Written in old English, Beowulf is the first surviving epic poem of its kind. Modern day scholars have no information about the author of the poem, nor when it was composed, though many believe it to have been written between 650-800. The earliest copy of the text still in existence (The Cotton Vitellius manuscript) was made in the late tenth or early eleventh century, and is part of a larger volume (The Nowell Codex) with other stories of mythical creatures. The author borrowed text, themes, and stories from many other sources. Beowulf has many direct allusions to Christianity, often citing God, but also incorporates many pagan practices and beliefs, such as sea-burials and yielding to fate. It is an important, enduring staple of Western literature, and today there many translations and adaptations continue to be popular among all ages.
Key Aspects of Beowulf
The tone of the poem is heroic and proud as Beowulf accomplishes his many feats. Toward the end, it grows reflective and mournful as Beowulf nears his doom.
Most of the action takes place in and around Denmark and Geatland (now Sweden) in an unspecified time (see “Introduction”).
Point of view
The poem is told from a 3rd person omniscient perspective.
Beowulf: Beowulf begins the poem attempting to prove his worth to the Danes. He kills Grendel and quickly establishes himself as a hero. Beowulf slays many monsters and becomes king before beginning his doomed descent into battle with a dragon who ultimately kills him.
Grendel: Grendel is an unstoppable, powerful force as the poem begins. He terrorizes Herot nightly. He is killed early on in the poem in a battle with Beowulf; Grendel flees, mortally wounded, back to his lake to die.
Hrothgar: Hrothgar is initially portrayed as a successful ruler, but he then becomes mournful and despondent when Grendel continually attacks Herot. He gratefully gives Beowulf much treasure and thanks for helping rid Herot of both Grendel and his mother.
Power: The poem explores the political power of leaders, the physical power of heroes, and the destructive power of monsters.
Good vs Evil: Throughout the poem, good and evil are constantly at odds with each other, especially as manifested in physical battles between Beowulf (representing good) and various monsters (representing evil).
Fate: The poem is concerned with how fate determines the outcomes of situations. Predestination due to ancestry or character manifests itself in how Grendel and his mother are treated, as well as Beowulf’s successes and failures.
Fratricide: Stemming from Cain’s murder of Abel, fratricide appears multiple times throughout the poem, symbolizing one of the ultimate unforgivable crimes–the murder of one’s kin.
Light/Darkness: Monsters (such as Grendel, his mother, and the dragon) move only at night and inhabit dark places, while “good” forces are associated with light.
Blood: Blood is spilled not only from the monsters but from our hero. It symbolizes the universality of death and the mortality of all creatures.
Herot: Not only a mead hall, Herot symbolizes success, prosperity, happiness, and rejoicing.
Treasure: Treasure is used as a form of social exchange of approbation and thanks.
Beowulf has three main battles throughout the poem: the first with Grendel, the second with Grendel’s mother, and the third with a dragon. He is just establishing himself as a hero when fighting Grendel, and nearing his death when fighting the dragon; the battle with Grendel’s mother serves as the climax of the poem.
The poem is broken up into 43 sections and a prologue.