Beowulf

   The greatest literary work of Anglo-Saxon literature, Beowulf is a heroic epic poem of 3182 lines that contains a mixture of history, legend, and myth. The poem, the earliest extant long poem written in English, describes the legendary feats of the great hero, Beowulf, who, unlike other characters in the poem, is known only from this poem. Divided into two parts, Beowulf describes the title character's great victories over Grendel, his mother, and a fire-breathing dragon. The poem addresses the great heroic ideals of courage, loyalty, and service, and also matters of life and death. Although the poem conveys the values of pagan Germanic culture, it was probably written at a Christian court; it expresses belief in the Christian God and upholds the Christian ideals of good against evil.
   The events of the poem take place in the fifth and sixth century - Gregory of Tours, the sixth-century historian, describes the raid into Francia by Hygelac, Beowulf's uncle, in his History of the Franks - and begins at the court of the Danish king Hrothgar. The poem opens with the genealogy of Hrothgar, the great and good king of the Danes who brought peace and prosperity to the kingdom and built the great hall Heorot. In his mead hall, Hrothgar and his warriors celebrate the good things that Hrothgar has brought, and the king gives his warriors gifts of gold. The good times at Heorot are suddenly disrupted by the monster Grendel, who is of the line of Cain, which has been cursed by God and exiled from humanity. Hearing the sounds of revelry at Heorot, Grendel is enraged and attacks the hall, killing and eating Hrothgar's warriors. Grendel's reign of terror lasts twelve years before the arrival of the great hero Beowulf, who offers his services to the king. Although his talents are questioned by Unferth, one of the king's counselors, Hrothgar welcomes Beowulf as his hero. That evening Grendel returns and devours one of Beowulf's men before reaching for Beowulf himself. But the monster meets the unexpected - a hero whose grip is greater than any man's. A terrible struggle follows, as the two enemies fight each other with their bare hands. Heorot suffers great damage, and the Danes fear for their hero. But Grendel cannot overcome Beowulf. The great warrior's grip holds firm, and Grendel is able to get away only by having his arm torn off. The monster then flees to his home, where he bleeds to death.
   Beowulf's victory is welcomed by Hrothgar, who rewards his hero handsomely, and a great celebration ensues in Heorot, in which Beowulf is praised and songs are sung that foreshadow the dark events to come. Not everyone rejoices at the death of Grendel, however. Upon learning of her son's death, Grendel's mother is enraged and moves quickly to avenge her son's death. She too attacks the great hall of Heorot, and, although she is not as powerful or ferocious as her son, brings great destruction with her and manages to kill and eat one of the Danes before being driven back to her home in a lake. Beowulf is then asked to defend Hrothgar once again.
   This time, uncertain of what he will face, Beowulf dons full battle armor and carries a sword offered by Unferth. Beowulf has to dive into a lake and swim a full day to reach his enemy's lair. Before he arrives, the she-monster senses his coming and reaches out to take him, beginning to fight him underwater. She drags him into her lair, where he now can fight without the weight of the water. A mighty struggle again takes place, and Beowulf strikes his foe with the sword from Unferth, but it proves of no use against the monster. Beowulf is in dire straits, as Grendel's mother nearly overwhelms him. He manages to take hold of the giant's sword he sees on the wall and slays Grendel's mother with it. Although the sword kills his enemy, it melts like thawing ice because of the great heat of the monster's blood, which then bubbles up to the surface.
   The sight of the blood greatly dismays Beowulf's men, who fear the worst. But these fears are quickly laid to rest by the return of Beowulf, who bears the head of Grendel, which he cut off after his victory over the monster's mother. Once again Beowulf returns to Heorot to receive the thanks and praise of Hrothgar, whose speech carries a warning for the future. After the celebration Beowulf takes leave, in a moving scene with Hrothgar, and departs for his home in Geatland. Once he arrives in his homeland he is warmly received by his king, Hygelac, who learns of Beowulf's great success in Denmark.
   The second part of the poem begins some time later, after Beowulf has ruled the Geats for fifty years. Although Beowulf has ruled the Geats well, his path to the throne was marked by the tragic deaths of Hygelac and his son and by bitter wars with the Frisians and Swedes. Under Beowulf there is peace, but that peace is suddenly interrupted by the appearance of a fire-breathing dragon, who terrorizes the kingdom and brings great destruction, burning houses, forts, and Beowulf's own great hall. The dragon has risen in anger because a slave of one of Beowulf's warriors stole a cup of gold from the dragon's great treasure hoard. Once again, the great hero Beowulf prepares to do battle with a powerful foe. Dressing in a suit of armor and bearing a mighty sword and a shield of iron - instead of the traditional shield of wood - Beowulf marches out to meet the dragon. He is joined by twelve warriors, and then by one more (the warrior who forced the slave to steal the cup). After declaring that it is his duty alone to fight the dragon, Beowulf begins his terrible and final battle with the dragon.
   Beowulf has finally met his match and is overwhelmed by the dragon, whose breath of fire greatly wounds Beowulf. In the heat of the battle, all but one of his warriors, Wiglaf, abandon Beowulf in his hour of need. Wiglaf denounces the cowardice of his fellow warriors and enters the struggle with the dragon. Together, Beowulf and Wiglaf are able to defeat the horrible creature, but only after Beowulf has been fatally wounded. Beowulf then offers a final speech and looks over the fantastic treasure hoard of the dead dragon. After his death, prophecies are made about the impending destruction of the Geats by their rivals, who will take advantage of the Geats after the death of their great king. The poem concludes with the funeral of Beowulf, whose warriors ride around his tomb singing a dirge and lamenting their loss.
   The poem was preserved in one manuscript from about the year 1000, and was first published in a modern edition in 1815. The original composition of the poem is uncertain, but most scholars believe that it was composed in the early eighth century at a court in Bede's Northumbria, although there are those who argue for a late eighth-century composition at the court of King Offa of Mercia. Those who support an early date argue that a Scandinavian hero would not have appeared in an English poem at a time when Viking warriors were invading the island. Of course, others suggest that the poet may have hoped to appeal to the invaders. The date of composition is important for both the understanding of the poet and the poem, but once again there is little agreement among scholars on those matters. Most Beowulf scholars are split between those who believe that the poem was composed in a predominantly oral culture or those who believe it was composed in a literate culture.
   The values embodied in the poem and its hero provide support for both sides. The nature of the language of the poem, the interest in material wealth - helmets, swords, jewelry - these suggest the possibility of an oral environment. The expression of belief in a creator God, references to the Hebrew Bible, especially the line of Cain, and Christian values of good and evil suggest composition in a literate culture. The answer is probably a mixture of both: The poem may well have been composed at a Christian court in an oral culture, which had absorbed the values of the literate culture by the time the poem was committed to parchment. Finally, interpretation of the poem is complicated by its uncertain origins. Despite variety of opinion, it is certain that the meaning of Beowulf is shaped by its origins in a superficially Christianized environment. The poem advocates the epic values of bravery, honor, and fidelity, but within the framework of belief in the Christian God and the importance of the struggle against evil.
   See also
   Bibliography
 ♦ Alexander, Michael, trans. Beowulf. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1983.
 ♦ Heaney, Seamus, trans. Beowulf: A New Verse Translation. New York: Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2000.
 ♦ Baker, Peter S., ed. Beowulf: Basic Readings. New York: Garland, 1995.
 ♦ Bjork, Robert E., and John D. Niles, eds. A Beowulf Handbook. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997.
 ♦ Chambers, Raymond W. Beowulf: An Introduction to the Study the Poem with a Discussion of the Stories of Offa and Finn. 3d ed., supplement by C.L. Wrenn. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1959.
 ♦ Hasenfratz, Robert J. Beowulf Scholarship: An Annotated Bibliography, 1979-1990. New York: Garland, 1993.
 ♦ Tolkien, J. R. R. "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics." Proceedings of the British Academy 22 (1936): 245-295.

Encyclopedia of Barbarian Europe. 2014.

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