(Anon.), Beowulf, composed ?ca. 750, unique MS, Cotton Vitelius A xv, written ca. 1000  Ed. prin., Copenhagen, 1815 (GrimurThorkelin, ed.); London, 1833-37 (John M. Kemble, ed.)

Genre:   An oral-formulaic epic poem, the only major work of its kind to survive in Old English.  Because this poem was meant to be recited aloud rather than read silently, you might learn something from hearing the Prologue read in Anglo-Saxon.  (The link takes you to University of Virginia's Old English study pages--click on the blue line-numbers to start the QuickTime file for that section of text.)

Form:  unrhymed lines of alliterative half-lines containing two stresses, both often on the alliterating words, with unstressed words filling out specific metrical formulae with variations, in intensely subordinated syntax that often delays revelation of sentences' meanings for many lines.  To hear four passages from the poem read aloud in Old English, click here.

Characters: the unusually strong but mortal hero, Beowulf, orphaned son of Hygelac the Geat; Hrothgar, king of the Danes, whose mead hall, Heorot, has come under attack; Grendel, a monstrous son of Cain whose hatred of human joy and delight in human blood leads him to attack the mead hall in "lonely war" (l. 164); Grendel's mother (and what a Mom!) who seeks to avenge her son's death at Beowulf's hands by killing Aeschere, one of Hrothgar's oldest thanes; the dragon, whose anger when his hoard is plundered by a runaway serf leads it to burn the Geats' land; and Wiglaf, who alone among all of the aging Beowulf's thanes stands by his lord to confront the dragon and delivers a stinging rebuke to those who fled the fight; the "messenger" whose speech ends the poem by reporting the Battle of Ravenswood between the Geats and Swedes, and predicting a revival of the war; and the narrator, the voice of a poet scholars believe was a converted Christian (29-30), a voice which intervenes in the narrative in "metaleptic" commentary that often puts the heroic events in ironic contexts (Sharma).

Summary:  The assigned portions of this long poem are intended to give you a taste of the poet's way of describing two different kinds of event, a knock-down, drag-out (literally) fight scene, and a losing fight with a dragon followed by a funeral with somber speeches reflecting upon the deceased and the survivors' situation.  To put those in context, here are the poem's main stages.  (Note that the Norton partitions them by bracketed subtitles which don't occur in the poem!--remember, it is being sung out loud.)

        The funeral of Scyld ("Shield"), founding king of the Danes, introduces the poem's key values in a hero and his people, the ability to take from their enemies with violence and to protect the tribe's people with generosity.  After the ship burial, Hrothgar, the current king of Denmark is introduced at the height of his powers when he builds Heorot ("hart," "stag"), the great hall where his vassals swear to fight for him and he swears to protect them.  This causes Grendel, a demonic monster son of Cain, the biblical first murderer, to attack the hall and devour Hrothgar's thanes.  Beowulf ("Bee-Wolf," i.e., "Bear"), a nobleman of the Geats, a Swedish tribe, hears of Hrothgar's misfortune and brings his warriors to fight Grendel for fame.  Beowulf is the strongest man alive: his handgrip is that of thirty men.  His arrival at Heorot is celebrated with feasting, but later that night Grendel attacks, but after devouring one warrior, he is amazed to feel Beowulf's grip resisting his claws as no man had before.  A great battle follows.  Beowulf mortally wounds the monster by wrenching Grendel's arm from its socket, and the arm is hung from Heorot's rafters as a victor's prize.  That is where the first excerpt stops.

        [Beowulf's victory over Grendel is followed by more feasting, but Beowulf is assigned to sleep in another hall.  That night, Grendel's mother, seeking vengeance for her son's death, attacks and carries off Hrothgar's favorite warrior to her lair in an underwater cave.  The next morning, Beowulf follows her trail, dives into the pond, and confronts her.  He almost loses this combat because his sword breaks upon her tough hide, but he grasps an ancient sword from her piles of plunder and the old blade kills her, though it is melted by her blood.  Beowulf's departure from Denmark and return to Geatland are occasions for important speeches about the dangers of pride (Hrothgar) and the threat of attacks by neighboring tribes (Beowulf).]

        After Beowulf has become king of the Geats, a slave fleeing maltreatment breaks into a grave guarded by a dragon and steals from its treasure.  The dragon awakes and burns the countryside seeking vengeance.  Beowulf takes his warband to the mouth of the dragon's cave and tells them he will face the beast alone.  When the dragon's flames envelope Beowulf, all the warriors flee except one, Wiglaf.  Beowulf's sword breaks on the dragon's head  because of his great strength, and the dragon seizes him by the neck.  Wiglaf, from behind Beowulf's shield, stabs  the dragon in its unprotected belly, weakening its fire and enabling Beowulf to kill it.  But Beowulf dies from his wounds after asking Wiglaf to bring him the dragon's treasure so he could see it.  Beowuf's funeral follows with Wiglaf's speech rebuking those who fled, the "messenger"'s speech, foreseeing the end of peace with the Swedes and remembering the battle of Ravenswood, and Wiglaf's final speech ordering the disposition of the dragon's treasure and construction of Beowulf's funeral pyre and burial mound, with all the dragon's treasure within it.  That is the second excerpt.  I left out a digression about a man whose son commits fratricide and dies of grief because he cannot avenge the death on his own kinsman--scholars argue about its thematic relevance to the whole poem.

Issues for Discussion and Papers:

  1. The manuscript which contains this poem is, like many medieval manuscripts, more of an anthology, itself, or even a small library in a single cover.  Usually, such compilations reflect the tastes and interests of the patrons who paid scribes to create them.  Therefore, just as your patron record at the library would enable archeologists to reconstruct your reading habits, or spyware on your computer would enable a hacker to analyze or even imitate your web browsing past, the construction of a medieval compilation tells us something about the way its owner associated the works bound within it.  Sometimes they occur in clusters of similar types, and at other times the topics are all very similar.  See the McMaster University Beowulf in Hypertext web page about the manuscript's composition (and near-tragic history!) to see what kinds of texts were bound with it.  [Click on the "History" hyperlink on the left, and then on "Manuscript."]  How might you explain the apparent contrast between this poem's subjects and the subjects of the others, and does it have any hidden similarities with them?
  2. Style is difficult to read in a translation, but this one preserves enough literal transformation of the Anglo-Saxon language that you can detect many things about the poet's and audience's system of values.  What attributes does the poem assume are beautiful, ugly, honorable, dishonorable, etc.?  For instance, look closely at the vocabulary which describes Beowulf's preparations for battle with Grendel (lines 671-90).  When the poet forecasts the battle's outcome by referring to a god's control of the future, what image does he use and what logic governs the metaphor's descriptive power?  Think about what gives woven things their strength and beauty, and Can you see any evidence of "weaving" as a motif, either in the poem's basic vocabulary or in its construction?
  3. Grendel functions as the poem's "anti-hero," opposed in all his behaviors to those of a good man and hero like Beowulf.  Look for the poet's language describing his actions as a bad guest, an ungrateful audience for song, a terrible ruler, and a fighter who prefers to defeat those weaker than him.  Map some of those actions on Beowulf's behaviors, and you will have the beginnings of a Structuralist analysis of the poem's ethical rules.  The dragon seems to operate as another sort of enemy altogether.  Notice that a human being breaks into the dragon's "hall" or hoard and steals from it.  The dragon's revenge may be indiscriminate, but how does the poet treat the actions.  Notice there is nothing said about "Cain" and the "Lord's displeasure."  Could this be a fragment of an older, pagan poem that has been welded or woven together with the Grendel plot?  Still, it offers yet another chance to construct Structuralist "rules" for heroic conduct.  See especially Beowulf's preparation for this fight, and the behavior of Wiglaf, the only retainer who stands with him against the dragon.  See also Wiglaf's public condemnation of those who fled (ll. 2884-91). What do Wiglaf's words do to these men?  (Hint: this is "performative speech"--see J. L. Austen, How to Do Things with Words, 1962 [149.9 A936h ]). 
  4. Narrative composition also expresses style in the division and juxtaposition of major episodes, and in thematic connecting threads that wind among them.  Literary analysis by close reading helps us detect the poem's structural components and its subtle thematic repetitions.  Several "macro-structural" principles have been advanced to explain how Beowulf works.  John Leyerle suggests that the "weaving" motif in the poem indicates that we should be looking for reappearing patterns in the layers of narrative episodes, rather like patterns in a complex tapestry that appear and disappear, only to reappear later far away, to recall the whole to order.  Thematic "interlace" terms that critics have suggested as the poem's main aesthetic core include the excessive pursuit of glory (Leyerle, 1965 and 1967, also a paradox in which heroism is defined by the ability to achieve that very glory); a more Christian critique of the hero's excessive pride (Tolkein, 1953), and "feud" as the incessant recurring conflict between Cain and God, Grendel and the Dane's joy, the Swedes and the Geats, etc. (Kahrl, 1972).  Tolkein also, in an earlier essay, argued for a purely aesthetic structural unity: "Beowulf itself is like a line of its own verse written large, a balance of two great blocks, A + B: like two of its parallel sentences with a single subject but no expressed conjunction.  Youth + Age; he rose--fell.  It may not be, at large or in detail, fluid or musical, but it is strong to stand: tough builder's work of true stone" (1950: xlii).  This would lead one to expect that other "A+B" parallel oppositions could be found in the poem, as well. 
  5.  Think about the function of literature, now and in the day of the poem's composition, ca. 750.  What do poems do for cultures?  In this case, we're dealing with an epic, and epic poets signaled clearly their own perceptions of how they served their subjects and their audiences.  If you look up "epic" in a standard glossary of literary terms, you will read something like this: a long poem praising probably mythic deeds of a hero whose nearly superhuman strength and abilities determine the fate of an entire people and call even the gods into the action; an episodic, unrhymed, alliterative poem sung by bards who may have been illiterate, and who preserved their art by memory, by apprenticeship in the rules of oral-formulaic composition, and by singing improvised public performances before the ruling warrior elite at court.  How do we moderns preserve and learn right behaviors, identify and punish wrong behaviors, and store our people’s past in a fashion that will stir our children to bold and proper action? Do we have any printed or sung genres which do these things for Americans? How have we redistributed the functions of the great epic song? In later readings for the course, can you see these poetic functions resurfacing in new forms for new social systems? Hint: what opportunities do the introduction of printing and the reinvention of the public theatre offer the poet, and how might they make later audiences feel the social and moral burden of heroes’ deeds?
  6. Many readers find it helpful to see archeological artifacts related to poems from ancient cultures.  For samples of Anglo-Saxon era helmets, jewelry, and long-boat remains, see the Pace U. Sutton Hoo Ship-Burial Page.

Good General Sources:

Anthology of Beowulf Criticism.  Ed. Lewis E. Nicholson.  Notre Dame, Ind.: U of Notre Dame P, 1963.  826.1 B48Sn

Beowulf in Hypertext.  (A website based on the work of Ben Law at McMaster University.)  Available online at: http://www.humanities.mcmaster.ca/~beowulf/  Viewed 8/15/05.

  • The Beowulf Poet: A Collection of Critical Essays.  Ed. Donald K. Fry.  Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1968.  826.1 B48Sf

    Hill, John M.  The Cultural World in Beowulf.  Toronto: U Toronto P, 1995.  826.1 B48Sh    

    Kahrl, Stanley, "Feuds in Beowulf: A Tragic Necessity?,"  Modern Philology 69 (1972): 189-98.  Stable URL: http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0026-8232%28197202%2969%3A3%3C189%3AFI%22ATN%3E2.0.CO%3B2-Z

    Kaske, Robert E.  "Sapientia et Fortitudo as the Controlling Theme of Beowulf," Studies in Philology 55 (1958): 423-57, rpt. Anthology of Beowulf Criticism, (Notre Dame, Ind.): U of Notre Dame P, 1963:269-310.  826.1 B48Sn

    Layerle, John.  "Beowulf the Hero and King," Medium Aevum 34 (1965): 89-102.

    --------.  "The Interlace Structure of Beowulf," University of Toronto Quarterly 37 (1967): 1-17.

    Niles, John D.  Beowulf: The Poem and its Tradition.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1983.  826.1 B48Sni    

    The Oral Tradition.  (Website--Center for Studies in Oral Tradition, University of Missouri--Columbia)  http://www.oraltradition.org/  Viewed 8/15/05.  [This site also contains a link to Oral Tradition Journal, accessible online from Project Muse.]

    Geoffrey R. Russom. "Artful Avoidance of the Useful Phrase in Beowulf, The Battle of Maldon, and Fates of the Apostles." Studies in Philology 75 (Fall 1978) 75:371-90.

    Sharma, Manish.  "Metalepsis and Monstrostity: The Boundaries of Narrative Structure in Beowulf,"  Studies in Philology 102:3 (Summer 2005): 247-79.  (Available online via EbscoHost.)

    Tolkien, J. R. R., "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics," Proceedings of the British Academy 22 (1936), rpt. Anthology of Beowulf Criticism (Notre Dame, Ind.): U of Notre Dame P, 1963: 51-103.   826.1 B48Sn    

    --------.  "The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm's Son," Essays and Studies [by members of the English Association], N.S. 6 (1953): 1-18.

    --------.  [Preface]. Beowulf and the Finnesburg Fragment: A Translation into Modern English, trans. John R. Clark Hall, rev. ed. C. L. Wrenn (London: Allen & Unwin, 1950): xli-xlii.  826.1 B48Bha.2   


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