Anglo-Saxon Literature: The Epic Poem, Beowulf

51kfpKNBB9L._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_Beowulf is the earliest English epic. The exact date of its origin is unknown, but likely before the 9th Century. So what is an epic poem? It is a narrative poem that centers upon the a great hero and upon the period of his life, which defines him as a hero. The epic has its beginnings in popular myths. Early on, the epics were sung by minstrels, and they boast many of the characteristics of a cyclical ballad. In the epic, the hero performs deeds of valor for the sake of glory, rather than for reward. Formed from myths and folk tales, the epic customarily omits historical facts. It often includes mystery and romance and more than a bit of exaggeration. 

In “How the Beowulf Poet Composed His Poem” by Robert Payson Creed we find something of the rhythmic pattern used in the epic. 

“Received wisdom has it that the Beowulf poet put together his poem halfline by halfline (“verse” by “verse”). My work on the poem over the past fifty years has led me to think that we can begin to understand how the poet composed his tale, clause by clause, only if we turn our attention to the whole lines in which he told the story.

“The poet built each four-measure-line—and each of the rare five- and six-measure lines—around the alliteration of the root syllables of stressed words. His tradition seems to have provided him with many alliterating word pairs that encapsulate culturally significant ideas. For example, the poet built five lines around the pair dom (achievement) and dea(death)—dom before death, at least seven lines around the pair eorl (nobleman) and ellen (brave action), and nine around the pair soþ (truth) and secgan (say). This does not mean, however, that the poet was constrained to frame each clause within the confines of a single alliteration: rather, he composed many passages with suppleness and flexibility simply by beginning a new clause in the middle of the line. This expedient left him free to develop the clause around different alliterations.

The rhythm of the poem is based on the stress patterns of the poet’s language; most Old English words, like ellen or secgan, begin with a heavier stress and end with a lighter stress. This pattern translates to a downbeat followed by an upbeat, the simplest kind of rhythm. Each measure of the poem repeats this rhythm. Yet there is no question of monotony: though all measures are identical in rhythm and theoretically identical in the length of time it takes to speak them, successive measures are likely to contain very different combinations of stressed and unstressed syllables—and even precisely timed rests. Thus there is a great variety created both by the material that fills each measure and by the succession of different types of measures. The material within the measures makes possible only seven different types of measure. But the various combinations of stressed and unstressed syllables, along with measure-initial and measure-final rests, produce about fifty different subtypes. The rich variety of these subtypes is the source of the complexity of the poet’s prosody.” (Project MuseFrom: Oral Tradition, Volume 18, Number 2, October 2003, pp. 214-215 | 10.1353/ort.2004.0058)

Beowulf provides the reader an introduction to the folklore of the time in which it came to be. We learn of the manners, customs, and beliefs of the people. Likely, the epic is the product of multiple verse singers. One can easily imagine that it went through a process of expansion and contraction. We note the handprint of Christianity upon the poem. Did a monk or a group of monks edit the poem at one time or another?

Beowulf is divided into two parts, separated by many years. The action begins in the year 512 somewhere upon the coast of the North Sea. The poem exists only in the English tongue today, but it could have been a common tale among several cultures. It is written principally in what we now call “West Saxon.” 

Beowulf | 60second Recap® Decoder™ Study Guide Resources

Beowulf | 60second Recap® Decoder™ Study Guide Resources

The poem brings us the harsh lives of primitive Teutons. In it we find a blending of two faiths: Weird (Fate) and God the Creator. “The gentler Christian element is incongruous with the pagan character of the people portrayed and is undoubtedly interpolated by the Christian recorder of this epic. Sage morality in interspersed throughout. Except for the interpolated Christian element, the epic is a fairly accurate portrait of the lives of the early Germanic peoples. We find throughout the emphasis on bravery and deeds of personal heroism; the belief in enchainments and dragons and the love of oral legends as transmitted by the bards, oral histories which transmit Teutons pride in the brave exploits of their ancestry. The translation shows the Anglo-Saxon poet’s fondness for alliteration, for hyphenated words, and for the curious, round-about metaphors called ‘kennings’ (i.e., ‘Peace-bringer’ for ‘wife’; ‘whale road’ for ‘sea’). [History of English Literature: Part I – Early Saxon Through Milton, Hymarx Outline Series, pg.8]

The pagan elements of the plot includes Wyrd (Fate), the funeral pyre, supernatural elements such as the power of a special sword to slay a dragon, and the dragon possessing human knowledge. The Christian elements are the mention of God the Creator, as well as the reference to the Great Flood. Grendel is described as being descended from Cain, and at the landing of Beowulf upon the isle, a Song of Creation is sung. 

Many criticize the epic for its tendency to moralize, but a study of comparable pieces demonstrates this is typical of early epic poetry. The poem’s lack of humor is another point of disdain. The speech and action is very formal (befitting the life at court) and maintains a tone of sombre dignity. The genealogy of each personage is difficult for many to follow. 

From, we see…

[1] Hwæt! We Gardena in geardagum,
[2] þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon,
[3] hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon.
[4] Oft Scyld Scefing sceaþena þreatum,
[5] monegum mægþum, meodosetla ofteah,
[6] egsode eorlas. Syððan ærest wearð
[7] feasceaft funden, he þæs frofre gebad,
[8] weox under wolcnum, weorðmyndum þah,
[9] þæt him æghwylc þara ymbsittendra
[10] ofer hronrade hyran scolde,
[11] gomban gyldan. Þæt wæs god cyning!
[12] Ðæm eafera wæs æfter cenned,
[13] geong in geardum, þone god sende
[14] folce to frofre; fyrenðearfe ongeat


1 Yo! We have heard tell of the majesty of the Speardanes, of the Folk-kings, how the princes did valorous deeds.
4 Often, Scyld the Son of Sheaf took away the meadbenches, terrified the lords, with bands of raiders. After he was first found destitute, he took comfort for it, grew under the clouds, throve in honor, until each of those around him over the whale-road had to obey him, yield tribute to him.
That was a good king! 

A son was soon brought forth to him ( Scyld Scefing, the good king, still) young in this land, whom God sent to the people for relief; (Beowulf) perceived the dire distress



About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
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6 Responses to Anglo-Saxon Literature: The Epic Poem, Beowulf

  1. The English equivilant to Homer’s Odyssey & Iliard, English translations I admit to reading many many times and I’m now ashamed that I have never bothered with my own heritage. Is it too late for me now? I hope not! Thank you Regina for bringing my inexcusable neglect to my attention at this stage 😀 ( I was going to put an lol in but I think that;s a bit silly for an old bloke like me 🙂 )

    • Actually, “LOL” – according the the latest news in the States – indicates the person is older. So is “Ha Ha.” The young ones supposedly use “He He.” Who has time for these types of studies, I will never know, which is more proof of my age.
      As the bring a bit national heritage to you, Brian, I am honored. I learned lots of priceless tidbits at your hand.

  2. This brought back a lot of memories! I remember reading Beowulf in undergrad (though for some reason the professor preferred focusing on the Song of Roland). At any rate, I love the epic poems. Thanks for the post, Regina.

  3. Pingback: A Labor Day Break from Blogging… | ReginaJeffers's Blog

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