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The poet's main structural device is to interweave the events of the present and the past. He frequently interrupts the main narrative with historical digressions that relate, both directly and indirectly, to what's taking place in the main story. For instance, the theme of revenge in the Finnsburg Episode (Verses 16-17) is linked to the revenge sought by the dragon, and to the revenge of Grendel's mother for her son's death. Some critics use the word interlacing to describe this structure.
Both the digressions and the main narrative contain many common elements. All the major events in the poem deal with feuds: man against man, man against monster. The image of the hero-Beowulf himself-stands at the center of the poem like a rock in a whirlpool, with all the various stones swirling around him.
The poem is also struck around the theme of youth and age. In part one we see Beowulf as the young, daring prince, in contrast with Hrothgar, the wise but aging king. In part two Beowulf, as the aging but still heroic warrior, is contrasted with his young follower, Wiglaf. Part of the magic of reading Beowulf is to see the way the two parts parallel one another so accurately, and how an the major events in the poem reflect and echo one another.
THE EPIC POEM
When reading Beowulf it's important to see it as part of the tradition of epic poetry that began with the poems of Homer-The Iliad and The Odyssey-and with Virgil's Aeneid. (Whether the Beowulf poet himself was familiar himself with these epics isn't known.) All these poems deal with the affairs and deeds of brave men, and focus on the exploits and deeds of one man in particular. Note that epic poetry usually concerns a few events in the life of a single person; it makes no attempt to portray a whole life chronologically from beginning to end.
The epic poet treats all his subjects fairly and objectively. He presents his characters as they are-in realistic fashion-and as they ought to be. Occasionally he breaks the objective tone to offer a moral judgment on one of his characters. For the most part, however, he lets the actions of the characters speak for themselves. Scenes such as the voyages of the Geats to Denmark (and then home again) and the giving of rewards for acts of bravery are typical scenes-"set pieces"- of almost all epic writing.
The epic poet is concerned with human values and moral choices. The characters are capable of performing acts of great courage; they are also capable of suffering intensely for their deeds. Some of you will feel that Beowulf is a mixture of both tragedy and comedy, and that its hero is ultimately a tragic figure. Others of you will find fault in Beowulf for its lack of humor. As you read the poem, try to notice characters and events that could be described as being either tragic or comic.
The epic poet also functions as a historian, blending past, present, and future in a unique, all-encompassing way. His pace is leisurely, and allows him to include as many different stories as possible. Remember that the scop's success as an entertainer depended on his ability to re-create these stories in a new way. In Beowulf the poet is both telling a story and connecting it to events that have taken place in the past. Beowulf is not just a simple tale about a man who kills monsters and dragons, but a large-scale vision of human history.
Although the poem originates in England, it doesn't deal specifically with Anglo-Saxon society. Instead it concerns the lives of various Scandinavian tribes, especially the Danes and the Geats. The work is a blend of fact and fiction; there is no evidence that a hero named Beowulf ever existed. (The only character mentioned in any of the chronicles of the period is Higlac, Beowulf's uncle, whose defeat by the Franks in the year 521 is referred to by the French historian Gregory of Tours.)
The Germanic invaders of Britain brought with them numerous stories and folktales they had heard in their wanderings through Europe between the third and sixth centuries. The poet incorporated many of these stories into his poem, most notably the conflicts between Hengest and Finn, and Ingeld and King Hrothgar.
Monsters resembling Grendel and his mother also appear in a number of Scandinavian folk legends of the time. Grendel, however, is described as a descendant of Cain, and this biblical reference links both the Germanic and Christian influences that pervade the poem. Those of you who interpret the dragon as a Christian symbol of evil will want to ask yourselves how much the poet depended on Christian literature as the main source of his poem.
The importance of Beowulf lies in the way the poet was able to infuse all these elements and to create out of these various sources a unified and unique work of literature.
Beowulf critics agree that the poem was composed, at the earliest, between 673 and 735. The latest possible date of composition is usually set at 790. By the middle of the eighth century the Danes had invaded England; scholars assume it was unlikely that an Anglo-Saxon would have written a poem sympathetic to the Danes at that time.
Some critics say that the poem originated in either the court of King Aldfrith of Northumbria or the court of King Offa of Mercia, both courts known for their high level of Anglo-Saxon culture. It's also possible, because of the atmosphere of Christianity that pervades the poem, that Beowulf was composed in a monastery. Though the earliest manuscript of the poem dates from the year 1000, none of the theories of authorship, date, and place of composition can be definitely proved.