Introduction of Beowulf
Despite its popularity during the previous few centuries, Beowulf, written by some anonymous author, is stated to have emerged between the period from 975AD to 1025AD. The whole manuscript is spread over a few pages comprising 3,182 lines. The storyline presents a Geats hero, Beowulf, who comes to help the Danish king, Hrothgar, to fight against the monster, Grendel. Not only he slays the monster but also attacks the monster’s mother to seal his victory and goes to Geatland to live a peaceful and comfortable life. However, when he gets old, he hears about a dragon and finally dies of wounds when battling and ultimately killing the dragon. The poem celebrates the victories as well as mourns the death of the brave king.
Summary of Beowulf
The storyline shows a Danish King, Hrothgar, from the linage of Shield Sheafson, a royal family head, living a prosperous and happy life with his subjects, enjoying great feasts in his Heorot, a mead-hall, when a plague strikes his subjects. It is a horrible monster or demon, Grendel, who appears and kills whom he sees at night. He has spread his reign of terror in the entire kingdom, making people stay ducked at their homes, forcing them to empty the hall. However, a young Geatish prince, Beowulf, happens to hear about this demon and reaches Hrothgar to offer his help to compensate for the assistance that he offered to his father when he was seeking refuge.
Having great regard for his father, Ecgtheow, Hrothgar jumps at the opportunity and welcomes Beowulf with a great feast. The great mead-hall is filled with his subjets to welcome the great hero but Unferth, a Danish warrior, mocks Beowulf for having won recognition without having executed any exploit. Boasts of Beowulf about his achievements, however, win him praise from the subjects. Finally, Grendel strikes during this pandemonium but finds Beowulf wrestling with the demon instead. With a torn arm left behind, Grendel escapes to the swamp.
Feeling boundless joy, Hrothgar profusely praises Beowulf and showers loads of gifts on him. A great feast is arranged in his honor with musicians displaying their skills. However, another threat appears on the horizon that his mother, who comes to Heorot and murders Hrothgar’s advisor in revenge. Aeschere’s death jolts the king into a rude awakening seeing whom Beowulf foams at the mouth and plunges into the swamp to kill Grendel’s mother. With his forged sword, he finally slays her and finds the dead body of the demon, Grendel. He also brings his head as a sign of his victory. The Danes celebrate this final victory with great pomp and show.
These two great exploits make Beowulf a household name in Denmark. He, however, has to depart to his land saying a sad adieu to King Hrothgar who is not willing to allow the warrior to depart, though, Geatland is calling him. Therefore, he returns to his land to unite with his people to help them live a prosperous life, leaving the royal couple to narrate his exploits. He then gives all his collection of treasures and gifts to the king who rewards him profusely for making Geatland a land of great warriors.
During the time, wars ensue and Hygelac gets killed battling the Shylfings, leaving only Beowulf to take the throne. Ruling for half a century and making his country prosperous and happy, Beowulf finally accepts the onslaught of age when he hears another plague that is of a dragon awakened in some cave by a thief. Seeing the destruction of the Geats, Beowulf again girds up his loins and battles the dragon in which he himself receives severe injuries, dying a bit later. However, he expresses his desire of having a good funeral pyre and a grave with the treasure extracted from the dragon’s grave.
Major Themes in Beowulf
- Heroic Code: Beowulf shows the heroic code of living and dying with honor that has been prevalent during the Anglo-Saxon age. The character of Beowulf shows that bravery, courage, and battling the demons and dragons win praise from the subjects and royals. When Beowulf expresses his desire to battle Grendel and settles the scores, he wins popularity in Denmark, and more so when he kills his mother too. The same goes when he dies in the last battle against the dragon. Thus he follows the heroic code and sets another example of bravery, chivalry, courage, and sacrifice.
- Good against Evil: Beowulf shows good versus evil through the character of Beowulf. Grendel kills the Danes for nothing, forcing Hrothgar to seek assistance from Beowulf who becomes a paragon of power as well as bravery. Later, the Geat leaves for his land and locks horns with the dragon when he is old to show that he has fought the evil during his youth and could fight if again when old even if he dies.
- Loyalty: Beowulf shows the theme of loyalty through Beowful and Unferth. When Hrothgar, the Danish king, faces the evil of Grendel and his mother, he accepts Beowulf’s offer. However, his own warrior, Unferth, is hellbent on making Beowulf fail. His taunts to Beowulf during the feast shows his prejudice toward the king. On the other hand, Beowulf’s companion Wiglaf stands in contrast to him that he supports Beowulf when death is staring in his face and yet he does not flee.
- Bravery: Beowulf shows the theme of bravery through King Hrothgar, Beowulf, and even Wiglaf. Beowulf’s offer to King Hrothgar to fight against Grendel is based on partly bravery and partly desire to repay his debt of providing shelter to his father. He even battles the dragon by the end of the story to demonstrate his bravery and this desire for popularity for bravery takes his life.
- Revenge: The epic shows the theme of revenge through the character of Grendel and Beowulf. Although the arrival of Beowulf is just to repay his debt to his father that Horthgar sheltered him in the past, his main desire is to exact the revenge of the killed Danes from Grendel. Then it moves the vicious circle of revenge in which Grendel’s mother, too, gets killed by Beowulf. The same goes for the killing of the dragon in which Beowulf suffers fatal injuries.
- Generosity: The heroic code of generosity is another theme that runs through Beowulf. The first example of this generosity is the act of Hrothgar to extend refuge to Ecgheow, when he was fleeing during his tribal feud. The second act is Beowulf’s offer to Hrothgar to battle Grendel to save the Danes. Although the royal couple, too, demonstrates this generosity, it is the rule of Beowulf that shows his generosity toward his subjects in that he loses his own life when battling the dragon.
- Hospitality: King Hrothgar shows the trait of hospitality when he extends refuge to Ecgheow. When Beowulf offers to repay the old debt, he also enjoys the same hospitality, though, he is a guest who has come on his own will to fight Grendel.
- Death: The theme of death has been shown through the heroic acts of Beowulf who defies all ancient norms and chases the demon to his swamp. He even battles the dragon that takes his own life, but does not budge from his stand of saving his subjects. This brave act of dying for one’s people wins him the praise of the poets.
- Duty of the King: The character of Beowulf shows the theme of the duty of the king in that a king is responsible for the lives of his subjects. That is why Hrothgar accepts his offer to help him get rid of Grendel and Beowulf loses his own life when he battles the dragon by the end of his rule.
Major Characters in Beowulf
- Beowulf: Major character and hero, Beowulf moves the storyline of the epic forward with his background, his parentage, his exploits, and his heroic death. A Geat by ethnicity, he leads from the front and takes his warriors to Denmark when he hears that the former benefactor of his father, Hrothgar, is facing a demon, Grendel, and feeling helpless to save the lives of his subjects. He offers his assistance and battles not only the demon but also kills his mother, diving deep into the swamp after her. After winning a heroic success, he leaves for his land to rule the Geats until he is quite old when he has had to fight the dragon – a battle which also takes his life. However, he advises Wiglaf, his aide, to take charge of the Geats and rule them like him.
- King Hrothgar: The second main character of Beowulf, King Hrothgar is a peace-loving person who wins the allegiance of the adjoining tribes and expands the frontiers of his kingdom. He is the second son of Healfdene, a Danish King, and has succeeded his brother Heorogar to rule Denmark after his death. Despite his bravery, courage, and boldness, he feels helpless in the face of Grendel, a demon that attacks his mead-hall and kills his soldiers in his attacks. Finally, Beowulf arrives to assist him in this battle, though, it is actually a return of his act of extending shelter to his father.
- Grendel: Grendel, the demon that attacks Hrothgar’s warriors and subjects when they are engaged in festivities in Heorot, represents evil to be conquered by Beowulf. He appears when the Danes are engaged in merrymaking and disappears when Beowulf cuts down his arm and makes him flee to his den under the swamp. However, his mother appears to exact revenge to whom Beowulf slays when he chases her down the swamp.
- Grendel’s Mother: Although she is a female character and anonymous as well, she attacks the Danes to avenge her son’s death. However, Beowulf chases her to the swamp and kills her after a fierce battle with her.
- The Dragon: The significance of the dragon lies in that he wounds Beowulf when he has witnessed a glorious period of prosperity and laid the example of a generous rule. The Geats, however, find themselves in hot waters when a thief mistakenly awakens the dragon, making him go on the killing spree. Thus, it becomes Beowulf’s responsibility to face the dragon and save his people. Ultimately he kills the dragon with the aid of his companion, Wiflag, but at the cost of his own life.
- Shield Sheafson: Despite being a minor character, Sheafson plays an important role in the upbringing of a good offspring of the kings. Hrothgar proves this when he orders the building of Heorot and later by accepting the assistance from Beowulf to relieve his subjects from the pangs of the death spree launched by Grendel. Sheafson receives heroic mourning from his subjects when they hand over his dead body to the sea waves.
- Unferth: Despite having a minor role, Unferth follows Hrothgar after his death and lacks the qualities to lead like him. Both of them have a brawl in Heorot where he dispises Beowulf’s qualities, while the latter accuses him of killing his brother. Later, both of them reconcile after Beowulf wins the swimming match and Unferth awards him his family sword.
- Wiglaf: The character of Wiglaf is significant in that he sides Beowulf against the dragon and wins that battle. In this way, he proves himself a suitable person to lead the Geats after Beowulf though his persona does not prosper under the towering shadow of Beowulf.
- Ecgtheow: The significance of the character of Ecgtheow lies in that he is the father of Beowulf and has trained him in chivalrous acts in that Beowulf immediately comes to the aid of the benefactor of his father when he hears about Dane’s problem of Grendel.
Writing Style of Beowulf
The writing style of the epic, Beowulf, by Seamus Heaney is quite plain and simple. The language, however, is rich with different types of images and other literary devices. The most prominent feature of this version is its terseness and conciseness interspersed with compound words such as “bone-house” and “whale-road.” Its alliterative verses create a melody, making it a fit read for gatherings as the use of two syllables in each half-line enriches its melodic impacts. Yet, it preserves its grandiose style that is fit for such classical epics.
Analysis of Literary Devices in Beowulf
- Action: The main action of the epic comprises the attack of Grendel at Heorot and then Beowulf’s battle with him, his mother, and then with the dragon. The rising action occurs when Beowulf enters the swamp to chase the mother of Grendel, and the falling action occurs when the dragon injures Beowulf.
- Alliteration: The epic shows the use of alliteration. For example,
- For the killing of Abel
the Eternal Lord had exacted a price:
Cain got no good from committing that murder
because the Almighty made him anathema
and out of the curse of his exile there sprang
ogres and elves and evil phantoms
and the giants too who strove with God
time and again until He gave them their reward. (97-115)
- “It bothers me to have to burden anyone
with all the grief Grendel has caused
and the havoc he has wreaked upon us in Heorot,
our humiliations. (474-478).
- An attendant stood by
with a decorated pitcher, pouring bright
helpings of mead. (494-497).
These examples show the alliterative sound of /c/, /m/ in the first, /h/ in the second, and /p/ in the last.
3. Antagonist: Beowulf shows Grendel, his mother, and the dragon as antagonists of the epic as they kill the people mercilessly just to satisfy their instincts.
4. Allusion: There are various examples of allusions given in the epic such as;
- Cain’s clan, whom the Creator had outlawed
and condemned as outcasts. For the killing of Abel
the Eternal Lord had exacted a price: (96-99)
- There was no hoard like it since Hama snatched
the Brosings’ neck-chain and bore it away
with its gems and settings to his shining fort. (1197-1199)
- Fate swept him away
because of his proud need to provoke
a feud with the Frisians. (1205-1208)
5. Conflict: The conflict in the epic, Beowulf, is between the good and evil on one level and between the representative characters on the other level. Beowulf stands for good and Grendel, his mother and the dragon stand for evil.
6. Characters: Beowulf presents static characters. The reason is that all the characters stay almost the same from the first to the last, representing either good or evil such as Beowulf, Grendel, the dragon, Hygelac, and Hrothgar.
- There was Shield Sheafson, scourge of many tribes,
a wrecker of mead-benches, rampaging among foes.
This terror of the hall-troops had come far. (4-6)
- That doom abided,
but in time it would come: the killer instinct
unleashed among in-laws, the blood-lust rampant. (84-87)
- Then the gold hilt was handed over
to the old lord, a relic from long ago
for the venerable ruler. (1677-1680)
- He carried the arms to the victim’s kinfolk,
the burnished helmet, the webbed chain-mail
and that relic of the giants. (2615-2619)
These quotes from Beowulf foreshadow the coming events.
- greedy and grim, he grabbed thirty men
from their resting places and rushed to his lair,
flushed up and inflamed from the raid,
blundering back with the butchered corpses. (121-125)
These verses show the exaggerated killing of the demon, Grendel.
- Then as dawn brightened and the day broke
Grendel’s powers of destruction were plain:
their wassail was over, they wept to heaven
and mourned under morning. (126-130)
- The bloodshot water wallowed and surged,
there were loathsome upthrows and overturnings
of waves and gore and wound-slurry.
With his death upon him, he had dived deep
into his marsh-den, drowned out his life
and his heathen soul: hell claimed him there. (846-852)
- the old dawn-scorching serpent’s den
packed with goblets and vessels from the past,
tarnished and corroding. Rusty helmets
all eaten away. Armbands everywhere,
artfully wrought. (2760-2764)
These examples show the use of different images such as sound, color, and sight.
- Cain got no good from committing that murder
because the Almighty made him anathema
and out of the curse of his exile there sprang
ogres and elves and evil phantoms. (8-12)
Here instead of using “bad,” Heaney has used negative “no good.”
12. Metaphor: Beowulf shows good use of various metaphors such as;
- I have heard, who was Onela’s queen,
a balm in bed to the battle-scarred Swede. (62-63)
- Hrothgar, the helmet of Shieldings, spoke (456)
- Every bone in his body
quailed and recoiled, but he could not escape. (752-753)
- This terror of the hall-troops had come far.
A foundling to start with, he would flourish later on
as his powers waxed and his worth was proved. (6-8)
These examples show that Onela is compared to balm, Hrothgar to the helmet, and bones to recoils.
14. Motif: Most important motifs of Beowulf are the monster, the oral traditions, Heorot, the sea, and the dragon.
15. Narrator: Beowulf has been narrated by a third-person omniscient narrator.
16. Personification: Beowulf shows the use of personifications such as;
- My armour helped me to hold out;
my hard-ringed chain-mail, hand-forged and linked. (550-551)
- Through my own hands,
the fury of battle had finished off the sea-beast. (557-559)
- Then his rage boiled over, he ripped open
the mouth of the building, maddening for blood. (723-724)
Here armor, hands, and rage have been shown as if they have lives of their own.
18. Protagonist: The Geatish hero, Beowulf is the protagonist of the epic. The epic starts with his entry in Denmark and moves forward as he fights the demon, his mother, and finally the dragon until his death.
19. Rhetorical Questions: The epic shows good use of rhetorical questions at several places. For example,
- how could they know fate,
the grim shape of things to come,
the threat looming over many thanes
as night approached and King Hrothgar prepared
to retire to his quarters? (1233-1237)
- Then Hrothgar, the Shieldings’ helmet, spoke:
“Rest? What is rest? Sorrow has returned.
Alas for the Danes! (1320-1323)
- How did you fare on your foreign voyage,
dear Beowulf, when you abruptly decided
to sail away across the salt water
and fight at Heorot? Did you help Hrothgar
much in the end? Could you ease the prince
of his well-known troubles? (1987-1992)
This example shows the use of rhetorical questions posed but different characters not to elicit answers but to stress upon the underlined idea.
20. Setting: The setting of the epic, Beowulf, spreads over Denmark and then some areas of Geatland.
21. Simile: The epic shows a good use of various similes such as;
- Over the waves, with the wind behind her
and foam at her neck, she flew like a bird. (217-218)
- Every nail,
claw-scale and spur, every spike
and welt on the hand of that heathen brute
was like barbed steel. (983-987)
- King Hrethel kept me and took care of me,
was open-handed, behaved like a kinsman. (2430-2431)
These are similes as the use of the word “like” shows the comparison between different things.