Beowulf – Other Ancient Civilizations – Classical Literature
(Epic poem, anonymous, Old English, c. 8th Century CE, 3,182 lines)
Back to Top of Page
“Beowulf” is a heroic epic poem written by an unknown author in Old English, some time between the 8th and the 10th Century CE. It is one of the most important works of Anglo-Saxon literature, and has been the subject of much scholarly study, theory, speculation and discourse. It tells the story of the hero Beowulf, and his battles against the monster Grendel (and Grendel’s mother), and against an unnamed dragon.
Back to Top of Page
The poem begins with a history of the Danish kings, starting with Shild (whose funeral is described in the Prologue) and leading up to the reign of the current king Hrothgar, Shild’s great-grandson. Hrothgar is well loved by his people and successful in war. He builds a lavish hall, called Herot (or Heorot), to house his vast army, and when the hall is finished the Danish soldiers gather under its roof to celebrate.
However, provoked by the singing and carousing of Hrothgar’s followers, Grendel, a monster in human shape who lives at the bottom of a nearby swamp, appears at the hall late one night and kills thirty of the warriors in their sleep. For the next twelve years the fear of Grendel‘s potential fury casts a shadow over the lives of the Danes. Hrothgar and his advisers can think of nothing to appease the monster’s anger.
Beowulf, prince of the Geats, hears about Hrothgar’s troubles, and gathers fourteen of his bravest warriors, and sets sail from his home in southern Sweden. The Geats are greeted by the members of Hrothgar’s court, and Beowulf boasts to the king of his previous successes as a warrior, particularly his success in fighting sea monsters. Hrothgar welcomes the arrival of the Geats, hoping that Beowulf will live up to his reputation. During the banquet that follows Beowulf‘s arrival, Unferth, a Danish soldier, voices his doubts about Beowulf‘s past accomplishments, and Beowulf, in turn, accuses Unferth of killing his brothers. Before retiring for the night, Hrothgar promises Beowulf great treasures if he meets with success against the monster.
That night, Grendel appears at Herot, and Beowulf, true to his word, wrestles the monster bare-handed. He tears off the monster’s arm at the shoulder, but Grendel escapes, only to die soon afterward at the bottom of the snake-infested swamp where he and his mother live. The Danish warriors, who had fled the hall in fear, return singing songs in praise of Beowulf‘s triumph and performing heroic stories in Beowulf‘s honour. Hrothgar rewards Beowulf with a great store of treasures and, after another banquet, the warriors of both the Geats and the Danes retire for the night.
Unknown to the warriors, however, Grendel‘s mother is plotting revenge for her son’s death. She arrives at the hall when all the warriors are sleeping and carries off Esher, Hrothgar’s chief adviser. Beowulf, rising to the occasion, offers to dive to the bottom of the lake, find the monster’s dwelling place, and destroy her. He and his men follow the monster’s tracks to the cliff overlooking the lake where Grendel‘s mother lives, where they see Esher’s bloody head floating on the surface of the lake. Beowulf prepares for battle and asks Hrothgar to look after his warriors and to send his treasures to his uncle, King Higlac, if he does not return safely.
During the ensuing battle, Grendel‘s mother carries Beowulf down to her underwater home, but Beowulf finally kills the monster with a magical sword that he finds on the wall of her home. He also finds Grendel‘s dead body, cuts off the head, and returns to dry land. The Geat and Danish warriors, waiting expectantly, celebrate as Beowulf has now purged Denmark of the race of evil monsters.
They return to Hrothgar’s court, where the Danish king is duly thankful, but warns Beowulf against the dangers of pride and the fleeting nature of fame and power. The Danes and Geats prepare a great feast in celebration of the death of the monsters and the next morning the Geats hurry to their boat, anxious to begin the trip home. Beowulf bids farewell to Hrothgar and tells the old king that if the Danes ever again need help he will gladly come to their assistance. Hrothgar presents Beowulf with more treasures and they embrace, emotionally, like father and son.
Beowulf and the Geats sail home and, after recounting the story of his battles with Grendel and Grendel‘s mother, Beowulf tells the Geat king Higlac about the feud between Denmark and their enemies, the Hathobards. He describes the proposed peace settlement, in which Hrothgar will give his daughter Freaw to Ingeld, king of the Hathobards, but predicts that the peace will not last long. Higlac rewards Beowulf for his bravery with parcels of land, swords and houses.
In the second part of the poem, set many years later, Higlac is dead, and Beowulf has been king of the Geats for some fifty years. One day, a thief steals a jewelled cup from a sleeping dragon, and the dragon avenges his loss by flying through the night burning down houses, including Beowulf‘s own hall and throne. Beowulf goes to the cave where the dragon lives, vowing to destroy it single-handed. He is an old man now, however, and his strength is not as great as it was when he fought against Grendel. During the battle, Beowulf breaks his sword against the dragon’s side and the dragon, enraged, engulfs Beowulf in flames, wounding him in the neck.
All of Beowulf‘s followers flee except Wiglaf, who rushes through the flames to assist the aging warrior. Wiglaf stabs the dragon with his sword, and Beowulf, in a final act of courage, cuts the dragon in half with his knife.
However, the damage is done, and Beowulf realizes that he is dying, and that he has fought his last battle. He asks Wiglaf to take him to the dragon’s storehouse of treasures, jewels and gold, which brings him some comfort and make him feel that the effort has perhaps been worthwhile. He instructs Wiglaf to build a tomb to be known as “Beowulf‘s tower” on the edge of the sea there.
After Beowulf dies, Wiglaf admonishes the troops who deserted their leader while he was fighting against the dragon, telling them that they have been untrue to the standards of bravery, courage and loyalty that Beowulf has taught. Wiglaf sends a messenger to a nearby encampment of Geat soldiers with instructions to report the outcome of the battle. The messenger predicts that the enemies of the Geats will feel free to attack them now that their great king is dead.
Wiglaf supervises the building of Beowulf’s funeral pyre. In keeping with Beowulf‘s instructions, the dragon’s treasure is buried alongside his ashes in the tomb, and the poem ends as it began, with the funeral of a great warrior.
Back to Top of Page
“Beowulf” is the oldest known epic poem written in English, although its date is not known with any certainty (the best estimate being 8th Century CE, and definitely before the early 11th century CE). The author is likewise unknown, and represents a question that has mystified readers for centuries. It is generally thought that the poem was performed orally by memory by the poet or by a “scop” (a travelling entertainer), and was passed down in this way passed down to readers and listeners, or that it was finally written down at the request of a king who wanted to hear it again.
Because of the unified structure of the poem, with its interweaving of historical information into the flow of the main narrative, the poem was most likely composed by one person, although there are two distinct parts to the poem and some scholars believe that the sections which take place in Denmark and the sections which take place back in Beowulf’s homeland were written by different authors.
It is written in a dialect known as Old English (also referred to as Anglo-Saxon), a dialect that had become the language of its time by about the early part of the 6th Century CE, in the wake of the occupation of the Romans and the increasing influence of Christianity. Old English is a heavily accented language, so different from modern English as to appear almost unrecognizable, and its poetry is known for its emphasis on alliteration and rhythm. Each line of “Beowulf” is divided into two distinct half-lines (each containing at least four syllables), separated by a pause and related by the repetition of sounds. Almost no lines in Old English poetry end in rhymes in the conventional sense, but the alliterative quality of the verse gives the poetry its music and rhythm.
The poet also makes use of a stylistic device called “kenning”, a method of naming a person or thing by using a phrase that signified a quality of that person or thing (e.g. a warrior might be described as “the helmet-bearing one”). Another characteristic of the poet’s style is his use of litotes, a form of understatement, often with negative overtones, which is intended to create a sense of irony.
Most often the characters just deliver speeches to one another, and there are no real conversations as such. However, the story is kept moving quickly by leaping from one event to another. There is some use of historical digressions, similar to the use of flashbacks in modern movies and novels, and this interweaving of events of the present and the past is a major structural device. The poet also sometimes shifts the point of view in the midst of an action in order to offer multiple perspectives (for example, to show the reactions of the warriors who are looking on as an audience in almost every battle).
“Beowulf” is part of the tradition of epic poetry that began with the poems of Homer and Virgil, and it deals with the affairs and deeds of brave men, but, like its classical models, it makes no attempt to portray a whole life chronologically from beginning to end. It also functions as a kind of history, blending past, present, and future in a unique, all-encompassing way. It is not just a simple tale about a man who kills monsters and dragons, but rather a large-scale vision of human history.
As in the earlier classical epic poems of Greece and Rome, the characters are generally presented in realistic fashion, but also from time to time as the poet considers they ought to be. Occasionally, the poet breaks his objective tone to offer a moral judgment on one of his characters, although for the most part he lets the actions of the characters speak for themselves. As in the classical tradition of epic poetry, the poem is concerned with human values and moral choices: the characters are capable of performing acts of great courage, but conversely they are also capable of suffering intensely for their deeds.
The poet attempts to some extent to reconcile the “human” and the “heroic” sides of Beowulf’s personality. Although he is described as greater and stronger than anyone anywhere in the world, and clearly commands immediate respect and attention, he is also portrayed as courteous, patient and diplomatic in his manner, and lacks the brusqueness and coldness of a superior and hubristic hero. He boasts to Hrothgar of his bravery, but does so mainly as a practical means of getting what he wants.
Although Beowulf may act selflessly, governed by a code of ethics and an intuitive understanding of other people, a part of him nevertheless has no real idea of why he acts the way he does, and this is perhaps the tragic flaw in his character. Certainly, fame, glory and wealth are also among his motivations, as well as practical considerations such as a desire to pay his father’s debt. He seems to have no great desire to become king of the Geats and, when first offered the throne, he refuses, preferring to play the role of warrior-son. Likewise, he never appears quite certain whether his success as a warrior is due to his own strength or to God’s help, indicating some spiritual conflicts which raise him above the level of a mere stock hero figure.
The Danish king Hrothgar is perhaps the most human character in the poem, and the person with whom it may be easiest for us to identify. He appears wise, but also lacking the courage expected of a great warrior-king, and age has clearly robbed him of the power to act decisively. After Beowulf has killed Grendel‘s mother, Hrothgar takes Beowulf to one side in a very concerned and fatherly manner and advises him to guard against wickedness and the evils of pride, and to use his powers for the betterment of other people. When Beowulf is departing from Denmark, Hrothgar shows that he is not afraid to show his emotions as he embraces and kisses the young warrior and bursts into tears. The old king’s modest show of vanity in building the huge hall, Herot, as a permanent monument to his achievments is perhaps his only real flaw, and it could be argued that this display of pride or vanity is what attracted Grendel’s attention in the first place and set the whole tragedy in motion.
The character of Wiglaf in the second part of the poem, although a relatively minor character, is nevertheless important to the overall structure of the poem. He represents the young warrior who helps the aging King Beowulf in his battle against the dragon in the second part of the poem, in much the same way as the younger Beowulf helped King Hrothgar in the first part. He is a perfect example of the idea of “comitatus”, the loyalty of the warrior to his leader, and, while all his fellow warriors flee the dragon in fear, Wiglaf alone comes to the aid of his king. Like the young Beowulf, he is also a model of self-control, determined to act in a way that he believes to be right.
The monster Grendel is an extreme example of evil and corruption, possessing no human feelings except hatred and bitterness toward mankind. However, unlike human beings, who can contain elements of good and evil, there seem to be no way that Grendel can ever be converted to goodness. As much as he stands for a symbol of evil, Grendel also represents disorder and chaos, a projection of all that was most frightening to the Anglo-Saxon mind.
The main theme of the poem is the conflict between good and evil, most obviously exemplified by the physical conflict between Beowulf and Grendel. However, good and evil are also presented in the poem not as mutually exclusive opposites, but as dual qualities present in everyone. The poem also makes clear our need for a code of ethics, which allows members of society to relate to one another with understanding and trust.
Another theme is that of youth and age. In the first part, we see Beowulf as the young, daring prince, in contrast with Hrothgar, the wise but aging king. In the second part, Beowulf, the aging but still heroic warrior, is contrasted with his young follower, Wiglaf.
In some ways, “Beowulf” represents a link between two traditions, the old pagan traditions (exemplified by the virtues of courage in war and the acceptance of feuds between men and countries as a fact of life) and the new traditions of the Christian religion. The poet, probably himself a Christian, makes it clear that idol worshipping is a definite threat to Christianity, although he chooses to make no comment on Beowulf’s pagan burial rites. The character of Beowulf himself is not particularly concerned with Christian virtues like meekness and poverty and, although he clearly wants to help people, in a Christian sort of way, his motivation for doing so is complicated. Hrothgar is perhaps the character who least fits into the old pagan tradition, and some readers see him as modelled after an “Old Testament” biblical king.
Back to Top of Page
- Original Old English and facing English translation by Benjamin Slade (Beowulf in Cyberspace): http://www.heorot.dk/beo-ru.html
- Audio readings of selected sections by Benjamin Slade (Beowulf Translations): http://www.beowulftranslations.net/benslade.shtml
- Links to over 100 English translations (Beowulf Translations): http://www.beowulftranslations.net/