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The Significance of the Beowulf Poem

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The Significance of the Beowulf Poem

 
   There are many characteristics of the Beowulf poem that make it a

significant part of the history of literature.  It is a perfect representation

of how the people in eighth century England communicated, what their feelings

were, and their culture.  "It gives us vital information about Old English

social life and about Old English politics and about many things that scholars

would like to have much more information on."(Raffel ix)  Another characteristic

is that the Beowulf poem was passed down orally.  The poem contains aspects of

Christianity what form it takes in the story.  It is also sort of a history of

how the English language has changed in the many years from then until now. The

poem also contains many mythical references and it contains  a great hero.

 

      Beowulf is considered an artifact by many because "it is the oldest of

the English long poems and may have been composed more than twelve hundred years

ago."(Beowulf 19)  It deals with events of the early 6th century and is believed

to have been composed between 700 and 750.  "No one knows who composed Beowulf ,

or why.  A single manuscript (Cotton Vitellius A XV) managed to survive Henry

VIII's dissolution of the monasteries, and the destruction of their great

libraries; since his name is written on one of the folios, Lawrence Nowell, the

sixteenth-century scholar, may have been responsible for Beowulf's

preservation."(Raffel ix)  An interesting fact that is unique about the poem is

that "it is the sole survivor of what may have been a thriving epic tradition,

and it is great poetry."(Raffel ix)

 

      The poem was composed and performed orally.  "Old English bards, or

scops, most likely began by piecing together traditional short songs, called

heroic lays; they then gradually added to that base until the poem grew to its

present size.  The verse form is the standard Old English isochronic:  each line

contains for stresses; there is a strong caesura in the middle of the lines and

the resultant half lines are bound together by alliteration.  Although little

Old English poetry survives, Beowulf's polished verse and reflective, allusive

development suggest that it is part of a rich poetic tradition."(Foster 501)

 

      An aspect of the poem is the role and characteristics of religion in the

story.  "Christianity enters into the poem, and the society, but more an Old

Testament variety, stressing justice rather than love.  There is controversy

about whether the Christian elements are intrinsic or are interpolations by a

tenth century monastic scribe.  In any case, the Christianity does not much

resemble that of the High Middle Ages or of the modern world.  Frequently the

poem seems a reflection of the traditional pagan value system from the moral

point of view of the new,  incompletely assimilated Christianity."(Foster 502)

In Britannica it says that critics have seen the poem as a Christian allegory,

with Beowulf the champion of goodness and light against the forces of evil and

darkness.  His sacrificial death is not seen as tragic but as the fitting end of

a good (some would say "too good") hero's life.

 

      The poem contains words that people today might not recognize or know

because the words have changed over the years.  These are words like

"mead"(Beowulf 34), "mead hall"(Beowulf 34), and "mead bench"(Beowulf 53) which

we know as beer, tavern, and bar respectively. Another word is "mere"(Beowulf

37), which is a lake. The word "wyrd" mentioned in Britannica is an old word

meaning "fate."

 

      The author was very creative in many of the words and phrases that he

used that were not traditionally used in regular speaking.  One instance is

using the word "earth-hall"(Beowulf 60), which is a cave beneath the ground.

Another example is using the word "sea-cloth"(Beowulf 53), which is the sail of

a ship.  A couple of others are: "soul-slayer"(Beowulf 28), which means "the

Devil" and "water-monsters"(Beowulf 46) are the beasts of the sea.

 

      There are a few events in the Beowulf poem that mention actual historic

incidents.  The story tells about "the raid on the Franks made by Hygelac, the

king of the Geats at the time Beowulf was a young man,  in the year

520."(Beowulf 19)  This event did in fact happen in that time in Europe.  "The

poem also references a time following the initial invasion of England by

Germanic tribes in 449."(Beowulf 19)  Britannica says that the poem was

originally untitled, but was later named after the Scandinavian hero Beowulf,

whose exploits and character provide its connecting theme.  There is no evidence

of a historical Beowulf, but some characters, sites, and events in the poem can

be historically verified.

 

      The poem contains mythical references in the form of Grendel, Grendel's

mother, and the fire-breathing dragon.  All of these are beasts that could not

have possibly existed in the history of human kind. "Grendel is a man-eating who

terrorized the Danes until killed by Beowulf.  Grendel lives, with his equally

monstrous mother, at the bottom of a foul lake inhabited by assorted other

monsters;  he is descended from Cain (the progenitor of all evil spirits),

though his precise genealogy is not given."(Raffel 99) "Grendel is a

representative of the physical evil which was so present in the lives and

imagination of the Anglo-Saxons."(Foster 500)  "The inhuman dragon is a figure

of the metaphysical evil which is woven into the fabric of the universe."(Foster

501)  Another reference is Beowulf's strength.  Beowulf is said to have the

strength of thirty men.

 

      The poem contains heroism in many parts.  It mainly revolves around

Beowulf.  "Beowulf was a man of great strength from the land of the Geats, ruled

over by Hygelac."(Foster 500) Beowulf is the hero of the poem because "he rids

the people of Heorot of Grendel's terror and then glory was given to

Beowulf."(Beowulf 37)  "Beowulf also saves the people from Grendel's

mother"(Beowulf 49) and later in the poem "Beowulf attacks the Dragon."(Beowulf

62)

      The story of Beowulf is one of Europe's greatest epic poems.  It is

composed  of English history,  heroism, and fantasy.  It will remain a monument

of Old English forever.

 

Works Cited

 

"Beowulf."  Encyclopædia Britannica.  1990 ed.

 

Beowulf.  The Norton Anthology of English Literature.  Ed. M. H. Abrams et al.

New York:  W. W. Norton & Company, 1987. 19-72.

 

Foster, Edward.  "Beowulf."  Masterplots.  Revised ed.  New Jersey:  Salem Press,

1986.

 

Raffel, Burton.  Beowulf.  Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press,  1971.

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