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Beowulf: Introduction

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Beowulf, the longest surviving poem in Old English stretching to 3182 lines, is preserved in only one manuscript, Cotton Vitellius A.XV. The date of its composition is uncertain, and its author remains unknown. Though it was written down at the end of the tenth century in the West Saxon dialect of Old English, it may have been composed as early as the eighth. [1] Its themes concern the values of Germanic tribal society, the complexities of which are reflected in the intricate nature of the narrative structure, a structure well suited for oral presentation.


Beowulf was originally composed to be performed orally and remembered, not read, during each performance. Therefore, the poetic conventions employed in the poem might be quite different from those with which modern readers are familiar. For instance, Old English poetry does not rhyme. Instead, the Old English poetic line, in addition to be divided into two half-lines, is defined by two aspects: accent and alliteration. Each line has 4 beats, meaning that its meter is defined by stressed, or accented, syllables, not by number of syllables or rhyme. At least three of these syllables alliterate; that is, at least three of these syllables begin with the same sound: "The alliteration of the whole line is determined by the first heavily stressed syllable of the second half-line." [2] Here's an example from the beginning of the poem (modern letters have been used): "Of Scyld Scefing sceathena threatum / monegum maegthum meodo-setla ofteah" (lines 4-5). Notice the repeated "sc" sounds in line four and the repeated "m" sounds in line five. The beats and alliteration would help the scop, the Old English poet, remember the plot of his story.

Half-lines were often very formulaic, even repetitive, providing the scop with yet another way to remember his story. Throughout Beowulf there are half-lines--and some whole lines--repeated. These repetitions illustrate the vast store of "forms and formulations" available to the scop in his retelling of the story. [3]

The scop's collection of poetic techniques included some that may not be familiar to modern readers. Litotes is one of the Beowulf poet's favorite types of figurative language. Litotes is intentional, often ironic and negative, understatement. For instance, when Beowulf describes how he fought against monsters that were attacking him once when he was swimming, he says that they had "Small pleasure . . . in such a sword feast" (line 562). [4] Such a description provides a sense of irony to many scenes, even some of the direst, and, thus, provides readers with ironic perspective on the hero and his code. [5]

Kenning is another Old English type of figurative language found in Beowulf. A kenning is the combination of two nouns forming a particularly powerful metaphor. For instance, the sea is the "swan's way" or the "whale road." Kenning is one technique by which the poet adds synonyms to his poem. Again, such repetition of ideas, if not words, aided the scop in remembering his story, while also providing a poetic way of doing so.[6] The poem also contains many examples of synecdoche and metonymy. Synecdoche is a figure in which part of something is substituted for the whole, as when Beowulf uses the word "keel" to refer to the whole ship. In metonymy the name of one thing is substituted for the name of another thing that most readers associate with the first. In Beowulf and example of metonymy would be when the word "iron" is used instead of "sword." [7]

Another aspect of the poem that can be traced to its oral origins is its tendency to tell other stories mixed in with the main story of Beowulf. Although these so-called digressions may seem tangential to the main plot, they often provide the hero with both positive and negative examples of behavior and help the poet to establish some of his main themes. John Leyerle argues that the integration of these digressions is similar to the designs in Anglo-Saxon (another way of saying "Old English") art in which animals, plants, and abstract forms are interlaced. Eamon Carrigan has developed this idea more fully. [8]

The Story

The story opens with a recapping of the terrors that have befallen the the kingdom of Hrothgar of Denmark. His great mead hall, Heorot, has long been attacked by Grendel, a "solitary fiend" (line 165), who has killed men and brought fear to all in Hrothgar's charge. The men who serve Hrothgar live according to the bonds of comitatus, a social schema whereby the lord is obligated to his followers to provide them with treasure, community, and a home, when those followers are loyal, brave and willing to defend their comrades and lord at any cost. [9] This mutual obligation creates a bond among all the men and a community in which all know their position. Therefore, Grendel's rampage disturbed more than a house; he also broke apart the bonds of a community when he destroyed Heorot, the symbol of community, itself.

Having heard of Hrothgar's troubles, Beowulf, prince of the Geats, arrives with his men from Sweden to offer their services, extending the bonds of comitatus even further. When Grendel attacks that night, Beowulf pulls the monster's arm from the socket and the defeated "enemy from Hell" (line 101) retreats to his home on the margins of Hrothgar's kingdom and its society (lines 1-836) The Danes and Swedes rejoice the next day, but their exuberance proves to be premature: Grendel's mother attacks that same night, taking one man to avenge her son's death and thereby fulfilling her own obligation of comitatus to her son. Beowulf, along with his men and the Danes, travel to the lake where this monster-woman lives, but the hero dives into the water alone, eventually defeating the "towering mere-wife" (line 1519) only by using a magic sword he finds in her cache of treasure (lines 837-1650).

Beowulf's job is not done, however, for he must also relate his stories, first to Hrothgar who warns him of the dangers of pride and the transience of youth, then to Hygelac, his uncle and king of Sweden. Both men reward the hero well, and readers are reminded that Beowulf's actions have helped to increase bonds and obligations among different tribes (1651-2199). Here ends the portion of the poem that relates the adventures of Beowulf's youth. Although the young hero has been successful, the poem is replete with an elegiac tone, a sense of impending doom ever-present. This doom manifests itself in the second part of the poem.

The second part begins with a brief synopsis of how Beowulf eventually came to the throne in Sweden and ruled peacefully for fifty years. This peace is brought to an end, however, by the actions of an individual more focused on his own welfare than that of the community. This man falls into a dragon's lair and steals a cup, waking the dragon to gain revenge on the humans who wronged him. Beowulf decides to face the dragon himself and chooses a band of men to help him. The dragon begins to get the best of the old hero in this fight and, making matters worse, only one of the men who are supposed to help, rises to the challenge. This man, Wiglaf, stabs the dragon through the belly but only after Beowulf has received his death-wound (2200-2891).

The end of Beowulf makes clear the purpose of its elegiac tone. As Beowulf dies and then is burned on a pyre (lines 2892-3182), what becomes absolutely clear is that one thing the poem is about is that all things pass away. Specifically, Beowulf teaches that an individual like Beowulf is a hero because he focuses on the good of the community, but individuals like Grendel, the robber, the dragon, or the cowardly members of Beowulf's final band of fighters are villains because their focus is solely on their own existence; their focus, in other words, does not further the bonds of comitatus. The elegiac nature of the poem, then, comes from the realization that there will always be each kind of individual and, therefore, the ideal of comitatus will never be enough to bring lasting peace to humanity.


Some scholars take this final message and compare it to passages in the poem that suggest a Christian ethic and conclude that the poem illustrates the futility of any way of life, like comitatus, that focuses on meaning and order made by men. Many specifically Christian references occur, especially to the Old Testament. For instance, Grendel is said to be a descendant of Cain (line 107) and God is spoken of as creator of all things and seems equated with wyrd or Fate. Additionally, the speech that Hrothgar makes to Beowulf in which he advises the young hero to be wary of pride and reliance on youth seems to reflect teachings of the early Christian church. [10] Yet reference to the New Testament, according to some scholars, is completely absent. Indeed, the values of tribal Germanic society, with its emphasis on revenge and community, resonate with those of the Old Testament: "By restricting Biblical references to events in the Old Testament, the poet shows the Germanic revenge ethic as consistent with the Old Law of retribution" [11] and makes this way of life consonant with Christianity.

Beowulf also traces the story of the hero's maturation. As the poem begins, Beowulf is a young man with a questionable reputation who must prove himself. After the young hero defeats Grendel's mother, the elderly king Hrothgar lectures him on the pride of youth, telling him the story of the evil king Heremod, who grew so prideful that he broke the bonds of comitatus and focused solely on his own welfare (lines 1700-1784). The story of Heremod is only one among many tales of villains and heroes that are related in this first part of the poem. In this early part of the story, Beowulf may be compared to a child who listens to fairy tales to learn proper and improper behavior. At the beginning of the second part of the poem, after the dragon has begun his relentless attacks on Beowulf's people, the old king becomes the character with the wisdom to lecture those around him about the overly proud people of the world, as well as the transience and complexity of human life and values.

Another theme important to Beowulf is that of community. Comitatus, along with the focus on the good of all instead of the good of an individual, proves to be the factor that defines heroic acts. Beowulf's acts are heroic because they always help a community. Although he is personally rewarded with gold and horses for defeating Grendel and his mother, the poem emphasizes the fact that in helping Hrothgar and his people, Beowulf reaffirms ties between Denmark and Sweden. These ties are not solely political. For Hrothgar tells Beowulf, "I will love you like a son / cherish you for life" (lines 947-948). In the world of Beowulf, family and kingdom become metaphors for each other and for the more basic term of community.


1. Howell D. Chickering, Beowulf: A Dual-Language Edition (New York: Anchor, 1977), 1, and David Damrosch, general editor, The Longman Anthology of British Literature (New York: Longman, 1999), 1: 27.

2. Chickering, 29.

3. Fr. Klaeber, Beowulf and "The Fight at Finnsburg" (Lexington, MA: D.C Heath, 1950), lxvii.

4. All quotations are from Chickering's edition.

5. Chickering, 9-10, and Klaeber, lxv.

6. Damrosch, 1:28, and Klaeber, lxiii-lxiv.

7. M.H. Abrams, general editor, The Norton Anthology of English Literature, sixth edition (New York: W.W. Norton, 1993), 1:4.

8. Chickering, 19; Leyerle, "The Interlace Structure of Beowulf," University of Toronto Quarterly 37 (1961), 1-17; Carrigan, "Structure and Thematic Development in Beowulf," Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy 66 (1967),1-51.

9. Damrosch, 1: 27.

10. Abrams, 1:22.

11. Damrosch, 1:27. 



Chickering, Howell D., ed. Beowulf: A Dual-Language Edition. New York: 1977.

Klaeber, Fr., ed. Beowulf and "The Fight at Finnsburg." Lexington: D.C. Heath, 1950.


Donaldson, E. Talbot, trans. Beowulf. New York: W.W. Norton, 1975.

Heaney, Seamus, trans. Beowulf: A New Verse Translation. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000.

Nye, Robert, trans. Beowulf : A New Telling. New York: Dell, 1982.

Critical Studies

Bessinger, Jess B. & Robert F. Yeager, eds. Approaches to Teaching Beowulf. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1984.

Chambers, R. W. Beowulf : An Introduction to the Study of the Poem with a Discussion of the Stories of Offa and Finn. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1967.

Fry, Donald K., ed. The Beowulf Poet: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1968.

Huppé, Bernard Felix. The Hero in the Earthly City : A Reading of Beowulf. Binghamton: Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies, 1984.

Lee, Alvin A. Gold-Hall and Earth-dragon : Beowulf as Metaphor. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1998.

Ogilvy, J. D. A. Reading Beowulf : An Introduction to the Poem, Its Background, and Its Style. Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1983.

Overing, Gillian R. Language, Sign, and Gender in Beowulf. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1990.

Sisam, Kenneth. The Structure of Beowulf. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965.

Tolkien, J. R. R. Beowulf: The Monsters and Critics. Proceedings of the British Academy, v. 22. Sir Israel Gollancz memorial lecture, 1936.

Tuso, Joseph F., ed. Beowulf. New York: W.W. Norton,1975. Contains the Donaldson translation and essays on backgrounds, sources, and interpretations.

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This introduction is copyright 2000 Teresa P. Reed. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents, including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.