Beowulf is one of the first literary masterpieces of the English language. Written in Old English in the eleventh century, its linguistic characteristics are still quite close to other Germanic tongues. The story itself is thought to have been originally composed sometime between 700 and 750. Although certain places and events are indeed historical, the main character of the story, Beowulf, is thought to be a fictional, archetypal hero. In meter, style, and theme, the basic structure of the poem is essentially of the Teutonic heroic tradition. It recounts the life of Prince Beowulf of the Scandinavian Geats, who fights various monsters, the first in the service of King Hrothgar. Hrothgar's beautiful mead hall is beset every evening by a horrible "troll-like" creature, Grendel, who kills all in his path. No one has been able to prevail against him until Beowulf arrives and rips the creature's arm off, mortally wounding him. He then must face the monster's mother, who meets a like fate.
Beowulf returns to his father's kingdom a hero and soon becomes king himself, ruling for fifty years in peace until a frightful dragon appears. Once more Beowulf must fulfill his responsibilities, even unto his own destruction. The battle is heartrending. Beowulf displays none of the confidence and vigor of his youth, but he is the only hero with the necessary skill and understanding to whom the people can turn. Mustering all his remaining strength, the king completes his task and slays the dragon. He dies a hero, in traditional Germanic fashion, in the fulfillment of his duty.
Although it exhibits the same style as epics originating from the pagan peoples, experts believe Beowulf's contention with monsters reflects a Christian influence of good versus evil. The fact that Beowulf slays monsters allows him to escape the blood feuds characteristic of other epics, in which family must avenge family and the issue of right and wrong is left ambiguous.
The introductory material about the text originally appeared on The Goodrich Room: Interactive Tour website.
Last modified April 10, 2014