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Major Themes in Beowulf

Categories: Beowulf

Beowulf is one of the most highly favored Anglo-Saxon epic poems of the Anglo-Saxon period. The only thing known for sure is that Beowulf is a poem of narration of 3,182 lines and that it was converted to manuscript somewhere between tenth and twelfth centuries. The logistics behind Beowulf are unknown. The answers to the questions who wrote it, when did they write it, where was it written, or what was the purpose of writing it are all uncertain (Anglo-Saxon Literature). The plot of Beowulf involves a chivalrous hero named Beowulf fighting three mythical creatures in lack of fear.

The major themes and plot events reflect the society and values of the Anglo Saxons, which in turn explains why the poem is still read today.

Beowulf is a member of heroic tradition grounded in German mythology and religion. In Beowulf, there are many familiar emblems of folklore like the incident where Beowulf rips the arm off of Grendel the monster. Folklore is traditionally the passing down of a story, generation by generation, by word of mouth.

“It is significant that his three battles are not against men, which would entail the retaliation of the blood feud, but against evil monsters, enemies of the whole community and of civilization itself” (Beowulf). No one knows precisely how many Anglo Saxon tales were lost as people stopped telling them, but fortunately Beowulf was written down approximately during the tenth or twelfth century.

At the time Beowulf was written, Alfred the Great began an educational reform, which is probably the reason the poem survived to today.

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“All of Alfred’s courtiers were encouraged to read, in Old-English, Anglo-Saxon texts and poems” (Alfred the Great). Alfred the Great’s educational reform plan resulted because the literacy rate and learning rate were falling due to the invasion of the Vikings. This plan had a main goal to produce manuscripts which were translated from Latin to English (Hough). The epic poem suggests that of a southern Sweden and Denmark culture though it is worded in Old English. Beowulf was shared orally generations before, but it was Christian monks who most likely wrote it down on paper. As a pagan myth, Beowulf stands for the confrontation of two cultures, However, when Roman missionaries came north, they intertwined their religion into the poem and used it as a way to spread Christianity (Lister).

Anglo Saxon England in this time was very different from the way England is today. It was a forested area with many roaming animals. There were around one million people in England. These people lived in tiny villages with approximately only 100 inhabitants to each village. Villages in England only needed few things, such as salt and iron from other areas, because they were self-sufficient. Villagers made their own clothes and hunted for their own food. There were three social classes in Anglo Saxon England. The first class was the Thanes. This was the “ upper class” of society. The Thanes were considered to have the most integrity in a court of law and were the most valued members of society after the king. The next social class was the Churls. This was the middle class of Anglo Saxon England. These people were well off but not completely “rich”. The lowest class were the Thralls. These were the slaves and poor people (Lambert).

When the Anglo Saxons arrived in Britain they were Pagan. Many English customs today come from Pagan festivals in the past. Over time, Anglo Saxons became Christians. Pope Gregory the Great came to England from Rome 1400 years ago in hope to convince the Anglo Saxons to become Christian. After the pope successfully converted King Ethelbert of Kent he sent a monk, Augustine, to live there. The pope then appointed Augustine as bishop of the church in England. Ethelbert allowed Bishop Augustine to build a church in Canterbury (Barrow). This was the beginning of Christianity for the Anglo Saxons. Beyond the basic introduction of Christianity to the Anglo Saxons, not much is documented because they were an oral culture.

“Though there is little documentary evidence for the original religion of the Anglo-Saxons, some assumptions can be made from studying their burial practices” (Religion in Anglo-Saxon Period). Anglo Saxons usually cremated the dead and placed their ashes into urns and buried them in cemeteries and sometimes barrows. Each body was buried with grave goods which were objects that were sentimental to the person during their time on earth. Some examples of Anglo Saxon grave goods were weapons for men and household items such as beauty products for women. Many historians believe that these objects were buried for Anglo Saxons use after death in the afterlife (Religion in the Anglo Saxon Period). It can be assumed that warriors were important in Anglo Saxon society because weapons were buried with them. This helps explain why Anglo Saxons passed down the story from generation to generation before it was written down.

The unknown narrator of Beowulf introduces the warrior and the reason for his journey to aid Hrothgar: “Higlac’s follower and the strongest of the Geats – greater and stronger than anyone anywhere in this world – heard how how Grendel filled nights with horror” (The Language of Literature 36). Beowulf was the kind of warrior that could not hear of trouble and refrain from doing something to try and help. So, naturally, Beowulf gathered an army to take to Hrothgar where Grendel was terrorizing the people and attempt to conquer the monster. The ideal of a noble warrior coming to the aid of people in distress was important to Anglo Saxons who most likely lived dangerous lives.

Beowulf is one of the only, if not the only, epic poem to survive over the ages. Because of this, it is important that it is kept alive by the continuous reading in modern day. Beowulf is a well known poem which has been circling around for ages. For hundreds of years Beowulf was passed around by word of mouth until it was finally copied down by the monks in 900. It is important to read Beowulf because the poem gives readers an interesting look into the past. The poem gives sight into what life was like in Anglo Saxon England during the Medieval Era. Medieval literature is a piece of evidence from the past. While the stories told in epic poems can rarely be taken for actual fact, everything about them illustrates the way things were at the time they were written.

When scholars look at the archaeological evidence about Anglo Saxon culture and compare it to the poem Beowulf, a pattern of what was important to Anglo Saxon emerges. Beowulf’s noble conquest of Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and the dragon shows that the warrior was an important member of the Anglo Saxon society. The Anglo Saxons passed Beowulf along orally because they thought it was worth knowing and because it affirmed their beliefs. The Christian monks copied it down because they believed good will always triumph over evil. People still continue to read Beowulf because it teaches more about Anglo Saxons, about their conversion to Christianity, and about the importance of literature and understanding history.

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Major Themes in Beowulf. (2021, Mar 24). Retrieved from

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