(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, 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.

Principal Works

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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

Paull F. Baum (essay date 1960)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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)...

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Eric Stanley (essay date 1966)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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...

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John Leyerle (essay date 1967)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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...

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Larry D. Benson (essay date 1967)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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...

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Margaret E. Goldsmith (essay date 1970)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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...

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Gwyn Jones (essay date 1972)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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...

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Elisabeth M. Liggins (essay date 1973)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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...

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Ramond J. S. Grant (essay date 1975)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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...

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Kathryn Hume (essay date 1975)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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...

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Kevin S. Kiernan (essay date 1981)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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...

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J. D. A. Ogilvy (essay date 1983)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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...

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Bernard F. Huppé (essay date 1984)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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...

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Stanley B. Greenfield (essay date 1985)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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,


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Alain Renoir (essay date 1988)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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...

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Stephen S. Evans (essay date 1997)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Dating of Beowulf,” in The Heroic Poetry of Dark-Age Britain: An Introduction to Its Dating, Composition, and Use as a Historical Source, University Press of America, Inc., 1997, pp. 41-63.

[In the following essay, Evans examines the debate concerning the date of composition of Beowulf and argues that an oral version (probably composed between 685 and 725) of the poem preceded the earliest written version.]

It is with no little trepidation that the present study enters the battle that has raged, and continues to rage, over the dating of Beowulf. It is clear that a wide array of knowledge and expertise from a variety of disciplines...

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Further Reading

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)


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....

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