Theme: "For any nobleman death is better than a life of shame." A grim code of heroism structures the action: the warrior must keep faith with his lord and fight to the limits of courage. Darkness and nasties are all around. Only Christian belief provides illumination.
Style: Old English verse is neither stanzaic nor rhymed but instead uses an alliterative four-stressed line. The language has barbaric splendour entwined with riddling difficulty. The digression and brisk transitions hint at a range of ethical and historical reference that is lost forever.
Chief strengths: No other epic so combines the primitive with the allusively sophisticated. Beowulf's alien mixture of Christianity, paganism and martial valour constantly startles: the descriptions of violence achieve a repellent beauty.
Chief weaknesses: The compulsive showing off can grate. Nobody accepts a goblet of mead without launching into a catalogue of past triumphs.
What they thought of it then: The poem is buried among other monster tales in the Cotton manuscript: possibly enjoyed as a yarn, it wasn't highly regarded.
What we think of it now: Without Beowulf, Old English specialists would be out of work. The poem has been interpreted as folk legend, Christian allegory, political elegy and a satire on the heroic code. Most critics tend to rubbish the last third.
Responsible for: The genre of fantasy fiction. Tolkein wrote the Lord of the Rings under Beowulf's shadow.
.Gavin GriffithsReuse content