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Beowulf: Everything You Need to Know

Updated on May 16, 2016
Battle With Dragon
Battle With Dragon

Beowul is an Old English epic poem consisting of 3182 alliterative lines. The full poem survives in the manuscript known as the Nowell Codex, located in the British Library. It is the oldest surviving long poem in Old English and is commonly cited as one of the most important works of Old English literature. By the time the story of Beowulf was composed by an unknown Anglo-Saxon poet around 700-800, much of its material had been in circulation in oral narrative for many years. The Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian peoples had invaded the island of Britain and settled there several hundred years earlier, bringing with them several closely related Germanic languages that would evolve into Old English. Elements of the Beowulf story including its setting and characters date back to the period before the migration. The poem may have been brought to England by people of Geatish origins. The action of the poem takes place around 500 A.D. Many of the characters in the poem—the Swedish and Danish royal family members, for example correspond to actual historical figures.

Earlier the main interest in Beowulf was primarily historical—the text was viewed as a source of information about the Anglo-Saxon era. It was not until 1936, when the Oxford scholar J.R.R. Tolkien published a groundbreaking paper entitled “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics” that the manuscript gained recognition as a serious work of art. Compared to modern English, Old English is heavily Germanic, with little influence from Latin or French. As English history developed, after the French Normans conquered the Anglo-Saxons in 1066, Old English was gradually broadened by offerings from those languages. Thus modern English is derived from a number of sources and is rich. It was written in alliterative verse. Each line of Old English poetry is divided into two halves, separated by a caesura, or pause. Old English poetry often features a distinctive set of rhetorical devices. The most common of these is the kenning, used throughout Beowulf. Kenning employs figurative language in place of a more concrete single-word noun. Thus a ship might be called a “sea-rider,” or a king a “ring-giver”. Another device was epithet that is any word or phrase applied to a person or thing to describe an actual or attributed quality and thus emphasizing it. Beowulf also includes devices like Litotes, Hyperbole but in much lower extant.

Anglo-Saxon & Norse life:
The world that Beowulf depicts and the heroic code of honor. It was composed in England (not in Scandinavia) and records the values and culture of a bygone era. In the Scandinavian world of the story, tiny tribes of people rally around strong kings, who protect their people from danger—especially from confrontations with other tribes. The warrior culture that results from this early feudal arrangement is extremely important to our understanding of Saxon civilization. Strong kings demand bravery and loyalty from their warriors, whom they repay with treasures won in war. Mead halls such as Herot in Beowulf were places where warriors would gather in the presence of their lord to drink, boast, tell stories, and receive gifts. Beowulf depicts warrior culture of contemporary Nordic society.

Unferth gives beowulf a sword named Hrunting to fight against Grendel's mother although it fails to do any harm to her. But Beowulf slays her with a magic sword preserved in the cave of Grendel's mother. Being successful in killing the monsters the Danish king Hrothgar bestows upon him lots of gifts consisting of weapons. Beowulf then passes on his rewards to his king Hygelac, thereby establishing his obligation to his king. As a present Hygelac also gave Beowulf a sword named Naegling. Swords had great significance in the war centred culture from which Beowulf arises. Therefore, emphasis is strongly placed on the exchange of weapons. As Unferth passes his sword to Beowulf, he admits the loss of his glory, and his submission to this greater warrior.

The Story Summary:
Beowulf, a hero of the Geats, comes to the aid of Hrothgar, the king of the Danes, whose mead hall in Heorot has been under attack by a monster known as Grendel. After Beowulf slays him, Grendel's mother attacks the hall and is then also defeated. Victorious, Beowulf goes home to Geatland (Götaland in modern Sweden) and later becomes king of the Geatland. After a period of 50 years has passed, Beowulf defeats a fire-breathing dragon with help of Wiglaf (Beowulf's thane), but is fatally wounded in the battle and dies. After his death, his attendants cremate his body and erect a tower on a headland in his memory.

Religious Elements:
Originally pagan warriors, the Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian invaders experienced a large-scale conversion to Christianity at the end of the sixth century. Though still an old pagan story, Beowulf thus came to be told by a Christian poet. The Beowulf poet is often at pains to attribute Christian thoughts and motives to his characters, who frequently behave in distinctly pagan ways. That's why Beowulf has both pagan and christian elements intermingled in it.

Christian elements: Although Beowulf is a Norse pagan myth, most believe it was originally written down by a Christian monk who incorporated several Christian elements into the dialogue and plot. Most importantly, at the end of the story, Beowulf, like Christ, gives up his own life to save others. However, there are several other references to God and Christianity. In many ways the three monsters Beowulf faces resemble the devil. When Beowulf is getting ready to battle Grendel, he says, "May the Divine Lord in His wisdom grant the glory of victory to whichever side he sees fit." After he has cut off Grendel's arm and shoulder he remarks "If God had not helped me, the outcome would have been quick and fatal". Although he never mentioned about Jesus he admits the presence of a higher power, authority and described God as "Lord of men" and as "Ruler of mankind" several times. In addition to many examples of Beowulf giving thanks to God for his victories, there are also some specific biblical references. Grendel is said to be a descendent of Cain, Adam and Eve's son who murdered his brother, Abel. Hrothgar's fatherly words of advice to Beowulf after his defeat of Grendel's mother is often compared to Christ's Sermon on the Mount. Also, the betrayal of Beowulf's thanes (except Wiglaf who was loyal to Beowulf) during his fight with the dragon is often seen to be similar to the last supper and betrayal by Judas before Christ's death.

Pagan elements: Before written down Beowulf was in oral tradition for much time which downplayed pagan elemts to much extant but still there are several pagan elements in the story. Norse pagan belief of Wyrd or fate is evident. Use of special sword with names was a pagan tradition of contemporary Nordic warrior society. There was also a pagan tradition of ritualized offerings and gifts from kings to thanes and warriors present in Beowulf. When Beowulf died his body was cremated in a pagan way. There is also example of ship burial in Beowulf. So we can say Beowulf as originally a pagan story with "christian coloring" by scribes.

Epical Traits:
Epic is a long poem, typically one derived from ancient oral tradition, narrating the deeds and adventures of heroic or legendary figures or the past history of a nation with detailed specific events. Beowulf contains 3182 lines and more than 30 characters. The story tells of Beowulf's quest, journey and battles as an hero. Beowulf is considered an epic poem in that the main character is a hero who travels great distances to prove his strength at impossible odds against supernatural demons and beasts defeating Grendel, Grendel's mother and a Dragon. Beowulf's Descent Into a Magic Underworld - the description of both the magic as well as the trip into and out of an underworld are common aspects of epic poems. The poem also begins in medias res ("into the middle of affairs") which is a characteristic of the epics of antiquity. Although the poem begins with Beowulf's arrival, Grendel's attacks had been an ongoing event. An elaborate, detailed history of events, characters and their lineages is spoken of, as well as their interactions with each other, debts owed and repaid, and their deeds of valor. Like some ancient epics Beowulf was in oral traditions for years before it was finally written down. Thus we can conclude calling Beowulf as an epic.


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