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The Epic Poem, Beowulf – An Analysis of Structure

Beowulf – its Structure

There is a considerable diversity of opinion regarding the structure of the poem Beowulf. This essay hopes to enlighten the reader on some of the opinions expressed by literary scholars on this issue.

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature states:

It is generally thought that several originally separate lays have been combined in the poem, and, though no proof is obtainable, the theory in itself is not unlikely. These lays are usually supposed to have been four in number and to have dealt with the following subjects: (1) Beowulf’s fight with Grendel, (2) the fight with Grendel’s mother, (3) Beowulf’s return, (4) the fight with the dragon (v1,ch3,s3,n16).

Alvin A. Lee in his essay, “Symbolic Metaphor and the Design of Beowulf,” basically agrees that there are four divisions in the poem’s structure:

Moving a little closer to the text but still thinking of it in terms of its overall design, one can recognize four [my italics] major myths or symbolic episodes, each of which is concentrated at appropriate points in the narrative but also extends its effect, with varying emphases, throughout the whole poem (148).

But Lee’s four divisions are not the same as the first-mentioned. Lee’s first part is climaxed with the construction of Heorot; the second part, as Grendel lays waste to Heorot; the third, Beowulf’s advent and victories over Grendel and mother; and fourth, the hero’s death and the return to chaos (148).

The three-part, or tripartite division, of Beowulf is more popular than the four-part division. F.P. Magoun, Jr. divided the poem into three separate stories designated as A, A-prime, and B. Magoun’s A corresponds to the events up to Beowulf’s return to the Geats; B, the dragon fight and ending. But A prime includes a variant or alternative version of the Grendel story that an Anglo-Saxon editor of the poem wished to preserve and fitted into his anthology of Beowulf poems(Clark 22). So Magoun would have three divisions to the structure of the poem rather than four. Agreeing with him are Brian Wilkie and James Hurt, editors of Literature of the Western World, state:

It is clear that the sequence of monster-fights provides the structure of the poem. . . .In this poem of a little over 3000 lines, roughly a thousand lines are devoted to each of the three monsters, and it has been suggested that Beowulf ws intended to be performed over three evenings, each devoted to a new monster (1273).

Women’s Roles in the Epic of Beowulf

Women’s Roles in Beowulf

Are women in this poem active equals of the men? Or are they passive victims of the men? The role of the women in Beowulf is not a stereotyped one of passive homemaker, but rather one having freedom of choice, range of activity, and room for personal growth and development, such as is reflected in Anglo-Saxon England of the time.

Beowulf makes reference to Ingeld and his wife and the coming Heathobard feud:

in that hot passion

his love for peace-weaver, his wife, will cool (2065-66)

This is a rare passage, for Anglo-Saxon poetry rarely mentions romantic feelings toward women. In fact, one’s marital status wasn’t even considered significant. For example, with the hero himself the poet never mentions whether he is married or not, likewise with most characters in the poem. Because this is a poem about the heroic deeds of men, Hildeburh excepted, the feeling between man-and-woman is downplayed, and the feeling among warriors is emphasized. Remember that the poem opens with Scyld Scefing, who came motherless to rule the Danes:

than those at his start

who set him adrift when only a child,

friendless and cold, lone on the waves. (44-46)

Scyld’s motherlessness perhaps tells the reader that the heroic, superhuman, violent deeds about to transpire are perhaps not all that compatible with women and womanly qualities like passivity, gentleness, compassion. It is a predominantly masculine, rough and tough narrative which would only be detrac…

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… was honored by nations (-1957)

The roles of women in Beowulf are varied and non-stereotyped; some are peaceful and one at least is a killer, is warlike. The women of royal blood have considerable freedom of choice, range of activity, and room for personal growth and development.


Chance, Jane. “Grendel’s Mother and the Women of Beowulf.” In Readings on Beowulf, edited by Stephen P. Thompson. San Diego: Greenhaven Press,1998.

Chickering, Howell D.. Beowulf A dual-Language Edition. New York: Anchor Books, 1977.

Overing, Gillian R. “The Women of Beowulf; A context for Interpretation.” In The Beowulf Reader, edited by Peter S. Baker. New York: Garland Publishing, 2000.

Tacitus: The Annals of Imperial Rome, translated by Michael Grant. New York: Penguin, 1996.

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