Characteristics of the Beowulf Poem
There are many characteristics of the Beowulf poem that make it a
significant part of the history of literature. It is a perfect representation
of how the people in eighth century England communicated, what their feelings
were, and their culture. “It gives us vital information about Old English
social life and about Old English politics and about many things that scholars
would like to have much more information on.”(Raffel ix) Another characteristic
is that the Beowulf poem was passed down orally. The poem contains aspects of
Christianity what form it takes in the story. It is also sort of a history of
how the English language has changed in the many years from then until now. The
poem also contains many mythical references and it contains a great hero.
Beowulf is considered an artifact by many because “it is the oldest of
the English long poems and may have been composed more than twelve hundred years
ago.”(Beowulf 19) It deals with events of the early 6th century and is believed
to have been composed between 700 and 750. “No one knows who composed Beowulf ,
A single manuscript (Cotton Vitellius A XV) managed to survive Henry
VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries, and the destruction of their great
libraries; since his name is written on one of the folios, Lawrence Nowell, the
sixteenth-century scholar, may have been responsible for Beowulf’s
preservation.”(Raffel ix) An interesting fact that is unique about the poem is
that “it is the sole survivor of what may have been a thriving epic tradition,
and it is great poetry.”(Raffel ix)
The poem was composed and performed orally. “Old English bards, or
scops, most likely began by piecing together traditional short songs, called
heroic lays; they then gradually added to that base until the poem grew to its
The verse form is the standard Old English isochronic: each line
contains for stresses; there is a strong caesura in the middle of the lines and
the resultant half lines are bound together by alliteration. Although little
Old English poetry survives, Beowulf’s polished verse and reflective, allusive
development suggest that it is part of a rich poetic tradition.”(Foster 501)
An aspect of the poem is the role and characteristics of religion in the
story. “Christianity enters into the poem, and the society, but more an Old
Testament variety, stressing justice rather than love. There is controversy
about whether the Christian elements are intrinsic or are interpolations by a
tenth century monastic scribe.
In any case, the Christianity does not much
resemble that of the High Middle Ages or of the modern world. Frequently the
poem seems a reflection of the traditional pagan value system from the moral
point of view of the new, incompletely assimilated Christianity.”(Foster 502)
In Britannica it says that critics have seen the poem as a Christian allegory,
with Beowulf the champion of goodness and light against the forces of evil and
darkness. His sacrificial death is not seen as tragic but as the fitting end of
a good (some would say “too good”) hero’s life.
The poem contains words that people today might not recognize or know
because the words have changed over the years. These are words like
“mead”(Beowulf 34), “mead hall”(Beowulf 34), and “mead bench”(Beowulf 53) which
we know as beer, tavern, and bar respectively. Another word is “mere”(Beowulf
37), which is a lake. The word “wyrd” mentioned in Britannica is an old word
The author was v
ery creative in many of the words and phrases that he
used that were not traditionally used in regular speaking. One instance is
using the word “earth-hall”(Beowulf 60), which is a cave beneath the ground.
Another example is using the word “sea-cloth”(Beowulf 53), which is the sail of
a ship. A couple of others are: “soul-slayer”(Beowulf 28), which means “the
Devil” and “water-monsters”(Beowulf 46) are the beasts of the sea.
There are a few events in the Beowulf poem that mention actual historic
incidents. The story tells about “the raid on the Franks made by Hygelac, the
king of the Geats at the time Beowulf was a young man, in the year
This event did in fact happen in that time in Europe. “The
poem also references a time following the initial invasion of England by
Germanic tribes in 449.”(Beowulf 19) Britannica says that the poem was
originally untitled, but was later named after the Scandinavian hero Beowulf,
whose exploits and character provide its connecting theme. There is no evidence
of a historical Beowulf, but some characters, sites, and events in the poem can
be historically verified.
The poem contains mythical references in the form of Grendel, Grendel’s
mother, and the fire-breathing dragon. All of these are beasts that could not
have possibly existed in the history of human kind. “Grendel is a man-eating who
terrorized the Danes until killed by Beowulf. Grendel lives, with his equally
monstrous mother, at the bottom of a foul lake inhabited by assorted other
monsters; he is descended from Cain (the progenitor of all evil spirits),
though his precise genealogy is not given.”(Raffel 99) “Grendel is a
representative of the physical evil which was so present in the lives and
imagination of the Anglo-Saxons.”(Foster 500) “The inhuman dragon is a figure
of the metaphysical evil which is woven into the fabric of the universe.”(Foster
501) Another reference is Beowulf’s strength. Beowulf is said to have the
strength of thirty men.
The poem contains heroism in many parts. It mainly revolves around
Beowulf. “Beowulf was a man of great strength from the land of the Geats, ruled
over by Hygelac.”(Foster 500) Beowulf is the hero of the poem because “he rids
the people of Heorot of Grendel’s terror and then glory was given to
Beowulf.”(Beowulf 37) “Beowulf also saves the people from Grendel’s
mother”(Beowulf 49) and later in the poem “Beowulf attacks the Dragon.”(Beowulf
The story of Beowulf is one of Europe’s greatest epic poems. It is
composed of English history, heroism, and fantasy. It will remain a monument
of Old English forever.
“Beowulf.” Encyclopdia Britannica. 1990 ed.
Beowulf. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. M. H. Abrams et al.
New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1987. 19-72.
Foster, Edward. “Beowulf.” Masterplots. Revised ed. New Jersey: Salem Press,
Raffel, Burton. Beowulf. Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1971.