Beowulf is the oldest poem in the English language. It is the most important specimen of Anglo-Saxon literature, and also the oldest surviving epic in the English language. It consists of more than 3,000 lines. It had been passed from mouth to mouth for hundreds of years (unknown Author) before it was written down in the 10th century or at the end of the 9th century. The main stories in the poem are based on the folk legends of the primitive northern tribes.
Hrothgar, king of the Danes, has built near the sea a mead-hall called Heorot. It is the most splendid hall in the world. Every night the king and his thanes gather there to feast and enjoy the songs of his gleemen. But later on misfortunes befall them. One night, after they have gone to sleep, a frightful monster called Grendel comes. He breaks into the hall, kills thirty of the sleeping warriors, carries off their bodies and devours them in his lair under the sea. The appalling visit speedily repeats, and fear and death reign in the great hall. The king’s warriors fight at first, but flee when they find that no weapon can hurt the monster. The splendid mead-hall is left deserted and silent. For twelve winters Grendel’s horrible raids continue, and joy is changed to mourning among the Danes.
Beowulf is the nephew of Hygelac, king of the Geats who live in Juteland, Denmark. He is a great hero, noted for his strength and bravery. When he hears that Hrothgar, the good friend of his uncle, is in great trouble, he determines to help the unhappy king. Then he crosses the sea with 14 soldiers to rid Hrothgar of the monster. When they get there, they are given a feast of welcome in the hall, and then they lie down in the hall for the night. At midnight, Grendel comes and kills one of Beowulf’s soldiers. Beowulf has a hand-to-hand fight with him. Finally he wrenches off one of the monster’s arms. Then the monster flees to his den and dies. The next night, Grendel’s mother descends upon the hall to avenge her son. She carries away the king’s dearest friend. In the morning, Beowulf chases her into her lair and slays her with a sword wrought by the giants hanging on the wall. When he finds the corpse of Grendel, he cuts off his head and brings it back triumphantly. The Danes award him many treasures, and Beowulf returns to his uncle happily.
Later on, Beowulf inherits the crown from his uncle and has reigned over his kingdom for 50 years. He is a nice king loved and respected by his people. But a disaster befalls his kingdom. A fire-spewing dragon that lives on a mountain begins to devastate the land of his kingdom because it thinks somebody has stolen a golden cup from the mountain cave that he has guarded for 300 years. Therefore the angry dragon determines to punish the people of the kingdom. It spews fire every day to burn the land and kill the people. To save his people from the disaster, with 11 chosen warriors the aged king goes to fight against the dragon. In the end, the dragon is killed, but Beowulf is severely wounded during the battle. He dies a heroic death. The poem ends with the scene of the grand funeral held for the hero by his people.
Writing Features of the Poem
1) It is not a Christian but a pagan poem, despite the Christian flavour given to it by the monastery scribe who wrote it down. It is the product of an advanced pagan civilisation. The whole poem presents to us an all-round picture of the tribal society. The social conditions and customs can be clearly seen in the poem. It helps us a lot when we study the primitive society of Europe. So the poem has a great social significance.
2) The use of strong stresses and the predominance of consonants are notable in the poetical lines. Each line is divided into two halves, and each half is made to have two heavy stresses.
3) The use of alliteration is another notable feature of the poem. Three stressed syllables of each line are arranged in alliteration, which makes the whole line even more emphatic.
4) A lot of metaphors and understatements are used in the poem. For example, the sea is called “the whale-road” or “the swan-road”; the soldiers are called “shield-men”; the chieftains are called “treasure-keepers”; the human body is referred to as “the bone-house”; God is called “wonder-wielder”; the monster is referred to as “soul-destroyer”.
Practice Questions :
Q1. Before Beowulf arrives, the survivors of Grendel’s attacks are those who
a. feign sleep
b. show no fear
c. fight as a united group
d. leave the hall before nightfall
Q2. Beowulf is motivated to go to Denmark by
a. love of adventure
b. the offer of a reward
c. hope of achieving fame
d. a desire to help the helpless
Q3. The watchman who sees the Geats is, at first,
Q4. When Grendel realizes Beowulf’s strength, he tries to
b. find a weapon
c. plead for his life
d. call for assistance
Q5. Beowulf’s men are of no help to him because
a. they are asleep
b. they are bewitched
c. they are too frightened
d. their weapons are useless
Q6. Which of the following does Beowulf use to kill Grendel?
b. his hands
c. his sword
d. Grendel’s own claws
Q7. During the battle with Grendel’s mother, Beowulf is driven on mainly be a desire for
Q8. Of the following, which is most responsible for saving Beowulf’s life in the battle against Grendel’s mother?
a. his mail shirt
b. his sword
c. his strength
d. his cunning
Q9. The poem suggests that Beowulf’s superiority or greatness is apparent to
a. only the Geats
b. only the Danes
c. only human beings
d. all who come in contact with him
Q10. The words “sea-realm” and “whale-beast” are examples of what Anglo-Saxon literary convention?