Beowulf: An Epic Poem on a not so epic hero

Ken Eckert, Beowulf Manuscript (October 1998). CC BY-SA 4.0.

Ken Eckert, Beowulf Manuscript (October 1998). CC BY-SA 4.0.

Preface

Beowulf 1is an old poem, written between 7th century CE and 9th century CE. It is about a powerful young warrior named Beowulf, who was a retainer of King Hygelac2. While most aspects of the poem are mythical, historical sources have been able to trace the existence of King Hrothgar3 and Heorot.

Beowulf was passed down orally over the centuries until it was finally transcribed into a manuscript. The identity of Beowulf’s author is unknown but it is believed that the author was Christian due to the influence of Christianity on the poem.

  1. Pronounced as Bay-uh-woolf. Beowulf was a powerful Geat warrior
  2. The king of the Geats(people from modern day Sweden.) Beowulf's mother was King Hygelac's sister.
  3. The King of the Danes(people from modern day Denmark.) He built a mead hall, Heorot, for the Danes to gather and celebrate in.

J. R. Skelton, Queen Pouring Wine in Mead Hall (1 January 1908)CC-PD-Mark

J. R. Skelton, Queen Pouring Wine in Mead Hall (1 January 1908)CC-PD-Mark


Beowulf:

Beowulf falls into the genre of Epic Poetry. 4 Epic Poems tend to raise important questions about the very cultures and traditions that they honour in the poems. This is seen in Beowulf where heroic qualities like bravery, strength and loyalty among the warriors are also contrasted against the warriors’ susceptibility to deception, bloodshed and appropriation. In praising the culture and traditions of Anglo-Saxons, the poem also questions the moral values of the community.

Beowulf also shares several values of Medieval Europe or the Dark Ages 5 . During this period, the collapse of the Roman Empire resulted into social upheaval. Tribes like the Angles and Saxons began to migrate to England from Mainland Europe in the 5th century CE. The lack of laws and governance caused people to behave more inhumanely because they knew that they could not be punished for their actions. This is also seen in the poem, where tribes are in constant conflict and individuals give in to emotions like jealousy and greed.

Throughout the story, humans are seen to be susceptible to weaker qualities like jealousy, bribery, incompetence and greed, which brings the downfall of their community. These human failings reveal that the inner evil in humans outweighs that wrought by any of the monsters in the story. Beowulf is essentially a lesson for its people to keep their immoral inclinations in check. This is something that remains relevant to modern society.

  1. Epic Poems are lengthy poems on the exploits of legendary characters.
  2. Why is it being called Dark Ages? It is for the fact that the whole Europe was upside down after the Roman Empire was defeated.


Stratton, Helen. Beowulf (1915) PD-US

Stratton, Helen. Beowulf (1915) PD-US

 

Grendel: The main threat to Heorot?

Grendel and his mother are linked to “monsters and elves and spiteful spirits of the dead, also the giants who grappled with god.” The evil and destructiveness associated with Grendel and his mother is made clear from the start as they are said to be descendants of Cain. Grendel’s attack on Herot and massacre of the Danes is in line with his nature as an evil entity.

However, it is not Grendel who ends up destroying Heorot. While Beowulf manages to quell Grendel’s attempts, Heorot is eventually demolished by the King’s son-in-law, Ingeld in a fit of vengeance. Similar to the actions of Cain, Ingeld turns on his own family. Thus, while monsters are expected to be evil, the humans are seen to be more dangerous because they hide their evil behind appearances of camaraderie.

Also, Heorot was created in great splendour by King Hrothgar for his people. It is described as “the greatest of halls”. Grendel is made to see the splendour of Heorot from far but is not entitled to its celebrations and “presents of rings and treasure at the feasting” because of his ancestry. His miserable life and his inability to decide his fate even invokes some sympathy in readers. His attack on Heorot can be rationalized as a result of misery, whereas Ingeld’s attack on Heorot is a result of indifference for his own relations, and is inexcusable.

Moreover, the role of King Hrothgar is questioned in the poem. What does Hrothgar contribute to his own Kingdom anyway? He fails to protect his people from Grendel. Despite showing concerns for his people, he is said to be in bed with his queen during Beowulf’s battle with Grendel. His lack of responsibility to his people is seen to be another sign of human failing.

In addition to this, Hrothgar’s own nephew, Hrothulf, seizes the throne after Hrothgar’s death when he is supposed to facilitate his nephews role as a new king. No one is aware of his evil side as he is able to hide it behind his role as a blood relation. This is hinted in the poem, where Heorot is said to be “filled with friendly ones; falsehood and treachery.” Weaker qualities like greed overpower Hrothulf and make him turn on his own relations. The irony is that even the monsters, who are descendants of Cain, are able to show loyalty as Grendel’s mother tries to avenge her son’s death whereas the humans turn on each other.


Grendel’s mother:

Grendel’s mother’s retaliation can be interpreted as something any human mother would do. Faced with the death of her son, her quest for revenge is probably the most predictable, if you take her monstrous qualities out of the equation. She took the head of just one warrior and retreated to her cave. She seems almost human in her love for her son. However, the Beowulf’s hunt of her lair and his display of Grendel’s arm as a mark of victory imbibe him with more inhumane qualities.

Grendel’s mother’s loyalty towards her son is something that the Geats are sometimes found lacking in. During Grendel’s mother’s battle with Beowulf, Beowulf’s companions wait on the shore instead of helping their king in battle. In a battle of this pedigree, one would assume that the Geats would be more than ready to help the king of their clan. After all, Beowulf is battling in foreign territory,a territory in which Grendel’s mother has an advantage in as she has lived and ruled in it for a hundred years. At the most crucial time of calling, the Geat warriors fall short and their incompetence could have cost their king greatly. The heroic qualities of the warriors of that time and culture are therefore brought into question, are they really as admirable as the poem initially makes them out to be? Beowulf’s victory over Grendel’s mother overshadows their incompetence. The Geats in the poem are nothing more than an "idealized Germanic heroic society".


J. R. Skelton, Illustration of Beowulf fighting the dragon (1 Jan 1908). PD-US

J. R. Skelton, Illustration of Beowulf fighting the dragon (1 Jan 1908). PD-US

The poem can be sectioned into three parts based on Beowulf’s fight against three monsters - Grendel, Grendel’s mother and the dragon. In the first part of the poem, Grendel attacks Heorot repeatedly over a ten-year period, killing many people and scaring them away from Heorot. Beowulf decides to help the Danes and travels to Heorot with fourteen other warriors. He succeeds in killing Grendel and there is a celebration held at Heorot.

At this point, Grendel’s mother attacks Heorot to avenge her son’s death. The Danes require Beowulf’s help again and Beowulf travels down to the monsters’ lair and succeeds in killing Grendel’s mother as well. In the third part of the poem, Beowulf returns to his people (the Geats) and becomes a king. In his old age, a ferocious dragon attacks Geatland. To protect his people, Beowulf battles and kills the dragon but he is also killed in the battle.


Marshall, Henrietta ElizabethBeowulf Sailing to Daneland (1 January 1908) CC-PD-Mark

 

The Humans and the Monsters:

The word “monsters” invokes the image of creatures that are fictional and surreal. They match our traditional knowledge of untamed, non-human villains. However, if we were to compare the humans and monsters in Beowulf, it would be the humans that we need to be wary of. The actions of the monsters can be blamed on their nature, but those of the humans, including the Kings, the Kings’ fellows, and Beowulf 6, cannot be justified.

  1. Yes. I didn't expect that either.

 
 

Marshall, Henrietta Elizabeth, Four men carrying the head of Grendel (1908). CC-PD-Mark

Marshall, Henrietta Elizabeth, Four men carrying the head of Grendel (1908). CC-PD-Mark

 
Marshall, Henrietta Elizabeth, Illustration of Grendel (1908). CC-PD-Art

Marshall, Henrietta Elizabeth, Illustration of Grendel (1908). CC-PD-Art

 

Marshall, Henrietta Elizabeth Grendel's Mother Trying to Stab Beowulf (1January 1908) PD-Art-US

Marshall, Henrietta Elizabeth Grendel's Mother Trying to Stab Beowulf (1January 1908) PD-Art-US

 

The Dragon:

The poem confirms our existing knowledge of dragons - gigantic , fierce, fire breathing creatures that soar through the night sky with vengeance. Tolkien, in his interpretation, describes the dragon as “a personification of malice, greed, destruction.”  This can be seen in the poem, where the dragon “girdled the Geats with fire, with ravening flames”. Furthermore, the dragon “destroyed the fortified hall, the people’s stronghold, and laid waste with flames the land by the sea”. However, even these brutal attacks of the dragon were a result of human greed.

The dragon had been guarding a treasure for 300 years without any incident, and its peace was broken by a human. A slave, running from a beating, had found himself in the dragon’s lair and stolen a jeweled cup. The slave “that man had skilfully picked his way right past the dragon’s head” and “pillaged [the treasure] while the dragon slept”. It was the discovery of the theft that brought about the Dragon’s attacks. Thus, the Geat’s death was a result of human greed and we are, again, made to see how the human failings in a society harm it.


Conclusion:

The juxtaposition between the monsters and the humans in the poem reveals the hidden propensity for evil in the humans. While the monsters act according to their nature, the humans are seen to be malicious. Essentially, Beowulf serves as a reminder for people in the past and present, to be aware of the motivations behind their actions and strive to be morally righteous.

 

References:

"Beowulf." UXL Encyclopedia of World Mythology, vol. 1, UXL, 2009, pp. 177-182. World History in Context, libraries.state.ma.us/login?gwurl=http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/CX3230900060/WHIC?u=mlin_s_orrjr&xid=a05a29f3. Accessed 22 Feb. 2017.

Crossley-Holland, K. O. H. (1999). Beowulf. Oxford: Oxford University Press, UK. Retrieved from http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/buffalo/detail.action?docID=430765

Thomas L. Keller “THE DRAGON IN ‘BEOWULF’ REVISITED.” Aevum, vol. 55, no. 2, 1981, pp. 218–228., www.jstor.org/stable/20857427.

Lesslie Hall. Beowulf: An Anglo-Saxon Epic Poem, Translated From The Heyne-Socin Text. (July 19, 2005). D.C. Heath & Co., Publishers Boston New York Chicago. Accessed 25 Feb. 2017.

Theodore L. Steinberg. Reading the Middle Ages: An Introduction to Medieval Literature. (29 May 2003). McFarland & Company Inc., Publishers. Accessed 25 Feb. 2017.

Yang, Chih-chiao Joseph. "Humanizing the monsters: a schematic reading of Beowulf." Tamkang Review, vol. 44, no. 1, 2013, p. 3+. Academic OneFile, go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?p=AONE&sw=w&u=sunybuff_main&v=2.1&id=GALE%7CA361241911&it=r&asid=4d1cfa817317842bf4c361b17093e8b4. Accessed 25 Feb. 2017.

Robert F. Yeager Why Read Beowulf. (1999) From National Endowment for the Humanities. Accessed 19 February 2017.

W. B., Jr., Beverly (2014). The beowulf poet's accommodation of pre-christian germanic culture. pp 12. Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (1559962046). Retrieved from https://search-proquest-com.gate.lib.buffalo.edu/docview/1559962046?accountid=14169