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Beowulf is a well-known Anglo-Saxon poem that has been in English classes around the United States for almost as long as there have been schools around. Beowulf is not an actual picture of historic Denmark, Geatland, or Sweden around 500 A.D., yet it is on a general view, a self-consistent picture, a construction bearing clearly the marks of design and thought. Beowulf to us can only truly be enjoyed if one reads it in the old English version. The effects of the poem are not the same, although the sense of the heroic beast is very true. The story of Beowulf is still relevant to today’s society and relates to problems faced in current everyday life. In our society we face simple problems and difficult problems and all problems have a good and bad about them. It all depends on the person’s outlook for the course of action that they will take.
Beowulf strikes peculiar reactions among scholars, historians, and professors. The increase in the amount of confusion is caused by new twists to old theories and by new theories. Beowulf was composed for an audience that would take into account the struggles that the main character took, and the audience would see the poem in its own way. Though few can clearly understand the value of the poem, we must realize that judging the poem from a twentieth century point of view would be unjust to the author or authors of Beowulf.
One of the most pleasing trends in recent old English studies has been the increasing awareness of the truth and importance of this simple observation. It is one which often has been overlooked by scholars and the ever growing critics. These people prefer to regard Beowulf as a source book for historians. Some people tend to overlook the meanings of Beowulf and perceive them in a wrong manner. In a profound lecture given by J.R.R.Tolkien in 1963, he tried to do what many people were trying to do, make sense of Beowulf. He gave an amusing and persuasive summary of the variety of theories of Beowulf’s poet’s ideas and aims.
Tolkien said, “Beowulf is a half baked native epic which was killed by Latin learning, it is feeble and incompetent as a narrative.”(Crossley.9-17). Tolkien also said much more on behalf of Beowulf’s poet. It is not the fault of the poet but the result of our ignorance of the conventions in which Anglo-Saxon poems were written.
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Many historical and legendary characters and events are mentioned in the poem, and the Danes, Swedes, and Geats provide the necessary background for Beowulf’s long and eventful life. Both history and legend place the Danes and Swedes within the fifth and sixth centuries A.D.. The North Germanic “Heroic” ages reflect much of the medieval Icelandic prose and poetry. The Danes lived in what is now called Denmark and the southern tip of Sweden. Hrothgar, whose great hall was somewhere on the island of Zealand, is their king in the beginning of the poem. Other characters are accounted for in the course of the narrative in the rest of the poem. The Swedes, whose hostilities among themselves and against the Geats through three generations are featured in the installments during the final third of the poem, live in Sweden north of the Great Lakes.(Rebsamen; 38-35)
The action of Beowulf takes place in Scandinavia, where a troll like cannibalistic creature of the darkness named Grendal takes such a passionate exception to the constant revelry that he takes to the great hall of Herot, with a series on numerous attacks on the soldiers in the hall.
Somewhere in the land of Geats, a powerful young man identified as a retainer of King Higlac, whose name is later known to be Beowulf, hears of the horrible destruction and disregard of life. Beowulf with fourteen companions sets sail and goes to the Danes to attempt to slay the evil meat eating machine. By helping the Danes, Beowulf shows courage and loyalty.
Beowulf illustrates some important aspects of time and history. There are three major principals of organization in the poem. From the point of view of emotional intensity, Beowulf divides into three sections centering and turning upon each of the hero’s mortal fights with Grendal, Grendal’s mother and the fire-breathing dragon. From the point of view of chronology, it divides into two sections centering and turning upon the hero’s daring adventures as a young man and his exemplary deeds as an old king. From the point of view of narrative sequence, it again divides into three parts centering upon the hero’s adventures in Denmark, his own accounts of those adventures, his great deed and indirect reference by various characters such as Hrothgar and Unferth. With the exception of a few reminiscences and indirect reference by various characters, the setting concluding Beowulf’s return from Denmark to his homeland handles time in a basically linear manner, leaving no question on the chronology of events that unravel in the poem. (Tolkien 4-19)
The evidence is open both to question and to interpretation, in addition, it seems to have been successfully manipulated by the poet for artistic purposes. It is solid enough to suggest a degree of historicity behind a fair portion of the materials in Beowulf. This enables the reader to locate the actions of a sixth century poem.
The structure of Beowulf is a gratifying surprise, completely unexpected in an age that favored straightforward heroic people concerning conflicts between human beings. It is unlike any other poem in English literature or any other Germanic literature, and Tolkien’s description of Beowulf as a “heroic-elegiac poem”(Tolkien, 46-48) emphasizes its uniqueness.
The final third of the poem becomes strongly elegiac. It is an account of Beowulf as an old man fighting his final, futile battle, which brings to an end, his long, victorious life. Worked into this section, not in chronological order, are four accounts of the Geat-Swede conflicts. There are also three accounts of Hygelac’s last battle, Beowulf’s nostalgic reminiscence, and two anonymous speeches that contain some of the most beautiful elegiac verses in English literature. The verses all make known what the reader of the poem should know about who will take over the throne when Beowulf passes on.
The entire poem is an account of Beowulf fighting three monsters surrounded by the digression, as they are almost always called, which structures the poem by giving it the rich background that annoyed early philosophers and critics. The poem is really based on the simplest term. It is a contrast description of two great moments in life, rising and setting, an elaboration of the ancient and intensely moving contrast between youth and age, first achievement and finally death.
Beowulf in reality is just a fictional story that someone’s grandfather sung to warriors before going into battle. This fictional poem has helped people to realize the importance of loyalty, courage and respect to whomever it may be. Beowulf did not have to go and fight the three monsters but he did because of the loyalty that he possessed. This tells us that we as people should not always think of ourselves and try to face our problems in life as best as possible.
The challenges that we face every day are much like the ones that Beowulf had to deal with over 1000 years ago. The poem Beowulf is a wonderful piece of work that teaches us that we must strive for what is right and take charge in our dealings with the decisions that we make in our lives each day.