Literary Analysis of Beowulf
Beowulf is one of the oldest and longest heroic poems written in the Old English language. This epic poem consists of 3182 lines written in the alliterative form. The poem is a classic tale of the fight between good and evil, where bravery and honor triumph over evil. The poem does not have a specific author or publication date. Still, scholars have traced the earliest manuscripts from around 500 A.D. The story is a classical Old English epic poem with heroic boastfulness, verbal taunting, and a hero who goes against all odds to become the savior. The poem exists in a single damaged manuscript in British Library that scholars have traced to the early 11th Century. However, the poem is believed to have been written in the eighth Century, with most of the characters linked to historical figures in the Germanic or Scandinavian culture. The primary message, style, and historical relevance are based on a heroic tradition developed in Germanic religion and mythology. The story largely covers the qualities of a good warrior through the character of Beowulf as he battles different forms of evil and value systems. The poem efficiently highlights how good triumphs over evil and battles between heroics and other conflicting value systems. Beowulf enlightens readers about the values of heroism and the differences between good warriors and kings using a practical setting and symbolism.
The primary message of Beowulf is the triumph of good over evil depicted through the values of good warriors and kings. Hrothgar and Beowulf exemplify the values of goodness as they fight the antagonists, Grendel, his mother, and the fierce dragon. Beowulf’s traits are connected with multiple values, including loyalty, honesty, and an eternal quest for glory. The epic of Beowulf reiterates the actual values of warriors, especially during the medieval period when defects were not acceptable for any true warriors (Goldsmith, 2014). Beowulf shows bravery, strength, and determination even when fighting a challenging battle that ultimately takes his life. During the feasting ceremony at Heorot, Beowulf claims, “But the truth…Is simple: no man swims in the sea…As I can, no strength is a match for mine.” ( Heaney, 2009). Beowulf believes in his strength as a warrior with exemplary Germanic heroic code. The poem highlights the difference between good kings and warriors through the character of Beowulf. The heroic code values courage and loyalty, while kings are expected to be generous, hospitable skillful politically, as seen with Hrothgar and Beowulf’s leadership. According to Asaka & Simona (2010), the story highlights how individual actions are determined to be either good or evil in regard to conforming to or violating the heroic code for both kings and warriors. The moral judgments of all the characters stem from the code’s mandate and understanding of their purpose and relationship with society. Beowulf’s maturity throughout the poem, from a brave soldier to a wise and calm king, illustrates the differences in values between a king and a warrior.
Symbolism and Setting
Beowulf uses various symbols that efficiently illustrate the battle between good and evil and the values system of traditional medieval heroic codes. The golden torque is a symbol of loyalty and the tight bond between the two different nations. Wealhtheow gives Beowulf collar necklaces with a golden torque to show her gratitude towards Beowulf’s bravery and devotion to fighting for his people. Later in the poem, it is revealed that Hygelac was wearing the same piece in his last moments on the battlefield, illustrating its value in the continuity of kingship (Goldsmith, 2014). The golden torque also symbolizes the treasures of the Geats people and the nation as they show appreciation to their bravest warriors like Beowulf. However, the gold and gifts are treasured for their social value and not for their economic importance. When Wealhtheow welcomes Beowulf to the feast in her kingdom, the narrator states, “Then Wealhtheow stepped forth, mindful of courtesy. The Queen of Hrothgar adorned in gold.” ( Heaney, 2009). Similarly, the mead hall represents the central place in a society where everyone gathers to feast and socialize, thus preserving their history. The largest mead hall, Heorot, symbolizes the might and power of the Hrothgar regime. Therefore, the enormous banquet at Heorot after Grendel’s defeat symbolizes restoring order for the Danes.
The setting of Beowulf plays a crucial role in demonstrating the medieval values of epic heroism and the victory of good over evil. The story is set in prehistoric Scandinavia around 500 A.D depicting the territorial domination of the Geats and the Scydlings (Goldsmith, 2014). The poem allegorizes the actual period when the two tribal communities lived in the regions, with many of the historical figures based on real people, including Hrothgar and Wiglaf. Nonetheless, the poem’s geographical landscape is fictitious and symbolic, portraying the battles between the Geats and Swedes (Asaka & Simona, 2010). Beyond the mead halls lies a cold and dark world that represents the boundary between civilization and barbarism. Beowulf becomes obsessed with triumphing over the terrifying evil that lurks in the outer wilderness.
Overall, Beowulf is a classic gothic epic and a fictional poem highlighting heroic tradition and codes through an appropriate setting and symbolism. The poem intricately illustrates the heroic values founded in Germanic mythology and traditions, as shown by Beowulf’s bravery, loyalty, vengeance, and devotion to his people. The story equally highlights the ethical values that determine the moral judgment of being good or evil regarding the values of a good king and warrior.
- Asaka, Y., & Simona, A. (2010). An Analysis of nature in Beowulf: from the perspective of its relation to man. OIU journal of international studies, 23(2), 1-12.
- Goldsmith, M. E. (2014). The Mode and Meaning of Beowulf. A&C Black.
- Heaney, S. (2009). Beowulf. Faber & Faber.