventions could be literarily composed, and most of the Christian poetry is clearly not the product of generations of court scops. To adherents of either approach, one may also observe that the presence of complex and subtle thematic relationships is seldom an accident if they are consistently handled at every stage and level of a long poem.

Unless the themes and connections traced here and by a host of other critics are wholly imaginary, Beowulf has a great deal of deliberate literary artistry. My argument has been that the controlling interest behind that artistry is threats to social order. Better than any other yet proposed, that subject seems able to account for the nature and sequence of the monsters. Sapientia and fortitudo or Königsideal are better viewed as incidental or subsidiary interests within the broader concern of social order than as central and controlling subjects. “Order versus chaos” and “feuding” overgeneralize the point of the poem. What, though, of the semi-thematic dichotomies given prominence by Tolkien and his followers: man and his inevitable overthrow in time, or man against death; man against evil; the soul against its adversaries; youth and age?22 These seem logically wanting. There are deaths more horrible and destructive of self-respect than being rent and bitten in heroic strife, and worse tragedies than taking a dragon with you when over seventy. The contrast between youth and age can hardly be central if the change does not significantly diminish a man's ability to fight monsters.23 Are we to feel pity and terror over Beowulf's demise? There is an extremely powerful elegiac strain in the poem, and a definite sense of the threat of death, but to my mind it is death by unnecessary violence, death in futile and petty wars, death falling on unsuspecting and innocent revelers which haunts the author, not death in the abstract. His sadness seems directed at the impossibility of realizing the ideal pattern of heroic society indefinitely, not at the limitations of this ideal from a Christian point of view or at life in general.

If we ask why the author should have been so concerned with social harmony, the answer is not far to seek: “from the close of Bede's History in 731 down to the decisive victory of Egbert over Mercia in 829, is the darkest and most barren century in the history of Christian England. The interminable strife between kingdoms and the feuds between rival claimants within the kingdoms seem … to be as futile as they are wearisome.”24 The chronicles occasionally mention small feuds and large, even a stand in a hall reminiscent of Finnsburg.25 However, most of the bloodshed recorded was politically motivated and would have appeared to those on the periphery sordid, selfish, unnecessary, and profitless.

Periods of civil strife may be exceedingly unpleasant to live in, but they do seem to be conducive to composition in the heroic mode. Many of the Icelandic family sagas were produced within long memory of a particularly nasty period of civil strife. Much later in English literature, the War of the Roses produced a similar response; indeed, Malory and the Beowulf-poet seem to me startlingly similar in method. Neither was recreating a genuine past; nor were they seeking mythical golden ages. Rather, they each took a system of values which was the theoretical ideal reflected in ruling class entertainment but not put into practice—the heroic and the chivalric codes of behavior. They created “past” worlds by giving life to these theories, and then tried to understand the forces which could have caused such societies to fail, or to degenerate to what they themselves lived in. Both were successful at visualizing the specific vices which would logically and naturally have flourished within their chosen codes: the Beowulf-poet's three types of violence, Malory's conflicts between allegiances to Church, state, and woman. Both seem haunted, partly by a melancholy recognition that these refined and heightened forms of their own societies would be incapable of survival because of inherent flaws, and partly by a sense that even with the faults, such societies were more attractive than what they had to live with. Both the Morte Darthur and Beowulf lament the non-existence of a pattern of living because it is possessed of the memorability, the worthiness, and the significance not found in the authors' own daily acts. We know nothing about the Beowulf-poet, and so these last observations are speculative, but they seem entirely consonant with the tone of the poem he has left to us.


  1. This is all the more true if, as Arthur G. Brodeur and Lawrence E. Fast have argued, Hygelac is a unifying or centripetal force in Beowulf: see respectively The Art of Beowulf (Berkeley, 1959), pp. 79-87, and “HYGELAC: A Centripetal Force in ‘Beowulf’,” AnM, XII (1971), 90-9. Our sense that we might have expected more concerning the rise to kingship, for instance, is expressed by Dorothy Whitelock in The Audience of Beowulf (Oxford, 1951), p. 97, when she says “The poet must deliberately have refrained from enlarging on this incident.”

  2. Beowulf and the Life of Beowulf: A Study in Epic Structure,” Studies in Language, Literature, and Culture of the Middle Ages and Later, ed. E. Bagby Atwood and Archibald A. Hill (Austin, 1969), pp. 243-64.

  3. For discussions of the poem's interlacement of narrative strands, see John Leyerle, “The Interlace Structure of Beowulf,UTQ, XXXVII (1967), 1-17, and “Beowulf the Hero and the King,” Mæ, XXXIV (1965), 89-102; John A. Nist, “The Structure of Beowulf,PMASAL, XLIII (1958), 307-14; and E. Carrigan, “Structure and Thematic Development in Beowulf,Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy, LXVIc (1967), 1-51.

  4. All references are to Frederick Klaeber's Beowulf and the Fight at Finnsburg, 3rd ed. (Boston, 1950).

  5. Most of these critics insist that the poem is unified, but some of those who picture the author as having stitched two movements together into a whole include Arthur G. Brodeur (n. 1); E. Carrigan (n. 3); R. W. Chambers (Beowulf: An Introduction, 3rd ed. [Cambridge, England, 1959], pp. 112 ff.); Charles Donahue (“Beowulf and Christian Tradition: A Reconsideration from a Celtic Stance,” Traditio, XXI [1965], 55-116); George J. Engelhardt (“On the Sequence of Beowulf's geogoð,MLN, LXVIII [1953], 91-5); Margaret E. Goldsmith (n. 12); Robert E. Kaske (n. 7); W. P. Ker (Epic and Romance [1897; rpt. New York, 1957], pp. 158 ff.); Frederick Klaeber (n. 4); Kemp Malone (“Beowulf,” ES, XXIX [1948], 161-72); and J. R. R. Tolkien (n. 6). Those who think in terms of triptych construction include Adrien Bonjour (“Grendel's Dam and the Composition of Beowulf,ES, XXX [1949], 113-24); Nora K. Chadwick (n. 10); Jack Durant (n. 8); John Gardner (“Fulgentius's Expositio Vergiliana Continentia and the Plan of Beowulf: Another Approach to the Poem's Style and Structure,” PLL, VI [1970], 227-62); Bruce Mitchell (n. 22); John A. Nist (n. 3); H. L. Rogers (“Beowulf's Three Great Fights,” RES, n.s. VI [1955], 339-55); and Kenneth Sisam (n. 23).

  6. Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics,” Proceedings of the British Academy, XXII (1936), 245-95. Quotation from p. 271.

  7. Levin L. Schücking, “Das Königsideal im Beowulf,” MHRA Bulletin, III (1929), 143-54; Pamela Gradon, Form and Style in Early English Literature (London, 1971), pp. 127-31; R. E. Kaske, “Sapientia et Fortitudo as the Controlling Theme of Beowulf,SP, LV (1958), 423-57; Margaret E. Goldsmith, “The Christian Perspective in Beowulf,Studies in Old English Literature in Honor of Arthur G. Brodeur, ed. Stanley B. Greenfield (Eugene, Oregon, 1963), pp. 71-90; Alvin A. Lee, The Guest-Hall of Eden (New Haven, 1972), p. 171; John Leyerle, “Beowulf the Hero” (n. 3); Stanley J. Kahrl, “Feuds in Beowulf: A Tragic Necessity?” MP, LXIX (1972), 189-98; J. L. N. O'Loughlin, “Beowulf—Its Unity and Purpose,” Mæ, XXI (1952), 1-13; John Halverson, “The World of Beowulf,ELH, XXXVI (1969), 593-608.

  8. Jack Durant analyzes this “diabolic joy” in “The Function of Joy in Beowulf,TSL, VII (1962), 61-9.

  9. See Edward B. Irving, Jr., “Ealuscerwen: Wild Party at Heorot,” TSL, XI (1966), 161-8, especially p. 164.

  10. For discussions of the analogues, see Nora K. Chadwick, “The Monsters and Beowulf,The Anglo-Saxons: Studies in some Aspects of their History and Culture Presented to Bruce Dickins, ed. Peter Clemoes (London, 1959), pp. 171-203; G. V. Smithers, The Making of Beowulf (Durham, England, 1961), and Larry D. Benson, “The Originality of Beowulf,The Interpretation of Narrative: Theory and Practice, ed. Morton W. Bloomfield, Harvard Studies in English 1 (Cambridge, Mass., 1970), pp. 1-43.

  11. Maxims II, ll. 26-7, The Anglo-Saxon Minor Poems, ed. Elliott Van Kirk Dobbie, Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records, vi (New York, 1942), p. 56.

  12. Examining the third movement from different premises and perspectives, Arthur E. DuBois hints at much the same explanation of the dragon's significance; see “The Dragon in Beowulf,PMLA, LXXII (1957), 819-22. Other interpretations include malitia (Kaske); death (Lee, who points out [p. 217] that “worms” devour corpses); Beowulf's “fate” (Irving, in A Reading of Beowulf [New Haven, 1968], p. 216); and Leviathan (Goldsmith, The Mode and Meaning ofBeowulf” [London, 1970], p. 143).

  13. Leyerle, in “Beowulf the Hero,” interprets the poem as a study of the “fatal contradiction at the core of heroic society,” which he diagnoses as the demand for a personal heroism that causes a king like Beowulf to risk his life and thus harm his kingdom.

  14. Wealtheow's hopes are unrealistic, whether measured by the little we know of the continental tribes of the fifth and sixth centuries, or by the later standards of Christian England of the seventh through ninth centuries. (See R. H. Hodgkin, A History of the Anglo-Saxons, 2 vols., 3rd ed. [London, 1952], II, 407-8.) Particularly when the maintenance of national wealth and stability depended on a king's waging successful foreign wars, the rule of a minor would have been as disastrous to his realm as it was unpalatable to his older uncles and cousins.

  15. Maxims II, ll. 28-9, ASPR, vi, p. 56.

  16. This stand is well argued by John C. Pope in “Beowulf's Old Age,” Philological Essays: Studies in Old and Middle English Language and Literature in Honour of Herbert Dean Meritt, ed. James L. Rosier (The Hague, 1970), pp. 55-64.

  17. Without subscribing to his notions of ritual royal sacrifice, I think Charles Moorman, in “The Essential Paganism of Beowulf,MLQ, XXVIII (1967), 3-18, is substantially correct in viewing Hrothgar as having outlived his capacity to fulfill the demands of a primitive kingship. Having done so, Hrothgar is not really maintaining order, but is prolonging an unstable political configuration, and causing pressures to mount.

  18. For a well-argued antidote to the harshly Christian views of the hoard, see Michael D. Cherniss, “The Progress of the Hoard in Beowulf,PQ, XLVII (1968), 473-86.

  19. See Smithers, pp. 8 ff., for a discussion of heroic grave-plundering. In Egilssaga einhendar ok Ásmundar, for instance, a grave is robbed with impunity.

  20. Goldsmith and Lee tend to believe a negative response is demanded. So does E. G. Stanley, “Hæthenra Hyht in Beowulf” (Brodeur Festschrift, pp. 136-51).

  21. Beowulf and the Pitfalls of Piety,” UTQ, XXXV (1966), 260-78, especially p. 268.

  22. All these are suggested by Tolkien. Man against death is given special prominence by Bruce Mitchell, “‘Until the Dragon Comes …’: Some Thoughts on Beowulf,Neophil., XLVII (1963), 126-38.

  23. Kenneth Sisam makes this point in The Structure of Beowulf (Oxford, 1965), p. 24.

  24. Hodgkin, II, 383-4.

  25. See the “story of Cynewulf and Cyneheard” in the Laud and Parker MSS under the year 755.

Kevin S. Kiernan (essay date 1981)

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SOURCE: An Introduction to “Beowulf” and the “Beowulf” Manuscript, Rutgers University Press, 1981, pp. 3-12.

[In the essay below, Kiernan reviews historical and linguistic evidence which he contends indicates that Beowulf is contemporary with the extant manuscript.]

It may well be surprising that a study of Beowulf in conjunction with its unique ms represents a radical departure from all previous approaches to the poem. In fact, the Beowulf ms has scarcely been studied at all. It still holds a wealth of undiscovered paleographical and codicological evidence, which, under ordinary circumstances, textual scholars would have uncovered and weighed long ago, as a matter of course, for the purpose of founding a reliable text. This evidence has remained safely hidden away because most editors of the poem have relied on photographic fss of the ms, and, often enough, modern transcriptions of the fss, rather than on the ms itself. Their tacit justification for this decidedly unorthodox procedure is that the ms cannot possibly hold any relevant textual evidence that fss would not show as well. For, however variegated and contentious Beowulf studies are in all other respects, there was until very recently complete unanimity in the view that Beowulf is an early Anglo-Saxon poem preserved in a late Anglo-Saxon ms. The chronological gulf between the poem and the ms is usually reckoned to be two to three centuries. Under these circumstances, we are lucky to have an extant ms at all, but still rather unlucky to have such a late one. Surely, the broad paleographical features of a ms that ends an untraceably ancient transmission of the archetype are not textually vital. Beowulf and the Beowulf Manuscript challenges the unproven premise that Beowulf is an early poem. It argues instead, ultimately on the basis of extraordinary paleographical and codicological evidence, that the poem is contemporary with the ms.

The argument of the book is presented in three main stages. The first stage reconsiders the historical and linguistic evidence that has seemed to justify the neglect of the ms, and concludes that, historically and linguistically, both the poem and the ms could have been created in the early 11th century. The second stage is an extensive physical description of Cotton Vitellius A. xv., the composite codex in which the Beowulf ms now resides. The immediate relevance of this description is that it affords a clear view of the construction of the Beowulf ms, in relation to the construction of contiguous texts, and leads to the conclusion that the poem could have been copied in the early 11th century as a separate codex. The third stage studies the Beowulf ms as a contemporary ms of the poem. A variety of paleographical and codicological evidence shows that the poem may have been still undergoing revision while the ms was being copied, and that it was again undergoing revision later in the 11th century. In short, the evidence suggests that the actual creation of Beowulf, as we now know it, is partially preserved in the ms that has come down to us.

This relatively straightforward argument is necessarily embedded in a long and complicated train of subsidiary arguments that can be fruitfully summarized here. Part 1, “The Poem's Eleventh-Century Provenance,” argues that the paleographical dating of the ms, roughly between 975 and 1025, can be safely placed on historical grounds after 1016. Anglo-Saxon scriptoria during the reign of æthelred Unræd (978-1016) would not have copied a poem that praised the Danish Scylding dynasty, while the latest Scyldings, led by Swein Forkbeard, plundered and murdered throughout the country. By 1016 the Danes had conquered England. Swein's son, Cnut the Great, soon made England the center of his dynasty, and by the way provided a suitable historical context for copying a poem like Beowulf. But Cnut's reign (1016-1035) also provided an excellent environment for the creation of the poem, and we must not neglect the exciting possibility that the poem is contemporary with the extant ms. Until now, the origin of the poem has nearly always been restricted to the 8th century or earlier on the rough historical grounds that a poem eliciting sympathy for the Danes could not have been composed by Anglo-Saxons during the Viking Age of the 9th and 10th centuries. Historically, at least, there is a better argument for an 11th-century, post-Viking origin of the poem, since an 8th-century poem would still have to be transmitted by Anglo-Saxons through the Viking Age.

The great problem of accepting an early 11th-century provenance of Beowulf is linguistic, not historical. On closer scrutiny, the linguistic arguments for an early date (or against a late date) are by no means decisive. The specific linguistic tests of the poem's antiquity are especially weak: the syntactical tests magnify the occurrence in Beowulf of some acknowledged archaisms found in unquestionably late verse; the phonetic-materical tests are based on subjective interpretations of the meter that require sweeping, yet inconsistently selective emendations to unrecorded, early, linguistic forms; and the lonely phonetic-morphological-orthographical test is based on a ms “ghost.” The most compelling linguistic evidence that Beowulf is an early poem that has endured a long and complex transmission is its rich mixture of linguistic forms. The language of the extant ms is basically Late West Saxon, but this base is permeated with apparent non-West Saxonisms and, more significantly, with earlier linguistic forms, all of which would seem to prove that the poem had passed through many dialect areas on the way to its present form. There are, however, other explanations for this mixture of forms that do not rule out an 11th-century provenance, and do not even require a linguistically diverse transmission of the text.

Late West Saxon was a standard literary dialect used throughout England in the early 11th century. Complete orthographical uniformity, however, even in West Saxon territory, cannot be expected in an age before printing and formal dictionaries, and all Late West Saxon texts exhibit a natural mixture of forms, including some early forms. If the Beowulf ms was copied in non-West Saxon territory, there would be good reason to expect the occasional intrusion of late, non-West Saxon spellings in the text, as indeed is the case. The mixture of forms in the poem is further complicated by the fact that Anglo-Saxon poets of all periods shunned the language of prose, and consciously employed an artificial, archaic, poetic diction, whose roots were in Anglian territory. This fact explains the persistent occurrence of certain early, non-West Saxon forms beside the basically Late West Saxon language of the ms as a whole. Finally, if the poet and his two scribes each spoke a slightly different dialect, a confusing mixture of occasional spellings in the ms might well have been inevitable. An 11th-century convergence of all of these factors in Beowulf explains the mixture of forms, and accordingly eliminates the need to presume a long and complicated transmission of the text. The 11th-century provenance of Beowulf is historically and linguistically possible.

Part 2, “The History and Construction of the Composite Codex,” prepares the way for a close analysis of the Beowulf ms. The composite codex, known as British Library MS Cotton Vitellius A. xv., to which the Beowulf ms belongs, has never been fully described in English, and a full description is desperately needed. The only existing study (in German) is not only out of date and rather inaccessible; it is also demonstrably inaccurate in dating, foliation, and collation. Moreover, it is rendered practically worthless as a reference, because among its many other errors it mistakenly uses a foliation of the codex that was abandoned in 1884, thirty-five years before the description of the codex was published. But a complete description of Cotton Vitellius A. xv. is needed for another, even more urgent reason. What is now the official foliation of the Beowulf ms is inaccurate, and it cannot be corrected without discussing Cotton Vitellius A. xv. as a whole. A new description of the entire codex, then, has the practical advantage of facilitating references to the Beowulf ms.

At present, it is very difficult indeed to make clear references to folios in the Beowulf ms, because a single, acceptable foliation has not been established. Thus, one fs uses the official foliation, a second fs uses a foliation written on the ms leaves, and a third fs uses the same ms foliation, while acknowledging the technical rectitude of the official foliation. As a result, it is not possible simply to refer, for example, to fol. 133 of the Beowulf ms, for it will not be clear which foliation it belongs to: fol. 133 is the second leaf of the Beowulf ms in the official foliation, but the fourth leaf in the ms foliation. Even those scholars who accept the official foliation have not been able to ignore the ms foliation because of the fss, and because the different numbers on the ms leaves always need to be explained. Consequently, those who accept the official foliation still use the ms foliation in tandem with it, so that fol. 133 is normally referred to as fol. 133(130). Obviously, a complicated system of reference like this vitiates the purpose of a foliation. What makes matters even worse is that the official foliation, in addition to perpetuating some of the errors of the ms foliation, has been pervasively wrong since a flyleaf that it counts was removed from the codex. All of these difficulties are easily resolved by abandoning the confusing official foliation and by correcting the ms foliation in the few places where it is wrong. Except for two numbers, the foliation written on the Beowulf ms is accurate. For convenience of reference it needs to be reinstated as the official foliation.

The inadequacy of the current official foliation is best explained by discussing the flyleaves of Cotton Vitellius A. xv., which account for the marked discrepancies between the official and the ms foliations. A description of these prefixed leaves is useful in itself, for they have not been fully or accurately represented before, but a knowledge of their contents helps justify a return to the ms foliation. In addition, one of the leaves contains a scrap of new information about the state of the Beowulf ms before the fire of 1731. This subject is further investigated in a separate section on the history of the multiple foliations of the composite codex. Until now, scholars have mistakenly thought that the composite codex was not foliated in its entirety until after the fire. The discovery of two distinct foliations before the fire provides startling proof that the Beowulf ms was missing a folio at the time. A study of the various foliations (six different ones are documented and dated) shows precisely how three different folios from Beowulf were shifted from place to place from the early 17th century to the late 18th century.

To an extent, then, it is necessary to study Cotton Vitellius A. xv. as a whole in order to establish a simple and accurate foliation for the Beowulf ms. The utter confusion in the current system of foliation, and the history of the many abortive efforts to provide a correct foliation, are good indications of the astonishing lack of interest scholars have shown in Cotton Vitellius A. xv. and the mss that comprise it. The rest of Part 2 is devoted to describing the physical makeup of the various mss, and to defining their relation to the codex as a unit. To begin with, in Cotton Vitellius A. xv. Sir Robert Cotton artificially combined two totally unrelated codices, a 12th-century collection known as the Southwick Codex, and an 11th-century collection (which includes Beowulf) known as the Nowell Codex. This basic construction of Cotton's codex is self-evident. What is far more interesting, but not at all self-evident, is the basic construction of the Southwick and Nowell codices. The evidence shows that both are themselves composite codices. The original construction of the Southwick and Nowell codices has remained somewhat obscure to scholars because the fire of 1731 destroyed the threads and folds of the gatherings, reducing books to a stack of separate leaves. To recreate the Anglo-Saxon genesis of the book in which Beowulf was actually written, it is necessary to deduce the most probable construction of the original gatherings.

The task is comparatively simple in the case of the Southwick Codex, though no one before has ever deduced from the evidence at hand that the Southwick Codex is a Middle English composite of two late Old English mss, copied by the same scribe at different times in his life. The original gatherings of these two mss can be confidently reconstructed on the basis of sheet and quire signatures that were made in late Middle English times when the new book was rebound from old mss. But there are no sheet or quire signatures on the leaves of the Nowell Codex, and the job of reconstructing the original gatherings is considerably more complicated. Strangely, the most reliable method of reconstruction has been used to identify only one gathering. Each vellum sheet has, of course, a hair and a flesh side, and the difference in color and texture between them is noticeable. Gatherings can be identified, usually with virtual certitude, by collating the hair and flesh sides of separate folios, to see if two leaves that are presumed to be two halves of the same folded sheet are in fact conjugate. The method is not infallible, because the pattern of hair and flesh sides occasionally permits alternative gatherings, but usually there is other paleographical evidence that confirms one description over another. Moreover, the method can eliminate as impossible some established descriptions of the original gatherings; it can prove beyond doubt that some falsely paired folios are nonconjugate, and so could not once have been a single, folded sheet of vellum.

A close study of the original gatherings of the Nowell Codex leads to a revolutionary view of the Beowulf ms. The usual view is that Beowulf was copied as the fourth item in a basically prose codex. The traditional description of the gatherings seems to confirm this view by showing that the scribe began copying Beowulf within the last prose gathering, making the Beowulf ms an inextricable part of the prose codex. But a close analysis of the hair-and-flesh patterns throughout the Nowell Codex reveals that the scribe could have begun copying the Beowulf ms on a new gathering, while distinct differences in format and in execution indicate that the prose codex and the Beowulf ms were originally copied as separate books. It now seems that the Nowell Codex became a composite codex in two stages: first, the Beowulf ms was combined with the prose codex, probably soon after Beowulf was copied; then, undoubtedly, the Judith fragment was added on in early modern times at the end of this composite codex by ripping out a sheet from the Beowulf ms and using it as a cover for the late accretion.

The discovery that Beowulf was probably copied as a separate codex strengthens the argument that Beowulf is an 11th-century poem preserved in an 11th-century ms. Certainly, it suggests that Beowulf was important to the scriptorium in which it was copied, and that it had an 11th-century audience who understood it and appreciated its merits. Textual scholars have always assumed that the poem was mechanically copied by scribes who, since they were largely ignorant of its meaning, were consequently lazy and inattentive. Yet one of the most striking indications that Beowulf at first existed as a separate codex emerges from the scribes' manifest efforts to provide an accurate copy of the poem. The first scribe carefully proofread his part of Beowulf, but did not proofread the prose texts; the second scribe carefully proofread his own part of Beowulf, and the first scribe's part, but again not the prose texts. Thus, the scribal proofreading of Beowulf alone strongly implies that the Beowulf ms once existed as a separate codex. More important, it is eloquent testimony that the scribes were neither lazy nor inattentive in copying the poem; on the contrary, they understood and appreciated it enough to want an accurate copy. In any case, Beowulf was obviously a special poem in the early 11th century, and all the indications are that it was intelligently copied in our extant ms as a separate codex.

Part 3, “The Beowulf Codex and the Making of the Poem,” studies the ms as a separate codex from the entirely new perspective that the ms and the remarkable poem it preserves share the same 11th-century origin. A belief in the absolute textual and paleographical authority of the ms has, to be sure, revolutionary implications for the study of the poem. Until now, it has been impossible to see the ms as anything other than a very late transcript of a very early poem, and this limited view has not only justified many scores of needless emendations, but has made the conscious neglect of paleographical and codicological evidence appear to be a sound editorial principle. By this view, the 11th-century scribes are so hopelessly distant from the archetype, and separated by so many intermediate copies, that they cannot have had any better knowledge of it than we do today. These assumptions are invalidated by postulating a contemporary ms. If Beowulf had no appreciable transmission at all, the degree of corruption reflected in all current editions must be challenged, for the causes of deep-seated corruption are gone. Moreover, the fresh conviction that the ms has a good chance of being right where it was always perceived to be wrong has a liberating effect on the most intractable cruces. At the same time, a rigorous textual conservatism becomes an exciting means of discovering new and intriguing variations in alliterative and metrical patterns, most of which have gone unnoticed in Beowulf because of the doubtful assumption that an early poet would adhere mechanically to standard patterns. Only by rejecting those emendations and interpolations based solely on an arid application of “rules” can the individual style of a late, traditional poet be studied.

The theoretical authority of the Beowulf ms is most effectively vindicated by the quality and extent of the scribal proofreading. There can be no doubt whatever that the ms was subjected to thorough and intelligent scrutiny, by both scribes, while the copying was in progress and after it was done. The nature of the proofreading firmly establishes the authority of the ms. The two scribes' written corrections and erasures unequivocally identify the kinds of errors each scribe was prone to make, and frequently show, as well, how alert the scribe was in the act of copying, for many corrections were made at the moment of the incipient error. The erasures (all of which were studied under ultraviolet light) are particularly informative in this respect, because the erased material can be used to recreate the causes of scribal error. All previous studies of scribal error in Beowulf are founded on editorial emendations, but this reasoning is circular, and hence untrustworthy. In most cases a conjectural emendation is only presumptive evidence of an error, and even when an error is certain, an emendation without the aid of another text is at best only a good guess at what the correct reading might have been. The scribes, on the other hand, have identified unquestionable errors, and have presumably corrected them on the authority of the exemplar.

The vast evidence of scribal proofreading clearly illustrates the importance of a close paleographical investigation of the ms. Surely, no valid assessment of the reliability of the scribes (or the authority of the ms) can afford to ignore the scribes' written corrections and erasures, and yet no editor has ever taken them into account. On the contrary, there are several cases in all editions of the poem where a scribal correction has itself been subjected to a conjectural emendation. In such cases we can be sure that the ms reading, however difficult it may be, is right, and the emendation is wrong. Paleographical study of the scribes' work also reveals that the second scribe's connection with the ms was not limited to copying and proofreading. Apparently the ms remained in the second scribe's possession, presumably as part of a monastic library, for this scribe continued to work with the ms long after he had originally copied it. He has restored readings that were later damaged through accident or by ordinary wear and tear, most notably on the last page of the ms, where he freshened up a badly faded text. But the most extraordinary instance of his later work is that he made a palimpsest of an entire folio, and copied on it a new text.

The palimpsest provides startling paleographical evidence that Beowulf was revised in the course of the 11th century, long after the original text was copied. It is certain that the entire folio, containing lines 2207-2252, was scraped and washed down after the binding of the ms, for the palimpsest is part of the outside sheet of a gathering, yet the vellum's surface contrasts sharply with its conjugate leaf. Scholars have long believed that all of the original text on the folio in question was freshened up by a later hand, but a recent study has shown that the handwriting is still in fact the second scribe's, in a later stage of development. In any event, there is no credible reason for the palimpsest other than revision. A full paleographical and codicological investigation supports this conclusion in various ways. An objective transcription of the new text on the folio discloses a number of anomalous linguistic forms, which can be interpreted as signs of later attrition in the standard literary dialect, a process that accelerated as the 11th century advanced. A closer look at the badly damaged condition of the text, particularly at the textual lacunas, shows that the revised text was shorter than the original text, that parts of the revised text were erased for some reason, and that a full restoration of the revised text was never carried out.

The incipient state of the text on the palimpsest, and the fact that it contains in any case a late revision, opens the possibility that the Beowulf ms is in effect an unfinished draft of the poem. As incredible as it may seem, there is considerable paleographical and codicological support for the view that the Beowulf ms actually preserves the last formative stages in the creation of the epic. Three lines of text thematically related to the new text on the palimpsest have been imperfectly, but deliberately, deleted on the next folio, verso. The erasing was never finished, though it seems likely that the vellum was being prepared for a new text, as well. Presumably, both folios are part of the same revision. An analysis of the construction of the Beowulf ms provides a possible explanation for the purpose of this revision. The palimpsest begins a self-contained unit of the ms. It is the first leaf of the last two gatherings. The number of sheets in these last two gatherings, the manner in which the sheets are arranged, and the number of rulings to the sheets, are unique in the Beowulf ms. It is possible, then, that this part of the ms formerly existed separately, and was artificially appended to the extant ms. If so, the revised text on the palimpsest may have been written to provide a smoother, more natural transition between the two, originally distinct, and perhaps even totally unrelated mss.

The theory is based on paleographical and codicological grounds, and it is defended with other paleographical and codicological facts. But it is surprisingly corroborated as well by the three-part structure of the poem:

1. Beowulf's fights in Denmark with Grendel and Grendel's
2. His homecoming, and report to Hygelac;
3. His fight with the dragon and his death in Geatland.

Indeed, many critics have argued that the first and last parts once existed as separate poems, or oral narratives, and that the homecoming was composed at a later stage to link the Danish and Geatish narratives.

The paleographical and codicological evidence leads to precisely the same conclusion. The palimpsest is the first folio of the dragon episode. And there is paleographical and codicological proof that the gathering immediately preceding the palimpsest, which holds the text of Beowulf's homecoming, was copied by the second scribe after he had copied the last two gatherings of the ms. The obvious conclusion is that the Danish and Geatish exploits of Beowulf were first brought together in the extant ms by the second scribe. The aesthetic fusion of these parts does not reflect a dim, romantic view of a non-Anglo-Saxon past, but rather a vivid imaginative response to chilling contemporary events. The fall of a great and noble hero, and the imminent extinction of the race he ruled, was well understood by this 11th-century Anglo-Saxon who had recently seen the fall of Alfred's house and the subsumption of his homeland in the Danish empire. The second scribe begins to look like “the last survivor of a noble race,” while the Beowulf ms, the treasure he continued to polish after the death of his old lord, no longer looks like a reproduction.

J. D. A. Ogilvy (essay date 1983)

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SOURCE: “The Formulaic Style of Beowulf,” in Rereading “Beowulf”: An Introduction to the Poem, Its Background, and Its Style, edited by J. D. A. Ogilvy and Donald C. Baker, University of Oklahoma Press, 1983, pp. 137-58.

[In the following essay, Ogilvy surveys the formulaic methods used by Old English poets and examines the ways in which such methods—including the use of traditional epithets and phrases which probably originated in orally composed and transmitted poetry—are utilized in Beowulf.]

The student of Old English poetry will no doubt have remarked the popularity during the past twenty years of “oral-formulaic” studies, especially among American scholars. Beginning with F. P. Magoun's famous article in 1953,1 a growing body of scholarship has attempted to prove that much of Old English poetry, including Beowulf, was composed orally, extemporaneously, from the traditional stock of formulas with which the scop was provided in his word hoard, or poetic vocabulary. The case for oral composition is, at best, not proven. In our opinion it is most improbable that Beowulf was composed orally, even in smaller units, but a scrupulous analysis of the evidence beyond our scope here.2 There can be no doubt, however, that the controversy has been helpful in calling renewed attention of students to the technical characteristics of Beowulf. That the poem is formulaic—i.e., constructed of traditional epithets and phrases that must have had their origin in a poetry orally composed and transmitted—is obvious. An appreciation of how the formulaic materials are used in Old English poetry is of the first importance to the reader who wishes to deal with Beowulf in its original language, or even in a competent modern version.

Our discussion has two parts. First, we survey the formulaic material used by Old English poets, and, second, we consider the peculiar characteristics of the kind of poetry that the formulaic tradition produced.


The formulaic materials may usefully be considered in four groupings: (1) the epithet and brief modifying formula, (2) the sentence formula, (3) the larger rhetorical patterns that employ formulas in their construction, and (4) the formulaic elaboration of themes.

One kind of epithet, the kenning, is the best known of the formulas.3 It is a condensed metaphor or simile, for example, “hron-rad” (whale road) for the sea, “sund-wudu” (sea wood) for a ship, “isern-scur” (iron shower) for a flight of arrows, “hildegicelum” (battle icicle) for a sword, and “hædstapa” (heath stepper) for a deer. Other noun epithets verge on the kenning, but many are literal descriptions. All of them share the characteristics of being compounds, and they most frequently occupy an entire half line of verse. They form by far the greater part of the “building-block” material of Old English poetry.

One can scan the glossary of Klaeber's third edition of Beowulf and find the nature of the noun epithet amply illustrated. A good place to begin is under the letter h with the “hilde-” (battle) compounds. We find “hilde-bord” (battle shield), “hilde-cumbor” (battle banner), “hilde-mece” (battle sword), “hilde-ræs” (battle rush), and twenty others. The difference between these straightforward compounds and the kennings is made clear when one compares “hilde-mece” (battle sword) with a kenning for sword, “hilde-leoma” (battle light). All are formulaic in that they are repeated, in Beowulf and elsewhere, and many have their counterparts in similar metrical patterns under different alliterative heads. Battle was one of the richest sources of formulas in Old English poetry; a number of words besides “hilde” convey the idea: “beado,” “gud,” “wæl,” and so on. For “hilde-mece” (sword) we have “beado-mece.” For “hilde-rinc” (warrior) we have “beado-rinc,” and so on. They do not necessarily mean exactly the same thing; usually there are distinctive nuances. They provide the variation that is essential to a poetic based upon repetition.4 Most of the equivalent epithets, as one would expect, reflect the concerns of a warrior culture: the attributes of the warrior and his weapons and the nature of his lord and his companions.

In Beowulf each person or important thing has its characteristic epithets, as in the Homeric poems, but with considerably more variety of choice for the poet.5 The proper names are themselves epithets, like Beowulf (probably “bee-wolf,” or bear), Hrothgar (glory spear), Unferth (mar peace). Beowulf's most common epithet is “bearn Ecgdeowes” (son of Ecgetheow), but with different alliteration and meter—and a different function for the hero—he is also “lidmanna helm” (protector of the seamen, line 1623) when he leads his men ashore in Denmark. Hrothgar is variously “Helm Scyldinga” (protector of the Scyldings, line 371), “wine Scyldinga” (friend of the Scyldings, line 30), “maga Healfdenes” (kinsman of Half-Dane, line 189), and “Deniga frean” (Lord of the Danes, line 271). Grendel is the “grimma gæst” (grim guest, line 102) and the “mære mearcstapa” (mighty wanderer of the wastes, line 103). Heorot, the famous hall built by Hrothgar, is “beahsele beorhta” (bright ring hall, i.e., hall where treasure is dispensed, line 1177). And so the list goes.

The Anglo-Saxon poet was thus capable of considerable variation and precision in his epithets for things and people. An unanswered question concerns the extent to which he may have indulged in irony in this respect, for certainly he was elsewhere fond of irony. The use of such an ordinary epithet as “helm Scyldinga” (protector of the Scyldings) for Hrothgar in line 1322, when Hrothgar is weeping and pouring out his troubles to Beowulf after Grendel's mother has killed æschere (and there are examples of such seeming inappropriateness elsewhere) certainly appears to the modern eye as ironic. But we must be cautious in assigning modern intention and reaction to a poet who was telling his story twelve hundred years ago.

Adjectival epithets are frequently found in alliterative pairs in Beowulf, filling the half-line unit, as do their noun counterparts. Grendel is “grim ond grædig” (grim and greedy, line 121), and this family trait is observed also in his mother in the second episode, where she is “gifre ond galgmod” (greedy and gallows-minded, line 1277) as well. Heorot is “heah ond horngeap” (high and horn-gabled, line 82) and “geatolic ond goldfah” (splendid and gold-adorned, line 308). The dragon is “hot ond hreohmod” (hot and fierce in spirit, line 2296). Formulaic adjectives are otherwise normally paired alliteratively with nouns, as in “sigoreadig secg” (victorious warrior, line 1311), creating the half-line unit.

The adverbial formula is found in both phrase and clause forms. A common phrase pattern is the half-line time formula, e.g., “in geardagum” (in days of yore, line 1) and “lange hwile” (for a long while, line 16), likewise the general-place formula, “under wolcnum” (under the heavens, line 8), “ofer hronrade” (beyond the whale road or sea, line 10), and “geond þisne middangeard” (throughout this world, line 75). Phrases of purpose, or truncated clauses, are frequently half-line formulas as well: “folce to frofre” (as an aid to the people, line 14). Very occasionally an adverbial formula may occupy a whole line, as in line 197: “on þæm dæge þysses lifes” (in that time of this life). Adverbial clauses of purpose and result are also found among half-line formulas, e.g., “þæt ic þe sohte” (that I should seek you, line 417). A common formula of time is “sydþan morgen (aefen) cwom” (after morning or evening came), and there are many others.


The sentence formula, both simple and complex, is obviously of great importance in the word hoard of the scop. Such sentences provide the necessary summaries and transitions and are the backbone of formulaic rhetoric. Many of them are short, half-line formulas. The best-known type is of the “þæt wæs god cyning” (that was a good king, line 11) sort; others are “ic þæt eall gemon” (I recall all that, line 2427) and “swa sceal mon don” (so shall man do, line 1172). Sentence formulas provide the usual means by which the poet expresses a variety of things. One person speaks to another in an almost invariable pattern: “Hrodgar maþelode, helm Scyldinga” (Hrothgar spoke, protector of the Scyldings, line 371); the passage of life is expressed in a sentence like “weox under wolcnum” (he waxed under the heavens, line 8); physical progression is normally a sentence formula, e. g., “wod under wolcnum” (he moved beneath the skies, line 714). The effect of weapons is usually expressed in short formulas, e.g., “Hra wide sprong” (The corpse rebounded far, line 1588).

In addition to the sentence formulas that are repeated verbatim or nearly so, there are many sentence patterns that serve the poet as outlines to be filled in, as it were, and that are used frequently enough to be considered formulaic. A negative, contrasting pattern beginning “not at all” or “not only” and containing “but,” “after,” “until,” or “then” clauses is often employed in the ironic understatement that is so characteristic of the Anglo-Saxon poetic mode. Of Hildeburh in the Finn episode we read (lines 1076-79a, italics ours):

Nalles holinga                    Hoces
meotodsceaft bemearn,                    syþdan morgen com,
da heo under swegle                    geseon meahte
morþorbealo maga,

(Not at all without cause did the daughter of Hoc bemoan the decree of Fate after morning came, when she might see under heaven the slaughter of kinsmen.)

Describing the cowardly thanes who deserted Beowulf in his fight against the dragon, the poet tells us (lines 2596-98, italics ours):

Nealles him on heape                    handgesteallan
ædlinga bearn                    ymbe gestodon
hildecystum,                    ac
hy on holt bugon,

(Not at all did his comrades in arms, the children of warriors, stand about him [Beowulf] in martial glory, but they fled into the forest,)

Another common transitional pattern is “It was not long … until …,” describing ironically an immediate result (lines 2591b-92):

da long to don,
þæt da aglæcean                    hy eft gemetton.

(It was not long thence that the deadly fighters came together again.)

The clauses of the “when … then” and “since” and “until … that” patterns are frequently transitional in function and serve the poet as a means of encapsulating a brief bit of history that has a bearing on the immediate concern or of anticipating action to follow within the poem (or subsequent history outside the poem). The clauses allow rapid and rhetorically effective juxtaposition and bear much of the burden of the paralleling and contrasting technique that is a hallmark of the Anglo-Saxon style. An example of the first sort of use is seen in the introduction of Grendel (lines 102-108, italics ours):

wæs se grimma gæst                    Grendel haten,
mære mearcstapa,                    se þe moras heold,
fen ond fæsten;                    fifelcynnes eard
wonsæli wer                    weardode hwile,
siþdan him Scyppend                    forscrifen
in Caines cynne—                    þone cwealm gewræc
ece Drihten,                    þæs þe he Abel slog;

(The grim guest was called Grendel, the mighty stepper of the marches, who held the moors, the fens, and the fastnesses; the hapless one dwelt a while in the home of the monster race, since the Creator had cursed him, in the race of Cain—he avenged that murder, the eternal Lord, whereby Cain slew Abel;)

The “siþdan” (since) clause gives us the origin of Grendel and the reason that he bore the wrath of God, to which the poet refers later. A similar construction is subsequently used in describing the mother of Grendel (lines 1261-63).

The “oþ þæt” (until … that) clause has a similar function in that it allows for a brief summary but, of course, looks ahead. Of Beowulf's reign over the Geats, we learn (lines 2208-10, italics ours):

                                                            he geheold tela
fiftig wintra                    —wæs da frod cyning,
eald eþelweard—,                    od dæt an ongan
deorcum nihtum                    draca rics[i]an,

(he ruled well for fifty winters—he was a wise king, the old guardian of his people—until in the dark nights a dragon began to rule,)

The double function of summary and contrast—here powerful in its stark simplicity—could not be better illustrated.


The kinds of larger rhetorical structures that can be built from individual formulas and sentence patterns can be seen in the opening lines of Beowulf. To see how these structures are indeed formulaic, it will be necessary to look at introductions to other Old English poems as well.

Beowulf (lines 1-11, italics ours):

we Gar-Dena                    in geardagum,
þeodcyninga                    þrym
hu da æþelingas                    ellen fremedon!
          Oft Scyld Scefing                    sceaþena þreatum,
monegum mægþum                    meodosetla ofteah,
egsode eorl[as],                    syddan ærest
feasceaft funden;                    he þæs frofre gebad,
weox under wolcnum                    weordmyndum þah,
od þæt him æghwylc                    ymbsittendra
ofer hronrade                    hyran scolde,
gomban gyldan;                    þæt wæs god cyning!

(Hark, we have learned of the glory of the princes of the Spear-Danes in days of yore, how the chiefs wrought mighty deeds. Oft Scyld Scefing took the mead seats from troops of enemies, from many peoples; he terrified the earls, after he first was found helpless—he survived to be recompensed for that—he grew under the heavens, enjoyed high honor, until each of his neighbors over the whale road should obey him and pay tribute; that was a good king!)

The Fates of the Apostles (lines 1-8, italics ours):

Ic þysne sang                    sidgeomor fand
on seocum sefan,                    samnode wide
hu þa ædelingas                     ellen cyddon,
torhte ond tireadige.                    Twelfe wæron
dædum domfæste,                    dryhtne gecorene,
leofe on life.                    Lof wide sprang,
miht ond mærdo,                    ofer
þeodnes þegna,                    þrym unlytel.(6)

(Lo! I this song, weary of wandering and sick in spirit, made and put together from far and wide, of how the heroes, bright and glorious, made their courage known. They were twelve in number, famed in deeds, chosen by the Lord, beloved in life. Praise sprang wide, the might and the fame, throughout the world, of the Prince's thanes—no small glory.)

Andreas (lines 1-6, italics ours):

          Hwæt! we gefrunan                    on fyrndagum
twelfe under tunglum                    tireadige
          þeodnes þegnas.                    No hira þrym alæg
camprædenne                    þonne cumbol hneotan,
syddan hie gedældon,                    swa him dryhten sylf,
heofona heahcyning,                    hlyt getæhte.(7)

(Lo! We have heard, in days gone by, of the twelve under the stars, glorious heroes, the Lord's thanes. Their glory did not fail in the field of battle when the banners clashed after they had parted as the Lord himself, the High King of Heaven, had commanded them.)

The Dream of the Rood (lines 1-3, italics ours):

          Hwæt! Ic swefna cyst                    secgan
hwæt me gemætte                    to midre nihte,
sydpan reordberend                    reste

(Listen! I wish to tell the best of dreams that came to me in the middle of the night, after the bearers of speech [men] had gone to their rest.)

These poems have essentially little of theme and subject in common. Beowulf is the story of a warrior, Andreas and Fates are principally religious chronicles, and Dream is an almost mystical vision. Also, these passages have more differences in phrasing between them than close similarities. But the rhetorical structures are the same, and, as the italicized phrases show, the key formulas are essentially the same.

First, we cannot escape the opening “Hwæt!” Then, in Beowulf and Andreas follows the days-of-yore formula, “in geardagum,” and “on fyrndagum.” The source formula “we have learned” (“prym gefrunon” in Beowulf and “we gefrunan” in Andreas) is paralleled by variant formulas in the other two, “Ic þysne sang sidgeomor fand” (“Weary with the journey I made this song”) in the Fates of the Apostles and “hwæt me gemætte” (“lo, I dreamed”) in The Dream of the Rood. Beowulf and the Fates share an identical formula about what is learned—“hu da æþelingas” (how the princes [performed]) in the same position, line 3a. Likewise, Beowulf's “ellen fremedon” (performed deeds of valor) is paralleled by the Fates' “ellen cyddon” (showed their courage), in line 3b—again, the same position. Next we consider the location formula “on earth” or “under heaven.” In Beowulf it is “weox under wolcnum” (grew under the skies), and in Andreas we find “twelfe under tunglum” (twelve under the stars); in Fates it is “ofer middangeard” (throughout the middle yard). And, finally, the “since … (happened)” formula, which is rendered in Beowulf as “syddan ærest weard” (since he first was [found]), is rendered in Andreas as “syddan hie gedældon” (since they parted), and in Dream as “sydþan reordberend … reste wunedon” (after the speech-bearers had gone to rest).

In addition to the phrases in italics that are repeated or paralleled in one or another of the quoted passages, practically every phrase in each of the passages can be matched by a similar formula in several other Old English poems. Our purpose here, however, is to observe not only the verbal similarities but—equally important for illustrating the formulaic tradition of composition—the structural formula for opening a poem. It goes something like this: “Behold, … We [or I] have heard … in days of yore … how princes [or others] performed … deeds of glory … under the heavens …, since [or after] … [whatever happened at the beginning of the story or the circumstances of the telling].” This rhetorical pattern can be expanded or contracted as the poet wishes, and formulas selected and woven into the pattern. Although the passages quoted are introductory, the pattern can also be used for summary or transition within a narrative, as can been seen in lines 1769-81, 2384-90, and elsewhere in Beowulf.


In addition to such rhetorical structures, Old English poetry abounded in thematic formulas for everything of consequence in Anglo-Saxon life or story. By “thematic” we mean a nongrammatical contextual relationship of certain kennings, epithets, and symbolic objects. The poet was provided with ready-made formulas to elaborate the battle and its aftermath, sea-journeys, treasure-giving, the joy of the hall, funerals, introductions and farewells, etc. In describing a battle, for instance, the Anglo-Saxon poet would almost inevitably employ at some point the theme of the “beasts of battle.”9 These beasts are the animals that feed upon the bodies of the slain—the wolf, the raven, and the eagle. One of the most famous instances of the theme is found at the end of The Battle of Brunanburh (lines 60-65):

Letan him behindan                    hræw bryttian
saluwigpadan,                    þone sweartan hræfn,
hyrnednebban,                    and þane hasewanpadan,
earn æftan hwit                    æses brucan,
grædigne gudhafoc                    and þæt græge
wulf on wealde.(10)

(They left behind them, to devour the corpses, the dark-coated, swart raven, horn-beaked, and the gray-coated, white-tailed eagle to enjoy the carrion, the greedy war hawk, and that gray beast, the wolf in the forest.)

This passage, with the three beasts of battle—the raven, the eagle, and the wolf—prepares the conclusion of the poem, for the poet is turning from the field. Like all other such formulas, it is amenable to variation of form and function as the poem demands. Probably because there are no fully described pitched battles between men in Beowulf, this theme is little used there, but the one full use of the formula is doubly impressive, for it does not describe a present field but is symbolic of the future fall of the Geatish nation, appearing near the end of the poem where the poet prophesies, through the voice of the messenger who announces Beowulf's fall and the dragon's demise, the coming doom of the Geats (lines 3021b-3027):

                                                                                Fordon sceall gar wesan
monig morgenceald                    mundum bewunden,
hæfen on handa,                    nalles hearpan sweg,
wigend weccean,                    ac se wonna hrefn
fus ofer faegum                    fela reordian,
earne secgan,                    hu him æt æte speow,
þenden he wid wulf                    wæl reafode.

(Therefore, many a spear, cold in the morning, shall be wound about with fingers, raised in hands; not at all shall the sound of the harp stir the warriors, but instead the dark raven, eager above the fated, shall speak much, shall say to the eagle how it sped him at the feasting when he and the wolf plundered the slaughtered.)

The theme, though rooted in a context of battle description, is clearly more variable in its usefulness than to be merely descriptive; in Beowulf the ancient theme has become symbolic in its function as in its nature. For ironic contrast it is joined with the theme of the joys of the hall, whose symbol is the harp. The gladsome sound of the harp is gone, and in its place is the snarling of the animals of the battlefield. Grammatically the passage is constructed on the “nalles … ac” (not at all this … but that) formulaic pattern. These are only two examples of formulaic themes that abound in Beowulf (the “joys of the hall” theme itself appears on several occasions, as in lines 89-98, 491-98, 642-45, 1980-83, and 2262-63, etc.). The sea-voyage themes are twice elaborately done and well illustrate the variety available to the scop within a thematic pattern. Although certain formulas are repeated, and although the structure of the passages is identical, most of the words are different. The structure is simply this: the boat was in the water; the men loaded it and steered it into the sea; there it was urged by the wind, until the time came that the seamen could see the cliffs of the shore. Each of the steps in the pattern is expressed in a formula, and the pattern itself is constructed around an “until … that” clause. The similar formulas are italicized. First, Beowulf's journey to Denmark (lines 210-28, italics ours):

Fyrst ford gewat;                    flota wæs on ydum,
bat under beorge.                    Beornas gearwe
on stefn stigon,—                    streamas wundon,
sund wid sande;                    secgas bæron
on bearm nacan                    beorhte frætwe,
gudsearo geatolic;                    guman ut scufon,
weras on wilsid                    wudu bundenne.
Gewat þa ofer wægholm                    winde gefysed
flota famiheals                    fugle
od þæt ymb antid                    oþres dogores
wundenstefna                    gewaden
þæt da lidende                    land gesawon,
brimclifu blican,                    beorgas steape,
side sænæssas;                    þa wæs sund
eoletes æt ende.                    þanon up hrade
Wedera leode                    on wang stigon,
sæwudu sældon,—                    syrcan hrysedon,
gudgewædo;                    Gode þancedon
þaes þe him yþlade                    eade wurdon.

(Time passed; the ship was on the waves, the boat under the cliff. The warriors eagerly stepped aboard; the currents wound, the sea against the sand; the men bore into the bosom of the ship bright ornaments, splendid battle armor; the warriros on their sought-for journey pushed off the well-made ship. The foamy-necked floater departed over the waves, most like a bird, urged on by the wind, until in due time on the next day the ship with the curved prow had progressed so that the voyagers saw the land, the shining sea cliffs, the steep hills, the wide headlands; then was the sea crossed, the travel at an end. Thence the men of the Weders quickly stepped on the land and tied up the ship. Their armor, the weeds of war, rattled; they gave thanks to God that the crossing had been an easy one for them.)

This is surely one of the better-known passages in Beowulf. The references made to it often imply that it is full of the rhetoric of sea travel, but actually the description of crossing is confined to lines 216-21: “The foamy-necked floater departed over the waves, most like a bird, urged on by the wind.” We are clearly deluded by the famous “foamy-necked floater.” Aside from this kenning the only other figure is a rather rare example of an Old English simile, “fugle gelicost” (most like a bird). We turn from this passage with its emphasis on preparation and battle spirit to the second sea voyage, which takes Beowulf and his men home after they have rid Hrothgar's land of monsters (lines 1896-1913, italics ours):

þa wæs on sande                     sægeaþ naca
hladen herewædum                    hringedstefna,
mearum ond madmum;                    mæst hlifade
ofer Hrodgares                    hordgestreonum.
He þæm batwearde                    bunden golde
swurd gesealde,                    þæt he sydþan wæs
on meodubence                    maþme þy weorþra,
yrfelafe.                    Gewat him on naca
drefan deop wæter,                    Dena land ofgeaf.
þa wæs be mæste                    merehrægla
segl sale fæst;                    sundwudu þunede;
no pær wegflotan                    wind ofer ydum
sides getwæfde;                    sægenga for,
fleat famigheals                    ford
ofer yde,
bundenstefna                    ofer
þæt hie Geata clifu                    ongitan meahton,
cuþe næssas;                    ceol up geþrang
lyftgeswenced,                    on lande stod.

(Then the roomy ship loaded with war weeds was on the sands—the ring-prowed vessel loaded with horses and treasure; the mast stood high above Hrothgar's precious hoard goods. He [Beowulf] gave to the boat ward a sword wound with gold so that afterward at the mead bench the guardian was held more worthy because of this treasure, the heriloom. He boarded the ship, to drive through the deep water, he departed the land of the Danes. Then the sea garment, a sail bound with a rope, was at the mast. The sea wood resounded; the wind over the waves did not force the wave floater from its course; the sea traveler went on, the foamy-necked one floated onward over the waves, the well-joined prow over the sea streams, until they might see the Geatish cliffs, the known headlands. The keel, urged by the wind, pressed upward and stood on the land.)

We have a repetition of the “foamy-necked” figure, but the other terms are varied; the ship is “ring-prowed” or “curved-prowed,” the ship is “sundwudu,” the “wave-floater,” and so on. The return voyage is described with considerably more detail than is the voyage in the preceding passage; in addition to describing the loading of the vessel and its arrival “on lande,” the poet gives six lines of carefully varied description to the ship, the wind, and the sea. We learn that the ship has a sail, a “sea garment,” and we hear the sound of the ship straining against the sea (“sundwudu punede,” the sea wood groaned, or resounded). The only sound in the first passage is the grim noise of the rattling of armor. The effect of this is not hard to find: in the first passage all attention is to the coming struggle; here the spirit is one of release.

In addition to elaborate thematic set pieces such as these, scattered throughout Beowulf one finds many short tropes, frequently of a moralizing nature. These are often in the form of sentences, such as, “Swa sceal mon don,” (So shall a man do, line 1172), or, “Swa he nu git ded” (So He [God] still does, line 1058), in passages illustrating proper conduct in a situation or summarizing the actions of God or the course of fate, over which man has no control. Such gnomic themes are “the uselessness of buried gold” (lines 3058-60, 2275-77, 3167-68), “the dangers of disturbing dragons” (lines 2836-42, 3050-60), and the “unfæge eorl” (the undoomed warrior who may escape fate if his courage avails him, lines 2291-93, 572-73).11

Although the various stories intruded into Beowulf, such as the Finn episode, the story of Offa, or the story of Hama, have no place in the present discussion, having been considered in our treatment of the background of the poem, in a sense these “digressions” are much like the moral tropes in that they illustrate good and bad behavior, wise and foolish conduct. They are elaborate analogies that, while not exactly formulaic in nature, serve the purposes of shorter formulaic themes. There are other formulaic aspects of Beowulf, but these seem to us to be of most significance for the modern reader.

Having surveyed some of the materials of Old English poetry, let us now see how these materials are used in Beowulf and what kind of poetry they produce. In the preceding chapter we have seen something of how Old English verse works; its structure is that of balanced building blocks of complementary meter united by alliteration. The smaller formulaic units, as we have seen, form many of these building blocks, each usually occupying a half line. As anyone familiar with the medieval ballad (or modern ballads, for that matter) knows, much of the ballad is of preformed phrases and whole lines that do not themselves move the poem. These formulas provide a brief stasis in the progression of the narrative and cause the “hitching” effect that is so noticeable in ballads. In Beowulf the formula likewise provides the reflection more often than the action, though, as we have seen, Old English poems use a number of formulaic sentences to get the action under way.

Normally the Beowulf poet balances an epithet half line with a verb phrase half line, as in lines 2397-2400:

          Swa he nida gehwane                    genesen
slidra geslyhta,                    sunu Ecgdiowes
ellenweorca,                    od done anne dæg
pe he wid pam wyrme                    gewegan sceolde.

(So he each of battles had survived, each terrible conflict, the son of Ecgtheow, each courageous work, until one day that he should meet with the dragon.)

The “he” in line 2397a is balanced by its epithet “sunu Ecgdiowes” in line 2398b. In this brief passage there are two formulas roughly comparable in meaning to “nida gehwane”: “sliddra geslyhta” and “ellenweorca,” both in the a verses. All the b verses except for lines 2398b are occupied by the verb or adverbial phrases. The verses cannot be read rapidly, for the formulas give a parenthetical effect in their reinforcing role. The movement of the verse is therefore largely incremental.

As we consider the method of the Beowulf poet, we realize that the paralleling characteristics of the formula are shared by the other rhetorical elements. We have observed that the themes introduced as ornament parallel or contrast the character or action that they comment upon. An example is the poet's use of the theme of the joys of the harp in the hall as ironic contrast in lines 89-98; it is the very joy of the men and the noise of the harp that brings their catastrophe, for it arouses Grendel. The larger episodes function in much the same way, as the Finn episode comments on Hrothgar's court, and the Sigemund story anticipates Beowulf and the dragon. It is not even beyond the bounds of possibility that, as Tolkien suggested, the two parts of Beowulf, paralleling one another, reflect this fundamental quality of Old English poetry.12

It might well seem, from our discussion, that the kind of poetry that the Germanic tradition produced would inevitably be slow, tedious, and dully repetitive. It has, indeed, been argued that Beowulf is validly appreciated only as barbaric poetry, possessing merely an unsophisticated irony.13 Old English poetry was very far from being wholly formulaic, however, and the Beowulf poet in particular possessed great resources of poetic vocabulary for variation. He was also capable of dispensing with the elaborate parallel movement of his verse to rush headlong into the action, as in lines 1441-42:

                                                            Gyrede hine Beowulf
eorlgewædum,                    nalles for ealdre mearn

(Beowulf then dressed himself in earl's weeds—not at all did he care for his life.)

Here the formula “nalles for ealdre mearn” does not interrupt Beowulf's quick arming for the fray but for emphasis is left to line 1442b.

It cannot be denied, however, that the poetry of Beowulf is quite different from the post-Renaissance English verse to which we are accustomed. The formulaic nature of the Old English language results in a certain lack of that precision which we have come to expect from the poetic imagination. The very nature of compound words seems to involve a semantic compromise. The effect of Beowulf, like that of other Old English poems, results from a building of meaning rather than an assertion of it. The poet swings between ironic under-statement and hyperbole. He tends frequently to tell us what things are not and what people did not do, leaving us to supply the positive.

Although it must be admitted that Old English kennings and epithets frequently clog up the movement of the narrative, in Beowulf particularly the modifiers tend to be cumulative, each adding a quality or aspect to character or action. This incremental effect is seen in a long passage already cited, that of Beowulf's sea voyage to Hrothgar's court. The poet uses in the passage a variety of kennings for the boat: It is “flota” at line 210, “bat” at line 211, “nacan” (of the ship) at line 214, “wudu bundenne” at line 216, “flota famiheals” at line 218, and “wundenstefna” at line 220. Now “flota,” “bat,” and “nacan” do not much improve on one another, for they all rather nakedly mean “boat” or “ship.” But the poet is at the beginning simply saying that the boat is there, on the waves in shallow water, being loaded. When the boat begins to move, the poet selects kennings that focus attention on the ship itself, its ornament and motion. The poet's imagination has been awakened. The ship is a craftsman's work, we learn, “wudu bundenne,” well-joined wood. As it moves into the open sea, the “famiheals” or “foamy-necked” image pictures for us the waves being sliced by the long prow of the ship. This prow is itself the next image, the curved stem of “wundenstefna.” All the words are kennings for “ship,” but they tell us, in themselves, something of what is happening. They reflect the changing focus of the narrative. We could arrange these figures in their order, remove them from their context, and learn that the “flota” has become “foamy-necked,” that the well-built ship of “wudu bundenne” is now represented by another aspect, its curved prow—the “wundenstefna,” suggestive of the outward thrust of the ship. When at the end of the journey the ship is tied to the Danish shore, it becomes “saewudu” or “sea wood,” simply another kenning for “ship” but one that now has the nuance “seaworthy wood,” wood that has been tried. the incremental effect of the series of images suggests the progress of the narrative.

In a similar way the repetitive aspect of sentences and larger patterns can be cumulative and extremely effective. The first-time reader of Beowulf is impressed by the twice-repeated formula of movement when Grendel's approach to the high-gabled hall of Hrothgar is being described in lines 702-21a: “Com on wanre niht / scridan sceadugenga” (There came in the dim night stealthily moving the shadow goer); “þa com of more / under misthleoþum / Grendel gongan” (Then came from the moor under the dark mists, Grendel moving); and, finally, “Com þa to recede / rinc sidian / dreamum bedæled” (There came then to the hall that warrior bereft of joy). The effect of the repeated patterns is undeniably powerful, and it is a typical, though spectacular, example of the Beowulf poet's method.14

The result of incremental aspect of the poetic method is that the individual epithet or phrase has more emphasis—more time in the reader's or hearer's consciousness. The reader or hearer, in short, is required to play a rather active role in the poem, almost a creative one. The tradition of oral poetry depends on an alert, participating, cooperating hearer. To a greater extent than with poetry whose tradition is totally literary, poetry that has its origins—in however dim a past—in the give-and-take between performer and audience depends for the completion of its meaning upon its audience. Therefore, particularly for early Germanic poetry, the best possible preparation that the student can make is to acquaint himself with as many of the surviving poems as possible, either in the original or in modern versions. He can then share with the poet a knowledge of the legends, recognize the context of kennings, and appreciate the unexpected variation.


  1. Francis P. Magoun, Jr., “The Oral Formulaic Character of Anglo-Saxon Poetry,” Speculum 28 (1952):446-67.

  2. For a variety of approaches to the evidence on this question, the student should consult the works by Benson, Creed, Greenfield, Lord, Magoun, Watt, and Whallon listed in the Bibliography. We discuss something of the course of this controversy in chapter 10. At the core of the problem is the question whether the characteristics of the oral formula that Milman Parry and Alfred B. Lord observed in twentieth-century Balkan poetry composed orally and that they also find in the poetry of the Iliad and the Odyssey are also those of the formula of Germanic poetry. The scholarly consensus at present is that they are not. The syllabic regularity of Greek meter, on which Parry's concept of the oral formula is based, has no parallel in Germanic poetry. The far greater variety of formulaic epithet found in Beowulf, which admits of far more specific appropriateness to context, sets it apart from the more rigidly stereotyped Greek epithet. It would be fair to say that, although every scholar today would assume that the formulaic qualities of Old English are of a kind that has its origin in nonliterate poetry—i.e., a poetry not only orally transmitted but orally created—the great majority of scholars would maintain that Beowulf's enormous variety of epithet would in itself likely preclude oral composition of the poem.

  3. It is beyond our brief to argue here whether we ought to label as kennings many of the Old English figures usually so called. For the technically accurate claim that most are kend heiti, see the discussion by Arthur G. Brodeur in The Art of Beowulf, p. 18.

  4. For illustration of the variation of which the Beowulf poet was capable, see the discussion in ibid. and the appendix of epithets unique to Beowulf.

  5. For a thorough comparison of the Anglo-Saxon and the Homeric epithet, see William Whallon, Formula, Character, and Context: Studies in Homeric, Old English, and Old Testament Poetry.

  6. G. P. Krapp, ed., The Vercelli Book, in The Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records, vol. 2. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1932), p. 51.

  7. Ibid., p. 3.

  8. Bruce Dickins and A. S. C. Ross, eds., The Dream of the Rood (London: Methvem, 1934), p. 20.

  9. See discussions of this theme in F. P. Magoun, Jr., “The Theme of the Beasts of Battle in Anglo-Saxon Poetry,” NM 56 (1955): 81-90; and Adrian Bonjour, “Beowulf and the Beasts of Battle,” in his Twelve Beowulf Papers, pp. 135-46.

  10. E. V. K. Dobbie, ed., The Anglo-Saxon Minor Poems, in The Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records, vol. 6 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1942), pp. 19-20.

  11. See chapter 7 for discussion of these themes.

  12. J. R. R. Tolkien, “Prefatory Remarks,” in J. R. Clark Hall, trans., Beowulf and the Finnsburg Fragment, p. xliii.

  13. Such is the underlying assumption of Kenneth Sisam in The Structure of Beowulf.

  14. For a stimulating discussion of the poet's uses of repetition and variation, the reader is referred to Arthur G. Brodeur, The Art of Beowulf, pp. 39-70. See our remarks on Brodeur's arguments in chapter 10.

Bernard F. Huppé (essay date 1984)

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SOURCE: “Thematic Polarity,” in The Hero in the Earthly City, State University of New York Press, 1984, pp. 24-45.

[In the essay below, Huppé asserts that the author of Beowulf demonstrates by antithesis the concept of the Christian hero and shows how Beowulf's lack of Christianity reveals the emptiness of his heroic ideals.]

the contrapuntal narrative method of Beowulf demands close attention to the interweaving of the threads that make up the story of the hero. The narrative moves from puzzles to answers which raise further questions. Thus, the poem begins with the puzzle of Scyld and his succession. Although answers are later given, they leave a mystery to be understood only in the realization that Scyld is an agent of destinal or divine purpose, which man cannot comprehend any more than he can the mystery of death. The function of narrative puzzlement, in short, is thematic.2

The epic life of Beowulf unfolds by puzzlement and shadowy recall of the deeds he has done. An ultimate question, however, is not answered. Why does Beowulf, heroically virtuous in death, leave a legacy of worthless gold and a future of unrelieved misery for his people? Although he is the heroic antithesis of Heremod, both leave their people wretched. Why? When Beowulf determines to fight the dragon, why is he filled, not with fear, but with doubt? Why does he have misgivings about transgressing the ancient law when in dying he is aware only of having lived with pious regard to the right uses of the strenth given him for destinal purposes? In short, why does the second part of the poem not move to triumphant affirmation of the glory of Beowulf's heroic death, but rather to lamentation over its waste?

These questions, as with Scyld, can only be answered thematically. The answers to them rest in the meaning that is given to the hero's life, and that meaning is based on the poet's concept of the heroic, which, in turn, must reflect a then-current climate of belief. Thus, it would appear essential to discover what this attitude was, a seemingly impossible task since the date of Beowulf has not been determined. It may have been written during the early, missionary stages of Christianity in England when the triumph of the new religion required apology and vigorous defense (seventh century). It may have been written when Christianity was firmly established and English energies were directed, for example, to the conversion of the continental Saxons (eighth century). Finally, it may have been written after the Viking invasions when English intellectual energies would have been responsive to Scandinavian paganism or, conversely, would have been influenced by Scandinavian Christianity (ninth, tenth, or even eleventh centuries).3

All these varying dates, however, belong as a whole to the Christian era when the intellectual life of England was dominated by Augustinian and monastic conceptions and constructs. This temporal-intellectual fact provides the opportunity and governs the attempt to recapture some approximate understanding of the preconceptions of an earlier age, the meta-linguistic imperatives that directed the poet's concept of his hero, Beowulf.

In this attempt to rediscover the territory of the poet's mind, we are like the makers of historical maps who plot the routes of communication of a forgotten past. They cannot use the grid of the modern highway system; rather they must disregard the modern to discover obliterated roads leading to obliterated villages, camouflaged and covered by the modern grid. Once we find the ancient road, however, we are met with the puzzle of a road sign pointing in two opposite directions. One directs us to the paganism of the poem that appears to govern its forms and the motivation of its characters. The other points to the Christianity of the poem. The authenticity of the signpost is attested by contemporary evidence. Thus Alcuin, Charlemagne's English school-master, asks the vital question, “Why Ingeld with Christ?”4 If Alcuin, in the poet's own monastic era, was troubled, surely the modern scholars who began the serious study of Beowulf appeared to be on the right track in assuming the poem to be basically Germanic and pagan, with interpolations designed to allow Ingeld to live more comfortably with Christ; that is, to give the basic paganism of the poem the coloring, if not the substance, of Christianity.

This satisfying direction, however, does not suffice in the face of the most recalcitrant of all facts, the poem itself. For Klaeber long ago observed, and modern scholarship is in agreement, that the pagan and Christian threads of the poem are too intertwined to be disentangled. If the Christian threads were removed from the poem, its unity would be destroyed. Thus it may be that our modern perception of what troubled Alcuin is at fault, for it is likely in the context of the Augustinian theory of literature to which he subscribed that Alcuin was no more disturbed by the juxtaposition itself than he would have been in finding God called Jove in a Latin Christian poem. What he was troubled by was not the juxtaposition, rhetorically permissible, but the need in a monastery to fashion Christian truths in poetic guise. Augustine had defended the use of literature as providing nourishment for babies in faith—until they could feed on the sturdy meat of doctrine itself. Alcuin, in turn, would not have questioned the use of pagan fable to inculcate Christian truth in neophytes and worldly men, but he might well have questioned the need of such a pedagogic device for monks who would presumably have been both knowledgeable and otherworldly.

The Christian moralizations of Beowulf may appear jarringly anachronistic, tangential to, and incompatible with the basic paganism of its story, language, and motivations. However, such a reaction is modern, a signpost hiding the old Janus-faced one which points in the direction of the intertwined existence of pagan and Christian in the poem. There is a reason for the bivalent sign, and this reason may be sought in the literary evidence of English attitudes toward the heroic.

Since we cannot be sure when the poet lived, it seems best to trace this evidence backwards from that expressed in the late tenth, early eleventh centuries, by Ælfric and in the Battle of Maldon. In dealing with ælfric's conception of the hero, we face the problem that his heroes are saints, in particular the kingly martyrs, Oswald and Edmund.5 These two are first of all saints, and only thus are heroes: they are examples of perfect living and perfect dying. The clash of swords, the bang of shields are missing in their stories—and the loss is essential. The hero, to be anything like Beowulf, must do battle as did Aeneas, one obvious prototype for the medieval hero.

Of prime importance in the conception of a hero like Aeneas is that he served an inner direction. Aeneas is governed by fate, in the Christian interpretation an emblem of divine providence directing man to his true home, the heavenly Jerusalem. But such a hero is not simply driven; he must himself act, and act heroically. It is only through his personal discovery of the right road, frequently after misdirection, that the operation of the divine plan can be seen. The saint, on the other hand, in his actions too clearly exemplifies the operation of divine providence. The saint's life is a miracle and is punctuated by miracles, the embodied evidence of things unseen. The saint is defined as a manifestation of divine purpose, whereas the hero, however superhuman, lives in a frequently strained relationship between himself as human agent and the larger purpose he must learn to serve. Except where his conversion may be involved, the saint knows his way and is devoid of strain in submitting to the will of God.

Thus Ælfric's saints, though they are heroic, are not Beowulfian heroes simply because they are too exemplary. They are living miracles: not superhuman as Beowulf is, but supra-human. Their battlefields are totally spiritual, and they are divinely, not humanly, motivated. Nothing more clearly illustrates the distinction between saint and hero than Ælfric's two martyred warrior kings. Oswald's reign is punctuated by a pair of heroic battles, his victory over the heathen Cedwalla and his death and defeat at the hands of the apostate Penda. The battles demand heroic treatment; they are the substance of the epic. But Ælfric sees Oswald not as a hero, but as a saint, so that the battles are deliberately slighted in favor of the development of the charity of his reign and of the miracles that followed his death. For example, the story of the sick horse who is cured after it wandered over Oswald's place of death is more developed than are both battles put together.

The first battle is described with startling brevity:

Oswald then raised up a cross to the honor of God before he came to battle and called out to his companions, “Let us kneel before the rood and pray to the Almighty that He protect us against the haughty enemy who wishes to slay us: God himself knows readily that we contend rightfully against this fierce king to protect our people.” They all then knelt with Oswald in prayer and afterwards in the early morning went to battle and won the victory as God aided them because of Oswald's faith, and they laid low their enemy, the proud Cedwalla with his great army, he who thought that no army might withstand him.

In essence the battle consists in the raising and worshipping of the cross; the victory is that of God's power and Oswald's faith—no shields are raised, no spears brandished. In the second battle “celebrated” by Ælfric, high heroic tragedy is implicit in the defeat and slaying of Oswald by the apostate Penda. Yet ælfric, with conscious artistry, erases from the scene all but the motif of Oswald's saintly martyrdom:

It came to pass that Penda waged war on him, Penda the king of the Mercians who had aided Cedwalla at the slaying sometime before of Oswald's kinsman, Edwin the king; and Penda understood nothing about Christ, and all the Mercian people were still unbaptized. They came then to battle at Maserfield and met together until the Christians fell and the heathens approached the holy Oswald. Then he saw the end of his life approach and prayed for his people who there fell in death and commended their souls and himself to God, and thus called out in his dying, “God have mercy on their souls!” Then the heathen king commanded that his head be cut off, and his right arm, and that they be set up as a sign.

Even the background for the action raises Beowulfian expectations of the heroic with the evocation of the motif of vengeance for a kinsman. Ælfric, however, merely notes as a matter of fact that Penda had been allied with Cedwalla when he slew Oswald's kinsman, Edwin. Apparently, the thought of vengeance is as foreign to Oswald as it was natural for Beowulf to consider vengeance as the highest of duties. ælfric's failure to exploit the possibilities inherent in the motif of vengeance and in the battle is deliberately designed to stress the saintliness of Oswald's character. The organization of Ælfric's account of the battle suggests that he was conscious of the contrast between saintly and heroic ideals, and that he deliberately plays one against the other, counter-pointing expectations of the heroic against the actuality of saintly conduct.

The death of Edmund, as Ælfric narrates it, even more clearly exemplifies his conscious disavowal of the heroic and emphasis on the saintly. In the scene, the saintly martyr facing the heathen Hingwar deliberately discards the heroic response to which he is naturally attracted. He rejects it to follow Christ's injunction literally:

Lo then when Hingwar came, King Edmund stood within his home mindful of the Savior and cast aside his weapons. He wished to imitate the example of Christ who forbade Peter to contend with weapons against the bloodthirsty Jews. Lo the heathens bound and humiliated Edmund shamefully and and beat him with cudgels and then led the confessorking to an earth-rooted tree and tied him thereto with strong bonds and beat him then for a long time with whips; and he always called out between the blows with true faith to the Savior Christ; and the heathens became madly angry because in his faith he called upon Christ for aid. They shot at him then with spears as if in a game until he was all covered with their shafts as if with the bristles of a porcupine, just as Sebastian had been. When Hingwar, the heathen pirate, saw that the noble king would not abandon Christ but with steadfast belief ever called upon Him, he commanded that he be beheaded, and the heathens did so. While still he called upon Christ the heathens drew the saint to slaughter and with one blow cut off his head, and his soul voyaged blessed to Christ.

In this scene ælfric has Edmund deliberately reject the heroic response, a rejection prepared for earlier by juxtaposing Christian and heroic ideals in the king's mind as he deliberates his response to the invasion. True to the patterns of heroic conduct, the king declares his wish not to survive the death of his dear retainers and continues:

It was never my custom to turn to flight; for if I must I would readily die for my country, and the Almighty God knows that I will never turn from His worship, nor from His true love, whether I live or die.

The king is motivated both by Christian and by heroic ideals, but at the crisis recognizes that they cannot coexist; he rejects heroic death for triumphant martyrdom in imitation of his Master's unheroic surrender to the enemy. His death, even to the image of the porcupine and the heathen game-playing, is made humiliating to reflect the ignominious victory of Christ's Passion and St. Sebastian's martyrdom. Edmund becomes saint and Christian hero in the act of rejecting the heroic.

Ælfric's awareness of the heroic tradition and his rhetorical use of it for antithesis is anticipated about a century earlier in the Old High German Ludwigslied.6 This poem, written in late 881 or early 882, celebrated the victory of the king of the Franks, Louis, over the Vikings, but the heroic potentials of the subject are realized only as antithesis to the king's Christian triumph through God. The poet concentrates his attention on celebrating Louis as the vicar of God, executing divine purpose. Louis has no personality in the poem except for his relationship to God. The king served God, we are told; indeed when Louis lost his father, God adopted him as His own son, became his foster father. However, for their sins, God visited punishment upon the Franks by permitting the attack of the Vikings, but then called on Louis to defend them: “Louis, my king, help my people.” In response Louis gathers his men to face the Northmen; he takes shield and spear, but this heroic gesture is followed by his singing the praise of God. To his saintly battle-cry, his men respond “Kyrie eleison!” The battle begins and victory and honor are immediately awarded to Louis. The potential for the heroic in such a battle is left unrealized except as it provides implicit counterpoint to the tendentiously Christian.

A tradition of rhetorical use of heroic motifs in antithesis to the Christian ideal appears to exist, as is attested by the Dream of the Rood, a poem written perhaps as early as the beginning of the eighth century. In it the Cross itself narrates the Crucifixion in terms appropriate to heroic battle:

                                                                                                    I saw mankind's Protector
                    most manfully hasten                     to ascend
                    I did not dare                    in disobedience
                    to bow or crack                    though I saw the
                    of earth trembling;                    truly I had
the might
                    to fell these foes                    —yet I
stood fast.
The young hero prepared                    —He was Almighty God—
great and gallant to ascend                    the gallow's abject
wishing as many watched                    magnanimously to free mankind.
Trembling in the Son's clasp                    I dared not crouch
on the ground
or fall to earth's boundaries                    —I had need
to stand fast;
                    erected as a cross                     I raised the
                    of the heavens above                    —I dared
not bow.
                    They pierced me with dark nails;                    on
me appear the wounds,
the gaping blows of hate                    —I dared not hurt them
in return.
They besmirched us both;                    I was besmeared with the
which poured from the Man's side                    after he surrendered
his soul.

The rhetoric of the passage is complex, involving metaphorical extension, metonymy, oxymoron, and antithesis. For the present purpose, however, what is important is the metaphor of battle, with Christ pictured as a warrior preparing for battle and the Cross as the Lord's retainer, torn between his desire to attack and the compulsion to obedience. The effect of the poet's heroic metaphor is to emphasize the antithesis between the degradation of the crucifixion and the language of heroic battle employed to describe it. His bold rhetoric may be explained as serving the ends of missionary apology. By this hypothesis, the poet would have had the specific intention of engaging the imagination of an audience brought up on heroic poetry and responsive to it, so that they could perceive through the epic diction the higher heroism of the penitential life, the way of the cross.

The heroic, then, would have been employed to celebrate its antithesis, Christian humility. The poet's vision serves as apologia for an ideal in conflict with what was customary in a warrior society. It does so by suggesting that the penitential life has affinities with that of the warrior, who also must suffer privation that he may win triumph and glory; only the definition of what constitutes glory is changed. That is why, in The Dream of the Rood, both Christ and Cross appear as soldiers engaged in a conflict with victory as its goal. Like good soldiers, they are absolutely obedient to a command that calls upon them not to strike but to endure, not to be heroic but to be humble. The Cross tells the story of the Crucifixion as if he were a warrior who has had placed upon him a soldierly obligation not to be heroic. In so doing, the Cross reveals the tensions inherent in a warrior society, the ultimate values of which have been put in question by the new dispensation that refutes the heroic ideal by redefining glory, the reward of victory. Thus the Cross yearning for heroic battle is enjoined to the higher fortitude of humble suffering in order to gain Christian glory, the crown of victory in the kingdom of Heaven. This reward the Cross promises to all who forego wordly glory to follow the penitential way to heavenly glory.

The currency of the use of the heroic by antithesis to celebrate its opposite is attested in other poems. In The Wonder of Creation, of undetermined date, a striking equation is made between the contemplative (monastic) life and the life of fortitude. By redefinition, it claims for Christian contemplation a virtue which in the heroic warrior's definition was his alone. In Judith, perhaps of the ninth century, a battle scene appears celebrating the victory of the Hebrews over the Assyrians. The narrative mode is heroic: the banners move forward; the shields clash at dawn; the carrion wolf and raven are aroused and the eagle sings the battle song; the warriors advance under their shields, discharge arrows, cast spears, draw their swords and attack hand-to-hand. The battle, however, has no part in the Vulgate source, which expressly states that no battle took place, only the threat of attack and the consequent flight of the Assyrians. Thus the battle scene, rendered in the traditional formulaic patterns of heroic verse, involves an extended use of hysteron-proteron, the thematic function of which is to emphasize the presence of God's hand and to establish the spiritual, providential nature of the Hebrew victory. The Hebrew warriors, like Judith, are the agents of God, His executioners, as it were. Again, the heroic serves as emblem of its antithesis, Christian victory through faith.7

The battle in Judith is very like the symbolic battles between Abraham and the nine kings in Genesis A, a poem unquestionably among the earliest in the Old English poetic corpus. The account of the battles is lengthy and is characteristically heroic (lines 1960-2095). The northern kings are at first victorious, so that “many a fearful maiden had trembling to go to a stranger's embrace,” and the defenders perish, “sick with wounds.” In a second battle, the kings again attack; “the spears sing, the raven croaks, greedy for prey.” The “battleplay” is hard but the kings “possess the place of slaughter.” Abraham now gathers a small band, symbolically numbering three hundred and eighteen; he comforts his band by declaring his faith that “the Eternal Lord may easily grant good speed in the spear strife.” In the ensuing battle, “Abraham gave war as a ransom for his nephew [Lot], not the wound gold.” Finally, the army of the kings is left to be torn by the carrion birds. This heroic battle scene, however, both echoes and was written against standard interpretation of the Bible, where it was considered to be, as Bede puts it, an emblem of “a very great miracle of divine power.” The numbers of the kings and of Abraham's band are symbolic, so that the battle is, in its significance, a psychomachia in which Abraham's victory is “symbolic of the Christian soldier's victory over wordly temptation.”8 The poet's heroic battle scenes do not celebrate the memories of heathen poetry; rather by symbolic antithesis they celebrate the triumph of faith. The intended effect was through the use of traditional heroic idiom by antithesis to affirm Christian doctrine. The figure of Abraham does not evoke the pagan warrior but rather the ideal of Christian faith.

Judging from all this literary evidence, which spans the entire period in which Beowulf could have been written, the heroic tradition appears to have been very much alive, however negatively, in the consciousness of the early medieval poet and writer.9 Further, the antithesis between heroic and Christian ideals, it must be assumed, presented a primary social problem. The strain caused by the coexistence of Christian and pagan traditions in a war-like society may be shown by two examples, one from the court of Theodoric, the other from Charlemagne's court. Theodoric's successor, Athalaric, under the influence of his mother, was given clerical training in the arts. This effort, however, was successfully resisted by the unreconstructed nobility who considered such clerkly instruction to be opposed, as Reto Bezzola puts it, “to the spirit of the Ostrogoths.” It was not an education, they argued, suitable to “a young king of their race destined for a warrior and heroic career.” In short, Christianity was for priests and women, the heroic was for the warrior. The second example comes from a poem by Theodulf, a clerk and poet in Charlemagne's court. He tells how his verses pleased the court except for a certain “Wibrodus heros.” He, as Bezzola summarizes, “shook his huge head in a menacing and ferocious manner,” until Charlemagne himself was forced to stop him. The strain evident early in Theodoric's court remains in Charlemagne's court in the ninth century in the confrontation between the clerk and the warrior, so significantly termed “heros.”10

The conflict of ideals would also have presented a basic problem to Christian writers in England from the time of the Conversion until after the Viking invasions. After the Conversion they faced the dilemma of teaching Christianity to an audience brought up with, or vividly remembering, the heroic poetry of their pagan ancestors. Thus we hear of Aldhelm in the seventh century, according to William of Malmesbury, composing secular verses in the accustomed manner, but with the purpose of leading his listeners to doctrinal truth “by interweaving among foolish things, the words of Scripture.”11 In the ninth century, Alcuin, it will be recalled, was aware of the commonplace interweaving of Ingeld with Christ. After the Viking incursions, the English poet, by definition Christian and probably monastic, would have written for a society facing the pagan Vikings whose attack upon Christendom required both prayer and, more importantly, a heroic, warrior-like response. It would have been the task of the poet somehow to reconcile the two ideals of the heroic and the Christian, not merely to use the heroic to serve by rhetorical antithesis as metaphor for penitential fortitude. This is the task, of the poet of The Battle of Maldon, and it was also that of the poet of Beowulf, as will be argued, whether he wrote at the same time as The Dream of the Rood or much later.

The problem these poets faced cannot be glossed over by hypothesizing the side-by-side existence of two cultures, that of the warrior and that of the clerk, in which the heroic poem is simply covered with a veneer of Christian moralization.12 There may have been in fact a division in society, but the poetry that remains to us is inevitably the product of clerks, that is to say, at that time of monks. Yet, though the poetry is monastic, the heroic in Maldon and in Beowulf cannot be explained away simply as rhetorical manipulation, as is true of The Dream of the Rood. The heroic in the two poems under question cannot be transformed into Christian statement, for example, by allegorization.13 Rather, the poets were trying, according to my hypothesis, to effect a reconciliation, trying to bring together the split halves of their society. These were great poets writing about what was most profoundly important in their own times; there could have been nothing more important for them than to deal with the meaning of the Christian soldier in actuality, not merely metaphorically. The dilemma they faced is clear: the only valid life was that led in the imitatio Christi, yet meek surrender to the heathen could not have been contemplated in the actual world. Ælfric was aware of the dilemma and offered a traditional solution: that military (heroic) action with the intention of humble service to Christendom is justified. Thus, in commenting on his metrical version of the biblical Judith, he cites her both as an example of the triumph of humility and as “an example to you men that you with weapons should protect your land against the attacking enemy.”14 One way or another the Christian writers of Maldon and Beowulf were dealing with the problem of the relation between the parts of the equation, Christian and heroic.

The Battle of Maldon is a Christian poem of monastic provenance. In the traditional manner, it narrates a battle in which the English, led by the pious yet heroic Byrhthnoth, were defeated by the heathen Vikings.15 Two matters are of special interest in the attempt to discover how the poet conceived of the heroic in Byrhthnoth's conduct of the battle. First of all, it should be clear that Maldon is a poem, not an historical account to be judged by the principles of accurate representation. In all likelihood, the poet felt free to take what might be called poetic license with the accounts of the battle which he had heard. At any rate, he contrives his narrative so that the death of the hero, Byrhthnoth, appears not as the climax but as the center of his poem, as in ælfric's homilies on Oswald and Edmund. The first half of Maldon leads up to his death; the last part narrates the treachery of some of Byrhthnoth's followers and the faithfulness to death of the remainder. In consequence, the poem appears to enclose, to set off Byrhthnoth's dying speech:

I give Thee thanks,                    God of nations,
for my well-being                    here in the world;
now my greatest need,                    Gracious Lord,
is that You grant                    this grace to me
that now my soul                    may ascend to Thee,
Ruler of angels,                    and into your realm
may come in peace;                    upon Thee I call
to hold it safe                    from the devils of hell.

His speech is Edmund-like. He is a martyr turning to God in the full expectation of protection from devils and of eternal life because he is dying in battle against human devils, the Vikings. Yet, as the poet has made clear earlier, Byrhthnoth's own heroic actions contribute in a decisive way to his defeat and death and that of his men, when he recklessly abandons the advantageous position he holds at the ford. Out of heroic pride, for his ofermode, Byrhthnoth agrees to permit the Vikings to mass their forces on the shore instead of having to cross the ford singly. Then he taunts them and tempts God:16

Room has been made;                    now speed you men
to give us battle                    —God alone knows
who will be the victor                    on the battle-field

Byrhthnoth's action and his speech are governed by an heroic ideal of warrior conduct; in sharpest contrast, his death is pictured as that of a Christian martyr. The antithesis the poet establishes is similar to that found in The Dream of the Rood and Ælfric's homilies, but with a crucial difference. Here the antithesis is embodied in a single Christian hero, Byrhthnoth. Apparently the poet must have felt that in his portrait of Byrhthnoth he had achieved a reconciliation of the antithetical halves of his character. Relying upon a shared climate of belief, he found no need for explanation, so that his reconciliation of the Christian and the heroic must be examined to provide some clue to the concept of the Christian hero that he and his audience held.

Byrhthnoth's heroic recklessness in permitting the Vikings to fight on equal terms may be likened to that of Beowulf's in determining to battle Grendel on even terms by abandoning his sword and armor. Such conduct, however, though it may be appropriate to a pagan hero, seems ill-suited to the character of a Christian hero. The poet is aware of this in equating his heroism with pride, ofermode, the sin of Satan who is also given heroic stature in two poems, Genesis and Christ and Satan. At the same time, however, the poet appears to accept Byrhthnoth's heroic pride as an essential characteristic, in this case, not of a satanic heathen but of a pious Christian warrior. Byrhthnoth's decision to follow heroic precepts in giving away his advantage on the battlefield, accompanied by an heroic boast (beot), does not represent a sudden change, but is of a piece with his earlier defiant reply to the Viking messenger's demand for tribute. Here in epic formulas he reveals his heroic resolve (anræd):

Seaman do you hear                    what this people say?
They willingly give                    a gift of spears
to you in battle                    and profitless booty
of poisoned point                    of patrimonial sword.
Viking messenger,                    bring to your men
a loathsome tale                    in the telling:
here in loyalty                     a leader with his troop
stands to keep safe                    his native soil,
the land of his king,                    Lord æthelred's
fields and his folk.                    The heathens shall fall
in battle here;                    it seems to me base
that without battle                    you board your ships
with our treasure                    now you have traveled
the long way here                    into our land.
Without trouble                    you'll not gain treasure;
the point and the edge                    will be our appeasement,
rough battle-play                    before we pay tribute.

The heroic resolve of this speech anticipates the heroic pride involved in his giving fighting room to the heathen enemy. In heeding an heroic imperative he becomes responsible for disaster, so that in Byrhthnoth's heroism lies something akin to the tragic flaw. Conversely, he appears also to be governed by faith and Christian piety, as in his thanks to God for victory in his first skirmishes after he had drawn back to give the Vikings room:

                                                                                                    The doughty earl
was happy and laughed,                    gave thanks to heaven
for the day's labor                    the Lord gave him.

As his boast to the Viking messenger leads to his fatal heroic action, this speech of Christian thanksgiving, revealing the steadfastness of his Christian faith and purpose, leads to his dying speech in which as a martyr he expresses his hope of salvation.

In Maldon, Christian and heroic exist as antitheses, yet are reconciled in Byrhthnoth. His death as a martyr apparently absolves, for the poet, the fatal flaw of pride in his obeying the dictates of heroic conduct. The poet's line of reasoning is not difficult to follow because it flows from the rudimenatry Christian doctrine of grace. The heroic is human, thus part of man's estate, the result of original sin. But the heroic in Byrhthnoth, the taint of fallen humanity, is absolved because it has been placed in the service of the Faith, and, through grace, becomes good work. In his heroic bravado he falls, but in his death he imitates Christ and becomes a martyr. Because Byrhthnoth's martyrdom is an emblem of Christ's death, it shares in the mystery of grace by which erring humanity is reconciled with God. In the Christian interpretation of the Aeneid, the hero serves a divine purpose which he does not recognize; Byrhthnoth in Maldon, though flawed by his heroic recklessness, serves God's purpose, which he recognizes. Byrhthnoth's human heroism leads to defeat, but his heroic effort serves Christendom, so that his defeat reveals a high, providential purpose by providing a Christian example of a warrior's holy dying.

Implicit in the poem is the recognition that the human condition requires men to do battle. Such men are likely to be self-reliant, proud of their valor and, in their fallen humanity, heroic. The hero qua hero is without grace; his heroism, however, may be redeemed by its service to Christendom, and he may thus achieve the status of the saint through grace, right faith and holy dying. The concept is analogous to that of the felix culpa, the sin which through providence becomes the happy redemption. Though the dictates of the heroic lead to the sin of self-reliant pride, the heroic may be transformed in obedience to divine will. The act of doing battle with heathens in the defense of Christendom partakes of the penitential, and if death follows from the act it becomes martyrdom which exculpates the sinfulness of heroic conduct. Thus the battle for the Faith and the martyr's death transform heroic conduct into a model of salvation, and Byrhthnoth's folly is reconciled with his Christian life.

This concept provides an adequate explanation for the heroic in Byrhthnoth but may be of less value in explaining Beowulf, a pagan for whom the heroic imperatives are the essential motivations of his conduct. It is tempting to solve this difficulty by resort to the notion that Beowulf essentially conveys a pagan heroic ethic which cannot be explained by recourse to the concept of the Christian hero. In such a view the Christian, as merely external coloring, cannot lead to the heart of the poem. Such a solution will not suffice, however, because the Christianity of Beowulf has been shown to be an essential part of its form and structure, although its subject and the motivations of its characters are pagan. It would be naive to assume that the poet was not aware of the paganism of his hero and of his society. It would be equally naive to assume that he would have celebrated a society which lacked the knowledge of the truths of Christianity.17 The values of such a society, lacking in the saving grace of the theological virtues, he would have deplored.

However, even if a pagan hero were blessed with piety and the cardinal virtues, he could not thereby attain the status of Christian hero, which involves the possession of the three theological virtues of Faith, Hope and Charity. Like Aeneas, the pagan hero in Christian interpretation, may reveal the way in which providential design makes use of the hero, or may even typify the Christian search for the heavenly home.18 Nonetheless the pagan hero remains a pagan, blind himself to the real meaning of his life. Christian doctrine alone provides the key to such meaning; in and for themselves the epic adventures of a pagan hero can only reveal his limitations and those of his society, for he, without faith, is a blind man leading the blind. Yet this very antithesis between the Christian and pagan understanding of the epic hero provides an hypothesis for the understanding of how Beowulf was intended to be read by its Christian audience. The hypothesis assumes that the fictional world of Beowulf is pagan, its point of view Christian. From the Christian point of view, the pagan events of the poem reveal the limits of heathen society, the limits of the righteous pagan, and the limits of the heroic ideal.19 Such Christian revelation is the primary thematic function of the poem.

This hypothesis serves to explain much that is otherwise puzzling in the poem: for one major example, its descending line of mood and action, so that the omens of disaster in the first half of the poem are fulfilled and completed in the last half. After Beowulf returns home and gives his account of his exploits in Denmark, there is a scene of joyous, prosperous amity jarringly concluded without interruption by the twenty-line narrative of ensuing disasters leading to Beowulf's reign, which culminates in the coming of the dragon. Amidst forebodings of disaster, Beowulf decides to revenge the dragon's onslaught and gain the treasure. His mind, however, is darkened by ethical doubt and is filled with memories of past battles. He recalls the tangled net of Higelac's adventures and the internecine Swedish wars in which he became involved. Finally, he recalls the death in grief of ancient Hrethel, fatally unable to solve the dilemma to which his heroic ethic could give no answer: his duty to avenge his son; his duty not to be guilty of the death of his son. In the battle, Beowulf is fatally wounded and averts defeat only through the aid of Wiglaf. In his dying speech, Beowulf places his hope for the future upon the gold he has won. His speech, as he gazes upon the gold, recalls in counterpoint the lament of the last survivor as he looked on the useless treasure he was about to bury, a counterpoint of doom and disaster which dominates the last part of the poem. After Beowulf's death the mood is further darkened, not so much by grief over his passing as by forebodings of impending doom. The messenger retells the story of Higelac's fatal raid and of the deadly Swedish wars, not to celebrate the hero, but to foretell the disastrous legacy of lordless grief, suffering, and exile that Beowulf will leave to his people.

Further underscoring the dismal view of his death is the contrast between youthful Wiglaf and aged Beowulf. Wiglaf recalls the young Beowulf in Denmark as, concomitantly, Beowulf recalls the aged Hrothgar. Hrothgar, with his self-deceiving trust in the security provided by his power to reward through treasure, has his counterpart in Beowulf, with his equally self-deceiving trust in the security provided his nation by the dragon's treasure. Wiglaf, however, is not the exact counterpart of the young Beowulf. If he were, he would be expected to lighten the oppressive gloom in providing some hope for the future. Such expectation the poet takes pains not to fulfill. Beowulf transfers his kingship to Wiglaf who has proved his heroic quality, but Wiglaf does not respond with the assurance of the young Beowulf. He provides no expected show of determination to emulate his dead hero-king; rather he shares completely in the messenger's sense of inevitable disaster. He refuses to share Beowulf's trust in the dragon's treasure, but agrees that it should again be buried to remain as worthless as it was before. Further, he openly declares that Beowulf's encounter with the dragon was the result of a doomed, reckless heroism, a recklessness which will have the ruin of his people as a consequence. Wiglaf's grief is understandable; the failure of his will to succeed is not. The hope implicit in his heroic youth is not realized. Because he considers Beowulf's death only as a disaster brought about through heroic pride, and because he has no apparent hope for the future, Wiglaf reveals the ineffectual emptiness of his society, the failure of its ideal hero and of the heroic. Far from lightening the darkness, Wiglaf's bright, heroic youth intensifies it. From the cycle of trust in treasure and the heroic response there is no escape. Beowulf does not end in tragic celebration of the hero but in lament over the doomed waste of his youth and valor.

The heroic in Maldon is represented as a tragic flaw which precipitates disaster but leads through the mystery of the felix culpa to the good of redemption through martyrdom. Byrhthnoth's death is the tragic cause for celebration; Beowulf's is not. The heroic in Beowulf is self-contained; it is the ethos of a culture, of the heroic past as the poet envisioned it; it must be self-justified because it cannot, as in Maldon, appeal to redeeming grace. That is why the last words about Beowulf are about his search for glory, the empty ideal of a pagan, heroic world. To the contrary, the poet's attitude toward the heroic ethos and its goal of glory is Christian and critical.20 That is why the direction of the poem is inevitably toward doom and disaster unrelieved by any sense of hope and redemption. Beowulf's flaw is tragic precisely because there are no means available to him by which the flaw may be redeemed. Thus his tragedy rests in his inability to rise above the ethos of his society, the mores of revenge and war which govern his actions. In the first part of the poem, in contrast to the aged and ineffectual Hrothgar and to the vigorously evil Heremod, Beowulf appears as a savior, a cleanser of evil; in the last part, Beowulf appears to echo and reflect not beginnings but endings. He has become involved in his world and in the ethos of the feud. Though he remains heroic, his heroism is no more effective than is Hrothgar's helplessness. Like Hrothgar he looks toward the past, as does also the last survivor, lamenting the glory that is gone.

The hero's role, as with Aeneas, is to be an agent of fate, that is, Divine Providence in Christian understanding. The beginning of Beowulf introduces the theme of agency in the figure of Scyld who appears mysteriously to succor the Danes and disappears in death into the unknown. His mystery is that of the agent of God by whom he has been sent, though a pagan, to alleviate pagan suffering. Yet, in counterpoint to this Christian understanding of his role is that of his pagan followers who see in him only the mystery of his coming and of his leaving. That is to say, Scyld's pagan followers reveal the limitations of their paganism, the limitations of an understanding lacking the truth of faith.

Beowulf, thus introduced, is also an agent of God, as is seen most clearly in his battles against Grendel and particularly against the mother whom he slays with a giant sword to which he is divinely guided.21 Beowulf brings back the hilt of this sword upon which is recorded the biblical tale of the downfall of the giants, the race of Cain. One effect of the story is to cast Beowulf in the role of God's avenger who eradicates a residue of Cain's generation of monsters. In turn, Hrothgar, gazing on the hilt, is inspired to utter a homily which reaches to the edges of Christian truth. The homily provides a warning to Beowulf against heroic self-reliance whereby his subsequent actions may be judged.22 Beowulf's own judgment of himself is clouded. On the one hand, when he determines to attack the dragon he is concerned about having violated the old law; on the other hand, in dying he finds comfort in knowing that he has not violated the code by which he has lived. His wavering between moral doubt and certainty results from his being both righteous and pagan. He strives for the truth but cannot escape from the necessary error of all who are without the grace of knowing through faith. Beowulf's striving for righteousness is blocked by the very ethical code which he has piously observed. He cannot understand his feeling that he has transgressed against the old law because he does not know the new law. He has no referent for righteousness except the heroic code, which has revenge as its most sacred obligation, glory and gold as its ultimate reward.23 The futility of such a code is made evident in Hrethel's fatal ethical dilemma. From the Christian perspective, to seek revenge is sinful error; thus Hrethel, who accepts revenge as ethical obligation, cannot solve his dilemma because he seeks to find his answer in a false faith.

How Beowulf is himself caught in the iron circle of heroic error is evidenced in his inward determination to avenge the death of his nephew, Heardred, Higelac's son, by securing the death of his slayer, Onela, the Swedish king, who had entrusted Beowulf with the Geatish throne, presumably after appropriate swearing of oaths. Beowulf, however, does not perceive that his secret determination to betray Onela is dishonorable because he feels he is being morally obedient to the sacred and paramount duty of revenge.24 This appears from his dying assertion that he has not dishonored himself with false oaths. Finally, his reasons for attacking the dragon flow from his allegiance to a false moral ideal. He need not have sought revenge; the dragon would have remained in his barrow unless he were again disturbed. For the hero, however, who strives for the ultimate goal of such abiding glory as Sigemund had attained, revenge is an absolute imperative which takes no count of practicalities. Further, the attack on the dragon holds the promise of another ultimate reward, the treasure, visible evidence of glory. In short, as Wiglaf puts it, Beowulf is driven by “relentless doom” because of his own will he seeks the two goals of worldly men living in error, glory and its visible sign, gold. He is doomed because his will now serves a faulty human end.25 Before, in Denmark, he served as agent of a merciful design, though without understanding; now as king he serves only himself by seeking a heroic goal. In pursuing gold and glory Beowulf becomes the victim of fate because he has accepted the error of his society, and has lost his youthful role as agent of providence.

Thus the final action of the poem takes place not providentially but fatalistically. This fatalism reveals that Beowulf, governed by the law of revenge, is self-doomed, and it reveals the futility of a society not governed and directed by the goal of salvation. The movement of the poem is downward toward a fatally tragic end. Beowulf and the dragon are the victims, the first in seeking the gold, the other in keeping it, and Beowulf's doomed descent is that of all who lack saving grace. The poem ends, to be sure, with Beowulf's people celebrating him as the mildest of kings and the most worthy of praise. He is worthy of praise, however, as the last words of the poem reveal, because he was “most eager for glory.” That is, they praise him in terms that would befit any good pagan hero and apply equally well to Aeneas, to Hector, to Odysseus. Their praise is defined by purely human limitations and specifically lacks any of the Christian overtones of Maldon. For in direct contrast to Byrhthnoth, Beowulf in dying reveals no movement toward redemption. His death is completely unlike that of the Christian hero because it lacks the sense of revealed understanding suggested by Byrhthnoth's dying plea that his soul be brought home safely to his God.

Beowulf ends with the death and burial of the hero, which is precisely what might be expected in heroic epic, except that no sense of triumph is imparted.26 The oddity is in the Battle of Maldon where the death of the hero comes at the center of the poem, with the result that his death is not the main point toward which the poem is leading. Rather his death serves to reveal the fulfillment of God's design, of which the hero's death is but part. The real point of Maldon does not rest in the battlefield death. Conversely, the death of the hero is the point of Beowulf. The first part of the poem reveals and celebrates the workings of God's hand; the death of the hero reveals the emptiness of Beowulf's heroic life when it serves the hero's own ends of glory rather than God's purpose. His death suggests that the heroic ideal is ineffectual and futile, that its supreme embodiment in a Beowulf or an Aeneas lacks any real dignity when compared with the ideal of the Christian as embodied in Byrhthnoth who serves the Lord in faith. In this implicit contrast, the tragic implications of Beowulf may most clearly be realized; its pathos rests in the irony of its conclusion where the Geats celebrate a hero who has left them literally nothing but the legacy of debts to be collected.

To conclude, for the author of Beowulf and his audience there can be but one ultimate hero, and he is Christ. Whatever is truly heroic comes from the imitation of Him, and the saint is the true hero. St. Edmund imitated Christ truly and is the saintly hero and martyr. Byrhthnoth is a hero who follows Christ and in so doing redeems that which is merely heroic within him. Beowulf is a hero who lacks Christ and reveals that the heroic in itself is an empty ideal. The contrast suggests the obvious, that Beowulf may have served as Christian apologetic, revealing the error of the ancestral way of the English, however eager for glory it was, and, in contrast, suggesting the truth and validity of Christian faith. Thus a central thematic function of Beowulf as Christian apologetic is, through the tragedy of its great and virtuous heathen hero, to promote by antithesis the concept of the Christian hero, true to himself in being true to Christ in seeking not glory but salvation. In the poet's intention the hero to emulate is not a Beowulf but a Byrhthnoth.


  1. This chapter has been developed from a paper delivered in 1970 at the Fourth Annual Conference of the Center for Medieval and Early Renaissance Studies, Binghamton, N.Y. which appears in Concepts of the Hero in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, edited by Norman Burns and Christopher Reagan (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1975), pp. 1-26. Documentation has been up-dated through 1980 and less exhaustively through 1981.

  2. W. F. Bolton, “Boethius and a Topos in Beowulf” (see Chapter One, note 2), illustrates the thematic role of what I have termed “polarity” by examination of the Boethian “topos, ‘one of two things,’” showing how for the hero “while the topos expresses a static view, the view is increasingly in error about the situation it observes and summarizes. … The pervasive dualism of Beowulf schematizes the conflicts that lie at the surface of the narrative. … Tragedy, accordingly, is not reversal of fortune but rather commitment to Fortune's sphere. … Beowulf's thrice repeated ‘one of two things’ predictions in the alternativefatal mode just before each of his three great fights express his grasp of his role in the world. The poet's concern is not with this world, however, but with man's understanding of it; epistemology is the central concern of Beowulf, and in this lie both its basic structure and close affinities with the Consolation,” pp. 16 ff. J. D. A. Ogilvy, “Beowulf, Alfred, and Christianity,” Saints, Scholars and Heroes (see Chapter One, note 2), observes the polarity and concludes that the poet “may have regarded Beowulf as a good pagan, like Dante's Vergil. At any rate, being a good Christian himself, he endowed Beowulf with such Christian virtues as were compatible with the heroic code. When Christian virtue and the code diverged, however—as in the matter of vengeance or of worldly fame—the Christian view came out a poor second (p. 64). Ogilvy is misled, I believe, by his failure to distinguish between the poet's attitude and that of his narrator and his characters. As Joseph Baird, “Unferth the Thyle,” Medium Aevum 39 (1970): 1-7, cogently observes, “The presence of conscious paganism in a poem has nothing to do with whether or not it is the work of a Christian poet”; rather it is “the attitude which he evinces toward this pagan subject matter.” Beowulf, indeed, splendidly exemplifies the heroic, but it is precisely the heroic which is being examined and found wanting on its own terms.

    Barbara Raw, The Art and Background of Old English Poetry (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1978), observes the polarity but superimposes on it a modern point-of-view, coming to a somewhat anti-climatic view: “Heroism may be a glorious thing in poetry, but in real life it is seen to lead to nothing but misery. Moreover, by juxtaposing the mythical Beowulf, a type of the heroic ideal, with the real-life events of the digressions, the poet has shown the ideal for what it is: something splendid but impractical,” p. 96.

    Adelaide Hardy, “Historical Perspective and the ‘Beowulf’-poet,” Neophilologus 63 (1979): 430-49, from an historical perspective attempts an impossible reconciliation of the antitheses: “Through his hero the poet shows that faith in the Ruler of Man has immeasurable value because it inspires the esteemed Germanic ideal of absolute courage and loyalty,” 439. To consider that faith is justified by its reconciliation with the heroic is to posit a “historical perspective” which is closer by far to that of “ethical culture” than it is to either Germanic paganism (whatever that may have been) or Augustinian Christianity (whose limits of tolerance are not elastic). Only a resolute modernism could think of a Christian poet finding ultimate value in the ideal of the comitatus. It is such a view which leads to her conclusion: “The Beowulf-poet has accepted the challenge of conveying in formulaic verse the tension between old and new religions, evoking at the same time continuity through the complex theme of the comitatus—a court which is superficially noble, yet essentially ignoble, a vision of the human condition in which men enjoy the warmth and security of close-knit fellowship, yet are essentially alone in their freedom to choose alliance with a God they cannot see or touch” (pp. 445-46). This eloquent and perceptive conclusion cannot fail to evoke a responsive modern reaction; unfortunately, from the perspective of intellectual history, it is simply heretical and no part of an Augustinian frame of reference. A good corrective to Hardy's view is Anne Payne's “The Dane's Prayer to the ‘gastbona’ in Beowulf,Neuphilologische Mitteilungen 80 (1979), which provides the right historical perspective on the poet's universality in observing that in his employment of the Christian-heathen polarity, he makes his audience aware that Christianity provides an antidote to the heroic, not a total cure, since man is always liable to mistake the values of the world for those of reality: “The poet was consciously drawing on the Christian-heathen dichotomy for a convenient metaphor to describe a state of mind which he found perpetually possible, perpetually destructive to his own society as well as to the heroic society he writes about” (pp. 508-9). W. F. Bolton, Alcuin and Beowulf (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1975), also provides a salutary reminder of what must be borne in mind when assessing the Christian poet's viewpoint on heroic virtue. “Beowulf has virtue, but virtues alone do not make a Christian; on the contrary, Alcuin insists, what makes a Christian—and hence saves a soul—is baptism and faith” (p. 155). Marijane Osborn, “The Great Feud: Scriptural History and Strife in Beowulf,PMLA 93 (1978): 973-98, argues cogently for the need to maintain “two separate frames of reference” (p. 980), that is, the heroic against Augustine's two worlds.

    Finally, it should be noted that J. R. R. Tolkien, “Beowulf: the Monsters and the Critics,” Proceedings of the British Academy 22 (1936): 245-95, marks the beginning of the serious study of the thematics of Beowulf, and that Dorothy Whitelock, The Audience of Beowulf (Oxford: the Clarendon Press, 1951), has laid the groundwork for our understanding of the intellectual milieu in which the poet wrote.

  3. For citations see Douglas Short's bibliography (Chapter One, note 1.) The parameters are given recent illustration. Louise Wright, “Merewioingas and the Dating of Beowulf: a Reconsideration,” Nottingham Medieval Studies 42 (1980): 1-6, argues that the word gives a terminus a quo of possibly 751, but more likely early 800. Norman Blake, “The Dating of Old English Poetry,” An English Miscellany Presented to W. S. Mackie, edited by Brian Lee (Cape Town: Oxford University Press, 1977), pp. 14-27, argues for a date in the Alfredian period, and Nicolas Jacob, “Anglo-Danish Relations: Poetic Archaisms and the Date of Beowulf: a Reconsideration of the Evidence,” Poetica 8 (Tokyo, 1977): 23-43, also argues for the ninth century. In two recent books, which I have not had the opportunity to consult, the dating of Beowulf has been reconsidered: Kevin S. Kiernan, Beowulf and the Beowulf Manuscript (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1981) has apparently presented a vigorously-argued dating of the poem in the eleventh century, but we are best advised to consider the matter as still open, a conclusion which follows from the collection of essays by various hands, The Dating of Beowulf, edited by Colin Chase (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1981). In the light of what I have found in ælfric, Kiernan's dating would suit admirably my thesis that the poet's intellectual milieu is Augustinian, but is not essential to it since, early or late, the viewpoint is traditional and is based on an unchanging theological point of reference. Whatever the immediate context of the poet's own time may be, he remains within the parameters of the Christian view. Kiernan appears also to have presented important observations on the structure of Beowulf which, unfortunately must be left for later consideration in the detail they deserve.

  4. Monumenta Alcuina, edited by Wattenbach and Duemmler (Berlin, 1873), p. 357.

  5. Both lives are edited by G. I. Needham, Lives of Three English Saints (New York: Methuen, 1966). Translations are my own except where indicated.

  6. Ludwigslied, edited by T. Schauffer in Althochdeutsche Litteratur, 2nd edition (Leipzig, 1900), pp. 119-23.

  7. For The Dream of the Rood, Wonder of Creation and Judith see my Web of Words (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1970), pp. 85-88, 103-4, 173-78.

  8. See my Doctrine and Poetry (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1959): 195-200; 237-38.

  9. Widsith, Deor and Beowulf themselves testify, for example to the lively survival of the “heroic” literary conventions.

  10. Reto Bezzola, Les Origines et la Formation de la Litterature Courtoise en Occident, Part I (Paris: Champion, 1958), pp. 19-21 and 98.

  11. William of Malmesbury, Gesta Pontificum Anglorum, Vol. 5, edited by N. Hamilton (London, 1870), p. 38.

  12. Just such an attempt is apparently made by Jon Kasik, “The Use of the Term ‘Wyrd’ in ‘Beowulf,’” Neophilologus 63 (1979): 128-35. He concludes that his “analysis shows that the Beowulf-poet used the term ‘Wyrd’ in neither a purely pagan nor a purely Christian sense” (p. 132). Although he does examine each example of ‘wyrd’ in the poem, his conclusion results from the primary critical error of failing to distinguish between a character's use of the term and the author's. Further, he totally ignores the background of intellectual history which must undergird any attempt at semantic analysis. For a somewhat similar attempt, see Adelaide Hardy, note 5 above, and Robert L. Kindrick, “Germanic Sapientia and the Heroic Ethos of Beowulf,Medievalia et Humanistica 10 (1981): 1-17, who concludes that Beowulf represents a genuine advancement in the development of social consciousness” (p. 14), a comfortable conclusion whatever it may mean. Robert Levine, “Ingeld and Christ: a Medieval Problem,” Viator 2 (1971): 105-28, solved the problem ignotum per obscurum by finding a “compassable ambiguity” (p. 117).

  13. M. B. McNamee, “Beowulf—an Allegory of Salvation,” Journal of English and Germanic Philology 59 (1960): 190-207, demonstrates that almost anything can be allegorized, but that it is another matter to show that Beowulf is actually allegorical. Charles Donahue, “Beowulf and Christian Doctrine: a Reconsideration from a Celtic Stance.” Traditio 27 (1965): 55-116, although denying that allegory is involved (p. 116), would, however, make Beowulf a kind of type of Christ. His argument fails in not taking into account the downward movement of the poem. For an important study of typology in Beowulf, see Margaret Goldsmith, The Mode and Meaning of Beowulf (London: Athlone Press, 1970). John Halverson, “Beowulf and the Pitfalls of Piety,” The University of Toronto Quarterly 35 (1965-66): 260-78, with a certain amount of gleeful accuracy smashes the arguments for transforming Beowulf through allegory, significantly concluding against “an optimistic view of what happens in Beowulf,” that “its power … lies precisely in the fact that it represents a world without salvation” (p. 277). Curiously, however, he also considers that it is tragic because it is not Christian, failing again to distinguish the poet from his story.

    To conclude, Beowulf is not Christian allegory, but this is not to deny what Margaret Goldsmith and recently Sylvia Horowitz, “Beowulf, Samson, David and Christ,” Studies in Medieval Culture 12 (1978): 17-23, have demonstrated—that biblical typology exists in Beowulf. A distinction must be kept in mind, however, as Sylvia Horowitz makes clear in her conclusion that “in Beowulf we have a post-Christ figure who symbolizes Christ in the way that Samson and David did” (p. 22). David and Christ may be typologically similar in being agents of God, but David, through grace, may prefigure Christ; Beowulf cannot. He can, with reservations, symbolize David and through him Christ. Because he is outside grace, a basic limitation is in effect, and when he ceases to act as God's agent, he ceases to typify David. He is the dark mirror in which is reflected both of Augustine's cities; as God's agent in Denmark he typifies the citizen of Jerusalem, as heroic warrior facing the dragon he typifies the citizen of Babylon.

  14. Web of Words, p. 146. ælfric's adjuration is based on traditional view, for a summary of which see my “The Concept of the Hero,” (note 1 above), pp. 24-25, note 10.

  15. The Battle of Maldon, edited by Eric Gordon (New York: Methuen, 1966).

  16. As Morton Bloomfield, “Beowulf, Byrthnoth, and the Judgment of God: Trial by Combat in Anglo-Saxon England,” Speculum 44 (1969): 547-48, observed. George Clark, “The Hero of Maldon: Vir Pius et Strenuus,” Speculum 44 (1979): 257-82, unconvincingly attempts to show that Byrhthnoth's decision to let the Vikings cross was sensible and thus that Byrhthnoth is an unsullied hero. It should be observed, however, that for the poet, Byrhthnoth was not less a hero because of his heroic pride, which is, indeed, essential to his being an heroic figure. But in finding him a true hero, he does not exonerate him from the Christian condemnation of the heroic ethic; from this he is exonerated through the operation of grace and his conscious service of God. Fred Robinson, “God, Death, and Loyalty in the Battle of Maldon,J. R. R. Tolkien, Scholar and Story Teller, edited by Mary Salu and Robert Farrell (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1979), pp. 64-75, provides a convenient review of the controversy. He correctly observes “that Maldon was written out of a culture whose fundamental assumptions about God and death were incompatible with a heroic sense of life” (p. 77), but places the reconciliation of Christianity and the heroic (that is, the poet's universality), upon the pivot of the loyalty of Byrhthnoth's doomed men. This appears to me to miss the point of what is argued here and earlier in “Concepts,” (see note 1 above) of which he has not taken note.

  17. This represents, in essence, the view of Patrick Wormald, “Bede, Beowulf and the Conversion of the Anglo-Saxon Aristocracy,” Bede and Anglo-Saxon England, edited by Robert Farrell (Oxford: British Archaeology Reports, 1978), pp. 32-95. He finds that “the early English Church was, in a sense, dominated by aristocratic values,” so that “the coming of Christianity displaced the old Gods, and diverted traditional values into new postures, but it did not change these values” (p. 67). He further considers that the dualism of Christianity and paganism “springs from a fundamental tension within the poet's soul” (p. 67). Tension, however, is not reconciliation of discordant views of value; such reconciliation can be found only in the concept of martyrdom.

  18. See Doctrine and Poetry (note 8 above), pp. 28-29, 66-67. John Gardner, “Fulgentius' ‘Expositio Vergiliana Continentia’ and the Plan of Beowulf: an Approach to the Poem's Style and Structure,” Papers on Language and Literature 6 (1970): 227-62, provides an appealing suggestion of the influence of just such Christian allegorization on Beowulf.

  19. Robert Finnegan, “Beowulf at the Mere (and elsewhere),” Mosaic 11, no. 4 (1978): 45-54, makes the point that in Beowulf “the characters within the artistic frame” do not have the Christian “perspective and cannot have it” (p. 48). He concludes that the hero “is the good man, manqué from the Christian point of view, struggling to defeat forces he cannot fully understand with weapons that often do not function at need … and becomes increasingly entrammeled in the meshes of the society of which he is part. … The society which as king he represents is judged and found wanting” (p. 54). Edmund Reiss, “Nationalism and Cosmopolitanism as Subject and Theme in Medieval Narrative,” Proceedings of the IVth Congress of the International Comparative Literature Association, edited by François Jost (The Hague: Mouton, 1966) 1: 619-22, finds Augustine's doctrine of the Two Cities reflected in Beowulf: as agent of God he reflects the heavenly, but in his pride when he attacks the dragon he reflects the worldly city.

  20. Robert Hanning, “Beowulf as Heroic History,” Medievalia et Humanistica, New Series 5 (1974): 77-102, independently and from a different perspective arrived at conclusions encouragingly similar to my own. Beowulf, he cogently argues, “functions as a post-conversion essay in pre-conversion heroic history” (p. 88). Of Beowulf's death he says the poet “completely reverses all tendencies toward harmony in heroic history, and offers instead a soured, ironic version of what has gone on before, embodying a final assessment of a world without God as a world in which time and history are themselves negative concepts”; he further notes that the poet uses “the metaphor of treasure … as an image of flawed achievement and human limitation” (p. 94).

  21. Robert Morrison, “Beowulf 698a: ‘frofor ond fultum,’” Notes and Queries, New Series 27 (1980): 193-94 in a detailed analysis of the biblical influence on the phrase supplies further evidence for Beowulf's being considered as God's agent in his adventures in Denmark.

  22. See Chapter Five note to lines 1705-8.

  23. A. J. Bliss, “Beowulf, Lines 3074-75,” J. R. R. Tolkien (see note 16 above), in his analysis of the much-debated curse on the treasure, which he finds symbolic (see Chapter Five, note to lines 3074-75), makes clear Beowulf's flaw. The curse, he states, “symbolizes the corrupting power of the gold (hæðen gold as it is called in line 2276), which the poet has described explicitly in lines 2764-66. … Far from being arbitrary, the curse is the direct consequence of Beowulf's avarice” (p. 60), and “in lines 2345-47, a verbal reminiscence emphasizes the fact that Beowulf … did succumb to arrogance” (p. 61). (See Chapter Five, note to line 2345). Thus, “far from being a hero without tragic flaw’ [Arthur Brodeur, The Art of Beowulf, p. 105], he is a hero with two tragic flaws.” John Gardner, “Guilt and the World's Complexity: the Murder of Ongentheow and the Slaying of the Dragon,” Anglo-Saxon Poetry: Essays in Appreciation for John C. McGalliard, edited by Lewis Nicholson and Dolores Frese (Notre Dame: University Press, 1975), pp. 14-22, comes to a somewhat similar conclusion (pp. 21-22). Robert Burlin, however, comes to a startlingly different one, in “Inner Weather and Interlace: A Note on the Semantic value of Structure in Beowulf,Old English Studies in Honor of John C. Pope, edited by Robert Burlin and Edward Irving (Toronto: University Press, 1974). The poet “does not need to find some flaw—Augustinian or Aristotelian—in his hero or some inherent deficiency in the heroic society he embodies, to envision the death of Beowulf and its consequences.” He arrives at this conclusion without effective massing of evidence, as with Bliss, but I suspect that the dichotomy rests on almost inarguable premises. Both feel the force of the poet's “universality,” but Burlin, I would venture, feels that such universality is cabined and confined by reference to an historical frame, where I (and I assume Gardner and Bliss) feel that universality is thereby enhanced.

  24. Norman Eliason, “Beowulf, Wiglaf and the Wægmundings,” Anglo-Saxon England 7 (1978): 95-118, puts the matter clearly: “The Wægmundings [through Weohstan] had earned Onela's gratitude. … Later when the Swedish king's gratitude was extended to Beowulf [in offering him the throne], we are surely to understand that this was because of Beowulf's connection with the Wægmunding family.” Beowulf attacks Onela, however, “to avenge the death of Heardred. … The moral is plain: man's transcendent duty is to avenge the killing of his kinsman or his king” (p. 100).

  25. Anne Payne, “Three Aspects of Wyrd in Beowulf,Old English Studies in Honor of John C. Pope (see note 23), presents the issue with clarity: “The nature of Beowulf's violation puts him in a narrow place where no universal forces reflect and magnify his energies. … He is not able to project in this episode an adequate understanding against the challenge, so as to put himself immediately in touch with what he should have done; he is too close to his error,” and thus his boast before the dragon battle “is characterized by a desperate search for a comprehensible mode of action and fulfillment” (p. 23). “The heroic code, even if followed at the highest of all ethical levels, is not sufficiently inclusive to materialize clearly the divine order of things for man to follow” (p. 26).

  26. Larry Benson, “The Originality of Beowulf,The Interpretation of Narrative, edited by Morton Bloomfield (Harvard English Studies 1, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1970), places Beowulf's death with accuracy as “an unusual death for a hero, for though heroes must die they die gloriously; their death is their victory. Not so with Beowulf. … The poet goes out of his way to stress the futility, the ultimate defeat that Beowulf suffers” (p. 32). See also his “The Pagan Coloring of Beowulf,” in Old English Poetry, edited by Robert Creed (Providence, R. I.: Brown University Press, 1967), pp. 193-213.

Stanley B. Greenfield (essay date 1985)

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SOURCE: “Beowulf and the Judgement of the Righteous,” in Learning and Literature in Anglo-Saxon England, edited by Michael Lapidge and Helmut Gneuss, Cambridge University Press, 1985, pp. 393-407.

[In the following essay, Greenfield maintains that the Christian author of Beowulf viewed the heroic society of the poem sympathetically and recognized the ethical and social values of that world. Furthermore, Greenfield contends, the poet humanized Beowulf—for example, by making his judgement fallible—in order to elicit a more emotional response from the audience.]

When Beowulf utters his last words on earth, the poet comments,

                                                            him of hræðre
sawol secean                    soðfæstra dom.(1)


Despite some critical attempts to find these lines ambiguous, they seem to state unequivocally that the hero's soul has found salvation.2 Wiglaf seems equally certain that his lord's soul will find its just reward:

                                                                      Sie sio bær gearo
ædre geæfned,                    þonne we ut cymen,
ond þonne geferian                    frean userne,
leofne mannan,                    þær he longe sceal
on ðæs Waldendes                    wære geðolian.


Though Beowulf's other followers, riding about the barrow that is their lord's monument to time, give no testimony as to their belief in his eternal resting-place, they praise him (‘as is fitting’) in terms of impeccable moral qualities, some of which (in particular the assertion that he is ‘manna mildust ond mon(ðw)ærust’) are used elsewhere in Old English to describe Christ and saintly men.3 Towards the end of the first part of the poem, the narrating voice had praised Beowulf's generosity, loyalty to his lord and companions, and restraint in using the ‘ample gift’ (ginfæstan gife) of his strength (2166b-83a). As he lies dying, the hero himself echoes these remarks, feeling that the Waldend fira will not be able to reckon him among those unrighteous who sought treacherous quarrels, were false to their oaths or murdered their kinsmen (2737-43). Unfortunately for critical consensus, neither the poet nor any of his characters says that Beowulf had not been proud, avaricious or imprudent; and a sizeable number of recent critics, writing about the poet's monument to time, have, in relation to the dragon episode, laid those very charges to his hero's account. Others, in turn, have not been slow in rising to Beowulf's defence, even to seeing him in his last fight as a Christ figure. Interestingly enough, both critics who read the poem literally and those who read it allegorically or exegetically have included both detractors and defenders of Beowulf.4

Not uncoincidentally, there are disparate critical views of the Christian poet's attitude towards his poem's pagan heroic world. Some see the poet condemning that world because it necessarily lacks Christ's redeeming grace; some suggest that it is flawed purely as a socio-economic system, where the underpinnings of gift-giving are wars and social instability. Such views find poet and poem stressing the limits of heroism and the heroic world. On the other hand, some critics find the poet celebrating the heroic values of loyalty, courage and generosity, values consistent with his own Christian ethos.5

A few critics have been less moralistic. Shippey, for example, concludes that ‘what the poet has done is to create a universe which is lifelike, consistent, a model for emulation, and one seen through a film of antique nostalgia; but which remains at the same time a world the poet and all his contemporaries could properly thank God they did not live in’.6 (One may be forgiven for wondering, in light of the second half of that sentence, for whom that universe is ‘a model for emulation’.) Chickering feels that the poet is asking his audience both to admire and to reject the heroic ideal.7 Chase suggests that the poet's ‘attitude towards heroic culture … is neither romantic idealizing nor puritan rejection, but a delicate balance of empathy and detachment’.8 I am not sure that such contrarieties or balance can coexist comfortably in a work of art, or at least that we can accept them simultaneously. On the other hand, I am not quite ready to accept the ‘heretical’ view tentatively advanced by Douglas Short, that ‘the poet may not have totally harmonized the various aspects of the dragon episode’.9 Nor am I at all ready to accept what Tripp calls ‘subtractive rectifications’ of the text of this episode so as to remove inconsistencies and allow Beowulf to emerge ‘as the ideal king he is’.10 Perhaps there is still room to explore this dominant critical controversy of recent years; and I should like to take this opportunity to offer ofer bronrade some comments on it—both theoretical and substantive—as part of the gombe which this volume pays to Peter Clemoes.

For there to exist such critical disarray in our perceptions of the poem's gestalt and the poet's attitude towards hero and heroic world, there must be what Norman Rabkin, in commenting on a similar state of affairs in Shakespeare studies, calls ‘centers of energy and turbulence’ in the work which we reduce from our several perspectives into ‘coded elements of [different] thematic formula[s]’.11 Of course we recognize that others' perceived thematic designs in Beowulf are ‘either generalized to the point of superficiality, or … [are] too narrow to accommodate large segments of the poem’.12 That our own formulations may be far from the proper heat and centre of the poet's or the poem's design is, understandably but regrettably, less apparent to us.

It is not difficult to single out three such volatile centres that have produced negative perceptions of the hero. First, there is Hrothgar's sermon: why should he give this cautionary speech to Beowulf at the height of the young hero's triumph over the kin of Cain, if it is not to be a touchstone by which to judge (adversely) Beowulf's behaviour in the later part of the poem? Secondly, as if to justify Hrothgar's admonition, we find Beowulf's ‘prideful’ and ‘avaricious’ speech of lines 2518b-37, in which he asserts that the battle against the dragon is his responsibility alone, and that he will either win the gold or die in the attempt. And third comes Wiglaf's speech of lines 3077-109, in which Beowulf's young kinsman says that now the Geats must suffer anes willan, ‘for the sake of one’, that despite all their advice to shun the dragon their lord heold on heahgesceap: here Beowulf's imprudence or obstinacy is made manifest by his own liegeman, a view seemingly reinforced by the messenger's prophecy that Franks and Frisians, or Swedes, will swoop down upon the Geats once the word spreads that their lord is dead.

It is less easy to find in the text itself such centres as suggest that the poet is at all antipathetic to the ethical or social values of the heroic world he depicts. The poet is a Christian, true, and he specifically condemns the heathen practice of praying to the gastbona for help, a practice which (as he says) assigns one's soul to the fire's embrace. But this custom is mentioned and condemned only once, in lines 175-88; is it enough to sustain the weight of 3182 lines? Though the Geats (as well as the Danes) were historically heathens—and Beowulf is a Geat—they are in no way so stigmatized. The argument that the poem's heroic world and its protagonist are flawed because they lack Christ's redeeming grace is really one ex silentio. Even the Christian excursus makes no mention of Christ's redemptive power, or of Christ for that matter. The God who governs human and seasonal edwenden in the geardagum of the narrative setting still rules such change, the ‘authenticating voice’ reiterates, in the poet's own time.13 The argument that there is a fatal contradiction at the heart of heroic society, in that a hero-king, who behaves (as he must) with pride and action rather than with discretion and mensura, is a liability to his people, ultimately has to admit that ‘abstract comments on pride in a king are to be found, not in Beowulf, but in early medieval works on kingship’14—again an appeal outside the text. The rather different argument that the hero-king who is so good in his rôle usurps the capacity for action from his warriors (hence Beowulf's desertion by his retainers), and thus suggests the limits of heroic society, depends on an assumed causal relationship never made in the poem between two facts.15 And so forth.

On the other hand, John D. Niles, by closely examining Wiglaf's speech about the cowardice of the retainers, has recently made anew a case for the poet's approval of the heroic ethos. His conclusion is worth quoting:

If the society portrayed in Beowulf is weak, its weakness can be ascribed to the too-frequent failure of people to live by the ethics that, when put into practice, hold society together. The fatal contradiction developed through the narrative of Beowulf is nothing inherent in heroic society, feudal society, capitalist or Marxist society, or any other social system. It is lodged within the recalcitrant breasts of human beings who in times of crisis find themselves unable to live up to the ideals to which their lips give assent. The poem does not criticize the hero for being unlike the Geats. It criticizes all of us for not being more like the hero.16

If by this time I seem to suggest that I believe the Christian poet looked with kindly eye on his heroic world and saw its ethical and social values (even if not its religious ones) as consonant and coextensive with his own, that is so. If I also give the impression that I perceive King Beowulf as flawed by pride, avarice or imprudence, that is not so. My view is that the poet has presented both the hero and his world with more humanitas than Christianitas; that to make us feel lacrimae rerum in his hero's death, he has humanized the ‘marvellous’ (or monstrous) Beowulf by making him fallible in judgement (his only flaw) and historicized his world so that we, the audience, are better able to empathize with the tragic situation, to suffer with Wiglaf and the Geats, even as we stand in awe of the hero who held to his high fate.17

As to the poet's attitude towards the heroic ethos, there can be no doubt that he finds loyalty among kin and retainers highly praiseworthy. Consider, for example, the ‘voice's’ gnomic wisdom in lines 2600b-1 and 2708b-9a: ‘sibb æfre ne mæg / wiht onwendan þam ðe wel þenceð’ and ‘swylc sceolde secg wesan, / ðegn æt ðearfe!’. The heroic ideal of generosity or gift-giving and the value of treasure have, on the other hand, been much disputed. I have had my say elsewhere about the place of gold in the scheme of Beowulf: that the poet praises the giving, faults the hoarding.18 There I observed that ‘the contention of critics who would interpret the gold as a temptation to sin and an invitation to spiritual damnation … rest[s] … on presumed parallels between Beowulf and exegetical commentary, based on the assumption of a tacit understanding between poet and audience as to how to listen to or read poetry19—that is, it too is an argument not based on the text. In that essay, however, I conceded that the gnomic passage of lines 2764b-6 was something of a stumbling block for my interpretation:

                                                            Sinc eaðe mæg,
gold on grund(e)                    gumcynnes gehwone
oferhigian,                    hyde se ðe wylle.

I could only suggest then that they did not have the same explicit Christian pointing of lines 100-2 of The Seafarer and, more tentatively, that they could be omitted (as a possible interpolation) without disturbing at all the metrical contour of the lines in which they are embedded. Now I think there is a better idea.

All the other gnomic or semi-gnomic passages in the second part of the poem (nine made by the ‘voice’ and two by Wiglaf, as I see them)20 arise from and are ‘natural’ concomitants of the action that has been or is being described: they blend that action into universal traditional truth. The usual translation of this passage, with oferhigian as ‘tempt’ or ‘overpower’ and hyde as either ‘hide’ or ‘heed’, is quite at odds with the action being described: Wiglaf is viewing the treasure hoard at the command of Beowulf, and is in no way being tempted or overpowered by it, now or later. In line with the other gnomic comments, these words should be universalizing the exposure of the treasure. Peter Clemoes has astutely observed that Anglo-Saxon art, as well as Beowulf, ‘shows insight into inner forces’, and as one example in the poem he cites lines 864b-5:

                                                            hleapan leton,
on geflit faran                    fealwe mearas.

‘The men’, he comments, ‘allowed their steeds to exert their natural tendency, identified as a certain kind of movement (hleapan) and as movement in competition (on geflit faran).’21 With these considerations in mind, I think Niles's translation of the gnomic passage quoted above has much to recommend it:

Given the context of the passage, I take oferhigian rather in the sense of “outsmart.” The treasure is just about to be brought out into the light, despite the efforts of a previous tribe of men to keep it hidden in the earth forever. Hydan means “hide,” as it should. The lines amount to no more than a brief aside concerning the futility of burying riches: “Treasure, gold in the ground, can easily outsmart anyone, no matter who hides it!” This is essentially the reading of Bosworth and Toller, s.v. “oferhigian.22

This reading makes the passage consistent in kind and context with other such passages, reveals the inner force of treasure (compare below my comment on lifað, of the treasure, in 3167b), and reinforces the anti-hoarding theme of Hrothgar's sermon and of elsewhere in the poem.

That the poet has no quarrel with the heroic ideal of revenge may also be debatable. Yet we know the ideal or practice was not interdicted in Anglo-Saxon Christian England, and was even in some cases encouraged.23 The Beowulf poet clearly approves of God's revenge on Cain's descendants in lines 111-14 and on the giants who ‘behaved badly’ in lines 1688-93. In human feuds he seems to distinguish between rightful actions and unrihte ones. Hygelac's Frisian raid was evidently one of the latter:

syþðan he for wlenco                    wean ahsode,
fæhðe to Frysum.


But Beowulf's revenge on Onela for the Swedish king's killing of Heardred seems to have the poet's tacit approbation, to judge from the tone of lines 2391-6 (and, additionally, from 2390b, ‘ðæt wæs god cyning’, if that verse refers to Beowulf rather than to Onela). Surely the poet does not fault Beowulf's revenge on Grendel and Grendel's mother; nor does he, I think, fault the hero's revenge on the dragon when he simply states: ‘him ðæs guðcyning, / Wedera þioden wræce leornode’ (2335b-6).

A further adverse judgement on the poem's heroic world is embodied in the concept of ‘social guilt’: feuds and violence are inevitable in a society where gifts must be obtained from someone in order to be given to others as rewards. Thus leaders, especially kings, need to perform deeds of derring-do for the acquisition of material treasures, but in so doing they make bad kings, exposing themselves to death and leaving their people leaderless. A subtle argument, drawn (as Shippey observes) ‘from comparative considerations of Beowulf, Hrothgar, Hygelac’, and encouraged by the ‘interlace’ structure of the poem. We

think that the poet is demonstrating the inadequacy of heroic society; that he sees this the more forcibly for being a Christian; and that his rejection of overt finger-pointing first gives [us] the pleasure of ironic perception, and second shows [us] the glittering insidiousness of heroism, the way it perverts even the best of intentions. This whole approach offers evidently attractive baits, propounding an interesting sociological thesis, rejecting the cult of violence, and making it possible to give the poet immense credit for conscious artistry.24

But as with the exegetical critics' approach, this view finds no confirmation in the text: it rests on our sense of the poet's perspective, on unproven and unprovable ironies that may well be more modern than medieval.

In turning from consideration of the perspective on the heroic ethos in Beowulf to the view of the hero himself, we find, I think, equally tenuous rationales for negative gestalten. A brief examination of a short passage in what has been called ‘the most influential [essay] in expressing the pejorative view of the hero and heroic society’25 may not be amiss, for the ways of argument therein can tell us something more about the difficulties of evidential practices and about the questionability of adverse judgements of the hero. This analysis will lead into my own (I hope not so tenuous) arguments for a Beowulf who, in the dragon episode, may be fallible in judgement but is otherwise unexceptionable.

Discussing this episode, Leyerle says that Beowulf ‘undertakes precipitant action … the last of the foolhardy deeds attributed to him by Wiglaf’.26 The passage in question is the following:

                                                                                hlaford us
þis ellenweorc                    ana aðohtè
to gefremmane,                    folces hyrde,
forðam he manna mæst                    mærða gefremede,
dæda dollicra,


Why is Beowulf's undertaking called foolhardy, we may ask? Why, indeed, is it the last of such deeds? There has been no suggestion of a series of foolhardy deeds in the poem. Beowulf's only action that qualifies for this epithet is his swimming match with Breca, which he admits was a foolish, youthful undertaking. Leyerle seems to have seized on the word dollicra in the passage he quotes (though he does not say so), since dollice in other contexts means something like that. But dæda dollicra is in variation with mærða, which in turn goes back to ellenweorc—and these terms are anything but pejorative. Whatever the normal meaning of dollice, it must have a favourable sense in this series; and we can find support for Klaeber's suggested gloss ‘audacious, daring’ (more consonant with the tenor of Wiglaf's speech) in the term dolsceaða (479a) used by Hrothgar when he says of Grendel's reign of terror ‘God eaþe mæg / þone dolsceaða dæda getwæfan!’—hardly ‘foolhardy-ravager’. The fact that dol-and dæd are in alliterative coupling in both lines suggests that the force of formulaic composition may be more powerful than ‘normal’ word-meaning. The pressure of the hermeneutic circle, I suspect, led Leyerle to the use of this rather dubious bit of evidence.27

So too in Leyerle's next paragraph:

[Beowulf] disdains the use of an adequate force against the dragon:

Oferhogode ða                    hringa fengel,
þæt he þone widflogan                    weorode gesohte,
sidan herge.


The verb oferhogode echoes Hrothgar's words oferhygda dæl (1740) and oferhyda ne gym (1760).

In this argument verbal echo from within the poem is used to suggest that, indeed, Beowulf is exemplifying precisely that pride and disdain against which Hrothgar had warned the young hero. But if we look at what Hrothgar is actually saying, we find that the oferhygd he cautions against, in both lines 1740 and 1760, is connected with greed, with hoarding, with failure of generosity in gift-giving, and not with scorning to have help in battle. In fact, the poet goes on to point out, in the first historical digression of the second part of the poem, that Beowulf has plenty of past credentials to support his decision to move against the dragon:

                                                            forðon he ær fela
nearo neðende                    niða gedigde,
hildehlemma … 


This passage, incidentally, would seem to disprove the arguments of the many critics who think that King Beowulf's fifty years of keeping the peace (2732a-6a) means he engaged in no human battle clashes.28

Lines 1760b-1a might, I suppose, be taken, by changing Klaeber's punctuation, with the verses that follow, ‘Nu is þines blæd / ane hwile’; and many critics have also seemed to think that old King Beowulf, like the aged Hrothgar, suffered a decline in his fortitudo. But, whereas the Danish king is explicitly characterized in 1886b-7a as one whom old age has deprived of the joys of strength, no such observation is made about Beowulf. We should notice that he still has that mægen that overtaxes any sword (2682b-7)—it is surely not a failure in human strength that causes Nægling to break (2680b)! Once again we should recognize that Hrothgar's cautionary comments do not really apply to the Beowulf of the second part of the poem, except for his final generalization about mortality: ‘semninga bið, / þæt þec, dryhtguma, deað oferswyðeð’ (1767b-7).29

Thus far I have tried to indicate that Hrothgar's sermon is no touchstone for a negatively portrayed Beowulf of later days. Let me consider now more briefly the two other ‘centers of energy and turbulence’ I mentioned earlier.

Beowulf's speech in which he declares he will fight the dragon alone and gain the gold (2518b-37) is the first of these. Since I have considered this previously, I shall only refer the reader to that discussion.30 The second ‘centre’ is a combination of Wiglaf's speech in lines 3077-109 with his messenger's preceding harangue in lines 2900-3027. In reviewing this locus, we had best include all the speeches, in order, after Beowulf dies and his soul seeks soðfæstra dom. When the cowards creep out of the woods and approach Wiglaf, he looks at the unleofe, comments that Beowulf threw away the wargear he had equipped them with, and says further that they shall henceforth forgo

                                        sincþego                    ond swyrdgifu,
eall eðelwyn                    eowrum cynne,
…                    syððan æðelingas
feorran gefricgean                    fleam eowerne,
domleasan dæd.                    Deað bið sella … 

(2884-5 and 2888b-90)

Then Wiglaf orders his messenger to announce the sad news to the waiting Geats; in his speech the messenger twice states that a time of war and revenge is inevitable once Franks and Frisians on the one hand and Swedes on the other learn of Beowulf's death. Some lines later, after the poet has told about the curse on the gold, Wiglaf again speaks (3077-109) and this time seems to accuse Beowulf of obstinacy in seeking the dragon, of not listening to all their advice for him to leave the dragon alone. From the inconsistencies in these accounts, a critic can select the evidence for either a positive or a negative view of the hero's actions—and so critics have done. Can all the evidence, including the difficult curse on the gold, be accounted for in a unified pattern?

That evidence, it seems to me, leads to an emphasis on fate and the interlacing threads that comprise human and societal doom and dom, ‘glory’: the retainers' cowardice that leads to their lord's death, the fact of their lord's death (one would hardly expect the messenger, who must be one of the cowards, to stress his and his comrades' failure to live up to their oaths of allegiance),31 a force beyond human comprehension (the curse), and a hero's (proper) refusal to abide by his counsellors' (timid) advice to sidestep the dragon's challenge. Wiglaf sums all this up, it should be noted, not by blaming Beowulf for violating kingly mensura but, in a tight stylistic ‘envelope’ that emphasizes the combination of human will and ‘determinism’ in Beowulf's fate, he says:

Heold on heahgesceap;                    hord ys gesceawod,
grimme gegangen;                    wæs þæt gifeðe
to swið,
þe þone [þeodcyning]                    þyder ontyhte.

(3084-6; my italics)

We may recall young Beowulf's recognition of a similar juxtaposition of human and superhuman in his account of the Breca match, when a sea monster drew him to the depths:

                                                                                                    hwæþre me gyfeðe wearþ,
þæt ic aglæcan                    orde geræhte,
hildebille;                    heaþoræs fornam
mihtig meredeor                    þurh mine hand.


And the poet's own comment with regard to Beowulf's success in his fight with Grendel's mother:

                                                                      ond halig God
geweold wigsigor;                    witig Drihten,
rodera Rædend                    hit on ryht gesced
yðelice,                    syþðan he eft astod.


What the Beowulf poet thereby achieves in his poem is a miracle of the highest tragic art, wherein man's fate is balanced between his own human will and the power of forces beyond his control. We do not draw practical moral lessons about human behaviour from Oedipus or King Lear; nor should we scan Beowulf either as a mirror for princes or a reverse mirror-image of unkingly or sinful action.

That the hoard grimme gegangen is reburied in the earth,

                                                                      þær hit nu gen lifað
eldrum swa unnyt,                    swa hi(t æro)r wæs,


is something of a small centre of energy and turbulence for interpretation too. The poet does not explicitly say why it is reburied, but the fact that it will be given back to earth is first mentioned by the messenger in lines 3010b-17, after he has finished saying that the reasons he has just adduced (old feuds) will lead to resumption of ‘sio fæhðo ond se feondscipe’, and advised the Geats to hurry to see their dead lord, ‘þe us beagas geaf’ (3009b). The most likely inferences to be drawn from this juxtaposition are, first, that Beowulf deserves the hoard as a measure of his greatness, and, secondly, that the Geats (by their cowardice and dim prospects for the future) are unworthy of it. I do not recall anyone's having commented on the poet's use of the word lifað in 3167b, a strange word applied to gold, and one rendered by most translators, including myself, as ‘remains’ or the like. Perhaps the verb is being used in ironic contrast to the dead Beowulf and the soon-to-perish Geats? Perhaps the whole clause suggests that gold has a life of its own: it will reveal itself to those who fight for it (see the gnomic passage considered above) or to those who have God's grace (the thief; lines 3054b-7), but it will live, useless to those who have not the fortitude in mod and mægen to subjugate its life to their own will. Whatever the case, one sure effect of the comment is to make Beowulf's dying remark that he is glad to have won the gold for his people (2794-8) seem impercipient indeed; and this irony leads me to the final argument of this paper: that whatever negative impulse throbs through the dragon episode results from the humanization of the hero.

The terms of disapprobation which critics have applied to King Beowulf's behaviour in the dragon fight are all judgemental: proud, avaricious, obstinate, imprudent, rash etc. My term ‘fallible (in understanding or perception of events)’ carries no such connotations. What I am suggesting is that the hero, who by his very nature has something of the monstrous or marvellous in him,32 is here made more human, so that the audience will react to his death more feelingly. Not a decline in his fortitudo, as I have argued above, but in his sapientia: not in what he does, but in what he perceives. And with this humanization the Geatish world he now moves in becomes more historicized than the Danish one of his exploits against the Grendel-kin.

My first remarks will be on the historicization. Attempts to link the Cain-descended monsters of the first part of the poem with the dragon, to see the wyrm or draca as a satanic figure that is somehow the progeny of Cain, or to see the dragon's feud in the perspective of the scriptural ‘Great Feud’ between God and his enemies, will not bear close scrutiny.33 For all the beast's pyrotechnics, the dragon's world, if we can call the setting and action in the latter part of the poem by that term, has no suggestions such as ‘Godes yrre bær’ (711b—of Grendel), or of a wondrous light shining like heaven's candle (1570-2a—after Beowulf defeats Grendel's mother). To say that the poet had ‘no need for further scriptural reference after the two kinfolk of Cain have been destroyed’34 is begging the question, an admission that there is no textual evidence for the position being argued; but when the same critic continues with ‘we have had Hrothgar's warning that calamity continues to come unexpected upon mankind: strife is always renewed’, we can agree with what precedes the colon, but find no evidence that Hrothgar says what follows it (and we note that the following sentence of additional ‘evidence’ points outside the text to the ‘Exeter Book maximist’). When we read further that ‘the advent of another adversary of mankind is inevitable’, we may note that although Grendel is called feond mancynnes and mancynnes feond (164a and 1276a) and Godes andsaca(n) (786b and 1682b), the dragon has a rather different set of terms for his designation: eald uhtsceaða (2271a), ðeodsceaða (2278a and 2688a), guðsceaða (2318a), gearo guðfreca (2414a), mansceaða (2514b) and attorsceaða (2839a). The dragon wears his adversarial nature with at least an epithetical difference.

The human feuds in the latter part of the poem are likewise more down-to-earth, more historical than legendary. I have explored elsewhere the force and place of ‘history’ in providing an epic sense of destiny in this part of the poem,35 and shall not repeat myself here. This historical world is appropriate for, and lends credence to, Beowulf's humanity.

Beowulf's fallibility is exhibited most obviously in the discrepancy I have already touched on. That discrepancy cannot simply be an inconsistency of the kind Niles cogently argues for as ‘the truncated motif’ of the ‘barbaric style’ in which the poem is composed36—and Niles does not suggest it is such. It must be meant to indicate that the dying Beowulf no longer has the perspicacity he had when he told Hygelac about Freawaru's proposed marriage to Ingeld: he cannot see that his retainers' cowardice will render the treasure useless to his people. This failure is not surprising, perhaps, in view of the fact that Beowulf has always, by virtue of his marvellous abilities, acted alone. Whether his men draw their swords and hack futilely at a charmed-skin Grendel, or wait helplessly by the mere's edge, or flee precipitously into the woods, Beowulf has never counted on them. Even in human battles he seems to have been ‘ana on orde’ (2498b). No wonder, then, that he says the battle against the dragon is his responsibility alone, and that he cannot now understand the impact of his followers' treachery upon the Geats' future. There is irony here no doubt, but hardly of a judgemental kind. Rather, by Beowulf's fallible understanding we are made to feel the pathos of his self-sacrifice for a nation that cannot profit thereby.

But Beowulf has also misjudged with respect to the ‘measure’ of the battle, for the man who is his kinsman and retainer does help him defeat the foe ‘ofer min gemet’, as he says (2879a). The very notion that Beowulf can be helped this time further humanizes him. That the dragon is a more ‘natural’ phenomenon than the Grendel-kin, unassociated with Cain or the Great Feud, is consonant with Wiglaf's being able to help, and creates an irony in that this time, when his followers could have helped the hero, they flee. The dying king misjudges again when he believes that Wiglaf can look after his people's needs: both Wiglaf's and his messenger's speeches point up that miscalculation. He who when young had the wisdom to suggest tactfully that Hrothgar's son Hrethric, if he were a worthy heir apparent, might go abroad while a threat to his succession existed (1836-9), now cannot perceive that no ordinary mortal, even one who has fought beyond his measure, is qualified to keep old enemies at bay in the face of the Geat's manifest weakness. How like in (fallible) judgement to us all the epic hero has become, despite his still imposing stature!

This falling-off in Beowulf's ‘situational’ grasp is revealed at the very start of the dragon episode when the hero, seeing his gifstol razed, thinks he may have offended God ‘ofer ealde riht’ (2330a). The audience, however, knows that his perception of the situation is wrong, that the monster has been loosed because of the cup's theft; and of course Beowulf later learns ‘hwanan sio fæhð aras’ (2403b). Though Beowulf has the wisdom to recognize that he will need an iron shield as protection against the dragon's flames, he seems unaware that the bone of the beast's skull is less vulnerable to penetration than its softer underbelly; whereas, for all his inexperience, Wiglaf has the shrewdness to strike lower down.

I shall mention but one further piece of evidence which suggests that old Beowulf but slenderly knows the score/ In accounting for his life, in summing up his record as king, he says, among other things:

                                                                      Ic on earde bad
mælgesceafta,                    heold min tela,
ne sohte searoniðas,                    ne me swor fela
aða on unriht.


Three hundred and more lines later, the poet comments that Beowulf, like other mortals, did not know how his death would come about:

                                                            þa he biorges weard
sohte searoniðas.


The formulaic repetition is startling. Is this just a case of non-significant formularity, or is the poet suggesting a further limit on his hero's percipience? Beowulf is obviously referring to human relations in giving his righteous reckoning, but the poet seems to indicate that his seeking out of the dragon was also a searonið, and the cause of his worulde gedal. I realize that this evidence can be interpreted otherwise to support the arguments of those who would see Beowulf as acting improperly in seeking out the dragon; but it, too, is a centre of energy and turbulence that should not be discounted or overlooked.

The reading I have proposed on the controversy over the hero and his world has tried to encompass the most relevant evidence on both sides, and to avoid the pitfalls of the hermeneutic circle (as much as possible) in argumentation. I am not that sanguine about my success on both scores. But I believe my reading is as plausible as any. One can comprehend a Beowulf whose actions in the latter part of the poem reveal him to be a peerless hero still—and action, as Peter Clemoes has observed, defines the agent in this poem37—even as his sapiential vulnerability in his final confrontation demarvellizes (rather than indicts) him. The poet has forthrightly placed his hero's soul among those seeking the judgement of the righteous, but has not suggested that the audience judge him self-righteously. Rather, I believe, by revealing a weakness in the aged Beowulf he has somewhat humanized his hero's nature, making him easier of empathetic access to an audience's sensibilities. He helps thus awaken in the reader or listener ‘a poignancy, a pathos … [which] springs from epic's presentation of man's accomplishments against the background of his mortality, from the implication the hero's fall entails for his people, from a sense of futility in the splendid achievement, a resignation and despair in the face of the limits of life’.38 The Christian poet, indeed, sees, and aesthetically achieves, a continuity between the geardagas of the poem's heroic world and the windagas (1062) of his own time.39Life has its limits, not heroism or the heroic world: this, I think, might have been his answer to Alcuin's abiding question, ‘Quid Hinieldus cum Christo?’.40


  1. All quotations are from Beowulf and the Fight at Finnsburg, ed. F. Klaeber, 3rd ed. (Boston, Mass., 1950).

  2. See, e.g., E. G. Stanley, ‘Hæþenra Hyht in Beowulf’, Studies in Old English Literature in Honor of Arthur G. Brodeur, ed. S. B. Greenfield (Eugene, Oreg., 1963), pp. 142-3, for a denial of Beowulf's salvation. See J. D. Niles, Beowulf: the Poem and its Tradition (Cambridge, Mass., 1983), p. 297, n. 11, for citations to the contrary.

  3. See M. P. Richards, ‘A Reexamination of Beowulf ll. 3180-3182’, ELN 10 (1973), 163-7.

  4. For a summary of bibliography on these positions, see D. D. Short, ‘Beowulf and Modern Critical Tradition’, A Fair Day in the Affections: Literary Essays in Honor of Robert B. White, Jr, ed. J. D. Durant and M. T. Hester (Raleigh, NC, 1980), pp. 1-22, esp. 9-14.

  5. For the first of these views, see, e.g., R. W. Hanning, ‘Beowulf as Heroic History’, Medievalia et Humanistica n.s. 5 (1974), 77-102; for the second, see H. Berger, Jr, and H. M. Leicester, Jr, ‘Social Structure as Doom: the Limits of Heroism in Beowulf’, Old English Studies in Honor of John C. Pope, ed. R. B. Burlin and E. B. Irving, Jr (Toronto, 1974), pp. 37-79; and for the third, see Niles, Beowulf, pp. 235-47.

  6. T. A. Shippey, Beowulf (London, 1978), p. 44.

  7. H. D. Chickering, Jr, Beowulf: a Dual-Language Edition (Garden City, NY, 1977), pp. 26-7.

  8. C. Chase, ‘Saints’ Lives, Royal Lives, and the Date of Beowulf’, The Dating of Beowulf, ed. C. Chase (Toronto, 1981), pp. 161-71, at 161-2.

  9. Short, ‘Beowulf and Modern Critical Tradition’, p. 11.

  10. R. P. Tripp, Jr, More About the Fight with the Dragon: Beowulf 2208b-3182, Commentary, Edition, and Translation (Lanham, Md, 1983), p. ix.

  11. N. Rabkin, Shakespeare and the Problem of Meaning (Chicago, Ill., 1981), p. 25.

  12. Short, ‘Beowulf and Modern Critical Tradition’, p. 9.

  13. See my essay ‘The Authenticating Voice in Beowulf’, ASE 5 (1976), 51-62, at 55-7.

  14. J. Leyerle, ‘Beowulf the Hero and the King’, 34 (1965), 89-102, at 98.

  15. Berger and Leicester, ‘Social Structure’, pp. 64-5.

  16. Niles, Beowulf, p. 247.

  17. On Beowulf's ‘marvellous’ or monstrous nature, see my essay ‘A Touch of the Monstrous in the Hero, or Beowulf Re-Marvellized’, ES 63 (1982), 294-300, and Niles, Beowulf, pp. 3-30. Obviously I am disagreeing with Niles, however, when he says (p. 29): ‘In the end, the audience … cannot really identify itself with Beowulf the man … We know too little of his everyday humanity, his normal human feelings and weaknesses, to be able to see him as an extension of ourselves.’

  18. S. B. Greenfield, ‘“Gifstol” and Goldhoard in Beowulf’, Old English Studies in Honor of John C. Pope, ed. Burlin and Irving, pp. 107-17.

  19. Ibid. p. 115.

  20. The nine by the ‘voice’ are lines 2275b-7, 2291-3a, 2514b, 2590b-1, 2600-1, 2708b-9a, 2858-9, 3062b-5 and 3174b-7; the two by Wiglaf are lines 2890b-1 and 3077-8. Some of these are discussed T. A. Shippey, ‘Maxims in Old English Narrative: Literary Art or Traditional Wisdom?’, Oral Tradition, Literary Tradition: a Symposium, ed. H. Bekker-Nielsen et al. (Odense, 1977), pp. 28-46.

  21. P. Clemoes, ‘Action in Beowulf and our Perception of it’, Old English Poetry: Essays on Style, ed. D. G. Calder (Berkeley, Calif., 1979), pp. 147-68, at 155.

  22. Niles, Beowulf, p. 299, n. 6.

  23. See D. Whitelock, The Beginnings of English Society (Harmondsworth, 1952), pp. 31-3.

  24. Shippey, Beowulf, pp. 37-8.

  25. Short ‘Beowulf and Modern Critical Tradition’, p. 10; the essay is Leyerle's (cited above, n. 14).

  26. Leyerle, ‘Beowulf the Hero’, p. 95.

  27. I would add that I find no evidence at all in Hrothgar's sermon for Leyerle's contention that the king's speech ‘is, in part, a caution against headlong action’ (‘Beowulf the Hero’, p. 97; my italics). The only possible referent for Leyerle's remark is Heremod's killing of his table companions; but this action is hardly on the same level as fighting a dragon to revenge one's people and gain treasure for them.

  28. Cf. lines 2391-6. Note that Beowulf had survived many battle clashes since he had cleansed Hrothgar's hall (2351b-4a). This is clearly not a reference to further monster battles. Lines 2391-6 refer specifically to Beowulf's military support of Eadgils against Onela. Niles is the latest to overlook such evidence; see his Beowulf, pp. 252 and 304, n. 5, for bibliographic references to others of like mind.

  29. Beowulf's oferhygd is often compared to that of Byrhtnoth in The Battle of Maldon and that of Roland; but neither of the latter destroys his enemy by his self-sacrifice.

  30. ‘“Gifstol” and Goldhoard’ (cited above, n. 18).

  31. Still, the messenger echoes Wiglaf's comment about no more treasure-giving by indicating that all the hard-won treasure will be buried with Beowulf (3010b-17).

  32. See above, n. 17.

  33. On the former, see, e.g., my review of D. Williams, Cain and Beowulf: a Study in Secular Allegory (Toronto, 1982) in MP 81 (1983), 191-4. The ‘Great Feud’ perspective has been advanced by M. Osborn, ‘The Great Feud: Scriptural History and Strife in Beowulf’, PMLA 93 (1978), 973-81.

  34. Osborn, ‘The Great Feud’, p. 979.

  35. S. B. Greenfield, ‘Geatish History: Poetic Art and Epic Quality in Beowulf’, Neophilologus 47 (1963), 211-17.

  36. Niles, Beowulf, pp. 167-76.

  37. Clemoes, ‘Action in Beowulf’, esp. pp. 155-60.

  38. S. B. Greenfield, ‘Beowulf and Epic Tragedy’, Studies in Old English Literature in Honor of Arthur G. Brodeur, ed. Greenfield, p. 104.

  39. Cf. above, n. 13.

  40. I should like to express my appreciation to Daniel G. Calder and Thelma N. Greenfield for their most helpful comments in the shaping of this paper.


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Alain Renoir (essay date 1988)

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SOURCE: “Oral-Formulaic Context in Beowulf: The Hero on the Beach and the Grendel Episode,” in A Key to Old Poems: The Oral-Formulaic Approach to the Interpretation of West-Germanic Verse, Pennsylvania State University Press, 1988, pp. 107-32.

[In the essay below, Renoir examines the ways in which the author ofBeowulf employed the motifs and formulas of oral composition, maintaining that the use of such devices does not necessarily indicate that the poem was composed orally, but only that the poet was well-versed in the traditional methods of oral-formulaic composition.]

Just as the prominence rightfully granted Beowulf by the literary world has naturally turned that poem into a standard against which much Germanic traditional poetry has been at times mistakenly measured, so it has encouraged the most distinguished Anglo-Saxonists and students of oral-formulaic matters to dissect practically every conceivable aspect of its artistry, language, and background; and the vigor with which the operation has been carried out shows no sign of abating. Within the realm of oral-formulaic studies alone, for example, it was indeed Beowulf that Magoun first examined when he set out to argue the oral-formulaic quality of Old-English narrative poetry;1 it was to Beowulf that Crowne first turned when he needed an instance of the theme of the hero on the beach outside Andreas;2 it was to Beowulf that Lord first turned when he wished to extend to the mediaeval epic the theories which he had elaborated in respect to Homer and South-Slavic poetry;3 and it was exclusively to Beowulf that Creed turned when he argued the fundamental relevance of traditional oral-formulaic elements to the critical interpretation of Old-English poetry.4 The list could be extended for page after page, but the foregoing examples should suffice to suggest that anyone preparing to examine any portion of Beowulf from an oral-formulaic point of view would do well to keep in mind that he or she is about to plow a field which has already been plowed and replowed by the masters. In this light, my only defense against the charge of presumption is that, in the first place, the very eminence of Beowulf rules out the possibility of ignoring it in the present study and that, in the second place, the unequivocally obvious nature of the observations which follow will provide ample proof that I make no claim to any kind of original thinking in this chapter.

Before examining the affective role which oral-formulaic rhetoric plays in the Grendel episode, it seems advisable to remind ourselves of the sequence of events that leads to it as well as of the action that follows immediately thereafter, hence the following outline of the first part of Beowulf.

After an initial account of the founding of Denmark's Scylding Dynasty by the mythological Scyld Scefing (1a-52b), the narrative traces the royal succession down to King Hrothgar, who decides to advertise the might of his realm by erecting a magnificent hall which he names Heorot (78b). Here, king and warriors spend much time joyously feasting at night until a troll-like and cannibalistic creature of darkness named Grendel (102b) takes such vehement exception to the constant uproar of revelry that he submits the hall to a series of murderous attacks which eventually put an end to all nightly occupancy for the next twelve years (147a). Apparently nonplused by the monster's overpowering savagery, Hrothgar finds no better solution than to bear his grief (147b) and hold constant but seemingly fruitless meetings with his advisers (171b-172a).

Somewhere in the land of the Geats, a physically powerful young man identified as a retainer of King Hygelac (194b) and whose name we shall later learn to be Beowulf (343b) hears of this situation (194a-195b) and immediately sets sail for Denmark with fourteen companions (215b-216b) to free the world from Grendel's depredations. The Geats make land the next day and, after an initially somewhat tense but brief and amicable encounter with a coast guard (234a-300b), march to Heorot, where Beowulf announces the purpose of his visit and his determination to fight Grendel alone and unarmed (424b-440a), though he will wear a corslet made by Weland himself (455a). Hrothgar invites the Geats to a banquet, during which Beowulf is in turn taunted by a retainer named Unferth (506a-528b) and honored by Queen Wealhtheow's gracious attention (620a-628a). The Geats are then left alone to wait for Grendel, who soon breaks into the hall and succeeds in devouring one of them before grappling for life with Beowulf, from whom he escapes mortally wounded, leaving an arm behind (815b-823a).

The next day is devoted to celebrations, during which a poet entertains the company by singing a song about Beowulf's exploit (871b-874a), which he likens by implication to the deeds of the Germanic heroes Sigemund and Fitela (874b-900b) and contrasts to the crimes of a wicked king of old named Heremod (901a-915b). During the sumptuous banquet which follows, Hrothgar bestows priceless gifts upon Beowulf (1020a-1053a), and the poet sings once again to tell of the heroic death of the Half-Dane leader Hnaef and of that of the Frisian king Finn, who was killed by Hnaef's successor, Hengest (1063a-1159a). Wealhtheow then presents Beowulf with a necklace as valuable as the legendary one which Hama once stole from Eormanric (1197a-1201a). That night, a contingent of Danes remains in Heorot, but Grendel's mother attacks to avenge her son and carries off a warrior named Aeshere, who is Hrothgar's dearest companion (1296a-b).

Early next morning, Beowulf is asked to help with the renewed peril (1376b-1377a) and is taken to a pond where Grendel and his mother presumably have their lair and on whose shore the young warrior receives a valuable and tried sword from Unferth (1455a-1457b), who seems to have forgotten his earlier antagonism. He then dives into the pond and enters an underwater cave where he kills Grendel's mother beside the body of her dead son, although Unferth's weapon fails him (1522b-1525a) and he must use an ancient sword which seems to have been waiting for him there (1557a-1568b). Back in Heorot, his accomplishments are praised by Hrothgar, who again contrasts him to Heremod (1709b) and seizes upon the occasion to deliver a little sermon on the sins of pride, sloth, and covetousness (1724b-1757b). On the fourth day, the Geats sail back to their homeland, where Hygelac expresses some surprise at the success of the expedition (1992b-1997a).

Sketchy though it be, the foregoing outline illustrates the highly traditional and oral-formulaic nature of the narrative. The names listed therein, for instance, should suffice to alert us to the extent to which the materials belong to the Old-English literary tradition. The mention of Finn, Hnaef, and Hengest takes us to the Finnsburg Fragment,5 which gives a detailed account of part of the action mentioned in Beowulf; and Eormanric figures prominently in both Widsith and Deor, which are generally considered highly representative of the repertory of traditional Old-English poetry. In addition, Weland—the same whose picture on the Franks Casket may be seen by every visitor to the British Museum—plays an important part in the latter, while Hama, Finn, and Hnaef are included in the former, where we also find Hrothgar's political situation described in a manner consonant with the account in Beowulf. Outside Old English, the most cursory and random glance at mediaeval German and Scandinavian traditional literature shows that the same kind of observation may be made in respect to the broader Germanic context. The Eormanric of Old-English poetry is central to the German epic cycle of Dietrich von Bern and to the Old-Norse Thidreks Saga—both of which include Hama—and the sixteenth-century Low-German Koninc Ermenrikes Dot makes it clear that the impetus of his fame was strong enough to carry beyond the Middle Ages. Weland also appears in the Thidreks Saga and rates an entire poem in the Elder Edda. Sigemund, Heremod, and Eormanric likewise appear in an Eddic poem, known in English as The Lay of Hyndla, which also mentions the Scyldings.

Among all these, as well as others whose names have been left out here, Sigemund and Fitela deserve special mention because of their position as the central characters of the Völsunga Saga. In addition, the latter's death is commemorated in a special prose link in the Elder Edda, while the former is remembered as Siegfried's father in the Nibelungenlied. These titles would, of course, have been unknown to the audience of Beowulf, especially since the Old-Norse saga and the Middle-High-German epic were both written more than a century after the end of the Anglo-Saxon period, but, as I tried to argue in Chapter 6, specific performances and their titles must have meant very little to the normal audiences of traditional poetry composed orally or in writing according to the canons of oral-formulaic rhetoric. Fortunately, the affective impact which the mention of the two heroes might have had upon such audiences may be inferred from the Old-Norse Eiríksmál, which was almost certainly composed in England very soon after 964, when Erik Bloodaxe, recently expulsed King of Northumbria, was slain on the road from Carlisle to York. In order to magnify Erik's posthumous renown in the world, the anonymous author of the poem apparently found it sufficient to show the god Odin asking Sigemund and Fitela themselves to welcome the slain king to Valhalla:

Sigmundr ok Sinfjotli!                    rísið snarliga
ok gangið                    í gøgn grami:
inn þú bjóð,                    ef Eiríkr


[Sigemund and Fitela! get up quickly and go meet the king: invite him in if he be Erik.]

We may accordingly imagine that, upon hearing Beowulf's exploits extolled in practically the same breath with those of these legendary Volsungs, a traditional Germanic audience would unconsciously have associated the glory of the former with the deeds of the latter, since human nature tends to decree virtue by association as easily as it decrees guilt by the same token.

Just as the names mentioned above place Beowulf squarely within the context of the Germanic tradition, so the several motifs recognizable in my outline—that is to say, these narrative situations and actions which transcend a particular story—do the same thing in respect to various episodes. The underwater fight and the depredations performed by a monster against some kind of human dwelling, for instance, have clear analogues in the otherwise vastly different story recounted in the fourteenth-century Grettis Saga, and analogues to one or the other episode are found in so many other Old-Norse sagas that Friedrich Klaeber observed that “the points of contact between [these] … and the Beowulf are unmistakable”7 and explained the similarities by positing ancient folk legends which were “circulated orally in the North” and “in the course of time … were attached to various persons,”8 including Beowulf. This explanation makes eminent sense, and I should personally hesitate to question its validity. Yet, there is more to be said if we look beyond the Germanic world and into one of the very most familiar episodes of the Odyssey. I am referring to the scene, in the ninth book, during which Odysseus kills the Cyclops Polyphemus in his cave just as Beowulf kills Grendel's mother in hers. Michael Nagler, who has analyzed comparatively the respective treatments of both killings, points out that “clearly each poet was dealing with the same theme,”9 and he thus provides us with a theme likely to hark all the way back to Indo-European times. I must insist, however, that Nagler's analysis detracts in no way from Klaeber's explanation, since there is absolutely no reason why a particular implementation of a theme should not be transmitted in the manner surmised by Klaeber. In this case, the implementation is typically Germanic insofar as it involves Germanic warriors behaving in accordance with Germanic values in a Germanic environment, but the thematic paradigm necessarily antedates the Germanic narrative tradition.

The same argument may be advanced in respect to the fourteenth-century Hrólfs Saga Kraka, which deals in part with the legend of the Scyldings and in which the visit of the hero Bothvar Bjarki to the Danish court is so reminiscent of Beowulf's own visit that the taunts which Unferth directs at the hero in the latter are matched by those of some of the king's men in the former and that Bothvar has been said to be “possibly … identical with Beowulf himself.”10 But then, we may recall from the discussion of the theme of the singer looking at his sources, in Chapter 6, that precisely the same thing happens to Odysseus under very similar circumstances when he is taunted by Laodamas and Euryalus during his visit to the Phaeacian court. We must accordingly reckon with the probability that what we have here is not only a fact of Germanic legend but also an oralformulaic theme possibly dating back to Indo-European. Similarly, the mention of the singer looking at his sources reminds us that Beowulf was the Old-English poem in which Creed identified that particular theme. Yet, had we known the theme from a different source, the mention of a song about the hero's exploit, in my outline, would certainly have alerted us to its presence in the poem. Because they are based on an extremely sketchy outline and can accordingly reveal only the most conspicuous features, the foregoing observations should underscore the fact that the oral-formulaic nature of Beowulf is obvious enough to be taken into account not only by experienced scholars but also by readers trying their hand at literary interpretation for the first time.

For the present purpose, another important feature of the poem stands out in the outline. Because the hero and his companions cross the sea twice and he dives into a pond in which he engages in a bloody fight, we may say that the text of the Grendel episode of Beowulf is replete with opportunities for the implementation of the theme of the hero on the beach; and the chances are that any ancient or modern audience familiar with Germanic oral-formulaic rhetoric would be cued to watch for that theme the moment when Beowulf orders a ship readied to take him and his companions overseas to rescue Hrothgar (198b-207a).

In actuality, the expected theme is implemented in its so-called “pure form” in a type-scene which begins with the very next line:

                                                                      XVna sum
sundwudu sohte;                    secg wisade,
lagucræftig mon,                    landgemyrcu.
                    Fyrst forð gewat.                    Flota wæs
on yðum,
bat under beorge.                    Beornas gearwe
on sfefn stigon;                    streamas wundon,
sund wið sande;                    secgas bæron
on bearm nacan                    beorhte frætwe,
guðsearo geatolic … 


[With fourteen others, he went to the boat; the man, a person wise in the ways of the sea, led the way to the shore. Time moved on. The vessel was afloat, the boat beneath the cliff. Without delay, the men embarked at the prow; the currents eddied, the water against the sand; the men carried their shining trappings, their splendid battle-gear into the bosom of the ship.]

Quite clearly we have here an instance of the theme in its so-called pure form: a hero on the beach (208b-209b) with his retainers (207b; 211b-215a) in the presence of a flashing light, here emanating from the shining equipment to which our attention is called twice in a row (214b; 215a), as a journey is begun (e.g., 207b-208a).

This particular occurrence of the theme has little to add to the factual expectations already raised in the audience by the preceding narrative, for nobody is likely to expect the outcome of Beowulf's expedition to be anything but slaughterous and no rhetorical device can do much to make us unconsciously aware of what we already know consciously. Yet, the occurrence has its affective impact, as may be assessed in the light of its immediate context. Until now, the poem has emphasized not only the brute horror of Grendel's slaughterous depredations but also the glaring contrast between the sheer energy of repeated action which they represent and the limp passivity with which the Danes submit to their humiliating plight. Grendel acts upon impulse and wastes no time doing so. No sooner has he discovered that the Danes are intent on spending their nights feasting loudly in the great hall (89a: “hludne in healle”) than his furor grows out of control in a manner which requires no explanation with those readers who have endured neighbors excessively fond of loud parties at night. Without waiting to consider the ethical implications of violence or even to devise a strategy, he goes into action and bursts into the hall under the cover of darkness. There he finds the human occupants, who have just now wound up that evening's beer party (117a: “æfter beorþege”) and are already sleeping it off right after the banquet (119a: “swefan æfter symble”). Without so much as a hint of pause or hesitation, he grabs thirty of them and is once again on his way home with his booty in five and one-half lines:

                                                                                Wiht unhælo,
grim ond grædig,                    gearo sona wæs,
reoc and reþe,                    ond on ræste genam
þritig þegna,                    þanon eft gewat
huðe hremig                    to ham faran,
mid þœre wælfylle                    wica neosan.


[The creature of destruction, fierce and ravenous, savage and furious, was quickly ready and grabbed thirty thanes from where they were sleeping; thence he departed to return home, exulting in his booty, to seek his abode with his fill of slaughtered bodies.]

Here, in powerful contrast to the immediately preceding image of the Danes peacefully sleeping in contented repletion, almost every other word suggests either fierce determination (e.g., “reoc and reþe” [“savage and furious”]) or instant action (e.g., “gearo sona wæs” [“was quickly ready”]), and the resulting sense of horrifying enthusiasm is brilliantly capped by the sight of Grendel's exultant delight in his own performance (“huðe hremig” [“exultant in his booty”]). For an audience attuned to oral-formulaic devices, incidentally, the tension of the scene is established at the outset with the mention of the Danes “sleeping after the banquet,” for this particular brand of inactivity has been identified as an oral-formulaic theme whose participants are usually about to meet their doom.11

Within four lines of Grendel's triumphant departure, the contrast is again impressed upon us when, at sunrise, the surviving Danes gather to assess the damage and find no better course of action than to indulge in loud lamentations (129a: “micel morgensweg”). Hrothgar is quintessential of the general paralysis. Whereas the situation obviously calls for action on the leader's part, he can only sit in sorrow (130b: “unbliðe sæt”) while passively suffering and enduring (131a-b: þolode … dreah”) a fate which obviously has him totally baffled. The poet sums up this situation by remarking that “the struggle was too strong, hateful, and longlasting” (133b-134a and again 191b-192a: wæs þæt gewin to strang, / lað ond longsum”).12 It is no wonder, then, that the next line should show Grendel hurrying in for a return engagement the night after (134b-137a), and it is characteristic that he should feel absolutely no remorse (136b; “ond no mearn fore”) for hitting so hard and so often warriors who do nothing to stop him and whose only active concern is to keep out of his way by whatever means (138a-143b).

Throughout the twelve years that this situation endures, Grendel is always seen doing things that require determination and quick action. Just as he was “quickly ready” to kill on the occasion of his first onslaught and had the stamina to repeat the grisly exploit the following night, so the only rest he ever takes thereafter is when he lies in wait to pounce upon his victims (161a: “seomade ond syrede”), and his life is accordingly described as a “constant strife” (154a: “singale sæce”). In contradistinction, the Danes are repeatedly seen engaging in activities which require neither determination nor quick action and which, in fact, do not always have definable beginnings and ends. Just as Hrothgar's response to Grendel's first raid was to “sit in sorrow” and to take no action, so the meetings which he presumably calls to find a solution are made to sound like continuous affairs unlikely to produce any serious plan or strategy:

                                                                      Monig oft gesæt
rice to rune;                    ræd eahtedon
hwæt swiðferhðum                    selest wære
wið færgryrum                    to gefremmanne.


[Many a powerful man sat often in council; they debated as to what might be best for strong-minded men to do in respect to the terror of sudden attacks.]

We are not surprised to learn that, despite these repeated meetings, Hrothgar spends his time continually brooding (190a: “singala seað”).

After more than a hundred lines (86a-193b) devoted primarily to impressing us with the contrast between Grendel's murderous energy and the disastrous passivity of the Danes' response, the account concludes with the statement that Hrothgar could do nothing whatsoever to turn aside the calamity which had been plaguing his people for so many years (189a-193b). It is at this point that Beowulf enters the poem, and in the space of only five and one-half lines learns of Grendel's depredations, decides to do something to put a stop to them, and has a ship readied to take him to Denmark (194a-199a). Through the mere act of ordering a boat to be readied, Beowulf accomplishes much more within these five and one-half lines of text and a few seconds of decision-making than Hrothgar and all his Danes have done in the preceding one hundred and eight lines and twelve years of indecision.

The swiftness of the operation is emphasized in two ways. In the first place, we are made to see Beowulf, in radical contrast to Hrothgar, sweeping into immediate action without giving the slightest hint of ever stopping to devise a plan of action or to consider the possible consequences of that action.13 In the second place, the structure of the passage illustrates a device which might be called “semantic gapping” for lack of a better term. We know that what linguists call “gapping constructions” (e.g., “John saw the dog and Mary the cat” instead of “John saw the dog, and Mary saw the cat”)14 shortens sentences by dropping the repetition of a verb without affecting its semantic function, and they can thus give the action an appearance of rapidity. With what I have called “semantic gapping,” an entire unit of meaning is dropped with the same result. A thought whose expression might have required a whole sentence or even several sentences remains unstated, but we nevertheless assume its nature because the rest of the message would be incomplete without it. In the case of the passage under consideration, we should expect the sequence of utterances to make us see Beowulf (a) learning about Grendel's depredations, (b) making up his mind to go fight the monster, and (c) accordingly ordering a ship readied to take him to Denmark. Instead, we are presented with (a) a statement of his learning about Grendel's depredations, (b) a parenthetical digression about his being the strongest man in the world, and (c) a statement of his ordering a ship to be prepared:

Þæt fram ham gefrægn                    Higelaces þegn,
god mid Geatum,                    Grendles dæda;
se wæs moncynnes                    mægenes strengest
on þæm dæge                    þysses lifes,
æþele ond eacen.                    Het him yðlidan
godne gegyrwan … 


[In his homeland, Hygelac's thane, excellent among the Geats, learned about Grendel's deeds; on that day of this life, he was the mightiest in strength among mankind, enormous and noble. He ordered a good ship to be prepared for him …]

Not only does the omitted statement speed up the action, but it also drives home from the start the contrast between Beowulf and Hrothgar. Whereas the old Danish king has repeatedly proceeded from information to deliberation and unfailingly stopped short of action, the young Geatish warrior skips over deliberation to charge directly from information into action.

The passage under consideration does more than contrast the energy of youth to the limpness of age; it forces us to look at Beowulf in relation to Grendel. In the first place, its structure plainly matches that of the passage which has introduced Grendel and his original raid some hundred lines earlier. There, we should have expected to be told that the monster (a) learned through firsthand experience that the sounds of nightly Danish revelry in Heorot were revolting to him, (b) made up his mind to take the matter in hand and put an end to the offending noises while treating himself to a good meal, and (c) accordingly moved in on the hall. Instead, exactly as with the passage which introduces Beowulf, the implementation has satisfied our initial and concluding expectations (86a-98b and 115a-116a) but has replaced the middle one by a parenthetical digression, in this case on Grendel's descent from biblical giants and sundry other monsters. The structure common to both passages is reminiscent of a syllogism whose second premise had been replaced by a statement unconnected to the logical process. In addition, just as we have seen Beowulf introduced as “Hygelac's thane” (194b) rather than by name, so Grendel is introduced as “the bold demon” (86a: “se ellengæst”) rather than by name. The parallels between the two passages may quite conceivably betoken the use of a common oral-formulaic theme,15 but they are much too obvious to pass unnoticed. In the second place, the digression at the center of each passage emphasizes precisely the same quality of physical strength in Beowulf and Grendel, respectively: just as the human hero is “the mightiest in strength among mankind” (196a-b), so his prospective antagonist is a “savage demon” (102a: “grimma gæst”) related to the “giants who struggled against God a long time” (113a-114a: “gigantas, þa wið gode wunnon / lange þrage”), and we shall later be reminded that “he was bigger than any other man” (1353a-b: “he wæs mare þonne ænig man oðer”). In other words, Beowulf is to good what Grendel is to evil. Like the positive and negative of the same picture, the two are perfectly matched, and it is only fitting that, just as the monster always fights “alone against all” (154a: “ana wið eallum”), so his human opponent should vow to face the giant alone (425b-426a: “ana gehegan / ðing wið þyrse”).

Positive and negative must perforce adhere to the same structure, but they are nevertheless the opposite of each other. This fact is essential to our grasp of the relationship between Grendel and Beowulf and is impressed upon us immediately after the latter has ordered that a boat be prepared to take him to Denmark. On the very next line (199a-201b) the premise missing from the pseudo-syllogism discussed above reappears to tell us how and why he decides to undertake the adventure:

                    [Beowulf] cwæð                    he
ofer swanrade                    secean wolde,
mærne þeoden,                    þa him wæs manna þearf.


[(Beowulf) said that he intended to seek the war-king, the famous prince (i.e., Hrothgar), over the swan-road, since he had need of men.]

The statement stands out in our mind because it answers a question to which logic had led us to expect an answer three lines earlier; and it drives home the radical difference between Grendel and Beowulf by stating what we have already assumed: whereas the latter has traveled to Heorot to destroy, the former is about to travel there to mend, and the negative-positive relationship between the two is now clear in every respect.

Against this background the occurrence of the theme of the hero on the beach affects us through three suggestive aspects thereof, even though it adds no major factual information to what we already know. In the first place, it reinforces our expectation of a bloody struggle between Beowulf and Grendel, since we have already noted that the theme usually occurs before a scene of carnage or at least a mention thereof. In the second place, it also reinforces our natural but necessarily tentative expectation that good will triumph over evil, since the hero of the theme usually emerges victorious from the ensuing struggle.16 In the third place, it lends the whole affair an air of immediacy because the recorded instances of subsequent carnage tend to take place soon after the relevant occurrences of the theme rather than in some vague and distant future;17 and, within the poem, Beowulf will in fact come face to face with Grendel in fewer than forty-eight hours. Against the information which has ushered in the occurrence of the theme, the cumulative effect of these three suggestive aspects is to initiate a tension which might otherwise not develop until later. Because of the associations which the theme triggers in our mind, the embarkation scene affects us no longer as a mere prelude to a bloody struggle that will eventually take place at a different time in a different location, but rather as an initial step in that struggle. In other words, the counteraction to Grendel's abominable actions has become operative, and the audience is swept along in a chain of events which may no longer be stopped.

Even though fewer than forty-eight hours elapse between the embarkation and the fight with Grendel, over five hundred lines—or nearly a half-hour of listening or reading aloud—intervene between the conclusion of the type-scene (215a) and the beginning of that fight (739a), so that we should expect the initial impact of the theme to be considerably, if not totally, blunted by the time the anticipated slaughter finally takes place. Quite on the contrary, the poet has succeeded in repeatedly boosting that impact in such a way as to keep the tension mounting until the very last moment. This narrative feat is accomplished through the recurrence of type-scenes embodying the theme as well as through the periodic appearance of various sources of flashing light which keep the idea of that theme alive in our mind.

The first recurrence takes place, not surprisingly, as the Geats complete their crossing some twenty-four hours later (219a-b). As they near the Danish coast, the very first thing to come within their ken is the line of shining cliffs: “… ða liðende land gesawon, / brimclifu blican” (221a-222a [“the voyagers caught sight of the land, of the sea-cliffs shining”]). Because associations readily take place in the reader's or listener's mind while remaining unstated in the text, a given implementation of a theme may prove perfectly clear while omitting key elements which have to be supplied by the audience in accordance with the principles outlined earlier in connection with semantic gapping. In the present case, the text makes no mention of the hero, but the initial type-scene has told us only a few lines earlier (207b-209a) that Beowulf was leading the expedition, so that we automatically provide the missing element by assuming his unmentioned presence aboard ship, and we accordingly have a perfectly clear implementation of the theme, though not in its so-called “pure form.” The affective result is that, as we come within sight of the land where Grendel performs his bloody deeds, we are again presented with an unmistakable instance of a familiar narrative device which signals carnage, and the tension increases accordingly.

Motion-picture and television viewers need not be told that the tension attendant upon an approaching struggle tends to be most keenly felt when the audience is made to see the approach from the respective points of view of both the entity which approaches and that which is approached. This principle is illustrated in a third implementation of the theme of the hero on the beach. We have just now been made to see the telltale flashing light from the point of view of Beowulf and his companions as their ship approaches the cliffs, and we are suddenly made to turn around one hundred and eighty degrees to look from those same cliffs at the Geats landing on the beach. As we do so, we notice from the point of view of a Danish coast guard the shining shields carried by the sailors as they disembark, and we are thus provided with the necessary cue to reconstruct the theme in our mind, although the text makes no explicit mention of the hero, or his retainers, or the voyage, or even the beach, and we must supply these things from the preceding scenes:

Þa of wealle geseah                    weard Scildinga,
se þe holmclifu                    healdan scolde,
beran ofer bolcan                    beorhte randas,
fyrdsearu fuslicu.


[Then from the wall the Scyldings' watchman, he whose duty it was to guard the sea-cliffs, noticed shining shields, the battle-gear at the ready, being carried over the gangway.]

We have thus had three implementations of the theme in a row, and each one has included fewer of the required elements than the one before. We have started out with a neat type-scene incorporating the theme in its “pure form,” with explicit mentions of a hero with his retainers, on a beach, at the outset of a journey, in the presence of a flashing light; we have then proceeded to a second implementation in which the expected mention of the hero has been omitted, and we have ended with a third implementation in which everything except the flashing light has been left out. Since all three implementations take place within a mere twenty-five lines and the previous section of the narrative has thoroughly familiarized us with the situation at hand, we deserve scant credit for being able to supply the missing elements on demand. The process, however, is important because, in a manner of speaking, it forces us to participate actively in the composition of the very poem which we are reading or to which we are listening. The principle is a familiar one for anyone acquainted with those Impressionist or Late-Roman paintings which leave out details which our mind supplies because we naturally assume their presence although our eyes do not see them. With literature as with painting, the likely result is that we become so personally involved with the process of creation that we are unwittingly prompted to become part of the action. In the present case, the device further prepares us to associate subsequent flashes of light with the theme of the hero on the beach and thus to keep the affective impetus going.

A well-trained craftsman working within a firm tradition will often implement certain requirements of that tradition without questioning their significance, and we may accordingly doubt that every Greek stonecutter carving eggs and darts around a temple wasted much time pondering the message which each of these would convey to the onlookers. By the same token, it would be difficult to determine whether the Beowulf-poet was fully conscious of the affective potential of the theme or whether he was simply implementing it because the situation traditionally called for this particular narrative device. It would likewise be difficult to determine whether subsequent occurrences of a flashing light must be considered conscious attempts at keeping the theme going or simply happen to be here because the contents of the narrative make their presence unavoidable. This compound uncertainty need not affect our interpretation any more than the fact that Molière's Mr. Jourdain never knew that he was speaking prose until his teacher of philosophy enlightened him18 should prevent us from placing the label of prose on his previous utterances. In addition, we need not be uncertain about what we hear or see on the page, even if we do not know how it came to be there. In the present case, the picture of the shining sea-cliffs is so conspicuous that we cannot miss it, and the flashing quality of the trappings and shields which alert us to the other two occurrences of the theme of the hero on the beach is unmistakably brought out by the repeated use of the adjective “shining” (214a; 231b: “beorhte”).

With these observations in mind, we may now glance at the return journey, which forms a natural companion piece to the journey which we have examined and offers a revealing contrast to the techniques therein. Because Hrothgar has showered upon the Geats all kinds of gifts made of precious metal, the opportunities for calling attention to flashing objects are practically endless, so that we should expect the poet to return to his earlier technique and make repeated use of the adjective “shining” and various equivalents. But the situation is different because Beowulf has killed both Grendel and Grendel's mother and there is no more prospect of immediate slaughter awaiting him at the end of the journey. As a result, the conventions of oral-formulaic rhetoric no longer call for the theme of the hero on the beach, even though the sea that must be sailed and the beaches that must be trod are the very same which we have seen Beowulf and his companions sail and tread at the outset of the adventure.

In this light, it seems worth noting that, as the Geats tread once again the Danish beach where their boat has been waiting for them, the text makes nine separate mentions of situations or objects which ought to be sources of flashing light: Beowulf is “proud with gold” (1881a: “gold-wlanc”) and “exultant in treasure” (1882a: “since hremig”); he and his companions “in bright armor” (1895a: “scirhame”) are wearing “coats of mail” (1889b: “hringnet”) and corslets (1890a: “leoðosyrcan”); the ship is loaded with “precious things” (1898a: “maðmum”) and “stored-up treasures” (1899b: “hordgestreonum”); and the coast guard receives a “sword bound with gold” (1900b-1901a: “bunden golde / swurd”), which is compared to a treasure (1902b: “maðme”). Yet, only one among the nine includes an explicit reference to the process of emitting light; and that one is the adjective scirham, which I have translated as “in bright armor” in keeping with common practice, but whose literal meaning is “with a bright (or clear) covering” and which seems to suggest little beyond the fact that the person thus qualified wears some kind of metal armor.19 In the other eight cases, the presence or absence of the latent flash is left for us to determine if we think of it. This observation would be unquestionably and totally insignificant if it were not for the fact that the particular lack of explicit formulation to which it calls attention stands in contrast not only with the technique evident in the three implementations of the theme of the hero on the beach discussed above but also with the practice constantly illustrated in subsequent implementations, which will be examined presently.

The extent of this contrast becomes manifest if we read on or listen for only eight more lines to make the homeward crossing with the Geats and share their first sight of the approaching coastline. Except for one detail, the picture evoked is an exact counterpart of the picture which we were asked to imagine when they were shown approaching the Danish coast (“the voyagers caught sight of the land, of the sea-cliffs shining”), and it is likewise conveyed by (a) a statement of what is seen, followed by (b) an appositive which tells us something about what we are seeing: “they could make out the cliffs of the Geats, the familiar promontories” (1911a-1912a: “… hie Geata clifu ongitan meahton, / cuþe næssas”). The missing detail is, of course, the shining quality which made the appearance of the Danish cliffs so striking over sixteen hundred lines earlier and which alerted us to the presence of the theme. We may further wish to note that, as the Geats actually set foot on their homeland, their arrival is observed by a coast guard (1914a-1916b) just as their arrival in Denmark was observed by a coast guard, but this time the text includes no mention or even suggestion of any kind of flashing equipment. Just as we need only give enough monkeys enough typewriters and we are bound to find a Shakespeare sooner or later, so the foregoing similarities and contrasts could conceivably be attributed to sheer coincidence; but this coincidence would not alter the fact that the key component of the theme of the hero on the beach is stressed when the presence of that theme is required by the conventions of oral-formulaic rhetoric and is either left to our imagination or completely omitted when these conventions no longer require the theme.

The principle formulated above is illustrated over and over again between the landing in Denmark and the fight with Grendel. As the Geats walk away from the beach, our attention is made to focus on the golden boar images gleaming on their helmets:

                                                                      Eoforlic scionon
ofer hleorberan                    gehroden golde,
fah ond fyreheard.


[Boar images adorned with gold gleamed above the cheek-guards, shining and fire-hardened.]

A similar technique comes into play a few lines later, when Beowulf and his companions catch their first glimpse of their goal and the gleaming quality of the great hall is explicitly stressed three times in a row. We are told that it is “gleaming with gold” (308a: “goldfah”), that it is “shining” (313a: “torht”), and that its radiance is such that it shines “over many lands” (311a-b: “lixte se leoma ofer landa fela”). As the Geats pause in front of Heorot, the emphasis falls squarely on the luster of their byrnies (321b: “Guðbyrne scan”) and the brightness of the iron rings in their corslets (322b: “hringiren scir”). Since those flashes which do not occur by the beach occur as the travelers reach the door of Heorot—which we have seen in Chapter 6 to satisfy the same formulaic requirement as a beach—we again have all the components of the theme of the hero on the beach, and it should be noted that the theme thus occurs with particular vigor as we reach the building in which Beowulf will shed Grendel's blood that very night.

No sooner have the Geats crossed the threshold into the hall than the text once again calls attention to the brightness of Beowulf's byrnie (405b: “on him byrne scan”). Thus, just as we were earlier made to notice first the shining cliffs as the Geats were approaching the shore and then the shining shields carried by the same Geats as they were landing on the beach, so we have now been made to notice first the gloriously shining hall from the outside as the Geats were approaching it and then the shining byrnie worn by Beowulf as he stands facing Hrothgar inside the hall. We may therefore say that, in similar structural situations, the handling of the theme is remarkably consistent, and I believe that this consistency helps keep the impetus going.

By now, we are so conditioned by occurrences of the theme reiterated in narrative layers superimposed under parallel circumstances and indicated by explicit mentions of various kinds of flashing lights that any subsequent mention of any sort of light is likely to affect us as would another instance of the theme itself. This kind of association is likely to take place, for example, when Beowulf introduces himself to Hrothgar by stating his intention to put an end to the incursions which Grendel regularly makes after the “evening light” (413b: “æfenleoht”) has died out; and this mention of light appropriately occurs five lines before the summary of an adventure during which the hero encountered and slaughtered several sea monsters (419a-424a), and ten and one-half lines before his rather truculent request that he may face Grendel in single combat (424b-432b). The association is again likely to take place when Hrothgar, in his reply to Beowulf, tells of one of Grendel's raids and describes the gory state of Heorot the morning after, “when the day shone” (485b: “þonne dæg lixte”); and the same principle applies when the Danes eventually retire for the night and leave the Geats in Heorot to await Grendel's onslaught “after they could no longer see the light of the sun” (648a-b: “siððan hie sunnan leoht geseon ne meahton”).

In the immediately foregoing cases, semantic gapping has been carried to the extreme insofar as one single component of the theme—even though it has consistently been the key component—has served to keep the momentum of the original impact alive. We should note that, whether this technique be used wittingly or otherwise, it has the effect of forcing the audience into active reading or listening. The cues are perfectly clear, and a properly trained audience has only one way to interpret them, but they nevertheless require interpretation, however automatic and elementary, and the process entails at least some kind of creative involvement on our part. There is no difficulty involved, but neither are we spoonfed a predigested narrative.

The process whereby the impact of the theme of the hero on the beach is sustained in our mind by strategically located mentions of flashing lights is reinforced by three additional implementations thereof which take us all the way to the beginning of the expected bloodshed. The first two depart palpably from the “pure form” of the theme but nevertheless contribute to the tension by keeping the concept of slaughter foremost in our mind. The first of these is found in the reply which Beowulf makes to Unferth's taunts in Heorot and in which he claims to have once killed nine sea monsters (557b-558b and 574a-575a) who—in a manner reminiscent of Grendel's way of doing things—had planned on eating him near the bottom of the water (562a-564b). No sooner had he achieved his victory at sea, he tells us, than “light came from the East, the shining beacon of God” (569b-570a: “Leoht eastan com, / beorht beacen godes”) and the shoreline loomed ahead of him (571a-572a). Although the hero's retainers are nowhere in sight, we have here a type-scene which includes the other three components of our theme (a sea voyage, a flashing light, and a shoreline), but the order is askew insofar as the expected slaughter is mentioned along with the theme which should normally precede it. The second type-scene occurs a little later in the same reply, as Beowulf proclaims that he will prove more of a match for Grendel than the Danes have ever been. Because he begins this particular part of his speech with a mention of Grendel's unopposed slaughter of Danes (590a-601a), the order is again askew, and, because he is sitting at a banquet table in Heorot, the usual connection between the action and some kind of boundary between two worlds is missing. Yet, we know that he speaks in the presence of both the Danes and his own companions and that he has arrived and entered the hall just a little earlier, so that we have our theme before us the instant he provides us with the needed flash of light by assuring all present that the long-drawn ordeal will finally be over on the next morning, “when the morning light …, the brightly clothed sun will shine from the south” (604b-606b: “siþþan morgen leoht / …, / sunne sweglwered suþan scineð”).

The last implementation of the theme before the encounter with Grendel deserves special attention, not merely because it takes us to the event which we have been relentlessly approaching with mounting anticipation for more than five hundred lines, but especially because the effectiveness with which it triggers in the audience a sense of absolute terror at the approach of the unknown is unlikely ever to be surpassed in literature. The fact that the Geats have only this day arrived in Denmark has remained fresh in our minds throughout the preceding narrative, and no sooner have the Danes vacated Heorot for the night than we are specifically reminded of the presence of two other components of the theme. Although there is no mention of the boundary between two worlds, we are made to hear the hero stating once more his intentions (677a-687b) before lying down to rest (688a-689a) along with his companions (689b-690b), and the presence of both is stressed one last time when we are told that victory will be granted to all of them through the might of a single one (696b-700a). It is at this point that, after only a two-line parenthesis to the effect that the outcome of human affairs rests in the hands of God (700b-702a), we are made to sense Grendel's approach. I am using the verb “to sense” instead of the more usual “to see” because the episode takes place at night and we do not, in fact, see anything at all. Furthermore, we have thus far been given no description of Grendel, although we have seen his bloody work and have gathered that he is an oversized and monstrous creature, so that we cannot even rely on hearsay to imagine in our mind's eye what the darkness of night hides from our actual sight.

This unsettling uncertainty is compounded by the fact that we do not know whence the monster will come. We have learned that he lives in the darkness (87b: “þe se in þystrum bad”) and keeps to the moors (103b: “se þe moras heold”), but this information does not tell us whether he is approaching from the front, the rear, or the side. We must also remember that all previous mentions of Grendel have been outside the time frame of the poem. We have been told that he had come and slaughtered, but not that he was coming now, because his incursions had either taken place before the beginning of the story proper or been mentioned by characters in the story who were discussing actions already completed. As already noted, we have been made to imagine the gory spectacle he left behind after each incursion, but the very fact that we could imagine such a spectacle must by definition emphasize the fact that the action was over. In brief, we have thus been made to feel the horror of witnessing the aftermath of slaughter, but we have not felt the terror that comes from imagining ourselves on the targeted spot as the agent of destruction approaches.

This time, however, things are different. Grendel is now coming at us, and we are made to sense his coming inexorably nearer and nearer with each successive statement of his approach:

                                                                                          Com on wanre niht
Scriðan sceadugenga.                    Sceotend swæfan,
þa þæt hornreced                    healdan scoldon,
ealle buton anum.                    Þæt wæs yldum
þæt hie ne moste,                    þa metod nolde,
se scynscaþa                    under sceadu bregdan;
ac he wæccende                    wraþum on andan
bad bolgenmod                    beadwa geþinges.
Da com of more                    under misthleoþum
Grendel gongan,                    godes yrre bær;
mynte se manscaða                    manna cynnes
sumne besyrwan                    in sele þam hean.
Wod under wolcnum                    to þæs þe he winreced,
goldsele gumena,                    gearwost wisse,
fættum fahne.                    Ne wæs þæt forma
þat he Hroþgares                    ham gesohte;
næfre he on aldordagum                    ær ne siþðan
heardran hæle,                    healþegnas fand.
Com þa to recede                    rinc siðian
dreamum bedæled.                    Duru sona onarn,
fyrbendum fæst,                    syþðan he hire folmum æthran;
onbræd þa bealohydig,                    ða he gebolgen
recedes muþan.                    Raþe æfter þon
on fagne flor                    feond treddode,
eode yrremod;                    him of eagum stod
ligge gelicost                    leoht unfæger.


[The walker in darkness came sweeping through the dark night. The warriors—all but one—slept, those who were there to hold the gabled hall. It was known to men that the demoniac foe could not drag them away under the shadows as long as the Lord did not wish it; but he (i.e., Beowulf), watching in fierce anger, waited with enraged heart for the issue of battle. Then, out of the moor, came Grendel moving under the misty slopes: he bore the wrath of God; the murderous foe intended to ensnare one of the human beings in the high hall. He advanced under the clouds toward the place where he most readily knew the wine-hall, the gold-chamber of men, to stand adorned with gold plates. It was not the first time that he had sought Hrothgar's home; never at any time in his life-days did he come upon harder luck or hardier hall-thanes. The warlike one, deprived of joy, came hastening to the hall. Instantly the door, fastened with fire-forged bands, burst open at the touch of his hands; enraged and intent on destruction, he wrenched the hall's mouth wide open. Quickly thereupon, the attacker stepped on the ornate floor, he moved on with anger in his heart; an ugly light came from his eyes, most like a flame.]

The cumulative impact of these successive pictures of destruction on the move lends the account an affective power which the intended readers or listeners must necessarily feel almost as if they were there, and the techniques behind this descriptive feat have been brilliantly analyzed by Arthur Brodeur20 and by Greenfield. I am quoting a brief passage from the latter because it neatly sums up the phenomenon and the mechanics of its implementation:

The … scene … is a brilliant tableau. The three forces that are soon to be brought into collision in combat are presented here as separated, each with its own attitude and behavior toward the impending event. The walker-in-darkness is on the march, his murderous intentions implicit in the association with night and darkness; the warriors are sleeping, believing that the monster will, if God so wills, have no power to harm them; Beowulf is watching, enraged and anticipating the outcome of battle. These differences are rendered poetically effective by the syntactical, metrical, and rhetorical patterns in which they are rooted.21

Two additional observations are called for in relation to the theme of the hero on the beach. The first is that Grendel's crossing of the threshold between his outdoor world of the wild and our own indoor world of comfort and civilization has provided the mention of a boundary which we noted a little earlier as missing, and the sight of the ugly light shining from his eyes provides the last component still needed to complete the theme.22 The second is that, just as we were earlier made to experience the approach to the Danish shore both from the point of view of the approaching Geats and from that of a coast guard on the shore being approached, so we have now been made to experience Grendel's approach both from the point of view of the target being approached (702b, 710a, 720a: “com” [“he came”]) and from that of the monster himself (714a: “wod” [“he advanced”]).

In addition to providing yet another instance of the consistent manner in which the poet handles separate implementations of the theme under similar circumstances, these observations illustrate once again the affective mastery behind the composition. As we sense Grendel coming upon us through the darkness, we need very little willing suspension of disbelief to experience all the terror attendant upon the apprehension of looming destruction at the hands of the monstrous unknown. As we are made to shift camp and turn around to recognize the target for slaughter which we are now approaching with him, we feel the horror of having become, so to speak, the agent as well as the target of that destruction. For readers or listeners steeped in the oral-formulaic tradition, however, it must be with the mention of the ugly light flashing from Grendel's eyes that the tension reaches its peak. Since Germanic halls were equipped with neither large windows nor night-long illumination, we must imagine the darkness inside Heorot as far too opaque to let us see much of what is going on. We may conceivably have caught a glimpse of Grendel as he sent the door crashing down and his silhouette stood momentarily outlined against the presumably lighter night outside. Yet, since he makes a detour to gulp down a Geat (739a-745a) before attacking Beowulf, he must by definition move out of the line between the gaping door and whatever position we imagine ourselves occupying, so that the silhouette vanishes instantly into the dark and we can see no more of the monster than do the occupants of the hall. Under these conditions, the only thing they can see is, of course, the ugly light flashing from his eyes. In other words, the exact shape of the monster remains unknown until Beowulf begins grappling for life with him, and the one thing which we are allowed to see is that flash which stands out inescapably against the ambient blackness and happens to be the key component of a theme which has been present with increasing intensity since the beginning of the action and which we associate with impending slaughter. In view of the mystery which surrounds Grendel, incidentally, it is interesting to note that the one thing which Beowulf emphasizes with undisguised pride when he accounts for the event in front of the Danes is the fact that he and his companions “boldly braved the might of the unknown” (959b-960a: “frecne geneðdon / eafoð uncuþes”).

Whether fully intended or partially accidental, the way in which the flashing light is made to stand out against a background of stark blackness is a masterstroke of affective rhetoric insofar as the impact upon the audience comes from the context of the immediate action as well as from the implications of a familiar theme, and the total effect is stronger than the sum of its two parts experienced separately. The handling of the materials is typical, since the poet reveals a decided fondness for making us focus on a small detail which stands for something larger. When the Geats were setting out for Denmark, we were made to look at those small eddies (212b-213a) which usually take place along the hulls of beached ships as the waves surge forward and then retreat over the sand. As Beowulf and Grendel grapple with each other for life, we are made to focus on the single detail of fingers bursting under the formidable pressure of adversary grip (760b: “fingras burston”); and as Beowulf tears off Grendel's arm, the focus shifts on the very point where the sinews burst and the bones separate as a wound opens at the shoulder joint:

                                                                      …                    him on eaxle wearð
syndolh sweotol,                    seonowe onsprungon,
burston banlocan.


[… a gaping wound appeared on his shoulder, the sinews sprang apart, the bone-joints burst.]

The merciless nature of the struggle is impressed upon us because, instead of being asked to see the whole scene from a distance, we are forced to concentrate at close range on a few gruesome details which epitomize the action.

The technique so effectively implemented here is that of the close-up on the motion-picture screen. It consists in concentrating on one or two paradigmatic details instead of stretching the field of vision to encompass the entire action; and modern readers may recall that it was precisely this kind of selectivity that Antoine de Saint Exupéry most admired in the art of Joseph Conrad.23 As a result of these close-ups, the readers or listeners find themselves at the very center of the action rather than merely observing it from a safe distance; and few things are likely to inspire more terror than finding oneself on the very spot where the sinews spring and the bones break, even if our familiarity with the theme of the hero on the beach tells us that the human hero will in all probability emerge victorious from the bloody struggle.

An examination of every flashing light in the poem would belong to a monograph on the subject rather than to a general introduction to oral-formulaic rhetoric, but a cursory glance at two additional occurrences seems warranted to show that the theme of the hero on the beach also occurs in conjunction with the two remaining great crises in Beowulf's life: the fight with Grendel's mother at the bottom of a pond and the hero's ultimate fight, this time with a dragon, near the end of the poem, more than fifty years later. As Beowulf prepares to dive into the pond in pursuit of his enemy, he has just completed the journey from Heorot to the spot where he now stands (1400b-1421b), he is in the presence of both Geats and Danes (e.g., 1412a-1413b), he stands on the bank of a body of water (e.g., 1416b), and he is given a sword which is described as either ornamented or flashing, depending on how we wish to interpret the adjective “fah” (1459b), so that we have here a type-scene which embodies all the elements of the theme. The fight proper takes place at the bottom of the pond but in a cave that acts like a kind of diving bell to keep the water out (1512b-1516a), so that he is in effect standing by a small underground beach, and the very first thing which he notices is a “firelight, a clear flame, shining brightly” (1516b-1517b: “fyrleoht … / blacne leoman, beorhte scinan”). Furthermore, just as we may recall having heard Beowulf nearly a thousand lines earlier tell of his youthful adventures at sea and claim that he had no sooner killed nine monsters in the water than light flashed from the east (569b-570a), so now a light flashes as soon as he has killed Grendel's mother; and the metrical formula which conveys the fact—“Lixte se leoma” (1570a)—is word-for-word the same which was used to convey the glory of Heorot (311a) and forms the left-hand hemistich in both cases. If, in addition, we note that Beowulf kills his opponent with a sword which he finds in the cave and we happen to recall that the killing of a man-eating monster in a cave with a weapon found there in the presence of a fire has been identified as a theme of its own,24 we must once again be impressed by both the density of oral-formulaic elements in the poem and the consistent manner in which they are used.

The presence of the theme of the hero on the beach in connection with Beowulf's last fight is likewise easily detectable. Beowulf and twelve of his warriors have just now made the trip from his home to the dragon's lair (2401a-2412a), and he addresses them before going into action alone (2510a-2537b). He then advances near the opening of the dragon's cave and stands by a stream which flows from it (2538a-2546a) and is “hot with battle-fire” (2547a: “heaðufyrum hat”) and the “dragon's flame” (2549b: “dracan lege”). Finally, the dragon comes out “burning” (2569a: “byrnande”), and the fight is on. Because the action is interrupted by an account of two different killings and of some of Beowulf's earlier feats, we do not have a type-scene, but we nevertheless have all the components of the theme.

Since the theme usually precedes the hero's victory, the modern reader may feel justifiably puzzled when Beowulf dies of his wounds after having killed the dragon. I believe that the intended audience would probably have reacted quite differently. In the first place, we are warned from the start that the hero will lose his life in the struggle:

                                        …                    wyrd [wæs]
ungemete neah,
se ðone gomelan                    gretan scolde,
secean sawle hord,                    sundur gedælan
lif wið lice,                    no þon lange wæs
feorh æþelinges                    flæsce bewunden.


[… fate was immeasurably near, that which must come to the old man, seek out the soul's treasure, tear the life from the body; not for long would the nobleman's life remain confined in flesh.]

And we are soon reminded of the warning when Beowulf utters a traditional battle boast “for the last time” (2511a: “niehstan siðe”) and addresses his companions likewise “for the last time” (2517b; “hindeman siðe”). In the second place, Beowulf has to be a very old man, since he was clearly beyond childhood when he fought with Grendel, and we have learned that he subsequently served his own king as well as that king's successor for an unspecified but presumably substantial period before ascending the throne and reigning for fifty years (2208b-2210a); and we need not turn to formal statistics to know that old men—even experienced early-mediaeval monster slayers—stand a poor chance of surviving an encounter with a fire-spewing dragon. In the third place—and this is the real point—Beowulf's death is a victory. Not only does he die in killing a dragon and thereby saving the kingdom from impending destruction, but he wins a treasure for his people in the process. In so doing, he becomes an ideal Germanic king—a “protector of noblemen” (æðelinga helm) and a “dispenser of treasure” (sinces brytta)—and it is accordingly no wonder that his dying words should be to thank God for the triumph which has been granted him:

Ic ðara frætwa                    frean ealles ðanc,
wuldurcyninge,                    wordum secge,
ecum dryhtne,                    þe ic her on starie,
þæs ðe ic moste                    minum leodum
ær swyltdæge                    swylc gestrynan.


[To the Ruler, to the King of Glory, to the Eternal Lord, I say thanks with words for all of the treasures on which I look here, for the fact that I was permitted to acquire such things for my people before my death-day.]

The foregoing analysis has obviously been superficial, and I may well have interpreted an occasional word—for instance, the adjective fah, which I have usually translated as “shining,” but which also means “adorned” and various other things—in a way with which other Anglo-Saxonists would disagree and which may differ from the meaning intended by the poet or from that understood by the original audience. Yet, if we accept the premise that the supporting evidence has not been fabricated from scratch, logic requires that we also accept the contention that the theme of the hero on the beach plays a detectable affective role in Beowulf. If we are willing to grant this contention or even to entertain its feasibility, we should then take note of a key aspect of my analysis. Although I mentioned various analogues of Beowulf and listed the names of certain historical and legendary characters to establish the Germanic quality of the poem, and although Chapter 6 discussed occurrences of the theme in other poems for the sake of defining its nature and the circumstances under which it usually occurs, the analysis proper has relied on absolutely no specific text or person or historical event outside of the poem to inform the interpretation. In so doing, it has departed radically from the more conventional techniques illustrated in the first two chapters with the discussion of Thomas Farber's story of Mad Dog and of Langston Hughes's I, Too, Sing America. Of the five kinds of context mentioned at the close of Chapter 1, the historical context has been entirely disregarded, and the empirical context within the text has been repeatedly invoked, while both the empirical context outside the text and the objective context which we ourselves provide have been replaced by the oral-formulaic context in order to provide the subjective context which we ourselves bring to the interpretation.

This kind of one-sided analysis is necessarily incomplete insofar as it leaves out much information which might inform our interpretation. I should personally be much happier if I could also approach the poem as we approached I, Too, Sing America, but we have already seen that we can only guess at the locations where composition might have taken place and that the dates proposed vary by several hundred years. This situation further means that we have no means of ascertaining the specific social context within which composition actually took place or what specific oral or written texts constituted the literary luggage of the audience and the poet. Even the facts concerning the historical characters of the poem are too nebulous to afford us much help, so that the oral-formulaic approach provides us with the only empirically ascertainable context likely to inform our interpretation of the text.

My position does not imply that we should not consider the other contexts as well, but that we should keep in mind that they are by definition hypothetical in most respects and occasions. Even Theodore Andersson, who has formulated a particularly brilliant and useful argument in support of what he calls the “Virgilian Heritage” of Beowulf, must warn us that we have here a “much less clear-cut case” than with certain Mediaeval-Latin epics, partly because “there is too much evidence to ignore and too little to decide the case to everyone's satisfaction.”25 Nor am I suggesting that the tension which I have pointed out in the Grendel episode can be apprehended exclusively through the oral-formulaic approach, and Edward Irving's classic study of the poem has made it amply clear that we need not be practitioners of that approach—or of any one approach, for that matter—in order to sense the power of the narrative.26 Professional students of Old English, for example, will know that Robinson, whose approach to the poem is anything but oral-formulaic, calls attention to certain uses of compounds which, very much like what I have called semantic gapping, “seem to achieve their effect by a simple juxtaposing of independent elements, with the reader being left to infer the relationship of the two and their composite meaning.”27

What I am saying is that, even if we had at our disposal enough external facts to approach Beowulf as we do a modern text, we should nevertheless do well to give the oral-formulaic approach its due simply because an understanding of a given rhetorical system is necessary to grasp certain aspects of works composed within that system. In brief, although I emphatically do not believe that the oral-formulaic approach to Beowulf should be practiced to the exclusion of any other approach which may contribute to our interpretation, I concur with Creed when he admonishes us not “to ignore the traditional elements which are the very fabric of the poem.”28

In view of my position, I must emphasize once more that the kind of analysis which I have tried on the Grendel episode does not presuppose that Beowulf was composed orally, although it assumes composition by a poet thoroughly versed in the traditional devices of oral-formulaic composition and composing for an intended audience likely to appreciate them. Knowing for certain that the extant text or an immediate predecessor thereof was composed orally in front of a live audience would undeniably help explain some features which may affect our interpretation in a peripheral way,29 and knowing for certain that it was composed with pen and ink in the seclusion of a cell would explain others,30 but I have purposefully steered clear from such concerns in order to concentrate on the main line of affective narrative. If my analysis has clarified any aspect of the episode which we have examined, we may then conclude that, under the conditions stated here, the oral-formulaic approach can provide a key to the interpretation of certain poems regardless of the circumstances under which the act of composition actually took place.


  1. Magoun, “Oral-Formulaic Character,” pp. 449-56.

  2. Crowne, “Hero on the Beach,” p. 368.

  3. Lord, Singer of Tales, pp. 198-202.

  4. Robert P. Creed, “On the Possibility of Criticizing Old English Poetry,” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 3 (1961): 96-106.

  5. The Finnsburg Fragment is also known as The Battle of Finnsburh (e.g., in the EETS edition) and The Fight at Finnsburg. The development of the Finn legend and its relation to Beowulf are discussed by Friedrich Klaeber, ed., Beowulf and the Fight at Finnsburg (Boston: D. C. Heath, 1941), pp. 230-38.

  6. Eiríksmál, in E. V. Gordon, An Introduction to Old Norse (1927; London: Oxford University Press, 1949), pp. 130-31, with historical introduction on p. 130. One might add that, regardless of the point of view from which we approach Beowulf, the various references and allusions therein never appear gratuitous to those who study the text seriously. In a discussion of the “apparently irrelevant description of the mysterious coming of Scyld” at the beginning of the poem, for instance, Edward B. Irving, Introduction to Beowulf (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1969), has pointed out that the episode is “furnishing us here with a role model for the hero of the poem” (p. 36).

  7. Klaeber, Beowulf and the Fight at Finnsburg, p. xviii. The analogues to the Grendel episode are discussed on pp. xiii-xxi. For a complete discussion of these analogues, along with translations of the relevant passages, see Chambers, Beowulf: An Introduction, esp. pp. 129-244 and 490-503.

  8. Klaeber, Beowulf and the Fight at Finnsburg, p. xx.

  9. Michael N. Nagler, “Beowulf in the Context of Myth,” in Niles, Old English Literature in Context, p. 145, with analysis running through the essay, pp. 143-55. The episode occurs in Beowulf, 1512b-1590b, and Odyssey, IX, 216-402. In each case, the hero comes from across the sea, goes into a cave where there is a fire and which is the home of a man-eating monster whom he puts out of commission (by killing Grendel's mother or by blinding Polyphemus) with a weapon that was already in the cave (a sword in Beowulf and a stake in the Odyssey). Nagler's essay takes its point of departure from Joseph Fontenrose, who, in his Python: A Study in the Delphic Myth and Its Origins (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1959), calls attention to striking relationships between Grendel's mother and certain Indo-European and Near-Eastern myths (p. 526).

  10. Klaeber, Beowulf and the Fight at Finnsburg, p. xix. Klaeber also notes that “only in the Hrólfssaga do we find a story at all comparable to the Grendel part placed in a historical setting comparable to that of the Anglo-Saxon epic. … Manifestly the relation of Boðvar to Hrolfr is not unlike that of Beowulf to Hroðgar—both deliver the king from the ravages of a terrible monster, both are his honored champions and friends, Boðvarr the son-in-law, Beowulf the ‘adopted son’ (946ff., 1175ff.). … Boðvar goes from Gautland, whose king is his brother, to the Danish court at Hleiðra; Beowulf goes from the land of the Geats, who are ruled by his uncle Hygelac, to the court of the Danish King at Heorot. Boðvarr makes his entrance at the court in a brusque, self-confident manner and at the feast quarrels with the King's men; Beowulf introduces himself with a great deal of self-reliance tempered, of course, by courtly decorum (407 ff.); also his scornful retort of II. 590ff. is matched by Boðvarr's slighting remarks, 68. 17ff. (para. 9)” (pp. xviii-xix).

  11. Harry E. Kavros, “Swefan æfter Symble: The Feast-Sleep Theme in Beowulf,Neophilologus 65 (1981): 120-28. Edward B. Irving, A Reading of Beowulf (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1968 [2d printing, 1969]), accurately notes that, “like almost everything else in the poem, Grendel is most clearly defined and outlined by contrast” (p. 87).

  12. Caution requires adding here that I am by no means certain that this statement is intended to reflect the poet's opinion rather than Hrothgar's own, since it bears a close resemblance to what Ann Banfield has termed “represented speech and thought” in her Unspeakable Sentences: Narration and Representation in the Language of Fiction (Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1982), p. 17. Yet, Highley, “Aldor on Ofre,” p. 353, calls Hrothgar's behavior “appallingly weak before Grendel.”

  13. This is not to say that Beowulf is incapable of thinking. As I have stated in my “Beowulf: A Contextual Introduction to Its Contents and Techniques,” in Felix J. Oinas, ed., Heroic Epic and Saga (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1978), pp. 99-119, I incline to think that we are meant to see the hero learning how to think as the story moves along, so that he behaves “like most unthinking men of action in the first half of the poem” (p. 109) but eventually turns into “an embodiment of the ideal union of wisdom and action” (p. 111).

  14. See, e.g., Winfred P. Lehmann, Historical Linguistics: An Introduction, 2d ed. (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1973), p. 56.

  15. The thematic paradigm, if these occurrences be indeed implementations of a theme, would include (a) some kind of good or bad warrior either experiencing or learning of some action or situation of which he disapproves, (b) a digression on the warrior, with emphasis on his destructive power, and (c) an account of the warrior taking some initial step to put an end to the objectionable action or situation.

  16. Carol Jean Wolf, “Christ as Hero on the Beach,” notes that “almost invariably, the journey of the hero is either the prelude or the sequel to a triumph” (p. 274).

  17. The tendency for the carnage to take place soon after the occurrence of the theme of the hero on the beach is discussed in my “Oral-Formulaic Rhetoric and the Interpretation of Written Texts,” in Foley, Oral Tradition in Literature, p. 129. See also the discussion of the Nibelungenlied in Chapter 9, text to note 9.

  18. Molière, Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, in Théâtre Choisi de Molière, ed. Ernest Thirion (Paris: Hachette, n.d.), has Mr. Jourdian exclaim, “Par ma foi! il y a plus de quarante ans que je dis de la prose sans que j'en susse rien, et je vous suis le plus obligé du monde de m'avoir appris cela” (II, iv, 654).

  19. Joseph Bosworth and T. Northcote Toller, An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary (London: Oxford University Press, 1898), translate scír-ham as “having bright armor,” but translators of the poem are by no means unanimous in this respect. E.g., Lucien Dean Pearson, trans., Beowulf (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1965), has “bright-mailed” (p. 91); Kevin Crossley-Holland, trans., Beowulf, has “in gleaming armour” (p. 83); E. Talbot Donaldson, trans., Beowulf, has “in bright armor” (p. 33); Howell D. Chickering, ed. and trans., Beowulf: A Dual-Language Edition (Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1977), has “bright-armored” (p. 159). Subsequent translations, however, have been somewhat more circumspect, with Stanley B. Greenfield, trans., A Readable Beowulf (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1982), using the adjective “bright-clad” (p. 100), which renders the ambiguity inherent in the original, and Marijane Osborn, trans., Beowulf (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1983), using the phrase “in the handsome birnies” (p. 69). Since the instance under discussion is the only recorded occurrence of this compound adjective, the interpretation is necessarily left in part to the individual scholar.

  20. Arthur G. Brodeur, The Art of Beowulf (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1960), pp. 88-91. Attention is also called to Adeline Courtney Bertlett, The Larger Rhetorical Patterns in Anglo-Saxon Poetry (New York: Columbia University Press, 1935), pp. 49-50. I have discussed the passage in my “Point of View and Design for Terror in Beowulf,Neuphilologische Mitteilungen 63 (1962): 154-67.

  21. Stanley B. Greenfield, “Grendel's Approach to Heorot: Syntax and Poetry,” in Creed, Old English Poetry, p. 277.

  22. If the adjective fag in the phrase “on fagne flor” (725a) is construed as shining, as is done by many translators, including Greenfield, then the presence of shining light is even more obvious than in my own translation, where I have chosen the adjective ornate only to avoid equivocation in respect to my documentation.

  23. Antoine de Saint Exupéry, Wind, Sand and Stars, trans. Lewis Galantière (New York: Reynal and Hitchcock, 1939), admires the fact that “when Joseph Conrad described a typhoon, he said very little about towering waves, or darkness, or the whistling of the wind. Instead, he took his reader down into the hold of the vessel, packed with emigrant coolies, where the rolling and the pitching of the ship had ripped up and scattered their bags and bundles, burst open their boxes, and flung their humble belongings into a crazy heap …” (p. 77).

  24. See note 9, Chapter 3, and corresponding text.

  25. Theodore M. Andersson, Early Epic Scenery (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1976), p. 145.

  26. Irving, A Reading of Beowulf, has analyzed the Grendel episode as one would the product of written rhetoric and produced a superbly sensitive account of its impact (esp. pp. 94-128).

  27. Robinson, Beowulf, p. 14.

  28. Creed, “On the Possibility of Criticizing Old English Poetry,” p. 106.

  29. E.g., the fact that Beowulf, 1999a-2183a, is devoted to a recapitulation of the events of the preceding 1,998 lines would be explained if we assumed oral composition and either (a) the late arrival of a member of the audience for whom the poet would want to sum up the preceding narrative or (b) the interruption of the narrative—which is very long for a one-shot performance, since it takes three and one-half hours to read aloud and would accordingly earn a single performer some sort of laryngitis—and its resumption the next day or a few hours later, thus requiring the kind of summary of previous events to which television audiences are accustomed in programs which are carried on from one day to the next.

  30. E.g., the fact that critics have noted possible verbal correspondences between the poem and Virgil's Aeneid (see, e.g., Andersson's Early Epic Scenery, pp. 146-56) would be explained if we assumed a poet writing in a cell with a copy of Virgil right at hand, or at least with school training in classical Latin.