Beowulf: An Analysis
Anglo Saxons are Germanic people that lived during the 5th and 6th centuries - Beowulf: An Analysis introduction. This early Anglo-Saxon society was centered on families and clans. The earliest Saxon settlers and families in England were pagans who worshipped a number of gods. Although Anglo Saxons had unalterable beliefs, Christians eventually purveyed their religion upon the pagans. However, the ideals of paganism still perpetuate through the most prominent epic poem of this era called Beowulf.
Beowulf embodies both epic and Christian poetry, but since the written language of Old English was not fully developed during this period, oral poetry was the basis of passing down important information about their society. Furthermore, in Beowulf, the protagonist, Beowulf, is an epic hero that emerges successful in his triumphs and tribulations by using his super-human physical strength and courage to put his people’s safety before his own. Beowulf encounters ferocious monsters and dragons, yet never fears the threat of death.
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Beowulf continuously risks his life to secure the safety and rescue kingdoms and their civilians until his death. He is the ultimate epic hero and is immortally glorified. Beowulf is a perfect description of Anglo-Saxon times because of its values, poetic style, and epic hero. Beowulf is the paradigm of the epic hero who was revered in Anglo Saxon times. A hero tends to be a man who is born into royalty and must incorporate certain traits like wisdom, strength, and courage that set him apart from the average person.
Beowulf shows courage throughout his life while fighting supernatural monsters like Grendel, his mother, and the dragon. Beowulf’s courage shows the ultimate form of greatness when he fights Grendel and “instantly seizes [Grendel], claws/bent back as [he] leaned up on one arm. /That shepherd of evil, guardian of crime, / knew at once that nowhere on earth/had [Grendel] met a man whose hands were harder… [Beowulf] standing erect, stopped/ the monsters flight, fastened those claws/in his fists till they cracked” (430-443).
Beowulf not only displays courage, but also shows an immense strength that makes the probability of him overpowering his enemies more likely. For example, when he goes to fight the monster Grendel, Beowulf uses his strength to tear Grendel’s claws off with his bare hands. This code of honor is a moral fabric of paganism and asserts that when a kingdom is attacked, its allies must come to the kingdoms defense. Since Beowulf abides by the code of honor, he has the responsibility to help King Hrothgar when he is attacked by supernatural monsters.
Once Grendel’s mother sees her son dead, she attacks Herot, which causes Beowulf to go to the lake where the monstrous being lives and once there, he kills her. After Beowulf kills Grendel’s mother, Beowulf is“found [Grendel] lying dead in his corner, /armless, exactly as that fierce fighter/ had sent him out from Herot, then struck off/ his head with a single swift blow” (661-664). Beowulf decapitates Grendel symbolizing Beowulf’s revenge for Grendel not paying wergild for murdering all those innocent men.
Moreover, Beowulf is an epic poem because it incorporates fate which is a key factor in pagan/Christian cultures. In Beowulf the pagans accredit their success in battles they have been faced with the reasons of fate and how God premeditates everything. The contest between Beowulf and Breca where they must swim across the sea is illustrated as fate. After a few nights a flood comes and sweeps Beowulf away and then “a monster seized [him], drew [him]/ swiftly towards the bottom, swimming with its claws/Tight in [his] flesh. But fate let [him]/ Find its heart with [his] sword/hack [himself] free” (286-290).
However, Beowulf claims that a person can succeed through courageous behavior without the help of god, as long as one’s fate has not yet been decided. Ultimately, Beowulf is the depiction of an epic hero who is only one example that shows that Beowulf is a perfect embodiment of Anglo Saxon times. Literary devices are displayed as another focal attribute in Beowulf. Some literary devices used in Beowulf are kennings and alliteration. Kennings are conventional metaphoric names for something, and used especially in Old English and Norse poetry like Beowulf.
A few examples of kennings in Beowulf are “Gold-Friend” which means good friend, “whale-road” which is ocean, and “shield-bearers” which include fighters and the king’s men. Alliteration is the repetition of a constant sound that makes the story have a more poetic sound. This is exemplified in Beowulf when Grendel is “dragging the dead men home to his den” (80-84) after he goes to the kingdom. This leads Beowulf to fight Grendel and all the men proclaim, “the sharpest and hardest iron/ could not cratch at his skin, for that sin-stained demon/ had bewitched all men’s weapons, laid spells…” (482-484). The interpretation of Christian and pagan values also are illustrations of poetic devices. Beowulf can be perceived as a warrior who either sacrifices himself in battle for the well being of his people, which is a Christian value or someone who battles the monsters in order for his fame to develop, which is a pagan value. The unknown author of Beowulf not only incorporates Christian and Pagan values, but continuously makes references to God and biblical stories.
This is shown when Grendel is introduced with the comparison of “a pair of those monsters born/ of Cain, murderous creature banished/ by God, punished for ever for the crime/ of Abel’s death” (20-23). Lastly, Beowulf is the protagonist who possesses supernatural powers and uses them to fight the evil creatures. Beowulf has a tremendous amount of strength and endurance, which benefits him when he battles the monsters. Beowulf would not be a hero worthy of this epic heroic tale if it were not for his superhuman strength that makes him have the probability to surmount the mystical creatures.
Anglo Saxon values are magnified in Beowulf to display the importance these values had on everyone during that era. In Hrothgar’s kingdom “day after day the music rang/Loud in that hall, the harp’s rejoicing/ call and the poet’s clear songs, sung/ of the ancient beginnings of us all, recalling/ The Almighty making the earth. ”(3-7) Just like feasting and music is very important to Anglo Saxons, music is significant in Beowulf because the “warriors [would] sing of their pleasure: / So Hrothgar’s men lived happy in his hall” (14-15). Another important value of the Anglo Saxons is their code of honor.
They preach to their people how vital the code is to abide by and how they must always be loyal to their king. This is shown in Beowulf when Beowulf, the nephew of Higlac who is a feudal lord, “heard how Grendel filled nights with horror/ and quickly commanded a boat fitted out” (109) to help defend his ally Hrothgar and his kingdom. Towards the end of the epic poem when Beowulf was in his old age and becomes the king over the Geats, he is faced with another mystical creature, a dragon. The dragon unleashes its wrath on the Geats because someone stole his favorite jeweled cup.
Although Beowulf is trying to be courageous by using “no sword [and] no weapon” (668), and only taking a few men with him to fight this dragon, he is acting very cowardly. Beowulf at this time is an older man that does not have the powerful strength he once had. He is in an illusion that “if this beast/ could be killed without [weapons], crushed to death/ like Grendel, gripped in [his] hands and torn/ Limb from limb” (669-671) just as if he were still in his youth. Beowulf also acts irresponsibly because he is not thinking about his people and if he is killed then they will have no one to protect them.
Moreover, when Beowulf and his few warriors approach the dragon’s lair, the warriors see how powerful the dragon is and “none of his comrades/came to him, helped him, his brave and noble/ Followers; ran for their lives” (746-748) all but one whose name is Wiglaf. Wiglaf demonstrates the last warrior that is loyal to his king Beowulf during the most crucial times. This contrasts to Anglo Saxon times because being loyal to the king is a prominent value that the people must have incorporated within themselves because the Anglo Saxons were constantly in a state of war.
Simultaneously, as Beowulf is dying from the dragon’s wound, his people’s pagan beliefs and values that were once imperative to them begin to dwindle. Beowulf’s last wish that he asks Wiglaf is to “return while [he] is still alive, to bring him/ treasure they’d won together” (792-793). This depicts Anglo Saxon value of Comitatus, the warrior’s code that describes the importance of dispensing treasure as a symbol of loyalty between the king and his people, and is critical because that is Beowulf’s dying wish.
The poem Beowulf has three key cultural similarities to Anglo Saxon Times. These common aspects are shown through the depiction of an epic hero, the use of Anglo Saxon poetry, and Anglo Saxon values. Although there is no such thing as supernatural creatures that we must prevail over, people are still being faced with overcoming the challenges in society with technological faults and its advancements. Just like technology today is vital in everyone’s life, Anglo Saxon’s had certain morals that were imperative to them to abide.