- The Beowulf manuscript dates to roughly 1000 CE. Very little Anglo-Saxon literature has survived, and Beowulf comprises roughly ten percent of all surviving Anglo-Saxon literature.
- The poem contains touchstone techniques of Anglo-Saxon verse, such as rhythmic alliteration and kennings, or descriptive compound phrases.
- Christianity is a central theme in Beowulf. Beowulf upholds the Christian virtues of the the fifth or sixth century, at a time when much of Scandinavia still worshipped pagan gods. This makes the poem somewhat anachronistic in that it imposes Christian values on characters who would not have possessed them.
Last Updated February 9, 2023.
As one of the classic epic poems, Beowulf features many of the traits we expect of works in the genre. The long narrative poem tells the story of an epic hero, Beowulf, in lofty, elevated, and formal language. In relating the exploits of the titular character, the poem highlights key battle scenes, centering the reader’s attention on the most action-packed episodes. Finally, the poet makes frequent use of alliteration and repetition, both of which hearken back to the epic poem’s roots in the oral tradition.
The epic begins with the poet’s declaration that they will tell of “The Spear-Danes in days gone by / and the kings who ruled them,” along with “those princes’ heroic campaigns” (lines 1-3). The poet establishes the work’s central theme – the heroism of great men – from the opening lines. However, the tale begins generations before Beowulf, with “Shield Sheafson.” Warrior cultures like those depicted in Beowulf prize legacy and name highly, and so before we can admire heroes like Beowulf or Hrothgar, we must understand from whence they came. Throughout the epic, between scenes of Beowulf’s heroic deeds, the poet returns to this pattern, having bards tell stories of heroes past, to serve as comparisons or contrasts to their heroes of the moment or to provide context for the hero’s accomplishments. For example, at the feast after Beowulf defeats Grendel, not only are the titular hero’s praises sung, but also the deeds of Sigmund, who slayed a dragon, are recounted by the singer. Sigmund’s achievement foreshadows Beowulf’s later combat with a dragon in his own kingdom and leads to a contrast between King Heremod and Beowulf, as the former was corrupted by evil. Feasts like this one are marked by a predictable series of events, and these are repeated episodically in the poem. The hero is praised, he recounts and brags of his victory, he is rewarded handsomely with treasures, and a bard tells stories of heroes or battles past.
Epic poems are also structured episodically around key action scenes. In the case of Beowulf, those are the fight with Grendel, the battle with Grendel’s mother, and the conflict with the dragon. Each scene dramatically foregrounds the battle, with Beowulf issuing a formal boast before heading into action, and the hero then demonstrating his massive strength and bravery in the battle itself. In the second and third battle, the poet intensifies the suspense by having Beowulf struggle more than he does in the first fight with Grendel. Against Grendel’s mother, he finds the sword given him by Hrothgar ineffective; however, he spots a magical sword on the cave wall and uses that to slash the beast to her death. When he challenges the dragon, Beowulf is not as fortunate, as he suffers a mortal wound, but he fights to the death and, with the help of loyal thane Wiglaf, kills the dragon in the process.
High action scenes like Beowulf’s battles with the three beasts give the hero further opportunities to pad his impressive resume. When the poem opens, we only hear of Beowulf’s past accomplishments, which he proudly shares as evidence that he is the man to face off and finally defeat Grendel. He begins his speech by stating his current status in Hygelac’s “hall-troop” before listing his success in “b[inding] five beasts, / raid[ing] a troll’s nest and in the night-sea / slaughter[ing] sea-brutes” (420-422). Beowulf has also “avenged the Geats,” which not only demonstrates battle prowess but also loyalty and leadership. The battle with Grendel gives the reader the chance to see Beowulf in action, and he does not...
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disappoint. This monster who has decimated Hrothgar’s populations for over a decade “had [n]ever encountered in any man” such strength as he feels in Beowulf’s “handgrip” (749, 748). The struggle between the two causes widespread destruction in Heorot that must be repaired the entire next day. Beowulf tears a limb from Grendel’s body, leading to “a God-cursed scream” of pain in the beast that suggests how brutal Beowulf’s physical power truly is.
When he goes to fight Grendel’s mother later in the poem, he braves a threatening and unfamiliar environment alone, which again proves his courage, fearlessness, and his never-ending quest for glory. He showcases his superhuman physical abilities by swimming underwater for half a day and lifting a sword that no one else could wield in the fight with Grendel’s mother. After these two conquests, Beowulf lives a peaceful life that is quickly glossed over by the poet, as there is not much action to relate in fifty years of combat-free leadership. However, when the dragon is awoken, Beowulf has one last chance to prove himself an epic hero. He admits that he is challenging the beast “for the glory of winning” (2514). His stubborn insistence on fighting alone is evidence both of his arrogance and of his leadership skills, as part of his motivation is to protect his people. Even though he is killed by the dragon’s poisonous bite, Beowulf’s demise is depicted heroically by the poet. He never gives up, even after his sword breaks. Time after time, “the king / gathered his strength” (2702) and continues to battle. After Beowulf’s death, he is rewarded with a hero's funeral and a monument is erected (by his request) that can be seen as people approach his land from the sea. The poet appropriately ends the poem by commemorating Beowulf’s hero status and gesturing toward the storytelling motif that has pervaded the text: “They said that of all the kings upon the earth / he was the man most gracious and fair-minded, / kindest to his people and keenest to win fame” (3180-3182). These concluding lines highlight some of Beowulf’s key traits, such as his leadership, his relentless pursuit of glory and reputation, and his status above all other men. His entire narrative is told in elevated, lofty, serious language that shows the poet’s true respect for the hero’s achievements. The poem also allows readers to learn about the qualities most highly prized in ancient Scandinavian and Old English culture through the laudatory descriptions of Beowulf and his feats.