The Literary Elements of Beowulf
What makes someone a hero? Different kinds of heroes are found in almost every society and culture. Whether he or she is to perform a marvelous, unforgettable act or is admired by the society, every society has its own definition of a hero. The Anglo-Saxons who conquered Britain from 450 to 1066 have their own version of a hero just like any other society. A hero in their eyes should be brave, loyal, and honorable to his tribe or kingdom. These characteristics are known as the Anglo-Saxons core values. One of the most famous heroes of Anglo-Saxon is Beowulf.
Beowulf” is about a man, who is summoned by King Hrothgar to save the kingdom and the mead hall, Heorot, from a monster who is terrorizing Hrothgar’s people and threatening their lives and their way of life. “Beowulf” does not only contain the core values of the Anglo-Saxons but also portrays the archetypal characteristics of an Epic Hero. Beowulf, the protagonist and epic hero excels in skill, strength, intelligence, values and glory, and seeks immortality. Beowulf portrays these characteristics in his conversations, quarrels, and quests. Beowulf also gives off a mood of hope and security.
The entire epic poem uses literary devices, sound effects, motifs, Anglo-Saxons values, and multiple themes to depict the Anglo-Saxon society and its views. The poem “Beowulf” is set in a kingdom, in which a monster terrorizes the people and destroys the bond of its community. Herot’s king, Hrothgar, calls upon a noble warrior named Beowulf. Beowulf is an unmatched warrior who is far better than any other Anglo-Saxon warrior in combat, skill, and bravery. He takes on Grendel, the monster, with a scheme to await its attack during the night and counter its attack before it has a chance to attack Beowulf.
The plan succeeds and Grendel flees back to his lair with a fatal wound. Later, Grendel’s mother seeks revenge for her son, Beowulf is summoned again for another quest. After he infiltrates Grendel’s mother’s lair, Grendel’s mother and he quarrel and once again Beowulf triumphs. He then finds Grendel lying on the ground and decapitates him to confirm Grendel’s death. After that Beowulf is crowned king and retains the throne for years. Many years later, Beowulf’s kingdom is under threat by a dragon, Beowulf initiates a quest immediately to slay the dragon.
He takes eleven men with him to fulfill the mission. During his fight with the dragon, Beowulf realizes that he is overpowered by the dragon and knows that he cannot win this fight alone. After all his men flee, one brave warrior remains to help the elder Beowulf to slay the dragon. After the dragon is slayed Beowulf is fatally wounded and makes his last request. The brave and loyal warrior, Wiglaf, is crowned king after Beowulf passes away. Throughout the epic poem multiple techniques and devices are used to express Anglo-Saxons views and values, and are values of Beowulf’s skill and power.
One of the literary elements used is a foil. A foil is a character who contrasts another character to indicate and portray certain characteristics. In the poem multiple foils are present to boast Beowulf’s character. For instance, in the mead hall, Beowulf is criticized by Unferth, a jealous man. Unferth teases Beowulf about a competition which Beowulf lost. However, Beowulf replies by saying what he did was an act of honor and bravery. Another event is with Grendel, throughout the entire poem, Grendel was described as a monster from hell who is very powerful and undefeatable.
Beowulf came along and when he encountered Grendel, he defeated it with ease. The idea that Grendel is extremely powerful and that Beowulf slayed him with ease on his first encounter, shows Beowulf unmatched power. Now notice the word “hell” is used in this poem. Hell, is not a pagan belief, but a Christian belief. Which not only indicates that there are Christian elements in this pagan poem, but this is also known as an allusion. An allusion is a reference to a statement, person, place, or thing that is known from literature, history, religion, mythology, politics or popular culture.
Now the reference to hell above, is an allusion which is coming from religion. The poem at the time it was taking place was nowhere near the time of Christianity. This indicates that the poem was somehow edited and Christian elements were input into the poem. (Anglo-Saxons: A Brief History) An allegory is a story, poem, or picture that can be interpreted to reveal a hidden meaning, typically a moral or political one. Throughout the poem, Beowulf, the hero, has many battles. His opponents are Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and the dragon. Eventually it is evident that these monsters do not actually exist.
They are just symbols, or in a more literate term, allegories of the real enemies and fears of the Anglo-Saxons. It is not only the monsters that were fictional symbols, but Beowulf, the hero, is not quite exactly who he is portrayed. Beowulf symbolizes the image of a true hero from an Anglo-Saxon point of view. The significance of allegories and symbolism is that it sends a moral message somewhat secretly. It also represents another meaning which is known as symbolic meaning. Symbols were used to portray many objects or items for things that are not that evident.
Such as the mead hall, Heorot, seems just as a place to drink, however is much more than that. Symbolically, the mead hall is the heart of the community of the Kingdom; it represents the level of civilization. Allegories were used as means to segue from the ancient and medieval culture to the Christian culture. Figures of speech, a term heard in every literature story, poem, etc. Figures of speech are used in order to create figures, or pictures in the readers mind. By doing that, they help the reader observe and attempt to simulate the feelings and the thoughts that were taking place when the passage was being written.
Throughout the poem “Beowulf” many figures of speech are used to help visualize the language and views of the Anglo-Saxons. The first one is a hyperbole, one of the most common figures of speech. A hyperbole is an exaggerated statement or claim not meant to be taken literally. This is used to help one view the greatness of something. For instance it is said that Grendel killed 30 men with one blow. However it is evident that the statement is a hyperbole trying to indicate the power of Grendel. Personification is giving human traits and characteristics to nonhuman things. There are multiple uses for personification.
The application for it is that it lets the poem resonate with the reader, therefore offering a better image of what is happening. Other uses include boosting the emotion and affecting the mood of the poem. For instance Beowulf says “my obedient blade”. Which infers that Beowulf’s’ blade obeys his every command, which means that his blade has never failed him in a battle. Throughout the poem, many details are found, the reason for that being is to aid the reader understand and feel the mood more easily. However, these details come in all shapes and sizes, which are taste, touch, smell, sight, and sound.
This specific technique is called imagery, it is the language that appeals to the senses. This technique is very effective at helping the reader imagine the scenery or item the author is attempting to describe. It practically places the reader in the characters shoes in such a way that he can feel anything the character is feeling, almost like virtual reality. This method is used the poem Beowulf in various parts. The writer situates the reader in Beowulf’s place in order for the reader to understand Beowulf’s feelings and situation more.
One example would be: “I’d use no sword, no weapon, if this beast / could be killed without it, crushed to death / Like Grendel, gripped in my hands and torn / Limb from limb. But his breath will be burning / Hot, poison will pour from his tongue” [Bur03]. This quote enhances the meaning because the reader feels as if they are Beowulf, feeling, smelling, and seeing the dragon. The senses expressed are touch, smell, and sight. Other literary devices are used as well to affect the rhythm of the poem, narration, and the Anglo-Saxon style language.
Kennings and Alliteration both affect the pronunciation of the poem, whereas one affects the rhythm the other one affects the sound. Both of these play a large role in how the poem is understood and viewed, as well as indicating the culture’s language. Kennings are metaphorical phrases or compound words used to name a person, thing, place, or event indirectly. In the age of the Anglo-Saxons, poets or bards, used to rely on kennings to a great extent to describe objects and events in a colorful manner, rather than the dull items they are. The bards were in charge of reciting a warrior’s actions and quarrels.
They sang and recited the warriors’ stories to the public, they were the only means of preserving these stories and poems before the monks. When the bards used kennings in their poems and recitations, it gave somewhat of a spark. More attention was directed and the events sounded much more intense and interesting. For instance, when Beowulf was searching for a sword, the bard did not simply narrate the exact scenario, instead he said: “But the warrior found the light-of-battle”. Now these kennings did not simply come out of nowhere; the bards created them.
The popular literary technique of the Anglo-Saxon period was alliteration, that is, the repetition of initial consonant sounds in two or more neighboring words. For example, this was said as Beowulf and Grendel fought at night “Herot trembled, wonderfully built to withstand the blows, the struggling great bodies beating at its beautiful walls”. The repetition of the “b” gives off a sound or a mood like a boom, as Grendel and Beowulf quarreled. As you see the bards intend to give of moods and vibes to the audience, this also has to do with the sound effect of the poem.
However, when the bards try to alliterate words together they sometimes struggle to find synonyms that alliterate with the other words. So sometimes they had to create their own words, which are known as kennings. These two literary devices affected the way the poem was visualized and viewed, they added a rhythm and with that came a more moody poem, which finally resulted into a more interesting story which looked much more glorious. Now kennings and alliteration were not the only sound effects present in the poem “Beowulf”. Sound effects such as caesuras were also used both to change the rhythm and create a desired effect.
A caesura is a pause or break within a line of poetry usually indicated by the natural rhythm of the language. Now from a logical point of view, without the use of caesuras the phrases in a poem would just flow and be meaningless. While on the other hand, with the use of caesuras, the poem’s rhythm can be changed in order to point out a certain thing or create a certain mood. In almost every sentence in the poem “Beowulf”, a caesura is present. “Beowulf,” no doubt expresses the characteristics of an epic hero. The epic poem explores his heroism in two different stages.
The first being in his younger, youth years, and the second, his aged years. In addition to the two different stages the poem indulges on Beowulf; his heroism is also explored with three different conflicts of increasing difficulty. Even though his actions in each of those conflicts may be explained as the heroic code, perhaps there is something more than it seems. The two phases, separated by 50 years, correspond to two different models of quality, and much of the moral reflection in the story concentrates on differentiating the two models and showing how Beowulf transitioned from one to another.
In Beowulf’s youth, he is a fierce strong warrior who is acknowledged for his exploits of strength and courage. His conquest of Grendel and Grendel’s mother confirms his reputation for bravery and establishes him fully as a hero. In the first part of the poem Beowulf progresses little with his maturity, even though he holds his heroic properties from the commencement of the poem. Having purged in Denmark of its plagues and established himself as a hero, Beowulf is ready to enter into a new phase of his life. Hrothgar, who becomes a mentor and father figure to the young warrior, gives Beowulf advice on how to be a wise ruler.
Even though Beowulf is far from becoming king, his career as a warrior aids his ascension in taking the throne. In the second part of the story, not much is recoverable, except that the story is now focusing on the aged part of Beowulf’s life and his new position as king, while keeping his position as warrior. The period following Hygelac’s death is an important transitional moment for Beowulf. Instead of rushing for the throne himself, he supports Hygelac’s son, the rightful heir. With this gesture of loyalty and respect for the throne, he proves himself worthy of kingship.
In the final part of the story in which Beowulf must face the dragon, the poet reflects further on how the responsibilities of a king who must act for the good of the people and not just for his own glory, differentiate from those of the heroic warrior. Grendel is one of the three monsters Beowulf battles in this epic poem. His nature is vague; though he has many animal attributes and a monstrous appearance, he seems to be guided by human emotion and impulses and shows more of an interior life that might catch the naked eye. Banished to the swamplands outside human society, Grendel is an outcast who seems to be long reestablished.
The poet hints that behind Grendel’s aggression against the Danes lies loneliness and jealousy. By heredity Grendel is a member of the Cain Clan whom the creator has outlawed and sentenced as an outcast. Hrothgar, although he looks like an insignificant character, plays a huge role in developing Beowulf’s maturity. Even though he is as solidly embedded in the heroic code as Beowulf is, his old age and his experience with both good and evil have caused him to develop a more reflective attitude toward heroism than Beowulf possesses [Bur03].
With that knowledge Hrothgar, who is almost like a father to Beowulf, warns Beowulf not to stray into pride, and to always but the safety of his people first. Hrothgar is aware of both the privileges and consequences of power, and warns Beowulf that blessing may at any time turn into grief. Hrothgar’s presence not only aids Beowulf in his maturity, but his image portrays that there is more to a hero than only in his youth. His intellect and leadership skills are like no other especially when Beowulf was at his young age.
The significance of Hrothgar in the epic poem is to aid the warrior to take the correct path and mature with the correct morals, just as a father would raise his son in the proper manner with discipline and morals. The poem is originally a pagan poem, but somehow Christian elements such as God, the devil, and many other attributes are found in the poem. [Dav03] The poem came along way before it reached modern day books today. It all started with the bards, the bards would recite and chant the stories of heroes and warriors for the locals to know about their whereabouts.
Now as time passed the Anglo-Saxons conquered Great Britain, and with the Anglo-Saxons came the Christian religion and scripts. The bards now recited the stories of the heroes and warriors to the monks which wrote them down onto scripts and modified them and input Christian elements into the pagan poems the bards were reciting. That is why, when one is reading he or she will come across some religious references such as reference to God and to the Devil. Overall, Beowulf contains many pagan themes and concepts, but yet it also contains many clear references to Christianity. For instance Beowulf repeatedly acknowledges God as his protector.
When Beowulf relates his battle with Grendel’s mother, he states that “The fight would have ended straightaway if God had not guarded me”. [Bur03] Another example would be that Beowulf believes that there is also the sense that all earthly good, be it success or wealth, derives from God. For example, when about to fight Grendel’s mother in her cave, Beowulf sees a great weapon hanging on the wall but he does not take credit for this perception.
Instead the credit is given to God: “But the Wielder of Men granted me that I should see hanging on the wall a fair, ancient great-sword. The input of the Christian elements do give a slight balance to the poem, indicating that the hero has morals and is not selfish. It gives off a positive image of the hero and his accomplishments, for in addition for him serving his people, Beowulf is also thanking God for aiding him. In which portrays the generosity and considerateness of Beowulf’s character. Throughout the story are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes, these are called Motifs.
Motifs somewhat symbolize objects, or people as something to help the reader understand it more fluently. Motifs are used vastly throughout the poem Beowulf. Without motifs the poem would not be anywhere near its meaning now. Now one major motif in the poem Beowulf would be the monsters. The poem Beowulf is filled with monsters. Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and the Dragon play key roles as enemies to the kingdom. They perform multiple harmful acts such as terrorizing the kingdom and destroying its community. To many people, Grendel, Grendel’s Mother, and the dragon are symbols and allegories.
They believe they represent the fears of the Anglo-Saxons. In Christian medieval culture, monster was the word that referred to birth defects, which was always understood as an ominous sign from God; a sign of transgression or of bad things to come [Shm08]. If one was to keep that thought in his or her head, the monsters that Beowulf must fight in this Old English poem shape the poem’s plot and seem to represent an inhuman or alien presence in society that must be exorcised for the society’s safety. They are outsiders, existing beyond the boundaries of human realms.
For instance, since Grendel has descended from the biblical figure Cain, who slayed his own brother, Grendel often has been understood to represent the evil in Scandinavian society for marauding and killing others. Now as for the dragon, the dragon is somewhat a simple allegory. The dragon, a traditional figure of medieval legend and a common Christian symbol of sin, the dragon might represent external hatred that must be taken over to prove a heroes goodness. Because Beowulf’s battle with the dragon resulted in his death, the dragon may be understood as symbolic representation of the inevitable encounter of death itself.
Another important motif in the poem Beowulf is the Mead-Hall. The mead-hall is Hrothgar’s great hall of Heorot which functions as an important cultural foundation which provides sanctuary, food, singing, and festivities. Historically, the mead-hall represented safe haven and sanctuary for warriors returning from battle. The mead-hall was also a place of community, where traditions were preserved, and loyalty was rewarded, and perhaps most importantly, stories were told and reputations were spread. (SparkNotes) As Grendel raided the kingdom, the mead-hall became hollow, as did the community.
However, once Beowulf arrived and gave hope to the people, the mead-hall instantly filled, and the community was filled with rejoice and happiness once again. The mead-hall represents the heart of the community: without it the community simply decays. Many themes exist throughout the poem Beowulf, including the universal theme, which is good always defeats evil. The idea in which good always thrives against evil is commonly found in stories, poems, and excerpts. Beowulf, the hero of the epic, is in a constant battle against evil, regardless of the enemy.
An example would be, Beowulf, represents good, battles against evil, who is represented by Grendel, Grendel’ Mother, and the Dragon. Beowulf supported by God and associated with light battles against satanic creatures and figures of darkness. Given that Beowulf always finds success in his battles against evil, the theme good vs evil is evident in the text. Over the course of the poem, Beowulf matures from a valiant combatant into a wise leader. The transition represents the difference of values between Beowulf’s two roles. The difference between these two sets of values displays itself early on in the positions of Beowulf and King Hrothgar.
Whereas the youthful Beowulf, having nothing to lose, desires personal glory. The aged Hrothgar, having much to lose, seeks protection for his people. Even though these two roles are somewhat contradicting, each character acts as society dictates he should be given his particular role in society. A warrior has his own sets of values while a king has his own set of values. While the values of a warrior become clear through Beowulf’s actions throughout the poem, only in the poem’s more moral moments are the responsibilities of a king to his people discussed. Beowulf’s own occupation as king elaborates on many of the same points.
His transition from warrior to king, and, in particular, his final battle with the dragon, indicated the change in morality and values. Beowulf’s bold encounter with the dragon indicated that he is now willing to sacrifice himself for the safety of his people, therefore portraying the evident shift in values. One must not forget that Beowulf is an epic hero, in an epic poem, and that one of the mostly common things epic heroes search for is immortality. Beowulf’s actions and accomplishments, even after he is crowned king, are all completed out of honor, loyalty, and bravery.
However, the outcome of all his accomplishments is immortalization. He slays mystical beasts which boasts his bravery, he obeys his king’s commands which boasts his honor, and he protects his people with his life which boasts his loyalty. The bards now have endless stories to tell, and characteristics to boasts about. Beowulf also directly asks for his name to be immortalized in his final battle. On his last words, Beowulf tells Wiglaf to create a funeral pyre in order for everyone to remember him, in other words immortalizing himself.
The poem Beowulf expresses the views and beliefs of the Anglo-Saxon society very clearly. It not only depicts the views of the Anglo-Saxons but also depicts a typical epic poem with a typical epic hero. Beowulf the epic hero undergoes multiple quests and obstacles, with the result of his morals and values changing, just as any epic hero would in an epic poem. Beowulf portrays the universal theme good vs evil, by representing good, and continuously defeating evil monsters. Not only does the poem express the universal theme good vs evil but as well as the commonly found epic theme, immortality.
Although Beowulf is following the Anglo-Saxons values, honor, bravery, and loyalty. He is also pursuing another goal which is immortality, just as any epic hero would pursue. The poem Beowulf uses a vast majority of literary devices, ranging from foils to allegories to imagery, to better aid the reader understand and feel the mood of the poem as well as understand the characters more. The poem reflects the history of Anglo-Saxons and its religious history, but observing how elements of Christianity were inputted into the poem by monks during the scripting of the poem and their effects on the story.
Not only does the poem use symbols to aid the reader in understanding the views of the Anglo-Saxons, but multiple motifs are used as well to decrypt the true meanings of certain objects and characters such as the mead hall and the monsters. In my opinion the poem Beowulf was one of the deepest and most symbolic poem that I have ever read and analyzed, it has really opened my eyes to the true culture of the Anglo-Saxons and enabled me to view how the writing of a certain community or society depict their views and beliefs without them knowing it.