Beowulf Beowulf

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(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)


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,...

(The entire section is 143,886 words.)