Beowulf: Anglo-Saxon Poem - Origin, Summary & Analysis

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      Beowulf is the first of the epics in English poetry. The Angles brought the story of Beowulf with them to England in the sixth century. The story is about the Scandinavians. It contains over three thousand lines and deals with three episodes which are connected together only by the central figure of the hero himself. It was written down in Britain by a Christian scribe about 700 A.D. but the materials from which it was composed belong to an earlier date and to a distant Pagan land. Beowulf is no national epic like Homer's Iliad. The story is mere folklore. Beowulf (meaning the bear) is like the folk-tale heroes, who have been suckled by a wild beast and imbibed strength from that.

Beowulf is the first of the epics in English poetry.

Origin of the Poem :

      The theme of the poem is Continental Germanic, and it is likely that it was the subject of lays long before its present version was composed. There is, it may be noted, no mention of England, and Beowulf himself is king of the 'Geatas'. Though there is much in the poem which can be considered pagan and which suggests that the poem in origin may be considered as such, the extant version was clearly written by a Christian for the 'Christianization' is no mere veneer. Of its actual authorship there is no evidence. Modern scholars in the main now look upon it as a reworking of older material by a Christian and not simply as a collection of tales strung together by one hand. The dialect of the text is West Saxon though there is clear evidence that it was written in some Anglian dialect, but whether Mercian or Northumbrian is uncertain.

The Story of Beowulf (Summary) :

      There are so many episodes and digressions in the story of Beowulf that it is almost impossible briefly to give an adequate synopsis of the narrative. In outline, it may be said that Beowulf, son of Ecgtheow, sails to Denmark with a band of warriors and rids the Danish King Hrothgar of a terrible mere-monster called Grendel. The mother of Grendel, seeking vengeance for the death of her son, meets the same fate, and Beowulf, fittingly feasted and rewarded, returns to his native land. He becomes king of the Geatas and after a prosperous reign of some forty years slays a dragon which had ravaged his land, but in the fight, he himself receives a mortal wound. The poem concludes with the funeral ceremonies in honor of the dead hero.

      Beowulf is one of the most ancient epics of the Teutonic world and historically its subject takes us back to the first half of the sixth century. The story of Beowulf is divided into three parts: (1) Beowulf's adventure with Grendel; Beowulf comes to the help of Hrothgar, King of the Danes who is attacked at every night by Grendel and kills the monster. (2) Beowulf's adventure with Grendel's mother who comes to avenge her son. She too dies at the hand of Beowulf. (3) Beowulf is engaged in an adventure with the dragon. Beowulf becomes the king. A precious jewel is stolen by a dragon whom he seeks out and slays. But a wound caused by the dragon's venomous teeth proves fatal to Beowulf.

      Beowulf cannot be a national epic, for neither its characters, nor its events belong to Anglo-Saxon England. There is, however, no trace of the story in continental Germanic cycles. Only the similarity of incidents is observed with certain Scandinavian sagas. It may be concluded that Beowulf is an adaptation of Scandinavian saga in Anglo-Saxon poetry. It has a foreign basis but a national form. The atmosphere of the poem and the outlook on life embodied in Beowulf show a curious fusion of the Pagan and Christian elements. Atmosphere of gloom and horror and mysterious night and such sinister places as swamps where the dragons inhabit are the combined production of the sad northern landscape and the gloomy imagination of the Pagan poet. But the impression of nothingness of life and glory is not wholly Pagan. The Christian idea in the early stage of Christianity of the vanity and emptiness of earthly life is also there. Beowulf holds a special position in the Anglo-Saxon literature because it is the only complete extant epic of its kind in the ancient Germanic language. It is a heroic poem celebrating the exploits of a great warrior. Its style is elevated with concrete phrases, picturesque compounds, permanent epithets and uniform stately movement of rhythmic language, richness of details and digressions.

      Beowulf is not a true epic. Though certain episodes and the sustained gravity of tone tend to make Beowulf a historical poem, the incidents of the plot are romantic and supernatural. Adventures of monsters and dragons are more like a nursery tale than a heroic narrative. There is no perfection of technique as in the Homeric epic.

Writing Style :

      A short extract is printed below, with a literal translation, to illustrate the style. It will be observed that the language is forceful and expressive, conveying with an economy of words the picture of the funeral pyre on the cliff top and the lamentation of the warriors for their dead king. The use of compound words should be noted especially, together with that of the kenning, which skilfully handled "took on the form of a compressed vivid statement of a highly original image." The verse is strongly rhythmical, based on a stress system with four stresses to the full line, two in each of the half-lines; it is also alliterative, there being two alliterating syllables in the first half-line and one (usually the first) in the second. The stressed syllables are the ones which bear the alliteration.

Social Life in Beowulf :

      The poem has remarkable literary qualities which lift it to the level of an epic. The poem is written with a long line. The lines do not rhyme, but each line has alliteration, and the poet has a special and extensive vocabulary. He uses 'picture names' for the things and people he has to describe; so the 'sea' is the 'swan's road' and the body is the 'bone-house'. The description of Beowulf's fight with Grendel has a Homeric vigor. The description of the marshes in which Grendel's mother dwells is said to be the most famous passage in the poem. "A somber imagination and the sadness of the northern landscape have united to paint this powerful' picture." The scenic background is like that in Hardy's novels. Nature here is bleak and sinister, rough and rugged. The view of life is equally gloomy, though the poem is a glorification of prowess and adventure.

      There is no joy, no tenderness to relieve the gloom. The hero has been depicted with great imagination and insight and made vital. His loyalty and dauntless courage, his courtesy and respect for ladies foreshadow the later chivalry; he is, as it were, the knight-errant before the days of chivalry. The style too has a great dignity throughout. As a picture of the social life of a primitive age it has a great historical significance. The splendor and the banquets and revelries in the court are drawn with realism. The life of the common people, who eat and drink and sleep after day's labor, too receives the attention of the poet.

      Beowulf holds a special position in the Anglo-Saxon literature because it is the only complete extant epic of its kind in the ancient Germanic language. Nowhere else has a traditional theme been handled in a long narrative poem with a background that reveals the culture and society of the heroic age of Germanic people. The poem gives a very valuable and faithful historical record of ancient Teutonic life - their system of government, social institutions, their culture and religion, their belief and superstitions. At the head of the social hierarchy of the Anglo-Saxons, there was the lord or chieftain of a clan living in a large hall of a city or a fortified place. Ceremonies are elaborate and gorgeous. There is supreme respect for Kingship. Women play a prominent part gracing feasts in ceremonies with their presence. They often show political wisdom. Courage and loyalty are the chief virtues of men.

Heroism in Beowulf :

       Beowulf is a great warrior who loves glory and adventures in a foreign land. He is gifted with iron resolution, fearlessness and dutifulness and spirit of self-sacrifice. He declines the throne in favor of his infant cousin. He has the attributes of an ideal hero. The poem reflects the ideal of that state of society which is called the heroic age. The philosophy of life is Teutonic-sober, melancholy and stern. It celebrates the heroism of a great warrior where character and actions are held up as a model of aristocratic Virtue. But an elegiac note pervades the poem. At the moment of Beowulf's supreme triumph, Hrothgar discourses on human vanity and the inexorability of fate.

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