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Historical and Social Symbology in Beowulf

On the surface, the poem Beowulf seems to be a simple tale of a brave hero who triumphs over three monsters and who engages in several other battles in order to preserve what is just and right. A more thorough reading, however, reveals that the epic poem is filled with events that symbolize historical and social conditions that prevailed during the European reign of the Scandinavians in the seventh century to around the ninth century, following the Danish invasion of England (Sisson 1996).

Analysts additionally point out that Beowulf’s author was a person who has a “strong sense of cultural diversity” (Frank 1982: 52). Though the author was most likely Christian, he or she also had a strong understanding of the pagan moral code. This was illustrated in the way Beowulf was able to move through different European societies with ease.

This essay looks at the heroic code that is exemplified by Beowulf, as seen in his battles with Grendel, his fight with Grendel’s mother, in his relationship with Hygelac. In the second part, the essay then examines how Beowulf moves away from this heroic code in his final battle with the dragon. In the conclusion, the essay shows that Beowulf makes choices that hark back to his past courage and foreshadow his own bravery and death. This shows that his choice of the heroic life has implications not only for himself, but for his kingdom as well.

Heroic code in Beowulf’s battles

Even before the hero’s appearance, the narrator already establishes the strong heroic code that dictates honorable conduct in Scandinavian kingdoms. This is depicted in the court of Hrothgar, ruler of the Scyldings. Early in the poem, the narrator shows how rulers like Hrothgar were very dependent on the allegia…

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…hane origins and his present status as ruler.

However, throughout the epic poem, Beowulf upholds the code of conduct demanded both in battle and, for the most part, in his duties to his adherents. Seen in this light, the departures from the heroic code towards the end of his life matters much less, when compared to the way Beowulf lived with bravery, compassion and most importantly, with honor.

Works Cited

Donaldson, E. Talbot. 1966. “Kinship in Beowulf.” in Beowulf: Bloom’s Notes. Harold Bloom, ed. Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers.

Frank, Roberta. 1982. “The Beowulf Poet’s Sense of History.” in Beowulf: Critical Interpretation. Harold Bloom, ed. Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers.

Sisson, Mary. 1996. “Thematic and Structural Analysis.” in Beowulf: Bloom’s Notes. Harold Bloom, ed. Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers.

Beowulf and the Destruction of Feminine Power

Beowulf is an epic story that tells many things in ways that are not obvious if the symbols used are not recognized and placed within an accurate context. It is, among other things, a story of dragons and battles, Christianity versus paganism, and the story of a man and his pride. It is also a story about the evils of and the destruction of feminine power.

Because of historical context, it is helpful to understand the period of its writing and similar stories in history. For the scope of this discussion, comparisons against Arthurian lore are used as well as religious historical context. Beowulf was written, at best guess, between 800 and 1100 CE while Arthurian lore was established in the fifth century, three to six centuries earlier. Because of the nature of oral story-telling and culture, sufficient time will have passed and provided ample opportunity for elements of Arthurian lore to be used in Beowulf. They both contain dragons, magical swords received by a female figure in a lake, and strong references to Christianity. Because of religious historical context, these symbols also carried with them contexts that are religious in nature.

Some of the symbols used for feminine power are swords, any body of water or division of the earth, the night or moon, and the dragon. Swords, sun or daytime, hands, Christianity, God, and lord are all symbols of masculine power. It is important to realize that a symbol of gender can also stand in for a person figure. As such, hands can stand in for a male presence and a lake is interchangeable for a feminine presence.

It is also critical to note that the context of a symbol changes the gender representation of that symbol. A sword in a cave becomes a feminine power but when held by a man, …

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…sforms it into a new power of disciplined masculinity and patriarchal Christianity. The blade is sacrificed through the blood of the dragon in a clear representation of Jesus Christ.

Just like in Alice in Wonderland, the hero must return to the surface in a metaphorical rebirth, transformed by the events leading to that moment. In Beowulf, the lake serves as birth canal and amniotic fluid after he has been reborn into Christianity and its patriarchal system, leaving all vestiges of femininity behind.

Works Cited

Damrosch, David and J. H. Dettmar, Masters of British Literature. Vol. A. New York: Pearson Education, Inc., 2008.

Gardner, Laurence. Genesis of the Grail Kings. Gloucester: Fair Winds Press, 2002.

Ogden-Korus, Erin. Many Monsters to Destroy. 3 September 2011 .

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