The Oldest Trace of Anglo-Saxon Literature

Beowulf is the oldest epic poem that has come down to us from the past, it was originally composed anonimously, as was typical then, in Old English around the 7th century perhaps; it was untitled and in honour of a king who had recently died. Only in the 19th century it came to be known by the name of the main hero featured.  It celebrates and describes Germanic warrior society, outlining the strong relationship between the king, or lord, and his thanes, the latter ones pledged loyalty and service in defence of the king’s interest and in return they obtained provisions, weapons, armours, gold, silver, food and drinks. As we have said previously, it was a society held together by strong family ties that firmly believed in the power of fate and destiny.


The Plot

The plot of the poem is very simple and all based on the struggle that the hero, Beowulf, faces to defeat a monster – and then his avenging mother – that threaten the safety and the very life of a community. Beowulf, a young warrior at the service of the king Hygelac who ruled the Geats, one day sailed for Denmark to defeat the monster, Grendel, who had been terrorising and killing for twelve years the population of Denmark ruled by king Hrothgar. Beowulf is so brave and strong that he kills the monster with his bare hands, and since the terrible monster’s death triggers the horrible wrath of his mother who continues her sons’ deeds, he sets out towards the murky lake where Grendel’s mother lives and defeats her as well. Beowulf then returns to Geatland, where, after some time he is crowned king of the Geats. He ruled wisely for 50 years helping his people prosper. But a new threat lays ahead of him and, although very old, he cannot escape his fate and destiny, so he sacrifices his life for the best of his people. A spitting-fire dragon emerges from the barrow where he lays guarding its treasure, a thief, attempting to steal the treasure, has disturbed the monster who starts killing the Geats. Thus Beowulf goes to fight again with the help of Wiglaf, he succeeds in defeating the dragon but during the final battle he is wounded to the death.


An Epic Poem

Beowulf is an epic poem, in the first place, because it is set in great and far off lands, second, because it is about the great deeds of a hero fighting against the great forces of evil so that the world’s goodness may prevail. It’s man’s eternal fight between light and dark, good and evil. Furthermore, Beowulf is the hero that all can admire because of his courage and strength, but most of all because he is endowed with all the traits of the, so called, heroic ethic, meaning that he puts his people’s wellness and interests above his own life. As in all epic poems, here too, there are many historical elements in the background, yet the tale and its characters are wholly invented. The poetic language used is very elevated, repetitions are largely used and long lists confer a sense of grandeur, especially those of leaders and their military followers.

The poem contains some atypical Christian elements, as a matter of fact, historically speaking, all the characters should be pagans and there are some elements that support this hypothesis, for instance Beowulf worships pagan idols and prays to a superior force referring to it as the “Father Almighty” or “Wielder of All”; at the same time there are also some biblical references to the Old Testament, even though Christ is never mentioned, moreover the narration of some events is placed in a biblical context and, even more so, Grendel and his mother are portrayed as descendants of Cain, finally some characters express monotheistic beliefs. Another unusual aspect is the fact that the poem is centred around a Scandinavian hero right about the same time that the Vikings were raiding Britain and its shores, for this reason many scholars believe that the poem may have actually been composed around 790 A.D, therefore before the coming of the Danes.

Image taken from Google image search


© L. R. Capuana

One Reply to “Beowulf”

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