There is considerable debate as to whether the poem Beowulf is an epic narrative poem or an heroic elegy. Which is it. This essay intends to present both sides of the story.
Some great literary scholars think that the poem is an heroic elegy, celebrating the fantastic achievements of its great hero, and also expressing sorrow or lamentation for the hero’s unfortunate death. In “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics” Tolkien states:
We must dismiss, of course, from mind the notion that Beowulf is a “narrative poem,” that it tells a tale or intends to tell a tale sequentially. The poem “lacks steady advance”: so Klaeber heads a critical section in his edition. But the poem was not meant to advance, steadily or unsteadily. It is essentially a balance, an opposition of ends and beginnings. In its simplest terms it is a contrasted description of two moments in a great life, rising and setting; an elaboration of the ancient and intensely moving contrast between youth and age, first achievement and final death (Tolkien 34).
Another literary scholar attacks the proposition that the poem is a narrative epic as many critics say: “For the structure of the poem is not sequential, but complemental; at the outset certain parts of a situation are displayed, and these are given coherence and significance by progressive addition of its other parts’ (Blomfield 60). These attacks on the epic-narrative theory regarding the poem Beowulf leave one with the only choice left – that the poem is an heroic elegy, a poem celebrating the achievements of its hero Beowulf, and at the same time a poem of lamentation and sorrow and mourning over the death of that great he…
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…all, Inc., 1968.
Greenfield, Stanley B.. “The Finn Episode and its Parallet.” In Beowulf: The Donaldson Translation, edited by Joseph F. Tuso. New York, W.W.Norton and Co.: 1975.
Rebsamen, Frederick R.. in “Beowulf – A Personal Elegy.” Beowulf: The Donaldson Translation, edited by Joseph F. Tuso. New York, W.W.Norton and Co.: 1975
Robinson, Fred C. “Apposed Word Meanings and Religious Perspectives.” 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 Beowulf – Modern Critical Interpretations, edited by Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987.
Wright, David. “The Digressions in Beowulf.” In Readings on Beowulf, edited by Stephen P. Thompson. San Diego: Greenhaven Press,1998.
Imagery in the Old English Poem Beowulf
Popular Imagery in the Old English Poem Beowulf
Some popular elements of imagery in Beowulf are the mead-hall, the sea, swords, armor including shields. Let us discuss these items and, where applicable, the archaeological support for them.
Remaining true to the Anglo-Saxon culture’s affinity for mead (ale/beer/wine), the characters of Beowulf partake frequently of the strong beverage. And the mead hall was their home away from home, with more entertainments than just fermented beverages: “gold and treasure at huge feasts … the words of the poet, the sounds of the harp.” Needless to say, with “the world’s greatest mead-hall … Hrothgar’s people lived in joy.” “after a mead party the Danes … knew no sorrows.” When Grendel “moved into the [mead] hall,” that was an indescribably torturesome pain for everyone: “Hrothgar was broken … the Danes forgot God … [they were] in great distress … they wept and seethed.” When the hero and his men arrived they immediately “came toward the hall … then sat down on benches … pouring sweet drink.” They came “to cleanse Heorot [the mead hall],” to stop the “humiliations in Heorot” where men are “over their ale-cups.” Beowulf predicts: “When I get done with him, anyone who wishes may happily go into the mead hall.” Unferth, in his battle rune at Hrothgar’s feet, was insulting to the hero because Unferth was “drunk on mead.” When Queen Wealhtheow entertained the Geats, she first bid the king “joy in his mead drinking,” then “went around to each … sharing the precious cup.” When the hero began fighting the monster, “many a mead bench … went flying.” The next day the queen “walked among the mead seats,” and everyone “drank many a mead cup.” References to this subject are too numerous …
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…, edited by Robert Bjork and John D. Niles. Lincoln, Nebraska: Uiversity of Nebraska Press, 1997.
Hills, Catherine M. “Beowulf and Archaeology.” In A Beowulf Handbook, edited by Robert Bjork and John D. Niles. Lincoln, Nebraska: Uiversity of Nebraska Press, 1997.
Shippey, T.A.. “The World of the Poem.” In Beowulf – Modern Critical Interpretations, edited by Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987.
“Shields.” The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000. www.bartleby.com/65/.
Stanley, E.G.. “Beowulf.” In The Beowulf Reader, edited by Peter S. Baker. New York: Garland Publishing, 2000.
The Seafarer. In The Earliest English Poems, translated by Michael Alexander. New York: Penguin Books, 1991.
Widsith. In The Earliest English Poems, translated by Michael Alexander. New York: Penguin Books, 1991.