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]
"Beowulf." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 14, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/beowulf
"Beowulf." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . Retrieved August 14, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/beowulf
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