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An Introduction to Beowulf

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grendelIntroduction

Hello you, my name is Caleb Jacobo, I’m a writer living in Southern California and a literature enthusiast. Today I wanted to talk about one of my favorite works, the famous Beowulf, a poem that you may have encountered in high school or college, but may not have had the opportunity to fully appreciate. This lecture is a brief overview of the poem, intended to give context to the work and introduce you to the story of Beowulf. I will not attempt to give my own or other’s thematic analysis because there are numerous resources online for that, and because I don’t want to distort your experience of the poem.

Beowulf is a long poem (over 3,000 lines long) recounting the heroic deeds of the hero Beowulf. We know less about the author of Beowulf than we do about Homer, the author of the Iliad and Odyssey. We think the text was written in the 700’s CE by an English poet in a language called Anglo Saxon, or Old English. The events of the poem take place in a “once upon a time” in Geatland (spelled Geatland, but pronounced Yey-at land), in what is now southern Sweden, sometime in the 500’s CE, during the 200 year heroic age that followed the fall of Rome in 476 CE.

Background

Beowulf came to us from a single manuscript that was nearly destroyed in a fire in the 1700’s (it now resides in the British Library), so despite being written in the 700’s Beowulf did not become widely studied by modern scholars until the early 1800’s. The poem did not become recognized as a work of art, worth studying for its literary value, rather than a document with only historical and philological value, until much later, when Oxford professor J.R.R. Tolkien gave a lecture on the poem in 1936 titled “Beowulf: the Monsters and the Critics”, highlighting the artistic value of the poem and forever changing the way scholars approached the work.

Beowulf is semi-historical, meaning that while we have no record of a Beowulf, the Swedish and Danish royal family members mentioned in the poem correspond to actual historical figures. The time in which the poem is set, the Geats had not yet converted to Christianity and would not until the late sixth century, however, the author of the poem is undoubtedly Christian, and he composed the poem from a Christian perspective, which explains all the seemingly anachronistic mentions of the Christian God and his role in the fate of mankind.

One important thing to remember when reading Beowulf is that the author had knowledge of what would eventually happen to the people in the poem, and the history of these people was well known to the intended audience of the poem. There is a reason there is no Geatland today. The Geats were eventually destroyed and absorbed by the Swedes. Also, the Danes eventually tear themselves apart with civil war. There are several allusions to their fates permeating the poem, so keep an eye out for them. You must understand that the characters in the poem are all doomed, and the intended audience would have been aware of this, but the characters themselves, of course, are ignorant to their fates. We never see this downfall in the poem, but it is important to be aware of it for a full appreciation of the text.

A Note on Kennings

Kennings are a rhetorical device used throughout Beowulf. A kenning is a condensed metaphor, usually a two-word phrase, that is used in place of the thing it refers to. For example: “bone-lappings” for the parts of the body, ligaments, that hold the bone to muscle; “word-hoard” for vocabulary or speech; “whale-road” for sea; and “bone-house” for rib cage.

The Poem

Beowulf begins by introducing the Danish kings up to the current king Hrothgar, who has constructed a splendid mead hall called Heorot to celebrate his success. The mead hall in these times was an important place, a place of refuge from the hostile external word, a place of warmth and food, where stories were exchanged between the warriors and gifts were distributed by the king, a place of rank and order and culture.

We are introduced to the threat to the Danes, a monster called Grendel, who is a descendent of Cain’s clan, the same Cain of the bible who killed his brother, Able, and was cursed by God. We are told Grendel is one of the many evil creatures born from Cain’s sin, which include giants and elves. This monster is driven to rage by the construction of Heorot and the joy and revelry within. With feelings of malice, exclusion, and kind of vengefulness Grendel decides to take his revenge on the Danes and he invades Heorot, killing and eating men, and generally terrorizing Hrothgar’s people for twelve years.

Across the sea, we are given our first glimpse of the great warrior Beowulf, although he is not yet named in the poem. He is a Geatish thane, a nobleman under his uncle, King Hygelac. News of Grendel has reached Geatland, and Beowulf has decided to take up the cause, and with a troop of men, sails to the Danish coast to assist King Hrothgar. When Beowulf arrives in Denmark, he is greeted by the Danish coast guard who is impressed with Beowulf, and after inquiring into their purpose for being there, leads them to Heorot, where king Hrothgar welcomes them.

Beowulf states that he will kill Grendel or die trying. He also makes a boast, that because the monster does not use weapons, he will not use weapons, and take on Grendel hand to hand. We learn later that, in fact, Beowulf was so strong (with the grip of thirty men in each hand) that he often could not use swords anyway because they would break with his strokes. After the feast, Hrothgar leaves Beowulf to defend the hall with his men.

That night, Beowulf lies awake, waiting for Grendel. Sure enough, the monster arrives in the hall. He eats one of Beowulf’s men, whether because Beowulf was sizing the creature up, or because he was lying in wait. Then Grendel goes for Beowulf, but the hero catches Grendel in an arm lock, and the two struggle fiercely in the hall, breaking mead benches. We are told here that no elder would believe the hall could be damaged the way it is, except by fire. Heorot is in fact burned to the ground in the future, when civil war breaks out among the Danes, but that is not mentioned in this poem. This is one of several allusions to the fate of the Danes. So, Beowulf defeats Grendel by tearing off his arm, and the monster escapes the hall, but is mortally wounded.

Hrothgar rewards Beowulf and his men the next day and they have a joyous feast. But that night, after the men fall asleep, Grendel’s mother, spurred on by revenge for her son’s death, enters the mead hall, steals her son’s arm back, and carries off one of King Hrothgar’s most valued men: Aeschere. Hrothgar is upset all over again and Beowulf promises to avenge Aeschere’s death. We learn that Grendel’s mother lives in a haunted mere, or a lake, infested with sea monsters. Beowulf goes to the mere and dives into the blood red water with a special sword he takes from one of the men. He encounters Grendel’s mother in her underwater lair, and she almost kills him. He is only saved by his mail shirt. Beowulf’s sword fails him, and he finds another, an immense sword that he uses to cut off the mother’s head. He then returns to the surface with the sword’s hilt and Grendel’s head as trophies.

After the fight with Grendel’s mother, Beowulf returns to Heorot with Grendel’s head and he tells of the battle. There is another feast, praise and gifts are distributed, and Beowulf and his men sail back to Geatland. At home in Geatland, Beowulf is received by his uncle and the king, Hygelac. Beowulf tells of his victories in Denmark. We learn here that the Geats did not esteem Beowulf as a great hero at this point, but that his deeds in Denmark have secured his place in their hearts. Hygelac then presents Beowulf with a sword and much land, and so ends the first half of the poem.

The second half of the poem starts with recounting the death of Hygelac and his son. We learn that Beowulf becomes the king of the Geats by default and he rules the people well for fifty years.

We are told that a dragon, upset by the theft of a gem-studded cup from his hoard of treasure underground, has been unleashing his wrath on the Geats. The dragon burns everything in his path and eventually he burns down Beowulf’s own mead hall. When Beowulf hears news of his hall being burnt he is angered and weary, but even in his old age he is determined to take revenge on the dragon. He has a metal shield crafted for the battle and takes eleven men to the dragon’s lair to confront the monster there. Beowulf has to work himself up before the fight, speaking on his many triumphs and victories in the past. Beowulf is full of foreboding, but he still pursues glory.

Beowulf fights the dragon alone, but for the first time, he cannot gain the upper hand. His sword breaks on the dragon’s head and he is in trouble. One of Beowulf’s band, Wiglaf, comes to his king’s aid even though all the other men abandon Beowulf. Wiglaf encourages Beowulf in the fight, but Beowulf is bit in the neck by the dragon’s poisonous fangs. Wiglaf comes to Beowulf’s aid and stabs the dragon in the belly, allowing Beowulf to deliver the fatal blow that finally dispatches the dragon.

Beowulf is mortally wounded. He feels the poison in his veins and knows he will soon die. He asks Wiglaf to bring him some of the treasure so that he can see it and be comforted by the wealth he has won his people. Wiglaf does as Beowulf says, but when he returns, he finds his king near death. Beowulf asks that a barrow, or mound, be raised near the sea for sailors to see and remember him by. Beowulf dies, and Wiglaf rebukes the cowards who ran when their king needed them. Wiglaf predicts that with Beowulf dead and no hero to take his place, the Swedes and the Franks will attack, and their people will be wiped out, which is what indeed happens.

Wiglaf has a messenger deliver the news to the people of Beowulf’s final battle and death. The poem reiterates the danger that now looms over the Geats with Beowulf gone. A funeral pyre is built filled with treasure and hung with shields and spears. Beowulf is burned on the pyre and he is lamented by warriors and a Geatish woman who fears for her people and her fate at the hands of foreign invaders. The Geat people construct Beowulf’s barrow mound on a headland and fill it with treasure. The poem ends with the Geatish people in sorrow over the loss of their king.

Final Notes

There are many layers to Beowulf, and this lecture was only meant to be an introduction to the basic story and it’s background. I hope I have given you enough to spark your curiosity and encourage you to take the plunge into reading the text yourself. It really is a rewarding read, worth re-reading and analysis even by the non-academic. There are a few good translations out there, but I recommend Seamus Heaney’s translation for it’s readability, artfulness, and because it gives you the Old English and the translated text side by side.

Thank you for taking the time to listen.

Cheers!