Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1031
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 he prepares to fight. Grendel, a descendant of the line of Cain, is hateful to God, a lonely and vicious outcast, who hates light and joy and exacts bloody vengeance on man. All the more fearful because of his vague but imposing physique, Grendel is a representative of the physical evil that was so present in the lives and imaginations of the Anglo-Saxons. Beowulf confronts that physical evil and, bolstered by lineage and loyalty, routs the inimical force with which all people must contend.
However, Grendel, mortally wounded, escapes to his undersea lair, a submerged area devoid of light and appropriate to his joyless evil. Beowulf must, as a result, trace evil to its source if he is to be truly victorious. He ultimately returns with Grendel’s head as a sign of victory, but to do that he must descend to the depths and exterminate the source of evil figured in Grendel’s mother. This battle is more difficult and ominous: Beowulf doubts his capacities, and his men almost give up on him. Naturally this battle is more arduous, because he is facing the intellectual or moral evil that is at the root of the physical evil that threatens human life and joy. The poem is not a moral allegory in which Beowulf roots evil out of the world, but an exemplum of how each person must face adversity.
One greater challenge remains for Beowulf, and it is significant that it is separated by space and years from these youthful encounters. As a young warrior, Beowulf faces evil in vigorous foreign exploits; as an old king in his own country, he faces the dragon, the ultimate test of his courage. The dragon is at once less horrible (he does not have a distorted human form) and more fearsome. Beowulf, as the representative of his society, must enter the battle in which he knows he will die. The nonhuman dragon is a figure of the metaphysical evil that is woven into the fabric of the universe. Physical and moral evil can be challenged and overcome, but the ultimate evil (perhaps, at its extremity, age and death) cannot be avoided. Beowulf slays his antagonist and transcends his own death. By dying as he lived, he is a model for triumph in the last struggle every human must face.
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