An epic is a long, narrative poem written in a noble, dignified style and telling of exploits perfumed by great heroes. It differs from other narrative poems in that it has greater dignity and sweep and presents more lifelike characters, Beowulf, the national epic of the Anglo-Saxons, relates how that great hero slew monsters in defense of his fellowmen. He is revered for having lived a life of honesty and nobility till he fell victim to a fire-breathing dragon.
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“Beowulf probably dates from the 7th or 8th century, the only manuscript of which, ascribed to the 10th century, is in the Cottonian Library of the British Museum. The oldest long poem in any Teutonic language consists of 6356 short alliterative lines. Some scholars claim a Scandinavian source for it, while others regard it as wholly a product of Anglo-Saxon Britain and probably the work of one author.” (Grolier Encyclopedia:150).
The story tells mainly of the three great adventures of Beowulf, his slaying first of the monster Grendel, then of Grendel’s mother, and last of the dragon wherein he was killed. The narrative includes much description of the life and customs of the period. This paper will concentrate on the first episode and will endeavor to present a clear picture of the customs and traditions of the Anglo-Saxons as well as an understandable depiction of Beowulf’s character.
Depiction of Beowulf’s character
Beowulf, a young noble and nephew at the court of Hygelac, King of the Geats, heard of the monster Grendel terrorizing the people of Hrothgar, king of a Danish tribe called the Geldings. Hrothgar built a folk all called Heorot and each time there was a celebration there, the monster Grendel entered the place slew Hrothgars thanes, and devoured them. Beowulf determined to rid Heorot of the man-eating creature.
The Anglo-Saxons are a sea-faring people and proud of it. Beowulf called his men, not warriors or thanes but “seamen”. With fourteen of his seamen, he crossed the sea and upon landing, went directly to the court of Hrothgar where he was graciously welcomed by the king and all else except Hunferth, the king’s official spokesman who sought to belittle the guest by branding him a liar. Beowulf defended himself and took it in stride and convinced the king that he could and would kill Grendel. Like the people of his time, believed that no matter what happens, one will not die until his time comes.
Before the great event, a feast was held in Heorot. The early Anglo-Saxons are noted for their hospitality and their penchant for following certain rituals, especially during a feast to lend dignity to the occasion. Hrothgar’s queen, Wealtheow, passing the mead to her husband’s guests presents a fine picture of a courteous Anglo-Saxon wife of the upper class. The people also fond of imbibing mead, an intoxicating drink made of fermented honey.
The feast over, the king and his thanes departed, leaving the defenders to keep watch. It is heartwarming to note the loyalty of Beowulf’s men. “As he lay down to rest, around him slumbered many a bold seaman. None of them expected ever again to see their homes.” ( Cross, Smith, and Stauffer: 10)
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The sportsmanlike attitude of our hero is shown in the lines: “In no wise do I deem myself more powerful in battle works than Grendel. Therefore will I not slay him with the sword, easy as that would be, since though so terrible in deeds of war, he does not understand the use of weapons.” (Cross, Smith, and Stauffer: 10). Beowulf, therefore, opted to fight the monster with bare hands.
Our bold warrior grappled firmly with Grendel who was no match for him for Beowulf had the strength of 30 men. So great was the din of the fight that the hall shook with it and the Danes were filled with terror at the sound. In the long run, the fight was won in favor of Beowulf who wrenched the arm and hand of the friend who fled away to his home beneath the marshy cliffs. Beowulf then hung his grisly trophy beneath the rafters of Heorot for all men to view. Hrothgar was good as his word. He rewarded the young hero generously. During the victory feast, he rewarded the latter with a gold helmet, eight horses, and a valuable sword to each of his seamen.
The epic of Beowulf is invaluable in that it gives us an idea of the customs and traditions – the life and times of the Danes and the Anglo-Saxons, ancestors of the present-day Britons. The reader is made to know about their cultural values – hospitality, respect for women, piety, and the like. During Beowulf’s time when Christianity had already taken hold, Christianity has always been a powerful force leading men to more civilized life and gentle manners and better morals.
The youth of today can look up to Beowulf as a role model. He was a brave warrior and a gentleman. He was everything a young man should be yesterday and today. We must remember that Beowulf is the longest and best of the Anglo-Saxon pagan poems. Our study of Old-English literature would sadly be incomplete without a knowledge of Beowulf and his exploits.
Cross, Smith and Stauffer, English and American Writers, 1942.
Grolier Encyclopedia, Vol. III, Grolier Encyclopedia Inc., 1961.