I would like to analyze one of the earliest and well-known examples of Old English literature called Beowulf. This epic poem is believed to be the oldest survived piece of European literature. The manuscript dates back to the 10th century and tells us a story about the personalities that probably lived in the 6th century. The author of Beowulf presented this epic poem in the 8th century and it was recorded on paper in the 10th century. I should say that we are lucky to possess this ancient document that illustrates the life of the Scandinavian society of the 6th century. Although Beowulf is written in Old English, the plot touches upon the Geats (the tribe living on the south of Sweden) and the Danes demonstrating the realities of the English Scandinavian past. Beowulf belongs to the genre of epic poem though some experts define it as an elegy.
The poem consists of 3182 alliterative lines and describes the deeds and courage of the Geat warrior Beowulf. It is possible to guess that his name has the German origin and means ‘bear’ deriving from ‘bee’ and ‘wolf’ or the wolf that eats honey – bear. Beowulf consists of two main parts. The first part is devoted to the battle between Beowulf and Grendel, a terrible monster who dared to attack the mead hall of the king of the Danes. After that, Beowulf defeated Grendel’s mother. The second part is devoted to the events that occurred fifty years later when Beowulf defeated a dragon but died because of severe wounds.
The structure of the poem is logical and makes the reader interested in the plot development. Every following victory is harder and harder. The main character has to take more efforts to succeed. Firstly, Beowulf is described as a warrior of the Geats who decided to help his king Hrothgar to get rid of the powerful monster Grendel who systematically killed the best warriors of the king. When he succeeded, Grendel’s mother decided to take revenge for her son. Beowulf manages to kill her too. The second part presents Beowulf as the king of his people. There is a huge and fierce dragon that destroys the entire villages and kills cattle. Beowulf wants to protect his people and fights with the dragon. The monster is defeated but Beowulf dies because of his wounds.
It is easy to find fabulous elements in Beowulf. Doubtless, there were not any dragons or monsters who killed all the people around. Such details were introduced to make the medieval audience interested in the story. Nevertheless, the human characters presented in the poem are real. Due to the analysis of the text, we have a chance to learn about the earliest Scandinavian kings and the lifestyle of the society of the 6th century. We see mead hall, warriors and the Scandinavian authentic culture.
If you read the poem attentively, you will find a lot of Christian motives. Although Beowulf is the oldest survived European poem, its author knew the content of the Bible, especially The Old Testament. The author mentions God, Cain and Abel but he does not write about Jesus Christ, Mary or any saints. The author was not familiar with The New Testament. It means that Christianity was not so widespread at that time in Scandinavia. However, its influence is already noticeable.
It is vital to focus on the language of the epic poem. We should remember that Beowulf was presented orally for centuries before it was written. It is easy to prove this statement with the fact that the recorded version of the poem contains elements of different languages and dialects. We can find West Saxon, Kentish, Mercian, Northumbrian and other dialectical forms. Thus, the language of Beowulf is a mix of different dialects. The language of the poem is archaic and stately at the same time. The text starts with the word ‘Hwaet’ – an Old English equivalent to ‘long ago’. The reader returns to the ancient times where historical characters coexist with the mythical monsters and dragons. The poem is full of sophisticated metaphors and other stylistic devices that demonstrate the wealth of Old English.
I suppose, Beowulf is one of the brightest ancient national texts. This oldest text that survived to our time possesses logical and artistic structure and contains a lot of stylistic devices. Moreover, it is valuable from the historical point of view, linguistic and cultural studies.
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