Tuesday, August 31, 2010


I always thought that the plot of Beowulf went on too long. Monster attacks stronghold. Hero kills monster. Monster's mother takes her revenge. Hero kills her too. That should be it right? The stronghold is safe. Conflict resolved. A little about the victory feast makes sense but why follow Beawulf all the way home if nothing is going to happen for another thirty years? And why, oh why add another episode with a dragon when no victory could ever compare to his victory over Grendal? A bit anticlimatic isn't it.

If Beowulf were only an adventure story that would be true but I reread the peom this week and on closer examination I don't think its about a single exploit of bravery. Its about mortality and how the Anglo Saxons thought that a life could be worth living in spite of inevitable doom. Cheery I know.

Grendal himself is an example of doom lurking outside even the strongest most prosperous stronghold. Beowulf conquers him but there is yet another monster, his mother, his source. Even after Grendal's mother is destroyed Hrothgar warns Beowulf that strength and victory are not long lasting acheivments. That they will fade with age and if a hero is not courteous as well as brave so will his aclaim.

Beowulf's acheivements after Grendal are only told in flash backs just before the final show down with the dragon but it is clear that he took Hrothgar's advice and lived as a just and courteous king. But why do we need this final battle? Can't we just enjoy imagining the hero living a long and happy life without fast forwarding to the end of it?

Many old poems show us a character's life from beginning to end. Morte D'Arthur begins with the circumstances of Arthur's conception and ends with his burial but while Arthur's story is a tradgedy of how a great kingdom went wrong and fell prematurely the death of Beawulf is not a tradgedy at all.

Beawulf's death shows that even the strongest, most vireous and most honored man dies but he also shows that if one must die one might as well die . . . with his honor on. He died the best posible death for a Geat and a reader fully emersed in the culture of the tale can not be satisfied with his long and happy life until they know how he ended it. In the beginning of the story he conquers doom, holds it at bay so that the Danes can enjoy Heorot again but at the end the inevitability of doom catches up to him. He dies but conquers doom once and for all by behaving heroically up to the very last second of his life.

So its not anticlimatic after all.


  1. It has been far too long since I read Beawulf, and when I did I think I was too young and distracted. It's something I keep telling myself to get back to. This post is very inspiring and makes me want to read it even more. And, I do love stories where I question the structure like this. I try to reimagine it the way I think it should have been and see if it actually works that way.

  2. I have students who really like reading Beowulf, and others who hate it. You can't please everyone!