We know that the story of Beowulf contains both literature and some history, but for which was it primarily written? Was it written simply for the enjoyment of the reader, or was it written to tell about the history of Sweden and Denmark through the characters and events of the story? Beowulf is a piece of literature, not a historical document; therefore, Beowulf should be considered an epic poem.
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One thing that supports Beowulf as a literary work is the fact that the author uses fictitious characters such as Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and the dragon. Grendel is the monster in the beginning of the story that arrives and kills the Danes. “[Grendel] slipped through the door and there in the silence snatched up thirty men, smashed them unknowing in their beds and ran out with their bodies, the blood dripping behind him, back to his lair, delighted with this night’s slaughter” (Raffel 36-40). He had raided similarly many times, making him more or less dominate the land. “So Grendel ruled, fought with the righteous, one against many, and won: so Herot stood empty, and stayed deserted for yearsâ€¦” (Raffel 59-61). Grendel’s mother is also a mythical character in the story. She lives with her son in their lair. “I’ve heard that my people, peasants working in the fields, have seen a pair of such fiends wandering in the moors and marshes, giant monsters living in those desert lands” (Raffel 411-414). This pair of fiends is Grendel and his mother. At the end of the story, there is a dragon that fights against Beowulf as well. All three of these characters are mythical.
There are two unrealistic feats that Beowulf performs throughout the poem. He performs his first feat right after Grendel attacks the people for the second time in the story. “-And was instantly seized himself, claws bent back as Beowulf leaned up on one arm. That shepherd of evil, guardian of crime, knew at once that nowhere on earth had he met a man whose hands were harderâ€¦” (Raffel 323-327). The second major feat that Beowulf performs in the poem is going underwater to fight Grendel’s mother. Not only does he stay underwater for an impossible time, but he kills the monster. “He leaped into the lake, would not wait for anyone’s answer; the heaving waters covered him over. For hours he sank through the wavesâ€¦” (Raffel 467-469). Neither of these feats is possible for a human, showing that Beowulf himself could not have been a real character, and that the poem was written for the purpose of literature. “Beowulf himself, however, is generally assumed to be a fictitious character” (Purnis).
The story of Beowulf is in the form of a monomyth, giving it a predictable outcome. The story line of a monomyth follows the seasons of the year. In the summertime the hero grows in strength and kills the monster. In the fall, he fights in battles and becomes famous throughout the land. In the winter, he dies and goes to the underworld, and in the spring he emerges victorious through rebirth. The story of Beowulf is structured similarly to a monomyth. Even though in the spring Beowulf does not physically come back to life, his character and deeds are still alive in the memories of the people. “And so Beowulf’s followers rode, mourning their beloved leader, crying that no better king had ever lived, no prince so mild, no man so open to his people, so deserving of praise” (Raffel 865-869). This pattern of a monomyth tells us what is going to happen in the story. It is a cycle that makes the story predictable. If the story of Beowulf were to be primarily historical, telling what actually happened, it would most likely not follow the pattern of a monomyth. The outcome would not be predictable. This proves that the story was written for the purpose of literature.
The structure of the poem itself shows that it is literary. In literature, there are often sets of three. Usually this would be sets of three big, main events, or three important battles, or so on. In this case, the set of three important events would be Beowulf’s three battles – his battle with Grendel, his battle with Grendel’s mother, and his battle at the end with the dragon. All three of these battles are essential parts of the story that create a literary structure for the poem.
The plot itself is very creative, merely designed by the author. It is not realistic to have a plot that includes a monster that hates a certain people. In the story, Grendel wants nothing to do with the Danes except to eat them. “Many years [Grendel] bore bitter hatred, violence and malice, an unflagging feud; peace he would not have with any man of Danish race, nor lay aside murderous death, nor consent to be bought off” (Gordon 3). He also had a long history of war with the king. “â€¦To the children of men, sadly in songs, that Grendel waged long war with Hrothgarâ€¦” (Gordon 3). Realistically, neither of these situations would occur. First of all, there would not be a monster. Secondly, the monster would not have a lasting hatred for a certain people and their king.
Beowulf is not primarily historical. I am not saying that it does not contain any historical references, but that history was not the key reason this story was written. Beowulf, in fact, may contain some historical figures, such as Hygelac, the king of the Geats, who ruled in southern Sweden (Gordon iv). There are additional references, as Gordon mentions in his book: “The poem contains references to Weland, the smith of Teutonic legend, and to Sigemund, the Volsung” ( iii). Even though the poem may contain some historical references, we need to keep in mind that the main purpose of the story is literary; it is not to give a historical account of that time. “Beowulf is not an actual picture of historic Denmark or Geatland or Swedenâ€¦ but it isâ€¦ a construction bearing clearly the marks of design and thought” (Tolkien 25). The author wrote a creative story, and in the process, included some historical figures. His main purpose was not to write history. “[The author of Beowulf] brought probably first to his task a knowledge of Christian poetryâ€¦” (Tolkien 24).
The plot of Beowulf is not historical at all. None of the major events in the story actually happened. There was not a man named Beowulf who came to Denmark to save the Danes from a man-eating monster. Beowulf did not fight this monster, its mother, or a dragon. The plot was completely made up by the person who wrote the story. There are, in fact, no historical events that match the events in the poem.
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Considering that Beowulf was written for the purpose of literature and is not a historical record, one can come to the conclusion that Beowulf is an epic poem. To see this, one must first know the definition of an epic poem. According to Dictionary.com, an epic poem is “A long, narrative poem telling of a hero’s deeds.” This poem is both narrative and tells of the hero’s (Beowulf’s) deeds.
As I mentioned previously, one reason Beowulf is narrative is because it is based on a monomyth, following the seasons, and giving the story a predictable outcome. The second reason is that the structure of the poem itself is literary, with a set of three specific, main events or battles. The third reason Beowulf is narrative is because it has a creative plot, designed completely by the author, that could not have happened in real life.
The poem tells of the hero’s deeds. Throughout the whole story, we see the heroic actions that Beowulf performs. These are the main events in the story, some of which are battles. The first event is when Beowulf fights Grendel and kills him, and then later kills Grendel’s mother. The second event is Beowulf becoming the hero of Denmark and being crowned as king. The third event in the story is when Beowulf fights the dragon. He does not kill the dragon by himself, but it is considered one of his heroic deeds.
An epic poem must also encompass all the aspects of life, which are war, peace, love, hate, and death. All of these aspects are evident in Beowulf. The aspect of war is clearly seen through Beowulf’s three battles with the two monsters and the dragon. Peace is tied into the story after Beowulf kills Grendel’s mother and is appointed king over Geatland for fifty years. He ruled these years in peace. We see love in the poem through the Danes’ love for Beowulf, and Beowulf’s love for the country of Geatland when he reigns as their king. In the end, he sacrifices himself for them when he fights the dragon. Hate is evident in the story when Grendel comes in at the beginning and attacks and eats the Danes. He despises them and wants nothing to do with their people. Death comes in at the end of the story when Beowulf dies during the battle against the dragon.
In conclusion, there are several factors that contribute to the fact that Beowulf was written for the purpose of literature and not for history. The story’s mythical creatures, unrealistic feats, and predictable outcome all point to this. Although there may be some historical references, the reason the story was written was not to tell about the history of Denmark, and the plot itself is not at all historical. The story is narrative, tells of a hero’s deeds, and contains all the aspects of life. Because of this, Beowulf should be considered an epic poem.
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