Beowulf is the oldest of the great old poems written in English. Estimations trace its origins back to 10th century. The story itself takes place during the first invasion of the Germanic tribes in the 5th to 7th century.
It’s an epic poem, which features a hero who travels long distances to prove his strength. He faces impossible odds against often supernatural monsters and adversaries. Epic poems usually begin in the middle of the story, which is called “in medias res”.
Beowulf is the protagonist of this poem. He is a hero of the Geats. When the king of the Danes, Hrothgar is trouble, he calls for Beowulf”s help. His great hall is continuously attacked by a monster named Grendel. Beowulf manages to slay the beast with his bare hands. He then stumbles upon the monster’s mother and kills her too – with a giant’s sword that he found in their lair.
Later on, Beowulf becomes the king of the Geats and finds his kingdom plagued by a dragon. He attacks the dragon with his servants, but they fail in killing it. So Beowulf follows the dragon back to its lair together with one young relative. There, he succeeds in killing the dragon, though he sustains mortal wounds in doing so. He dies and is cremated. A burial mound is erected in his honour by the sea.
It has been adapted to the big screen several times. My favourite Beowulf movie is the one produced by Neil Gaiman, starring Anthony Hopkins amongst others.
Linguistic evidence shows that the poem was originally composed in the dialect of Mercia, the Midlands of England today. It was converted into the West-Saxon dialect of the South-West. The original manuscript was seriously damaged in 1731 when a fire destroyed the building that housed this work as part of an extraordinary collection of medieval manuscript. As a result, a number of lines and words have bene lost from the poem.
It is possible that Beowulf may be the lone survivor of a genre of Old English long epics. The poet was reviving the heroic language, style and pagan world of ancient Germanic oral poetry. Already remote for his contemporaries and even stranger for the modern reader in many respects, compared to the epic world of Homer and Virgil.
Many of the words and formulaic expressions in Beowulf can be found in other Old English poems. But there are many Hapax Legomena, which are words that are recorded only once in a language (which Shakespeare also had a hand in). This poet was clearly a wordsmith.
Setting of the poem
The poem is English in language and origin, but does not refer to the Old Englishmen but to their Germanic forefathers, the Danes and the Geats (living in Zealand and Southern Sweden).
The time referenced is a time after the invasion of England by Germanic tribes but before the Anglo-Saxon migration was completed. The text shows that the poet’s audience was clearly familiar with many old stories, knowledge that we unfortunately not always have.
Christianity in Beowulf
Nowadays, it is believed that Beowulf is the work of a single poet who was a Christian and that the poem reflects well-established Christian traditions. But the hero Beowulf himself is no Christian; rather he is pagan.
Instances of Christian imagery in Beowulf:
- The monster Grendel is said to originate from Cain (as in Cain and Able)
- There are allusions to God’s judgement and to fate (the Wyrd in the poem) but non of the pagan deities
- There are no references to the New Testament, but Hrothgar and Beowulf do believe in a single God
- The Danes, desperate because of the Grendel attacks, pray for help at forgotten shrines which is similar to the children of Israel’s backslide in their march out of Egypt
- The Danish king Hrothgar’s poet sings a song about the Creation (lines 87 – 98), reminiscent of Caedmon’s Hymn
Knighthood in Beowulf
Beowulf and Hrotgar are presented as morally upright and enlightened. They also affirm the values of Germanic heroic poetry.
The most important relationship in these warrior societies were those of the knight and his lord. The relationship was based on the subordination of one man’s will to another on mutual trust and respect. The knight was not a servant but a voluntary companion. They would take pride in defending their lords, who would look after their families in return. Great kings were referred to as the shield of their people.
The relationship between kinsmen was of an equally deep significance to this society. When one’s kinsmen had been slain, this relative had to be avenged by killing the killer or obliging the killer to pay a certain “man-price” in promise to keep him alive, even if the killing was an accident. When you wouldn’t avenge your kinsmen’s killer, everlasting shame would be yours.
In Beowulf, Hrothgar’s anguish over the murder of his men by Grendel is already bad enough. But as a lord, he feels guilty for the revenge he fails to take. It is a shame for him not to be able to avenge or to exact a man-price.
The use of irony
Blood vengeance was important to the society in which this story is set. But in a show of irony, the poet of the Beowulf story clearly warns the reader against it. Which we see most of all in the Finnsburg episode (which is the poem sung by Hrothgar’s poet). The poet wants to warn us that when we always avenge each other, we will finally exterminate all mankind.
Another example of irony is the tension between Christianity and the Heroic code. The poet realises that Beowulf is a great hero. But at the same time, he is a pagan and will not go to heaven (while that would be the result of being a hero according to the heroic code).
In fact, the entire poem could be viewed as the poet’s lament for heroes like Beowulf who went into darkness without the light of his own Christian faith.
Beowulf has a somber, dignified elegiac mood. It opens and closes with the description of a funeral, showing death is everywhere.
Beowulf is first mentioned in the story as an ambitious young hero. At the end, he is an old king facing a dragon and death. His people mourn and praise him (like the poet) for his nobility, generosity, courage and most of all (which is less common in Germanic heroes) kindness to his people.