To qualify as an epic poem, Beowulf reflects the values of the culture in which it was created. The Anglo-Saxon culture and the poem share many of the same values. They shared a heroic ideal that included loyalty, strength, courage, courtesy, and generosity. Like all epic poems Beowulf is a long narrative work that tells the adventures of a great hero and also reflects the values of the society in which it was written. Both Beowulf and the Anglo-Saxons believed in those qualities as an individual.
The strongest ties of loyalty in their society were to kin and lord. A kingdom was only as strong as its war-leader king. In order to have loyal men, the King needed to repay them. In other words the men were paid for loyalty. They were sometimes given, land, gold, money, food, armor and other things for a reward after battle. Both the Anglo-Saxons and the characters in Beowulf are willing to risk their life at any moment-they are inattentive to danger. The Anglo-Saxons acquired riches by plundering treasures of their enemies. Every family formed a bond of loyalty and protection. A family was bound to avenge a father or brother’s death by feud with the tribe or clan which had killed him. This duty of blood revenge was the supreme religion of the Anglo-Saxons. The family passed down this hatred forever until avenged. Always staying loyal to family and the lord. (Allen, 12-14)
“The Anglo Saxons appear as a race of fierce, cruel, and barbaric pagans, delighting in the seas, in slaughter, and in drink “(Allen, 17). The character of the ancient Saxons displayed the qualities of fearless, active, and successful. The Anglo-Saxons are mostly a barbaric race, not savage and rude but mostly military and…
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…. W. Beowulf: An Introduction. Cambridge: Univ. Press, 1967.
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Emmerson, Richard K. and Bernard McGinn. The Apocalypse in the Middle Ages. Ithaca: Cornell, 1992.
Garmonsway, et. al. Beowulf and Its Analogues. New York: Dutton, 1971.
Gang, T. M. “Approaches to Beowulf.” RES 3 (1952):.6-12.
Gildas. De Excidio Britanniae in Wade-Evans, A. W. , trans. Nennius’ History of Britons. London: Methuen, 1938.
Goldsmith, Margaret. “The Christian Theme of Beowulf.” Medium Aevum 29 (1960): 81-101.
Green, Martin. “Man, Time, and Apocalypse in The Wanderer, The Seafarer, and Beowulf,” JEGP 74 (1975): 502-518.
Hieatt, Constance B. “Envelope Patterns and the Structure of Beowulf,” English Studies in Canada 1 (1975): 249-265.
The Epic Poem – Beowulf
Beowulf is an epic poem. Why? Because (1) it is a long narrative work that relates the adventures of a great hero and (2) it reflects the values of the Anglo-Saxon society in which it was written prior to 1000AD.
This Old English poem in unrhymed, four-beat alliterative style narrates, through the course of about 3200 verses, the bold killing of two monsters, Grendel and his Mother, and a fire-dragon, as well as numerous other brave deeds in lesser detail, by Beowulf, “the strongest of men alive in that day, mighty and noble,” “the good Geat.” Roberta Frank in “The Beowulf Poet’s Sense of History” sees the hero as “the synthesis of religious and heroic idealism” (Frank 59). Professor Tolkien in Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics states: “But in the centre we have an heroic figure of enlarged proportions” (Tolkien 38). “That crafty sailor” led his warriors “on the waves” to Hrothgar’s Danish kingdom where the first two adventures took place (“Herot, the bright ring-hall, is purged.”), earning the hero the greatest respect of the king (“You have by your deeds, achieved fame forever.”) and queen and people. More than “fifty winters” later the third great feat occurred in the Geat homeland where Beowulf was reigning as king. This adventure of armed combat against a fire dragon resulted not only in the dragon’s death but also in that of the Scandinavian hero. Numerous other adventures of the hero are presented in lesser detail: “With my sword I slew nine sea monsters,” “he had survived many battles,” “he avenged Heardred’s death,” “He deprived King Onela of life,” “I repaid Hygelac … with my bright sword,” “I was the killer of Daghrefin,” etc. The poem rightfully claims that Beowulf “performed the most famous de…
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…the ten who deserted their chief, said, “At the ale-bench he often gave you … helmets and armor.”
From the above it’s obvious that abundant evidence amply demonstrates that Beowulf truly reflects the first millenial Anglo-Saxon culture in the poem’s lengthy narration of the adventures of a great hero.
Clark, George. Beowulf. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1990.
Cramp, Rosemary. “Beowulf and Archaeology.” In TheBeowulf Poet, edited byDonald K. fry. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1968.
Frank, Roberta. “The Beowulf Poet’s Sense of History.” In Beowulf – Modern Critical Interpretations, edited by Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987.
Tolkien, J.R.R.. “Beowulf :The Monsters and the Critics.” In TheBeowulf Poet, edited byDonald K. fry. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1968.