Beowulf Essays and Criticism

An Overview of Themes in Beowulf

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 entire section is 1763 words.)

The Beowulf Epic

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...

(The entire section is 1685 words.)

The Heroic Age, Ideal, and Challenge

Discovering the Poem's World
The poem imposes many delays on its central story and includes many explorations not...

(The entire section is 1571 words.)

Beowulf and Anglo-Saxon Poetry

The date of the poem remains an unsettled problem. A written version of it preceding the uniquely surviving MS may safely be...

(The entire section is 1312 words.)