Beowulf Essay, Research Paper
Structurally, Beowulf is divided into three main parts, each one of which centers around Beowulf’s confrontation with a particular monster: first Grendel, then Grendel’s mother, then, fifty years later, the dragon. Each monster functions symbolically as a force of evil against which can be tested the moral force of the heroic code of honor explored throughout the epic, represented physically by Beowulf, the hero who most perfectly adheres to that code. The inventory of traits and behaviors that comprise the code of honor makes up a substantial portion of the thematic material of Beowulf, as situation after situation is introduced to exhibit proper and improper ways to behave. The relationship between King Hrothgar and his warriors, in which Hrothgar gives them treasure and a mead hall in return for their loyalty and bravery, represents the proper relationship between the lord (or “ring-giver”) and his men (or “thanes”) in the Anglo-Saxon social scheme. Beowulf himself emphasizes the importance of reputation and fame as part of the heroic code, continually boasting of his exploits–in a way that is eminently socially acceptable in his society–and describing fame as a bulwark against death. Another aspect of the code explored throughout the epic is the propriety of revenge: when an ally is killed, it is more honorable to avenge his death than to mourn it. This is shown by Beowulf’s attack on Grendel’s mother following her murder of Aeschere.
The first part of the book, in which Beowulf fights and defeats Grendel, is most preoccupied with the idea of reputation and fame, as Beowulf boasts of his past deeds and looks forward to his heroic showdown with Grendel; the second part is most preoccupied with the idea of revenge, as Beowulf helps Hrothgar avenge Aeschere against Grendel’s mother; and the third part, in which Beowulf is an old man, is most preoccupied with the idea of fate, or wyrd, a kind of inescapable, inevitable doom that hangs over the whole of the epic. Beowulf’s wyrd is represented powerfully by the figure of the dragon, the final monster Beowulf fights, and the one which eventually kills him; in this way, the moral and metaphysical components of the epic are often embodied directly within its physical universe. Every man must die, and Beowulf’s inevitable death is symbolically embodied in his world by the monster destined to kill him; by the same token, characters who adhere to the heroic code tend to triumph, while those who violate it (such as Unferth), tend to find shame and humiliation.
Another way in which the moral aspect of the poem is embodied in its universe is in its obsession with patriarchal history, with the lineage of each character and with the deeds of their fathers; characters are constantly defined in terms of their fathers and ancestors, and are constantly driven to act in a certain way by the facts of their father’s lives–a fact that roots the heroic code in the process of history and enshrines it in the warriors’ most basic concept of identity.
The universe of Beowulf is one defined by the gloomy necessities of the heroic code, the prevalent dangers of the monsters, and the atmosphere of inevitable doom represented by the concept of wyrd. The world of the story certainly has its origins in a pagan, pre- Christian past, most likely originating before the Anglo-Saxon migration to England. (Hence the Scandinavian settings and characters.) But for many years Beowulf was an oral narrative, rather than a written text; by the time Beowulf was written down around 700 A.D., Anglo-Saxon England had largely converted to Christianity. The Christian poet who wrote the story often struggles with the tension between his Christian ethic and the clearly un-Christian events of the narrative. He constantly makes asides imputing themes and behaviors to Christian principles (Beowulf knows that he owes all his strength to God, Grendel is a son of Cain, etc.), but ultimately the tension between the Christian ethic of the poet and the pagan aura of the story is irresolvable; it animates the epic throughout, imparting a heightened tension and a more ominous feeling of suspense.