The earliest known manuscript of Beowulf is thought to have been written in the
tenth century, however, the poem had most likely been told as an oral tradition for
centuries before that. In fact, the poem?s events date back to the sixth century. However,
because there is only one manuscript of Beowulf still in tact very little is known about the
poem or its author. The poem does, however, give us great insight into the culture of the
people who composed and told this epic tale.
Because the poem was performed orally mainly between the eighth and tenth
centuries, but dealt with subject matter of centuries earlier, it is difficult to decipher and
separate the cultural context involved in the poem from one century to the next. The
poem was probably unrecognizable from its original state after two hundred years of oral
tradition that would have changed its content drastically. The storyline of the poem, the
battles and significant events, probably maintained most of their identity while the
cultural context took on another form more suited to the current culture of the people. By
the time it was written, in 1000, the poem was probably most representative of the tenth
century culture yet it still managed to tell a story similar to the original version.
Beowulf, then, gives us a significant insight into the cultural views of the tenth
century Anglo-Saxons including their political, social and moral views. The
individualistic society was just beginning to replace the tribal system in which no
individual had been seen as more important to the success of the tribe than any other.
The individuality that Beowulf displayed helped establish new rules in society. Beyond
this, Beowulf gives us an even greater insight into middle ages society. Woven
throughout almost every aspect of their culture and the poem are very strict moral codes
and values. Loyalty, honesty, family ties, courage and even Christianity play a major role
in this epic poem. In each of the stories told throughout the poem elements of these
values are openly displayed.
All three of Beowulf?s battles demonstrate qualities deemed virtuous and
essential to the people of the middle ages. Beowulf, a godfearing, heroic warrior, first
faces a monster that represents all things evil. The monster is a descendant of Cain, a
bloodthirsty avenger of man and an outcast. Beowulf confronts this evil figure without
any fear and without the aid of any manmade weapons of war. The strength of the
wickedness is outmatched by the goodness and purity Beowulf. Only because Beowulf
displayed no fear and used no weapon was he able to destroy this wicked force of
destruction. The hero, Beowulf, is glorified more for his virtue than for his strength in
defeating the monster. For those who displayed no virtue, despite their valor, the
consequence was quite different. Ecgtheow?s son, who displayed no bravery, for
example, ?had been despised for a long while, for the Geats saw no spark of bravery in
him? (75). The true hero of the middle ages managed to maintain a balance between his
personal glory and maintaining the good of his people. As we see in later stories of this
period, like the Arthur stories, this is a very delicate balance.
Beowulf became a folklore hero because he maintained this balance well. He
displayed personal heroism while at the same time keeping his priorities towards the
safety of his people. Beowulf?s first attack on the monster Grendel displayed many
qualities that were significant in a hero of that time. First of all, Beowulf was not called
upon to save the Danes from Grendel. Instead, he came on his own accord, out of duty
and principle. He took responsibility upon himself in a situation that required none. The
individualistic society did not require that an person remain part of the tribe, but rather
encouraged them to seek adventure while doing good. Beowulf recognized his physical
strengths and he utilized them for personal gain and glory and the good of the nation.
Beowulf?s second battle with Grendel?s mother is quite similar to the first.
However, because Beowulf brought along a sword as protection he is seemingly less pure
and as he attempts to use the sword it fails him. He is nearly beaten by the monster?s
mother until he wields the famous old sword of the giants which had magical power to
save him. While he is not as heroic in his second battle, Beowulf still displays many of
the virtues essential for heroism and even survival. He was required to use ingenuity
rather than strength in his battle and was required to go through an extremely difficult
process in order to get to the monster?s lair, almost like an initiation. However, he came
out of the whole ordeal wiser and greatly rewarded.
This first two battles also, surprisingly, represented what may have been an
influence of Christian values on the culture. While the Christianity is not quite the same
as we would expect in a more modern setting, it was just beginning to gain some
influence in Europe at the time of this story. This was a period of a conversion of the
paganistic beliefs into something that more closely resembled Christianity. Many of the
principles and ideals of the two were combined to create a more familiar understanding
view of Christianity for the predominantly pagan population. The Christianity in the
story is more closely tied in with Moses? Old Testament teachings of revenge and
equality than Christ?s teachings of peace, love and forgiveness. Grendel?s mother
attempts to avenge the death of her son while at the same time Beowulf is attempting to
avenge the death of all those slain by Grendel.
The conflict between good and evil is also a very Christian theme that runs
throughout the poem. There is a consistant attack of wickedness that can only be
overcome by purity and goodness. Beowulf is almost a Christ figure, not to the extent
that he is Christ like, merely that he overcomes, literally kills, wickedness. Grendel, on
the other hand, ?shoulders God?s anger? (45). Whether the poem is mainly pagan or
Christian is up for debate, but both had influence on the story as it was finally written.
The religious views in Beowulf were obviously a very important aspect of the story and to
the people who were undergoing a very significant change in their views of religion.
The action provides us with a slight understanding of the qualities respected in
middle ages society. However, the vast majority of the text deals with nonaction that
gives us perhaps more information about how the society worked. Because this story
was originally passed on as an oral tradition each part of the poem is extremely
significant because it had to be memorized. This adds significance to the genealogy, long
speeches and highly descriptive nature of ceremonial events in the text which must have
required hours of memorization. These all give a very detailed account of the non warrior
side of life that was also very important. The length of these separate passages indicate
what was significant to these people.
The action is sparsely distributed throughout the text to apply the principles
presented to us throughout the length of the poem. For example, in an important
exchange with the king, Beowulf presented ?…a standard bearing the image of a boar,
together with a helmet towering in battle, a gray corslet, and a noble sword;? (74). This
description allows us a glimpse into the importance of gift giving and of the importance
of these gifts. Beowulf continues his speech to the king by stating ?Hrothgar, the wise
king, gave me these trappings and purposely asked me to tell you their history? (74). The
detail tat is spent on describing the gifts and their history is significant in understanding
the culture of these people. This particular passage displays the importance of rituals and
rights that individuals were required to undergo. The songs of the scop recited at
Hrothgar?s court also display the importance of using poetry to glorify their heroes and
remember their history. Since very little was actually written, poetry was one of the only
methods they had to preserve their history. In this history they kept significance was
placed on an entirely different set of principles dealing with the importance of rituals and
significant heroic events.
Beowulf?s final battle is perhaps his most significant. He had learned much since
the time of his youth and he approached this battle with greater wisdom. This is the final
test of his life and the last challenge that he must endure. Beowulf is different at the time
of this battle, however. His other battles had been fought while he was still very young
and full of life. In his third battle he was an old man who had spent much of his life
serving his country. However, his usefulness for his people was dwindling as old age
began to overtake him. This battle demonstrated the final and greatest sacrifice he could
make. It was a battle that he surely knew would take his life, but one he deemed worthy.
Despite his incredible physical strength and courage Beowulf was unable to win the battle
within himself. Like everyone that ever lived, Beowulf grew old, weak and tired. No
matter how hard he tried he was unable to escape death and he knew that it would not be
long in coming for him. He went into battle facing not only the dragon but also the
destiny of his own death. His death, rather than being a sign of weakness, becomes his
final act of glory.
Beowulf, amazingly, continues to be studied and read extensively all over the
world even today, one thousand years after it was composed. Its study of social conflict
and heroism is what has made it become a timeless classic. The issues it deals with not
only pertained to life in the middle ages, but also with issues that never die. It contains
all of the elements of a modern Hollywood film. The most important aspect of the poem,
though, is the insight it gives us into middle age life. This poem most likely began as a
tribute to a noble war hero, but it has become one of the greatest epics of all time.