The date of origin of the epic poem Beowulf remains a mystery, along with its authorship. What is known, however, is that it is the oldest poem composed in Old English to have endured through the ages. Though designed to be read through oral presentation, Beowulf’s extreme length ensured the poem would be recorded through the written word. Beowulf contains 3,182 lines, and experts believe that it may have been written during the eighth century.
The Plot and Story
The story of Beowulf begins with a recounting of the attack on King Hrothgar of Denmark’s kingdom, which symbolized an attack on the kingdom's comitatus. Grendel, a monster, has attacked Hrothgar’s great hall, Heorot, and causes great destruction. The men of the kingdom share a great bond, through comitatus, which is a social system where the Lord or King provides for the interests of his or her followers, in return for absolute loyalty and bravery. Through comitatus, the men of the kingdom were greatly distraught over Grendel’s attack. Beowulf, who is a hero and prince of the Geats, sojourns with his army of warriors from Sweden in order to defeat Grendel. A youthful Beowulf arrives and is successful. He kills Grendel and thereby becomes an important part of comitatus. Beowulf and the men celebrate the death of Grendel.
In a show of loyalty to her son, Grendel’s mother attacks the kingdom and takes a man for the purpose of avenging the death of her son. In her way, she is performing comitatus in honor of Grendel. Beowulf, the Swedish army, and the Danes set out to destroy Grendel’s mother. Upon arriving at the mother’s residence, a lake, Beowulf bravely jumps into the water and battles Grendel’s mother. He was able to defeat her by using a magic sword that he retrieved from her treasure trove. Beowulf shared the triumphant tales to King Hrothgar and to Beowulf’s uncle Hygelac, who is also the King of Sweden. It is this aspect of the epic poem that discusses Beowulf’s youthful adventures and the warnings not to become prideful due to his success. Beowulf’s actions helped to promote peace and safety with different tribes. Though Beowulf acted heroically in his youth, the poem presents warnings and foreshadows that Beowulf must prepare for terrible times are ahead.
The second portion of the epic poem shows Beowulf as King of the Geats. It is approximately fifty years after the successes of his youth and a dragon now threatens the kingdom. While Beowulf proved that true heroism is acting for the good of humankind during his younger years, in contrast, an unscrupulous person has trespassed in the dragon’s lair and stolen a cup of value to the dragon. The poem shifts to highlight the troubles that arise when people stop focusing on the common good and in turn act selfishly. Beowulf, full of heroic notions, leads the battle against the dragon, however, he proves to be no match for the beast. While the dragon has the upper hand in the battle, the army of men with Beowulf fails to help. Of the men who accompanied Beowulf, only one, Wiglaf, participated in the fight, but by then, it was too late. Beowulf is fatally wounded, and upon his death is burned on a funeral pyre. The epic poem is revered for the lessons that it teaches about humanity, selfishness and greed, and comitatus or fighting for the common good.
Themes and References
Beowulf contains several themes and references. Most notable are the many references to the Bible and teachings associated with the early Christian church. Obvious references to Christianity and the Bible include talk of God as Creator and reference to the monster Grendel as being descended from Cain. According to the Bible, Cain is the first murderer and was cursed. When Beowulf informed King Hrothgar of his victories, Hrothgar offered him advice to remain humble. Many of the principles espoused in Hrothgar’s speech are synonymous with teachings in the early Christian church. It is noted, however, that references are to the Old Testament, and early Christian church, yet there exists no references specifically to the New Testament. Many scholars theorize, however, that the New Testament omission may be to keep the theme of the epic poem in line with the Old Testament teachings of justice, such as an eye-for-an-eye, rather than the New Testament views of turning the other cheek.
The teachings associated with the Old Testament are also similar to the customs associated with ancient Germanic customs. These focus on a strong sense of community, as is witnessed with the children of Israel in the Old Testament, as well as revenge for injustices. Revenge does not play a strong role in the New Testament; in fact, the teachings of Christ were opposed to seeking revenge but on forgiveness, mercy, and humility. Many scholars agree that though Beowulf has Christian themes, there are specific reasons why it focused more on the Old Testament writings than the New.
Some scholars believe that the main theme of Beowulf is that any standard for societal living created or designed by man will always fail. Beowulf shows that man has too many weaknesses to live for a higher purpose successfully. Throughout all of the warnings, man could not work together and defeat the dragon, not even for the sake of the greater good. The references to God as creator have led some to believe that Beowulf is saying only a world created by God will last.
Another important theme utilized throughout the epic poem is that of Beowulf’s life. Beowulf examines the hero’s life, as well as the process he went through to grow up, mature, and become king. As many parts of Beowulf focus on warning tales of pride and downfalls, Beowulf matures and becomes the deliverer of the same message (to Wiglaf) that was given to him growing up. Though Beowulf warned the people of the downfall that would become them should they give in to pride, the people did not listen. Beowulf proved he was a hero who focused on the greater good of humanity. He overcame youthful obstacles and grew into a wise and good king. Unfortunately, the people would not listen to his advice and when he needed the support of those around him, they failed him.
A final theme expressed in Beowulf is that of comitatus. Comitatus focuses on the sense of community and the relationship between the one who provides and protects and those who are provided for an protected in return for their loyalty. Beowulf strengthened the sense of community and even the political ties and bonds between the Swedes and Danes. Though Beowulf was rewarded handsomely for defeating Grendel, these were not his sole motivation. Beowulf’s motivation was to strengthen, increase, and enhance the community. Unfortunately, he found that those he trusted would abandon him in his hour of need, proving the true definition of a hero.
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