3 July 1995
Characteristics of the Beowulf Poem
There are many characteristics of the Beowulf poem that make it a significant part of the history of literature. It is a perfect representation of how the people in eighth century England communicated, what their feelings were, and their culture. “It gives us vital information about Old English social life and about Old English politics and about many things that scholars would like to have much more information on.”(Raffel ix) Another characteristic is that the Beowulf poem was passed down orally. The poem contains aspects of Christianity what form it takes in the story. It is also sort of a history of how the English language has changed in the many years from then until now. The poem also contains many mythical references and it contains a great hero.
Beowulf is considered an artifact by many because “it is the oldest of the English long poems and may have been composed more than twelve hundred years ago.”(Beowulf 19) It deals with events of the early 6th century and is believed to have been composed between 700 and 750. “No one knows who composed Beowulf , or why. A single manuscript (Cotton Vitellius A XV) managed to survive Henry VIII?s dissolution of the monasteries, and the destruction of their great libraries; since his name is written on one of the folios, Lawrence Nowell, the sixteenth-century scholar, may have been responsible for Beowulf?s preservation.”(Raffel ix) An interesting fact that is unique about the poem is that “it is the sole survivor of what may have been a thriving epic tradition, and it is great poetry.”(Raffel ix)
The poem was composed and performed orally. “Old English bards, or scops, most likely began by piecing together traditional short songs, called heroic lays; they then gradually added to that base until the poem grew to its present size. The verse form is the standard Old English isochronic: each line contains for stresses; there is a strong caesura in the middle of the lines and the resultant half lines are bound together by alliteration. Although little Old English poetry survives, Beowulf?s polished verse and reflective, allusive development suggest that it is part of a rich poetic tradition.”(Foster 501)
An aspect of the poem is the role and characteristics of religion in the story. “Christianity enters into the poem, and the society, but more an Old Testament variety, stressing justice rather than love. There is controversy about whether the Christian elements are intrinsic or are interpolations by a tenth century monastic scribe. In any case, the Christianity does not much resemble that of the High Middle Ages or of the modern world. Frequently the poem seems a reflection of the traditional pagan value system from the moral point of view of the new, incompletely assimilated Christianity.”(Foster 502) In Britannica it says that critics have seen the poem as a Christian allegory, with Beowulf the champion of goodness and light against the forces of evil and darkness. His sacrificial death is not seen as tragic but as the fitting end of a good (some would say “too good”) hero?s life.
The poem contains words that people today might not recognize or know because the words have changed over the years. These are words like “mead”(Beowulf 34), “mead hall”(Beowulf 34), and “mead bench”(Beowulf 53) which we know as beer, tavern, and bar respectively. Another word is “mere”(Beowulf 37), which is a lake. The word “wyrd” mentioned in Britannica is an old word meaning “fate.”
The author was very creative in many of the words and phrases that he used that were not traditionally used in regular speaking. One instance is using the word “earth-hall”(Beowulf 60), which is a cave beneath the ground. Another example is using the word “sea-cloth”(Beowulf 53), which is the sail of a ship. A couple of others are: “soul-slayer”(Beowulf 28), which means “the Devil” and “water-monsters”(Beowulf 46) are the beasts of the sea.
There are a few events in the Beowulf poem that mention actual historic incidents. The story tells about “the raid on the Franks made by Hygelac, the king of the Geats at the time Beowulf was a young man, in the year 520.”(Beowulf 19) This event did in fact happen in that time in Europe. “The poem also references a time following the initial invasion of England by Germanic tribes in 449.”(Beowulf 19) Britannica says that the poem was originally untitled, but was later named after the Scandinavian hero Beowulf, whose exploits and character provide its connecting theme. There is no evidence of a historical Beowulf, but some characters, sites, and events in the poem can be historically verified.
The poem contains mythical references in the form of Grendel, Grendel?s mother, and the fire-breathing dragon. All of these are beasts that could not have possibly existed in the history of human kind. “Grendel is a man-eating who terrorized the Danes until killed by Beowulf. Grendel lives, with his equally monstrous mother, at the bottom of a foul lake inhabited by assorted other monsters; he is descended from Cain (the progenitor of all evil spirits), though his precise genealogy is not given.”(Raffel 99) “Grendel is a representative of the physical evil which was so present in the lives and imagination of the Anglo-Saxons.”(Foster 500) “The inhuman dragon is a figure of the metaphysical evil which is woven into the fabric of the universe.”(Foster 501) Another reference is Beowulf?s strength. Beowulf is said to have the strength of thirty men.
The poem contains heroism in many parts. It mainly revolves around Beowulf. “Beowulf was a man of great strength from the land of the Geats, ruled over by Hygelac.”(Foster 500) Beowulf is the hero of the poem because “he rids the people of Heorot of Grendel?s terror and then glory was given to Beowulf.”(Beowulf 37) “Beowulf also saves the people from Grendel?s mother”(Beowulf 49) and later in the poem “Beowulf attacks the Dragon.”(Beowulf 62)
The story of Beowulf is one of Europe?s greatest epic poems. It is composed of English history, heroism, and fantasy. It will remain a monument of Old English forever.
“Beowulf.” Encyclop?dia Britannica. 1990 ed.
Beowulf. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. M. H. Abrams et al. New York: W. W.
Norton & Company, 1987. 19-72.
Foster, Edward. “Beowulf.” Masterplots. Revised ed. New Jersey: Salem Press, 1986.
Raffel, Burton. Beowulf. Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1971.