The narrator of Beowulf uses several different tones over the course of this long epic poem, but throughout everything he is always super formal. This isn't a chummy, chatty, nudge-you-in-the-ribs kind of narrator. Instead, everything in Beowulf seems to be spoken with grave, calm, even stiff formality. We see this in the characters as well as in the narrator; even Beowulf himself announces his own name through an elaborate speech about his deeds:
"So every elder and experienced councilman among my people supported my resolve to come here to you, King Hrothgar, because all knew of my awesome strength. They had seen me boltered in the blood of the enemies when I battled and bound five beasts, raided a troll-next and in the night-sea slaughtered sea-brutes. I have suffered extremes and avenged the Geats (their enemies brought it upon themselves, I devastated them). Now I mean to be a match for Grendel, settle the outcome in single combat." (415-426)
Although his tone is always formal, the narrator of Beowulf does shift between three more specific tones, depending on what's happening at the moment in the story. When Beowulf or someone else is behaving especially heroically, the narrator becomes laudatory, or praising:
In fact, we'd go so far as to say that this narrator does some real boot-licking. To listen to the narrator, you'd think that Beowulf was just the most awesome, honorable, powerful hero who ever lived—which is exactly what epics are supposed to be about.
But when Beowulf starts losing, the narrator becomes mournful, lamenting the hero's defeat and the suffering of the people, or pious, reminding us that all heroism is dependent on God's favor:
When you read Beowulf, unless you know Old English, you'll be reading it in translation, so you may not realize that it's actually a poem. In fact, it's written in alliterative verse, which is the kind of poetry the Anglo-Saxons used. Alliterative verse uses, you guessed it, a lot of alliteration—often three or even four words that begin with the same sound in each line.
It also has a strong pause, or caesura, in the middle of the line, and two strong stressed syllables on either side of the caesura. (So that's four stresses per line.) That may all sound pretty complicated, but actually it creates a really simple, easy-to-remember formula with a heavy rhythm to it.
We suggest you go check out an audio recording of Beowulf so that you can hear someone reciting a few lines in the original Old English. It's basically a "Dum Dum (pause) Dum Dum" sort of rhythm.
Why did the Anglo-Saxons use this heavily accented meter? Well, one persuasive theory is that most of their poetry was recited at feasts and other gatherings by bards who needed easy ways to remember it. This sing-songy rhythm made memorization easy—and it also made it easy to compose new poetry using established patterns.
Have you ever been listening to music on the radio and been able to complete the rhymes, even if you hadn't heard the song before, because they seemed obvious? That's because of the same kind of re-use of established patterns. Of course, sometimes we call these clichés, too, because they aren't very original. Anglo-Saxon poetry wasn't about originality, though—it was all about singing the praises of your hero.
Anyway, back to Beowulf. So Beowulf is a poem, but it's a very specific kind of poem—an epic. Like Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, or Virgil's Aeneid, or Dante's Inferno, Beowulf is a larger-than-life tale about heroic battles and journeys.
It takes place over many years—a little more than fifty years, in fact—and describes entire family trees of kings and lords in three different tribes. It deals with the deeds of man, but also with the plans of God and the relationship between God, man, and supernatural creatures. It travels between several different lands, sweeping across the sea, and even gestures at the wider context of all of Europe.
It's also very long—more than 3,000 lines survive, and there may once have been more. All these characteristics work together to give it a broad scope and truly make it, not just a poem, but an epic poem.
Beowulf: it's the name of our hero and it's the name of his story.
And it's a pretty cool name: scholars like to argue about where exactly it came from, but the most persuasive theory we've heard is that it literally means "bee wolf," as in the two animals. We know what you're thinking: what's a "bee wolf"?
Well, in Old English, there are a lot of poetic-sounding compound words called "kennings." For example, the sea is described as a "whale road" and a throne is called a "treasure seat." So a "bee wolf" —an animal that attacks bees in a wolfish way—is a bear.
It's interesting to think about this animalistic warrior-prince Beowulf and why he and the story of his deeds are called by the same name. It just goes to show that, if today "you are what you eat," then in Anglo-Saxon and ancient Scandinavian culture "you are what you do"—you're the same thing as your reputation.
Of course, what's really up with the title is that there isn't one. Today we call this long epic poem Beowulf, but in the original manuscript, it doesn't have a title, just like it doesn't have an author. Anglo-Saxon scribes didn't care much about those things. So maybe we shouldn't make too big a deal about Beowulf's name being the title.
Oh, wait, you thought that, just because Beowulf is heroic, virtuous, and brave, that he was going to live happily ever after?
Nope, that's not how ancient warrior culture rolled. The first rule of Anglo-Saxon epics is that a tragic defeat is way cooler than a triumph—especially if the tragic defeat is followed by a really expensive funeral.
Why are death and defeat better than victory? Well, those early medieval warriors were pessimists. After all, if nobody lives to be very old because almost everyone dies in battle, then you probably start thinking that death comes to us all, and the only thing that matters is how you meet your end.
To the Anglo-Saxons, the real test of a warrior isn't whether he can win a fight; it's what he'll do on the day he finally loses, and how he'll behave when he knows he's doomed to die. Then, after he's dead, you can see how much everyone else valued him by what amount of treasure there is at his funeral. Lots of gold and jewels equals a great man. It's pretty straightforward.
That's why, even though the ending of Beowulf might be a surprise to us as 21st Century readers, it wouldn't have been a surprise to the Anglo-Saxon audiences listening to a storyteller recite the epic in the 8th Century.
They weren't interested in experiencing a vicarious thrill of victory when the hero triumphed. They wanted to know whether he could actually face down certain death and not flinch—and not because he knew he'd win in the end, but because he cared about honor and valor more than about his own life.
That's why the narrator keeps ruining the ending for you, making references to Beowulf's eventual demise long before it actually happens. And, heck, if nobody can defeat you except a dragon, and you still manage to kill the dragon despite being mortally wounded yourself, then you're just that much more awesome.
Okay, follow us closely here, because this does actually get a little bit confusing. Beowulf is an epic about a glorious past. But it's not just in "the past" now for us as 21st Century readers. It was always set in the distant past.
Beowulf was first told in Anglo-Saxon England sometime between the 8th and 11th Centuries, but it's not about that time and place. It's actually set several hundred years earlier, in the 5th or 6th Century.
And it doesn't take place in England. Instead, the action happens in the land of the Danes (what is today the nation of Denmark) and the land of the Geats (what is today the nation of Sweden). So, if someone asks you what the setting of Beowulf is, you can tell them that it's 5th or 6th Century Scandinavia. (Scandinavia is the part of Europe that includes Sweden and Denmark.)
So why did the late-medieval Anglo-Saxons tell stories about early-medieval Scandinavians? Well, mostly because those Scandinavians were their ancestors. It's sort of like when 21st Century Americans tell stories about Robin Hood back in Merry Old England or Hua Mulan in Wei Dynasty China. In each case, we look to a distant homeland where some of our ancestors came from and we tell a legend about the heroes in our past.
Another thing you may be wondering: what is 5th or 6th Century Scandinavia like? Well, you'll get a definite feel for it as you read Beowulf, but if we had to sum it up in one word, we'd probably say "brutal."
Different tribes, such as the Geats, the Danes, and the Swedes, lived in constant warfare with one another. Kings were little more than local strong men who had a lot of treasure and some powerful warlords to back them up. Pretty much everyone could expect to die in battle, or in a raid from a neighboring tribe.
Blood-feuds between tribes and revenge killings were common. Boasting, or telling everyone about your prowess as a warrior, was an important part of heroic conduct—as was paying rewards to your followers with golden rings and armor. For the warriors in the highest circles of society, life was made up of feasts, drinking, boasting, bloody battles, the spoils of war, and an untimely death. If you were a peasant, it was even more brutal than that. But there aren't very many peasants in heroic epics like Beowulf.
Beowulf isn't just a hero, he's a "prince of goodness" (676). Grendel isn't just a demon, he's a "captain of evil" (749). Beowulf isn't just trying to win a wrestling contest for the Danes, he's going to "ease their afflictions" (628).
Of course, all these phrases are in translation, but you get the idea. In Beowulf, you never just take off a necklace; you unclasp a collar of gold from your neck in your great-heartedness (2809)—now that's a grandiose statement.
Of course, sometimes all this grandeur and majesty gives way to gruesome descriptions of violent deaths. Grendel doesn't just eat a man; he "bit into his bone-lappings, bolted down his blood / and gorged on him in lumps" (741-742).
We recommend that you eat one to two hours before reading Beowulf and give your meal a chance to settle, because otherwise you might end up feeling just a little sick.
There are several important scenes involving different bodies of water in Beowulf – the dangerous sea-crossing that Beowulf and his warriors undertake to go from Geatland to Denmark; the swimming contest between Beowulf and Breca and the sea monsters they had to fight; the bloodstained lake, or "mere," where Grendel's mother lives in an underwater cave; and the seaside cliffs where Beowulf slays the dragon – and meets his doom. Why so much water? And why does the water always seem to be associated with, well, really dangerous things?
The easiest answer is that the medieval Scandinavians were a seafaring people. After all, that's part of the reason that the Anglo-Saxons were telling the story of Beowulf centuries later in England – because their Scandinavian and Germanic ancestors had sailed across the sea to colonize Britain.
As a member of a seagoing tribe, Beowulf is familiar with the sea, and also with its dangers. Of course, because Beowulf is an epic, the mundane dangers of the sea – getting swept overboard, getting lost, running out of food and water – are replaced by fantastic dangers, like sea monsters. But the principle is the same. Grendel's mother, in her cave beneath a stagnant lake of bloodstained water, represents the uncertain danger lurking in any watery expedition. Later in the epic, Beowulf's followers will push the carcass of the dragon he slays over the cliff into the water to dispose of it, returning a monster to the place it seems to belong, the dangerous, capricious sea. And the barrow that Beowulf asks Wiglaf to build for him is not just a monument to his memory – it's a monument that can be seen on the coast by men sailing on the sea. In other words, it's a reminder of the strength and success of a hero that you can see and take courage from even in the middle of a dangerous, uncertain world.
In the translation of Beowulf that we've used, King Hrothgar's mead-hall is called Heorot, which is its name in Old English. Translated into modern English, "Heorot" means "hart," which is a male deer or a stag. Hrothgar's lavish, wealthy hall – where his warriors gather to drink and feast and where he holds court – is named for this proud, majestic animal. Of course, deer aren't just any kind of animal – they're prey animals, hunted by men and other predators. Perhaps this is a little hint to us that Hrothgar's hall is destined to be attacked, again and again, by the local man-eating demon, Grendel.
Heorot, along with the unnamed mead-hall back in Geatland where King Hygelac holds sway, represents the brotherhood and unity of the warriors in the tribe. Each mead-hall becomes a symbol of power, a place for kings to display their gold, jewels, armor, wealth, and even their manpower – the number of "thanes," or followers, that they can boast. The mead-hall doubles as a location for feasts and as sleeping quarters for the warriors. Beowulf and his men go to Heorot first for a formal audience with Hrothgar, second for a feast and wild party, and third, at the end of the night, for a place to bed down with their armor and weapons right beside them, ready for action. Each mead-hall is a palace, a cafeteria, a bar, and a barracks all in one – a visible symbol of the intense life of formality, excess, and brutal warfare that medieval warriors led.
There are several different famous swords in Beowulf – so many, in fact, that you might have trouble keeping them straight. First, there's the sword that Hrothgar gives Beowulf after he kills Grendel (1022). Second, there's Hrunting, the sword that Unferth lends to Beowulf to fight Grendel's mother (1458). Unfortunately, Hrunting fails to do any damage to the monster, so Beowulf grabs another sword from her horde of treasure (1557). This third sword decapitates her, but the blade melts when it touches her poisonous blood. After he brings the hilt back to the surface, Hrothgar discovers it is covered in engravings of the great flood and destruction of the giants. Fourth, there's a gem-studded sword that King Hygelac gives Beowulf to celebrate his great deeds (2193). We can probably assume that this is the sword called Naegling, which breaks when Beowulf tries to use it to kill the dragon (2680).
There are a few other swords in the story here and there, but these four are the most important ones: Hrothgar's gift, Hrunting, the sword with the engraved hilt, and Naegling.
That leaves us with two questions: why are there so many different swords in the epic, and why do they so often fail to harm the enemy? And no, we don't think the answer is just that swords are phallic symbols. Well, there are many different swords in the epic for a pretty obvious reason – in a warrior culture, weapons are going to be pretty important, and there are a lot of them around. There are also different weapons for different purposes, and sometimes one sword can succeed where another fails, depending its quality and its history.
But the really strange thing in Beowulf is that, frequently, swords don't do their job. Hrunting won't cut Grendel's mother; Naegling snaps when Beowulf swings it at the dragon; the sword with the engraved hilt melts in Grendel's mother's blood. We're getting an inkling that the poet wants to remind us of the futility of battle. It also seems that Beowulf does better when he uses his own body strength against the monsters around him, instead of weapons, which are almost like cheating because they give him an artificial advantage. Alternatively, at one point, the narrator suggests that Beowulf is so strong that his mighty strokes break blades in half, so perhaps Beowulf's heroism is greater than mere weapons could make it.
The narrator of Beowulf is one of those godlike narrators who sees everything and can skip around between different characters and between the past, present, and future. In fact, you might get a little bit frustrated with this, because the narrator often spoils the story for you. More than once, the narrator steps aside to remind you that Beowulf may seem like an invincible hero, but eventually God is going to decree that he'll be defeated.
Thanks for spoiling it, narrator.
At other times, the narrator jumps back in time to explain why things are unfolding as they are. For example, when Beowulf chooses to fight Grendel in hand-to-hand combat, the narrator explains that this is lucky, because Grendel is impervious to edged weapons like swords. That's not something that anyone in the story actually knows—in fact, none of them even find out. But the narrator gives us this extra explanation about some of the supernatural elements in the story so that we know more than the characters do.
The narrator also uses flashbacks to explain the history between different men, such as Beowulf and Hrothgar, or different tribes, such as the feuding Geats and Swedes. In fact, this kind of narration makes it easier for us to understand Beowulf as we read it, because the narrator is always making connections between past history and the battles Beowulf is fighting at any given moment.
The narrator of Beowulf describes at length not only Grendel's attacks on Heorot, but the way that they get publicized. People begin to talk about Grendel, bards make up songs about his vicious cruelty and cannibalism, and his reputation spreads far and wide.
Although Beowulf isn't officially summoned or called to fight Grendel, we get the sense that any great warrior living at this time would feel challenged by an adversary of this nature.
So far, everything seems to be going just fine. The Geats survive a perilous sea-crossing and are able to explain their presence to the Danes. Everybody is getting along and things are going smoothly. Until…
At this point, Beowulf begins a roller-coaster ride of wild emotional ups and downs. First Beowulf meets Grendel in hand-to-hand combat, and it seems like he might be defeated. When he finally manages to deal Grendel a mortal wound by tearing his arm out of the shoulder socket, he only gets to relax for a little bit before Grendel's angry mother shows up.
The narrator has been reminding us all along that Beowulf lives or dies at God's whim and that he can't escape his eventual doom. Even Beowulf himself feels a little nervous about this final confrontation with the dragon. Well, maybe not nervous exactly— but he's definitely not expecting to win.
Beowulf has had several thrilling escapes, but he's run out of luck this time. After all, the greatest test of a warrior is how he behaves when he knows he could die. Plus, Beowulf may not escape death, but he does escape ignominy.
He orders a barrow to be built over his funeral pyre, commemorating his heroic deeds. So, even though Beowulf dies, his memory will stay alive—that may sound like a cliché, but it was very important to Scandinavian and Anglo-Saxon warriors.
Not only is this what's happening at the beginning, which should tip you off that it's the initial situation, it's also an obvious set-up. A wild demon attacking a defenseless group of people? It's time for a hero to come on the scene and put this to rights.
How much more obvious can a conflict get? We've got two guys in a no-holds-barred wrestling competition to the death. If that's not a conflict, we don't know what is. Beowulf isn't usually very subtle about these things.
This is just the kind of frustrating thing that happens to you when you're a heroic Geatish warrior. Here you are, going all-out and wrestling a demon to the death, and just when you think you've won and you have a few minutes to get drunk and celebrate, the demon's mom comes along and gets her panties in a twist because you killed her kid. We love mothers, but they do seem to make things complicated sometimes.
Just when you think Beowulf is going to live happily ever after, he has to face his greatest challenge yet: a fifty-foot-long firebreather. If anything screams "climactic battle scene," it's the arrival of a dragon.
If you're tempted to yell, "Just get on with it!" at this point, you're not the only one. Beowulf hangs out for several hundred lines, talking about his past glories and wondering if he's going to die while fighting the dragon. Still, it does help to build suspense... because it makes us wonder, too.
It's a double-whammy: Beowulf dies, but so does the dragon. After that, it's obviously all downhill, so this is definitely the denouement.
Is anything more conclusive than a funeral? Beowulf is dead, and after mourning his death and celebrating his heroic deeds, the Geats look to the future. Of course, without his protection, it's a pretty bleak future.