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Literature Review: Beowulf

Updated on August 17, 2015

Background

Written sometime between 700 and 1000 AD, and first printed in 1815, an unknown author wrote Beowulf. An epic poem consisting of about 3,000 lines, and possibly the oldest surviving long poem in Old English, characters in the story include Beowulf, Hygelac, Hrothgar, Unferth, Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and Hildeburh. Having reached national epic status in England, it has been given a number of film and television adaptations, including the “Heroes and Demons” episode of Star Trek: Voyager, The 13th Warrior, 2007’s Beowulf directed by Robert Zemeckis and Outlander. The 2007 film also received a comic book adaptation and the story itself was a monthly title in Speakeasy Comics.

Synopsis

Set in Scandinavia, Beowulf, a hero of the Geats, comes to the aid of Hrothgar, king of the Danes. Hrothgar’s mead hall in Heorot has been under attack by a monster known as Grendel. But after Beowulf slays Grendel, the monster’s mother attacks the hall.

Review

Commonly cited as one of the most important works in English literature, Beowulf is a pretty interesting story, especially in light of Beowulf as a character and the development thereof, along with some notable villains.

Beowulf as a character is not only adventurous, but quite a powerful and hardy person, many times with his strength, cunning and ability to survive bordering on crazy stupid. While his characterization may come off in modern times as selfish, arrogant, brutish and attention seeking, to the audience of the Anglo-Saxons that would have initially heard the tale, he was the perfect hero that represented everything they stood for. Not only does the story tell of a swimming competition that he did while wearing mail armor and carrying a sword, but the only reason he lost was because he was ambushed and stayed at the bottom of the ocean because he was killing nine monsters, but he goes to the bottom of the sea again to fight Grendel’s Mother. His companions see this as a normal thing for him to do, seeing as they only begin to worry after a day and few hours have passed. Further, when everyone else believes drinking and partying at Heorot is a good idea when Grendel comes and attacks when everyone is asleep and drunk, Beowulf goes only because it’s the perfect way to get Grendel to come to him. The ensuing battle is one fought barehanded because feigning sleep wouldn’t allow him to draw a weapon in time.

But Beowulf also goes through some noticeable character development following the defeat of Grendel’s mother. While at the beginning his attention seeking does make him rash and headlong in fighting, he eventually does discover how quick to act he was. And with his honor making it so that he would refuse to usurp his family’s throne, once he does become king, he’s able to rule wisely for 50 years. The very reason he goes out to fight the dragon is to save his people first and foremost, with having one last glorious adventure coming in second.

And each of the villains that Beowulf has to fight are also pretty fascinating, especially as they grow in formidableness. First, he has to fight Grendel, who has a skin so tough that weapons weren’t able to penetrate it. However, Grendel seems stupid enough to maintain a pattern that Beowulf can exploit in going back to Heorot and ambushing him there. Additionally, Beowulf’s hand to hand combat of Grendel proves to be quite simple for the hero as he’s able to wrestle him to the ground before ripping his arm off (after all, he has the strength of 30 men in one hand).

But in the fight with Grendel’s mother, Beowulf’s powerful strength alone isn’t going to save him. Rather, he does have to use a weapon. And while the sword of Unferth’s family is useless as Grendel’s mother is immune to weapons forged by human hands, there’s at least The Sword of Giants laying nearby and he’s able to kill her with it, even though her blood is acidic enough to melt the blade. It may be a Deus ex Machina, but at least he tried to use Unferth’s sword first.

Finally, there’s the dragon, which Beowulf does have some difficulty battling, ultimately causing him to need the help of the person that tagged along. And while they are able to best it, with Beowulf making use of a sword and shield, Beowulf does end up dying from it.

4 stars for Beowulf

Final Judgment

With some interesting characteristics for Beowulf along with hallway decent villains, Beowulf is quite deserving of its fame and status. It will receive four stars and hearty recommendation for anyone looking for a good adventure.

the postings on this site are my own and don't necessarily represent WNI's positions, strategies or opinion

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    • Anne Harrison profile image

      Anne Harrison 24 months ago from Australia

      A brave man taking on Beowulf! it is indeed an amazing poem, especially when heard recited in Old English (I once heard a recording of Tolkien doing so). So many themes of this epic are reflected in English literature, and it makes for an interesting counterpoint to the Homeric tradition. Voted up.