By: Vanessa Uy
Beowulf is a perfect example of an Old English Poem, which survives to this day. Written probably in the 8th Century A. D. The author’s identity was lost to history. The poem has about 3,182 alliterative lines.
Cast of Characters:
BEOWULF – the hero of the poem, born of the royal house of the Geatas, a tribe living in a part of what is now Sweden.
HEARDRED – son of Beowulf.
SCYLD – the child who arrived in Denmark, then became a mighty warrior, one of Beowulf’s ancestors.
KING HYGELAC – maternal uncle of Beowulf whom he served as a henchman.
KING HROTHGAR – the Danish king terrorized by Grendel.
GRENDEL – the troll who came every night to kill and eat those he caught.
The action opens in Denmark. The Danish king can’t do anything about Grendel, so he asked Beowulf for help. Beowulf heard of the “haunting”, so he with his 14 followers took ship for Denmark. King Hrothgar welcomed the Geatish troop and allowed them to use the castle’s hall for the night.
That evening, Grendel came and fought with Beowulf. Grendel’s arm was dismembered by Beowulf’s very strong grip. Grendel escapes to the bottom of the sea leaving behind his severed arm. He died soon after he reached his underwater abode.
The next evening, Grendel’s mother took revenge by abducting a high ranking Dane. Beowulf came after her and made his way to her hall at the sea- bottom and slew her using a supposedly lucky sword that he found there. After the hard fight in which the sword he had taken with him proved useless. Beowulf nearly lost his life.
When he and his men returned to Geatland laden with gifts, he made report to King Hygelac, who rewarded him with a huge grant of land. Some years later Heardred died in battle. Then Beowulf became king and ruled for 50 years.
A dragon began to lay waste of the Geatish countryside, in revenge for a theft from his treasure hoard. Beowulf, now a king, with the aid of his young kinsman, Wiglaf and ten other warriors set out to hunt the dragon down. When they neared its lair, Beowulf made his men wait while he advanced to fight alone. The fight went bad for Beowulf, thus Wiglaf came to his aid as the others fled. He and Wiglaf finally killed the terrible beast, but Beowulf was mortally wounded. When all was over, the “cowardly ten” came forward to bask in the glory of victory. Wiglaf rebuked them, and condemned them to the life of outcasts. The news of King Beowulf’s passing despite having slain the dragon brought the royal court to the scene, and the poem ends with the heroes funeral and words in his praise.
Beowulf falls into 2 contrasting parts. Part one (lines 1 – 2,199), the hero is young, an ideal foot-soldier, eager to risk his life for the good of others in high adventure to far away lands and beyond the call of duty. Beowulf fights single-handedly and always wins, despite long odds. His followers, though faithful, are smart enough not to interfere in his moment of glory. In part two (lines 2,200 – 3,182), the hero is older, an ideal ruler. Beowulf still goes to battle, but only when duty calls him to defend his own people. Still victorious but with only a kinsman beside him that’s willing to die for him; his followers proved useless in his hour of need, all but one.
The anonymous poet who wrote Beowulf attempted to reconcile both his pagan ancestry and his present Christian faith and culture at a time when Christianity was spreading unabated throughout Scandinavia. Beowulf could be viewed as a Cathecistal story to be told to the still non-Christian people of the British Isles during the 8th Century. Beowulf has pagan elements of bravery and courage mixed in with Christian values like charitable service. For me, Beowulf, which in my experience is now fashionably taught in High School could serve as a pre-requisite for someone interested in Wagnerian Operas of similar theme like Lohengrin or learning Nietzschean values like the “warrior ethic.”