Literary Analysis of the poem “Beowulf”
Beowulf is considered as one of the longest poems in literature with more than 3,000 lines. It is has no known author, but it was considered as the national epic of England. Beowulf is a man – a hero who faced three major battles in the poem. These battles were not against other humans, but were against monstrous creatures (The Norton Anthology of English Literature).
It is a poem that deals with legends, of hero and his men, and his great battles. It is composed mainly to entertain, a work of fiction with several relations to historical context. And with this, some speculations were raised, saying that Beowulf was something more that a poetic narrative of the hero, Beowulf. The epic poem was then related to a Christian context, saying that it was a Christian allegory.
The poem takes place in the late 5th to 6th century, following the Anglo-Saxon’s settlement in England, after making contact with Germanic tribes in Scandinavia and Germany. Beowulf may be based on real people and real events at that time in Scandinavia. The clans mentioned in the poem were clans which are found in the area, as well as some of the prominent personalities in the story. So basically, the epic poem is a work of fiction but was based on factual characters and events during that time.
The time of Beowulf was a time of Paganism, but Beowulf himself addresses a higher being rather than man, wherein he presents himself to the Father Almighty. According to Helterman, “As the view of the intellectual setting has shifted from a pagan to a Christian context, this ‘something more’ has been seen as a Christian allegory or didacticism…yet the tone of the poem and the lack of specific Christian allusions cause difficulties for such an approach (Helterman).” The poem didn’t mention anything regarding Christianity, and Beowulf was a pagan. But there were several “Christian sentiments of a general sort” which were attributed to the hero.
Because of the Christian-like characterization of the hero Beowulf, there were several speculations saying that the author was a Christian in England who wrote about Scandinavian history, which then became the epic poem Beowulf. But some said that the Christian attribution in the hero’s character could mean that he was an archetype, the generic, idealized model of a person (Chickering).
And at that time, Christianity was a budding religion, wherein Beowulf’s character could have been patterned into that of an ideal Christian. Beowulf as the hero of the epic was made the way he is, the ideal person. But then again, every hero has its counterparts. And just like Beowulf, his counterpart can be seen in a Christian context.
The epic poem Beowulf is divided into three major battles. The first one is his battle with the monstrous creature called Grendel, which was the reason why he went to Hrotgar. Just like Beowulf, Grendel also has a Christian context. He is to be the descendant of Cain, the son of Adam and Eve which was banished for killing his own brother.
Because of this, Grendel is given an antagonistic comparison with Cain, who was the first person to commit murder in the Christian bible. Grendel, along with his mother, was compared to as the kinsmen of Cain, whereas Beowulf was the pagan hero considered as the archetype of a human being.
Beowulf and Grendel were great opposites, as manifestation of the forces of good battling with the forces of evil, or in the context of religion and Christianity, will be righting the wrong. Beowulf’s character is the manifestation of Christianity’s good; wherein his defense of Heorot was an act to “order the chaotic universe,” where Grendel and his mother on the other hand, were the forces that bring chaos, falling into pattern of disorder (Batchelor).
This is manifested by their physical appearance wherein they do not resemble or have any human characteristics. They were monstrous in size and strength. They can kill people with the swipe of their hands, and they even eat people, as to what Grendel did to Hrotgar’s men.
Another possible association with religion and Christianity was during the creation of Heorot, the great hall which was built for the people of King Hrotgar (Helterman). The creation of the hall was because of the word of the king. It is the same as that of the Christian’s Genesis, wherein with the word of God, there was light.
And it was with that word that He was able to create day and night, and everything that he wished and commanded. Just as with Hrotgar’s word, Heorot was created, all for the sake of the people, since in this hall they dined, ate and sang, until the time that Grendel came into the story.
When Grendel came, it was like introducing chaos into order so that you could cleanse it, just like the cleansing of the sins of the people, just like the Great flood, where chaos or the flood was added in order to cleanse the world of the sinners. When Grendel came into Heorot, chaos caused destruction, thus it would require reconstruction, where after reconstruction was the cleansed state.
Grendel, even though he caused a great deal of devastation to the people, has served a purpose, which was to strengthen the then destroyed Heorot. His chaos has led to a good outcome in the story. It could also be viewed on another angle, where the battle between Beowulf and Grendel was actually the same as to that of the myth of creation, where light and darkness mixed and “fought” in order to create the earth and everything in it.
Another instance that relates the epic poem Beowulf to Christianity was during the battle against the mother of Grendel. Beowulf was definite on the losing end at that moment, since his sword, Hrunting, lost its powers and cannot harm the creature he is up against with. In his desperation, he was able to locate a sword in the Grendel’s lair, which only he could be able to use.
It was a heavy sword of the giant, which he used to behead the mother of Grendel and eventually prolong his life. Even though he was able to slay the monster and keep his life, he gives the credit of his victory to the “higher being,” the “Wielder of Men.” It was an indirect association to God in Christianity, since he recognizes His powers and that his victory wasn’t possible without him. Beowulf being a pagan is just a characteristic, since there was no evidence of him knowing about Christianity (Batchelor). But the fact that he addresses to a higher being is a manifestation of being Christian even in his beliefs.
The epic poem Beowulf is truly a literary piece that was made to entertain, with the life of Beowulf as a hero, his adventures, his battles, and even his death, makes it a wonderful read. But there are other underlying concerns that could come about while reading the epic. It is undeniable that there are other meanings in what was written, rather than just to entertain. The poem Beowulf is associated with religion, especially Christianity. The main character’s recognition of a higher being is but one of many manifestations of this underlying messages.
Batchelor, C. C. “The Style of the Béowulf: A Study of the Composition of the Poem.” Speculum 12.3 (1937).
Chickering, Howell. “Untitled.” Rev. of “Beowulf” and Christianity., by Parker, Mary A. Speculum 65.1 (1990).
Helterman, Jeffrey. “Beowulf: The Archetype Enters History.” ELH 35.1 (1968): 20.
The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. 8th Edition ed. Vol. 1: W. W. Norton Publishing, 2006.