Beowulf is considered one of the most important work in English literature both for its antiquity and its magnificence. It consists of 3182 lines in alliteration. The language is Old English and the book might be the only work existing in such an ancient form of the language. The theme of the poem is heroism like in all ancient poems and stories. It is set in Scandinavia and is about the problems of the Danes and Beowulf coming in as a saviour. Beowulf’s fight with a monster, the monster’s mother and later with a dragon is the main plot of the poem.
About the Playwright
There is no indication of who has written it. The poem in the manuscript form is now housed in the British Library. It is known as Nowell Codex. There is no title for the poem so the name of the protagonist is given to the poem – “Beowulf”. This manuscript, along with other medieval manuscripts, was kept in Ashburnham House in London by Sir Robert Bruce. In 1731 it was damaged by a fire and whatever seen now is what was salvaged from the fire. But it is believed that the whole poem was retrieved. There are many versions by many scholars regarding the scribe, the language and the date and nothing final has been arrived at.
King Hrothgar was the king of Denmark and he was a successful and prosperous king. The crown of his glory was the mead-hall which was called Herot. His warriors met there to revel in drinks, to receive gifts from the king, listen to bards and for merry-making. The fame of this hall had spread and had made Hrothgar very famous. The sound that emanated from the revelry angered Grendel a demon which lived in the marshes of the kingdom. Grendel enters Herot and kills many soldiers and carries their bodies into the swamplands, drinking their blood. The Danes could not fight back and Grendel’s visits became a regular affair. So many soldiers were slaughtered and the king could do nothing about it. The news about Grendel spreads and Beowulf, a powerful warrior from the land of Geats and his men come to Denmark to help King Hrothgar. Beowulf wanted to help the king for two reasons; one was to show his prowess and the other was to repay the favour done by Hrothgar to his father Edgetho. The king recalls the incident. He had helped Edgetho in a war.
“ I bought the end of Edgetho’s
Quarrel, sent ancient treasures through the ocean’s
Furrows to the Wulfings; your father swore
He’d keep his peace.”
When Grendel arrives that night, Beowulf, in a fierce and long battle, cuts off one arm of the monster. In fear and in pain he runs away to his safe haven, the marshes where he dies. The severed arm is hung in the hall as a trophy of the victory. There is great jubilation and the Danes think that their troubles are over. But not so; Grendel’s mother comes back to avenge his son’s death. She kills Aeschere, a close friend of Hrothgar, before slinking back to the marsh. Beowulf goes to the marsh lands and the fight happens there. Though a woman, Beowulf finds killing her more difficult than Grendel. The Danes lose hope and go back to their homes while the Geats who accompanied Beowulf wait knowing that their brave warrior would be victorious. And they were right; he slits the woman’s neck and kills her and comes out with the head of Grendel. Now there are more celebrations because the Danes now know that they will not be disturbed by anyone. Beowulf goes back with a lot of gifts.
Beowulf and his men return and he becomes the ruler of his land and rules well for many years. Then comes his encounter with a dragon that had a treasure as well. This was his last fight. The fire from the dragon melts his shield and sword and all his men run away in fear except for one. Yet the two fight and kill the dragon but Beowulf also loses his life and a huge tower is built in his memory and the treasures are also buried with him. The people of Geats praise their king and with this the poem ends.
Beowulf is the epitome of a hero. All through his life he has been heroic. There are description of his brave conflicts with Grendel and his mother. Beowulf also recounts incidents of chivalry at the mead-hall to impress the Danes. Even when old he fights the dragon but does not survive. In the court of Hrothgar, Beowulf recounts his brave expeditions. “I drove five great giants into chains”; “I swam in the blackness of night hunting monsters out of the ocean.” He tells that sword will be the last resort in a fight. However he is not proud and talks about his probable defeat at the hands of Grendel.
“God must decide
Who will be given to death’s cold grip.
And if death does take me……. Fate will unwind as it must!
Grendel is a monster which kills the Danes especially when there is merry making in Herot. The king tries to appease him with wealth but he took none of it. He only wanted blood and sent shivers down the spine of the Danes. There is something human about him too and he does not touch the throne of Hrothgar. He never shows remorse and comes back for more.
Hrothgar was the king of Danes and loved by the people. He was very worried about the deaths and laments over it though there is nothing much he can do about it. He was old and felt helpless against Grendel. So he gives full support to Beowulf when he comes to kill Grendel. Life’s lessons made Hrothgar a sober person.
Unferth is a youngster who is angry with himself as he cannot protect his people. And this anger is projected on Beowulf by scolding him about the swimming match in Breca. He is jealous of all the attention given to Beowulf. However in the fight against Grendel’s mother Unferth gifts his sword to Beowulf thereby bringing down the inhospitable nature of Unferth.
None of his comrades,
Came to him…… they ran for their lives, fled
And only one of them remained ….. His name was Wiglaf, he was Wexstan’s son
When Beowulf was fighting the dragon, his last fight, no one stood by him except Wiglaf. Together they defeated the dragon. He was the younger version of Beowulf, valiant, strong, fearless and loyal. Wiglaf embodies the next generation of heroes and the future of their country.
There is some difficulty in being accurate about the period of the poem but it could have been the sixth or the seventh century and not later than that. It was after the Anglo-Saxons started their journey to England. It is believed that the people of Geatish origin brought it to England. There is little history and fiction in the poem. The raid of King Hygelac into Frisia is history while Beowulf is a fictional character. Recent excavations in Denmark revealed a mead-hall and some think it might have been the Herot. Stories cannot be spun from thin air. Some events must have taken place and there might have been brave warriors like Beowulf.
The theme of Beowulf is essentially heroism. It is heroism of people from good lineage and whom the people look up to. So the main characters are proud of their ancestors and also about their own achievements. Grendel and his mother being monsters stoop to the worst level but Beowulf and Hrothgar are dignified in their approach reflecting their upbringing. However there is a little negativity in the some of them which is soon rectified. Differentiation between a good king and a good warrior is another theme of the poem.
Motifs are that which occur often to strengthen the theme of the poem. Monsters are the main and obvious motifs in the poem Beowulf. The time when this poem was written was one wherein the western countries wrote very little. The oral tradition forms another motif of the poem. It was not considered arrogance in those days to praise oneself for that was one way to publicise what happened. The bards were also ones who passed on the news through their songs. The mead-hall, Herot is almost another character in the poem. The revelry and the killings all happen in the mead hall. Had the mead hall not been constructed, Grendel might not have come to devour the warriors. In his introductory speech Beowulf speaks about the mead-hall – “Sailors have brought us stories of the Herot, the best of all mead halls.” So it is for the restoring the glory of the mead hall and to kill the terrible monster, Grendel, that Beowulf comes to Denmark. The major part of the poem covers his confrontation of Grendel and his mother. Beowulf is successful and peace returns to Denmark and the celebrations continue in Herot.