The earliest known manuscript of Beowulf is thought to have been written in thetenth century, however, the poem had most likely been told as an oral traditionfor centuries before that.
In fact, the poems events date back to the sixthcentury. However, because there is only one manuscript of Beowulf still in tactvery little is known about the poem or its author. The poem does, however, giveus great insight into the culture of the people who composed and told this epictale. Because the poem was performed orally mainly between the eighth and tenthcenturies, but dealt with subject matter of centuries earlier, it is difficultto decipher and separate the cultural context involved in the poem from onecentury to the next. The poem was probably unrecognizable from its originalstate after two hundred years of oral tradition that would have changed itscontent drastically. The storyline of the poem, the battles and significantevents, probably maintained most of their identity while the cultural contexttook on another form more suited to the current culture of the people.
By thetime it was written, in 1000, the poem was probably most representative of thetenth century culture yet it still managed to tell a story similar to theoriginal version. Beowulf, then, gives us a significant insight into thecultural views of the tenth century Anglo-Saxons including their political,social and moral views. The individualistic society was just beginning toreplace the tribal system in which no individual had been seen as more importantto the success of the tribe than any other. The individuality that Beowulfdisplayed helped establish new rules in society.
Beyond this, Beowulf gives usan even greater insight into middle ages society. Woven throughout almost everyaspect of their culture and the poem are very strict moral codes and values.Loyalty, honesty, family ties, courage and even Christianity play a major rolein this epic poem.
In each of the stories told throughout the poem elements ofthese values are openly displayed. All three of Beowulfs battles demonstratequalities deemed virtuous and essential to the people of the middle ages.Beowulf, a godfearing, heroic warrior, first faces a monster that represents allthings evil. The monster is a descendant of Cain, a bloodthirsty avenger of manand an outcast. Beowulf confronts this evil figure without any fear and withoutthe aid of any manmade weapons of war.
The strength of the wickedness isoutmatched by the goodness and purity Beowulf. Only because Beowulf displayed nofear and used no weapon was he able to destroy this wicked force of destruction.The hero, Beowulf, is glorified more for his virtue than for his strength indefeating the monster. For those who displayed no virtue, despite their valor,the consequence was quite different. Ecgtheows son, who displayed no bravery,for example, had been despised for a long while, for the Geats saw no sparkof bravery in him (75). The true hero of the middle ages managed to maintaina balance between his personal glory and maintaining the good of his people. Aswe see in later stories of this period, like the Arthur stories, this is a verydelicate balance.
Beowulf became a folklore hero because he maintained thisbalance well. He displayed personal heroism while at the same time keeping hispriorities towards the safety of his people. Beowulfs first attack on themonster Grendel displayed many qualities that were significant in a hero of thattime. First of all, Beowulf was not called upon to save the Danes from Grendel.Instead, he came on his own accord, out of duty and principle.
He tookresponsibility upon himself in a situation that required none. Theindividualistic society did not require that an person remain part of the tribe,but rather encouraged them to seek adventure while doing good. Beowulfrecognized his physical strengths and he utilized them for personal gain andglory and the good of the nation. Beowulfs second battle with Grendelsmother is quite similar to the first. However, because Beowulf brought along asword as protection he is seemingly less pure and as he attempts to use thesword it fails him.
He is nearly beaten by the monsters mother until hewields the famous old sword of the giants which had magical power to save him.While he is not as heroic in his second battle, Beowulf still displays many ofthe virtues essential for heroism and even survival. He was required to useingenuity rather than strength in his battle and was required to go through anextremely difficult process in order to get to the monsters lair, almost likean initiation. However, he came out of the whole ordeal wiser and greatlyrewarded. This first two battles also, surprisingly, represented what may havebeen an influence of Christian values on the culture. While the Christianity isnot quite the same as we would expect in a more modern setting, it was justbeginning to gain some influence in Europe at the time of this story. This was aperiod of a conversion of the paganistic beliefs into something that moreclosely resembled Christianity.
Many of the principles and ideals of the twowere combined to create a more familiar understanding view of Christianity forthe predominantly pagan population. The Christianity in the story is moreclosely tied in with Moses Old Testament teachings of revenge and equalitythan Christs teachings of peace, love and forgiveness. Grendels motherattempts to avenge the death of her son while at the same time Beowulf isattempting to avenge the death of all those slain by Grendel. The conflictbetween good and evil is also a very Christian theme that runs throughout thepoem. There is a consistant attack of wickedness that can only be overcome bypurity and goodness.
Beowulf is almost a Christ figure, not to the extent thathe is Christ like, merely that he overcomes, literally kills, wickedness.Grendel, on the other hand, shoulders Gods anger (45). Whether the poemis mainly pagan or Christian is up for debate, but both had influence on thestory as it was finally written. The religious views in Beowulf were obviously avery important aspect of the story and to the people who were undergoing a verysignificant change in their views of religion. The action provides us with aslight understanding of the qualities respected in middle ages society. However,the vast majority of the text deals with nonaction that gives us perhaps moreinformation about how the society worked. Because this story was originallypassed on as an oral tradition each part of the poem is extremely significantbecause it had to be memorized.
This adds significance to the genealogy, longspeeches and highly descriptive nature of ceremonial events in the text whichmust have required hours of memorization. These all give a very detailed accountof the non warrior side of life that was also very important. The length ofthese separate passages indicate what was significant to these people. Theaction is sparsely distributed throughout the text to apply the principlespresented to us throughout the length of the poem. For example, in an importantexchange with the king, Beowulf presented .
..a standard bearing the image ofa boar, together with a helmet towering in battle, a gray corslet, and a noblesword; (74). This description allows us a glimpse into the importance of giftgiving and of the importance of these gifts. Beowulf continues his speech to theking by stating Hrothgar, the wise king, gave me these trappings andpurposely asked me to tell you their history (74). The detail tat is spent ondescribing the gifts and their history is significant in understanding theculture of these people. This particular passage displays the importance ofrituals and rights that individuals were required to undergo.
The songs of thescop recited at Hrothgars court also display the importance of using poetryto glorify their heroes and remember their history. Since very little wasactually written, poetry was one of the only methods they had to preserve theirhistory. In this history they kept significance was placed on an entirelydifferent set of principles dealing with the importance of rituals andsignificant heroic events.
Beowulfs final battle is perhaps his mostsignificant. He had learned much since the time of his youth and he approachedthis battle with greater wisdom. This is the final test of his life and the lastchallenge that he must endure.
Beowulf is different at the time of this battle,however. His other battles had been fought while he was still very young andfull of life. In his third battle he was an old man who had spent much of hislife serving his country. However, his usefulness for his people was dwindlingas old age began to overtake him. This battle demonstrated the final andgreatest sacrifice he could make. It was a battle that he surely knew would takehis life, but one he deemed worthy. Despite his incredible physical strength andcourage Beowulf was unable to win the battle within himself.
Like everyone thatever lived, Beowulf grew old, weak and tired. No matter how hard he tried he wasunable to escape death and he knew that it would not be long in coming for him.He went into battle facing not only the dragon but also the destiny of his owndeath. His death, rather than being a sign of weakness, becomes his final act ofglory.
Beowulf, amazingly, continues to be studied and read extensively all overthe world even today, one thousand years after it was composed. Its study ofsocial conflict and heroism is what has made it become a timeless classic. Theissues it deals with not only pertained to life in the middle ages, but alsowith issues that never die. It contains all of the elements of a modernHollywood film. The most important aspect of the poem, though, is the insight itgives us into middle age life.
This poem most likely began as a tribute to anoble war hero, but it has become one of the greatest epics of all time.English Essays