Beowulf is an Old English heroic epic with more than three thousand verses, the work of an unknown poet. It is possible that the poem was composed and transmitted by several different poets before being preserved in a single manuscript dating to about 1000.
It is the only surviving Old English work, most significant in scope (containing 3,182 verses) and artistic value (strength of human characters, detailed descriptions of warrior equipment, life, battles, landscapes, grand style, and complex metrical forms). It dates from the 8th century and is preserved in a manuscript from the end of the 10th century, making it the oldest heroic song sung in Europe after the poetry of classical antiquity.
The story of the heroism of the Nordic hero Beowulf, who freed the court of King Hrothgar of Denmark from the terror of Grendel, a monster in human form. A simple fable about a noble king, a hero, is intertwined with episodes that are not directly related to the main theme, but highlight some of its details. Beowulf tells the story of Germanic tribes by intertwining elements of legend, folklore, and Christian teaching of Anglo-Saxon England.
Although Beowulf is pagan in content - man's eternal struggle against the forces of darkness and evil symbolized by supernatural monsters from folklore, fatalism in which the hero is tragically vulnerable and mortal - the influences of Christianity are obvious - good deeds that accompany man from this life, ensure eternity under divine auspices.
Beowulf comes to the aid of Hrothgar, King of Denmark, whose great hall (Heorot) is terrorized by the monster Grendel. Beowulf kills Grendel with his bare hands and Grendel's mother with a giant sword he found in her lair. Later Beowulf becomes King of Geats and reigns peacefully for fifty years but then his kingdom is attacked by a dragon whose treasure is stolen. Beowulf attacks the dragon with the help of his servants but they fail. Beowulf decides to follow the dragon to his lair at Earnanæs (now southern Sweden). There he is finally killed with the help of his Swedish cousin Wiglaf, in the battle Beowulf is mortally wounded.
The events in the poem take place for most of the 6th century after the Anglo-Saxons began migrating to England and before the beginning of the 7th century when the Anglo-Saxons were in close contact with their Germanic relatives in northern Germany and southern Scandinavia. The song may have been brought to England by people of Gaetic origin. Many suggest that Beowulf was first assembled in the 7th century in Rendlesham in East Anglia (now East of England) and that the burial of the ship Sutton Hoo also shows close ties to Scandinavia. Others associated this poem with the court of King Alfred the Great or with the court of King Knut the Great.
It is no surprise Beowulf starts by paying tribute to the origins of King Hrothgar, since within the warrior culture the song shows, the patriarchal lineage is extremely important to one's identity. The characters are regularly named the sons of their fathers - Beowulf, for example, is often called "Ecgtheow's son". Patriarchal narrative anchors the story in a linear time frame that extends back and forth through generations. Since the family line in this culture is of great importance, it is interesting that Shield Sheafson, who inaugurates the Danish royal line, is an orphan. The reader gets a sense that this ordinary man was not without a father, an unknown lineage, and the story would not have a solid starting point. We later find out that Beowulf also lost his father in his youth.
Summarizing the heroic code becomes one of the song's most important fixations. In the first part, some of the main principles become clear. In the story of Sheafson in the opening verses, the poet sketches the life of a successful hero. Sheafson's size is described by the numerous clans he defeats. As they have been defeated they have to pay tribute to him, and it is more than clear that power leads to the acquisition of gold and treasure. Warriors are connected to their masters with loyalty, which their masters support through their protection and generous giving. Since their king was powerful, Sheafson's warriors received the prize. The hero is thus partly described by his power to help his people by doing heroic acts and sharing his treasure. Hrothgar was also shown as a good leader because he raised mead for his people.
Another important element of the Beowulf Heroic Code is articulateness in speech. Beowulf is remarkable not only for his physical existence but also for his strong speaking skills. Poetry and speech were very important to Scandinavians and Anglo-Saxons, as is often the case in cultures that rely on oral preservation of history and myths (characters in Homer's Iliad are also judged by eloquence). Beowulf's egocentric behavior when he declares his intention to kill the monster is not an expression of excessive vanity, but a common feature of heroic behavior.
A good reputation guarantees that the warrior's name will remain set in history. Throughout the epic, fame is shown as a rampart from the ignorance of death, lurking everywhere in the song. The description of Sheafson's funeral described in the final scene portrays the funeral of another heroic king. The stories of bravery are framed with death. The ocean and seas serve as another important and present feature in Beowulf; the sea-burial with which the poem starts establishes the strict boundaries of the character's life.
We have to mention two digressions in the section between lines 301 and 709 - Hrothgar's story of his previous association with Beowulf's father and Beowulf's story of his swimming match against Breca - helps shed the light on the main story by refining the reader's understanding of the Germanic heroic code of values. In Hrothgar's story of his earlier connection with Beowulf's father, we find out that there is a history of commitment between the two families. This story demonstrates the concept of the "price of death", a price that needs to be paid, same as Hrothgar did in Ecgtheow's name, to repay for everyone he killed. Paying the price of someone's life is the only way to ensure that the process of retaliation marked by battle doesn't continue indefinitely. Such payment returns the storm of violent revenge with the exchange of responsibilities. So Beowulf comes to Heorot to avenge the deaths of many Danes killed by Grendel's hand, but also to pay off his father's debt to Hrothgar.
What is interesting is that up to this point in the poem, the author described Beowulf's decision to come to Hrothgar and help avenge the Danes as a heroic act of Beowulf's own decision, not as an act of obligation or debt payment. When Beowulf says his visit to the Danish guard, he also says that this journey is made of his own free will. He doesn't answer directly to Hrothgar's story of Ecgtheow, maybe wanting to confirm his claim that he came to seek the monster of his own free will, not because he's here to avenge his father's deeds.
The second digression is Beowulf's description of his swimming match from his childhood against Breca, which he's storytelling when Unferth questions Beowulf's heroic status. As there were no witnesses to that event, his story cannot be confirmed. Beowulf can reply only by elaborating on these events in order to preserve his honor. Throughout Beowulf, boasting is shown as a key element of the character's reputation, a proper way to claim his position defined by his acts of courage. Beowulf's boasting, which particularly pleases Wealhtheow, increased his honor to the level of expectations.
Since such boasting is a delicate operation, this scene helps to explain the distinction between irritating and true boastings. Unferth calls Beowulf's exploits mad and blames him for vanity. But Unferth himself is guilty of vanity, as he is jealous of Beowulf. It is unsuitable for Unferth to try to shame a guest, however, once he does, Beowulf's revenge is proper and even required to maintain his reputation. Hrothgar's behavior, on the other hand, is nobler. He acknowledges that there is some sort of "humiliation" in the point that the Danes can't solve their problems on their own
If we read the story carefully, we discover that the story Beowulf is telling is Marxist despite its boastful tone. He describes the competitive culture in which Breca and he were raised as respectful people, not obsessive and vain as Unferth was. Even though he smartly stabbed Unferth when he highlighted his failure against Grendel, Beowulf ended his speech by portraying a renewed peace and happiness for the Danish people. Beowulf does not only represent the true values of society in a good manner but also uses the right words to tell a story. His story is more in line with the values of the code of honor than Unferth's bitter speech.
The story of Beowulf is divided into three main parts (even though our summary is divided into chapters for easy reading) and each of the parts focuses on Beowulf's fight against a certain monster - first, he fights Grendel, then Grendel's mother, and then the dragon. In Beowulf's fight against Grendel, the first part of the story reaches a climax. The poet chooses to show most of the battle from Grendel's perspective rather than Beowulf's, highlighting the pain and fear Beowulf inflicts on the monster. This narrative style makes Beowulf even more God-like as he appears to be an unbeatable heroic force. Throughout the fight, Beowulf is treated as more than a man. He proves to be more powerful than the monster, and he appears to be fully invulnerable.
It was never entirely clear what Grendel really was as he was described as a stranger, monster, spirit, devil, and a demon, and it is important to note that in the Middle Ages the word "monster" was often used to describe a person with birth defects, so Grendel could've only been a human with birth effects. Grendel was later called "unnatural birth" [line: 1353]. In any case, he seems to be a horrible creature, a distorted and large monster of the vague human form. His supernatural monstrosity makes Beowulf's win over him even more impressive.
Many believe that every monster in the book has allegorical or symbolic meaning. The author presented Grendel as an ideational picture of evil. Nevertheless, it can also be analyzed as an evil force lurking within Danish society itself. Theologists imply that he's a descendant of Cain. The Old Testament says that God punished Cain for killing his brother Abel by cursing him for wandering. Grendel is also cursed and wandering, "chasing marches, looting in screams/and desolate swamps" (Lines: 103 - 104). The poet's culture feels the boundaries of society to be threatening, and Grendel is shown as an outsider who broke those boundaries. Since Hrothgar, like Grendel, set himself by beating his neighbors, some critics think that Grendel is the embodiment of society's sin returning to persecute him. The nature of his abode - a swampy and dark landscape - backs this interpretation. It seems that he's the embodiment of the evil created by the human conscience. Also, it is important to note that Grendel and Beowulf leave their weapons to engage in a fierce hand-to-hand fight. This battle is not a mere battle in a culture dominated by war, but a more individual, primordial war between equal, opposing parties.
The narrator's description of the bard, or musician, who sings about Beowulf's defeat of Grendel shows that he appreciates fine workmanship, both in poetry and objects. The author highlights the art of the bard's "good lines". The bard's stories of Heremod and Sigemund reflect the superiority of Beowulf by contrast and comparison, respectively. The scene where Sigemund tells a famous story from Norse mythology hints at Beowulf's fight with the dragon in the third part of the poem. The malicious King Heremod, who fails to meet his master's duties to his people, portrays Beowulf's opposite.
Heremod also acts as a foil for Hrothgar. Hrothgar's speech the morning after the fight pictures Beowulf's victory as God's without reducing Beowulf's glory. His devotion and respect to Beowulf are mirrored in his promises that Beowulf will get appropriate rewards and honors for his faithful service to a powerful lord. Unlike Heremod, Hrothgar symbolizes an obedient ruler in every way. Therefore, the Danes' loyalty to Hrothgar doesn't weaken even when they start to worship Beowulf.
The Bard's story of the warfare between the Danes and the Frisians - the scene in Finnsburg has some of the most beautiful and rich languages in Beowulf as he used many of the Anglo-Saxon poetry's forms. The use of kenning is also highlighted - complex words that poetically and often metaphorically evoke specific ideas, such as "the giver of the ring" (Line: 1101) for the king as the king is the one who rewards his warriors with rings and "more-lanes" (Line: 1156) for the ocean.
The scene in Finnsburg is connected to Beowulf's central narrative. Even though it is not relevant to the main plot, it shows the idea of vengeance as some sort of detail in this part. The story also emphasizes the uncertainty in the heroic code by describing the position of Danish Princess Hildeburh. She's married to the Frisian king but is also the daughter of the Danes, so Hildeburh experiences divergent devotion. He has a son who battles on the one hand and a brother on the other. Like many other women in the German warrior culture described in Beowulf, Hildeburh serves as a "vow of peace among nations" - an epithet. Through her marriage, Hildeburh creates a bond between two countries and tribes. The practice of using women characters as tools of peace also becomes problematic for men. In this story, the nephew and uncle are on opposite sides, even though their Germanic culture nourishes a strong connection between a man and his sister's son. In the scene in Finnsburg, peace became unsustainable. Hildeburh had to return to Denmark before the conflict could stop.
The narrator's tendency to project future events is also apparent in his suggestions that Hrothulf, Hrothgar's nephew, would seize the throne from Hrothgar's sons. Wealhtheow's note that he is sure of Hrothulf's goodness makes a moment of theatrical irony since the author is well aware that Hrothulf has evil ideas in his mind. The treason related to the scene in Finnsburg throws a devilish stain on Wealhtheow's speech and indicates that the treachery will mark the future just as it has a past. The poet's look at Hygelac's death supports how symbols connect the past, present, and future in their culture.
In lines between 1251 and 1491, the power of the epic is amplified, as its second part begins with the arrival of Grendel's mother in the hall. The idea of blood revenge, which was previously set out in stories and Hrothgar's recollection of the Wulfings' anger at Ecgtheow, is now entering the main plot. Just as Grendel's massacre of Hrothgar's men demands revenge, so does Beowulf's murder of Grendel. As Beowulf tells Hrothgar, in a speech that is central to his conception of the heroic code of honor, Beowulf explicitly portrays revenge as a tool of fame and glory, which makes one's reputation eternal. As this speech shows, it pervades the awareness of Beowulf's death. This is why it is essential for warriors that someone remembers them and that the memory remains. The world of the song is heartless, unforgivable, and dangerous and unforgivable, and numerous threats such as enemies and monsters loom over every life.
One of the most interesting aspects of Grendel's mother's commitment to the same code that requires revenge as warriors is that she is described as not entirely nonhuman. Her behavior is not only understandable but also justified. In other ways, however, Grendel and his mother are clearly described as creatures from another world. One element of their difference from the people described in the poem is that Grendel's strong parental figure is his mother's father - his family structure is inconsistent with the energetically patriarchal society of the Danes and Geats. The idea of a hidden origin is questionable and sinister in this society that places such a high priority on remembering one's lineage.
Grendel's relationship with Cain is noted in several scenes in the story. Having Cain as an ancestor is a responsibility from the standpoint of a culture obsessed with family affection. Grendel's lineage is in many ways unnatural, sinister and accursed, as Cain brought the murder of relatives, into the world. As mentioned earlier, it is easy to analyze Grendel and his mother, given the unnaturalness of their presence, as a manifestation of some kind of psychological tension around the killings that dominate Danish societies. Human conflict with monsters seems to stand outside the normal culture of war and seems to carry a suggestion of spiritual and moral importance.
The question of Grendel's lineage is one of many examples of the poet Beowulf's struggle to resolve the tension between his own Christian worldview and the apparently pagan origins of his narrative. The beginnings of the narrative lie in the pagan past, but by the time the poem was written (somewhere around 700 ads), almost all Anglo-Saxons had been converted to Christianity. Scandinavian ambiances and characters would therefore be a distant ancestral memory for the inhabitants of England, as migrations from Scandinavia and Germany took place centuries earlier. Throughout the epic, the poet refers to this point and tries to reconcile the behavior of his characters with the Christian belief system that often seems foreign to the action of the poem. Early, for example, he condemns the Danes' travels to pagan shrines, where they make sacrifices, hoping to get rid of Grendel. In addition, Beowulf's heroic deeds are constantly framed in terms of God's role in them, as if Beowulf owes all his abilities to providence - an idea that seems difficult to reconcile with earthly boasting and reputation building throughout the song. The conflict between the Anglo-Saxon idea of destiny (wyrd) and the Christian God was probably a widespread moral tension in the poet's time and animates Beowulf from beginning to end.
Many readers have pondered the significance of Grendel and his mother - whether they are part of the same evil force or represent two separate ideas. Earlier, after Grendel's defeat, there were frequent hints, even in the midst of celebrations, that the evil that Grendel represents had not been eradicated. These hints may lead the reader to suspect that Grendel himself is still alive - although Beowulf rips off his arm, we never actually see Grendel die, and Beowulf regrets letting him escape. The fact that the remaining threat proves to be the mother of the monster may suggest that although the example of evil has been eliminated with Grendel, evil must still be eradicated at its source - Grendel's mother could be thought to be more fundamental or primordial evil than Grendel himself. On the other hand, there is the less theological language associated with her malice than with Grendel's. It seems to be more unequivocally animal and less a symbol of pure evil than it is. For example, her attack on Heorot is even appropriate and honorable by the standards of warrior culture, as it marks an attempt at revenge for the death of her son.
This second encounter provokes a change of scene, pulling the hero out of the safety of mead into the dark world of his opponents. The advantage of fighting on the familiar ground within the confines of human society - the advantage Beowulf enjoys in his encounter against Grendel - is now lost. This time, Beowulf has to fight a resilient natural environment alongside a wild monster. An earlier story about competing with Brec has already prepared readers for Beowulf's superhuman swimming abilities. However, the lake itself, where Grendel's mother lives, is not an ordinary body of water. It is full of blood and bloodshed, as well as unpleasant creatures of all descriptions. It is the elemental world of water, fire, and blood, and a world with a distinctly unholy feeling.
Pictures of light and darkness are important. The darkness of the lair where Grendel lives symbolizes evil and leads to Beowulf's disorientation in the unknown territory. The first ray of light he sees marks hope. After conquering Grendel's mother, her lair becomes entirely illuminated. Since light implies Christian salvation and holiness, the poet suggests that hell has been purged of evil and restored its holiness. Besides that, it appears that Beowulf, during his return to the mainland, went through a kind of rebirth. The rest of this scene is dominated by a formal speech where the characteristics of society were detailed and described. Beowulf receives honest advice from Hrothgar on how to behave both as a ruler and a man.
This transitional scene between lines 1925 and 2210 is telling us about Beowulf going back to his homeland. Similar to Wealhtheow in Denmark, Hygd is introduced as a positive example of good behavior in women - she is kind to the men around her and loyal to her master and husband. Beowulf is set in a male-dominated world - maybe even more so than in Homer's Iliad - ruled by doom, honor, and violence. In this culture, women are perceived as objects and to serve one purpose - for marriage, and as links between warring tribes for peace.
Beowulf is clearly skeptical about the power of marriage to cure the anger and hatred created between blood enemies. His terrible predictions about the marriage of Hrothgar's daughter, Freawar, to an enemy of the clan, Heathobard, reveal his belief that the desire for revenge will always overcome the peace that mixed marriages are trying to establish. The events in the episode in Finnsburg, in which the marriage was quickly broken and the bride returned to her relatives, seem to confirm this feeling. In any case, this detail about Hrothgar's daughter's engagement and his political context is one of several new elements that Beowulf's retelling introduces, which is said not to be too repetitive.
Beowulf's speculations about this community contribute to the discourse of treasure that runs throughout the poem. His statement that an ancestral object will draw around a family member and rekindle a quarrel seems valid - we have seen that many treasure objects, such as the various swords and necklaces Wealhtheow gives to Beowulf, are in fact heritage, laden with symbolic and memorial significance. Thus, as a vow of peace, Freawar is confronted with a treasure, which has the potential to rekindle bad memories and quarrels.
In the retelling of his experiences in Denmark, Beowulf emphasizes the wealth he won as much as the poet in his narration of events. Throughout Beowulf, there is a tension between the pagan conception of treasure as a symbol of personal courage and the Christian conception of treasure as a symbol of sinful greed. As we have seen, the treasure is directly related to success in war, and the accumulation of treasure signifies the accumulation of honor. Most importantly, the treasure must continue to be regiven. In that sense, Hrothgar is a good king because he is such a generous "giver of the ring", and Beowulf a good guardian because he gives Hygelac and Hygd more than half of his awards. However, the Christian overtones of the song focus on earthly possessions as unimportant. For example, after Beowulf kills Grendel's mother, Hrothgar advises Beowulf to "choose… the better part, / eternal rewards ", warning him, in essence, not to rest on the laurels of his conquests (Lines: 1759 - 1760).
This section also further develops the image of mead as an important element in Anglo-Saxon warrior culture. Hygelac Hall in Geatland proves to be an equally magnificent and equally important place of refuge and reward in a world where danger lurks on every horizon as Heorot, the great hall of the Danes. In mead one can boast, exchange jokes and the idea of doom can be postponed. It is in mead that warriors can enjoy the fame and reputation they risk in such danger to win.
The ceremonies in Hygelac Hall seem to reflect the growing intimacy between Beowulf and the king, his uncle, as well as the growing respect for a warrior who was previously underestimated, as we now learn for the first time that Beowulf was undervalued (Lines: 2183 - 2184). Therefore, the retelling of Beowulf's heroic deeds in mead - a retelling that may seem anti-climax to many readers - is an important political moment for Beowulf and an important step in his advancement from warrior to ruler.
The part between lines 2211 and 2515 moves us to the third part of the song, which focuses on the fight of an aged Beowulf with a dragon. From beginning to end, the tone of this part is the tone of doom and death. An unknown ancestor burying treasure, for example, behaves sadly as if he is actually burying his deceased relatives - or, in fact, himself. Also, there are repeated hints that Beowulf will not survive this encounter. Much of this piece is retrospective and nostalgic, as Beowulf, feeling that his end is near, feels compelled to rehearse the story of his prominent life.
Long passages of recapitulation and reminiscence fill in the details of Beowulf's political biography. In one section the reader learns only that Beowulf came to the throne after Hygelac's death and ruled for fifty years. Now, however, we learn of Beowulf's significant gesture of generosity toward Hygelac's son. By rejecting the throne and taking custody of the young heir until the heir reaches the age of majority, Beowulf shows that his attitude towards power is neither mercenary nor ambitious. He +stands in opposition to the power-loving usurper Hrothulf. Declaring Beowulf "a good king," the poet echoes the praise of the revered Shield Sheafson and Hrothgar (Line: 2390).
The tragic story of Hrethel's son's death at the hands of his own brother offers an echo of an earlier case of divided loyalty in an episode in Finnsburg. There, the Danish Princess Hildeburh was disturbed by the fact that her son and her brother were at war, fighting on opposite sides, and in the end, both were killed. The tension here is similar but even more frustrating. Hrethel's grief over the accident is great, but due to the unusual circumstances surrounding his son's death, Hrethel remains inactive. According to the heroic code, grief is something that needs to be cleansed with revenge, but revenge here would mean the death of another son - a painful and unsatisfactory prospect.
The circumstances that surround and lead to Beowulf's conflict with the dragon prepare us for a top-notch spectacle. The poet reconciles Beowulf with the power of good throughout the story, and the direct attack of the dragon on Beowulf Hall makes this inevitable encounter an inevitable conflict between good and evil. The contrast between Hrothgar, who previously called on young Beowulf to eradicate Grendel, and now old Beowulf, who does not seek such help against the dragon, underscores Beowulf's courage and gives us confidence that Beowulf is still powerful enough to eradicate the threatening enemy. The poet's explicit comparison between Hygelac, who died, and Beowulf, who lived, in the battle of Friesland similarly builds our expectations that Beowulf will succeed in his quest.
Yet Beowulf's premonition of his own death testifies to his strong sense of destiny, an important component of these characters' self-perceptions. Beowulf's reminiscences of his glory days and the narrator's mention of Beowulf's age reinforce the reality that every life - even the life of a legendary warrior - must come to an end. So the song gives us the feeling that this conflict can only end in complete destruction. Beowulf's call to the dragon to face him in the open field has the same primordial feeling as his youthful decision to fight unarmed against Grendel. While the earlier conflict establishes Beowulf's reputation as a hero, we know that this latest conflict must forever seal Beowulf's heroic reputation.
The dragon is the most powerful symbol of the song, which embodies the idea of destiny, which permeates the story with an atmosphere of doom and death. While Beowulf is essentially invulnerable to Grendel and his mother, he is in danger from the dragon from the start. As Beowulf feels his own death approaching, the dragon emerges from the ground, creating a sense that the inevitable conflict will result in Beowulf's death. The poet emphasizes Beowulf's reluctance to face death (Line: 2588 - 2590). This poetic invocation of death as a component of the movement from one empire to another - from the earthly to the spiritual - reveals the influence of Christian ideology on the pagan Beowulf in general. It is also shocking from the perspective of a warrior ethos in which leaving the homeland, the anchor of the entire identity is a very serious and significant undertaking.
The fact that Beowulf should be so persistent in his desire to see the treasure before he dies can be confusing to many readers. It is important to remember that treasure objects often serve as symbols of the transmission of values through generations or the bond of kinship and loyalty. Beowulf recognizes this symbolic function when he thinks of passing on his armor to his own son if he had it. His relief after seeing the treasure shows his desire to leave something to his people - a kind of surrogate offspring - when he dies. He knows that even though he killed the dragon, his victory will be hollow if the ritual of rewarding and giving is not performed afterward. Looking at the treasure - ensuring its physical reality - eases Beowulf's mind before he dies.
However, the fact that the treasure Wiglaf finds is rusty and corrosive adds a pathetic, ironic quality to the scene. While Beowulf's first two encounters with monsters end with being awarded a treasure whose splendor represents his courage, the last encounter ends with Beowulf convulsing objects whose state of decay embodies his own nearness to death. Furthermore, this treasure will be buried with Beowulf, so the treasure will actually be collected rather than redistributed, as the heroic code usually requires. In a way, Beowulf is like the original treasure hunter, who realized he was the last of his lineage - he knows his lineage won't continue. Because the nature of Beowulf's fight with the dragon is so different from that of his fight with Grendel and his mother, some critics choose to consider the song a two-part or two-part structure rather than a three-part one. In the first two battles, we see a warrior convinced of his indestructibility; in the last battle, however, we see a warrior aware of his mortality.
The treasure also represents a growing bond between Beowulf and Wiglaf, the old and new hero. Of Beowulf's men, Wiglaf is the only one who conforms to heroic standards of loyalty and courage. Wiglaf is identified in this section as the legitimate heir of Beowulf, who has no natural heir. In this, he is similar to the young Beowulf who becomes Hrothgar's adopted son. Wiglaf swears vehemently that he would rather die than return home without protecting his leader. And this vow reminds us of the young Beowulf, who is so eloquent in proclaiming the code of honor and so perfectly embodies its values. The continuity of honor from generation to generation is confirmed when Beowulf removes the gold collar from his own neck and, as his last act, gives it to his young friend. In Old English, alaf is heritage or remnant, and Wiglaf means "survivor of war". The poet identifies Wiglaf with a treasure (and, of course, a poem) - he will survive Beowulf's life and continue the legacy of a great hero.
The ending of the epic begins with a short but lovely elegy passage in honor of the dragon, which, along with Beowulf, sends him into the company of those who can no longer take advantage of their greatness. The poet emphasizes the dragon's beauty and grace of movement (Line: 2832), illustrating that the beast was in itself a magnificent and worthy suit to the great hero. The poet's words of admiration for the dragon glorify Beowulf's feat in killing such a creature and show respect for a slain enemy whom Grendel his mother never enjoyed. The poet here shows his sensitivity to balance while dwelling on two bodies lying side by side, two extraordinary lives coming to an end. Symmetry and rhythm in this nostalgic moment help us prepare for the elaborate funeral ceremony with which the song ends. Of course, the first sign of Beowulf's funeral comes much earlier, with the story of Shield Sheafson's death at the beginning of the song. The story is now rounded out.
Wiglaf's rebuke of his fellow warriors, together with the messenger's prophecy of the immediate troubles of Geatland, offers a great insight into the importance of the character of the warrior king in early feudal societies. In a world where small societies are constantly at war over land, wealth, resources, and honor, the presence of a powerful king is key to the security and well-being of the people. When the king dies, his people become vulnerable to looting forces outside their borders. The fate that hangs over the entire narrative of Beowulf's story seems to quickly descend on his people the moment he dies, and the weeping Geats are well aware of what a lack of Beowulf's protection means to them.
Wiglaf also suggests that the weakness and lack of his fellow warriors will encourage conquerors. The Geats sacrificed their reputation as brave warriors by refusing to come to the aid of their king, and reputation is in itself an important layer of defense. Once their cowardice is heard, they will surely become the target of an attack.
At the time of the funeral, Wiglaf's initial anger towards his compatriots had somewhat cooled and he was speaking once again on behalf of the community. As much as he pays homage to Beowulf's greatness, the last scene of the song is closer than any other to criticizing his behavior. Wiglaf thinks that there may have been an element of irresponsibility in Beowulf's one-mindedness and boldness (Lines: 3077 - 3078). This statement, coupled with an earlier statement that Beowulf was too proud to set up a large army against the dragon, suggests that his actions were not entirely courageous, but also, to some extent, headstrong and stupid. Like Wiglaf, it remains for us to think about how courage can be balanced with reasoning to produce true heroism.
The question of the haunted treasure reinforces the ambiguity about the meaning of Beowulf's death. The poet's claim that the ancient warrior erred in burying gold in the underworld suggests that Beowulf is God's chosen liberator of captive wealth. Although Beowulf unselfishly approaches the question of treasure, wanting to free his people from the threat of the dragon, his death still seems something like punishment. Ultimately, however, in a culture of heroism - in which so much emphasis is placed on virtue, in which warriors would rather die than live in shame - the noble funeral Beowulf receives confirms his choices in life. Beowulf's song depicts the emphasis of this culture on commemorating the memory of deceased heroes; indeed, the very existence of the poem testifies to Beowulf's virtue and the respect his people have shown him.
Genre: heroic epic
Setting: Scandinavia (today known as Denmark and Sweden) during the 6th century.
Point of view and Narrator: third-person with an omniscient narration
Tone and Mood: the tone is melancholy, with the feel of suspense and terror
Style: alliterative verse style
Protagonist and Antagonist: the protagonist is a Geatish hero Beowulf while there are three main antagonists: Grendel, his mother, and the dragon.
Major Conflict: there are three main conflicts
- Grendel's domination of the Hall
- The revenge of Grendel's mother after her son Grendel dies
- The rage of the dragon after a thief steals a treasure he has been guarding
Raising action: Grendel's attack on Heorot and Beowulf's defeat of Grendel
Climax: Beowulf's encounter with Grendel's mother.
Ending: Beowulf dies in a fight with the dragon and is cremated on a funeral pyre while his remains are buried by the sea
Symbols and Metaphors
Some of the most important symbols are Hrothgar's mead hall, Grendel's cave, Grendel's hand and head, and the dragon's treasure.
Heorot - Hrothgar's great mead hall, Heorot (a.k.a. Deer Hall), acts both as a set design and as a symbol in the epic. It's a lot more than a place to drink. Symbolically, Heorot represents the achievements of the Scyldings, specifically Hrothgar, and their level of civilization. The hall is home to the warriors who sleep there and serves as the seat of government. It is a place of light, warmth, and joy, in contrast to Grendel's morbid swamp, as well as the darkness and cold of winter in Scandinavia.
In Heorot, Hrothgar celebrates his victories and rewards his tanes (warriors) with various treasures. The building is like a palace. It rises high and compares to a cliff. The gables are in the shape of deer antlers. People from neighboring tribes respectfully contributed rich ornaments and intricate designs.
The hall is also symbolic in that it is the site of the first great battle of Beowulf, the defeat of Grendel. When Grendel attacks the hall, he knows he is hitting the very heart of Scyldings. This gives special significance to his victories and Beowulf's final liberation of the hall from the devastation of the monsters.
The cave - the cave in which Grendel and his mother hide from the world is a symbol of their lives as outcasts. Hidden beneath an insidious regiment in the middle of a dark, forbidding swamp, the cave provides them with a degree of security and privacy in a world they deem hostile. They are certainly not welcome in Heorot, and they know it.
The cave also represents their heritage. As Cain's descendants, they are associated with sorcery, black magic, demons, ancient runes, and hell itself. When Grendel's mother manages to fight Beowulf in the cave, she has a distinct advantage. His victory is all the more significant. It is not clear whether he wins because of his own ability, the influence of magic (giant sword), or God's intervention. They are all mentioned, probably because the poet borrowed from various influences in the creation of the poem.
The cave itself represents a world that is foreign to Heorot. One is tall and bright and full of song and joy, as tall as Scyldings 'greatest achievement. The other is dark and damp and full of evil, beneath the shed in the midst of the mud and the symbolic home of embittered outcasts.
Grendel's claw and head - Beowulf hoped to have Grendel's entire body to present to King Hrothgar after his battle with the huge in Heorot. He must be satisfied with his right hand or claw, torn from his shoulder when a mortally wounded opponent flees into a swamp. The claw is hung high under Heorot's roof (most likely on the outside under the gable) as a symbol of Beowulf's victory.
Grendel's mother also sees him as a symbol, representing her personal loss and humanity's eerie sense of what might be an appropriate trophy. Filled with sadness and anger, she takes her hand from Heorot and kills another Scylding. When Beowulf follows her to the puka and ends up in her underwater cave, he is no longer interested in claws. Much more impressive is Grendel's head, which he is able to find after a strange, perhaps sacred glow illuminates a dimly lit cave. He ignores the huge treasure in the cave, instead choosing to wear a magnificent, huge head as a symbol of his victory over both ogres.
Dragon's treasure - The dragon's treasure is shockingly representing the futility of human desires as well as the variability of time. The dragon cart contains wealth in abundance, but wealth does not benefit anyone. The ancient treasures in the hoard once belonged to a regional tribe of warriors who were killed in battle some 300 years ago. Only one survivor, called the "Keeper of the Rings" (Line: 2244), experienced it to hide the treasure in the hut.
Just as dead warriors cannot use treasure, neither can a dragon. He dedicates his life to the preservation of treasures that, honestly, are of no use. Beowulf gives his life by defeating the dragon and gaining this impressive treasure for his people, but they will not benefit from it either. The treasure is buried with a great warrior in his funeral home and, we are told, still remains there, a mighty horde of wealth that benefits no one at all.