Richard Wilbur 1950
“Beowulf” appeared in Richard Wilbur’s second volume of poetry, Ceremony and Other Poems (1950), the book that established him as one of the preeminent American poets of his generation. In this poem, Wilbur retells part of an Old English epic, or long narrative poem, also called “Beowulf.” He describes the hero of the ancient poem from a mid-twentieth century point of view.
The epic “Beowulf” was written between the mid-seventh and the late tenth centuries A.D. It tells the story of a Scandinavian hero, Beowulf, who comes to save a kingdom from a monster named Grendel who attacks the castle each night. The hero fights and kills the monster; soon Grendel’s mother appears, and Beowulf must defeat her as well. The Danes give Beowulf many gifts in thanks, and he returns home, where he is king of the Geats for fifty years. He eventually dies in a battle against a dragon.
Wilbur shows Beowulf as a melancholy hero. He bravely promises to fight the monster, but he also is aware that being a hero can be a lonely job. Despite his courageous deeds, he is isolated from other people, who cannot really understand him. Even the Danes, whom he saves, are remote from him. While the epic poem celebrates the heroic ideal, Wilbur’s poem reveals the hero as a human being living in a less than perfect world.
Wilbur is often seen as a poet of affirmation, one who has a bright and witty view of the world. “Beowulf,” then, is somewhat different from the
poet’s other work in its tone and subject matter, though it is similar in its formal structure and musical rhythm. The power of this poem may come from Wilbur’s exploration of a dark side of existence, in spite of his natural inclination to celebrate the details that make life worthwhile.
Richard Wilbur was born in New York City on March 1, 1921, to Lawrence L. Wilbur, a portrait painter, and Helen Purdy Wilbur, whose father and grandfather had been newspaper editors. Wilbur felt influences from both sides of his family. He enjoyed drawing and creating cartoons when he was young, but he also had a passion for words. His interests were combined when he began writing poems, since he uses vivid visual images in his poetry.
When he was two, Wilbur moved with his family to rural New Jersey. They rented a pre-Revolutionary War stone house on a four-hundred-acre estate owned by an English millionaire. Growing up in this environment, Wilbur developed his awareness of and appreciation for nature, which is evident in many of his poems.
Attending Amherst College in Massachusetts from 1938 to 1942, Wilbur studied literature in the then-popular method of New Criticism. New Critics encouraged poets to write in traditional forms while expressing the discord of modern life. Wilbur served as the editor of the student newspaper and published some poems, stories, and editorials in college publications. During the summers, he traveled around the country, hitchhiking and “riding the rails”—catching free rides on freight trains.
In 1942 Wilbur married Charlotte Hayes Ward, then joined the U.S. Army to serve in Europe in World War II. He began to write poems more frequently while in the army. Writing helped him, he said, make order out of the chaos he was experiencing. He sent poems to his wife and a few friends; at the end of the war these were published in his first book, The Beautiful Changes. Upon returning home, Wilbur went to graduate school at Harvard, and embarked on a university teaching career that lasted nearly forty years. In addition to teaching at Harvard, Wellesley College, Wesleyan University, and Smith College, Wilbur served as Poet Laureate of the United States from 1987 to 1988.
[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]
[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]
The poem opens with a description of the country that Beowulf has come to save. The speaker of the poem seems to be an unseen narrator who is describing this scene from the hero’s point of view. There is something too perfect about the natural world; the land is like artificial scenery on a stage. The flowers and the grass seem to have human characteristics; they appear “attentive,” or overly polite, and “garrulous,” or too talkative. The lake is so still that the reflection of a bird remains after the bird has flown away. The road, built during the days of the now-fallen Roman Empire, seems untraveled. These images of the physical world have an unreal quality, creating a sense of mystery about this country.
Here the speaker introduces the people of the country. Like their land, they are strange, though they are hospitable to Beowulf. The king says that he had known Beowulf’s father. Offering thanks for his help, the queen serves the hero mead, a wine made from honey, in a cup decorated with jewels. These details are similar to ones that appear in the original epic poem.
The other people have a “vagueness,” which may mean that they don’t think very clearly, or that they cannot be clearly seen, like shadows. They live in fear of “daily harm,” which refers to the nightly attacks by the monster Grendel. This fear causes the people to repeat themselves when they speak. The strangeness of the residents adds to the atmosphere of mystery about this country.
- A Conversation with Poet Laureate Richard Wilbur is an interview with the poet by Grace Cavalieri, the host of the national radio series “The Poet and the Poem.” This videotape is available in libraries or from the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.
- The videotape Richard Wilbur, produced by Lannan Foundation in Los Angeles, CA, includes a reading by the poet at the University of Southern California in 1990, as well as an interview with Wilbur by poet David St. John.
- A 1997 audio recording of “Beowulf,” translated by Francis B. Gummere and narrated by George Guidall, is available from Recorded Books Productions in New York.
At the beginning of this stanza, the “childish country” appears to refer to the childlike nature of the people. However, the “child / Grown monstrous” describes Grendel, who is a giant monster but also the child of a monster. Since he attacks the castle each night, the people are always afraid. In addition, because Grendel eats those he kills, people fear that he will “own them to the bone.” Beowulf determines that he will fight the monster alone, so that others will not risk death.
The poet may have more than one meaning here. The people spend their days afraid of what will happen when night comes. Grendel, according to the Old English poem, lives in the wilderness outside the borders of the kingdom. Wilbur may be implying that the people’s “dream of fright” is fear of the unknown. The hero, however, is willing to confront the mystery symbolized by the monster.
Wilbur condenses much of the action from the original poem in this stanza. In lines 19–20, he describes how the Danes go off to bed, leaving Beowulf alone to face the monster. The hall is “echoed” because it is a large, high-ceilinged room in the castle. When a crowd is feasting and celebrating there, the noise is very loud. When the hall is empty, it may echo with the slightest sound. Beowulf is a lonely figure standing in this great hall by himself, waiting for the monster. In addition, according to the epic poem, the sounds of human happiness in this hall first attract Grendel’s anger, causing him to come and kill those in the castle.
Lines 21–22 describe the fight between Beowulf and Grendel. The fierce battle shakes the beams supporting the roof. Beowulf is so strong he defeats Grendel without using weapons; instead, he pulls the monster’s arm completely off his body. The “child”—Grendel—leaves, groaning and dying.
When the fight is over, the Danes find Beowulf in an exhausted sleep. His head is “sealed” because he does not wake up for a long time, and no one knows what he is thinking or feeling. In the original poem, Beowulf fights not only Grendel, but Grendel’s mother, who comes to avenge her child’s death. Then the hero falls into a deep sleep.
The speaker returns to a description of the landscape. However, the country is apparently changed by the monster’s death. It is still “overmuch like scenery,” as in the first stanza, but now it is not friendly. The lark is free of the lake, but its song is silent. The day passes too quickly and the night offers no welcome. Line 30 echoes line 7, describing the people as strange. Here, though, they are cold instead of warm. It may be that now that they feel safe, they do not care about the hero as much as before.
The country seems to have lost its childishness when its child monster dies. In the first stanza, the land seemed too new, like the road “paved too shiningly” in line 5. In this fifth stanza, the day is “swiftly old.” The people may have lost their innocence. While they had their monster, they could blame all their problems on an outside element. Now they have to look inside themselves to find out why the lark’s song is not heard, or why the flowers are wrong.
However, since the speaker seems to be describing the adventure from Beowulf’s point of view, this change in the land and its inhabitants may come from the hero’s own feelings. Perhaps he is so tired from the battle that the country seems unfriendly. Perhaps he believes his effort was so great that the people cannot truly appreciate what he has gone through. Or, he may feel that since his task is over, he is no longer welcome and should leave.
The people are not unappreciative, as this stanza shows. They shower Beowulf with valuable presents as a reward for his rescue of their kingdom. All of these gifts are needed by a warrior-hero—a horse, armor, and weapons. The speaker hints that by giving Beowulf these things, the people are encouraging him to fight other battles, to “do again what he has done.” This may imply that the hero would prefer to rest after his great deed, but cannot because everyone expects him to do more great deeds. He may also have these expectations of himself.
Beowulf takes his presents and sails home. He is lonely despite his victory, because he has no son to leave his treasure to. The hero believes in the tradition of children carrying on the name of the father and honoring his accomplishments after his death. Beowulf may weep because he fears no one will remember him after he dies, since he has no son.
In this stanza the speaker most reveals Beowulf’s isolation from the world. He becomes king of the Geats, but when he dies he has no family members left. He is famous for his brave deeds, and he is mourned, but his is a lonely death. He is buried at the edge of the sea, which is an in-between place, suitable for someone who lived outside the mainstream of the community. Although some of his followers ride around his barrow, or burial mound, and sing at his funeral, they do not fully understand him. Wilbur may be saying that a hero—or anyone who does great deeds—is never completely understood by the people around him.
Alienation and Loneliness
In describing the adventures of the legendary Beowulf, Wilbur provides him with the sensibilities of a mid-twentieth century person: the hero feels alienated from the rest of society. Beowulf does brave deeds and is appreciated for his courage, but he is isolated from his fellow human beings. He is not an ordinary member of the community, and he has no close family member or friend with whom he can share his feelings. This isolation makes him feel alienated and lonely, even though— or because—he is a hero and king. Whereas the Old English hero is a member of his community, because the society of that time included warrior bands and small kingdoms often at war, the modern Beowulf may be an outsider in a world that wants to view peace as normal and war as an aberration.
Beowulf risks his life fighting the monster, but this very act sets him apart from those he saves. He must meet the “monster all alone,” because everyone else is too afraid. After the battle, Beowulf falls into a deep sleep, his head “harder sealed than any stone.” Since he has had an experience no one else has had, he cannot share his feelings with anyone. This situation alienates him from other people. The loneliness apparently continues for his entire life, for when he dies he is still not understood by those who mourn him.
The hero’s alienation can be further illustrated by examining other themes. Each of the following themes reveals how Beowulf is alienated from society, whether he feels lonely because of the situation or because of his own perception of the situation.
Duty and Responsibility
Wilbur suggests that Beowulf does not question his duties and responsibilities as a hero. However, the poet implies that the hero’s assumption of these responsibilities causes his feeling of alienation.
Beowulf is “to his battle reconciled”; that is, he accepts the duty of fighting the monster whether or not doing so may lead to his own death. He takes the responsibility of fighting the monster alone, without help, so that no one else may be harmed. The people are willing to let him take this responsibility; they go to bed and leave him alone to his fate. When he has saved them, they give him many gifts in thanks. However, even these presents are evidence of his continued duty and responsibility. He is given a horse, armor, and weapons, objects that will help him to take on further duties and responsibilities as a hero. He is expected—and expects of himself—to go fight more monsters. As the last stanza shows, he becomes a king and continues to achieve great heroic deeds, though always somewhat separated from other people. His acceptance of his responsibility to other people also makes him alienated from these same people.
Appearances and Reality
The speaker of the poem appears to interpret the events from Beowulf’s point of view. There-
Topics for Further Study
- Explore how the rhymed lines affect the feeling of the poem. Read “Beowulf” aloud and determine how the rhyme scheme helps to create a certain atmosphere in the poem. Describe the atmosphere and explain how the rhyme contributes to it.
- Research the sixth century A.D. in Europe, the period of history in which Beowulf would have existed. How did people live? What weapons and methods were used in war? Why do you think this was a time of upheaval?
- Beasts and monsters have appeared in legends and literature throughout human existence. Is there any scientific basis for the idea of a monster? Trace the sources of such creatures as trolls, ogres, and dragons and try to determine how these monsters originated.
- Richard Wilbur wrote a short poem, retelling the epic of Beowulf from his own point of view. Choose a novel or movie that has made an impression on you. Write a poem in which you retell the story in your own way.
fore, it may be hard for the reader to distinguish whether a description is objective or colored by Beowulf’s feelings. For example, do the people really change their behavior after the monster is killed? The second stanza describes them as “strangely warm,” while the fifth stanza calls them “strangely cold.” Do they change, or is Beowulf himself changed by the experience? Do the people keep themselves apart from him, or does he just believe that they do? Wilbur does not tell us directly whether this version of events is realistic or is based on Beowulf or the speaker’s interpretation of events.
Likewise, the idea of childishness reflects the theme of appearances and reality. The speaker says that it is a “childish country.” This may mean that the people are childish in their fear of the monster. There may not even be a real monster; it may be only a symbol of the people’s fear of the dark, since it only attacks at night. In addition, the monster itself is described as a child, though a huge and mean child. When Beowulf destroys the child/monster, the country loses its childishness as well.
Wilbur is exploring a theme that goes beyond Beowulf’s story. He is asking how we can distinguish appearances from reality. He indicates that any story may be told from each observer’s or participant’s point of view, and the point of view will determine how the story is told.
Nature and Its Meaning
Wilbur uses nature imagery to reflect undercurrents in the events of the poem. The first stanza shows Beowulf’s first impression of the land. It is too perfect and has an unreal quality. The old Roman road seems untraveled, perhaps because no one comes to this country out of fear of the monster. The “attentive” flowers and “garrulous” grass reveal how the country needs Beowulf’s help. The oddness of the land is the result of the monster’s presence.
The nature imagery in the fifth stanza has a different purpose. Here it may be revealing the hero’s alienation or the shift in the country’s perception of the hero. While it still has an unreal quality, the landscape has changed. The day is “swiftly old,” and the flowers are “wrong.” The reader might expect that the natural world would show happiness, or relief, but instead it is a depressing place, unwelcoming.
“Beowulf” consists of seven six-line stanzas. Each stanza describes one part of the narrative, following chronological order. The tone is formal, in keeping with the account of a hero. However, Wilbur is not writing a story so much as a character study of Beowulf, or of all heroes. The most dramatic event—the battle with the monster—takes only two lines of the poem. The stanzas reveal the atmosphere of the hero’s experience, but they do not provide much detail about the actual adventures.
The rhyme scheme is the same for each stanza. Using the letters a, b, and c to denote the end rhyme of each line, the rhyme scheme is a, b, b, c, a, c. For example, in the last stanza the final words of each line are king, one, done, land, ring, and understand. This consistent pattern of rhyming helps create the formal effect of the poem. It also makes some language in the poem sound inevitable. For instance, in the fifth stanza the last line ends in “cold,” rhyming with the fourth line’s “old.”
The meter, or rhythm, of the poem is not quite as consistent as the rhyme scheme. A line of poetry can be divided into feet. Each foot has a pattern of light and heavy stresses, according to the way the words are read. In “Beowulf,” most of the lines are iambic pentameter; each foot has one light stress followed by a heavy stress, and there are five feet in each line. Line 17 is iambic pentameter: The_ he_ ro_, to_ his_ bat_ tle_ rec_ on_ ciled_. [NOTE: the scanning symbols follow the syllables they should be directly over.] However, other lines break out of this meter. Line 30, for example, has two almost-equal parts: “And the people were strange, the people strangely cold.” Here the rhythm is similar to the rhythm common in Old English poems, in which there is a pause in the middle of the line. The reader pauses between “strange” and “the.” Wilbur is paying tribute to the original poem in constructing some of the lines in this way.
One way to study Wilbur’s “Beowulf” is by comparing the poet’s time with that of the epic hero’s period. Wilbur published “Beowulf” in 1950, just a few years after the end of World War II. During the war, he served as an Army cryptographer and soldier. His infantry division fought in Europe, and Wilbur was in active combat in bloody campaigns for three years. It is interesting to note that he has written few poems directly about the war, although he has said that the experience of battle caused him to become serious about writing poetry.
Americans in 1950 wanted to put the war behind them. Many people had lived through World War I (1914–1918), the Great Depression (from 1929 into the late 1930s), and World War II (1939–1945). Many young couples, including Wilbur and his wife, were having families. America was victorious and prosperous, helping to finance the rebuilding of Europe and Japan after the war. However, tensions arose between the United States and the communist Soviet Union, the two dominant world powers, causing the Cold War, which lasted nearly fifty years.
The epic Beowulf takes place during a period in Europe known as the Migration Age. After the
Compare & Contrast
- Sixth Century A.D.: Throughout this period warrior bands and small kingdoms battle in northern Europe and Scandinavia. This is the time during which the legendary Beowulf would have lived.
1941–1945: American involvement in World War II begins after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in December, 1941. The U.S. military fights in Asia, North Africa, and Europe in an effort to defeat German and Japanese hegemony.
1950–1953: Americans fight along with other United Nations troops in the Korean War, a “hot” war resulting from the Cold War, which was caused by tensions between the United States and the communist nations, China and the Soviet Union.
1961–1973: More than three million Americans serve in Vietnam during the U.S. involvement in that country’s civil war. This war, also a result of the Cold War, creates bitter domestic conflict within the United States and ends in the defeat of American forces.
1991: U.S. forces lead a multinational military alliance in the Persian Gulf War against Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
- 1942: Richard Wilbur experiences some effects of the American government’s suspicion of anyone with leftist and communist sympathies. His training as a cryptographer is cut short when the FBI reports that he has “leftist views,” and his service record is stamped “Suspected of Disloyalty.” Despite this, Wilbur continues to serve in World War II as an army sergeant.
1950: Senator Joseph McCarthy announces that he has a list of names of highly-placed U.S. officials who are members of the Communist Party. For the next four years, McCarthy uses his power to accuse many leading citizens of being communists, effectively adding to an atmosphere of distrust and fear throughout the country.
1989: The Cold War comes to an end as countries in Eastern Europe renounce communism, the Berlin Wall is torn down, and the Soviet Union disintegrates.
Roman Empire fell, around 500 A.D., Germanic people of northern and central Europe moved south and west, creating new kingdoms. These migrating people included Germans, the Anglo-Saxons who settled in England, and Scandinavians, or residents of Sweden, Denmark, Norway, and Iceland. Since these Germanic groups were connected culturally, they held similar attitudes toward warfare and the ideal of the heroic figure. Thus Beowulf, although a Scandinavian hero, was recognized as heroic by the Anglo-Saxons as well. Based on historical persons who appear as characters in the epic poem, scholars have determined that the events took place in the sixth century A.D. While Beowulf himself is legendary, the world of warrior bands and small kingdoms throughout northern Europe that is the background of the poem is accurate.
A Modern Response to “Beowulf”
The epic Beowulf, written between the mid-seventh and the late tenth centuries A.D., tells of the adventures of a high-ranking warrior of the Geats, a tribe located in Sweden. Hearing of a kingdom in Denmark that is threatened by a monster, Beowulf sails across the sea to rescue the people. He fights and kills two monsters, then returns to the land of the Geats.
Wilbur’s response to the epic is to change the Anglo-Saxon attitude toward heroes into a world-weary postwar sensibility. While he retains the original setting, he incorporates modern feelings into his lyric retelling. The critic Bruce Michelson sees the dreaminess of the landscape and its inhabitants as “dreams which have turned toward nightmare”—a possible reference to events of World War II. According to critic Rodney Edge-combe, Wilbur takes the repetition of language that is common in epic poetry and conceives of it as the failure of language to capture inscrutable ideas. This view reflects the disorder and lack of harmony in modern life.
When Ceremony and Other Poems, the book in which “Beowulf” first appeared, was published, the critic Joseph Bennett called Wilbur the “strongest poetic talent” of his generation. He singled out “Beowulf,” calling it a “curious and disturbing vision which partakes of the nature of a poetic charm.” Others acknowledge Wilbur’s poetic workmanship; poet-critic Louise Bogan writes that he had proved himself a “subtle lyricist of the first order.” Writing in the New York Times Book Review, Ba-bette Deutsch notes his “musicianly skill.” In further analysis, she describes the poems as “alive with light,” yet “apt to close upon a somber chord, to admit an intrusive shadow.”
Without denying Wilbur’s ability, some critics feel he was too cautious in his writing. Randall Jarrell, reviewing the book in the Partisan Review, remarks that the “poems are all Scenes, none of them dramatic.” He states that Wilbur “never goes too far, but he never goes far enough.” This perception of Wilbur as a master of meter and rhyme who is too subdued in expressing the dark side of existence has persisted throughout his career.
However, more in-depth criticism over time has revealed fuller dimensions of Wilbur’s work. Critic Stephen Stepanchev, writing in 1965, explores the poet’s celebration of the “individual imagination, the power of mind that creates the world,” seeing it as Wilbur’s speculation on the nature of reality. Stepanchev also suggests that while this view of human as creator makes people appear “heroic,” Wilbur has the twentieth-century writer’s awareness of man’s “roles as killer and victim.” This tension, between ideal and actual, reality and dream, is very apparent in “Beowulf,” as critic Donald Hill explains in his 1967 study of Wilbur.
In the years since the publication of Ceremony and Other Poems, American poetry has undergone radical changes. Many poets began writing in free verse, moving away from traditional forms. It became more common to write on personal and political subjects. Since Wilbur seemed somewhat apart from this movement, few extended critical commentaries have been written on his work of late. In the 1980s and 1990s, however, Wendy Salinger, Bruce Michelson, and Rodney Edge-combe have reexamined Wilbur’s poetry, finding it more relevant to the turbulence of the times than earlier reviewers had realized. Michelson called him a “serious artist for an anxious century,” and claims his poetry “is many-faceted, personal, and intense in ways that have not been recognized.” As Deutsch comments, Wilbur’s apparent sunny view of the world has subtly realized shadows.
Mowery has a Ph.D. in literature and composition from Southern Illinois University. He has written many essays for Gale. In the following essay, he examines imagery and Wilbur’s use of Old English poetic techniques in the poem “Beowulf.”
In his poem “Ars poetica,” Archibald MacLeish said that “a poem should not mean but be.” Richard Wilbur believes that a poem is not a vehicle for communicating a message but that it is an object with “its own life” and “individual identity.” Wilbur’s poetry is often intellectually taxing, and he expects the reader to be involved in the poem, its imagery and substance. He does not intend to communicate a message, but rather to create an interesting piece of writing. He believes that art ought to “spring from the imagination” and create a “condition of spontaneous psychic unity.” That unity depends on the relationship of the inner parts of the poem, one to the other, and the involvement of the reader in the poem itself. He expects the reader to engage his or her intellect to understand and enjoy his poetry. As a result, a balance between the intellect and the imagination will be achieved, as in his poem “Beowulf.”
Wilbur’s way of maintaining the reader’s involvement in the poem is by creating intense images out of routine images. For example, in the second line of “Beowulf,” the routine images of flowers and grass are intensified by association with incongruous words. The flowers are “attentive”; the grass is “garrulous green.” By personifying (giving human traits to a non-human object) these plants, he has created more intense images of flowers standing tall, seemingly listening for some sound, and then the talkative green grass supplying that sound. Additionally, the combination of these two new images creates one of a meadow (the scenery) with all its parts interacting with each other, fulfilling the image of the first line “overmuch like scenery.” Here is a place of more than just vegetation in a landscape.
The lark image in the first stanza is only a reflection in the lake. The lake retains the reflection of the lark as though it were a tangible object that could be held and released at will. At the second lark image, the lake now gives up the reflection. But the lark’s call goes unheard, the flowers are “wrong,” the day was “swiftly old,” and “the night put out no smiles.” These now create an atmosphere of desolation and emptiness. The contrast between these two scenes is important: the first with its hopefulness and the second with its silence and foreboding.
This approach is like that of the imagist poets: Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, and others. These poets reduced the number of words in their poems to a minimum and intensified the meanings by artful juxtaposition. An important aspect of the imagist approach to poetry is the creation of a concrete image that “presents an intellectual and emotional complex at one moment in time,” according to the editors of Modernism in Literature. An example of this is Ezra Pound’s poem “In the Station of the Metro.” The entire poem reads:
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet black bough.
The immediate imagery is straightforward, but after a moment of reflection, these images combine in the mind of the reader to create a more intense one of people crowded into the subway station melding with the image of petals on a wet tree branch. The final purpose of the poem is the amalgamation of the two disparate images into one. Though Wilbur’s poem is not an imagist poem, there are many similar aspects present in it.
Admittedly, some of the poetry of the imagists is difficult to fathom, but this is not the case with Wilbur’s work. He does not give up the basic notion that poetry should be intellectually taxing, but he also feels that it should not be obscure. In the specific case of this poem, apparent obscurity may be the result of unfamiliarity with the original Beowulf, but such knowledge is not required to appreciate the story Wilbur is telling. It is his task to retell the tale in his own manner with enough detail to make it a complete story. It must conform to Wilbur’s belief that a poem should be an “individual
“...the ‘strictness of form’ in a poem is its strength and its advantage…. the ‘strength of the genie comes of his being confined in a bottle.’”
entity,” even though it is far shorter than the original epic. Additionally, for the poem to succeed it must engage “the strict attention of the serious reader” say the editors of American Tradition in Literature.
Wilbur believed that the “strictness of form” in a poem is its strength and its advantage. He said that the “strength of the genie comes of his being confined in a bottle.” As a result, what seems like a constriction becomes a strength. For this poem, he has selected the formal structure of seven six-line stanzas divided into two parts of four and three stanzas each. It uses the unique rhyme scheme: abbcac. The original Beowulf is a long poem (at least 3,182 lines exist and many more were likely lost over time) and for Wilbur to retell it might have taken many more stanzas. But he chose to limit it to just seven, requiring him to condense every part of the tale to fit his poetic form. The process of reduction and condensing, in combination with (what the editors of the Anthology of American Literature call) “the freshness of his imagery,” created the intensely brief poem.
Beowulf is found in only one manuscript, which was probably written down in the tenth century. It is one of the best examples of Old English poetry extant. (Old English, the linguistic forebear of modern English, is derived from older forms of German and northern European languages from the middle of the first millennium.) These kinds of poems were recited or sung in public by a poet, called a scop. Many were tales of gallantry in battles (The Battle of Maldon), the lives of kings, religious poems (The Dream of the Rood), and tales of mythical beings. Beowulf is a combination of both historical kings and the mythical beasts that Beowulf fought to save the kings from annihilation.
What Do I Read Next?
- Richard Wilbur has translated poems and plays from the French, Russian, Spanish, and Italian. His translations of Old English include parts of the epic Beowulf. One Russian poet whose work Wilbur has translated into English is Joseph Brodsky, and Brodsky, in turn, has translated Wilbur’s work into Russian. These two poets are similar in their use of rhyme and meter—aspects of poetry that are difficult to translate. Wilbur’s translation of Brodsky’s “The Funeral of Bob” appears in both New and Collected Poems and Brodsky’s A Part of Speech.
- Robert Frost (1874–1963) was a major influence on Wilbur. Like Wilbur, Frost was from a New England family and drew inspiration from that area of the country. The poets share an attention to detail in nature and the use of formal rhyme and meter. Frost has many books; one to start with is his Selected Poems.
- Another poet who has retold a well-known narrative in a shorter poem is Denise Levertov (1923–1998), whose “A Tree Telling of Orpheus” describes a scene from the ancient Greek myth. Orpheus played such enchanting music on his lyre that, according to the legend, trees pulled up their roots in order to follow him and listen. In this poem, one of the trees tells what happened. “A Tree Telling of Orpheus” appears in Levertov’s Relearning the Alphabet, first published by New Directions in 1966.
- Wilbur also wrote books for children, including Opposites: Poems and Drawings, which he illustrated himself. These riddle-like poems, based on a wordplay game he played with his children when they were young, are in the form of question and response, such as: “What’s the opposite of two? A lonely me, a lonely you.” Wilbur went on to write More Opposites and Runaway Opposites, which has collage illustrations by Henrik Drescher.
- As a young man teaching at Harvard after World War II, Richard Wilbur knew many of the prominent poets of his generation. Among his contemporaries, Wilbur says it was Elizabeth Bishop who most influenced him—by teaching him “the joy of putting a poem together.” The critic M. L. Rosenthal notes the shared qualities of Wilbur and Bishop, describing their poems as having “elegance, grace, precision, quiet intensity of phrasing.” Bishop’s poetry is widely anthologized, but all her work can be found in The Complete Poems, 1927–1979.
Wilbur, a scholar of the ancient poets, adopted two important Old English poetic techniques for his poem of 1950. These are: the scansion or line structure of the poem and the alliterative nature of the poems. The scansion (metrical analysis) of the Old English poems consists of a two-part line, with each part having at least two stressed syllables. This can be seen in the following example from the epic Beowulf. The first lines (in Old English) are:
Hwæt, we gardena in geardagum,
theodcyninga thrym gefrunon.
The metrical notation for these lines is:/_ _ /_ /_ /_
/_ /_ _ /_ /_
The important aspects to note are the break in the middle of each line, called ceasura, and the two stressed syllables in each half line.
The poems of the time did not use rhyming sounds at the ends of lines. Instead, the Old English poems used alliteration (the repetition of consonant sounds) within the lines as the unifying “rhyming” formula. In the first line, the important sound is “g”; in the second line, the important sound is “th” (which is the “th” sound in Modern English). In both cases, this sound occurs at least once in each half line. A more striking use of this alliterative scheme occurs in line four of Beowulf, in which case the repeated sound is “s.”
Oft Scyld Scefing sceathena threatum.
The use of alliteration by more modern poets is not a new occurrence. One of the most beautifully alliterative lines in American poetry comes at the end of the first stanza of the poem “To Helen” by Edgar Allan Poe:
The weary, way-worn wanderer bore
To his own native shore.
The special beauty of this line is that it combines both alliteration (the letter “w”) and assonance (the repetition of a vowel sound, in this case the letter “o”).
Wilbur’s poetic vision for his poem did not stop at the modern schemes available to him. He has used these Old English techniques, adding their ancient strengths to his own poetic creativeness to write this poem. Each line is readily divisible into two parts, and each of those parts contains two stressed syllables. Additionally, most of the half lines have an alliterative relationship with the other half line. In some there are two sounds repeated, as in line one of stanza two: “Also the people were strange, were strangely warm.” The repeated letters are “s” and “w.”
The final measure of the success of a poem, according to Wilbur, is its sound. Just as the epic Beowulf was meant for public recitation, so too is the poem “Beowulf” intended to be read aloud. His “concern for structure coincides with his evident response to sensory impressions,” according to the editors of American Tradition in Literature. He intended for the meaning of the poem to be carried “by the sound,” as the reader is able to add dramatic emphasis to the poem. To feel the full beauty of the example by Poe, it must be spoken aloud. The process of saying these words will give the speaker an added enjoyment, too. For the listener to an Old English poem, the sound creates the atmosphere of the ancient scop. Wilbur’s combination of the old alliteration and the new rhyme scheme creates a special set of sounds capturing the atmosphere of the old poem and pattern of the modern poem. As a result, the aural experience adds to the understanding of the poem.
Richard Wilbur said, “I like it when the ideas of a poem seem to be necessary aspects of the things or actions which it presents.” For him, a poem is not just a series of techniques and words that create clever imagery. It is a total experience that combines all aspects of the poem into one moment. He once said that a poem is an effort to express knowledge and to discover patterns in the world. By reversing this process and joining two established patterns, not only has he created a new one, but he has found a new way to stretch the imagination and intellectual engagement of his readers.
Source: Carl Mowery, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale Group, 2001.
Tyrus Miller is an assistant professor of comparative literature and English at Yale University, where he teaches twentieth-century literature and visual culture. His book Late Modernism: Politics, Fiction, and the Arts Between the World Wars is forthcoming. In the following essay, Miller examines how Wilbur echoes the strangeness and enigmatic nature of his poem’s predecessor.
Richard Wilbur’s “Beowulf” provides an ironically truncated and lyrically simplified version of the Old English epic poem of the same name, which may date from eighth-century England. The original Old English poem, one of the most extended and powerful works of Anglo-Saxon to have survived, has several unresolved puzzles about it that lend it an air of mystery and strangeness. Its archaic and poetically stylized language, its origin in oral tradition predating its transcription, the loss of parts of its manuscript to fire in the eighteenth century, the reference of the poem to a still earlier time than that of the poet, its complex set of peoples and tribes, its supernatural figures of monsters and dragons, and its peculiar mixture of pagan rituals and Christian beliefs all contribute to the foreignness of this major early work of the English poetic tradition. Wilbur, indeed, finds in the original Beowulf a paradoxical quality. It is monumental and inescapably present for the poet as part of his literary legacy, and yet it is something he can only feebly understand. It stands like a heap of stones on a hillside or the stone blocks carved with serpentine patterns that can be found in the English, Irish, and Scandinavian countryside: testimony to an archaic past to which the present is connected, yet a testimony spoken in a language nearly incomprehensible to modern eyes and ears.
In Wilbur’s version of “Beowulf,” the character of Beowulf is viewed as possessing some of the same qualities of strangeness that the poem Beowulf has in the English literary tradition. Wilbur alludes to the fact that the character Beowulf, as a warrior coming from the Geats, is a stranger to the people with whom the poem is primarily concerned, the Danes. Furthermore, he is also a foreigner to the Beowulf poet, who may have been
“For far from revealing an original intimacy with its heroic center, Wilbur suggests, the Anglo-Saxon poem also communicates strangeness, distance, and failure to comprehend its hero.”
from Mercia, in what is now the Midlands of England. Beowulf travels from abroad, coming unexpectedly to the Danes to fight the monster Grendel, who has invaded their lands and terrorized them, brutally killing off many of King Hrothgar’s best warriors and weakening his kingdom. Beowulf succeeds in killing Grendel and the monster’s vengeful mother as well. In later years, he kills a dragon and seizes its treasure for his people but is mortally wounded in the attempt. He is buried in a lavish funeral ceremony along with the treasure for which he died.
Wilbur emphasizes the inscrutable nature of Beowulf’s motivations for taking on these deadly challenges. One day the stranger shows up from beyond the sea, boasting that he can kill the monster that no one has been able to touch for years. He performs the deed, gains the praise and glory of the Danes, and goes home. For Wilbur, this inscrutability of Beowulf as a character is matched by the enigma of the poem that bears his name. An Old English poem about ancient Germanic societies, it arrives in the English tradition like a stranger without a name. As modern readers, we know only external details: those partial and fragmentary clues to its meaning given to us by archeological study, other poems in the Anglo-Saxon language, and the few elements of the archaic traditions passed down to later times. We are forced to strain our minds to imagine what it might mean. Like the Danes who have heard of the warrior but to whom the man Beowulf was and remained a stranger, we can only say that we know “of” and “about” the poem “Beowulf,” but cannot say that we really know and understand it. In the end, our attempts to read and interpret “Beowulf” are akin to the funeral rituals of Beowulf’s people after he has killed the dragon and been killed by it. Reading it, marking its place in the literary tradition, and writing poems based on it as Wilbur has done, one does honor to something that is nevertheless understood only to a limited extent.
Rather than representing the setting and story of “Beowulf” in a realistic mode, Wilbur underscores the artifice with which the poet crafted his tale by projecting a stiff and stylized aspect onto the scene itself: “The land was overmuch like scenery, / The flowers attentive, the grass too garrulous green; / In the lake like a dropped kerchief could be seen / The lark’s reflection after the lark was gone.” This landscape has been rendered artificially still, like a painting; even the reflection is not subject to change, but endures after the reflected object is gone. Similarly, the “road” in the fifth and sixth lines is hardly a real place where vehicles, animals, and people are moving. It is more like a glossy strip of paint receding into a painted backdrop: “The Roman road lay paved too shiningly / For a road so many men had traveled on.” Similarly, in the next stanza, Wilbur self-consciously comments on a quality of the poetic language of the Old English epic: “And they said the same things again and again.” Like the Greek classical poets coming out of an oral tradition, Anglo-Saxon poets depended on stock formula and epithets, generic scenes and ritual enumeration of genealogies and of objects, around which the poet would improvise and embroider new variations. As one of the oldest poems of the Anglo-Saxon tradition, Beowulf is strongly marked by the ritualized, formulaic nature of its poetic diction. It says “the same things again and again.”
Moreover, it is characterized by another form of repetition typical of Anglo-Saxon poet, in its use of alliterations within the basic four-stress line. Usually, three out of four of the stressed words in a line would begin with the same consonant sound. Wilbur formally alludes to this metrical practice in such lines as the fourth, which alliterates the “g” sound (“The flowers attentive, the grass too garrulous green”); the thirteenth, with its repeated “c” (“It was a childish country; and a child”); the thirty-first, with its insistent “h” (“They gave him horse and harness, helmet and mail”); and the thirty-seventh, which introduces a variant with the hard “c” paired to two “k” sounds (“He died in his own country a kinless king”). In this way, he signals that his poem represents less a narration of a real scene than a revisiting of a fictional site made up of words: the foreign Anglo-Saxon words of the anonymous Beowulf poet.
Wilbur touches very cursorily on the most exciting plot event of the source poem, Beowulf’s unarmed battle with and slaying of the bloody monster Grendel. Speaking of Grendel, he writes, “It was a childish country; and a child, / Grown monstrous, so besieged them in the night / That all their daytimes were a dream of fright / That it would come and own them to the bone.” Wilbur treats the monster as if it were the anthropological equivalent of a childhood phobia, which in turn implies that the triumphant hero Beowulf is likewise less a real person than an imaginative expedient invented by the collective mind to keep such fears at bay. “The hero,” Wilbur continues, “to his battle reconciled, / Promised to meet that monster all alone.” Through the fictive invention of their poets, who have imaginatively brought the heroic stranger to their shores to save them, the people can leave the task of fighting monsters to the hero himself, who will face Grendel alone. Wilbur thus suggests the ways in which the poet’s inventions are necessary to the people, yet serve their purpose precisely insofar as they remain different from everyday life, insofar as they remain irreducibly strange to those for whom they render fictive aid.
The battle with Grendel is similarly distanced. The long and grim struggle of the hero with the monster, which ends with Beowulf’s tearing off Grendel’s arm at the shoulder and displaying it to the relieved Danes, is passed over in a single sentence, followed by a strange calm: “They heard the rafters rattle fit to fall, / The child departing with a broken groan, / And found their champion in a rest so deep / His head lay harder sealed than any stone.” It is as if the mighty Beowulf, having fulfilled his sole task of banishing the childish fear that had been materialized as a monster, has become a mere statue of himself, “the hero” carved in granite.
The fifth stanza reprises the setting of the first, even repeating the opening line: “The land was overmuch like scenery.” Yet if in the opening stanza, the landscape appeared artificially luminous and still, in this later stanza, the hero’s victory over Grendel seems to have drained any life from the scene. “The lake gave up the lark, but now its song / Fell to no ear, the flowers too were wrong,” Wilbur writes. “The day was fresh and pale and swiftly old /... / And the people were strange, the people strangely cold.” Having performed his single task, the hero departs, loaded with the gifts granted a warrior and the glory of his deeds. But Wilbur suggests that the hero is doomed to the tragic repetition of his entry and departure as a stranger. He takes the spoils and sets sail, but as the last line of the sixth stanza reveals, he laments even in his triumph: “These things he stowed beneath his parting sail, / And wept that he could share them with no son.”
The last stanza draws together the enigma of Beowulf as a hero and Beowulf as a paradoxical starting-point of the English poetic tradition. Having fought against the dragon and been mortally wounded in this last great deed, Wilbur writes, Beowulf “died in his own country a kinless king, / A name heavy with deeds.” Yet even in death he has remained a stranger to his people, his tragic self-sacrifice and confrontation of threatening monsters being only partially comprehensible to those under his protection. Wilbur alludes in his last lines to the enigmatic ending of the Old English poem, in which the fallen Beowulf is buried with the dragon’s treasure that he lost in life in capturing: “They buried him next the sea on a thrust of land: / Twelve men rode round his barrow all in a ring, / Singing of him what they could understand.” The final line, which connects Beowulf’s death to poetry and song, suggests that where the mystery of the hero Beowulf left off, the poem “Beowulf” began.
The Anglo-Saxon Beowulf, Wilbur is suggesting, pays homage to and immortalizes that limited fraction of the man that the community could understand, making more familiar what had been irreducibly strange and archaic about him. Wilbur’s own poem entitled “Beowulf,” however, stands in a similarly fragmentary, summary, and reductive relation to the mysteries of understanding posed by the long Anglo-Saxon poem. Condensing into forty-two lines the hundreds of lines of the original poem, Wilbur signals his own relation to this “stranger” of the tradition; within the restricted ambit of his ability to grasp Beowulf, he too is “singing of him.” In a final irony, however, his last lines suggest that, despite all the centuries that have passed, he is entirely in tune with the tradition, even at its earliest moment. For far from revealing an original intimacy with its heroic center, Wilbur suggests, the Anglo-Saxon poem also communicates strangeness, distance, and failure to comprehend its hero. It is from this strangeness and failure that poetry takes its point of departure. Once again experiencing the impossibility of grasping “Beowulf,” both the poetic hero and the enigmatic poem that bears his name, Wilbur affirms his repetition of the Anglo-Saxon’s predicament as he makes anew the earlier poet’s troubled “song.”
Source: Tyrus Miller, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale Group, 2001.
Bender, Todd K., et al., Modernism in Literature, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1977, p. 246.
Bennett, Joseph, Hudson Review 4, Spring 1951, pp. 131–145.
Bly, Robert, ed., The Best American Poetry 1999, Scribner, 1999, p. 213.
Bogan, Louise, Achievement in American Poetry 1900–1950, Henry Regnery, 1951.
Bradley, Sculley, Richmond Croom Beatty, and E. Hudson Long, eds., American Tradition in Literature, W. W. Norton and Co., Inc., 1967, pp. 1659–1660.
Crossley-Holland, Kevin and Bruce Mitchell, Beowulf, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1968.
Deutsch, Babette, New York Times Book Review, February 11, 1951, p. 12.
Edgecombe, Rodney Stenning, A Reader’s Guide to the Poetry of Richard Wilbur, University of Alabama Press, 1995.
Evans, Harold, The American Century, Alfred A. Knopf, 1998.
Hill, Donald, Richard Wilbur, Twayne Publishers, 1967.
Hollander, John, ed., The Best American Poetry 1998, Scribner, 1998, p. 324.
Jarrell, Randall, The Third Book of Criticism Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1965.
McMichael, George, ed., Anthology of American Literature, Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., 1974, p. 1678.
Michelson, Bruce, Wilbur’s Poetry: Music in a Scattering Time, University of Massachusetts Press, 1991.
Rosenthal, M. L., The Modern Poets, Oxford University Press, 1960.
Sacks, Peter, “Richard Wilbur,” in American Writers, edited by Lea Baechler and A. Walton Litz, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1991.
Salinger, Wendy, ed., Richard Wilbur’s Creation, University of Michigan Press, 1983.
Stepanchev, Stephen, American Poetry Since 1945, Harper & Row, 1965.
Stern, Carol Simpson, “Richard Wilbur,” in Contemporary Poets, edited by Tracy Chevalier, St. James Press, 1991.
Swanton, Michael, Beowulf, Manchester University Press, 1997.
Wilbur, Richard, New and Collected Poems, Harcourt Brace Jovanich, 1988.
Butts, William, ed., Conversations with Richard Wilbur, University Press of Mississippi, 1990.
In these nineteen interviews and conversations with Richard Wilbur, ranging from 1962 to 1988, the reader has the opportunity to hear Wilbur’s “disarm-ingly open” voice and his views on poetry. A chronology of the poet’s life and Butts’ introduction trace changes in Wilbur’s poetry over his long career.
Edgecombe, Rodney Stenning, A Reader’s Guide to the Poetry of Richard Wilbur, University of Alabama Press, 1995.
This book is meant to be perused with a copy of Wilbur’s New and Collected Poems at hand. Edge-combe discusses each poem in this collection, and gives his comments on Wilbur’s recurring themes over his years of writing.
Heaney, Seamus, Beowulf, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2000.
The Noble Laureate Seamus Heaney translates the original epic, using the four-stress line and heavy alliteration common to Anglo-Saxon poetry, in this Whitbread Prize-winning book. In The New York Times Book Review, James Shapiro writes that “generations of readers will be grateful” for Heaney’s accomplishment in translating this poem.
Salinger, Wendy, ed., Richard Wilbur’s Creation, University of Michigan Press, 1983.
Salinger explores the critical reaction to Wilbur’s work throughout the changing literary views in the post-World War II years. While in the introduction Salinger makes clear her own bias in favor of Wilbur’s genius, she provides a balanced selection of reviews and essays by critics, incorporating dissenting voices along with more sympathetic ones.
Wilbur, Richard, New and Collected Poems, Harcourt Brace Jovanich, 1988.
This volume contains all seven of Wilbur’s books of poetry published before 1988, including Ceremony and Other Poems, in which “Beowulf” first appeared. In addition, this book contains the text of the cantata “On Freedom’s Ground,” which Wilbur wrote in honor of the centennial of the Statue of Liberty and which was performed in New York City in 1986.
as translated by Seamus Heaney
THE LITERARY WORK
A poem in Old English, set in sixth-century Scandinavia; its date of composition is unknown; the surviving manuscript was written in the early eleventh century; first published in 1815.
The Scandinavian hero, Beowulf, battles monsters, wins a throne, and, while he lives, holds his people’s enemies at bay.
Little is known about the circumstances of the composition of Beowulf: not only is the author unknown, but scholars are in wide disagreement about when the poem was written. Until a generation ago the prevailing opinion was that a date somewhere in the eighth century was likely, but dates in the range of the seventh to the tenth centuries have been proposed. This makes any detailed investigation of the author’s cultural and literary background problematic. However, much more is known about the unique surviving copy of Beowulf; while the poem is concerned with events in pagan Scandinavian history and legend, it survives in a manuscript of English origin, written in the early eleventh century. These facts could argue for either an early or late date of composition; England in the early eleventh century was ruled by the Danish king Cnut, which, if the early-eleventh-century date of authorship is accepted, could help to explain the poem’s distinctly pro-Danish quality. But the Danish subject matter also fits with an eighth-century date, when relations between the English and the Danes were cordial, due primarily to their shared linguistic and cultural past, and active trade. There was at this time a sense of kinship among the Germanic peoples; the Angles and Saxons (who became the English), the Danes, and the Swedes spoke closely related languages, had a shared awareness of racial history, and, before their conversions to Christianity, worshiped essentially the same gods. In the ninth and tenth centuries, however, England was repeatedly subject to violent incursions by Scandinavian raiders (the Vikings), which has led some scholars to argue against dating the poem from that era. Despite the uncertainty about when the poem was composed, and the anonymity of the author, one can speculate with some confidence about his religious and cultural background. Most scholars agree that the poet was Christian, possibly even a churchman, but nevertheless inclined to sympathize with the pagan, heroic past of his Germanic forefathers.
Settlement, feud, and transition: the Germanic peoples
Beowulf narrates datable historical events (such as the Geatish king Hygelac’s raid into Frisia) that place its action firmly in the early sixth century. This was an age of settlement, feud, and transition for the Germanic peoples. The Roman Empire had fallen to Germanic invaders in the relatively recent past (the traditional date is 476), but had been moribund for many years before its final dissolution. Its deterioration created something of a power vacuum, which allowed the various Germanic peoples to move into areas formerly under Roman sovereignty. Franks, Goths, Danes, Frisians, Angles, and many other groups struggled for dominance in a Europe newly vulnerable to conquest. Opportunities for wealth—whether by trade or plunder—were great, leading to the intensification of traditional rivalries among these people, and the emergence of new ones. Complicating this scenario was the longstanding practice of the blood-feud, which dictated that an injury done to one’s family required compensation, either in blood or money. Time made no difference; ancient grudges could flare into open warfare at a moment’s notice, and the subsequent bloodshed prepared the way for new feuds. This never-ending cycle of violence is portrayed in great detail in Beowulf.
Myth or history?
The modern distinction between historical truth and the fictions of myth and imaginative literature does not necessarily apply to works like Beowulf. For the Germanic peoples of the early Middle Ages, their history and legends were inseparable, and possessed similar qualities of truth, in that they provided a sense of national origin and identity. It was for them less important to place their foundational myths in a specific time and place than it was to show how these stories contributed to their notion of collective worth and significance. The events of Beowulf take place in history, but also in the mythic past, where magic, legendary characters, and founders of nations all operate together in a time that is simply long ago—or “once upon a time,” in the classic language of folklore. The royal genealogies of the Germanic peoples usually include both pagan gods and figures from biblical history; for example, the Langfethgatal, a twelfth-century listing of Denmark’s kings, includes legendary and semi-legendary figures—among them, Japheth (a son of Noah), a number of Greek gods and heroes, and the chief Germanic god, Odin (Garmonsway and Simpson, pp. 119-20). Historical works of this age usually begin with the creation of the world; this is not simply in order to begin at the beginning, but to situate recent events within a larger context that emphasizes issues of origin and destiny. Beowulf begins with an account of the founding of the Danish royal line by Scyld Scefing, a quasi-legendary figure; such mythic origins strengthen the dynastic legitimacy of Hrothgar. Likewise, the classic figure of Germanic myth, Wayland the Smith, is mentioned in Beowulf not because he is important in any historical sense, but because he was an armorer and sword-maker of magical skill, and linking his name to the weapons in the poem gives them a transcendent antiquity that they would not otherwise possess. The poet is not attempting to portray realistic, historical characters of the past any more than Virgil tries to paint a historically accurate picture of the Bronze Age in the Aeneid, or Shakespeare classical Rome in Julius Caesar. The historical setting of Beowulf is, more than anything else, a venue for heroic action. What is important about this time for the poet is the presence of legendary figures from the ancient past, a past in which heroes could still perform superhuman feats, where monsters still walked the earth, and Christianity had not yet come to lighten the bleak spirit of the Germanic peoples.
Beowulf proceeds nonlinearly: the central story of Beowulf and his battles with monsters is told from beginning to end, but at many points a future event is anticipated or a past event recounted (like the “flashback” technique in cinema). The chronologically displaced narrative then serves as a commentary on the present action. Moreover, while the story of Beowulf and his heroism is the core of the poem, the tale contains multiple—often lengthy—digressions, involving kings, warriors, and battles whose relation to the basic story is often only symbolic. For example, a brief account is given of the wicked Danish king Heremod, not because he plays a part in Beowulf’s tale, but because of the contrast he provides to the poem’s exemplary kings Hrothgar, and, later, Beowulf himself.
The poem begins with the funeral of Scyld (“Shield”) Scefing, great-grandfather of Hrothgar and founder of the Danish dynasty. Hrothgar’s own rule is so successful that he decides to build a “great mead hall / meant to be a wonder of the world forever” (Beowulf, lines 69-70), and so Heorot is built—a great hall befitting the glory of an illustrious king.
With the account of its construction, however, comes a prophecy of its ultimate fate: “The hall towered, / its gables wide and awaiting / a barbarous burning” in a war between the Danes and Hrothgar’s son-in-law (Beowulf, lines 81-83). Its present danger, though, is in the form of a “grim demon” named Grendel, who has been disturbed by the sounds of singing and merriment emanating from it (Beowulf, line 100). “[H]aunting the marches, marauding round the heath / and the desolate fens,” this monstrous outcast descends from Cain, the first murderer (Beowulf, lines 102-104). Infuriated by the sounds of human happiness, he breaks into Heorot one night: “greedy and grim, he grabbed thirty men / … and rushed to his lair / … blundering back with the butchered corpses” (Beowulf 122-25). The Danes consider various plans, and even sacrifice to their pagan gods, to the narrator’s evident displeasure. Their efforts are in vain. The attacks continue every night for 12 years.
All were endangered; young and old
were hunted down by that dark death-shadow
who lurked and swooped in the long nights
on the misty moors.…
Across the sea, in the homeland of the Geats (probably on the southern end of modern-day Sweden), a great warrior in the retinue of King Hygelac hears of the slaughter and decides to help. Beowulf assembles a group of 15 men, and
The description of Heorot in Beowulf was probably meant to mirror the great buildings or “halls” of the Anglo-Saxon age, although exaggerated and idealized to a considerable degree. Archaeologists have found evidence of no structure from the Anglo-Saxon age as grand and richly decorated as Heorot, but large royal halls did exist. One such hall was the palace of King Edwin of Northumbria, who ruled in the north of England in the early seventh century. It was more than 100 feet long, and, like Heorot, stood among smaller outlying buildings that probably served as sleeping quarters for the royal family and noble guests. Less distinguished guests and retainers slept in the central hall itself, on raised platforms set against the walls. Built of timber, these halls were carefully decorated; the poem’s reference to a “patterned floor” perhaps looks back to the intricate mosaic floors of the Roman villas common in England centuries before (Beowulf, line 725). The great central room served as throne-room (Anglo-Saxon thrones were also made of wood), a meeting place, and a dining room for celebrations. Thus, the large hall in which Hrothgar feasts is the same room in which the warriors sleep at night, and in which Grendel conducts his slaughter.
they sail to Denmark. Beowulf’s offer of assistance is accepted, and that evening there is a feast in his honor. Night falls, and the Geats await Grendel. Beowulf puts aside his sword and removes his armor, declaring that he will fight the monster unarmed. Suddenly Grendel bursts in: seizing a man, the monster “bolted down his blood / and gorged on him lumps” (Beowulf, lines 741-42). Grendel then encounters Beowulf. After a mighty struggle that rocks Heorot, Beowulf rips off the monster’s arm. Grendel flees to his lair at the bottom of the lake, where he drowns.
The next day everyone rejoices, and Beowulf hangs up Grendel’s arm in the hall. A court minstrel praises Beowulf, and sings an old song of the legendary Sigemund and his battle with a dragon. He also mentions Heremod, a Danish king of a dynasty prior to Hrothgar’s, who was cruel and greedy, and brought death to his people. Hrothgar orders Heorot to be newly decorated, and a great feast is given. At the feast, a minstrel sings about the events at Finnsburh, a famous incident from the Danes’ past.
THE FINNSBURH FRAGMENT
The account of this incident in Beowulf is somewhat sketchy (probably because it was so well-known), but the missing historical details are supplied by a short Old English poem known as “The Finnsburh Fragment.” In 452, the Danish lord Hnaef, whose sister Hildeburh is married to the Frisian king Finn, pays a seemingly friendly visit to Frisia. (The marriage, an attempt to make peace between two hostile peoples, is resoundingly unsuccessful.) As Hnaef and his men sleep, they are attacked by Finn and his men. Hnaef is killed, but the Frisians suffer such heavy losses that a stalemate ensues. Hengest, a loyal follower of Hnaef, takes charge of the remaining Danish forces. Finn offers Hengest a truce: the Danes accept him as their lord, and the Frisians, in turn, will treat the Danes as fellow countrymen. Furthermore, the Frisians will not seek revenge for the losses they have suffered. The truce does not hold, and the Danes avenge their losses. This episode may allude to the future struggles between the Danes and the Heathobards (whose enmity will also involve a failed diplomatic marriage). It may likewise foreshadow the Geatish king Hygelac’s ill-advised raid into Frisia, in which he will be killed.
Wealhtheow, Hrothgar’s wife and queen of the Danes, mentions to her husband that she is aware of his inclination to adopt Beowulf as his son. She gently advises against this, and points out that he already has a son and heir in Hrethric. She then presents Beowulf with a valuable gold collar, which the narrator tells us will be worn by Hygelac on his fatal raid into Frisia. The entertainment over, everyone retires for the night. Beowulf does not sleep in the main hall, but in another building.
Later that evening, Grendel’s “grief-racked and ravenous” mother breaks into Heorot, retrieves Grendel’s arm, and carries off Aeschere, Hrothgar’s beloved friend (Beowulf, line 1278). Beowulf promises to avenge Aeschere’s death. A party of Danes and Geats ride to the lake where the creature lives: “the overhanging bank / is a maze of tree-roots mirrored in its surface. / At night there, something uncanny happens: / the water burns” (Beowulf, lines 1363-66). Along the way, they find Aeschere’s head. This time Beowulf arms himself fully, putting on a helmet and chain mail, and borrowing an ancient and noble sword. Beowulf dives into the serpent-infested depths, and swims downward for most of the day before meeting Grendel’s mother. She seizes him, and only his chain mail prevents her from clawing him to death. Dragged down to her underwater dwelling, Beowulf finds himself in a fire-lit hall. He draws his sword, and swings at her to no avail; the sword cannot harm her. She tries to stab him, but is again foiled by his armor. He sees among her treasures a marvelous sword. He “took a firm hold of the hilt and swung / the blade in an arc, a resolute blow / that bit deep into her neck-bone / and severed it entirely” (Beowulf, lines 1564-67). Finding Grendel’s body nearby, he cuts off his head, whereupon the blade of the sword melts away. He swims to the surface, taking with him the hilt of the sword and Grendel’s head. At the shore only the Geats remain; the Danes have all returned home in despair. On the journey back to Heorot the head of Grendel is borne on a spear-point, a burden requiring the strength of four men.
Once back at Heorot, Beowulf presents Hrothgar with the sword hilt. The king, realizing that Beowulf will probably one day rule the Geats, gives him advice on the proper conduct of a ruler. Be good and generous to your people, he urges, and warns Beowulf against the pride and greed that consumed Heremod:
O flower of warriors, beware of that trap.
Choose, dear Beowulf, the better part,
eternal rewards. Do not give way to pride.
For brief while your strength is in bloom
but it fades quickly; and soon there will follow
illness or the sword to lay you low.…
(Beowulf, lines 1758-63)
Beowulf receives many valuable gifts, then departs with the Geats amid a flurry of mutual promises to render aid as needed in the future.
Upon his return to Geatland, Beowulf gives King Hygelac the treasure he received from Hrothgar, and recounts his adventures. He makes a prophecy, taking up a thread dropped earlier in the narrator’s account of the building of Heorot. Hrothgar will give his daughter Freawaru in marriage to the Heathobard prince Ingeld. This attempt at making peace between the Danes and Heathobards, who are longtime enemies, will fail, and Denmark will be engulfed in war. Hygelac rewards Beowulf handsomely for his bravery. The queenly graces of his wife, Hygd, are noted, and compared to the wickedness of the infamous Queen Modthrytho, who was made to behave properly only by being married to the great King Offa.
The narrative now begins to cover a great deal of time very quickly. The fates of Hygelac and his son Heardred are briefly alluded to—Hygelac is killed while raiding Frisia, and Heardred is killed by the Swedish king Onela, an act that constitutes just one event in the long and bloody feud between Geats and Swedes. After Heardred’s death Beowulf assumes the kingship, and rules ably for 50 years, during which time it is only though his overwhelming prowess that the Geats avoid being decimated by the Swedes. The story of the long feud between the Swedish and Geatish kingdoms is told in fragments (and not in chronological order) throughout the final third of the poem. The following paragraph is a summary of the story’s main points.
Haethcyn, son of the Geatish king Hrethel, accidentally kills his elder brother Herebeald. King Hrethel dies of grief, and Haethcyn becomes monarch. The Swedes now view the Geats as vulnerable, a people with a new and untried ruler. Othere and Onela, sons of the Swedish king Ongentheow, attack the Geats. King Haethcyn and his younger brother, Hygelac, retaliate by attacking Ongentheow in Sweden. Haethcyn, Ongentheow, and Othere are killed, whereupon Onela becomes king of the Swedes. Meanwhile, Hygelac ascends to the Geatish throne and rashly invades Frisia. He is killed, but Beowulf (who had accompanied him) escapes. Hygelac’s widow, Hygd, offers the Geatish kingship to Beowulf, believing that her son Heardred is not worthy of the throne. Beowulf refuses, and Heardred becomes king. Meanwhile, in Sweden, Othere’s sons, Eanmund and Eadgils, rebel against their uncle, King Onela. The rebels flee to Geatland and obtain sanctuary with Heardred. Refusing to tolerate this, Onela invades and kills Heardred. Onela then permits Beowulf to assume the throne of the Geats and returns to Sweden. His Swedish foe Eanmund has been killed by a Geatish faction, but the brother, Eadgils, with the assistance of an army provided by Beowulf, survives to invade Sweden and kill Onela.
WOMEN IN BEOWULF
Women in early Germanic society were in a much better position than in the later Middle Ages. Especially between wealthy families, marriages were generally arranged with the welfare of the woman in mind, so the husband had a financial interest in maintaining a strong, happy union. A woman could divorce her husband and take her father’s money home with her if she chose, and could maintain property separate from her husband’s even after marriage. Still, women were often pawns in high-stakes political maneuvering between important clans and kingdoms, and the results could be disastrous. In the Finnsburh episode, the marriage of Hildeburh to Finn is contracted to ensure peace between the Danes and the Frisians. When war breaks out, Hildeburh loses her husband, brother, and son. A similar fate awaits Hrothgar’s daughter Freawaru, who will be married to Ingeld, a Heathobard. The Danes and the Heathobards were traditional enemies, and Beowulf predicts a tragic result from the union. However, the women of Beowulf are by no means passive; Hygelac’s queen, Hygd, is in a position to offer the Geatish throne to Beowulf after her husband’s death, even though her son Heardred is still alive. The Danish queen, Wealhtheow, also plays an active political role; she gently reproves Hrothgar for planning to adopt Beowulf as his heir, since this might affect the ability of her sons to attain the throne after Hrothgar’s death. Pressing the point, she even goes on to ask Beowulf to provide counsel and assistance to her sons as needed—with the clear implication that the Danish throne will remain in her family.
Eadgils now sits on the Swedish throne, but is no friend to the Geats, since his brother Eanmund died not only in Geatland, but at the hands of a kinsman of Beowulf. At this point, the only thing keeping the Geats from the Swedish menace is the might of Beowulf. Now an old man, he is suddenly confronted with a new threat: a dragon has begun to fly about the land of the Geats, spewing fire from above. A thief has stolen a cup from an ancient mound of buried treasure that the dragon regards as his. The treasure, speculates the narrator in one of the poem’s most famous passages (generally known as the “Lay of the Last Survivor”), must have been hidden by the last member of a once-glorious race, who, rather than see the treasure of his people scattered and plundered, buried it underground: “Now earth, hold what earls once held / and heroes can no more; … / I am left with nobody / to bear a sword or burnish plated goblets” (Beowulf, lines 2247-53).
The dragon, who hoards his treasure, is driven to murderous rage by the loss of the cup. “The hoard-guardian / scorched the ground as he scoured and hunted / for the trespasser” (Beowulf, lines 2294-96). Among the burned dwellings is Beowulfs royal hall. Knowing that a wooden shield will not work against a fire-breathing dragon, Beowulf has a large iron shield specially forged, and journeys to the dragon’s cave in the company of 11 warriors and (to show the way) the thief who had provoked the dragon’s wrath. Announcing that he will fight the dragon alone, Beowulf enters the stone-arched gateway of the dragon’s lair. He calls a challenge to the dragon and readies himself for battle. The dragon blasts him with fire, and Beowulfs shield barely protects him. By this time everyone outside has fled in terror except for Wiglaf, who bears the sword and armor of the dead Eanmund, given to his father Weohstan by Onela. Remembering his vows of loyalty to Beowulf, Wiglaf rushes to his side. Beowulf strikes the dragon’s skull with his sword, but the sword snaps from the force of the blow. Once more the dragon breathes fire, and this time sinks its fangs into Beowulf’s neck. Wiglaf takes advantage of this opportunity to plunge his own sword into the dragon’s belly. Severely wounded, the monster is no longer a match for Beowulf, who stabs it to death. Beowulf knows that he has purchased victory with his life; he feels poison bubbling in his veins. Expressing regret that he has no son to whom he can leave his armor, and happiness that he has ruled well, he asks Wiglaf to bring the dragon’s treasure to him. This done, he gazes sadly upon it, although he is glad that at the end he is able to bestow such wealth on his people. He bids farewell to Wiglaf, and dies.
Wiglaf emerges from the cave, and the cowardly warriors slink back from the forest. After rebuking them, Wiglaf sends a messenger back to the Geatish encampment to announce the death of the dragon—and the king. The messenger’s speech also relays the last details of the Geat-Swede hostilities, along with a dire prophecy of Swedish aggression now that Beowulf is no more. The messenger notes other dangers, too; the Frisians and their Frankish allies will remember Hygelac’s raid, and will probably attack as well. Beowulf is cremated on an elaborate funeral pyre, decked with armor and helmets. He and the remains of the pyre are entombed with treasure in a great barrow on the coastland. At the poem’s end the Geats say that “of all the kings upon the earth / he was the man most gracious and fair-minded, / kindest to his people and keenest to win fame” (Beowulf, lines 3180-82).
The duties of lord, retainer, and family
The society depicted in Beowulf is an essentially military one, with each kingdom dedicated to consolidating and expanding its king’s hegemony. Integral to this system was a series of highly personal relationships between the king and each of his men. These warriors (also called retainers, thanes, or earls) derived benefits from being in a king’s retinue—they could be given weapons, armor, and precious objects, but perhaps more importantly they received a sense of lordship and community. There was no one more wretched in Anglo-Saxon society than an outcast, a man without a lord and a band of fellow warriors; in fact, the word “wretch” derives from the Old English word wrecca, meaning “outcast” or “exile.” In return, a retainer was expected to render helpful advice and exhibit absolute loyalty to his lord; cowardice and treachery were the ultimate sins. The lord, on the other hand, was expected to protect his men from their enemies, and to generously share the spoils of war. The essence of the evil king Heremod’s wickedness was that he did neither: he kept his treasure to himself, and killed Danish warriors in his own hall. For this, he himself became a friendless exile, and was ultimately killed by his enemies.
However, if retainers were bound to defend their lords to the death, lords did not necessarily see their kingship as an obligation to prefer their peoples’ interests to their own. The kings in Beowulf maintain a personal sense of bravery, autonomy, and destiny often apart from the welfare of their kingdoms, and it is at times difficult to determine how the poet wished his readers to evaluate them in this context. For example, Hygelac’s raid into Frisia was clearly rash; the narrator tells us “[f]ate swept him away / because of his proud need to provoke / a feud with the Frisians,” and the consequences for the Geats were dire indeed (Beowulf, 1206-1208). But pride was one of the proper attributes of a noble king, and there is less criticism (explicit or implied) of Hygelac in the poem than one might expect, given the circumstances of his failed expedition. Beowulf too must be judged in light of this standard. His response to the dragon’s attack on his people and kingdom will be an exclusively personal one; he views the dragon’s aggression as an affront to him as an individual, and resolves to fight alone. But he is able to defeat the dragon only with help, and Wiglaf’s assistance comes too late to save the king’s life. Clearly Beowulf’s death will be even more catastrophic for the Geats than that of Hygelac; there is a strong implication that they will be overrun by the Swedes and Frisians, and annihilated. Wiglaf has fulfilled his obligation to Beowulf, but has Beowulf fulfilled his obligation to the Geats? Is the reader meant to fault Beowulf for seeking personal glory at the cost of the Geats’ welfare? These questions are fundamental to any understanding of the poem. It must be noted, too, that the final word in the text (lofgeornost) is applied to the dead hero, and means “keenest to win fame.”
Christianity and heroic values: a contradiction?
The pagan society depicted in Beowulf, like the Christian society in which the author lived, was based on a system of mutual obligation between lord and retainer. The Anglo-Saxon world that produced Beowulf was Christianized, but retained many of the elements of the society depicted in the poem; a Christian retainer in eighth (or eleventh-) century England was bound to a Christian lord by the same code of conduct, and could expect the same benefits from his lord, as a pagan retainer in the poem. Works such as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (a year-to-year history of England maintained by monastic chroniclers from the fifth until the early twelfth century), the History of the English Church and People (731) by the English monk Bede, the ninth-century Life of King Alfred by Asser, and others all bear witness to the preeminence of this idealized code among the English before and after their conversion. For the Beowulf poet, Christianity was an imperative not because it changed the character and behavior of the people in any essential way, but because Christ was the true Lord—a Christian maintained fidelity to his religion for the same reason that he owed complete fidelity to his king. Christian observance was an obligation imposed by the truth of the faith, and by the oath of allegiance taken at baptism. Paganism was wrong because the pagan gods were wicked, and a retainer was under no obligation to serve a wicked lord. Falling back into pagan observance after baptism was worse still; rather than simply following an evil lord, the lapsed Christian was guilty of treachery. Thus, Christianity among the Anglo-Saxons exhibited the same social economy that knitted together pagan society. Lordship, and the obligations imposed by it on lord and retainer, were still fundamental—the difference was that a Christian now had to exhibit loyalty to two lords, one in heaven and one on earth.
The union between the new religion and the old heroic code was not always seamless, however. Christianity emphasized qualities of other-worldliness, humility, and detachment from earthly riches and honor, and nothing could run more counter to traditional Germanic values. A pagan lord was expected to be strong, domineering, and wealthy from years of plundering the lands of his neighbors. Insults were avenged with breathtaking violence, and feuds were carried over from generation to generation by the hatred of sons for their fathers’ enemies. Christian missionaries in Anglo-Saxon England converted pagan kings, but were less successful in quelling paganism’s violent and acquisitive tendencies. And it seems that the newly-converted English retained an appetite for the old pagan tales as well. There were exceptions; Bede writes in his History of the early-seventh-century English king Oswald, who was both a mighty lord and an exemplary Christian: “Although he wielded supreme power, Oswald was always wonderfully humble, kindly, and generous to the poor and strangers” (Bede, p. 147). For the most part, though, the Christian ideal was more professed than practiced. This tension is exhibited in Beowulf in a number of ways. The Danes practice idolatry when confronted by Grendel, but the narrator’s criticism is brief; they presumably do not know any better, and their offense is one of ignorance rather than wickedness. Grendel is said to have descended from Cain, the primordial murderer; his wickedness is thus given a specifically biblical context, with the clear implication that he is to be judged by Christian standards. Beowulf, too, operates within a Christian system of values, albeit primarily on the symbolic level. It is perhaps no accident that as he approaches the dragon’s lair, he is accompanied by 12 men—the number of Christ’s apostles. His descent into the fiery dragon’s lair has also been likened to Christ’s descent into Hell—the period between Jesus’s death and resurrection when he is said to have released the Jewish patriarchs from their bondage. One should not attempt to push these parallels too far, however; Beowulf is not an allegory, and Beowulf is not Christ. The extent to which his death mirrors Christ’s passion should be viewed as a poetic illustration of his extraordinary virtue, but the areas in which he falls short may represent the flaws of the old heroic code. He sacrifices himself for his people, true—but his death brings only their destruction. The dragon is dead, but the Swedes and Frisians are massing on the borders. The Beowulf poet presented pagan heroism at its best, but he makes it clear that it is insufficient.
Sources and literary context
The story of Beowulf is told nowhere else. There are no earlier (or later) versions of the Beowulf story, and indeed no references at all to Beowulf and his fights with the monsters, apart from a few tantalizing but frustrating texts like the charter (931) of King Aethelstan, which defines the boundaries for a land grant thus: “from there north over the hill … to the fence of Beowa’s patch … then to the long meadow, and from there to Grendel’s Mere” (Garmonsway and Simpson, p. 301). There are also references in other documents to such places as “Grendel’s Gate,” “Grendel’s Mire,” “Grendel’s Pit,” and the like. The existence of such texts hints that the Beowulf story (or some version of it) was well-known enough in Anglo-Saxon times to engender place names. The story as we have it may be of purely English origin, despite its Scandinavian subject.
Characters from the poem other than Beowulf appear frequently in Germanic literature. References to the members of the Danish royal family (Heremod, Scyld, Beowulf [the son of Scyld], Healfdane, Hrothgar, Hrothulf, Halga, and Hrethric) abound in Old Norse literature of the tenth through thirteenth centuries; also found are references to the Swedish, Geatish, Heathobard, Angle (or English), Frisian, and Gothic characters who populate Beowulf. For example, the seventh-century Old English poem “Widsith” contains a brief account of Hrothgar and his nephew Hrothulf (called Hrothwulf here):
Very long did Hrothwulf and Hrothgar,
nephew and uncle, keep peace as kinsmen
together, after they had driven off the tribe of
the Vikings and humbled Ingeld’s battle-array,
hewing down the host of the Heathobards at
(Garmonsway and Simpson, pp. 127-28)
This text supports the hint given in Beowulf that Hrothulf will eventually betray the Danes; he and Hrothgar kept peace “very long,” the implication being that this peace eventually ended. It is clear that the Beowulf poet was placing his story in the midst of a well-defined context of history and legend.
Other aspects of the poem are reflected elsewhere as well. Wayland the Smith—whom Beowulf credits with making his mailshirt—was a legendary armorer of magical ability, and was as familiar to the Anglo-Saxons as was Hercules to the ancient Greeks. The legendary adventures of Sigemund and the Waelsings (or Volsungs) appear extensively in Old Norse literature, and a stone carving (c. 1000) found in England illustrates a scene from the story. The story of Sigemund and his sister is one of the best known in Germanic legend, and it is entirely appropriate that it be recited at Heorot by Hrothgar’s minstrel. We find descriptions of pagan funerals like Beowulf’s in the writings of the sixth-century historian Jordanes, who describes the funeral of Attila the Hun; in The Travels of ibn Fadlan, the memoir of a tenth-century Arab traveler who lived for a while among a group of Swedes; and in a number of thirteenth-century Danish and Icelandic texts.
As mentioned, the Beowulf poet was probably a churchman, acquainted with the Roman classics and the writings of the Church fathers. Echoes of Virgil’s Aeneid, Boethius’s The Consolation of Philosophy, St. Paul’s letters, and certain theological writings of St. Augustine of Hippo have all been heard in Beowulf; these texts would have been included in any monastic library in Anglo-Saxon England, and it is reasonable to suppose that the Beowulf poet had read them. Another important text is the early eighth-century History of the English Church and People, by the Venerable Bede, a monk of the monastery of Jarrow. It describes the religious and political history of the English from the Roman occupation to Bede’s own day, paying special attention to the process of conversion undergone by England’s various pagan rulers. England was divided into a number of small kingdoms in those days, and so there were many to convert. Important to Beowulf are the descriptions of how these men, despite their apparently sincere conversions, remained tied to the ancient Germanic codes of conduct. However, reflections of these works in Beowulf are merely echoes, not sources per se; the poet does not use this material directly. Rather, there is more of a sense of common ground, of thematic congruity, between portions of Beowulf and certain Roman and Christian texts.
The rise of Christianity in England
After the collapse of the Roman Empire, Britannia, a former Roman province, suffered incursions from the Germanic peoples. Britannia was later called “England” after the Angles, who, together with the Saxons, settled the area in the fifth century. It is their Anglo-Saxon culture and language (also called “Old English”) that produced Beowulf. The Angles and Saxons were pagan, but Christianity had existed in England since the first century c.e. and the new rulers of England did not succeed in exterminating it entirely. Roman civilization and urban life was effectively obliterated in England, but Christian communities survived in outlying villages and monasteries. This older Celtic form of English Christianity was gradually absorbed by the newer Roman Christianity instituted by St. Augustine of Canterbury (d. 605), who is traditionally credited with reintroducing Christianity to England by converting Ethelbert, king of Kent, in 597. By the end of the seventh century the rulers and inhabitants of England were overwhelmingly Christian. In 664 the Synod of Whitby united the various independent English Churches under Roman observance, and from then until the Reformation the Church in England was one with the rest of Latin Christendom. England was a major European center of Christian and classical learning, and its missionaries and scholars traveled throughout Europe, converting pagans, establishing monasteries and schools, and disseminating literate culture. The English churchman Alcuin (735-804) inspired what is now known as the “Carolingian Renaissance,” setting up a number of important libraries and schools in France for the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne, and serving as his official adviser on religious and educational issues. The oldest manuscript of the Latin Bible is of English provenance, probably copied c. 690-700 at Jarrow, and many important early liturgical books came from English monasteries as well. The theological, homiletic, rhetorical, and scientific writings of churchmen such as Bede, Aldhelm, and Alcuin were known throughout the West, and their authority was regarded to be little inferior to that of the Church fathers themselves. Despite its thoroughgoing Christianity, however, England was a society very much in tune with its Germanic roots. Bede was the most prominent churchman of his day, and wrote in Latin, but on his deathbed he composed his “Death Song” in traditional Old English alliterative verse. Aldhelm wrote highly ornate and complex Latin poetry, but was said to have composed Old English verse of equal quality; none has survived. English monks were forever being warned to avoid the pagan epic poems that they obviously loved so much. But if there was a tension within these churchmen, it was a relatively benign one; Christianity had been established for so long that the old poems were more of a possible distraction than a spiritual danger. It was in many ways a golden age, but one that was soon to come to an end.
The Scandinavian invasions
The Scandinavian peoples of what are now Denmark, Sweden, and Norway had been great seafarers and traders since the height of the Roman Empire, but for reasons that are still unclear, in the late eighth century they exploded into western Europe, in wave after wave of brutal aggression. These campaigns continued, off and on, for more than 200 years. At the time, the chroniclers of their depredations usually called them Danes or Northmen, but we now know them as Vikings. (The term “Vikings” properly refers just to the raiders, not to all Northmen.)
The Vikings first attacked England in 793, sacking the monastery at Lindisfarne. A second attack in 875 was even worse, and the monks all fled or were killed. The Vikings attacked at will throughout England and France, killing all who opposed them, taking captives to be sold into slavery, despoiling churches and monasteries, and burning towns. Monasteries, parishes, and dioceses throughout England were depopulated, and many ceased to exist. England had periods of respite, most prominently during the reign of King Alfred the Great (849-99), but after his death the Vikings returned many times. In fact, the final series of Danish invasions culminated in the installation of a Danish king on the English throne. By this time, however, the Danes were a different people. King Cnut (or Canute) reigned from 1016-1035, and he was generally quite popular, though not at first; as warlike as his Danish ancestors, he invaded England and plundered several cities before subduing most of northern England. The English king Ethelred fought him ably in the south, but died in 1016, and Cnut was elected king by the witena gemot (a body of nobles and counselors). Parts of England remained loyal to Edmund, the son of Ethelred, but a few months later Edmund too died, and Cnut ruled unchallenged. He was not English, and so had no vested interest in favoring one English lord over another, and managed to remain above—and even dampen—their continual feuding. He was an able defender of the realm, and just in his administration. He also was a devout Christian; he endowed many monasteries, secured the possessions of the English Church, and even went on a pilgrimage to Rome. It was probably in his reign that the Beowulf manuscript was written, and the presence of a Dane on the English throne may explain why a poem with so much Danish content was produced in England at this time.
What happened to the Beowulf manuscript between the time of its creation and the early seventeenth century is anybody’s guess. It was acquired by Sir Robert Cotton at about this time, and in 1705 it was read (if barely understood) by Humfrey Wanley, an assistant librarian at the Bodleian library at Oxford. The Danish scholar Jonsson Thorkelin made a translation of Beowulf into Latin in 1815, and this introduced the poem to Europe as a whole. In the nineteenth century, advances in philology allowed the language of the poem to be understood better than before, and scholars were able to situate it within a specific cultural and linguistic context. Early criticism of Beowulf tended to see it as a composite poem, with a mixture of Christian and pagan elements; thus, in 1887 F. A. Blackburn could confidently write, “It is admitted by all critics that the Beowulf [sic] is essentially a heathen poem; that its materials are drawn from tales composed before the conversion of the Angles and Saxons to Christianity; and that there was a time when these tales were repeated without the Christian reflections and allusions that are found in the poem that has reached us” (Blackburn, p. 205).
Things began to change in the twentieth century, as more sensitive and nuanced readings began to emerge. The most influential of these early attempts was made by J.R.R. Tolkien, now best known as the author of The Lord of the Rings, but throughout his life a first-rank scholar of medieval Germanic literature and philology. In his famous essay “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics,” he argued that the poem should be read as a poem, not as a mirror of racial nostalgia, not as a disfigured artifact from the mythic past, and not, in short, as anything other than the sophisticated creation of a gifted poet. “Beowulf,” he writes, “has been used as a quarry of fact and fancy far more assiduously than it has been studied as a work of art” (Tolkien, p. 246). Since the publication of Tolkien’s essay, his advice has generally been heeded, though the number of books and articles on the poem has reached staggering proportions, and readings have been proposed from across the ideological spectrum. The dating controversy is still unsettled, and the extent to which the poem’s Christian content determines its meaning is still energetically debated.
Recently the poem has enjoyed a new translation by the Nobel-laureate Irish poet Seamus Heaney (used for the purposes of this entry). His version, which was given the Whitbread Award in Great Britain, uses a powerfully spare diction and vocabulary in an effort to mirror the plain-spoken quality of the Old English original. Critics have for the most part been lavish in their praise, seeing Heaney’s simple language as an artful means of bringing to the forefront the poem’s structural and thematic complexities, while retaining its original vigor.
Baker, Peter S., ed. Beowulf: Basic Readings. New York: Garland, 1995.
Bede. A History of the English Church and People. Trans. Leo Sherley-Price. Baltimore: Penguin, 1955.
Beowulf. Trans. Seamus Heaney. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000.
Blackburn, A. F. “The Christian Coloring in the Beowulf.” PMLA 12 (1897): 205-25.
Garmonsway, George Norman, and Jacqueline Simpson, eds. Beowulf and its Analogues. London: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1968.
Kiernan, Kevin S. Beowulf and the Beowulf Manuscript. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1981.
Nicholson, Lewis E., ed, An Anthology of Beowulf Criticism. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1963.
Niles, John D. Beowulf: The Poem and its Tradition. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983.
Stenton, Sir Frank. Anglo-Saxon England. 3d. ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971.
Tolkien, J. R. R. Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics. Proceedings of the British Academy 22 (1936): 245-95.
THE LITERARY WORK
An epic poem in Old English, set in Denmark and Gotland around 500 a.d.; probably composed in England in the 700s a.d. and set down in its final manuscript form around 1000 a.d.
An untried young warrior named Beowulf leads twelve companions to Denmark to help its king rid his land of a monster named Grendel. Beowulf succeeds, also defeating Grendel’s mother, and returns home. Fifty years later, now a king in his own land. Beowulf faces a final, less successful battle against a dragon.
The identity of Beowulfs author is unknown. The writer was most likely an eighth-century West Mercian or Northumbrian monk who might better be called an editor than an author, for many sections of the poem undoubtedly had a long career in oral tradition before receiving final form in Beowulf. Whatever its source, the final version was recorded in a unique manuscript around the year 1000 a.d. It is the work of a master craftsman who was very well read, conscious of his role as a poet, and extremely skilled at making events and characters stand symbolically for universal human concerns.
English or Danish?
There is no recorded history of the earliest of the Old English people known as Anglo-Saxons. Much of what we know about these people is derived from the artifacts they left behind, from The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (a record of events in England in the first thousand years a.d.), and from the few literary works of their period that survive. Primary among these works is Beowulf, one of the earliest poems written in any form of English.
Beowulf is recognized as a hallmark of English literature. Yet its heroes and its setting are not English. The poem is set in two places: the first half takes place on a Danish island, and the second half takes place in Beowulfs homeland, which consists of two large islands off the southeast coast of Sweden. The hero of the poem, the warrior Beowulf, is a member of a southern Gotland tribe known as the Geats (pronounced “yea-ots”). The warrior travels to rescue the Danish people, called Scyldings (pronounced “shildings”), who are being harassed by the monster Grendel.
The early Anglo-Saxons
Why should the English compose and preserve a long poem about a foreign people? One reason is that the poem champions values that were also important to the early Anglo-Saxons of Britain: bravery, loyalty, and devotion to the community. It is difficult to convey just how challenging the lives of the earliest Anglo-Saxons were. Every day was a battle to survive. The Anglo-Saxons lived in huts and dressed in animal skins to protect themselves against the miserable, bone-chilling dampness of the weather. They eked out an existence by farming the land, hunting, and venturing forth on dangerous, turbulent seas to fish. When they weren’t scraping together a skimpy existence, they were fighting neighboring tribes and clans. These tough conditions created strong ties within tribes and encouraged intense loyalty to clan leaders. The environment also contributed to the high esteem in which the inhabitants held individual bravery, a quality they honored above all others.
The history of early Britain is one of foreign domination. The Angles and Saxons from the lowlands of Europe took over the rule of England (Angle-land) between 450 and 550 a.d. Viking invaders from Denmark, Sweden, and Norway made their presence felt as well, constantly raiding England during the period in which the poem was written. These seafaring warriors, descendants of Beowulfs era, were the Vikings who roamed the world and explored North America two hundred years before Columbus.
Warrior culture and society
The raw essence of life among a warrior people is celebrated in Beowulf. Much of its narrative is concerned with the challenges of existence, the weaponry used, and the festive celebrations of this group. The poem also portrays a strong sense of fatalism, or acceptance of death. The warriors of the era accepted their mortality and fate in a way that seems casual to the modern reader. The concept of wyrd (the root of the modern word weird), or fate, was central to the world view of the Anglo-Saxons living between the eighth and the tenth centuries. A warrior’s bravery hinged upon his acceptance of the inevitable fact that at some point his courage would require the ultimate price: his life. Beowulf recognizes and draws strength from this view of the world. The warrior’s grim view of destiny is ultimately fulfilled in the tale when he dies battling the fierce dragon.
In a passage that sums up the warrior philosophy celebrated in the poem, Beowulf assures Hrothgar, his Danish host in the first half of the poem, of his intention to retaliate after Grendel’s mother has murdered one of his warrior companions:
Sorrow not, wise warrior. It is better for a man to avenge his friend than much mourn. Each of us must await his end of the world’s life. Let him who may get glory before death: that is best for the warrior after he is gone from life.
(Donaldson, Beowulf, p. 25)
Another key concept of the society pictured in Beowulf is the notion of wergeld, or “man price.” This signifies the amount a man’s life was worth if he was killed, either accidently or in battle. The price was determined by social class distinctions—the bravest and ablest were worth the most money. Wergeld functioned as a sort of ransom that had to be paid to the dead man’s relatives by the killer in order to avoid their revenge. In theory, such a payment system would allow early English society to carry on without deteriorating into a morass of never-ending feuding. But, in fact, theirs was a feuding, war-torn society despite precautions such as the wergeld system.
The first part of Beowulf is set on an island off Denmark, where the Scylding (Danish) people live under the rule of Hrothgar, their king. Hrothgar has recently constructed a magnificent hall called Heorot. This hall is the site of frequent banquets and drinking celebrations that arouse the anger of Grendel, a local water-dwelling monster. Grendel lives outside the circle of human kindness and kinship: “the grim spirit... called Grendel, known as a rover of borders, one who held the moors, fen and fastness” (Beowulf, p. 3). Perhaps this is one reason why the monster attacks the humans: he is envious of human society. Grendel terrorizes the local inhabitants, who live in fear, and word spreads of the monster’s hold over the Scyldings.
An archaeological dig at Sutton Hoo, an estate in England, in 1939 turned up the remains of a ship containing jewelry, swords, and items believed to be part of the burial site of an Anglo-Saxon king of about 625 a.d., close to Beowulf’s time. This discovery helped scholars determine how actual items described in the poem probably looked.
The hero of the poem, Beowulf, hears of their plight in his distant homeland and sails to the Scyldings’ island with twelve warrior companions. Upon arriving they are greeted by a soldier guarding the coast, and the first of a series of commentaries on the weaponry and bravery of Beowulf and his men takes place. One of Hroth-gar’s heralds asks of them: “Where do you bring those gold-covered shields from, gray mail-shirts and visored helmets, this multitude of battleshafts
... I have not seen strangers—so many men—more bold” (Beowulf, p. 7).
When he is introduced to Hrothgar, Beowulf demonstrates his boldness. He pledges to “scorn to bear sword or broad shield, yellow wood, to the battle, but with my grasp I shall grapple with the enemy and fight for life, foe against foe” (Beowulf, p. 8). After a night of celebrating and bragging, Beowulfs bravery is put to the test. He watches as his foe devours one of his sleeping company: “He [Grendel] suddenly seized a sleeping man, tore at him ravenously, bit into his bone-locks, drank the blood from his veins, swallowed huge morsels; quickly he had eaten all of the lifeless one, feet and hands” (Beowulf, p. 13). Beowulf does not flee in the face of this terror but instead wrestles with the monster. Though Grendel can use magic to protect himself from many weapons, it does no good against Beowulfs bare hands. The warrior defeats the monster, and Grendel slinks off to his hideaway, mortally wounded. Another round of celebration ensues.
Beowulf is acknowledged publicly for his great bravery and rewarded with treasures by the Scyldings. The courageous men settle in for a night’s rest after their fighting, feasting, and drinking. The poet again celebrates the men’s warlike nature: “[As they slept] they set at their heads their battle-shields, bright wood; there on the bench it was easy to see above each man his helmet that towered in battle, his ringed-mail shirt, his great spear-wood. It was their custom to be always ready for war whether at home or in the field...: that was a good nation” (Beowulf, p. 23).
The celebration is cut short, however, by the appearance of Grendel’s mother. Angered by her son’s death, she takes up the fight against the warriors. Beowulf, who has been housed in private quarters, is unable to do battle with Grendel’s mother, who takes a prisoner and retreats to her home. Beowulf ventures forth to seek out the monster in her watery home on the moor. He descends into the monster’s lair and uses a magic sword to defeat her in battle. After severing the head of the dead monster, Beowulf brings it back to his band of warriors. Yet another celebration follows.
In the final section of the story, Beowulf returns to his homeland, having fully demonstrated his bravery and generosity toward the Scyldings. He tells his own king and people about his exploits and praises the hospitality and generosity of Hrothgar’s band. Time passes and Beowulf becomes king of the Geats, ruling well and wisely for fifty years. Eventually, though, a long-dormant dragon grows angry when a goblet is stolen from its hoard of treasure, and the dragon terrorizes the countryside. The fire-breathing creature
even destroys Beowulf’s home and throne. This rouses the old warrior to action, and Beowulf begins his last campaign. He heads for the dragon’s lair with a small group of warriors. All except the warrior Wiglaf flee before the encounter; in the end Beowulf engages the dragon single-handedly.
Beowulf is unable to do any harm to the fearsome dragon, and the old warrior is forced to take cover. Wiglaf ventures forth to help his king, and together Wiglaf and Beowulf conquer the dragon. Beowulf suffers serious wounds in the battle, however, and his end is near. As the dragon’s poison works its way through his system, Beowulf instructs Wiglaf to go retrieve the dragon’s treasure to comfort him in his dying. Wiglaf obeys and eases Beowulf into the next world, then takes over as leader of the Geats.
Construction of the poem
One prominent feature of the poem is its repetitiveness. Before each battle Beowulf recounts his life and hands down his legend, much as the poem itself has been handed down through time. With each victory, the hero’s exploits are immediately retold to an audience of revelers as they toast his bravery and success. The action and major events of the Beowulf story are, in fact, only a tiny portion of the text; the rest of the work consists of recaps of previous events and listings of personages, weapons, and treasures. The poem actually interweaves narration about real events from history with its fictional story. Exactly how these narrated parts are related to the main story remains uncertain. It is known, however, that the repetition in Beowulf is due at least partly to its origins as an oral poem. Typically, an oral poem was sung by a poet who would recreate it with each telling, using complicated rhythms to relate the full tale. The repetition of long descriptive passages acted as a kind of easily remembered chorus in between the passages that described new adventures.
All Old English poetry was based upon alliteration—the repetition of consonant sounds, usually at the beginning of neighboring words. In addition, Old English poetry featured a break, or caesura, in the middle of each line, and each line typically had four beats or stressed syllables. Pauses at the caesura and at the end of each line, as well as the regular number of beats in each line, established the poem’s rhythm. This rhythmic regularity helped the narrator to preserve the poem in memory and made it easier to hand down the poem in much the same form from generation to generation.
What Beowulf teaches
One crucial feature of Beowulf is its use of characters and action to create a model for the construction of a nation. The two societies in the poem, the Danes and the Geats, can be viewed as examples of all human societies. The Danes are deficient in physical prowess, and Grendel represents what happens when the intellectual strength of a nation exceeds its might: the nation becomes prey to every voracious neighbor. It is significant that Grendel conquers the Danes with his hands, showing physical prowess. Meanwhile, the Geatish kingdom, unlike the kingdom of the Danes, has great military might but lacks intellectual and moral strength. The enemy of the mighty Geats is a dragon whose breath, which can be understood to represent words or intellect, is used to conquer them. According to this model, both excesses could result in the destruction of the kingdom. The poem implies that a kingdom, and each individual, must be strong enough to discourage others from attacking. At the same time, the kingdom and the individual must be wise enough to behave justly and honorably and to refrain from attacking others unless provoked.
The major focus in the story is on bravery in the battle of good versus evil; the hero is an ideal man, brave and dedicated to doing good for its own sake. It is significant that the hero’s early exploits, as he establishes his reputation, are on behalf of a foreign kingdom. He seeks out Grendel to destroy evil wherever it exists, not merely to protect his own people or his own interests. He risks his life for a group of relative strangers, demonstrating a generous bravery, although the youthful Beowulf is surely seeking fame in his adventurous quest.
His bravery is rewarded. The king and queen of the Scyldings reward Beowulf generously in goods and praise for his services. The entire issue of riches and wealth is tied into a system of bravery and merit in the poem, and rulers are presented as deserving of their wealth and status. This compensation for courage and allegiance reflects the social structure of the time. Rulers and their subjects depended upon loyal and brave warriors to support and protect them, while the warriors relied on the rulers to provide for them.
Composition and sources
Beowulf’s history is a complicated and mysterious one. Information about who actually composed the poem or when it was written is scarce, although many believe that it was first written in Northumbria, Britain, in the late tenth century. The original text has two distinct styles of penmanship, suggesting not two authors, but two copyists, also known as scribes, usually monks whose main occupation was to produce manuscripts.
The Old English in which the original Beowulf was written (or spoken or sung) is quite different from the English spoken today. This Old English featured short, monosyllabic Anglo-Saxon words that were essential to the rhythm of Beowulf and other works of the period.
Structural similarities suggest that the Beowulf poet was familiar with the Roman epic poem Aeneid by Virgil (also covered in Literature and Its Times). Some scholars contend that the author of Beowulf used Virgil’s poem as a model in composing his epic.
The sources of the fictional story in the Beowulf poem are the traditional folklore and legends of northern Europe, although Charles W. Kennedy notes in his introduction to Beowulf that the fact that the monster Grendel has a name is unusual in folklore. Specifically, the poem’s narrative seems to derive from a common European folktale type called “The Bear’s Son,” in which the hero is the offspring of a bear’s mating with a human. The elements of “Bear’s Son” stories are remarkably similar to those of Beowulf: a hall built by an aged king is haunted by a spirit or monster; a young warrior fights with the spirit and wounds it, chasing it back to its lair; the hero goes underground to defeat the monster, encountering its relatives. The parallels are clear, and it is reasonably certain that this type of story constitutes the basis for the first part of Beowulf. The dragon story in the poem is also rooted in folk traditions, though no particular dragon story is an obvious model for the episode in Beowulf.
As for Beowulf himself, it is fairly certain that he is not a historical figure at all. Instead, he is a legendary being who combines many of the elements of the early Swedish and Geatish kings with superhuman strength to create a mythological figure. In this sense, he is similar to the legendary King Arthur of British lore. The Beowulf story in turn became a source for later tales, especially an Icelandic tale of the fourteenth century called Grettissaga. Tracing such tales to their Beowulf origins not only helps determine how ancient the Beowulf poem is, but also shows how literature feeds upon itself to provide the material for new and original works.
Viking influence on England
From the eighth through the eleventh century, England was constantly raided by the Vikings. The Beowulf poem was composed during this age of Viking invasions. While many of these invaders limited their activities to coastal raids, others had a more lasting impact. In 866 the Viking leader Ivar the Boneless completely overran northern England. His forces moved inland and settled down in the region. These Vikings had a strong influence on the English society of the time, and a blending of northern European cultures took place. In 878 the Anglo-Saxon leader Alfred the Great defeated a force of Danes and concluded the Peace of Wedmore, a treaty that both recognized his authority over one region (Wessex) and acknowledged Danish control over a broad area to the east and north of the Thames River known as the Danelaw. Danish customs and laws became firmly embedded in the Danelaw, leaving a lasting imprint on English culture.
Poetry as entertainment
Beowulf is the oldest surviving northern European epic, which is a poem that tells the story of a hero or heroes and recounts a people’s history or traditions. The poem’s classification as an epic puts it into a select body of literature, a small family of works in world literature that capture the spirit of people at a given time in history. There was at first, though, a far less serious dimension to the poem; it provided entertainment.
The tale of Beowulf and his encounters with the monstrous Grendel and the horrible dragon was created in a world where poetry was sung for entertainment and people frequently celebrated their history. At the time of the poem’s composition, the people of England practiced trades and operated small village businesses. In such communities, townspeople often gathered after work to listen to songs such as Beowulf. The performer at these gatherings was known as a scop (pronounced “shope”), a singer or maker of poems. In witnessing the scop’s performance, the early residents of England celebrated the hero’s qualities of bravery and loyalty and also relaxed after a hard day of work. Beowulf was appreciated for its entertainment value, though it was probably created with much more sophisticated purposes in mind: the development of a strong value system and a code for the construction of a balanced government.
Christianity and culture
Beowulf seems to straddle two worlds: it bridges the violent warrior culture that it celebrates and the Christian culture that was, at the time of its composition, displacing’the earlier era.
The introduction of Christianity to the British Isles took place in 597 when St. Augustine and a group of monks arrived in England by way of Ireland. Christianity was thriving in England in the early eighth century, the time of the poem’s creation. By the late tenth century, the date of the Beowulf manuscript, Christianity was well established in England. Careful reading of the poem reveals what seem to be insertions of Christian phrases and sections among what were originally a number of nonreligious stories.
The poem draws most heavily on Old Testament elements. The following example, which introduces the reader to the monster Grendel, illustrates the curious mix of folk legend with biblical references: “The grim spirit was called Grendel... Unhappy creature, he lived for a time in the home of the monsters’ race, after God had condemned them as kin of Cain... From him [Cain] sprang all bad breeds, trolls and elves and monsters—likewise the giants who for a long time strove with God” (Beowulf, p. 3). Trolls, monsters, and elves, while unfamiliar to modern Christian orthodoxy, can be traced back to Norse mythology. Beowulf features many such instances where the Christian religion is melded with old stories and legends. This blending shows how one value system—that of the warrior clan, led by brave, violent leaders—was being replaced by another—that of a people obedient to a benevolent higher power who rewards virtue, forgiveness, and honesty.
Chase, Colin, ed. The Dating of Beowulf. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1981.
Donaldson, E. Talbot, trans. Beowulf. New York: W. W. Norton, 1966.
Gardner, John. Grendel. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1971.
Greenfield, Stanley B. and Daniel G. Calder, eds. A New Critical History of Old English Literature. New York: New York University Press, 1986.
Grohskopf, Bernice. From Age to Age: Life and Literature in Anglo-Saxon England. New York: Atheneum, 1968.
Haber, Tom. A Comparative Study of Beowulf and the Aeneid. New York: Phaeton Press, 1968.
Tolkien, J. R. R. Beowulf, the Monsters and the Critics. 1936. Reprint, Darby, Pa.: Arden Library, 1980.
The epic Beowulf
Beowulf (pronounced BAY-uh-woolf) is the earliest existing Anglo-Saxon epic, or a long, grand-scale poem. It tells the story of Beowulf, a Norse hero and warrior who fought and conquered several monsters that terrorized Denmark and Sweden.
Beowulf is divided into two parts. The action in the first part takes place in Denmark, where Hrothgar (pronounced ROTH-gar) is king. Beowulf, a mighty warrior from Sweden, comes to help the king destroy a monster that is terrorizing the local people. The second part, set in Sweden, provides an account of Beowulf as an old man who must rid his country of a fearsome dragon.
Grendel As part one of the story opens, readers are introduced to King Hrothgar. He has built a great assembly hall called Heorot (pronounced HAY-oh-roht), where his warriors gather to eat, drink, and receive treasure after their victories in combat. Lurking in the dark swamps of Hrothgar's kingdom is a cruel and brutal monster named Grendel (pronounced GREN-dl). Grendel lives in a cave with his mother, also a monster, and cannot be harmed by the weapons of humans. As Grendel roams the marshes and swamps, he hears the joyful sounds of song and laughter from Heorot. They fill him with envy and hatred for Hrothgar and his warriors. One night, Grendel goes to Heorot and finds the warriors asleep after a great deal of drinking and celebration. He snatches up thirty sleeping men, kills them, and carries their bodies home to eat.
In the morning, Hrothgar sees the bloody aftermath of Grendel's attack. Loud wails and cries replace the joyful singing of the previous night. The Danes see Grendel's footprints, but do not think he will return; however, the next night Grendel comes back and kills even more warriors. The Danes gather in their temples and pray for protection from Grendel, but their prayers do not help. For twelve years Grendel continues to terrorize the warriors. Afraid to sleep at Heorot, they abandon the great hall.
Stories of Grendel's raids spread to the surrounding kingdoms, eventually reaching the land of the Geats in southern Sweden. When a mighty Geatish warrior named Beowulf—a man who has slain giants and sea monsters and is known for his strength, courage, and skill in battle—hears of Grendel's deeds, he decides to sail to Denmark and help Hrothgar rid his kingdom of the monster.
Beowulf prepares a ship and chooses fourteen brave warriors to accompany him. They set sail for Denmark, arriving the next day. At Heorot, the Geats are welcomed by Hrothgar, who has known Beowulf since he was a child. The king throws a feast for the Geatish warriors. At the feast, a Danish warrior named Unferth insults Beowulf by suggesting that he is too boastful and not a great enough warrior to kill Grendel. Beowulf responds by noting that he has heard no tales of Unferth's bravery. He says that if Unferth were as fierce as he believes himself to be that Grendel would not now be terrorizing the Danes. Pleased by Beowulf s defiant attitude, Hrothgar is confident that the Geatish warrior will slay Grendel and free the kingdom from the monster's evil.
What's a Life Worth?
The story of Beowulf features a concept, common in early Germanic societies, known as wergild (pronounced WAIR-geld). This was the price set on a person's life based on that person's value to society. If an individual was killed, the family received wergild to compensate for the loss. In Beowulf, Hrothgar presents Beowulf with wergild for the Geatish warrior who was killed fighting Grendel. According to Germanic law, the system of wergild was meant as an alternative to seeking revenge for the loss of a loved one.
That night, the Geats stay at Heorot. Grendel soon appears and, before Beowulf can stop him, kills one of Beowulf s own men. Grendel then grabs Beowulf, but the mighty warrior seizes the monster's arm with his powerful grip. Beowulf and Grendel struggle until Grendel finally manages to wrench himself away, leaving his arm in Beowulf s grasp. The monster staggers back to his cave to die. The severed arm is hung in Heorot as a trophy for all to see. Hrothgar showers Beowulf with gifts and honors him with another feast. The Danes believe they will finally be able to sleep in peace at Heorot again.
Grendel's Mother The Danes' troubles are not over. When Grendel's mother sees her dying son, she vows revenge. She goes to Heorot at night and surprises the Danish warriors. After killing the king's most trusted adviser, she leaves with Grendel's arm. Again the Danes call upon Beowulf for help.
Beowulf and several warriors track the monster to her lair in the swamps. They find it at the base of a cliff at the bottom of a pool bubbling with blood and gore. Unferth, who has by now changed his opinion of Beowulf, lends him Hrunting, his sword. Brandishing it, Beowulf leaps into the slimy waters. Grendel's mother grabs Beowulf and pulls him into a cave where the water cannot enter. Beowulf strikes at the monster with Hrunting, but the sword does not hurt her. The two wrestle, and Grendel's mother almost kills Beowulf, but his armor saves him. Then he sees a giant sword hanging on the wall of the cave. He grabs it and, with one mighty swing, cuts off the monster's head. At the back of the cave, he sees Grendel's corpse.
Using the same sword, he cuts off Grendel's head and returns to the surface with it. He also brings the remains of the sword. Beowulf and his men return to Heorot in triumph, and Hrothgar again rewards them. Finally, the Geats go home to Sweden where Beowulf eventually becomes king.
Beowulf and the Dragon As the second part of the epic begins, Beowulf has ruled for fifty years, and his kingdom has prospered. A winged dragon lives in the land, protecting an ancient treasure buried hundreds of years earlier. One day, a slave who had been punished by his master runs away and finds the cave where the treasure is buried. To earn his master's forgiveness, the slave steals a golden cup and takes it to his household. When the dragon inspects the treasure, as he did every day, he quickly notices the missing cup. To punish the Geats for stealing from him, the dragon flies over the countryside breathing fire on the villages and setting homes ablaze.
Though he is now an old man, Beowulf decides to fight the dragon. He and eleven warriors find the dragon's cave, but Beowulf insists on fighting the dragon alone. Early in the battle, Beowulf discovers that his iron shield will not protect him against the dragon's fiery breath. Just as Beowulf is about to be killed, a warrior named Wiglaf, Beowulf s young kinsman, rushes to his aid. With Wiglaf s help, Beowulf slays the dragon. Mortally wounded in the battle, the king asks Wiglaf to bring out the treasure so that he might see it before he dies.
In accordance with Norse burial customs, Beowulf s body is burned in a great fire on a cliff overlooking the sea. The treasure is placed in the fire with Beowulf as a sacrifice. A large burial mound is built over the remains of the fire to serve as a reminder of the great king, and to provide a landmark for seafarers. The poem ends with a ceremony of praise for Beowulf.
Beowulf in Context
The manuscript containing the story of Beowulf was discovered in England in the 1600s. It was written in Old English, the language of the Anglo-Saxon invaders who settled in England between 450 and 600 ce. There is some debate about when Beowulf was written and who wrote it. Although the manuscript dates from around 1000, the poem was composed much earlier, sometime between 700 and 950. Certain references in the text suggest that the author was a Christian who modeled the story after pagan (non-Judeo-Christian) tales of past Norse and German heroes. The writer was probably either a monk or a poet connected to a nobleman's court in central or northern England.
Beowulf is set in a much earlier time than the period in which it was written, and the action takes place in Denmark and Sweden. The story shows the warrior culture of ancient Germanic peoples, where wars were so common that many men held steady jobs as fighters. The king supplied these warriors with food, shelter, land, and weapons. In return, they promised to be loyal and obedient to the king.
Key Themes and Symbols
Beowulf emphasizes values that were important to Norse warriors, such as courage, loyalty to one's king and comrades, and honor for those who fight and die bravely. The story emphasizes how fragile life and fame can be. Like any person, Beowulf must find meaning in his world while accepting the fact that he will eventually die. He meets that challenge by facing danger bravely and trusting that the story of his deeds will cause him to live on in the memories of those who hear it.
Beowulf in Art, Literature, and Popular Culture
Beowulf has endured over the centuries as a prime example of a Western European hero. He is different from many Greek and Roman heroes in that even though he possesses great strength and skills, he is fully human, and his successes do not depend upon help from the gods. The story of Beowulf has been translated and adapted by many writers over the centuries. Numerous movies have also been made about the hero, such as the motion-capture computer-animated Beowulf (2007).
Read, Write, Think, Discuss
John Gardner's novel Grendel (1971) is a retelling of the story of Beowulf from Grendel's point of view. Gardner calls into question the heroism of Beowulf, and offers a starkly different account of the events described in the epic poem.
Think about how point of view affects the telling of a story. What factors can cause a single set of events to be described in two vastly different ways?
The greatest surviving Old English poem, an epic that recounts two main events in the life of the legendary hero, Beowulf, with some digressions on apparently historical matters. In the first episode, Beowulf slays Grendel and Grendel's mother, demons who, in human form, are terrorizing the court of the Danish king; in the second, he kills a marauding dragon with the help of his kinsman Wiglaf, but is himself mortally wounded.
The poem exists in only one manuscript, the Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, 129a–198b, in the British Museum, London. This text dates from c. 1000, but scholars now generally date the poem's composition in the late 8th century. Some German critics (e.g., Ettmüller, Möller, Boer) in the 19th century insisted that it was the work of several authors. Further, such scholars held that it was substantially a pagan poem into which Christian interpolations had been introduced much later. Both these notions have been almost universally discounted. The author is, of course, anonymous. He was, however, familiar not only with the rich pagan Scandinavian and Germanic heroic legends but also, as F. Klaeber, R. W. Chambers, and C.W. Kennedy have shown (see bibliography), well instructed in the Christian virtues that permeate the poem. Its language is predominantly West Saxon with an admixture of other, particularly Anglian, elements. This combination of language and the poem's substantially Christian spirit would suggest that it was written either by a monk of West Mercia (known today as the West Midlands) or by a court poet.
Saga Elements. Much of the old Nordic tradition is unquestionably evident in the epic. The loyalty of thane to lord, the chief bond of early Germanic society, is prominent. Emphasis on gift giving, the lord's way of recognizing and rewarding the loyalty of his thane, is also important. The old element of fate or Wyrd that so permeated the old Nordic tales is still present but far less pervasively. The blood feuds that disrupted families and kingdoms in primitive northern society have a place as
well, but it is significant that they are alluded to in the historical episodes or asides rather than made prominent in the main action of the poem. The character of Beowulf himself, with his fabulous handgrip, owes something to the bear-man motif that runs through many of the old Norse sagas, and, in general, a great deal of the physical detail of the story comes from the same source. The struggles with man-monsters, with water trolls in mysterious caves at the bottom of the sea, and with firebreathing dragons all had a history in older Nordic legend, and practically all the details of the burial ceremonies for Beowulf are derived from pagan Nordic custom.
Distinctive Features. Despite these many similarities, Beowulf is remarkably and fundamentally different from the pagan sagas. In the first place, the character of Beowulf himself has undergone a substantial transformation. He is no longer the ruthless, self-centered pagan hero in pursuit merely of his own glory. He is eager for fame, as he frequently tells us, but performs all his exploits in a spirit of Christian humility and charity: he frequently acknowledges his dependence upon God for his prowess and in each episode dedicates his powers to help others.
Christian Allegory. Moreover, a deeper transformation has taken place. It intends to the whole substance and movement of the poem, to such an extent that it may be considered an allegory of the Christian story of salvation. In the story of Beowulf saving the kingdom of Hrothgar from the depradations of Grendel and his dam, and his own people from the ravages of the dragon, the Beowulf poet, it seems clear, was adapting the familiar legends of the North to allegorize for a Christian audience man's fall from the state of innocent happiness into the power of Satan and his absolute need of savior who came to him through the Incarnation. Sufficient clue for such an audience to identify Beowulf with the Savior would be the clear identification of Grendel and his dam in the first episodes with the powers of darkness or the forces to be overcome by the Savior, and, in the last episode, the parallel, which Klaeber has pointed out, between the circumstances that precede the death of Christ and Beowulf.
Relationship to the Harrowing of Hell. Particularly striking is the parallel between the second episode and Christ's harrowing of hell that had become a literary tradition before the time of the Beowulf poet. Beowulf descends into a mere to a burning cave, slays Grendel's dam, cuts off the head of the dead man-monster Grendel, and then ascends through the waters triumphantly bearing the magic sword and severed head. It was an Anglo-Saxon tradition (as Anglo-Saxon illuminated manuscripts reveal) to represent hell as a lake infested by manmonsters and serpents. Hence the Beowulf audience would readily have associated Beowulf's descent into the mere with Christ's descent into hell to signalize His triumph over Satan—a medieval tradition based on apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus. The exorcism pronounced over the baptismal water in the Holy Saturday liturgy would also have lent significance to the symbolism of demon-infested waters as a symbol of hell.
It would seem that the Beowulf poet was writing in the spirit of Pope St. Gregory, who had cautioned St. Augustine of Canterbury not to make a clean sweep of the old, native Anglo-Saxon customs, myths ceremonies, and traditions but to adapt them to the new Christian message. It would seem further that the Beowulf poet was proceeding in manner exactly opposite to that of the authors of poems like Andreas. In that work an explicitly Christian subject matter is handled in the language and literary conventions of the old Norse sagas, whereas in Beowulf the pagan sagas are subtly reshaped and reorganized to bring forth the essential facts of the new story of salvation.
Bibliography: r. w. chambers, ed., Beowulf: With the Finnsburg Fragment (2d ed. New York 1932); "Beowulf and the Heroic Age in England," Man's Unconquerable Mind (London 1952). f. klaeber, ed., Beowulf and the Fight at Finnsburg (Boston 1950). c. l. wrenn, ed., Beowulf: With the Finnesburg Fragment (London 1953). c. w. kennedy, tr., Beowulf: The Oldest English Epic (New York 1940). m. b. mcnamee, "Beowulf: An Allegory of Salvation," The Journal of English and Germanic Philology 59 (1960) 190–207; "Beowulf: Christian Hero," Honor and the Epic Hero (New York 1960). a. cabaniss, "Beowulf and the Liturgy," The Journal of English and Germanic Philology 54 (1955) 195–201. j.r. r. tolkien, "Beowulf: The Monsters and Critics," Proceedings of the British Academy 22 (1936) 245–95. l. e. nicholson, ed., An Anthology of Beowulf Criticismm (pa. Notre Dame, Ind. 1963).
[m. b. mcnamee]
The principal setting is southern Scandinavia c.500, but there is also reference, direct or indirect, to Hengist, King Offa, and other figures from English history. The stately and complex narrative is composed in the alliterative metre common to most early Germanic poetry, and is enhanced by rich description, decorous speeches, and moral reflection. It surveys Danish dynastic legend before depicting three great monster fights which conform to international story-types. In the first two, the young Geat hero Beowulf frees King Hrothgar and the Danes from the predations of the evil fen-dwellers Grendel and his mother; in the last, Beowulf, now an aged king, loses his life while slaying a treasure-guarding dragon. Interlacing the main plot are quasi-historical feuds and wars which emphasize the rhythms of joy and sorrow, youth and age, life and death which permeate the poem. Beowulf is deeply concerned with the ideals and tensions of the heroic life, especially strength, wisdom, loyalty, and the quest for glory. Whether it is also a ‘mirror for princes’, Scandinavian propaganda, a Christian critique of heroism, or a Christian allegory of salvation is more contentious.
D. C. Whaley
An Anglo-Saxon poem of mythological wonders. The folk tales on which the poem is based may date from the fifth century. The epic itself was composed ca. 700 C.E. Beowulf was most likely regarded as one of the Sons of Light or Men of the Sun whose business it was to fight the powers of darkness until they themselves fell.
The legend recounts the tale of Beowulf fighting the monster Grendel; after losing the fight, the giant escapes only by leaving his arm in Beowulf's grip. But Grendel's mother, a mer-woman (see mermaids ), revenges him and slays many people. When Beowulf hears of this, he takes up the quarrel. Diving to the bottom of the sea, where her palace lay, he kills her after a fierce fight.
Later on Beowulf is made regent and then king of Gothland, where he reigns about 40 years. He is eventually poisoned by the fangs of a dragon during a mighty struggle and dies from the effects. He is buried on a hill named Hronesnas and is deeply mourned by his people.
There are numerous translations of Beowulf (see C. B. Tinker, The Translations of Beowulf, 1903), as well as many critical works and study guides. A manuscript Beowulf (Cotton Vitellius A. xv) ca. 1000 C.E. is preserved in the British Museum Library in London.
Beowulf. Edited by F. Klaeber. Boston, 1950.
Beowulf. Translated by John R. Clarke. Rev. ed. New York: C. L. Wrenn, 1954.