Dr. Balaga Venkataramana
Assistant Professor, Sri Satya Sai Institute of Higher Learning, Muddena Halli Campus, Karnataka
Volume II, 2016 | Full Text PDF
Beowulf, a hero of undying virtue stands the test of time and lives in one of the most ancient epics of the Anglo Saxon poetry. A man of great strength, courage, and generosity fights three monsters, two when he is a young man, the third in his old age. Transforming both the fairy tale monsters and the sordid power politics of the background is the objective recognition of human struggle for understanding and order. This is the hallmark of human experience seen through the lense of epic technique.. He is an excellent, deeply religious, pagan warrior who does precisely what his culture expects of him—including seeking glory and protecting his people. Another reason is that it is longer than an epic, having three main episodes over a period of 50 years, rather than one event as is usual. Beowulf acknowledges throughout the poem that it is God who has strengthened him and provided him with the skills needed to fight each battle that comes along. Justice is empowered by grace. Yet Beowulf does not rely solely on prayer. He knows that one must act, using the gifts bestowed on him by Divine Providence.
Keywords: Anglo Saxon, monsters, power politics, human struggle, epic technique, pagan warrior.
Beowulf, a hero of undying virtue stands the test of time and lives in one of the most ancient epics of the Anglo Saxon poetry that relates the exploits of its eponymous hero, and his successive battles with a monster named Grendel, with Grendel’s revengeful mother, and with a dragon which was guarding a hoard of treasure. Attempt has been made by me in this paper to critique the intrigues and the designs of the epic work through which a power portrayal of the protagonist has been intended. The objective of the write-up is to show Beowulf as a hero driven not by personal glory but by affection and duty. He seems largely untouched by the darker emotions which dog Aeneas and betray him into fury at the end of the Aeneid. Only the doomed Hector Homer’s Iliad seems to be a hero of the same clay. Personal glory is not without meaning to Beowulf. He tells Hrothgar that the best thing men can do is to lay up fame before death (lines 1386-89). He happily accepts treasure and just as happily passes it on to others. Nevertheless, duty and sympathy and generosity are his primary motivations. Despite his great strength, he is a man with limitations, in each of his fights he is seriously challenged and clearly sees himself as relying on the help of God.
Beowulf is, indeed, on one level a very simple story told with great elaboration. A man of great strength, courage, and generosity fights three monsters, two when he is a young man, the third in his old age. Other more complicated human events precede these, others intervene, others will follow, but those more realistic events are all essentially background. To some earlier critics as to W. P. Kerr in Epic and Romance, the choice of a folktale main narrative was a serious fault. Monsters lacked the dignity to carry the “great argument” with “answerable style.”
But Beowulf is a true epic in its breadth of interests and sympathies, even though it is centered on the career of one man killing three monsters. The action and the characters of this apparently simple story have the strength to embody the experience and ideals of the original audience. The monsters participate in evil and disorder as no human, even Heremod, could, but the evil that originates purely within the human heart is not overlooked. Transforming both the fairy tale monsters and the sordid power politics of the background is the objective recognition of human struggle for understanding and order. This is the hallmark of human experience seen through the lense of epic technique. In Beowulf the narrator and characters use human experience to understand the human condition and to find the noblest way to live their lives.
The Old English poem Beowulf follows Beowulf from heroic youth to heroic old age. He saves a neighboring people from a monster, Grendel, eventually becomes the king of his own people, and dies defending them from a dragon. It is a great adventure story, and a deeply philosophical one. Scholars differ over the poem’s original purpose and audience, but Beowulf probably appealed to a wide audience and garnered a range of responses.
Beowulf survives in one manuscript, which is known as British Library, Cotton Vitellius A.15. At least one scholar believes the manuscript is the author’s original, but most scholars believe it is the last in a succession of copies. Beowulf may have been written at any time between circa 675 A.D. and the date of the manuscript, circa 1000 A.D.
No one knows where the manuscript was before it surfaced in the hands of a man named Laurence Nowell in the sixteenth century. An edition of Beowulf was published by G. S. Thorkelin in 1815, but for over 100 years study focused on Beowulf not as poetry, but on what it revealed about the early Germanic tribes and language (philology).J. R. R. Tolkien’s “The Monsters and the Critics” moved study on to the poem as literature. The excavation of the Sutton Hoo ship burial and Tolkein’s own popular Lord of the Rings, influenced by his lifelong study of Beowulf, helped to interest general readers in the poem. Since then translations and adaptations of the poem have increased the poem’s audience and recognition. It has influenced modern adventure fantasy and inspired at least two best-sellers, comic books, and even a Beowulf/Star Trek Voyager cross-over.
In 1939, an important archaeological discovery was made which contributed to the twentieth-century understanding of Beowulf. The remains of a ship burial were uncovered at Sutton Hoo, an estate on the estuary of the Deben river in Suffolk, England. Some of the objects in the grave included a sword, shield, and helmet, a harp, and Frankish coins which date approximately to 650-70 A.D. — the presumed date of the action of the epic.
The protagonist of this epic Old English poem is at times sketched in the broad strokes we might expect in a seminal tale about heroes, monsters, battle, revenge, honor and God. But Beowulf is no cartoon character. Rather, this Geatish warrior from southern Sweden is defined by three principal traits: his desire to demonstrate his valor in defense of others, his concern for his lineage and oaths of loyalty, and his religious faith.
The first thing we learn about Beowulf is that he promptly responds when he hears of trouble among the Danes. The poet points to no soul-searching on Beowulf’s part about whether Grendel’s attacks upon Heorot, the mead hall of King Hrothgar, ought to be dissuaded through diplomatic means or even by waiting for some divine intervention to defeat the monster. Rather, Beowulf acts decisively, gathering his companions and setting sail for Denmark. In this choice, we already see into Beowulf’s essence.
But Beowulf does not merely seek the spotlight, flexing his muscles and making fine speeches. He shows his concern for others upon arrival in Denmark, telling the leader of the watchmen: “I can show the wise Hrothgar a way to defeat his enemy. . . . I can calm the turmoil and terror in his mind.” It is apparent that Beowulf’s assisting Hrothgar will aid the Danes at large, for the security of the king is inextricably tied to the welfare of his subjects in this concept of a monarchical society.
Similarly, Beowulf is well aware of his own position in this world, and he demonstrates this by repeatedlyreferring to his lord Hygelac and his now-deceased father Edgetho. Beowulf has a special motivation forhelping Hrothgar: the king of the Danes was once gracious enough to intervene and settle a feud that Edgetho had ignited by slaying a member of a rival tribe called the Wulfings. Therefore, Beowulf’s actions stem from bonds of blood and bonds of loyalty.
When Beowulf duels verbally with Unferth, the courtier of Hrothgar who accuses him of cowardice in aswimming match with Breca, he essentially states in rebuttal: “I could have won that race if I hadn’t been attacked by sea monsters. Besides, Breca wasn’t much of a warrior and neither were you, considering what a poor job you have done of defending Heorot from Grendel.” This smacks of pure Nordic bravado. The words could come from the mouth of any testosterone-laden berserker.
But Beowulf’s religious faith also shines through when he girds himself for the battle with Grendel: “May the Divine Lord in His wisdom grant the glory of victory to whichever side he sees fit.” And after Beowulf’s mighty severing of Grendel’s shoulder and arm has backed up his vow to slay the evil monster, the hero says, “The Lord allowed it,” and adds that Grendel “must await the mighty judgment of God in majesty.”
He demonstrates the same religious convictions in the aftermath of his bloody battle with Grendel’s mother, whose attempt to seek revenge for the death of her son is terminated when Beowulf chops off her head. Though fighting hard for glory like a typical Nordic warrior, he asserts: “If God had not helped me, the outcome would have been quick and fatal.” Beowulf adds that the “Lord of Men” was the one who “allowed him to behold” the sword on the wall which he seized as the instrument of his salvation.
Beowulf’s valor, hereditary pride and faith are not restricted to the days of his youth. When a fearsome dragon begins to ravage the land of his fellow Geats, he embraces his opportunity to confront this final foe. Despite being some fifty years older, Beowulf gives his own life in Christlike manner to save his people, and he has no regrets: “Because of my right ways, the Ruler of mankind need never blame me when the breath leaves my body.” After killing the dragon, Beowulf earns a magnificent funeral and numerous physical and verbal tributes from his subjects. That ending marks the culmination of a heroic life lived strictly according to a code of honor, and it speaks volumes about the character of this “gracious and fair-minded” king.
This is a difficult poem to classify since it has no predecessors and nothing like it has survived. While usually considered an epic poem, Beowulf has also been labeled an elegy, perhaps for Beowulf himself or perhaps for the heroism of the past (and obviously admired by the Christian poet) pagan era. Others have felt it to be solely historical poetry about paganism.
One reason not to consider it an epic is that Beowulf has no specific tragic flaw which precipitates hisdownfall. He is an excellent, deeply religious, pagan warrior who does precisely what his culture expects of him—including seeking glory and protecting his people. Another reason is that it is longer than an epic, having three main episodes over a period of 50 years, rather than one event as is usual.
On the other hand, there is Beowulf as the epic hero who represents his culture and is noble, has considerable military prowess, and undying virtue. Several other elements of the epic poem are also evident in the poem: the lofty tone and style, the lengthy narrative, the genealogies, the involvement of the supernatural (in the form of the monsters, dragons, and giants), the invocation, and the voyage across the sea. Beowulf’s battle in the dragon’s underground lair may or may not be considered the obligatory trip to the underworld as found in the epic poem. While there are epic battles, they are not between universal champions, but rather between good and evil.
While the poem is Old English, it focuses on the Geats (a people who lived in the southern part of Swedenbefore being conquered by their traditional enemies, the Swedes, toward the end of the sixth century) and Danes. Assumed to be composed sometime in the eighth century A.D., it seems to accurately reflect Scandinavian society and history of the sixth century A.D.; Higlac’s raid of the Hathobards is historical fact.
The Angles, Saxons, and Jutes came to England from an area just below Denmark during the first great wave of Germanic migration in the fifth century when they were invited by Vortigen, king of the Britons, to help him repel the Picts and the Scots. Their easy victory and the fertile land they discovered led them to come in force, subjugating the Britons as they did. Once settled, they preserved the memories of their heroes using oral poetry, thereby keeping alive the ancient Germanic heroic code by which they lived.
This code included a rigid feudal system. The continuance of feuds and friendships established by fathers was expected of the next generation, although tribute was accepted as a means of concluding feuds and abolishing dishonor. The people were quite civilized and equally violent, being a warrior culture which valued courage the most and cowardice the least. Their chief was surrounded by companions who swore allegiance to him and would die in battle, rather than retreat (except to return), while the chief, in turn, was expected to perpetually prove his courage and generosity. The chief’s greatest shame was to be outdone by either one of these companions or an enemy. As a rite of passage into manhood, once having proved their valor, the young men were publicly presented with spears and shields. If no battles presented themselves at home, the chief and his companions would go abroad to seek battles.
The reverence these people had for their women is demonstrated by their monogamy, and their acceptance of as close a bond between a man and his sister’s son as that between father and son. Indeed, women were thought of as holy and possessing the gift of prophecy. A belief in Fate and foreseeing the future by casting lots were two other aspects of this warrior culture, despite the recent introduction of Christianity.
So new was Christianity that the Biblical references in the poem relate only to the Old Testament, while the poet seems to equate Fate and God’s will. Grendel is regarded as the descendant of Cain, the first murderer whose story is told in the Old Testament, and the sword Beowulf uses to murder Grendel is decorated with depictions of the Old Testament’s giants who were destroyed by the flood. The Christian poet writing the poem understood what these decorations are, but the pagan character viewing them did not. Nowhere in the poem is it suggested that Beowulf’s death would be the first step in his immortality (in Heaven), and his body is burned upon the funeral pyre—a pagan custom. Accordingly, this culture is seen as embracing Christianity while admiring paganism.
While it is fairly commonly accepted that the author is a Christian, and possibly a monk, he used a paganWorld as the setting for his poem. He is addressing a Christian audience, as is evidenced by the references to the Old Testament (mentioned in the previous paragraph) while telling the story of pagans, whom he seems to admire for firmly believing in and accepting a Higher Being which rules the world and men’s actions much as the Christian God does. Beowulf himself is portrayed as a deeply religious pagan who offers thanks to this Higher Being, ascribes his strength to him, and even worries about having offended him. In some ways, this may be interpreted as a Christian typology (symbol for Christ) since he also attains virtue by strictly adhering to the old Germanic Code, which is not that dissimilar from the Christian Code. Much like Christ, this was Beowulf’s way of life rather than an exercise in discipline. Beowulf, a pagan warrior, lived a life of kindness and non-condemnation even toward the soldiers who deserted him as he battled the dragon. In addition, both men lived lives of self-sacrifice, repeatedly risking and, ultimately, giving their lives for their people. While Beowulf may not have entertained the idea of offering salvation to his people, he was concerned with protecting them and, in so doing, did offer them a type of salvation. Christ may have done the reverse—concerned himself with his people’s salvation while not necessarily thinking of himself as a protector and, in so doing, offering them a type of protection. However, it must be remembered that the Biblical references in the poem are to the Old Testament and Christ is not introduced until the New Testament, thereby raising some question as to whether or not Beowulf was intended as a Christian typology. Furthermore, unlike Christ, Beowulf actively seeks praise and glory.
Poetry of this period was recited, and more usually sung, at feasts, occasionally using the harp to keep themeter regimented. Phrases were repeated to re-enforce the understanding of the events in the story and habitual phrases and epithets were part of the tradition and expected of the poets. This particular poem seems to have been meant for the feasts of kings and nobles. It may even have been created at such a feast based on the stories the singer (or “scop”) had previously heard of the exploits of Beowulf, a possibly fictitious character. The audiences, also, would have been aware of their legendary history, myths, and stories, and have had some knowledge of the events mentioned in the poem via their cultural oral tradition. The Germanic people of the Dark Ages shared oral composition with Austria and northern France; the practice of this type of composition then traveled to Scandinavia and Iceland, employing a common body of narrative with the same heroes and incidences in widely separated times and places, but with the common appearance of the ethical principle of loyalty to another with vengeance for the breaking of this bond through cowardice or treachery.
In Beowulf’s world, honor is the highest goal. To have lived one’s life in virtue, faith, and trustworthiness is the legacy one leaves behind for posterity. For each station in life, these traits are lived out in different ways. For the warrior, honor is displayed in battle. For the ruler, honor is revealed through the judgments shown. The fine lines that divide honor and pride are difficult to navigate, but it is through wisdom that a man succeeds to glory. A man’s honor may be lost in a moment by a stumble in judgment.
In the life of the warrior, power is a stumbling block on the road to honor. Fighting for power’s sake is thesure path to defeat, no matter how the battle ends. To the hero, power is a by-product, not a goal. Power must be bestowed on others, as is demonstrated by Hrothgar in his naming Beowulf among his heirs. To view honor as a right will deny one the very honor he seeks. As Beowulf presents himself as a servant to the king, he rises to the top through humility.
For the warrior and the king, justice is an indispensable function of honor. With each death, through battle or treachery, another life must be lost for the relinquishment of honor. The death of Aeschere, Hrothgar’sclosest advisor, is to be repaid with the death of Grendel’s mother. Hrothgar, in a moment of weakness, despairs of the fight that must be fought to win vengeance. But not seeking that revenge is a thought unworthy of a king. To shun battle is to lose honor. Victory is not necessarily an indispensable part of honor. A man can fight and lose and still achieve glory through the manner of his fighting. This is the foundation of the maxim, “It doesn’t matter if you win or lose, but how you play the game.” Playing the game well, fairly, and with courage wins honor. This is all that is left behind after a man’s life, so the focus must be on honor rather than safety. Legacy is of greater worth than life.
One’s honor is a product of a man’s effort, it is true, but not solely. Beowulf acknowledges throughout the poem that it is God who has strengthened him and provided him with the skills needed to fight each battle that comes along. Justice is empowered by grace. Yet Beowulf does not rely solely on prayer. He knows that one must act, using the gifts bestowed on him by Divine Providence. Neglecting these gifts is as much a dishonor as cruelty and treachery.
It is Hrothgar, the ruler of the Danes, who reminds Beowulf of the one sure way to lose honor. As the proverb says, pride goes before a fall. To achieve victory for victory’s sake alone is not the path to honor, but indeed is the opposite. Hubris, that fatal flaw for so many tragic heroes, will strip a man of glory and honor faster than dragon’s fire.
Beowulf is well aware of the true nature of honor and its requirements and lives his life in accordance with that nature. His courage is tempered by humility, thus saving him from the downfall brought on by hubris. He trusts in God yet does not neglect the gifts that God has given him to fulfill the call that has been placed on his life. The legacy that he leaves is demonstrated at his funeral, the closing line of the poem, that he has been remembered as “the man most gracious and fair-minded, kindest to his people and keenest to win fame.” Beowulf is found thus to be the perfect hero.
Beowulf has an omniscient (“all-knowing”) narrator. The narrative voice comments on the character’s actions, and knows and is able to report on what they think. The narrator is aware of things—for example, the curse on the dragon’s treasure (lines 3066-75)—that are not known to the epic’s characters. Beowulf shares this omniscient narration with other epics, such as the Iliad, the Odyssey, and the Aeneid, but remains subtly different. The narrator of Beowulf makes an explicit connection with the audience, acknowledging a shared background of cultural knowledge, in the opening lines of the poem: “We have heard of the thriving of the throne of Denmark” (emphasis added). The narrator’s voice is also intimately connected with those of the characters. Both use narratives in the same way, to point a moral or to project future events.
The poet used several methods to create character. The narrator describes characters. The poet uses direct speech, a popular method in Germanic poetry to develop character. Characters define each other, as when the coast guard (lines 237-57) or Wulfgar (lines 336a-70) speak of their impressions of Beowulf and his men. More striking is the poet’s careful development of characters through their own speeches. The voices of the individual characters are just that, the voices of individuals. Beowulf’s speeches could not be confused with Hrothgar’s.
Old English poetry is different from that of most English verse written since the Norman Conquest. It is based on a pattern of stressed syllables linked by alliteration (the repetition of identical initial consonant sounds or any vowel sounds appearing close together) across a line of verse divided by a distinct pause in the middle.
Alexander, Michael. “Introduction.” In Beowulf: A Verse Translation. Penguin Books, 1973. Alexander offers a detailed introduction to the poem, discussing the history of the manuscript, the epic tradition, and the characters and plot of the poem.
———. “Epic.” In A Dictionary of Modern Critical Terms, edited by Roger Fowler. Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1987, pp. 73-75. Alexander provides a short, clear introduction to the western epic with brief, well-integrated extracts from important critical texts.
Backhouse, Janet, D. H. Turner, and Leslie Webster. The Golden Age of Anglo-Saxon Art: 966-1066. British Museum, 1984. Provides marvellous illustrations of Anglo-Saxon art, fine and applied, covering the period in which the Beowulf manuscript was written.
Basset, Steven, ed. The Origins of Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms. Leicester University Press, 1989. Provides a
discussion of the political and social circumstances which may be reflected in Beowulf.
Benson, L. D. “The Originality of Beowulf.” In The Interpretation of Narrative: Theory and Practice,
Harvard Studies in English, Vol. 1, edited by M. W. Bloomfield. Harvard University Press, 1970, pp. 1-43.An excellent discussion of the originality of the poem and its the characters.
Bessinger, Jess B., and Robert F. Yeager. Approaches to Teaching Beowulf. Modern Language Association, 1984. Essentially a teacher’s guide. Includes an excellent bibliography and list of derivative works which may be of use to students.
Bonjour, Adrien. The Digressions in Beowulf. Medium Aevum Monographs 5. Basil Blackwell, 1950.
Bonjour studies the workings and implications of the “digressions,” the short narratives and allusions which are embedded in the main narrative.
Boyle, Leonard. “The Nowell Codex and the Poem of Beowulf.” In The Dating of Beowulf, edited by Colin Chase. University of Toronto Press, 1981, pp. 23-32. An excellent short study of the Beowulf manuscript. It challenges Kevin Kiernan’s theory that the manuscript is the author’s copy.
Bradley, S. S. J., trans. Anglo-Saxon Poetry. Everyman Books, 1992. A good prose translation of the poem with a short and useful beginners’ introduction.
Brown, Michelle. Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts. British Library, 1991. A good beginners’ introduction to the
process of making a manuscript. It covers the materials used in a manuscript, how the writing was done, how a page and a text were laid out, and finally discusses individual manuscripts made by Anglo-Saxons.
Chambers, R. W. Beowulf: An Introduction to the Study of the Poem, 3rd Supplement by C. L. Wrenn.
Cambridge University Press, 1963. Chambers’ book remains one of the most valuable studies of the poem’s background. It is a scholarly book, but user-friendly, clearly and even entertainingly written.
Chase, Colin, ed. The Dating of Beowulf. University of Toronto Press, 1981. This collection of essays
restarted the controversy over the dating of Beowulf and redirected interest back to the manuscript of the
Clark, George. Beowulf. Twayne Publishers, 1990. A first-class beginners’ introduction to the poem. There are chapters on the history of Beowulf criticism, the other legends embedded in the poem, the ethics of heroism, the monsters and kingship.
Curtius, Ernest. European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, translated by Willard Trask. University of Princeton Press, 1973. A study of the ways medieval writers absorbed and used the heritage of Greece and Rome in their writing. It stresses the importance of this process to the formation of the western mind. It pays particular attention to the idea and presentation of the hero.
Engelhardt, George J. “Beowulf: A Study of Dilation.” In PMLA, Vol. 70, 1955, pp. 269-82. Very technical, but an excellent discussion of how the poet organised and developed his material.
Dr. Balaga Venkataramana is an Assistant Professor, Department of English, Sri Satya Sai Institute Of Higher Learning, Muddena Halli Campus, Karnataka