Classic Review – Beowulf



Synopsis After twelve years, the mead hall of Hrothgar has known nothing but despair and death as the beast Grendel lays waste to men every night. In an hour of desperation, the great warrior Beowulf sails across the sea to Denmark to slay the beast for his own glory.

Author Unknown
Publisher Thorkelin
Genre Epic Poem

Length 107 Pages

Release Date Transcribed Between 700-1000AD, First Published in 1815

If this is your first dive into Geeks Under Grace‘s new Classics Series, welcome! 
I’ve had the privilege of writing several classics reviews for the website so far, including The Illiad, Don Quixote, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, The Silmarillion, Fahrenheit 451, and C.S. Lewis’s The Space Trilogy and Spirits in Bondage! Even when I’m not writing specifically for GUG, I’ve put a lot of work into analyzing classics for other websites, such as Starship Troopers, The Magicians Nephew, Phantastes, Tolkien’s Letters from Father Christmas, and A Christmas Carol, just because I love writing about them! I consider reading old literature to be one of life’s great pleasures, and my hope with this series is to help inspire others to re-examine books they’ve never read or only loosely paid attention to in school.
Geeks Under Grace is certainly not new to classics and retro reviews. Other writers, prior to my tenure for the site, have tackled fantasy and sci-fi books like Dune, The Martian Chronicles, A Wrinkle in Time, Foundation, The Dark Tower, The Silver Chair, H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, and H.P. Lovecraft’s The Hound. I’m eager though to expand the site’s base of available classic reviews and help encourage a wider range of discussion.
I’ve got big plans for the series, which include monthly reviews for works of literature such as The Odyssey, Le Morte D’Arthur, Paradise Lost, The Hobbit, The Great Divorce, The Four Quartets, and many more! For the month of April, we’re approaching one of my favorite works of poetry of all time: Beowulf.

Content Guide

Spiritual Content: Themes of damnation, paganism, and the fallen nature of men
Violence: Significant violence described; humans are eaten and killed by monsters, and monsters are brutally and bloodily slain by men
Language/Crude Humor: None
Sexual Content: None
Drug/Alcohol Use: The setting for the poem is partially a mead hall, heavy drinking and celebrating throughout
Other Negative Themes: Themes of death, despair, and violence
Positive Content: Themes of heroism, bravery, and peace 

A page of the original manuscript of Beowulf in Old English.


The History of The Poem Beowulf
How does one approach a piece of poetry as archaic and emotionally bizarre as the old English poem Beowulf?
On paper, the poem can be summarized briskly as the triumphs of a Scandinavian warrior who travels to Denmark, defeats two monsters, and then dies in battle as an old man attempting to slay the third monster. If the story could be dismissed so easily as such, it wouldn’t have endured for nearly 1100 years.
Beowulf is one of the most popular works of poetry in the world and is one of the most frequently studied books in English-speaking classrooms. The survival of the text from the Middle Ages to today has been one of intense luck and fortune on behalf of students of literature (the only transcript of the poem caught fire at one point and only suffered scorch marks and a lost cover page). 

Of course, to call Beowulf “English” is slightly incorrect. The book is written in Old English. This variant is completely unreadable to modern speakers and has its roots in a Germanic dialect likely brought to England by the Saxon Vikings following the decline of the Roman Empire. The poem, upon rediscovery in the 17th century, has received more than five dozen translations in vernacular English since people started to study it.
The work has a very uncertain history that is made more obscure by the poem’s lack of a named author. The work was likely a retelling by an unknown author in the 10th century but drawn from a 7th-century oral story that was told and retold for centuries prior. Considering the setting, and the fact the characters in question would’ve widely been considered the national enemies of the Anglo-Saxons for the centuries surrounding the poem’s transcription, there are many mysteries surrounding its ultimate meaning. It’s believed the poet was likely an educated Christian monk in the first centuries following the Christianization of Britain.

Beyond that, all we understand about Beowulf comes from the body of the poem itself. We don’t even know the proper title because the cover of the manuscript was destroyed in an 18th-century library fire along with the poet’s name. There are some historical clues to work with, of course. Some of the characters in the poem are even recorded in the annals of history as real kings. As such, academics have long treated the book primarily as an Archeological anomaly.
As J.R.R. Tolkien writes in his famous lecture The Monsters and the Critics:
“In 1925 Professor Archibald Strong translated Beowulf into verse; but in 1921 he declared “Beowulf is the picture of a whole civilization, of the Germania which Tacitus describes. The main interest which the poem has for us is thus not a purely literary interest. Beowulf is an important historical document.” I make this preliminary point because it seems to me that the air has been clouded not only for Strong but for other more authoritative critics by the dust of quarrying researchers. The historian’s search is, of course, perfectly legitimate, even if it does no assist criticism in general at all, so long as it is not mistaken for criticism. Nearly all the censure, and most of the praise, that has been bestowed on The Beowulf has been due either to the belief that it was something that it was not – for example, primitive, pagan, teutonic, an allegory (political or mythological), or most often an epic…”
– The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essay, Pages 6-7, 2006

As Tolkien later says, such a read actually does a disservice to the book itself. Beowulf is first and foremost a poem in the tradition of the “Lay,” and its contents are vital to understanding the story it’s telling us. Treating the book entirely as an artifact had rendered Beowulf a piece of discarded literary irrelevance. Tolkien’s 1936 lecture completely revitalized the reputation of the poem and earned the book its current status as one of the most read books in the English language. 
His incomplete, inferior, yet very personal prose translation of the poem would be published posthumously in 2014 by his son Christopher Tolkien


The Story of Beowulf: Mysteries and Oddities
As a story, Beowulf is deeply perplexing. As stated above, it’s very easy to summarize and it’s a very brisk read at only about 100 pages. It’s not an easy story, though. On my initial reads, the story felt too empty and undramatic. The details flew right past me without much notice. It was too straightforward. On my second and third reading, it began to feel too lopsided and awkward. It was too bogged down in nuances and details about the histories of obscure Nordic kingdoms and wars. 

Having read the poem three times now in three separate translations, in addition to much of the best commentary out there about it, it’s become a poem that has continually opened up to me with each new reading.

As anybody who was forced to read it in AP English class can tell you, the story begins with the voyage of Beowulf and his crew to the kingdom of the Spear-Danes. The Danish kingdom is under nightly assault by a mighty ogre named Grendel. The monster has attacked King Hrothgar’s mead hall nightly for twelve years and nobody has been able to stop it. 
The young Beowulf, a great warrior renowned in his own kingdom of the Geats, arrives to hear of the tragic tale of Grendel and agrees to challenge the beast in solo combat. In Norse fashion, he decides to challenge the monster buck-naked. This surprisingly ends up working, as Grendel’s body is cursed to protect him against weaponry. With the strength of 30 men, Beowulf rips off Grendel’s arm and sends him retreating into the swamps to die alone and in pain. He then displays Grendel’s arm on the mantlepiece for all to see.
Beowulf’s glorious victory is highly rewarded by Hrothgar, who awards him enormous swaths of treasure and gold in gratitude. Sadly, the victory is short-lived as the source of Grendel’s evil has come to seek her revenge. Grendel’s unnamed mother, a vicious water demon, assaults the mead hall, kills more guards and a high-ranking advisor, and flees to the swamps. 
Beowulf then accepts the contract to murder the second monster and free the kingdom once and for all from this line of demonic beasts. He travels across many lands to the swamp where he dives into a pool and discovers the underwater lair of Grendel’s mother. He duels her, this time prepared with armor, and a weapon which immediately breaks. He’s once again saved by luck when one of the treasures in her cave turns out to be an enchanted sword that can slay her. Beowulf returns to the surface with Grendel’s head as his proof of success and proceeds to reap the rewards of a job well done before sailing home.  
Any modern reader would likely find much of this story quite strange so far. It’s a simple story obfuscated by layers of allusions, complex names, and events that have been lost to history. The three monsters of the narrative would make it feel conducive to a three-act structure, but there’s no arc to the hero Beowulf’s quest. His power is never in doubt. He arrives in the story solely to resolve the problem, does just that, and then sails home with the reward. 
By modern standards, Beowulf is a very awkwardly structured poem in terms of character writing. The poem does, however, give relatively equal time to each of the three monsters, like a song with three verses. 
The novel gains more oddities towards the last third of its story. Following the slaying of Grendel’s mother, the story completely changes tone, setting, and time period, as we fast forward fifty years to when Beowulf is an elderly king in his own homeland. After inheriting the land from his vassal, he became a great leader and brings peace to the nations of the Geats, Swedes, Franks, and Sword-Danes. 

Immediately the poem begins to throw strange paradoxes at the reader. He’s faced with the third great monster of his life in the form of the Dragon, usually called Beowulf’s Bane. The monster itself was not conjured by Beowulf or his deeds. In fact, an unnamed slave escaping from Beowulf’s kingdom wanders into the beast’s den, steals a piece of treasure, and flees for his survival. The monster then furiously lays siege to the land, murders thousands, and destroys Beowulf’s castle.

Beowulf proceeds to lead a party of accomplished soldiers against the dragon to save his homeland. Despite his accomplishments, he decides this time to approach the dragon fully armed and bedecked in plate armor. One could assume that Beowulf has grown in wisdom in some respects. Although that clearly raises questions. Why is a 70+-year-old man chasing down a dragon? Is he foolish? Proud? Overly confident? Does he feel doomed to die and wish to go out in a blaze of glory? Maybe he’s a reflection of the hero’s worldly quest for treasure and gold brought to its horrific conclusion. 

Just as his team approaches the dragon, Beowulf is abandoned by all but one of the men, Wiglaf. Beowulf begins his duel with the beast one-on-one and manages to hold his own against the monster. Quickly, Wiglaf joins the battle, and the two worth together to gain an upper hand against the wyrm. Unfortunately, Beowulf is bitten on the neck and infected with a dangerous poison. They take the opportunity to stab the dragon and defeat him. 
This, of course, leads to the final mystery of the epic. Despite all his accomplishments, wisdom, and leadership, Beowulf is finally taken down by one of the monsters. So why does he die here? What is the story trying to tell the reader? Is the dragon a symbol of the inevitability of death? Is it a symbol of some moral failure on Beowulf’s part, such as his greed or lust for violence? Maybe the poem has been saying he’s only survived by luck that has finally run out, as evidenced by the amazing coincidences that allowed him to defeat the first two monsters. His people abandoned him to his fate and he dies slowly surrounded by Wiglaf and other warriors. 

In any case, the epic ends on a note of somber melancholy. His body is burned in a Pagan funeral and mourned as one of the great kings of his land – maybe even the last great king.
Beowulf as Post-Pagan Spiritual Tragedy 
Beowulf is a very strange and unmodern story. It’s not poetic in the traditional sense so much as it is alliterative. It isn’t structured like a traditional three- or five-act story. Beowulf’s slaughter of the first two monsters is more or less an affirmation of what he claims from his arrival. It’s an accomplishment of a great feat, almost an anti-climax that builds around his slow feats. Then the time skip completely rewrites the narrative. It neither critiques nor builds upon the hero Beowulf of fifty years prior. It merely concludes his narrative with him having grown into a lonely king no longer surrounded by his allies. He dies abandoned by his soldiers and is mourned by the nation. 
So what do we make of all of this?
Part of understanding Beowulf comes down to approaching the book with the proper lens for analysis. One of the best ones I’ve heard is the view that the book should be read as a pre-Christian tragedy. The story frames itself early on by mourning the reality that the characters in the story are practicing Pagans who can’t call upon the help of God to resolve their terrors. 
“At times they vowed sacrifices to idols in their heathan tabernacles, in prayers implored the slayer of souls to afford them help against the sufferings of the people. Such was their wont, the hope of heathans; they wer emindful in their hearts of hell, (not knew they the creator, the judge of deeds, nor had heard of the Lord God, nor verily had learned to praise teh guardian of the heavens and the king of glory.”
-Beowulf: Translation and Commentary by J.R.R. Tolkien, Page 18, 2014
Beowulf can thus be read as a story about the tragedy of undeserved damnation. We meet a character who is damned only because he was born at the wrong time, who accomplished everything a man can in a warrior society by himself. He becomes a warrior of renown, a man of wealth, a king, and dies a glorious death saving his country from a dragon. Sadly, that’s all he will be. He has no great lover, no children to carry on his name, and no salvation. His story ends when he returns to the dust in a Viking cremation.
As Tolkien writes in his translation commentary: 
“The leading idea is that the noble pagans of the past who had not heard of the Gospel, knew of the existence of Almighty God, recognized him as good and the giver of all good things; but were (by the fall) still cut off from him, so that in time of woe they became filled with despair and doubt – that was the hour when they were specifically open to the snares of the devil: they prayed to idols and false gods for help.”
Beowulf: Translation and Commentary by J.R.R. Tolkien, Page 170, 2014
Christianity suffuses the poem and the lack of it frames the narrative. Even the famous monsters of the poem have a distinctly Christian edge to them. Grendal and his water demon mother are both described as being descendants of Cain. They’re humanoid abominations living in a perpetual state of pain, agony, and hate who lash out against man in fits of rage, violence, and gore.
“This grim spirit was called Grendel, mighty stalker of the marches, who held the moors and fens; this miserable man lived for a time in the land of giants, after the creator had condemned him among Cain’s race – when he killed Abel the eternal Lord avenged his death. No joy in the feud – the maker forced him far from mankind for his foul crime. From hence arose all misbegotten things, trolls and elves and the living dead, and also the giants who strove against God for a long while…”
Beowulf: Broadview Second Edition – R.M. Liuzza Translation, Page 52, 2013
The giants and supernatural creatures haunting Europe are depicted as satanic against the otherwise Norse world of Pagan Europe. The Giants, famous enemies of the gods in Norse mythology, are now recontextualized and historicized through the Christian worldview. They still hunt god but in an eternally damned and unsuccessful state. Grendel himself is a vile monster set loose against the kingdom of man, and the humans have no defense against a cursed demon without direct appeals to the divine. 
If the monsters are literal stand-ins for satanic evil, then Beowulf takes on the weight of a Christ-figure. He’s the flawless hero capable of righting the wrongs and setting the world on the path of peace.
But he is a secular Christ. He accomplishes everything a man in the world could ever be blessed to achieve: he becomes a great and famous warrior, slays beasts, gains treasures, becomes a great king, and creates peace in the world.
Yet, he accomplishes nothing of permanence. He leaves no descendants, notable lovers, friends, or wife; no permanent peace; and dies surrounded by his newly won gold. Ultimately, he leaves the world of the living for no eternal salvation. The poem even ends on a note of cataclysmic and apocalyptic fear. Beowulf’s final word to his compatriots is a prophecy about the end of their civilization. 
“Now war is looming over our nation, soon it will be known to Franks and Frisians that the king is gone… Nor do I expect peace or pact-keeping of any sort from the Swedes… So this bad blood between us and the swedes, this vicious feud, I am convinced is bound to revive; they will cross our borders and attack in force when they find out that Beowulf is dead.”
-Beowulf: A New Verse Translation by Seamus Heaney, Pages 197, 201 and 202, 1999
The victory of the hero Beowulf is short-lived. He may be able to build the perfect kingdom for a lifetime, but the world continues once the man has died. Without Christ, there is no permanence. In the end, Beowulf’s Bane burns down the kingdom and slays the mighty king. Like Beowulf, he seeks no divine council. The wyrm is entirely mercenary and thus vengeful the moment his Earthly riches are even slightly disturbed. Just as the beast’s greed and vengeance are slain, so too is the very mortal monster slayer. Both are destroyed in a blaze of glory. 
Beowulf is thus a story born of materialism, infused with a spirit of doom and despair at the notion of death’s finality and the limitations of life in the face of it. It’s also a story infused with the melancholy of Christian mourning for the world of pre-Christian Europe and the lost souls of men who would and could never know God. Beowulf the hero may be able to defeat demons and free lands, but he cannot defeat the ultimate end which he faces mostly alone. His earthly success is all he will ever achieve and it feels hollow. From dust he came, and to the dust the hero Beowulf returns. 

Beowulf is a beautiful piece of literature and poetry. Some of that is lost in translation without familiarity with Old English, but great poets and scholars like Seamus Heaney and R.M. Liuzza have done admirable work rebuilding the story into something contemporary. It’s a work of deep mysteries, oddities, and eccentricities, and yet it easily stands among the greatest works of poetry in any language. It’s an archaic masterpiece of alliteration and melancholy. We’re blessed to have the opportunity to even read it. 


+ Beautiful Alliterative Verse
+ Themes of Damnation, Doom, and Despair
+ Epic Battles and Joyful Sequences
+ Brisk Length
+ Excellent Modern Translations Available


- Awkward Structure
- Challenging Prose on the First Reading

The Bottom Line

Beowulf is one of the great works of western literature. This unnamed poem from an unknown medieval writer has influenced all of high fantasy from Tolkien's Hobbit to the Elder Scrolls: Skyrim, and remains one of the high works of literature from any culture.


Story/Plot 10

Writing 10

Editing 9


Tyler Hummel

Born into the unexplored residential backwater of Chicago, Tyler Hummel is a graduate of Tribeca Flashpoint College where he studied Sound Design for Film and Interactive Media. When he isn't hosting his public access talk show The Fox Valley Film Critics or collecting DragonBall Z figurines, he enjoys writing and directing short films. As with Rick from Casablanca, "he's a man like any other man, just more so!"

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