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There is a considerable diversity of opinion regarding the structure of the poem Beowulf. This essay hopes to enlighten the reader on some of the opinions expressed by literary scholars on this issue.
The Cambridge History of English and American Literature states:
It is generally thought that several originally separate lays have been combined in the poem, and, though no proof is obtainable, the theory in itself is not unlikely. These lays are usually supposed to have been four in number and to have dealt with the following subjects: (1) Beowulf’s fight with Grendel, (2) the fight with Grendel’s mother, (3) Beowulf’s return, (4) the fight with the dragon (v1,ch3,s3,n16).
Alvin A. Lee in his essay, “Symbolic Metaphor and the Design of Beowulf,” basically agrees that there are four divisions in the poem’s structure:
Moving a little closer to the text but still thinking of it in terms of its overall design, one can recognize four [my italics] major myths or symbolic episodes, each of which is concentrated at appropriate points in the narrative but also extends its effect, with varying emphases, throughout the whole poem (148).
But Lee’s four divisions are not the same as the first-mentioned. Lee’s first part is climaxed with the construction of Heorot; the second part, as Grendel lays waste to Heorot; the third, Beowulf’s advent and victories over Grendel and mother; and fourth, the hero’s death and the return to chaos (148).
The three-part, or tripartite division, of Beowulf is more popular than the four-part division. F.P. Magoun, Jr. divided the poem into three separate stories designated as A, A-prime, and B. Magoun’s A corresponds to the events up to Beowulf’s return to the Geats; B, the dragon fight and ending. But A prime includes a variant or alternative version of the Grendel story that an Anglo-Saxon editor of the poem wished to preserve and fitted into his anthology of Beowulf poems(Clark 22). So Magoun would have three divisions to the structure of the poem rather than four. Agreeing with him are Brian Wilkie and James Hurt, editors of Literature of the Western World, state:
It is clear that the sequence of monster-fights provides the structure of the poem. . . .In this poem of a little over 3000 lines, roughly a thousand lines are devoted to each of the three monsters, and it has been suggested that Beowulf ws intended to be performed over three evenings, each devoted to a new monster (1273).
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The tripartite structure considers that each monster fight involved greater difficulty for the hero, and his significance increased with each combat as he evolved through three stages from the ideal warrior to the ideal sovereign (Chickering 22-23).
A highly respected theory regarding the structure of Beowulf is put forth by J.R.R. Tolkien in “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics.” Tolkien states:
It is essentially a balance, an opposition of ends and beginnings. In its simplest terms it is a contrasted description of two moments in a great life, rising and setting; an elaboration of the ancient and intensely moving contrast between youth and age, first achievement and final death. It is divided in consequence into two opposed portions, different in matter, manner and length: A from 1 to 2199 (including an exordium of 52 lines); B from 2200 to 3182 (the end)…. This simple and static structure, solid and strong, is in each part much diversified….(34-5)
Kenneth Sisam in his essay “The Structure of Beowulf” directly opposes Tolkien’s theory:
To put my argument shortly – if the two parts of the poem are to be solidly bound together by the opposition of youth and age, it is not enough that the hero should be young in the one part and old in the other. The change in his age must be shown to change his ability to fight monsters, since these fights make the main plot (115).
Professor Tolkien’s bipartite division seems more popular among critics than the four or three-part structure theories. R.E. Kaske in his “The Governing Theme of Beowulf,´sums up its general popularity:
Despite sporadic and, in my opinion, quite unsuccessful attacks, this basic view of the poem seems to have gained for itself something like a core of general acceptance (119).
Kemp Malone in Beowulf states:
Beowulf falls into two parts, devoted respectively to the hero in young manhood and the hero in old age. Part one is predominantly cheerful in tone, as befits a period of youth.. . . Utterly different is the tone of part two. Old age has come, and death is near at hand from the start. No longer does the hero leave home, to fight the good fight in other lands. He stands strictly on the defensive. He is sad at heart; his breast surges with dark thoughts. . . . In this world defeat and death are sure to come in the end (153-54).
Thomas Shippey, in his essay “Structure and Unity,” states that Fr. Klaeber, whose “edition of 1922 is still the basis for the main scholarly text of the poem,” maintained that “the poem . . . consists of two distinct parts joined in a very loose manner and held together only by the person of the hero” (161). A very noteworthy proponent of the binary structure theory for the poem.
Another viewpoint on structure is that it is an interlayering or interlacing of narrative episodes. John Leyerle in “The Interlace Structure of Beowulf” says:
From the early Anglo-Saxon priod there are thousands of interlace designs surviving in illuminations of manuscripts, in carving on bone, ivory and stone, and in metal work for weapons and jewelry. They are so prolific that the seventh and eighth centuries might justly be known as the interlace period. . . . The pervasive importance of interlace designs in early Anglo-Saxon art establishes the historical possibility that a parallel may be found in poetry of the same culture. . . . There is ample evidence that interlace design has literary parallels in both style and structure(159).
In the interlace design, allusive references from the past cross and recross with the present subject. In Beowulf the past exploits of Sigemund and Heremod intertwine or interlace with the present event of Beowulf’s killing of Grendel. Later in the poem, Hygelac’s Frisian expedition is broken up into four episodes, in which chronology is ignored:
#1 - Lines 1202-14:
This collar-ring traveled on Hygelac’s breast
on his final voyage, nephew of Swerting,
when under the standard he defended his treasure,
spoils of the kill; fate took him off
that time he sought trouble, stirred up a feud,
a fight with the Frisians, in his pride and daring.
He wore those gold wires, rarest gem-stones,
across the cup of waves, a mighty prince.
He fell beneath his shield. Into Frankish hands
came his life, body-gold, and the great ringed collar;
lesser warriors rifled the corpses
after the battle-harvest. Dead Geats
filled the field (1202-14).
#2 - Lines 2501-09:
ever since the time, in front of the hosts,
I slew Daeghrefn, the champion of the Hugas,
with my bare hands. He never brought back
his breast-ornament to the Frisian king:
the standard-bearer fell in combat
a prince, in valor; no edge killed him
my hand-grip crushed his beating heart,
his life’s bone-house.
#3 - Lines 2354-68: Nor was it the least
hand-to-hand combat where Hygelac lay,
when the Geatish king, in the fierce battle-rush
far off in Frisia, the friend of his people,
Hrethel’s son, died from sword-drinks,
struck down and slain. Beowulf escaped
by his own strength, did hard sea-duty;
he held in his arms the battle-outfits
of thirty [warriors] when he turned to the sea:
No need to boast about that foot-fight
among the Hetware who bore shields against him;
few returned to see their homes
after facing the brave, the daring man.
Across the seas Ecgtheow’s son,
alone and lonely, swam to his homeland.
#4 - Lines 2913-21:
That feud was forged against the Hugas
when Hygelac landed his fleet in Frisia,
against the Hetware - they gave him a battle,
pressed forward quickly with the greater strength,
till the mailed warrior had to bow down;
he fell in the ranks gave no rings then,
the prince to his troop. Ever since then,
the Merovingian has shown us no kindness.
Rather than running these four episodes in a linear narrative, the poet breaks up the narrative into smaller bits which he can use here and there, interlacing them and juxtaposing them where they are the most effective. For instance, in the first episode the queen has presented a golden torque to Beowulf, when the allusion appears to Hygelac’s loss of Beowulf’s torque in Frisian battle. Hygelac’s death seeking Frisian treasure anticipates Beowulf’s death seeking the dragon’s hoard. In the second episode, occurring right before Beowulf’s confrontation with the fire-dragon, Beowulf recalls crushing to death with his bare hands the slayer of Hygelac, Daeghrefn. Since the hero intends to NOT use his bare hands but rather a sword against the fire-dragon, the audience is anxious about the outcome of the contest, especially since the hero was almost killed when using a sword against Grendel’s mother. So the interlacing has juxtaposed parts of the Frisian campaign here and there where it highlights some ongoing narrative event.
Perhaps this is what Joan Blomfield is referring to when she says: “For the structure of the poem is not sequential, but complemental; at the outset certain parts of a situation are displayed, and these are given coherence and significance by progressive addition of its other parts” (Blomfield 60). For example, in the hero’s fight with Grendel, we see this unfolding of an event into its separate parts or aspects: First of all, we see the fight from Grendel’s point of view, then from Beowulf’s point of view, then from the Danes’ perspective, and finally from the Geats’ point of view. In the slaying of Grendel’s mother, the poet describes the magic sword which Beowulf seizes; notes the brandishing and the swing of the sword “hard on her throat”; observes the hero rejoicing; sees the “cave-light” shining forth, which signifies the end of the mother. All these things coming together to form an interlacing of events.
Thus we have seen some of the considerable diversity of opinion regarding the structure of the poem Beowulf.
Blomfield, Joan. “The Style and structure of Beowulf.” In TheBeowulf Poet, edited by Donald K. Fry. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1968.
Chickering, Howell D.. Beowulf A dual-Language Edition. New York: Anchor Books, 1977.
Clark, George. Beowulf. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1990.
Kaske, R.E.. “The Governing Theme of Beowulf.” In Beowulf: The Donaldson Translation, edited by Joseph F. Tuso. New York, W.W.Norton and Co.: 1975
Lee, Alvin A.. “Symbolic Metaphor and the Design of Beowulf.” In Beowulf: The Donaldson Translation, edited by Joseph F. Tuso. New York, W.W.Norton and Co.: 1975
Literature of the Western World, edited by Brian Wilkie and James Hurt. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1984.
Leyerle, John. “The Interlace Structure of Beowulf.” In Beowulf: The Donaldson Translation, edited by Joseph F. Tuso. New York, W.W.Norton and Co.: 1975
Malone, Kemp. “Beowulf.” In An Anthology of Beowulf Criticism, edited by Lewis E. Nicholson. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1963.
Shippey, Thomas A.. “Structure and Unity.” In A Beowulf Handbook, edited by Robert Bjork and John D. Niles. Lincoln, Nebraska: Uiversity of Nebraska Press, 1997.
Sisam, Kenneth. “The Structure of Beowulf.” In Beowulf: The Donaldson Translation, edited by Joseph F. Tuso. New York, W.W.Norton and Co.: 1975
Tolkien, J.R.R.. “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics.” In TheBeowulf Poet, edited byDonald K. fry. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1968.
Ward & Trent, et al. The Cambridge History of English and American Literature. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1907–21; New York: Bartleby.com, 2000