Literature I – Mid-term Assignment
Name: Ernesto Muniz Teacher: Elena Ma. Garcia
Group: Second Due date: August 25, 2009
Beowulf is considered the greatest old English poem. Although it is difficult to understand because it’s
written in a mixture of West Saxon and Anglian dialects, it is a perfect portrait of life in the days it was
written and that’s what makes it the greatest old English poem.
It is an epic poem and it was written in times when poems were narrations and told stories about heroes
or gods, as those from the Bible. Beowulf tells about the tribal history of the Angles, Saxons and Jutes
after the Roman Empire was over. Other poems, taken from the Bible and from Caedmon and Cynewulf
were mainly religious. Even though the author of the written version of Beowulf seems to be a Christian,
the hero Beowulf has his origins in an earlier pagan era. The action in the poem takes place in the fifth
century, after the Anglo-Saxons had migrated and settled in the territory that today corresponds to
England. At this point the Saxons had tight bounds to Germanic clans in Scandinavia and Northern
Germany. There’s the theory that the stories told in Beowulf were passed from generation to generation
by word of mouth by people of Geatish origins, and that the poem was written in the seventh century in
As an old English poem Beowulf has alliterations as he main figure of poetry instead of rhyme, which is
the main figure in modern poetry. This technique consists of similar sounds at the beginning of the words
in a verse. Another important technique in Beowulf is the use of kennings, which are ways of referring to
things not by their names, but by describing them by poetic evocations. This technique is used with poetic
purposes but also to serve alliterations and metre. Kennings are similar to metaphors, which are used all
along the poem as well. According to some authors Beowulf is an elegy, not only because of how it is
written, but also because of what it is about.
The story tells hazardous adventures of Beowulf, the protagonist, hero of the Geats. It is an epic since it
tells how the main character endeavours along distances and against beasts, proving his strength and
overcoming these odysseys. Beowulf comes to defend Heorot (the king of the Danes Hrothgar´s hall)
from a monster called Grendel, and from its mother afterwards, killing both of them. Then, being king of
the Geats, Beowulf, with a helper, fights a dragon that threatens his reign, succeeding on this, but then
dying from his wounds.
Despite the supernatural elements, the poem is not completely fictional. It’s based on legends, which
include fiction and historic events. It includes information about real places, peoples and even clans.
Things referred to in the poem match archaeological findings, confirming dates and traditions, such as
the Scandinavian tradition which located Heorot, the seat of the Syildings in a place where a hall built in
the sixth century was found, which matches exactly the time period when Beowulf was written.
Archaeological findings have also confirmed the tradition for burials, which are of great importance in
The poem can be divided into different moments by funerals, as a way of giving it a structure. The poem
can be structured by battles as well, and it is widely accepted that according to the battles it has three
parts. The parts are set by Beowulf´s battles against Grendel, Grendel´s mother, and finally, the dragon.
Scholars agree that there are three funerals that set different moments in the story and are related to the
battles the hero fights.
The first funeral (of Scyld Scefing, king of the Danes) sets the background of the poem, leads to the
appearance of Beowulf and sets the plot. It also lets us know the importance of Scyld by the service he
receives cremated at sea, and through this, the concepts of heroic society. For example, the possessions
gone with him are equivalent to his greatness.
The second funeral is of Hildeburg´s relatives, and it leads to the battles between Beowulf and Grendel´s
mother. In this case the dead are also important and are buried with their armour and gold, but their
service denotes a lower position in society than that of Scyld´s.
The last funeral is Beowulf´s. It makes clear that his importance is the greatest in the story and shows his
greatness through different elements: he is given several offerings from his people; he is buried with the
huge remains of the dragon as part of his treasure; and he is cremated in a special way, with a big fire
and even with special wood brought from a special place.
There’s a theory, developed by Allen Cabaniss, which establishes a connection between Beowulf, the
character, and Jesus in several aspects. Firstly, it claims that both of them are fearless at confronting evil,
and that they are selfless and deeply altruistic to die for people below them, servants to the former and
simply mortals to the latter. Secondly, it states that they are similar in the way they both forgive those
against them, meaning the ones who wanted Jesus to be crucified and Beowulf’s enemy, Unferth. It also
points out some similarities between the poem and the Bible. For example, the destiny awaiting for those
whose deeds are led by evil. This may well be due to the fact that Beowulf deals with pagan myths in a
Christian form, or from a Christian point of view, and that it was even written for a Christian audience
(Richard North, Professor of English, University College London).
However, Beowulf pictures a Germanic pagan warrior society and the importance in the relationship
between the lord and his servants, which was based more on mutual trust and respect than on
subordination of one to the other. Warriors were more of voluntary companions, proud to fight for their
lord than they were servants. The lord would look after them and reward their courage. These principles
differ greatly from those of the Bible, by which people are supposed to be subordinated to some deity and
blindly follow its will.
Beowulf is universal because it’s profoundly human and portraits the human values in those times and
the contrast between brutality and heroes´ ethics. Despite the fact that it is difficult to understand,
Beowulf is worthwhile reading provided it can be considered a source for learning about history and the
culture of peoples.
Cabaniss, Allen “Liturgy and Literature”, University of Alabama Press, 1970
North, Richard, University College London Press