Beowulf is the earliest extant heroic poem in any modern European language. The poem has come down through the centuries in a single manuscript, which was damaged and almost destroyed in the 1731 fire in the Cotton Library. Although the manuscript dates from the tenth century, the poem was probably composed in the eighth century and deals with sixth century events, before the migration of the Germanic tribes to Britain.
The poem was composed and performed orally. Old English bards, or scops, most likely began by piecing together traditional short songs, called heroic lays; they then gradually added to that base until the poem grew to its present size. The verse form is the standard Old English isochronic in that each line contains four stresses; there is a strong caesura in the middle of the lines, and the resultant half lines are bound together by alliteration. Although little Old English poetry survives, Beowulf’s polished verse and reflective, allusive development suggest that it is part of a rich poetic tradition.
Besides having unusual literary merit, Beowulf also provides information about and insight into the social, political, and ethical systems of Anglo-Saxon culture. There is a strong emphasis on courage in battle, fidelity to one’s word, and loyalty to kinsmen. This is a violent but highly principled society in which struggle is everywhere and honor is everything. The hero, bound by family ties, by his own word, and by a strict code of revenge, is surrounded by his comitatus, his band of devoted comrades in arms. Judeo-Christian elements enter into the poem and into the society, but these aspects of the poem bear more resemblance to the philosophical systems of the Old Testament, stressing justice rather than love. There is controversy about whether these elements are intrinsic or are interpolations by a tenth century monastic scribe. In any case, it does not much resemble the Christianity of the High Middle Ages or of the modern world. Frequently the poem seems a reflection on the traditional pagan value system from the moral point of view of the new, incompletely assimilated Christianity.
Despite the fact that the heroic poem centers on valorous exploits, Beowulf contains curiously little action. The plot is embedded in a mass of other materials that some critics have seen as irrelevant or peripheral. However, the poem is basically reflective and ruminative, and the digressive materials provide the context in which the action of the poem is to be seen and interpreted. Consequently, Beowulf contains historical information, ceremonial descriptions, lengthy genealogies, elaborate speeches, and interspersed heroic songs that reveal much about the world in which Beowulf is set. For example, it is important that the action is entwined in a historical sequence of events, because complex loyalties and responsibilities are thereby implied. Beowulf helps Hrothgar because of the past links between their families, and, much later, when Beowulf succumbs to the dragon, it is clear that the future of his whole people is in jeopardy. In addition, the songs of the scop at Hrothgar’s court indicate the value of poetry as a means of recording the past and honoring the brave. In like manner, the genealogies dignify characters by uniting them with revered ancestors, and the ceremonies underscore the importance of present deeds and past worth. Through these apparently extrinsic materials, the poet builds a continuity between past and present and extends the significance of his poem and characters to the whole of society.
In this context, Beowulf meets a series of challenges embodied in the poem’s three monsters. That Beowulf battles imposing monsters rather than human adversaries suggests that his actions bear larger meanings. The hero arrives at the court of Hrothgar at the height of his youthful abilities. Not a neophyte, he has already fought bravely and demonstrated his preternatural power and charisma. He has no doubts or hesitancies as...
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