How does one approach a piece of poetry as archaic and emotionally bizarre as the old English poem Beowulf?

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How does one approach a piece of poetry as archaic and emotionally bizarre as the old English poem Beowulf?
On paper, the poem can be summarized briskly as the triumphs of a Scandinavian warrior who travels to Denmark, defeats two monsters, and then dies in battle as an old man attempting to slay the third monster. If the story could be dismissed so easily as such, it wouldn’t have endured for nearly 1100 years.
Beowulf is one of the most popular works of poetry in the world and is one of the most frequently studied books in English-speaking classrooms. The survival of the text from the Middle Ages to today has been one of intense luck and fortune on behalf of students of literature (the only transcript of the poem caught fire at one point and only suffered scorch marks and a lost cover page).
Of course, to call Beowulf “English” is slightly incorrect. The book is written in Old English. This variant is completely unreadable to modern speakers and has its roots in a Germanic dialect likely brought to England by the Saxon Vikings following the decline of the Roman Empire. The poem, upon rediscovery in the 17th century, has received more than five dozen translations in vernacular English since people started to study it. The work has a very uncertain history that is made more obscure by the poem’s lack of a named author. The work was likely a retelling by an unknown author in the 10th century but drawn from a 7th-century oral story that was told and retold for centuries prior. Considering the setting, and the fact the characters in question would’ve widely been considered the national enemies of the Anglo-Saxons for the centuries surrounding the poem’s transcription, there are many mysteries surrounding its ultimate meaning. It’s believed the poet was likely an educated Christian monk in the first centuries following the Christianization of Britain.
Beyond that, all we understand about Beowulf comes from the body of the poem itself. We don’t even know the proper title because the cover of the manuscript was destroyed in an 18th-century library fire along with the poet’s name. There are some historical clues to work with, of course. Some of the characters in the poem are even recorded in the annals of history as real kings. As such, academics have long treated the book primarily as an Archeological anomaly.
As Tolkien later says, such a read actually does a disservice to the book itself. Beowulf is first and foremost a poem in the tradition of the “Lay,” and its contents are vital to understanding the story it’s telling us. Treating the book entirely as an artifact had rendered Beowulf a piece of discarded literary irrelevance. Tolkien’s 1936 lecture completely revitalized the reputation of the poem and earned the book its current status as one of the most read books in the English language.
As a story, Beowulf is deeply perplexing. As stated above, it’s very easy to summarize and it’s a very brisk read at only about 100 pages. It’s not an easy story, though. On my initial reads, the story felt too empty and undramatic. The details flew right past me without much notice. It was too straightforward. On my second and third reading, it began to feel too lopsided and awkward. It was too bogged down in nuances and details about the histories of obscure Nordic kingdoms and wars.
Having read the poem three times now in three separate translations, in addition to much of the best commentary out there about it, it’s become a poem that has continually opened up to me with each new reading.
As anybody who was forced to read it in AP English class can tell you, the story begins with the voyage of Beowulf and his crew to the kingdom of the Spear-Danes. The Danish kingdom is under nightly assault by a mighty ogre named Grendel. The monster has attacked King Hrothgar’s mead hall nightly for twelve years and nobody has been able to stop it.
The young Beowulf, a great warrior renowned in his own kingdom of the Geats, arrives to hear of the tragic tale of Grendel and agrees to challenge the beast in solo combat. In Norse fashion, he decides to challenge the monster buck-naked. This surprisingly ends up working, as Grendel’s body is cursed to protect him against weaponry. With the strength of 30 men, Beowulf rips off Grendel’s arm and sends him retreating into the swamps to die alone and in pain. He then displays Grendel’s arm on the mantlepiece for all to see.
Beowulf’s glorious victory is highly rewarded by Hrothgar, who awards him enormous swaths of treasure and gold in gratitude. Sadly, the victory is short-lived as the source of Grendel’s evil has come to seek her revenge. Grendel’s unnamed mother, a vicious water demon, assaults the mead hall, kills more guards and a high-ranking advisor, and flees to the swamps.
Beowulf then accepts the contract to murder the second monster and free the kingdom once and for all from this line of demonic beasts. He travels across many lands to the swamp where he dives into a pool and discovers the underwater lair of Grendel’s mother. He duels her, this time prepared with armor, and a weapon which immediately breaks. He’s once again saved by luck when one of the treasures in her cave turns out to be an enchanted sword that can slay her. Beowulf returns to the surface with Grendel’s head as his proof of success and proceeds to reap the rewards of a job well done before sailing home. Any modern reader would likely find much of this story quite strange so far. It’s a simple story obfuscated by layers of allusions, complex names, and events that have been lost to history. The three monsters of the narrative would make it feel conducive to a three-act structure, but there’s no arc to the hero Beowulf’s quest. His power is never in doubt. He arrives in the story solely to resolve the problem, does just that, and then sails home with the reward.
By modern standards, Beowulf is a very awkwardly structured poem in terms of character writing. The poem does, however, give relatively equal time to each of the three monsters, like a song with three verses.
The novel gains more oddities towards the last third of its story. Following the slaying of Grendel’s mother, the story completely changes tone, setting, and time period, as we fast forward fifty years to when Beowulf is an elderly king in his own homeland. After inheriting the land from his vassal, he became a great leader and brings peace to the nations of the Geats, Swedes, Franks, and Sword-Danes.
Immediately the poem begins to throw strange paradoxes at the reader. He’s faced with the third great monster of his life in the form of the Dragon, usually called Beowulf’s Bane. The monster itself was not conjured by Beowulf or his deeds. In fact, an unnamed slave escaping from Beowulf’s kingdom wanders into the beast’s den, steals a piece of treasure, and flees for his survival. The monster then furiously lays siege to the land, murders thousands, and destroys Beowulf’s castle. Beowulf proceeds to lead a party of accomplished soldiers against the dragon to save his homeland. Despite his accomplishments, he decides this time to approach the dragon fully armed and bedecked in plate armor. One could assume that Beowulf has grown in wisdom in some respects. Although that clearly raises questions. Why is a 70+-year-old man chasing down a dragon? Is he foolish? Proud? Overly confident? Does he feel doomed to die and wish to go out in a blaze of glory? Maybe he’s a reflection of the hero’s worldly quest for treasure and gold brought to its horrific conclusion.
Just as his team approaches the dragon, Beowulf is abandoned by all but one of the men, Wiglaf. Beowulf begins his duel with the beast one-on-one and manages to hold his own against the monster. Quickly, Wiglaf joins the battle, and the two worth together to gain an upper hand against the wyrm. Unfortunately, Beowulf is bitten on the neck and infected with a dangerous poison. They take the opportunity to stab the dragon and defeat him. This, of course, leads to the final mystery of the epic. Despite all his accomplishments, wisdom, and leadership, Beowulf is finally taken down by one of the monsters. So why does he die here? What is the story trying to tell the reader? Is the dragon a symbol of the inevitability of death? Is it a symbol of some moral failure on Beowulf’s part, such as his greed or lust for violence? Maybe the poem has been saying he’s only survived by luck that has finally run out, as evidenced by the amazing coincidences that allowed him to defeat the first two monsters. His people abandoned him to his fate and he dies slowly surrounded by Wiglaf and other warriors.
In any case, the epic ends on a note of somber melancholy. His body is burned in a Pagan funeral and mourned as one of the great kings of his land – maybe even the last great king.
Beowulf is a very strange and unmodern story. It’s not poetic in the traditional sense so much as it is alliterative. It isn’t structured like a traditional three- or five-act story. Beowulf’s slaughter of the first two monsters is more or less an affirmation of what he claims from his arrival. It’s an accomplishment of a great feat, almost an anti-climax that builds around his slow feats. Then the time skip completely rewrites the narrative. It neither critiques nor builds upon the hero Beowulf of fifty years prior. It merely concludes his narrative with him having grown into a lonely king no longer surrounded by his allies. He dies abandoned by his soldiers and is mourned by the nation.
So what do we make of all of this?
Part of understanding Beowulf comes down to approaching the book with the proper lens for analysis. One of the best ones I’ve heard is the view that the book should be read as a pre-Christian tragedy. The story frames itself early on by mourning the reality that the characters in the story are practicing Pagans who can’t call upon the help of God to resolve their terrors.
Beowulf can thus be read as a story about the tragedy of undeserved damnation. We meet a character who is damned only because he was born at the wrong time, who accomplished everything a man can in a warrior society by himself. He becomes a warrior of renown, a man of wealth, a king, and dies a glorious death saving his country from a dragon. Sadly, that’s all he will be. He has no great lover, no children to carry on his name, and no salvation. His story ends when he returns to the dust in a Viking cremation.
Christianity suffuses the poem and the lack of it frames the narrative. Even the famous monsters of the poem have a distinctly Christian edge to them. Grendal and his water demon mother are both described as being descendants of Cain. They’re humanoid abominations living in a perpetual state of pain, agony, and hate who lash out against man in fits of rage, violence, and gore.
The giants and supernatural creatures haunting Europe are depicted as satanic against the otherwise Norse world of Pagan Europe. The Giants, famous enemies of the gods in Norse mythology, are now recontextualized and historicized through the Christian worldview. They still hunt god but in an eternally damned and unsuccessful state. Grendel himself is a vile monster set loose against the kingdom of man, and the humans have no defense against a cursed demon without direct appeals to the divine.
If the monsters are literal stand-ins for satanic evil, then Beowulf takes on the weight of a Christ-figure. He’s the flawless hero capable of righting the wrongs and setting the world on the path of peace.
But he is a secular Christ. He accomplishes everything a man in the world could ever be blessed to achieve: he becomes a great and famous warrior, slays beasts, gains treasures, becomes a great king, and creates peace in the world.
Yet, he accomplishes nothing of permanence. He leaves no descendants, notable lovers, friends, or wife; no permanent peace; and dies surrounded by his newly won gold. Ultimately, he leaves the world of the living for no eternal salvation. The poem even ends on a note of cataclysmic and apocalyptic fear. Beowulf’s final word to his compatriots is a prophecy about the end of their civilization.
The victory of the hero Beowulf is short-lived. He may be able to build the perfect kingdom for a lifetime, but the world continues once the man has died. Without Christ, there is no permanence. In the end, Beowulf’s Bane burns down the kingdom and slays the mighty king. Like Beowulf, he seeks no divine council. The wyrm is entirely mercenary and thus vengeful the moment his Earthly riches are even slightly disturbed. Just as the beast’s greed and vengeance are slain, so too is the very mortal monster slayer. Both are destroyed in a blaze of glory.
Beowulf is thus a story born of materialism, infused with a spirit of doom and despair at the notion of death’s finality and the limitations of life in the face of it. It’s also a story infused with the melancholy of Christian mourning for the world of pre-Christian Europe and the lost souls of men who would and could never know God. Beowulf the hero may be able to defeat demons and free lands, but he cannot defeat the ultimate end which he faces mostly alone. His earthly success is all he will ever achieve and it feels hollow. From dust he came, and to the dust the hero Beowulf returns.
Beowulf is a beautiful piece of literature and poetry. Some of that is lost in translation without familiarity with Old English, but great poets and scholars like Seamus Heaney and R.M. Liuzza have done admirable work rebuilding the story into something contemporary. It’s a work of deep mysteries, oddities, and eccentricities, and yet it easily stands among the greatest works of poetry in any language. It’s an archaic masterpiece of alliteration and melancholy. We’re blessed to have the opportunity to even read it.
Beneath the surface of Beowulf lies a stirring tale that has inspired legions of mythology fans throughout time. Written by Anglo-Saxon poet, E Owens and translated in modern English, Beowulf packs powerful themes of courage, adventure, and friendship into its pages. As one of the most influential works in Old English literature, this epic poem is widely regarded as one of the oldest surviving heroic poems containing folklore from Germanic mythology. Join me as I dive deep into Beowulf book review to unearth what makes this timeless classic stay so relevant today!
1. Introducing the Epic Tale of Beowulf
2. A Character Study on the Hero Beowulf
3. Exploring the Setting and Literary Devices of Beowulf
4. The Monomyth Journey of Beowulf and its Impact on Readers
5. Analysis of Beowulf’s Legendary Combat with Grendel and Dragon
6. An Overview of Different Critical Reviews for Beowulf
Introducing the Epic Tale of Beowulf
Beowulf is a timeless tale of heroism that has captivated readers for over a thousand years. Set in Scandinavia during the sixth century, this epic poem tells the story of a brave warrior named Beowulf and his heroic deeds.
With its thrilling battles, daring quests, and larger-than-life characters, this legendary tale has inspired countless works of literature and art throughout history. From its beautifully crafted imagery to its rich themes of valor and loyalty, Beowulf remains a true masterpiece of English literature and a beloved classic for readers young and old.
So come and immerse yourself in the epic world of Beowulf, where bravery and honor hold sway, and adventure awaits at every turn.
A Character Study on the Hero Beowulf
Beowulf, the legendary hero of the epic poem bearing his name, is a character that is both fascinating and inspiring. He is a fearless warrior who has won countless battles and achieved many feats of strength and bravery.
However, more than just his physical prowess, what sets Beowulf apart is his courage, honor, and loyalty. Throughout the poem, we witness his unwavering commitment to his people and his willingness to put himself in harm’s way to protect them.
Beowulf’s noble qualities are what make him such an enduring hero, whose story has been told and retold for centuries. From his humble beginnings to his final battle with the dragon, Beowulf remains a shining example of what it means to be a true hero.
Exploring the Setting and Literary Devices of Beowulf
Beowulf, one of the oldest surviving manuscripts in English literature, is a majestic piece of art that takes us on a journey through epic battles, heroic deeds, and ancient customs.
The setting of the story is a bleak and unforgiving land, where kingdoms are constantly under threat from treacherous creatures and powerful enemies. The literary devices employed by its author, such as alliteration, metaphor, and foreshadowing, add depth and richness to the text, making it an engaging and compelling read.
Through its vivid imagery and complex characters, Beowulf immerses us in a world of ancient legends and myths, showcasing the best and worst of human nature. Whether you are a fan of fantasy or a lover of classic literature, Beowulf is a must-read masterpiece that has stood the test of time.
The Monomyth Journey of Beowulf and its Impact on Readers
Beowulf is a classic tale that takes readers on a journey unlike any other. The protagonist, Beowulf, embodies the values and virtues that any good hero should have such as bravery, honor, and loyalty.
Through his exploits, readers are transported to a world of medieval warriors and mythical beasts, where the line between good and evil is blurred. The journey of Beowulf, as he battles the likes of Grendel and his mother, follows the pattern of the monomyth, where the hero undergoes a transformation and emerges as a different person.
This transformation not only adds depth to the character but also teaches readers valuable lessons about life and morality. So, it’s no wonder why this epic poem has stood the test of time and continues to captivate audiences to this day.
Analysis of Beowulf’s Legendary Combat with Grendel and Dragon
Beowulf, the legendary hero of English folklore, is renowned for his incredible feats of strength and combat prowess. Perhaps his most famous battles were with Grendel, the monstrous being who terrorized the Danish king Hrothgar, and a powerful dragon.
Beowulf’s battles with these legendary creatures are an incredible testament to his bravery and skill in combat. The tale of Beowulf’s triumph over Grendel has been retold countless times over the centuries, and his final battle with the dragon is equally memorable.
Through analyzing these incredible battles, we can gain insight into the character of Beowulf and what made him such a beloved hero in English literature.
An Overview of Different Critical Reviews for Beowulf
Beowulf, an epic poem from the Anglo-Saxon period, has remained a staple in the world of literature throughout its extensive history. This ancient piece has inspired various critical reviews, each with a unique perspective on its value and relevance.
Some reviews praise the poem for its depiction of heroism and the significance of such values in society. Others view it as a representation of the culture and lifestyle of the era.
However, some reviews criticize the poem, claiming its portrayal of women and monsters lacks understanding and complexity. Regardless of individual opinions, it’s clear that Beowulf is an essential piece of literature that continues to spark discussion and interest to this day.
Beowulf is more than a hero whose actions alone reach far beyond the pages of an old text. He is fully human and his unwavering courage, loyalty, and fidelity offer readers timeless insight into how to live a life of purpose.
His fight against the monstrous forces of Grendel and the dragon are legendary — not only as proof of society’s need for heroes but also as a symbol of triumph over evil. In this way, Beowulf’s search for prosperity serves as its own monomyth journey — one with critical reviews both positive and negative.
From cultural ties to religious allegories, it’s no wonder that Beowulf remains one of the most beloved epics for readers worldwide even centuries after it was first written.
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