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3/23/2019

"Beowulf" : a short survey of story and background.


Beowulf is the first of the epics in English in the Angles brought the story of Beowulf with them to England in the sixth century. The story is about the Scandinavians. It contains three thousand lines and deals with three episodes which are connected together only by the central figure of the hero himself. It was written down in Britain by a Christian scribe about 700 A.D. but the materials from which it was composed belong to an earlier date and to a distant Pagan land. Beowulf is no national epic like Homer's "Iliad". The story is mere folklore. Beowulf (meaning the bear) is like
the folk-tale heroes, who have been suckled by a wild beast and imbibed strength from that.

The poem has remarkable literacy qualities which lift it to the level of an epic. The poem is written with a long line. The lines do not rhyme, but each line has alliteration and the poet has a special and extensive vocabulary. The description of Beowulf's fight with Grendel has a Homeric vigour. The description of the marshes in which Grendel's mother dwells is said to be the most famous passage in the poem. A sombre imagination and the sadness of the northern landscape have united to paint this powerful picture. The scenic background is like that in Hardy's novels. Nature here is bleak and sinister, rough and rugged.

The view of life is equally gloomy though the poem is glorification of prowess and adventure. There is no joy and no tenderness to relieve the gloom. The hero has been depicted with great imagination and insight and made vital. His loyalty and dauntless courage, his courtesy and respect for ladies foreshadow the later chivalry. He is, as it were, the knight-errant before the days of chivalry. The style too has a great dignity throughout. As a picture of the social life of a primitive age, it has a great historical significance.

The splendour and the banquets and revelries in the court are drawn with realism. Life of the common people, who eat and drink and sleep after day's labour, too receives the attention of the poet.

Beowulf holds a special position in the Anglo-Saxon literature because it is the only complete extant epic of its kind in the ancie
Germanic language. Nowhere else has a traditional them handled in a long narrative poem with a background that reveals the
culture and society of the heroic age of Germanic people. The poem gives a very valuable and faithful historical record of ancient Teutonic life-their system of government, social institutions, their culture and mclegion, their belief and superstitions. At the head of the social hierarchy of the Anglo-Saxons, there was the lord or chieftain of a clan living in a large hall of a city or a fortified place. Ceremonies are elaborate and gorgeous. There is supreme respect for
Kingship. Women play a prominent part gracing feasts in ceremonies with their presence. They often show political wisdom. Courage and loyalty are the chief virtues of men.

Beowulf is a great warrior who loves glory and adventures in a foreign land. He is gifted with iron resolution, fearlessness and dutifulness and spirit of self-sacrifice. He declines the throne in favour of his infant cousin. He has the attributes of an ideal hero. The poem reflects the ideal of that state of society which is called the heroic age. The philosophy of life is Teutonic-sober, melancholy and stern. It celebrates the heroism of a great warrior where character and actions are held up as a model of aristocratic virtue. But an elegiac
note pervades the poem. At the moment of Beowulf supreme triumph, Hrothgar discourses on human vanity and the inexorability of fate.

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