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.
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.
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.
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.