Beowulf epitomizes the epic genre: a long narrative poem written in an elevated style that relates the trials and great achievements of an idealized hero. In this poem, Anglo-Saxon warriors live by the Heroic Code, which demands loyalty and a life lived honorably. The epic’s hero, the Geat (Swedish) Introductory warrior Beowulf, wins glory by coming to the aid of Hrothgar, an aging Danish king besieged by the monster Grendel. Beowulf battles and beats Grendel and Grendel’s fearsome mother, becomes king over his own people, rules his land well for fifty years, and, finally, meets his death when he kills a dragon that threatens his people.
The values and culture reflected in Beowulf belong to a bygone age of strong kings ruling over small tribes that frequently war with each other. The king, or thane, bestows treasure on his warriors to reward them for their loyalty and competence in battle, and tales of the warriors’ feats are passed along through generations. In Beowulf, stories about the trials and tribulations of historical heroes such as Shield Sheafson, the progenitor of the Danish royal line, serve as digressions meant to entertain and to accentuate Beowulf’s accomplishments as the hero.
In addition to digressions, the epic contains literary devices that reflect the Old English in which it was first written: kennings, short and often hyphenated metaphorical descriptions used in place of a thing’s name (e.g., sea-rider = ship; ring-giver = king), and alliteration, the repetition of the initial consonant sound in two or more words in a line. In the original Beowulf, alliteration appears in every line, and kennings are found throughout the text. Both kennings and alliteration are mnemonic devices that aid memory; their frequent presence in Beowulf reflects how the story was first shared, told orally as it was passed down through generations. Caesuras, a break or pause in a line of poetry, usually in the middle of a line, and epithets, a descriptive expression (a word or phrase), often preceding or following a name which serves to describe the character (e.g., Beowulf, son of Ecgtheow), are additional literary devices used throughout Beowulf and are characteristic of Anglo-Saxon poetry.
While the story takes place in what is now Denmark and Sweden, Beowulf is the oldest surviving piece of literature in the English language. It may have been created orally as early as AD 700 before it was written down in Old English, the language of the Anglo-Saxons, most likely around AD 1000. A resurgence of literary interest in the poem occurred during the 1800s; as the work lacked an author or a title, scholars at that time named it after its Scandinavian hero, Beowulf.
The epic reflects the philosophical beliefs and cultural values of the pagan Saxons, but by the time Beowulf was transcribed, most Anglo-Saxons had converted to Christianity. Consequently, essential elements of Christian theology and numerous biblical allusions were incorporated into the text, creating obvious contradictions within its content: God is supreme, but Wyrd (fate) rules men’s lives; Grendel is a mythical monster with supernatural powers, but he is also “a fiend out of hell” who “[works] his evil in the world”; and Grendel and his race of monsters are cast as the direct descendants of Cain, forever banished by the Creator for the original sin of murdering Abel. The presence of Christian theology in Beowulf, however, is only a thin literary veneer; the circumstances of the story itself and its violent, mythical events remain pagan in content and tone as the Heroic Code is embraced through the character of Beowulf. Additionally, the importance of revenge and the prevalence of blood feuds were central to the heroic culture and contrast completely with Christian values of peace and forgiveness.
Beowulf is a deceptively simple tale in terms of plot: Goodness confronts and ultimately destroys evil. However, significant and often complex ideas are developed through symbolism: the intrinsic value of community, the true nature of evil, and the essential importance of filial and tribal identity. Preserved for more than a thousand years, the poem reflects a culture far different from our own, yet the ideals of loyalty, courage, and sacrifice it celebrates transcend cultural differences and resonate with modern readers. Additionally, the influence of Beowulf as an ideal hero can been seen in various forms of contemporary literature and in the media.
By the end of the unit the student will be able to:
1. Identify the primary themes in Beowulf.
2. Identify the symbols developed in Beowulf and discuss their significance.
3. Identify the common roots of the Heroic Code (reputation, honor, and loyalty) and of identity (filial and tribal) and discuss how these are developed thematically in the poem.
4. Determine and define the elements that make Beowulf one of the most celebrated epics of all time.
5. Identify examples of pagan values and Christian beliefs and explain the notions of “good” and “evil” illustrated in the poem.
6. Consider and discuss the themes of fame and glory, especially in regard to Beowulf’s character.
7. Identify examples of the motifs of monsters, demons, death, and violence and discuss their significance.
8. Explain how, and through which characters, revenge is exacted throughout the poem.
9. Identify examples of kennings and alliteration and discuss their value as mnemonic devices.
10. Compare and contrast Beowulf and Hrothgar as kings.
This eNotes lesson plan is designed so that it may be used in numerous ways to accommodate ESL students and to differentiate instruction in the classroom.
Student Study Guide
- The Study Guide is organized to study the poem in sections indicated by line numbers. Study Guide pages may be assigned individually and completed at a student’s own pace.
- Study Guide pages may be used as pre-reading activities to preview for students the vocabulary words they will encounter in reading each section of the poem and to acquaint them generally with its content.
- Before Study Guide pages are assigned, questions may be selected from them to use as short quizzes to assess reading comprehension.
(The entire section is 1199 words.)
1. Why would the narrative of Beowulf’s heroic exploits begin with a detailed history of the Danish nation?
2. What is your impression of the society in which Beowulf was created? Consider the episode beginning in line 1070 in which the minstrel sings about Finn and the Frisians, and explain what this passage reflects about the time.
3. What is Grendel’s motivation for his attacks? What are its origins?
4. Do Grendel and his mother evoke sympathy? Why or why not? Does the poem’s hero, Beowulf, arouse any antagonism in the reader? Why or why not?
5. After Beowulf kills Grendel and his mother (lines 1709-2210), Hrothgar tells him a story about King Heremod....
(The entire section is 530 words.)
aghast: filled with horror or shock
anathema: a person or thing vehemently disliked
desolate: bleak, empty, bare
fens: low, marshy, frequently flooded areas of land
foundling: an abandoned infant cared for by others
malignant: virulent, infectious
marauding: roaming in search of property to steal or people to attack
reaver: archaic a plunderer, a robber
renege: to go back on a promise or a contract
respite: rest or relief from something difficult or exhausting
scourge: to whip someone as punishment
tholed: endured something without complaint
1. What made...
(The entire section is 1677 words.)
formidable: inspiring fear and respect; powerful
gloating: contemplating and dwelling on one’s own success or another’s misfortune
glut: an excessive supply of something
gumption: shrewd initiative and resourcefulness
interloper: a person who is considered not to belong in a place or in a situation
mongering: dealing in a specific commodity
recompense: to make amends to someone for loss or harm done to them
resolute: purposeful, determined
valiant: possessing or showing great courage
wane: to decline, to decrease
1. How is Beowulf greeted when he arrives in Denmark?...
(The entire section is 633 words.)
atrocity: an extremely cruel or wicked act
coffer: a strongbox for holding treasures
din: noise, racket
filigree: fine, ornamental work
mettle: a person’s ability to cope with difficulties with resilience
pinioned: tied, bound, or restrained
swathed: wrapped in several layers of fabric
vied: competed eagerly with someone
wassail: archaic to carouse, to drink alcohol merrily and noisily
1. How is the night that Beowulf arrives in Denmark spent?
The Danes and the Geats spend the evening drinking, feasting, and telling and listening to stories in turn....
(The entire section is 637 words.)
bane: a cause of annoyance or distress
bawn: the defensive wall surrounding a tower
canny: shrewd, especially in business affairs
loping: running with a bounding stride
manacled: bound with a metal chain or strand
mauled: wounded by scratching or tearing
stealthy: slow, deliberate, and secret in action
unremitting: never relaxing or slackening
1. How does Beowulf choose to fight Grendel? Why?
Beowulf says that he will fight Grendel without weapons because Grendel “scorns” to use them himself. Also, if Beowulf can defeat Grendel with his bare...
(The entire section is 387 words.)
ignominious: deserving or causing public shame or disgrace
loathsome: causing hatred or disgust
prowess: skill or expertise
1. Why is there tension between the Heroic Code and the cultural values at the time?
The Heroic Code is about honor in this life, whereas Christianity is about honor in the afterlife. At the time the story of Beowulf was likely being told orally, paganism was waning and Christianity was spreading.
2. How are the themes of reputation, fame, and glory evident in this section?
There is much rejoicing in general, and “clan chiefs flocking from far...
(The entire section is 339 words.)
arbitrate: to judge or decide
blather: to chatter or talk long-windedly without making much sense
effulgent: shining brightly or radiantly
embossed: decorated with a carved or molded design that stands out in relief
puny: small and weak
resplendent: richly colorful and sumptuous
1. At the feast celebrating Beowulf’s victory over Grendel, Queen Wealhtheow makes a toast. What does this toast indicate about her, her role within the community, and her relationship to her husband, King Hrothgar?
This short passage suggests that the regal, commanding Queen Wealhtheow has a mind of her own. Loyal to kin, she...
(The entire section is 910 words.)
depredation: an attack, an act of plundering
lurked: lay in wait while concealed from sight
marauder: one who roams about and raids in search of plunder
mere: a lake, a pond
sallied: went forth in a military procession
slather: to spread or smear thickly
uncanny: strange, mysterious, eerie
1. What is the threat that “lurked” in the night?
Grendel’s mother, a “monstrous hell-bride,” is the next threat to King Hrothgar and his kingdom.
2. Why is Grendel’s mother a threat? What is her motivation?
Grendel’s mother is angry with King Hrothgar and his...
(The entire section is 367 words.)
avenge: to inflict harm in return for an injury or wrong done to oneself or another
bulwark: strong support; protection
1. According to Beowulf, what is better than mourning?
Beowulf declares that “it is always better / to avenge dear ones than to indulge in mourning.”
2. What do King Hrothgar, Beowulf, and their men find when they get to the lake where Grendel’s mother lives in her lair?
The Danes and the Geats see Aeschere’s head at the foot of a cliff near the lake; they also see all kinds of monsters and demons, such as “writhing sea-dragons,” snakes, and “wild things.”
(The entire section is 552 words.)
damascened: iron or steel given a wavy pattern by hammer-welding and repeated heating and forging
deluge: to inundate or overflow with water
severance: the act of ending a connection or relationship
1. What does Beowulf bring back from the depths of the hellish lake? What do they signify?
Beowulf returns with the head of Grendel, whose corpse he found at the bottom of the lake, as well as the hilt of the sword that killed Grendel’s mother. Both are trophies, symbols of Beowulf’s power as a warrior and the triumph of good over evil.
2. Why does the sword’s blade melt?
We are led to...
(The entire section is 484 words.)
alacrity: brisk, cheerful readiness
covet: to yearn to possess something
ensconce: to establish or settle someone in a safe, comfortable place
felicity: joy, happiness
gorget: armor for the throat
hasten: to be quick to do something
scion: a descendent of a noble family
seafaring: regularly traveling by sea
tarn: a small mountain lake
vehement: forceful, passionate
1. When Beowulf wakes up the morning after killing Grendel and his mother, what does he pledge to Hrothgar? Why?
As part of his Heroic Code, Beowulf pledges that he will come to the aid of Hrothgar “with a...
(The entire section is 1389 words.)
fray: a situation of intense activity, typically one incorporating an element of aggression or competition
hoard: to amass and hide or store away
infallible: incapable of making mistakes or being wrong
prodigious: impressive in size, degree, or amount
quelled: put an end to; subdued, usually by force
reconnoiter: to scout or explore with the idea of finding something or someone
slaked: quenched or satisfied
strife: angry, bitter disagreements; conflict
virulent: extremely severe or harmful
1. We learn in a narrative digression about the circumstances that led to Beowulf’s...
(The entire section is 1582 words.)
disconsolate: without consolation or comfort; unhappy
extolled: praised enthusiastically
furled: rolled or folded up and secured neatly
graith: furniture, gear, or accoutrements for travel, work, or war
litany: a tedious recital or repetitive series
parried: warded off; made a countermove with a weapon
1. As Beowulf lies dying, what does he ask Wiglaf to do? Why?
As Beowulf lies dying of the poison in his wounds from the dragon, he asks Wiglaf to inspect the dragon’s hoard and bring some of it back for him to see. Throughout the poem, gold and treasure symbolize strength and power. (It is the king who...
(The entire section is 689 words.)
1. Which king is descended from Shield Sheafson, the founder of the ruling house?
2. Why does Grendel have a grievance with the Danes?
A. Grendel is simply mean.
B. Grendel’s mother encouraged his anger toward the Danes.
C. The Danes tormented and hunted him.
D. He hates the sounds of loud feasting and the music and singing in the mead-hall.
E. The Danes had killed members of his family.
3. Which “clan” is Grendel a member of?...
(The entire section is 1309 words.)
1. Identify at least three major symbols in the poem, and discuss what they symbolize.
Beowulf is a deceptively simple tale in terms of plot that develops symbolism throughout to communicate more complicated ideas. Several major symbols are found in the poem: gold and treasure; Heorot, Hrothgar’s great hall; the monster Grendel; the dragon; and the lake.
Gold and treasure appear often throughout the poem. They are loaded into boats as spoils, given as rewards and gifts in the mead-halls, and buried in caves or hidden in the earth for ages; gold is worn as adornment and gilded into armor. Gold and treasure symbolize power and respect. They are often the mark of a good king or a bad one, as evidenced by how...
(The entire section is 3332 words.)