Beowulf Circa Eighth Century
Old English epic poem. See also Beowulf Criticism.
Beowulf is the earliest surviving long poem in Old English and has been described as the greatest of its kind. Although the origins of this account of Dark Age warrior cultures and of heroes and monsters battling one another remain for the most part a mystery, many scholars agree that Beowulf was probably composed in the eighth century and that its unknown author, as well as the poem's early audience, possessed at least a basic familiarity with Christianity. The only extant manuscript of Beowulf was damaged by fire in 1731, before it could be transcribed; thus, portions of the poem are missing. This fact, along with the difficulty of rendering the poet's elusive style and many allusions to events and legends long past, has made the process of interpreting Beowulf both a challenge and a source of debate for modern literary critics.
Plot and Major Characters
The plot of Beowulf can be divided into two parts. In part one, the Geatish hero, Beowulf, who is remarkable for his extraordinary strength and courage, sails to Denmark to defeat Grendel, a terrifying monster that has been preying on the warriors—or "thanes"—of the aging Danish king, Hrothgar, at Heorot Hall. After slaying Grendel, Beowulf enjoys the gifts and banquet provided for him by the grateful Danes. Later that night, however, Grendel's avenging mother interrupts the celebration by attacking the Hall, thus obliging Beowulf to fight and kill her. Having freed Heorot of these evil menaces, Beowulf returns home. Part two is set many years later in the land of the Geats, where Beowulf has long since become king. Now, as an aging ruler himself, Beowulf must defeat a dragon that threatens his people. With the help of his faithful young retainer, Wiglaf (the rest of his men have fled in fear), Beowulf destroys the dragon but receives a mortal wound during the battle. After his cremation and burial along with the dragon's treasure hoard, ill fortune is predicted for the Geatish nation. In addition to this main plot, the narrative is also interspersed with several digressions, which allude to other heroes or stories and serve as commentary on the main action of the poem.
Among the numerous themes identified in Beowulf, a principal one is that of friendship, known in the context of the poem as comitatus, or the closeness which exists between
a ruler and his men. According to the precepts of comitatus, a leader rewards his thane—such as Beowulf in the first part of the poem or Wiglaf in the second—for his acts of courage and loyalty by granting him material gifts and high social status. Closely related to comitatus is the tradition of the feud, a custom of avenging oneself and one's people for harm done by an enemy. Critics observe that the theme of feuding applies not only to the warrior cultures represented in the poem, but also to Grendel's mother, who attacks Heorot to avenge her son's death. Finally, commentators have perceived in the somber, elegiac tone at the close of Beowulf the culmination of such themes as aging, the destructive and endless nature of feuding, the shortness and brutality of life, and the death of the pagan heroic code—a system of belief which offered immortality only through fame. Additionally, many critics have argued that the poem represents the waning of pagan traditions as they were superseded by the values of Christianity.
Largely because its exact origins are unknown, Beowulf has elicited much critical disputation. Many early critics faulted the poem's organization, arguing that Beowulf's, numerous digressions detract from its aesthetic unity. Several scholars have suggested that these divagations imply that the poem was in part edited by individuals other than the original author-monks, for example, who endeavored to give the poem a Christian rather than a pagan emphasis. Alternatively, some scholars have asserted that the poem achieves unity only if it is read as a Christian allegory with the hero, Beowulf, as a Christ-like figure. More recently, critics have argued that its themes of revenge and the brevity of life, unifying mood, and complementary structural elements—such as Beowulf's series of heroic battles—provide for coherence in the poem. The nature of the Beowulf poet has also been a source of considerable critical interest. Some have speculated as to his religious background, inquiring if the poet was Christian or pagan. Others have explored the details of the poem's composition, whether as oral or written literature. Lastly, while some critics describe the somber ending of Beowulf as a condemnation of its hero's pagan beliefs, others see the conclusion as a solemn farewell to a moral code replaced in the subsequent Christian era.