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Analysis of the Classic Tale "Beowulf"

Updated on July 1, 2014
"Beowulf and the Dragon" Illustration from J. R. Skelton's 1908 "Stories of Beowulf"
"Beowulf and the Dragon" Illustration from J. R. Skelton's 1908 "Stories of Beowulf" | Source

"Beowulf"

The classic tale “Beowulf” presents a tale of heroism while presenting insight into the concepts of virtue and community in medieval times. The anonymous writer of the story shares the story from a Christian perspective although the ancient pagan beliefs are offered as proof of this tale’s lineage of oral storytelling in the German tradition in current day Scandinavia. Modern perception of virtue and community differ from that shown by the characters of “Beowulf.” Through interpretation of classic literature modern readers can gain understanding of the value systems of the past.

Good and Evil Defined by “Beowulf”

“Beowulf” offers an interesting view of good and evil in medieval times. Although the character Beowulf is boastful and proud he is considered to be virtuous. He acts on behalf of others facing danger even at risk of death to solve issues. Those who work toward the good of the kingdom and community are viewed as good and those who work against the kingdom are evil. The character Grendel is characterized as jealous of the community’s happiness and works against them. He is presented as a descendant of Cain, offering a Christian reference of penance for sins against one’s father. This tie to family is presented through “Beowulf” as characters are known for their lineage. Grendel is evil for fighting against those enjoying the mead hall, although one could argue that the people in the mead hall are drinking to excess, taking advantage of women, and were behaving sinful to some Christian perspectives. “Beowulf” introduces Grendel “a fiend out of Hell began to work his evil in the world” (Greenblatt & Abrams, 2006, p. 33, 100-101). Grendel’s mother is also seen as evil although she is acting out of vengeance for her son who could be considered righteous in a medieval context. Essentially good is defined as allegiance to the community and king, and evil is considered anyone who goes against the community and king. Beowulf is presented as the image of good in the story. His actions gain him fame for his heroism, strength and bravery (Litcharts, 2011).

Heroism and Ethical Virtue

Ability is valued in the story of “Beowulf.” Beowulf is considered the hero for his strength and bravery. Although Hrothgar is a beloved king, he and his men were unable to win against Grendel presenting them as weak. The character of Unferth is outshined by Beowulf through the story. He is considered to be less virtuous for his lack of ability as well as for speaking ill of Beowulf (Litcharts, 2011). Boasting is considered acceptable in this community but disparaging others is not. A warrior’s ability goes beyond heroic, the power of the fighters was a direct reflection of the community. This is presented as Wiglaf tell Beowulf’s men that by running from the dragon that they are not only shaming themselves, they are bringing ruin to their people (Litcharts, 2011).

"Hrothgar" from J.R.Skelton's "Stories of Beowulf"
"Hrothgar" from J.R.Skelton's "Stories of Beowulf" | Source

Pride and Wisdom

The character of Beowulf matures through the story from a boastful young warrior to a wise leader. Hrothgar is another example of this occurrence. Hrothgar jumps at the chance to be king in his youth, but with age he gains wisdom about how heroism and pride are not the most important qualities for a king. Hrothgar serves as a mentor for Beowulf who is much like Hrothgar in his youth. Beowulf evolves from a boastful youth to a wise leader as he fights off the dragon and allows the kingdom to go to pass to Hygelac’s son who would be the rightful heir (Sparksnotes, LLC., 2013). The examples of Hrothgar and Beowulf reveal the virtue of wisdom over pride. Hrothgar gives this advice to Beowulf “O flower of warriors, beware of the trap…do not give way to pride, for a brief while your strength is in bloom but it fades” (Greenblatt & Abrams, 2006, p. 68 , 1758-1762). Beowulf learns that wisdom is more important that prowess.

Examples of Community in “Beowulf”

Community is presented in “Beowulf” in several ways. First there is the tie of family. Characters introduce themselves as son of whomever. Others judge them on their lineage, as Hrothgar accepts Beowulf because he is familiar with his father. Beowulf introduces himself by describing his birthright “we belong by birth to the Geat people and owe allegiance to Lord Hygelac, in his day, my father was a famous man, a noble warrior lord named Ecgtheow” (Greenblatt & Abrams, 2006, p. 36, 260-263). Family is also presented as Grendel’s mother fights on Grendel’s behalf out of dedication to family. Community is also offered as those who support the king or leader. Beowulf travels to fight Grendel with his men who honor him for his bravery and deeds. Hrothgar’s kingdom loves him for his actions of the past and mature wisdom despite the torment of Grendel. In medieval times the German practice of family or tribal allegiance assisted in protecting lands and each other in the frequent tribal feuds of the time (Litcharts, 2011). “Beowulf” presents this family and tribal allegiance.

"Grendel" illustration from J.R. Skelton's "Stories of Beowulf"
"Grendel" illustration from J.R. Skelton's "Stories of Beowulf" | Source

Role of Evil in Community

The idea of virtue in relation to community follows allegiance to the tribe. Evil is recognized as those who fight against the kingdom or tribe. As in medieval battles anyone against the kingdom is considered an enemy and therefore evil. “Beowulf” presents a tale of good versus evil. The character of Beowulf is sent by God to save the kingdom, and Grendel is a demon from the darkness wreaking havoc on the people (Greenblatt & Abrams, 2006). One could argue that Beowulf is a character that works as part of the community, and since Grendel chooses to live alone without a tribe his lack of community paints him as an evil character beyond his actions (Litcharts, 2011).

First page of "Beowulf" from the damaged Nowell Codex mid -6th century
First page of "Beowulf" from the damaged Nowell Codex mid -6th century | Source

Poetic Form

The narrator was a Christian scribe detailing the story from oral storytelling. The Christian influence is seen as the narrator provides Christian references through the story, such as Beowulf as sent from God, Grendel as a descendant of Cain, and judgment of pagan behaviors such as worshiping idols, pledging oaths, and sacrifices as heathen practices (Greenblatt & Abrams, 2006). The character Beowulf is described as “a comfort sent by God” (Greenblatt & Abrams, 2006, p. 31, 13-14). “Beowulf” is written in the poetic epic form. Following the tradition of epics the story offers repetitive battles, examples of heroic acts, and poetic form. “Beowulf” is written in traditional Anglo-Saxon verse form of the time. The lines do not rhyme, the meter is repetitive with lines broken with two stressed syllables and end stop with distinct pause characteristic of this type of poetry (Fletcher, 2013).

Oral Storytelling

“Beowulf” is considered to have been passed down through oral storytelling before being written down by a Christian narrator. The narrator opens the story as an example of the heroic tales told “So the Spear-Danes in days gone by and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness, we have heard of those princes’ heroic campaigns” (Greenblatt & Abrams, 2006, p. 31, 1-3). Evidence of the story’s origins is pagan references and the repetition in the story characteristic of oral stories so that they are more easily remembered and passed on to others (Storytelling Day, 2013). Repetition in “Beowulf” is presented in meter, phrasing, and action, such as the modern rule of three as Beowulf defeats Grendel, his mother, and then finally the dragon (Schneggerburger, n.d.).

"Beowulf Challenged by the Danish" Evelyn Paul 1911
"Beowulf Challenged by the Danish" Evelyn Paul 1911 | Source

“Beowulf” is recognized as a classic epic of heroism from medieval time. The story presents the ties to community and family, the virtue of dedication and bravery, and how time changes perspective both of the story and in the story. Community is revealed as kingdoms and families honor one another with devotion and fighting on their behalf. Those who are against community are seen as outcasts, and those against the community are considered evil. Virtue is weighed by dedication to the cause and those working for the benefit of the community. Christian virtue is tied into the story as ability and winning is attributed to God. Paganism is presented as heathen practice and not virtuous, but by including these references the scribe pays homage to the oral storytelling heritage of the tale. The characters of “Beowulf” offer a view into medieval battles, allegiance, ideas about nobility and honor, and the value systems of the past.

References

Fletcher, R.H. (2013). Beowulf. Retrieved from http://classiclit.about.com/library/bl-etexts/rfletcher/bl-rfletcher-history-1-anglo-saxon-beowulf.htm

Greenblatt, S. & Abrams, M.H. (2006). The norton anthology of English literature. (8th ed.). New York, NY:W.W. Norton & Company.

Litcharts. (2011). Beowulf: Themes. Retrieved from http://www.litcharts.com/lit/beowulf/themes

Schneggreburger, N. (n.d.). Repetition and reinforcement in Beowulf. Retrieved from http://www.csun.edu/~mws72729/Beowulf_Web_630.html

Sparksnotes, LLC. (2013). Beowulf: Character analysis. Retrieved from http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/beowulf/canalysis.html

Storytelling Day. (2013). Oral traditions in storytelling. Retrieved from http://www.storytellingday.net/oral-traditions-storytelling-explored.html

Sample a Movie Translation of "Beowulf"

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    • Larry Rankin profile image

      Larry Rankin 2 years ago from Oklahoma

      I love Beowulf. Great analysis.

      Love the intertextual allusions in Grendel and The 13th Warior as well.

    • Anate profile image

      Joseph Ray 2 years ago

      Excellent description of the poem and the story of Beowulf.

    • NancySnyder profile image
      Author

      Nancy Snyder 4 years ago from Pennsylvania

      Thanks Pamela! Like many others I am a fan of "Beowulf." It is funny how this old story is still so popular. It has been the basis for several movies, books, and games. I guess it is true that exceptional literature is timeless.

    • Pamela Mae Oliver profile image

      Pamela Mae Oliver 4 years ago from Georgia

      Beowulf is one of my all time favorite classic tales! Thank you for your insightful analysis.