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The Rise of Western Civilization in Beowulf: Critical Analysis

Even though an old Anglo-Saxon poem “Beowulf” is assumed to contain motifs that are largely mythical in their essence, many of these motifs do relate to the realities of the time when the poem was written. In his article “Beowulf in Literary History,” Joseph Harris makes a good point when he suggests: “In a literary history which is not mindlessly organic but composed of acts of reception, Beowulf seems to resemble great works like Goethe’s Faust and Eliot’s Wasteland, and especially Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales – works that embodied new literary forms of their period but which, nevertheless, were emphatically oriented towards the literature of their past. Such works are generically synthetic and punctuative” (Harris 16). Therefore, even though we can hardly rely on “Beowulf” as an account of historical events that did take place in the past, there can be no doubt as to the fact that this poem is marked with a high degree of historical soundness. The validity of this thesis is best illustrated by how “Beowulf” refers to King Offa, which used to rule the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia in the 8th century A.D. Although, some historians suggest that the poem’s information, in regards to Offa, relates to 4th-century king Offa of continental Angles, we can say with the high degree of probability that “Beowulf” referrals to Offa concern namely the Mercian king because it explicitly addresses him as the ruler of an “empire”:

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“Hence Offa was praised
for his fighting and feeling by far-off men,
the spear-bold warrior; wisely he ruled
over his empire” (Beowulf XXVII)

The anonymous author of “Beowulf” could not possibly refer to 4th century Offa as the “ruler of an empire,” simply because at that time, there was only one empire – Roman, and Angles were definitely in no position to exercise control over the vast areas in Europe. “Beowulf” praises Offa as a “wise man.” However, at the time when the poem was written, the very concept of wiseness used to be closely associated with the concept of education, which could only be received in the Latin language. Therefore, it is quite appropriate, on our part, to assume that poem’s referrals to Offa concern the ruler of the Mercian kingdom, simply because it was named in 6th A.D. when the Latin language started to become the language of the Anglo-Saxon elite, which by that time, became firmly settled in Britain. In his article “Understanding Beowulf: Oral Poetry Acts,” John D. Niles comes up with the same idea: “During the first quarter of the 700-year history of Anglo-Saxon England, the petty kings who ruled over the post-colonial debris of Roman Britain did not practice the literary arts at all, as far as we can judge. Latin, formerly the language of those in power, was reintroduced to Southern Britain as the foreign language of a cultural elite late in the sixth century when missionaries from Rome established a new kind of colonial relationship with the Germanized rulers of what we now call Britain” (Niles 132). This, however, does not mean that Offa was closely affiliated with Roman decadent cultural values. Quite contrary to that – he was the very embodiment of Nordic war-like existential idealism:

“He (Offa), of all heroes I heard of ever
from sea to sea, of the sons of earth,
most excellent seemed” (Beowulf XXVII)

These poem’s lines correspond to the historical account of Offa, who was known for his love for war adventures. Just like Beowulf and King Hrothgar, Offa stands out as a defender of Nordic existential virtues, which were being only artificially affected by the Semitic spirit of early Christianity. This is the reason why researchers often have a hard time while trying to figure out which of two Offas is being described in Beowulf – apparently, they both acted in accordance with their belief that one’s willingness to die in combat represents the foremost masculine virtue. In his article “The Uses of Association: Hands and Feasts in Beowulf,” James L. Rosier asserts that: “We have never been able to ascertain precisely which of the Offa traditions known to us was used by the poet, whether or not he fused or confused the lives of Offa I and Offa II, or whether he drew from a variant version of Offa-Thryth legend now lost. What we do know as fact is that both Offas were being referred to by their contemporaries as men of great military valor” (Rosier 13).

As we have mentioned earlier, despite the fact that the anonymous author talks of Offa as a wise ruler, he definitely does not think of this quality of the king’s character as deriving out of his ability to conform to objective circumstances. According to “Beowulf,” the concept of royal wiseness relates to the king’s ability to impose its will on its subjects without having to deal with the popular discontent among them. While talking of Offa’s daughter, the author mentions that she never had to deal with hardships of any sort, which points to political stability associated with Offa’s reign:

“Where since she prospered,
royal, throned, rich in goods,
fain of the fair life fate had sent her,
and leal in love to the lord of warriors” (Beowulf XXVII)

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Such perception of wiseness is quintessentially heathen. The article “Beowulf: Scandinavian Traditions” in the online version of “The Cambridge History of English and American Literature,” available on the website of Bartleby.Com, points out to “Beowulf” as emanating anti-Christian spirit, despite the poem’s fable being artificially affected by Christian motifs: “Customs and ceremonies described (in “Beowulf”) are, almost without exception, heathen. This fact seems to point, not to a Christian work with heathen reminiscences, but to a heathen work which has undergone revision by Christian minstrels” (Beowulf: Scandinavian Traditions. The Cambridge History of English and American Literature 2009).

Apart from Offa’s deep affiliation with the notion of military valor, his life also seems to have been strongly affected by the king’s acute sense of kinship:

“Eomer woke to him (Offa),
the help of heroes, Hemming’s kinsman,
Grandson of Garmund, grim in war” (Beowulf XXVII)

Just like King Hrothgar, Offa thinks of the well-being of his people as such that needs to be constantly looked after. This corresponds rather well to what we know of historical Offa, who ruled Mercia while relying on the utter loyalty of his subjects. In fact, one of the reasons why he began conflicting with the Church, circa 780 A.D., is because Pope’s representatives were spreading the “good news” among the king’s people with little too much enthusiasm. Even though Offa could have personally benefited from having his subjects instilled with the idea that his kingship was being “anointed by God,” he had consciously chosen to resist Christianity’s strive to legitimize itself as a religious doctrine with the mean rooting out the remnants of heathen worldview among Mercians, simply because Christian doctrine considered the notion of “blood kinship” as sinful. In his article “Offa’s Dyke between Nature and Culture,” Paolo Squatriti says: “Under King Offa, who ruled Mercia between 757 and 796, Mercia enjoyed its heyday. Offa subjected several other Anglo-Saxon rulers in southern England to his authority and exercised some power over the British peoples who lived in the western part of Britain. Despite being formally a Christian king, Offa tried to subtly resist the spreading of Christianity” (Squatriti 41).

Thus, we can say that despite the semantically fictitious essence of “Beowulf,” the poem does provide us with insight into psychological anxieties that defined its main characters’ behavior. “Beowulf” only briefly mentions Offa, but it is, namely after reading of this early Anglo-Saxon poem, that we begin to think of him as a three-dimensional historical figure who contributed a lot to the rise of Western civilization, as we know it. The character of Offa, just like the characters of Beowulf and King Hrothgar, provide us with a better understanding as to how early medieval Europe was able to “digest” Christianity without suffering the fate of the Roman Empire, which became spiritually poisoned by the religion of “peace and tolerance” to such an extent that it fell an easy prey to Gothic barbarians in 5th century A.D. This is because Europeans and specifically Scandinavians of the era were not even slightly affected by racial and mental inadequacy – when a healthy body is being injected with poison, it actually works out a vaccine against such poison. The introduction of Christianity to Anglo-Saxons and Scandinavians had resulted in the emergence of early Catholicism, which had very little to do with the original spirit of Christianity. Therefore, despite the fact that “Beowulf” lacks historical accuracy, it is metaphysically accurate, which is why it is absolutely appropriate, on our part, to resort to reading this poem when we want to learn more about the existential mode of historical figures, such as Offa, that are being mentioned in it.


Beowulf”. 2008. The Project Gutenberg EBook. Web.

“Beowulf: Scandinavian Traditions”. Part III. Early National Poetry. The Cambridge History of English and American Literature. 2009. Web.

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Harris, Joseph “Beowulf in Literary History”. Pacific Coast Philology. (17)1/2 (1982): 16-23.

Niles, John “Understanding Beowulf: Oral Poetry Acts”. The Journal of American Folklore. (106) 420 (1993): 131-155.

Rosier, James “The Uses of Association: Hands and Feasts in Beowulf”. PMLA. (78)1 (1963): 8-14.

Squatriti, Paolo “Offa’s Dyke between Nature and Culture”. Environmental History. (9)1 (2004): 37-56.

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