How is Beowulf structured? How does this structure relate to the theme or themes of the work as a whole?
Beowulf is loosely divided into three parts, each of which centers around Beowulf’s fight with a particular monster: first Grendel, then Grendel’s mother, then the dragon. One can argue that this structure relates to the theme of the epic in that each monster presents a specific moral challenge against which the Anglo-Saxon heroic code can be measured and tested. Beowulf’s fight with Grendel evokes the importance of reputation as a means of expanding one’s existence beyond death. Grendel’s great and terrifying nature ensures that Beowulf will long be celebrated for his heroic conquering of this foe. His subsequent encounter with Grendel’s mother evokes the importance of vengeance. Just as Beowulf exacts revenge upon Grendel for killing Hrothgar’s men, so too must Grendel’s mother seek to purge her grief by slaying her son’s murderer. Beowulf’s final encounter with the dragon evokes a heroic approach to wyrd, or fate. Though he recognizes that his time has come and that he will thus not survive his clash with the dragon, he bravely embraces his duty to protect his people, sacrificing his life to save them.
Alternatively, one might make a division of the text into two parts, examining youth and old age as the two distinctive phases of Beowulf’s life. Along these lines, the gap of fifty years between the first two conflicts and the last marks the dividing line. One of the main thematic points highlighted by such a division is the difference in responsibilities of the warrior and of the king. As a young warrior, Beowulf is free to travel afar to protect others, but as an old king, he must commit himself to guard his own people. Additionally, whereas Beowulf focuses on the heroic life early on, seeking to make a name for himself, he must focus on fate and the maintenance of his reputation late in life.
Beowulf is set in a male-dominated world full of violence and danger. What role does patriarchal history play in this world? Why does it matter to the warriors who their ancestors were?
The obsession with patriarchal history manifests itself throughout Beowulf, which opens by tracing Hrothgar’s male ancestry and constantly refers to characters as the sons of their fathers. An awareness of family lineage is one way in which the heroic code integrates itself into the warriors’ most basic sense of identity. By placing such an emphasis on who their fathers were and how their fathers acted, the men of Beowulf bind themselves to a cycle of necessity governed by the heroic code. For example, because Beowulf’s father owed a debt of loyalty to Hrothgar, Beowulf himself owes a debt of loyalty to Hrothgar. In this way, patriarchal history works to concretize and strengthen the warrior code in a world full of uncertainty and fear.
One might contrast this socially accepted version of patriarchal history with the various alternative models that the poem presents. Grendel, for example, descends from Cain, the biblical icon of familial disloyalty, and the avenging of his death is undertaken by a female relative rather than a male one. Examples of family discontinuity abound as well. For instance, Shield Sheafson is an orphan, and the Last Survivor represents the end of an entire race. Beowulf is similar to both of these characters—his father died while Beowulf was still young, and Beowulf himself dies without an heir. The anxiety about succession focuses attention on the ties between generations. Both Hrothgar and Hygelac depend on the loyalty of others if their sons are to inherit their respective kingships. All of these concerns help emphasize the importance of family heritage as a cultural value.
What role does religion play in Beowulf?
The Beowulf story has its roots in a pagan Saxon past, but by the time the epic was written down, almost all Anglo-Saxons had converted to Christianity. As a result, the Beowulf poet is at pains to resolve his Christian beliefs with the often quite un-Christian behavior of his characters. This tension leads to frequent asides about God, hell, and heaven—and to many allusions to the Old Testament throughout the work. In the end, however, the conflict proves simply irresolvable. Beowulf doesn’t lead a particularly good life by Christian standards, but the poet cannot help but revere him. Though some of Beowulf’s values—such as his dedication to his people and his willingness to dole out treasure—conceivably overlap with Christian values, he ultimately lives for the preservation of earthly glory after death, not for entrance into heaven. Though his death in the encounter with the dragon clearly proves his mortality (and perhaps moral fallibility), the poem itself stands as a testament to the raw greatness of his life, ensuring his ascension into the secular heaven of warrior legend.