Despite the brutality and chaos of the medieval heroic age in Europe, there were values present in those societies that stood out, nonetheless, as bright and clean and pure – heroism, loyalty to family and friends, faith in God, selflessness in battle and risking your life for others in your society, and the generosity of Kings to their thanes. In the fictional poem Beowulf, an ancient Germanic poem that was probably composed in the 8th, 9th, or 10th centuries, the poet paints a picture of three heroes that stood out for their wisdom, their leadership, their selfless acts, their loyalty, and their courage. These three were Beowulf, the Geatish hero of the poem, Wiglaf, the Geatish thane that stood by Beowulf in that fateful battle with the dragon, and Hrothgar, the King of the Danes.
There are many similarities between the three men: all three distinguish themselves as leaders and as warriors far above the ordinary men of their day, they are nearly godlike in their fame, their personal gifts, and their heroism. All three are living in a society where paganism and the warrior code are pervasive and long running, and Christianity is new and tenuous – often these two sets of values are difficult to balance, and each of the three men balances the societal values differently.
The themes of the story include “together we stand, together we fall,” “nothing lasts forever,” and “something always is saved.”
Features of Epic, Oral Poetry
The Beowulf poem follows several repetitious patterns typical to oral poetry and texts based on oral poetry, starting with the very first word. Oral poems begin by calling listeners to attention, and the Beowulf poem follows this convention powerfully with a first word of “Hwaet”! This is translated in various ways; in the Norton translation as “So!” You can imagine the oral performer in a mead hall slamming his mug on the table with this opening.
Most cultures have a “golden age” to which they look back, and Beowulf is no exception. The poem opens and closes with a funeral, setting and keeping an elegiac tone. Like most epic poetry, this poem honors the deeds of heroic ancestors, emphasizes patriarchal genealogy in the narrative, and distills the attributes of the whole culture into its primary hero, Beowulf. Beowulf’s victories are immediately recounted and woven into history by the scop/storyteller at the celebrations afterward.
The most pervasive rhetorical device in Beowulf, common to oral poetry in general, is alliteration. Each line has two half lines which alliterate. The alliteration is particularly impactful when the poem is read aloud. An example alliterative line from Beowulf is “without a leader; so the Lord of Life.” The alliteration brings emphasis and richness to both the description of the characters and the settings.
Metaphors called kenning are the union of two separate words used in place of a noun to mean the same thing. Kenning are used as metaphoric riddles throughout the Beowulf poem to enrich the poem and help alliteration. Examples of this are “swan road” and “whale-road” for the sea, “word-hoard” for vocabulary, “battle-brother” for fellow warrior, “sea-shawl” for sail, and “ring-giver” for King. These would have been interesting to audiences when spoken aloud and help describe both settings and characters in the poem.
Part of the poet’s responsibility is to convey wisdom, and a characteristic feature of all oral poetry is philosophical discourse between the poet and the listener. For example, when Wiglaf gives a speech at Beowulf’s funeral prophesying the end of the Geatish society, the poet, as an aside, followed Wiglaf’s speech with “such was the drift of the dire report that Gallant Man delivered. He got little wrong in what he told or predicted.”
Another rhetorical device common to oral poetry is the “epic boast.” Beowulf boasted before every fight – before the battle with Grendel, before he killed Grendel’s mother, and before his fight with the dragon. The boasts were announcements of identity, an acknowledgement of his own heroic worth and his duty to his forefathers. They were both courageous vows and meant to inspire believers. The plot of Beowulf followed the pattern of 1) Boast, 2) Fight/Kill 3) Celebrate, and then repeat. This is a pattern common to medieval poetry.
Epic poem settings typically feature a symbolic “out there” and “in here.” In Beowulf, the heart of “in here” was Heorot, where the King of the Danes, his Queen, and his society celebrated, lived, and slept. The thanes protected the King and his family, and in turn were given shelter, food, mead, and gifts here. The evil Grendel lived in a dark, monster-infested swamp, in exile from all that was happy and good at Heorot; portraying symbolically the exile of the son of Cain.
Sea passages are another pattern of oral poetry. Beowulf and his thanes cross the sea when they come to Denmark from their Geatish homeland in southern Sweden to rescue the Danes from Grendel. They cross the sea again to travel home, after defeating Grendel and Grendel’s mother in Denmark. The sea is a boundary and crossing it is symbolic.
Objects such as swords, battle gear, and jewelry were personified and carried stories. They were awarded by Kings to their faithful thanes after victorious battles Two ancient swords named in the poem were Naegling and Hrunting. The hand of Grendel was symbolically used as a trophy in Beowulf, too.
Understatement was a typical feature of medieval poetry. An example of understatement is contained in the description of Shield Sheafson’s funeral: “they decked his body no less bountifully with offerings then those first ones did who cast him away when he was a child.”
As is common in oral poetry, there is an emphasis on formal dialogue between the major heroic characters (Beowulf, Hrothgar, Wealtheow and Wiglaf). Much of their characters are revealed through what they say to each other in their meetings. The heroic characters are good warriors (the men) and peace weavers (Queen Wealhtheow) but they are also eloquent, addressing each other in a formal, exalted style.
The three monsters in the poem represent certain weaknesses or flaws present in humans. Grendel represents exile, fear, hatred and envy. Grendel’s mother represents vengeance, an implicit problem in medieval societies where revenge was a feature of the warrior code. And the dragon represents obsession, the quest for immortality, and greed. The slaying of these monsters by Beowulf can be seen allegorically as a triumph over these flaws.
Special Focus: The Emotiveness of Hrothgar
As Beowulf prepared to return to the Geats nation after killing Grendel, the monster that plagued the Danes, Hrothgar’s emotion overtakes him:
“And so the good and grey-haired Dane, that high-born King, kissed Beowulf and embraced his neck, then broke down in sudden tears. Two forebodings disturbed him in his wisdom, but one was stronger: nevermore would they meet each other face to face. And such was his affection that he could not help being overcome: His fondness for the man was so deep-founded. It warmed his heart and wound the heartstrings tight in his breast. “ (1880).
The personal traits shown by Hrothgar in his interactions with Beowulf indicate that he is emotive – in fact, more emotive than Beowulf, to the point that Beowulf tells him once to “stop mourning… and be the man I expect you to be.” (1390). Like many emotive people, feelings get the better of Hrothgar, but I think the feelings were a strong asset. In the beginning of the poem the poet explained that Hrothgar inherited the Kingdom of the Danes over his two brothers because he “attracted followers.” Perhaps his charisma and his willingness to show his emotions was attractive for others and helped create deep bonds and pledges of loyalty. The combination of success in battle and personal charisma arguably helped Hrothgar become a mighty King and rule his people successfully for so long.