Notes on Beowulf


At the beginning of the fifth century, two illiterate Germanic tribes, the Angles and the Saxons, inhabited the delta of the Elbe River.  The dialects of these two tribes evolved over the next fifteen centuries into the present language used in the British Isles, the United States, and Canada.

The language you speak is Germanic, brought to Britain by pagan Anglo-Saxon invaders.


Literature and history were preserved in this preliterate culture by bards, or oral poets. 

However, Beowulf itself is probably the work of a poet making use of the older oral poetry.

Heroic Code

The invading Anglo-Saxon tribes were dominated by codes and customs which included

a warrior class that was ruled by a tribal chieftain

a body of personal retainers, or warriors, bound to the chieftain by kinship

the custom of gift-giving

a personal code of honor which included the concept of blood vengeance.  This code demanded that a warrior must either kill another person who injured or killed a kinsman or get compensation money for the injury or death           

a warrior must defend his lord to the death

The Church

Christian themes are in general the most important themes in old English literature.

Christianity supplied the underlying and overriding values in Old English poetry, even in Beowulf which contains only a few overt references to the Bible or to Christian beliefs. 

Christianity did not go away with heroic poetry but rather converted and transformed.  The language, meter, and diction of heroic verse were kept, but these were applied to Christian themes and subjects.  (Dream of the Rood)

For example, Beowulf is a story of pagan warriors, yet literary researchers agree that as the story was passed from generation to generation, Christian references were inserted into the poetry.


Many of the people and places in Beowulf are real.  For example,

Hygelac's battle occurred about A. D. 521,

The Geats, Danes, and Swedes of the time are historically noted in ancient chronicles. 

Hrothgar and Hrothulf are mentioned in a twelfth century chronicle. 

Heorot was an actual place located in a village near Roskilde, on the island with Copenhagen.

Key Terms

            alliteration                               irony

            elegy                                        epic

            personification                        foreboding or foreshadowing

            heroic code                             symbolism

            scop                                        kenning


The old tradition of English poetry called "heroic poetry" was brought to England by Danish invaders in the mid-sixth century.  Bards, or scops, passed the literature and history of the Danes, Jutes, Angles and Saxons (Anglo-Saxons) from one generation to another by word of mouth, from one bard or scop to another.  Historians believe Beowulf was written in the early eighth century by a single author after England became Christian but while pagan habits and thought still exerted a strong influence on the culture.

This poem is an Old English or Anglo-Saxon epic written in alliterative verse. 


First, two characteristics of the epic are

that it embodies the values of a civilization,

and it celebrates the exploits of a tribe while focusing on a central heroic character. 

However, Beowulf differs from the Greek and Roman epics in important ways:

Even though the hero dies at the end, the poem cannot be considered a tragedy in the same sense as Hamlet or Oedipus the King. 

The main character, Beowulf, does not have a tragic flaw that finally dooms him to death or failure. 

Alliterative Verse

Second, alliteration is "the use of several nearby words or stressed syllables beginning with the same consonant". Alliteration was widely used in the Germanic epic and in Middle English poetry before end rhyme gradually took its place. Here’s an older translation of the beginning:

Lo, praise of the prowess of people-kings
of spear-armed Danes, in days long sped,
we have heard, and what honor the athelings won!
Oft Scyld the Scefing from squadroned foes,
from many a tribe, the mead-bench tore,
awing the earls. Since erst he lay
friendless, a foundling, fate repaid him:
for he waxed under welkin, in wealth he throve,
till before him the folk, both far and near,
who house by the whale-path, heard his mandate,
gave him gifts: a good king he!

Now here’s Heaney’s translation from the Norton:

Beowulf is an exciting adventure story with wonderful fights against terrifying monsters—soon to be a major motion picture. Ugh.

What kind of hero is he?

loyal to friends, family, the chieftain, tribe, or other Christians

kinship (therefore treachery against kinship is the worst kind)

generous and helpful

a good man who fights against evil

a hero who seeks revenge for harm done

What are his values (so far) or what values does he represent?

loyalty, etc.

kinship and the importance of lord/retainer relationship


fame and glory

importance of vengeance

faith in God? or faith in fate?

What is the poem’s relationship to those values?

Its hero represents the values of the heroic code even though the poet represents these values as limited and, at the end of the story, doomed as is the main character. 

This old civilization cherished worldly goods, power, and courage,

but these values were later replaced by Christian values that taught peace, humility, and the vanity of owning earthly goods. 


The importance of fate is everywhere in the poem:

Foreboding or foreshadowing: if fate decides all, if God is already weaving the tale on his war-loom, then there is no question of the outcome; there is no surprise in the text. For example, see 1232ff where the author gives clues to future events and outcomes in the story in the feast scene. 

399-455: Beowulf’s boast—God will determine; Fate goes even as fate must (are these the same or different?)

662-702: Beowulf places trust in God—very Christian language but very AS as well; trusts strength first, God second? fate?

1000-1007: Death takes us all; as opposed to fame (note this language emerges just at the moment of Beowulf’s triumph)

1191-1214: Necklace—gift from Wealtheow to Beowulf to Hygd to Hygelac—then the last battle and destruction of the Geats; from triumphant gift to slaughter; irony? vanity

1530-1556: Beowulf’s recovery and defeat of Grendel’s mother—begins with name and fame, concludes with God decided the victory

Hrothgar’s advice to Beowulf (1722ff)

Story of Heremod (remember the invocation of Sigemund and Heremod earlier)

Avoid pride

Don’t think of earthly things

Choose eternity

This episode calls attention to three characteristics of the poem:

1. The interruption of the narrative by other narratives

2. The problems with blood feud

3. The poet’s judgment of the heroic age—the transformation of Anglo-Saxon tragic irony into Christian salvation

Other Narratives

The purpose of these short narratives:

To teach proper behavior (exemplary and cautionary):

o Sigemund the good king, Heremod the bad (883-914)

o Second story of Heremod (1709)

o Queen Modryth, the bad queen compared to Hygd (1931)

To suggest problems specifically with blood feud

To point out irony (i.e. how tragic irony turns into Christian optimism?)

o Torque of gold and the future (1194)

The Problems with Blood Feud

· Future destruction of Heorot (82-85)

· Finnsburg Episode (1070-1158)

· Grendel’s mother seeks revenge

· Freawaru a peace pledge but feud wins out in end (2023ff)

· Feud brings Beowulf to the throne (2354-2396)

The brothers’ feud (Haethcyn’s murder of Herebeald (brothers to Hygelac))—"for who could avenge / the prince’s life or pay his death-price?" (2443-2444)

After Beowulf’s death—immediately talk turns to all the unresolved feuds
2999: "So this bad blood between us and the Swedes …"

Tragic Irony and Christian Hope

The Danes backslide in their faith: when Grendel strikes they pray to pagan gods (175ff)

Culture of Treasure and Earthly Things Rejected

o From the beginning: Shield’s death and funeral; he "leaves" rich but of course he’s dead

o The great necklace (the owners die despite the "greatness")

o Hrothgar’s advice (choose eternity)

o Treasure-hoard story (2231-2270)

The End of Time, the End of a Culture

o Wiglaf the Last of us (2813)

o The imagined future without Beowulf (2884)

o Future Woe (3015

o Funeral (3137)—note how the poem opens with a funeral

o Geat woman prophecy (3150)

o Heaven swallows the smoke (3155)


o Compare Beowulf (1019-1041) to "The Wanderer" (92-100)

· How does "The Wanderer" complement or supplement the heroic tale of Beowulf?

Heaven Subsumes This Culture Points to Allegorical Nature of Poem

· Monsters as evil

· Beowulf as "purifying" (431) agent

· Beowulf as sacrificing himself for the sake of his people

o Beowulf as Christ figure

· A Type of Christ (page A49—in Christian allegorical interpretation of the Old Testament, pre-Christian figures were regarded as "types" or foreshadowings of Christ or the Christian dispensation. Typology has been the source of much visual and literary art in which the parallelisms between old and new are extended to nonbiblical figures.

o Worried about treasure and people (2794)