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Western Literature 102: A Tale of Heroism and Monsters


The Western Literature series serves as a vital resource for English Language and Literature students aiming to deepen their understanding of Western literature's diverse and dynamic aspects. With a comprehensive exploration of literary works, this series offers a profound insight into the evolution and complexities of Western literary traditions. Beginning with Series 101, delving into the ancient literature from its origin in the Epic of Gilgamesh to the Aeneid of Virgil, which marks a critical juncture in the transition from earlier works to the concept of modernisation. By analysing the genre‘s transformation, Western Literature 102 provides readers with a rich appreciation for Medieval literature. Through six captivating chapters, readers embark on an enlightening journey through the world of heroes, poets, and rebels, unravelling the intricacies of this mesmerising era and its profound impact on Western literature.

The 102 series is divided into six articles:

  1. Western Literature 102: A Tale of Heroism and Monsters

  2. Western Literature 102: Oaths and Treachery

  3. Western Literature 102: Love‘s Illumination

  4. Western Literature 102: A Pilgrim‘s Redemption

  5. Western Literature 102: Chivalric Trials, Blood and Honour

  6. Western Literature 102: Silent Stories Unveiled

Western Literature 102: A Tale of Heroism and Monsters

Beowulf represents the epitome of Anglo-Saxon-era epic poems and holds a significant place in the literary canon due to its historical, cultural, and artistic importance. This enduring masterpiece explores themes of heroism, bravery, and loyalty while providing valuable insights into the societal values and ideals of the time. Through the portrayal of the hero Beowulf and his extraordinary battles against supernatural adversaries, the poem not only celebrates the heroic ideal, but also delves into the complexities and challenges faced by individuals who strive to embody such virtues. In this way, Beowulf is a timeless testament to the elaborate web of loyalty, honour, and communal defence intrinsic to the socio-cultural fabric of the Anglo-Saxon warrior class. This article explores the epic poem, Beowulf, delving into its narrative, themes, and historical context to unravel the heroic adventures of its central figure and the cultural influences that shaped its composition. An in-depth understanding of Beowulf’s enduring literary impact can be attained by analysing its motifs and cultural significance.

Figure 1: The first folio of the heroic epic poem Beowulf (c.975–1025)

Anglo-Saxon Culture

Spanning from the early fifth century to the Norman Conquest in 1066, the Anglo-Saxon era delineates a distinct historical period in England, characterised by notable cultural, political, and social developments. It corresponds to the influx and settlement of diverse Germanic tribes within the British Isles, collectively referred to as the Anglo-Saxons, leading to the establishment of autonomous realms. These migratory groups originated from regions encompassing present-day Germany and Denmark, imparting their linguistic, cultural, and traditional heritage to newly inhabited territories. The establishment of various Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, including Wessex, Mercia, and Northumbria, engendered a competitive environment marked by power struggles and territorial ambitions (Neidorf, 2012), as evidenced by Sutton Hoo (discovered in Suffolk, England, near the town of Woodbridge in 1939), a crucial archaeological site, providing invaluable insights into Anglo-Saxon culture and history.

The Anglo-Saxon culture was distinguished by its profound reverence for oral traditions, heroic poetry, and the cultivation of warrior values. Notably, the emergence of epic poems such as Beowulf exemplified the overarching heroic ideals and thematic exploration of the conflict between moral forces. These literary compositions served as potent vehicles for conveying the deeply ingrained cultural values of loyalty, bravery, and kinship, which held considerable prestige within Anglo-Saxon society. The heroic figures depicted in these works embodied these virtues, illustrating their significance in the collective consciousness of the era. Through poetry, the Anglo-Saxons communicated and reinforced the cultural ethos underpinning their social structure (Foley, 1977).

Figure 2: Tribes mentioned in Beowulf, showing Beowulf’s voyage to Heorot and a possible site of the poem’s composition in Rendlesham, Suffolk (Alexander, n.d.)

Religion assumed a pivotal position, as evidenced by the gradual process of Christianisation that unfolded among the Anglo-Saxon communities. The arrival of missionaries heralded the inception of Christian establishments and the propagation of Christian teachings throughout England. This epochal transition wielded far-reaching consequences, profoundly influencing the cultural and intellectual milieu of the period. The infusion of Christianity engendered shifts in religious practices, social structures, artistic expressions, and intellectual discourses, thereby leaving an indelible imprint on the overall historical narrative of the era (Bloomfield, 1969).

Characterised by a hierarchical structure, Anglo-Saxon society was delineated into distinct social strata. At the apex of the social order resided the kings or warlords, who wielded supreme authority and commanded political power. Directly beneath them stood the thanes, comprising the noble class responsible for administering local regions and supporting the ruling elite. Most of the population consisted of freemen, who primarily engaged in agricultural pursuits or specialised craftsmanship. However, it is essential to acknowledge the presence of slavery during this period, whereby individuals were subjugated to servile roles, fulfilling labour-intensive tasks or domestic obligations. In a broader context, the Anglo-Saxon era is a transformative phase in English history, serving as a crucible for the formation and evolution of the English language, legal frameworks, and cultural customs. Its enduring allure persists among scholars and enthusiasts alike, primarily due to the remarkable literary works it has bequeathed, with Beowulf standing as an illustrious testament to this captivating era. Beowulf illuminates the ethos and values intrinsic to its society through its narrative, fostering a more profound understanding of societal structures and cultural ethos (Foley, 1977).

Figure 3: View of the excavation of the ship burial at Sutton Hoo (1939)

Cultural Context for Beowulf

Beowulf existed within the realm of oral tradition, transmitted through the spoken word by skilled bards or scop, poet-performers prominent in Anglo-Saxon courts and mead halls. Within the complexity of Anglo-Saxon society, the oral tradition held a position of high esteem, as these performances not only served as a repository of historical accounts, but also entertained and captivated audiences, reinforcing the cultural ethos of the time. This tradition of orality, serving as a cultural preservation and transmission conduit, was pivotal in shaping Anglo-Saxon society’s collective memory, values, and shared experiences (Neidorf, 2012).

According to comparative oral tradition scholar John Miles Foley, Beowulf is a profound representation of the heroic culture that permeated Anglo-Saxon society, accentuating the ideals of bravery, loyalty, honour, and the pursuit of glory within the context of martial exploits. The poem acts as a testament to the values and aspirations cherished by the Anglo-Saxon community, as it meticulously chronicles the extraordinary endeavours of its central figure, Beowulf. Through his indomitable spirit and unwavering resolve, Beowulf embodies the coveted virtues of the heroic ethos, fearlessly embarking upon perilous quests, engaging in formidable battles against monstrous adversaries, and ardently striving for enduring fame and distinction. This exploration of heroism within Beowulf works not only to entertain its audience, but also reinforces the societal ideals and moral foundations of the Anglo-Saxon culture. For their Germanic origin, the Anglo-Saxons shared historical connections with Scandinavia. These connections extended beyond mere geographical proximity, fostering societal similarities and cultural exchange that permeated their respective realms. This cross-pollination of ideas, traditions, and linguistic influences shaped the fabric of both Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian societies, leaving indelible imprints on their literature, beliefs, and social structures.

As an epic poem, Beowulf draws extensively from the rich history of Norse and Germanic mythologies and legends, seamlessly incorporating many characters and motifs derived from these distinct traditions. Notably, the poem’s depiction of formidable adversaries, including Grendel and the dragon, exhibits conspicuous traces of pagan mythologies that permeated the collective consciousness of the time. Intertwined with Beowulf’s narrative, these mythical beings serve as testamentary embodiments of the enduring influence exerted by the ancestral belief systems and mythological cosmologies inherited from Germanic and Scandinavian sources. By amalgamating these diverse cultural elements, Beowulf attains a network of cultural and mythological resonance that enhances its narrative depth and reveals the intricate interplay between the poem’s textual artistry and the cultural milieu from which it emerged (Foley, 1977).

Figure 4: Norse dragon-prowed ship (10th century)

The poem offers valuable insights into the interconnections of Anglo-Saxon society, which was deeply entrenched in martial values and characterised by a hierarchically structured social framework. The poem illuminates the profound significance of the hero’s duty to safeguard the community, showcasing the intricate dynamics inherent in the relationships between lords and warriors. It also delves into the concept of comitatus, an intricate code of allegiance and reciprocal obligation that bound lords and their loyal retinues together. Through its exploration of these nuanced facets of a warrior society, Beowulf is a testament to the complex interplay of loyalty, honour, and communal defence intrinsic to the socio-cultural fabric of the Anglo-Saxon warrior class. Furthermore, the poem provides glimpses into the social structure of the time, where kings and warlords held supreme authority, warriors held privileged positions, thanes occupied the noble class, and a broader class of freemen contributed to the society’s socio-economic fabric. The significance of kinship and familial lineage in determining social standing is also evident. By shedding light on these aspects, Beowulf contributes to a nuanced understanding of the social dynamics and values that shaped Anglo-Saxon society during this era (Bloomfield, 1969).

As a literary work, Beowulf, resides within a dynamic and transitional era characterised by the coexistence of pagan and Christian belief systems. The poem manifests an interplay between pagan references and motifs, such as the depiction of pagan burial rituals and the pervasive influence of fate or wyrd, alongside the introduction of Christian elements. These Christian elements indicate the gradual adoption of Christianity among the Anglo-Saxon populace, hinting at the cultural and religious transformations underway during the poem’s composition. This juxtaposition of pagan and Christian elements offers valuable insights into intermingling these belief systems and the evolving religious landscape during the poem’s historical context (Bloomfield, 1969).

Figure 5: Miniature of Noah’s Ark, Old English Hexateuch (11th-12th century)

Analysis of Beowulf

As the first great narrative poem in the English language, Beowulf spans 3,182 lines and portrays the tale of a man and his people in the context of North European lands during a period when Germanic precursors of the English were migrating to Britain. Notably, the poet responsible for this masterpiece was a Christian, evidenced by his incorporation of biblical learning and engagement with the broader world of Christian-Latin culture. The absence of a specific title in the unique surviving manuscript has led scholars to designate the poem with the name of its heroic protagonist. While the poet’s identity remains unknown, along with the precise dating of Beowulf’s composition, it is widely acknowledged that the poet lived centuries after the events described, likely in the eighth century or later.

The epic poem from the Anglo-Saxon era explores several interconnected themes, including heroism, bravery, and loyalty, which are intricately woven into its narrative fabric (Heany, 2000). Heroism is epitomised through the character of the eponymous protagonist. Beowulf emerges as a larger-than-life figure, revered for his unparalleled strength, unwavering courage, and exceptional martial abilities. The poem skilfully weaves a narrative that showcases Beowulf’s heroic nature through his awe-inspiring feats, notably his perilous encounters with formidable adversaries like Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and the menacing dragon. Beowulf’s unwavering determination to confront and ultimately triumph over these monstrous forces underscores his commitment to safeguarding his people from imminent danger. Furthermore, his resolute willingness to put his own life at stake for the greater good resonates with the ideals of heroism, reinforcing the ethos of self-sacrifice and the pursuit of honour and glory highly esteemed in Anglo-Saxon society (Saenz, 2003).

Beowulf, vv. 808-820:

Then he who had harrowed the hearts of men

with pain and affliction in former times

and had given offence also to God

found that his bodily powers failed him.

Hygelac’s kinsman kept him helplessly

locked in a handgrip. As long as either lived,

he was hateful to the other. The monster’s whole

body was in pain, a tremendous wound

appeared on his shoulder. Sinews split

and the bone-lappings burst. Beowulf was granted

the glory of winning; Grendel was driven

under the fen-banks, fatally hurt,

to his desolate lair.

(Heany, 2000)

Figure 6: Beowulf manuscript text and drawing/s (1000)

The epic consistently underscores the significance of bravery and fearlessness in the face of adversity, emphasising the heroic nature of its characters. As the embodiment of bravery, Beowulf exhibits an unwavering resolve to confront formidable adversaries despite their inherent dangers. This unwavering courage is a testament to his indomitable spirit and steadfast commitment to uphold the ideals of heroism. Notably, the poem accentuates the contrast between Beowulf’s bravery and the cowardice displayed by certain other characters, further underscoring the cultural values associated with courage and disdain for cowardly conduct within the societal context of the time. By accentuating the importance of bravery as a core virtue, Beowulf offers insight into the prevailing cultural ideals and norms that celebrated courageous acts and denounced acts of timidity (Heany, 2000).

Loyalty is a foundational virtue in the poem, permeating the intricate web of relationships between warriors and their lords. Beowulf’s unwavering loyalty to King Hrothgar and, subsequently, to his sovereign, Hygelac, is a resounding testament to the profound sense of duty and allegiance that bound warriors to their rulers. Furthermore, the narrative accentuates the loyalty demonstrated by Beowulf’s comrades, notably exemplified by Wiglaf, who valiantly remains by his lord’s side in the climactic battle against the dragon, underscoring the enduring significance of loyalty even in the face of harrowing tribulations. Finally, through its exploration of loyalty, Beowulf illuminates the enduring bond between warriors and their leaders, offering insights into the moral fabric and hierarchical dynamics of the Anglo-Saxon warrior class (Heany, 2000).

Beowulf, vv. 2602-2608 and vv. 2625-2630:

His name was Wiglaf, a son of Weohstan’s,

a well-regarded Shylfing warrior

related to Aelfhere. When he saw his lord

tormented by the heat of his scalding helmet,

he remembered the bountiful gifts bestowed on him,

how well he lived among the Waegmundings,

the freehold he inherited from his father before him.

And now the youth

was to enter the line of battle with his lord,

his first time to be tested as a fighter.

His spirit did not break and the ancestral blade

would keep its edge, as the dragon discovered

as soon as they came together in the combat.

(Heany, 2000)

Figure 7: Anglo-Saxon Banquet (11th century)

The themes of heroism, bravery, and loyalty in Beowulf fulfil multifaceted roles within the narrative, serving both didactic and introspective functions. These thematic elements construct an elevated and idealised heroic figure, offering a model for emulation and aspiration to the contemporary audience. The poem establishes these virtues as highly desirable and virtuous, portraying the idealised traits esteemed in Anglo-Saxon society, reinforcing societal values and cultural norms. Moreover, the exploration of heroism, bravery, and loyalty delves into the intricacies of human nature and the inherent challenges confronted by individuals who endeavour to embody these ideals. Beowulf’s heroism, while revered and celebrated, is not portrayed without its consequential repercussions. The poem ventures into the intricacies of the costs and sacrifices accompanying his valiant actions, thereby adding layers of complexity and depth to the portrayal of heroism. By delving into the complexities of these themes, Beowulf invites contemplation of the multifaceted nature of the human character and the nuanced dilemmas faced by individuals who strive to uphold the ideals of heroism, bravery, and loyalty (Saenz, 2003).

Beowulf’s Significance

Beowulf’s profound significance as a literary masterpiece derives from its multifaceted impact on history, culture, and literature. Its enduring influence transcends the confines of the Anglo-Saxon era, resonating across medieval and modern works alike, leaving an indelible mark on the literary landscape. Cultural and historical significance permeates Beowulf, as the poem serves as an invaluable repository of knowledge about Anglo-Saxon society. Its vivid portrayal of characters, events, and settings provides scholars and readers valuable insights into the cultural values, heroic ideals, social structures, and world-views prevalent during that epoch. By peering into the narrative’s fabric, one can discern the formative elements that shaped the ethos and cultural identity of the English people, thereby enhancing our comprehension of a pivotal period in the annals of English history (Scheil, 2008).

Figure 8: The Anglo-Saxon calendar, April, Feasting (n.d.)

Its influence reverberates through notable works such as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and the Arthurian legends, which draw upon its thematic motifs of heroism, quests, and confrontations with formidable adversaries. Moreover, Beowulf’s imprint can be discerned in shaping the chivalric code, a cornerstone of medieval literature that extols the virtues of bravery, honour, and loyalty. Notably, Beowulf’s significance extends beyond its thematic contributions, as it also showcases a rich array of poetic techniques that have had a lasting impact on the development of English poetic traditions. The poem employs the artistry of alliteration, skilfully weaving together consonant sounds to create rhythmic and memorable lines. It further employs kennings, descriptive compound words that imbue the language with vivid imagery and linguistic creativity. Additionally, the strategic use of caesura, or deliberate pauses within lines, enhances the rhythmic structure of the poem, adding musicality and emphasising key moments. These artistic elements, employed masterfully in Beowulf, have served as touchstones for subsequent poetic works, shaping the trajectory of poetic expression in English (Scheil, 2008).

The preservation of Beowulf holds profound scholarly significance, as it is a paramount testament to the enduring legacy of Old English literature and the oral tradition from which it emerged. As an exemplar of oral poetry, Beowulf traversed the realms of time, persisting through successive generations as a cherished work transmitted orally by bards and poet-performers. Eventually, its enduring splendour was captured in a written form, affording contemporary scholars and enthusiasts the invaluable opportunity to delve into the linguistic nuances, poetic devices, and narrative structures prevalent during the era. The preservation of Beowulf thus provides an invaluable window into the labyrinth of the past, enabling meticulous analysis and scholarly inquiry into the linguistic evolution, cultural practices, and expressive traditions of Old English literature and the vibrant oral tradition that fostered its inception (Foley, 1977).

Figure 9: Miniature of David surrounded by musicians and scribes (8th century)

Beowulf’s profound impact on modern literature, specifically within the realm of the fantasy genre, bears testament to its enduring legacy and deep literary significance. The poem’s evocative portrayal of heroic quests, epic confrontations, and fantastical creatures has left an indelible imprint on subsequent works, notably exemplified in J.R.R. Tolkien’s magnum opus, The Lord of the Rings. Numerous characters, such as Aragorn, find their persona and ideals moulded by the figure of Beowulf, his heroic attributes and noble principles. Drawing inspiration from Beowulf’s heroic and mythical components, Tolkien wove a captivating narrative that echoed the grandeur and enchantment inherent in the Anglo-Saxon epic. Moreover, the themes and motifs espoused within Beowulf’s narrative continue reverberating through the corridors of contemporary fantasy and adventure literature, serving as a wellspring of inspiration for imaginative tales that transport readers to realms steeped in wonder and heroism (Tolkien, 1936).

The epic poems enduring literary appeal stems from its profound exploration of universal themes that transcend temporal and cultural boundaries, resonating with readers across generations. The poem delves into the timeless struggle between good and evil, illuminating the inherent dichotomy and the moral choices individuals face. Furthermore, it contemplates the transience of life and the ephemeral nature of human glory, prompting contemplation on the impermanence of earthly achievements. Through the hero’s journey, Beowulf navigates the arduous path of self-discovery, demonstrating the transformative power of personal growth and the quest for noble ideals. Moreover, the poem explores the complexities of human nature, portraying both the heroic virtues, and the inherent flaws that shape individuals. Beowulf’s masterful exploration of these enduring themes, infused with evocative imagery and narrative depth, contributes to its lasting impact on literary discourse and its ability to resonate with readers across time (Kroll, 1986).

Figure 10: Replica of the helmet from the Sutton Hoo ship-burial 1, England (n.d.)

Beowulf vs The Song of Roland

The Song of Roland or La Chanson de Roland, is a significant medieval epic poem composed around the 11th century. It portrays the valorous deeds and tragic fate of Roland, a brave knight in the service of Charlemagne, during the Frankish king’s campaigns against the Muslims in Spain. Exploring themes of chivalry, loyalty, honour, and the clash of religions, this enduring masterpiece of the chanson de geste genre captures the essence of medieval knightly virtues through its tale of treachery, warfare, and sacrifice (O’Hagan, 1910).

As powerful epic poems, both Beowulf and The Song of Roland demonstrate similarities and differences across various aspects. Beowulf, rooted in the Anglo-Saxon culture, emphasises individual heroism, loyalty, and the influence of fate, blending Germanic and Scandinavian influences. In contrast, The Song of Roland, originating from medieval France, focuses on chivalry, devotion to God, feudal loyalty, and the warrior’s honour. In comparison, Beowulf centres around the superhuman warrior Beowulf and his encounters with supernatural foes. The Song of Roland revolves around the noble knight Roland and his defence of Christianity. In addition, the narratives differ as Beowulf follows a linear structure with three battles, combining heroic quests and dynastic legends. At the same time, The Song of Roland presents episodes showcasing Roland’s heroism, betrayal, and martyrdom. Both epics explore heroism, bravery, loyalty, and the transient nature of life and glory. Yet, Beowulf is influenced by pagan elements, while The Song of Roland emphasises Christian ideals. In terms of writing style, Beowulf is written in Old English, employing alliteration, kennings, and descriptive imagery, while The Song of Roland uses Old French verse with rhymed couplets in a more structured form (Miles, 1958; Bloomfield, 1969).

Beowulf and The Song of Roland are significant epic poems that showcase unique cultural, narrative, thematic, and stylistic characteristics. While Beowulf reflects the Anglo-Saxon culture, emphasising individual heroism and pagan influences, The Song of Roland highlights medieval French culture through its focus on chivalry, feudal loyalty, and Christian ideals. Despite their differences, both epics delve into themes of heroism, loyalty, and the transient nature of glory. In this way, Beowulf and The Song of Roland contribute to epic literature’s rich and diverse tradition, each making its own distinct mark within their respective historical and cultural contexts.

Figure 11: Charlemagne finds Roland dead (14th century)

In conclusion, Beowulf is a timeless masterpiece of epic literature that continues to captivate readers across generations. Its exploration of heroism, bravery, loyalty, and the complexities of human nature resonates with audiences, offering valuable insights into the cultural values and ideals of the Anglo-Saxon era. The enduring legacy of Beowulf lies not only in its historical and cultural significance, but also in its profound impact on subsequent literary works, cementing its status as a cornerstone of the literary canon. Through its rich narrative, thematic depth, and poetic prowess, Beowulf remains a testament to storytelling’s enduring power and the relevance of universal human experiences.

Bibliographical References

Bloomfield, M.W. (1969). Beowulf, Byrhtnoth, and the Judgment of God: Trial by Combat in Anglo-Saxon England. Speculum, 44(4), pp. 545-559. Medieval Academy of America.

Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia. Retrieved May 20, 2023. Sutton Hoo. Encyclopedia Britannica.

Foley, J.M. (1977). “Beowulf” and the Psychohistory of Anglo-Saxon Culture. American Imago, SUMMER, 34(2), pp. 133-153. The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Heaney, S. (2000). Beowulf: A new verse translation. W.W. Norton & Company.

Kroll, N. (1986). “Beowulf”: The hero as keeper of human polity. Modern Philology, 84(2), pp. 117-129. The University of Chicago Press.

Miles, J. (1958). The Heroic Style of the “Song of Roland”. Romance Philology, 11(4), PERCIVAL B. FAY TESTIMONIAL: Part II, pp. 356-362. Brepols; University of California Press.

Neidorf, L. (2012). Beowulf before Beowulf: Anglo-Saxon anthroponymy and heroic legend. The Review of English Studies. Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/res/hgs108

O’Hagan, J. (1910). The Song of Roland. Epic and Saga. New York, P. F. Collier & Son. Internet Medieval Source Book.

Sáenz, F.S. (2003). Beowulf’s weaknesses. Odisea, no. 4, pp. 155-164. Almeria University.

Scheil, A. (2008). The historiographic dimensions of Beowulf. The Journal of English and Germanic Philology, 107(3), pp. 281-302. University of Illinois Press.

Tolkien, J.R.R. (1936). Beowulf: The monsters and the critics. In Heaney, S. (2002). Beowulf: A verse translation. W.W. Norton & Company.

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Deborah Zaccai

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