One of the oldest and most important remains of the Anglo-Saxon literature is the epic poem of Beowulf. Its age is unknown; but it comes from somewhere between the 7th and the 10th centuries. It is like a piece of ancient armour; rusty and battered, and yet strong. The style of the epic poem is likewise simple- perhaps one should say, austere. Beowulf is indeed the most successful Old English poem because in it the elements, language, metre, theme, structure, are all most nearly in harmony.
The author seems mainly bent upon telling us how his Sea-Goth slew Grendel and the Fire-drake.The poem opens with an account of forefathers of Hrothgar the Scylding, king of Danes. He is the builder of Heorot, the hall where Beowulf contends with Grendel. The poem begins with the burial of Scyld, from whom the dynasty of Scyldings take its name. In ancient days, so ran the legend, scyld when he was child, was drifted in an open boat to the shores of Danes.
When coming thus out of the secret of the Sea the bark touched the land, the folk found the naked child lying asleep in the midst of arms and gems and golden treasure, took him up and hailed him king. As he came alone and mysteriously out of the sea, so he passes away alone and mysteriously into the sea, and the introduction of the poem describes his burial. With as many treasures he brought, with so many they send him away when he died. And as the poem begins with this burial, so it ends with the burial of Beowulf.
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His burial is nothing mythic, nothing mystic surrounding it. Beowulf, dead after his fight with the dragon, and his gray hair lying around his hair, is borne to the top of the great cliff that overlooks the sea. The cliff has its own name, Whale’s Ness.The epic is divided into three chief episodes. Yet these three episodes are well wrought and well diversified. They are not repetitions, exactly; there is a change of wrestling with Grendel in the night at Heorot and the descent underwater to encounter Grendel’s mother; while the sentiment of the Dragon is different again.
But the great beauty, the real value, of Beowulf is in its dignity of style.The word Grendel, as Lawrence points out, can be associated with the Old English grund, i. e. ground, bottom, or watery depths that we find the lurking-place of Grendel and his mother.
Similarity With Other Works
Frederick Panzer in 1910 published the results of a careful study of over 200 folk-tales which have elements of resemblance to the Grendel story. These tales with all their variations of outline have enough in common. One of these is the tale of ‘The Bear’s Son’.
From the varying versions of ‘The Bear’s Son, something like a central frame, or outline, can be reconstructed. An aged king builds a hall or house which is nightly haunted by a demon. The elder sons of the king are unable to overcome the invader, but the youngest son, formerly held in little esteem, wrestles with the monster and wounds him. The fight of the demon is marked by a trail of blood. An episode follows in which the hero fights in an underground lair of monsters often against a male and a female.
His victory over them, sometimes by a use of a magic sword, frees captive maidens who return to the upper world. But the hero is abandoned by faithless companions, and must without aid contrive means of escape from the monster’s home. The tale often ends with the punishment of the traitors, and the marriage of the hero with one of the rescued maidens. Similarities in this outline to the Grendel episodes of the Beowulf are, of course, general rather than precise. But it seems clear that Panzer is correct in claiming that a relationship exists.
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