Beowulf

Literature
Main Ideas

Key Facts

Main Ideas Key Facts

full title  Beowulf

author  Unknown

type of work  Poem

genre  Alliterative verse; elegy; resembles heroic epic, though smaller in scope than most classical epics

language  Anglo-Saxon (also called Old English)

time and place written  Estimates of the date of composition range between 700 and 1000 a.d.; written in England

date of first publication  The only manuscript in which Beowulf is preserved is thought to have been written around 1000 a.d.

publisher  The original poem exists only in manuscript form.

narrator  A Christian narrator telling a story of pagan times

point of view  The narrator recounts the story in the third person, from a generally objective standpoint—detailing the action that occurs. The narrator does, however, have access to every character’s depths. We see into the minds of most of the characters (even Grendel) at one point or another, and the narrative also moves forward and backward in time with considerable freedom.

tone  The poet is generally enthusiastic about Beowulf’s feats, but he often surrounds the events he narrates with a sense of doom.

tense  Past, but with digressions into the distant past and predictions of the future

setting (time)  The main action of the story is set around 500 a.d.; the narrative also recounts historical events that happened much earlier.

setting (place)  Denmark and Geatland (a region in what is now southern Sweden)

protagonist  Beowulf

major conflict  The poem essentially consists of three parts. There are three central conflicts: Grendel’s domination of Heorot Hall; the vengeance of Grendel’s mother after Grendel is slain; and the rage of the dragon after a thief steals a treasure that it has been guarding. The poem’s overarching conflict is between close-knit warrior societies and the various menaces that threaten their boundaries.

rising action  Grendel’s attack on Heorot, Beowulf’s defeat of Grendel, and Grendel’s mother’s vengeful killing of Aeschere lead to the climactic encounter between Beowulf and Grendel’s mother.

climax  Beowulf’s encounter with Grendel’s mother constitutes the moment at which good and evil are in greatest tension.

falling action  Beowulf’s glorious victory over Grendel’s mother leads King Hrothgar to praise him as a worthy hero and to advise him about becoming king. It also helps Beowulf to transform from a brazen warrior into a reliable king.

themes  The importance of establishing identity; tensions between the heroic code and other value systems; the difference between a good warrior and a good king

motifs  Monsters; the oral tradition; the mead-hall

symbols  The golden torque; the banquet

foreshadowing  The funeral of Shield Sheafson, with which the poem opens, foreshadows Beowulf’s funeral at the poem’s end; the story of Sigemund told by the scop, or bard, foreshadows Beowulf’s fight with the dragon; the story of King Heremod foreshadows Beowulf’s eventual ascendancy to kingship.