Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1763
Whether we consider it to be an intentional theme or an incidental artifact of the poem's authorship and composition, the tension between its pagan and Christian elements is an over-arching feature of Beowulf. In the very first line of his text we are alerted to the fact that the poet is depicting a world that existed in the past, for his story is set "in days gone by" (l.1). Many scholars have asserted that the unknown author of Beowulf was an Anglo-Saxon Christian who wrote in the first half of the eighth century about a Scandinavian hero, Beowulf, who, in turn, purportedly lived in the sixth century, a period and culture in which pagan worship prevailed. There are, however, only scant references to the Old Testament in the poem (Grendel and his mother are characterized as being descended from the first murderer, Cain) and none whatsoever to the New Testament Jesus or any of the specifically Christian topics or symbols that predominated the thought of the early Middle Ages. Throughout the poem there are odd juxtapositions between pagan beliefs in fate and personal prowess, on the one hand, and acknowledgements of an All Mighty power or God, on the other. The Danes to whom Beowulf lends his assistance in the first half of the story express some reliance upon God, but at the same time, they practice pre-Christian rituals. Thus, when Hrothgar, the king of the Shield-Danes, learns of Beowulf's vow to help his people, he thankfully says that, "Now Holy God/has, in His goodness, guided him here/to the West-Danes, to defend us from Grendel" (ll.384-385). But as for his subjects, we have previously read that "sometimes at pagan shrines they vowed/offerings to idols, swore oaths/that the killer of souls might come to their aid/ and save the people" (ll.142-145) from scourge of the monster who has been decimating them for a dozen years. At one juncture, the teller of the tale affirms that "Almighty God rules over mankind/and always has" (ll. 699-700). Yet after Grendel is slain, the narrator muses that "all of us with souls, earth-dwellers/and children of men, must make our way/to a destination already ordained/where the body, after the banqueting/sleeps on its death bed" (ll.1004-1008). The former sounds like a statement of Christian faith, but the latter, with its implicit denial of an of an afterlife, is not congruent with Christian doctrine.
As for Beowulf himself, he seems to be both pagan and Christian in his orientation. Before his encounter with Grendel, the poet says of Beowulf, that he "placed complete trust/in his strength of limb and the Lord's favour" (ll.669-670). On the whole, the youthful Beowulf trusts in his own abilities, rather than in God's will, yet he also acknowledges God's assistance after each of his exploits. In his later years as the elderly king of the Geats, Beowulf appears to gravitate toward a Christian credo, as when he thanks the "everlasting Lord of all/to the King of Glory" for allowing him to view the slain Dragon's treasure before he dies (ll.2795-2796). Nevertheless, in preparing for his final challenge, the aged Beowulf reverts to a pre-Christian mindset when he proclaims, "what occurs on the wall/between the two or us will turn out as fate/overseer of men, decides" (ll.2526-2528).
Fate, as opposed to divine judgment, remains a powerful force in the world that the Beowulf poet depicts, and it is most often associated with violence, cruelty and death. Beowulf's people, the Geats of southern Sweden, are engaged in myriad long-standing blood feuds with other nations or tribes. The driving force behind these wars is the felt need to exact vengeance for past bloodshed, and so it is virtually pre-determined that retaliatory conflicts will continue to cycle onward. After Beowulf's death, Wiglaf, the young hero who aids the hero in slaying the dragon, predicts that the Geats will suffer in a retaliatory war from the Heathobards. The messenger who brings word of Beowulf's demise to the Geat people warns them that the existence of unresolved blood feuds with the Swedes, the Franks, and the Frisians presages that attacks from these larger, more powerful tribes will be forthcoming.
There is, nonetheless, a clear-cut moral division between good and evil in the poem, and it is frequently expressed in polar contrasts between light/day and dark/night. Heorot, the great hall of the Danish King is a place of brightness, a domain of shining gold ornaments and tapestries where humans enjoy comradeship, order and culture within a safely illuminated haven. This world is penetrated at night, first by Grendel and then by his vengeful mother who, like the third monster in the saga, the dragon, are nocturnal assailants. Grendel is first described as "a powerful demon, a prowler through the dark" (l.86), and his lair beneath a boggy fen is devoid of light.
Allegiance, lineage, and blood ties are crucial determinants of behavior in Beowulf. After Grendel's mother slays one of his most loyal thanes, Hrothgar says of the tandem threats than still menace his people, "they are fatherless creatures/and their whole ancestry is hidden in a past/of demons and ghosts" (ll.1356-1358). When the Danish coast guard asks Beowulf and his fourteen warriors about their identity and purpose in coming to Denmark, Beowulf does not reply with his own name. He answers instead that "we belong by birth to the Geat people/and owe allegiance to Lord Hygelac" (ll.259-260). He then provides his interrogator with an extended account of his own father's, Ecgtheow's, deeds and renown as a brave warrior. Beowulf's allegiance to Hygelac is without qualification. When he recounts the story of what happened at Hrothgar's court to King of the Geats, Beowulf makes no mention of the All Mighty. He declares that he is "happy to present (Danish rewards)/to you as gifts. It is still upon your grace/that all favour depends" (ll.2148-2150). In like manner, when the youth Wiglaf is first introduced, the Beowulf poet furnishes an extended description of the deeds of Wiglaf's father, Weohstan. Ancestry determines both the status and the very character of the individuals in the poem. Wiglaf is the only youth who ventures into battle with the dragon alongside Beowulf, and his courage is attributed to the "inborn bravery" of being the last of Beowulf's kinsman.
Protecting and aggrandizing individual honor and reputation are the controlling motives for Beowulf and his companions. Beowulf expresses the essence of this code when he says to Hrothgar: "It is always better/to avenge dear ones than to indulge in mourning/For every one of us, living in this world/means waiting for our end. Let whoever can/win glory before his death/When a warrior is gone,/that will be his best and only bulwark" (1384-1389). Beowulf is under a perpetual obligation to display his courage; from his perspective, failure to take up a challenge for fear of death is a shameful, cardinal sin. Indeed, as he fights with Grendel's mother, Beowulf's thoughts remain fixed on "his name and his fame" (l.1530). Conversely, after the dragon is slain, Wiglaf roundly rebukes the cowardly youths who shied from the encounter at the final moment. It is an unblemished reputation as a warrior that moves Beowulf to act.
There are, however, limits to pride in martial prowess and physical feats. In his youth, Beowulf displays a decided arrogance, vowing, for example, to meet Grendel in hand-to-hand combat without the benefit of weapons. After Beowulf dispatches with Grendel and his mother, Hrothgar relates the story of the Danish King Heremod, whose victories and conquests set the stage for the demise of own his people. Flush with success, Heremod came to want more and more, neglected custom and the giving of gifts, and ignored threats on the horizon because he had failed to temper his pride with wisdom (ll.1748-1752). The wise old regent cautions the brash young Beowulf to beware of the trap of arrogance.
Wisdom and action comprise another salient theme in Beowulf. At the outset, Hrothgar is consistently characterized as "wise," yet he lacks the capacity to act against Grendel. For his part, Beowulf is all action. Immediately after learning about the plight of the Danes, Beowulf is completely committed to sail to that troubled land and his "plan" (as he calls it) consists of nothing more than a resolve to face Grendel in one-on-one combat. In time, however, Beowulf acquires a modicum of wisdom, watching and controlling his "God-sent strength and his outstanding/natural powers" (ll.(2179-2183). After ruling the land of the Geats for fifty year, the poet says of Beowulf that he "grew old and wise" (l.2207). Wisdom causes Beowulf to consider that the assaults of the dragon upon his throne might stem from his own moral shortcomings, from "thwarting an ancient ordinance or a commandment of the eternal Lord" (ll.2330-2331). In his final battle with the dragon, realizing that he is old and can no longer fight without such armaments, Beowulf protects himself with a mail shirt and shield. Over time, then, Beowulf reaches a balance between courage and restraint, and this too contributes to his renown.
Finally, the Beowulf poet pays considerable attention to valued weapons and to ancient treasures. Gleaming helmets, bright swords, shining armor all occupy a high place in the world of the Scandinavian hero. Indeed, weapons like Unfreth's sword, have their own names ("Hrunting") and histories. Riches, especially gold, also enjoy high esteem among the characters of the poem. Hrothgar amply rewards Beowulf for his deeds with gold, jewelry and horses. But these warriors are not materialistic in our sense of the term. Beowulf gives away virtually all of the wealth that he receives for ridding the Danes of Grendel and his mother. What they desire from famous weapons and valuable gifts are signs that enhance their reputations, using them as objects of personal esteem or status symbols. As he is dying, Beowulf requests that Wiglaf show him the treasure that the dragon has been safeguarding. He does not do so from a sense of greed, but merely to behold its magnificence as a reflection of having fulfilled the role of protecting his people. The poet makes this point when he apprises his audience that "Beowulf's gaze at the gold treasure/when he first saw it had not been selfish" (ll.3073-3074). Name and fame are what count in Beowulf, resolute courage and, in time, restrained wisdom are the surest means to them.
Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1685
Michael Alexander, a translator of Beowulf, begins his entry on the epic in A Dictionary of Modern Critical Terms with Milton's "great argument" and "answerable style," that is, an important theme and a style to match, to define epic. He continues, "classically trained critics, expecting art to see life steadily and see it whole, look for an idealized realism and debar folklore and romance elements." Paraphrasing and then quoting the critic Northrup Frye, Alexander accepts that "these stories recapitulate the life of the individual and the race. The note of epic is its objectivity: 'It is hardly possible to overestimate the importance for western literature of the Iliad's demonstration that the fall of an enemy, no less than of a friend or leader, is tragic and not comic.'" According to this definition, Beowulf somehow combines the elements which define the epic with other elements which seem to come from the world of "Jack the Giant Killer" and "Three Billy Goats Gruff."
Beowulf is, indeed, on one level a very simple story told with great elaboration. A man of great strength, courage, and generosity fights three monsters, two when he is a young man, the third in his old age. Other more complicated human events precede these, others intervene, others will follow, but those more realistic events are all essentially background. To some earlier critics as to W. P. Kerr in Epic and Romance, the choice of a folktale main narrative was a serious fault. Monsters lacked the dignity to carry the "great argument" with "answerable style."
But Beowulf is a true epic in its breadth of interests and sympathies, even though it is centered on the career of one man killing three monsters. The action and the characters of this apparently simple story have the strength to embody the experience and ideals of the original audience. The monsters participate in evil and disorder as no human, even Heremod, could, but the evil that originates purely within the human heart is not overlooked. Transforming both the fairy tale monsters and the sordid power politics of the background is the objective recognition of human struggle for understanding and order. This is the hallmark of human experience seen through the lense of epic technique. In Beowulf the narrator and characters use human experience to understand the human condition and to find the noblest way to live their lives.
In part Beowulf's epic inclusiveness comes from the narrator's often short observations, which place the poem in a larger, transcendent context. The narrator periodically reminds the reader of the over-arching providence of God as in lines 1056-58: "except that God in his wisdom and the man's courageous spirit withstood him. The Lord God ruled over all men, as he now yet does." In part the epic breadth comes from the characters, particularly Beowulf and Hrothgar. It is Beowulf's generosity of spirit and imaginative sympathy for individuals, which introduce characters like the old man mourning his executed son or the young girl Freawaru facing a political marriage. It is that same generosity of spirit and sympathy which allows him to speak objectively of the "sin and crime on both sides" in the war between the Geats and Swedes (lines 2472-73). Hrothgar, the old king of the Danes, a man who has known triumph and disaster, looks back across his long life and reaches into the workings of the human heart and out into the realities of time and circumstances to understand human sorrow and evil.
The inclusiveness of Beowulf reaches backwards and forwards in time. The short narratives embedded in the main narrative (digressions), reflect on the main action as Adrien Bonjour demonstrated in the Digressions in "Beowulf." They also create a sense of continuity and universality in the situations the characters face. Character by character, incident by incident, they create the society and the universe in which the great tests of the monsters are set. They define the limits of the heroic heart and heroic society, the ideals which characters like Hrothgar and Beowulf fulfill and in some ways transcend. In these narratives, as in the poem, as Alexander writes in his translation's introduction, the operations of cause and consequence, however mysterious to the characters, whether deriving from natural forces or human will, are inescapable.
Beowulf is a carefully designed poem. A heroic king comes from the sea and is given back to the sea in death. Generations later another heroic king is buried on the cliffs overlooking the sea. Between them vengeance and feud, despair and generosity weave their way through the human life. Every idea, every theme is examined from one angle after another, with all the techniques available to the poet from an Anglo-Saxon poetic tradition rich in irony and understatement. Treasure is the lifeblood of heroic society, fame made tangible, but the poet links it with death and despair. Love of kin motivates Beowulf throughout his life, but in the society around him families destroy themselves. Song and generosity wake a monster. Just when safety seems assured the best and truest friend and councillor dies.
The fineness of the poet's application of technique make the poem a sustained high point in Anglo-Saxon poetry. Although these techniques are specifically Anglo-Saxon, they can be broadly paralleled in all western epics. The poem uses an elaborate vocabulary dictated, at least in part, by the alliteration and stress patterns of Old English verse. This vocabulary, although largely that of everyday speech or prose, includes words which are rarely used outside of poetry. It is quite possible the poet has even coined words for Beowulf. The poet presents the material in carefully structured sentences and equally structured verse paragraphs. This structure, with its emphasis on defining things by what they are not, and by understatement, produces pointed juxtapositions of characters, themes and action. It clarifies cause and effect. It produces clear and swift narrative movement. It can be a potent source of irony.
Alexander in the introduction to his translation, draws the reader's attention to the use of constant basic values in Beowulf. Sunlight is good, cold is bad. The words do not refer to symbols but to reality. Alexander's observations are a good introduction to the poet's use of description. The poem gains immediacy from simplicity and universality, qualities it shares with the Homeric epic. The poet always seems to find the best and fewest words to make objects real to us. Landscapes resonate with atmosphere: grey, cold and threatening as in the description of the wild lands which Grendel haunts (lines 1357-76 and 1408-23), or full of light and life, like the landscape of the creation song (lines 90-98). Sometimes space is defined by the quality of movement through it, like the landscape through which the Danish retainers ride back after tracking Grendel's last bloodstained retreat or Beowulf's two sea voyages (lines 210-24 and 1903-12).
The poem's characters, particularly Beowulf himself, are molded by the needs and aspirations of the poet and audience's society. This is true to some extent of all literature, but particularly of the epic. Beowulf, however, is different from other northern heroes and from the heroes of Greek and Roman epics. He is radically different, not just from Heremod, but from Ing and Scyld and Sigemund. He is unlike Achilles, unlike Odysseus except in his love of family. He is a hero driven not by personal glory but by affection and duty. He seems largely untouched by the darker emotions which dog Aeneas and betray him into fury at the end of the Aeneid. Only the doomed Hector of Homer's Iliad seems to be a hero of the same clay. Personal glory is not without meaning to Beowulf. He tells Hrothgar that the best thing men can do is to lay up fame before death (lines 1386-89). He happily accepts treasure and just as happily passes it on to others. Nevertheless, duty and sympathy and generosity are his primary motivations. Despite his great strength, he is a man with limitations, in each of his fights he is seriously challenged and clearly sees himself as relying on the help of God.
Beginning with J. R. R. Tolkein's "The Monsters and the Critics," many critics have stressed a sense of futility in Beowulf. This reading arose partially from factors within the poem and partially from factors external to it. These critics had lived through two world wars. Many of them had served as soldiers and known violent, often pointless, death, often the death of friends. They did not cease to admire heroism, but they balanced it against what they knew of war's futility. Beowulf is not a pacifist's poem, but these critics have made readers more aware of the problems and fragility of its warrior society and standards. Beowulf and the rest of the characters are never allowed the luxury of assuming that any victory earns more than a respite. The poem is full of a deep sense of the fragility of human institutions and of human hopes. Good men and women can do their best, their fame is assured, but not necessarily their works. The whole action of the poem happens within historical patterns where families and kingdoms rise and fall.
This sense of the transitory nature of human life is part of the critical re-evaluation of the implications of the poem's Christianity. J. D. A. Ogilvy and Donald Baker have suggested that Beowulf's death is like a saint's death, and the parallels, particularly with that of Bede's death are closer than even they suggest. Other critics have explored similar implications in Beowulf's burial. The real tragedy of the poem may lie not in Beowulf's own death, which transcends the tragic through his faith in God, but in his people's despair which leads to the re-burial of the treasure. He gives his life to save them from the dragon, but he cannot save them from themselves. The Geats, even Wiglaf, refuse more than his dying wish, they refuse to accept Beowulf's view of them, a people worthy of the real treasure of an old king's life.
Source: Helen Conrad-O'Briain, for Epics for Students, Gale Research, 1997.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1571
Discovering the Poem's World
The poem imposes many delays on its central story and includes many explorations not directly related to its main business, but despite an indirect movement and moments of leisure, Beowulf creates a powerful impression of a great action moving irresistibly forward, advancing not steadily but abruptly in sudden lurches and turns toward a fearful event. Brief summaries of the "basic story" of Beowulf conceal its rich variety of forms and matter; the poem captures a vast historical scope, includes a variety of genres or modes of composition, and reveals a constant interplay of tones. The prologue separates the poem's audience from the story—long ago in another country—then presents the audience with a gratifying account of heroic success, of heroism leading to national success, of the hero as founder of a great dynasty. At the height of Scyld's brilliant career, a kingdom won, an overlordship established, and an heir engendered, the narrator proposes as a universal truth the rule that in every nation the successful aspirant to honor must do praiseworthy deeds. On these words, the narrator announces Scyld's death at the fated time, the prologue closes with his people's grief for the great king's passing.
Scyld earned the narrator's accolade—... that was a good king! (11)—early in the prologue which ends with the universal truth of mortality and an unanswerable question. Scyld returns to the mystery from which he came after his richly laden funeral ship is launched on the unknowable deep. Still, the succession of fortunate generations of Scyld's line contrasts the mystery and the blunt fact of death with an unfolding story of dynastic prosperity extending for generations until the crowning of the Scyldings' success with the building of Heorot. Mortality presses in on the line of Scyld Scefing and the first celebration at Heorot awakens a monster who seems to embody or to represent the force of chaos and old night. That scene, dramatically reversing the stately tone of the poem's prologue, begins with the monster's anger at the sound of joy in Heorot, then traces that joy to the poet's song celebrating the creation of the world, then leaves the Danish ruling elite living in those joys until the monster, Grendel, begins his raids.
Grendel's first raid turns all the successes of the triumphant line of the Scyldings into horror, pain, and humiliation. After Grendel's second raid, the night after his first, the narrator notices that:
Then it was easy to find the man who got himself a more distant resting place, a bed in a private dwelling, when the hall-thegn's hatred was manifested to him, plainly declared by a sure sign, whoever escaped that enemy kept himself farther away and safer. (138-43)
Six full lines remorselessly detail the humiliation of noble warriors among the Danes who, in the face of certain death there, give up sleeping in the royal hall, a kind of mens' lodge, and seek out a more domestic safety. The Danes become double victims, of Grendel's wrath and of the poem's irony; the monster diminishes their manly status; the poem makes that diminishment public and thus real. The audience is drawn toward Grendel, it accepts a certain complicity in calamity to savor the poem's detached irony at the cost of Danish manliness. Warrior societies in many cultures segregate men and women; apparently the all-male fellowship of such lodges contributes to the aggressive spirit a warring society requires. Grendel's interruption of the regular practice unmans the Danish warrior class, calls their heroic status into question, and damages the means of sustaining their traditional calling and their honor.
As the poem moves from the Danes to the Geats, a series of contrasts in the character and tone of the narrative become apparent. The Danish scene represents a whole society in paralysis, the Geatish a man in action. The Danes meet frequently, consider deeply, risk their immortal souls searching for supernatural help, and lament their losses in an agony of helplessness. Immediately following the report of Grendel's first and second raids, the narrator adds that this calamity persisted for twelve years; that the lord of the Scyldings suffered great sorrows; that songs sadly revealed to the world that Grendel waged cruel war against Hrothgar for many years. The narrator (or those songs) reports that Grendel intended never to make a truce with the Danes. The narrator sums up: Grendel performed "many crimes . . . cruel humiliations," many powerful men among the Danes often considered what should be done, and Hrothgar's sorrows burned continually in his heart.
In the Danish setting some forty lines report the unending succession of humiliations and sorrow heaped upon the hapless people and above all their king, but restated among the Geats, the long story of passive suffering and helplessness amounts only to a clause. The Danish complaint ends with Hrothgar's sorrow and inaction:
the wise man was unable to ward off that misery; that distress, that cruel and violent, hateful and long-drawn-out onslaught, that cruel distress, which had fallen upon the people, was too severe.
The scene abruptly moves to the Geats, where the strongest man living on earth, Hygelac's retainer, hears of "Grendles daeda" (195), Grendel's deeds. The strong man at once commands that a ship be readied and announces his intention to visit the famous king of the Danes who has need of men. Between the hero's command, his announcement, and his selection of his companions for the exploit, the Geatish councillors consult the omens and approve his plans even as he leads his picked company to the sea and the ready ship.
The pagan and superstitious practice of consulting omens evokes no negative comment in the poem, though Anglo-Saxon sermons strongly condemned such time-honored observances. From Beowulf's first introduction into the poem to the moment Grendel realizes his impending doom, all signs agree that the hero's victory is certain. The alacrity of the hero's decision, preparations, and setting out bespeaks a self-confidence that seems itself a token of victory. The voyage is swift and easy, which requires strong winds from the right quarter and confirms the favorable omens. The supernatural sign vouchsafed the Geatish councillors and the disposition of nature agree in pointing toward Beowulfs success. The wisdom of the Danes concurs: the coast guard who challenges Beowulf and the Geats at the Danish shore seems to respond to an aura of good luck and good intentions manifested in Beowulf's appearance when he breaks off his formal challenge to observe that one of the seafarers seems a man of unique qualities and exceptional status and to wish: "may his look, his matchless appearance, never belie him". Given the Danes' dearest wish of the past twelve years, the coast guard must see a resolve to destroy Grendel and the tokens of success in the foreigner at the Danish coast.
In the coming decades, Beowulf scholarship will almost surely be deeply influenced by the findings of archaeological research and especially by the excavation at Sutton Hoo. Students of the poem have hardly digested the importance of the original Sutton Hoo excavation of 1939, definitively published in a massive study by Rupert Bruce-Mitford and others (1975-83). Already the new excavations at Sutton Hoo have offered some surprises. While archaeologists extend our knowledge of the material culture of the Anglo-Saxon world, lexicographers are doing the same for the word-hoard of the Anglo-Saxons. The Dictionary of Old English project at the University of Toronto has already produced a microfiche concordance of the corpus of Anglo-Saxon texts, an immensely valuable tool for the study of Beowulf. The project has published the letters C and D in microfiche and at some point in the twenty-first century we will have a better dictionary of the Old English or Anglo-Saxon language than most of us dreamed possible when the late Angus Cameron began the work.
The study of the poem itself will surely develop in some directions already partially mapped out. The poem's psychological and social realism has already become a topic of critical inquiry that will continue to prosper in an age that can accept or even value mixtures of realism and fantasy. A renewed effort to reconstruct the poem's social and cultural milieu seems likely: reader-response criticism and the new historicism alike will demand a vigorous inquiry into the poem's origins and attempt to discover what the poem meant to its earliest audiences and what the place of poetry was in the Anglo-Saxon world. The poem's idea of the basic social institutions needs a deeper reading against what we know of those institutions in the Anglo-Saxon age. The questions of the poem's date and place of origin will burn strongly for some decades to come. We are likely to find too many rather than too few answers, and the profusion of seemingly contradictory solutions may strengthen the case for the poem's oral transmission and for its susceptibility to at least some reworking even after being committed to parchment.
The poststructuralist new criticisms and formalist approaches to narrative texts will try (and have tried already) their strength with Beowulf. The possibility of a deconstructive reading of Beowulf may fill some philologists with horror, but such a reading may be illuminating. The concentration of the newer critical schools on narrative will almost surely benefit the study of the greatest poem in English before the Canterbury Tales.
Source: George Clark, "The Heroic Age, Ideal, and Challenge," and "Afterword," in Beowulf, Twayne Publishers, 1990, pp. 51-54, 143-44.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1312
The date of the poem remains an unsettled problem. A written version of it preceding the uniquely surviving MS may safely be postulated, and beyond doubt is the likelihood that a form of the poem was in circulation among poets of the oral tradition for some centuries before the known MS version was made. Indeed, the principal motifs of the poem's plot are motifs of widespread folklore, and parts of the story, and the figures of Beowulf and of the monsters, have analogies elsewhere in the ancient literature of North-West Europe. But the story as it survives embodies, unless we have misunderstood it, a strikingly sophisticated and deliberately structured philosophical statement which is surely the construct of one creative mind presiding in literary manner over the traditional material.
Concern with locating the elements of this traditional material in the context of early Germanic culture has characterized the preliminary stages of Beowulf criticism; but it is the location of that artistically and didactically sovereign mind in a plausible intellectual and social milieu within the evolving culture of the Anglo-Saxons to which much Beowulf scholarship continues to address itself. Though it is conventional to regard the poem as early — first, because of the obvious antiquity of some of the traditional content, then because the relatively clear landmarks of the age of Bede, or of Offa's Mercia, or of Raedwald of East Anglia and the Sutton Hoo ship-burial inevitably tempt scholars to take all other bearings from them — the early dating has always had its strenuous opponents. It must indeed be acknowledged that the arguments insisting on a seventh- or eighth-century date remain, after all the discussion, barely more absolute and compelling than arguments placing the poem after the start of the Danish invasions, in the ninth or tenth century, or even as late as the likely date of the unique MS itself, which palaeographers place about the year 1000. It is well to bear in mind what the very nature of the oral mode of transmission of poetry makes probable: that the broad narrative of Beowulf had served many generations as a vehicle for their current values and tastes long before a version was composed in writing, and that however ancient in origin the narrative may be, however antique some of the elements surviving from earlier stages, the particular re-telling recorded in the Cotton MS may have been shaped to articulate philosophical and literary purposes much more 'modern' than the world of ship-funerals and dragon-tales preserved in its plot. What we can most confidently say of the poem as we have it is that it represents a literary judgment of the late tenth or early eleventh century.
Over generations of critical attention, Beowulf has proved its stature as a literary classic — as a major monument to an historic culture and as a visionary statement of issues of abiding relevance to people living in community at any time. The literary appreciation of the poem benefited little from nineteenth-century scholars who quarried it for Germanic antiquities, or subjected it to drastic editorial restoration in quest of a prototype text, or used it as grist to the mills of anti-clericalism, of nationalism, and of the cult of Aryanism. It fared little better when early twentieth-century critics tested it by standards of classical literary structure and taste, and found it wanting. But what scholars of that penod derided as the chimera of a 'literary' Beowulf has since been claimed by many to be a substantial reality — though even if there is wide agreement that the surviving version is the creative work of a single poet, and is therefore amenable on that basis to literary critical analysis and judgment, the poem continues to speak differently to different readers. One may do worse than look back for guidance to the pioneering assessment of the Dane, N. F. S. Grundtvig — largely ignored, particularly by English scholars, in his day — who published a Danish translation and a study of the poem in 1820, not long after the first printed edition of the whole text had been made, in 1815, by the Icelander, G. J. Thorkelin, on behalf of his Danish patron.
The language of the poem, Grundtvig says, is of the finest, compared with any other example of the rich corpus of early Germanic poetry. Though the poem's structure, he thought, was not so beautifully coherent as that of Greek epic poetry (but later critics have drawn attention to the differently conceived, but nonetheless distinctive structural principles of Beowulf, to the symmetries, parallels and contrasts, large and small, of theme, imagery and diction), the English poem had in his view far more to say. He found it a poem whose liveliness and entertaining qualities enhanced its high ethical integrity. He evidently understood it to speak from deep poetic insight about humanity, not merely about men and women. He identified in it a fundamental religious tone, and saw that the poet desired to represent his hero's struggles as being part of the cosmic contest between good and evil which is a characterizing element in the Christian view of history. He recognized that the monsters represented the powers of darkness staving against the light with which God penetrated the primordial darkness; and he understood the stakes to be the survival and thriving of human community, through which mankind had best hope of realizing the Godward-aspiring part of its flawed human nature. He acknowledged the sombre view taken by the poet, who chose no refuge in literary escapism, but compelled his audience to contemplate the sacrifice when heroes lay down their life for their friends. But Grundtvig found final optimism in the poem, an optimism determined not by literary convention but by Christian philosophy: that though the powers of darkness are potent to kill mankind's worthiest champions, God will not let such champions bear witness in vain. In Grundtvig's view, Beowulf succeeds in saving the dying life of the community.
Thus, Grundtvig's reading implies, sacrifice of oneself for the life of civilized community, imperfect though it may be, is not an act of vain and self-deluding heroics, but a responsibility which the strong and the gifted may not repudiate, and which is in itself a victory against anarchy and elemental evil; such is the poet's understanding of the testimony of history, and he endorses his view by appeal to divine authority. We may cite St. Augustine in his support: 'It is wrong to deny that the aims of human civilization are good, for this is the highest end that mankind of itself can achieve. For, however lowly the goods of the earth, the aim, such as it is, is peace.' (CG, Bk.XV, ch.4, pp.419-20).
Such a reading gives full credit to the secular heroic material of the plot, which the poet has evidently drawn from Germanic tradition. But it does not see these elements as bringing with them the heathen implications which no doubt many of them had when first they were coined. They are rather exploited so as to express in terms challengingly meaningful to an audience nurtured on secular heroic narrative poetry the larger philosophy of Christianity — at least as it related to questions of heroic altruism in defence of the common good, and of the virtues of (Christian) civilization, specifically defined in the poem as awareness of the source of good and of happiness, sanctity of familial bonds and the brotherhood of nations, mutuality of respect between ruler and ruled, communality, order, harmony, beauty, peace, the innocent pursuit of happiness, generosity, magnanimity and wisdom.
The prescriptions and warnings of this highly ethical work speak relevantly to any period of AS history one chooses to consider; and they remain a preoccupation of significant literature through the whole English literary tradition.
Source: S. A. J. Bradley, "Beowulf," in Anglo-Saxon Poetry, translated and edited by S. A. J. Bradley, David Campbell Publishers Ltd, 1982, pp 408-11.
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