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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.
Beowulf, heroic poem, the highest achievement of Old English literature and the earliest European vernacular epic. It deals with events of the early 6th century and is believed to have been composed between 700 and 750. Although originally untitled, it was later named after the Scandinavian hero Beowulf, whose exploits and character provide its connecting theme. There is no evidence of a historical Beowulf, but some characters, sites, and events in the poem can be historically verified. The poem did not appear in print until 1815. It is preserved in a single manuscript that dates to circa 1000 and is known as the Beowulf manuscript (Cotton MS Vitellius A XV) .
Beowulf falls into two parts. It opens in Denmark, where King Hrothgar’s splendid mead hall, Heorot, has been ravaged for 12 years by nightly visits from an evil monster, Grendel, who carries off Hrothgar’s warriors and devours them. Unexpectedly, young Beowulf, a prince of the Geats of southern Sweden, arrives with a small band of retainers and offers to cleanse Heorot of its monster. Hrothgar is astonished at the little-known hero’s daring but welcomes him, and, after an evening of feasting, much courtesy, and some discourtesy, the king retires, leaving Beowulf in charge. During the night Grendel comes from the moors, tears open the heavy doors, and devours one of the sleeping Geats. He then grapples with Beowulf, whose powerful grip he cannot escape. He wrenches himself free, tearing off his arm, and leaves, mortally wounded.
The next day is one of rejoicing in Heorot. But at night as the warriors sleep, Grendel’s mother comes to avenge her son, killing one of Hrothgar’s men. In the morning Beowulf seeks her out in her cave at the bottom of a mere and kills her. He cuts the head from Grendel’s corpse and returns to Heorot. The Danes rejoice once more. Hrothgar makes a farewell speech about the character of the true hero, as Beowulf, enriched with honours and princely gifts, returns home to King Hygelac of the Geats.
The second part passes rapidly over King Hygelac’s subsequent death in a battle (of historical record), the death of his son, and Beowulf’s succession to the kingship and his peaceful rule of 50 years. But now a fire-breathing dragon ravages his land and the doughty but aging Beowulf engages it. The fight is long and terrible and a painful contrast to the battles of his youth. Painful, too, is the desertion of his retainers except for his young kinsman Wiglaf. Beowulf kills the dragon but is mortally wounded. The poem ends with his funeral rites and a lament.
Beowulf belongs metrically, stylistically, and thematically to a heroic tradition grounded in Germanic religion and mythology. It is also part of the broader tradition of heroic poetry. Many incidents, such as Beowulf’s tearing off the monster’s arm and his descent into the mere, are familiar motifs from folklore. The ethical values are manifestly the Germanic code of loyalty to chief and tribe and vengeance to enemies. Yet the poem is so infused with a Christian spirit that it lacks the grim fatality of many of the Eddaic lays or the sagas of Icelandic literature. Beowulf himself seems more altruistic than other Germanic heroes or the ancient Greek heroes of the Iliad. 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. Many critics have seen the poem as a Christian allegory, with Beowulf the champion of goodness and light against the forces of evil and darkness. His sacrificial death is not seen as tragic but as the fitting end of a good (some would say “too good”) hero’s life.
That is not to say that Beowulf is an optimistic poem. The English critic J.R.R. Tolkien suggests that its total effect is more like a long, lyrical elegy than an epic. Even the earlier, happier section in Denmark is filled with ominous allusions that were well understood by contemporary audiences. Thus, after Grendel’s death, King Hrothgar speaks sanguinely of the future, which the audience knows will end with the destruction of his line and the burning of Heorot. In the second part the movement is slow and funereal: scenes from Beowulf’s youth are replayed in a minor key as a counterpoint to his last battle, and the mood becomes increasingly sombre as the wyrd (fate) that comes to all men closes in on him.
Beowulf has often been translated into modern English; renderings by Seamus Heaney (1999) and Tolkien (completed 1&26; published 2014) became best sellers. It has also been the source for retellings in text—John Gardner’s Grendel (1971), for example, which takes the point of view of the monster—and as movies.
The author teaches humanities at a private school in central North Carolina. His favorite topics are ancient and medieval literature.
Every year, my medieval history and literature students fall in love with Beowulf. This story captures their imaginations; they love to attempt to draw Grendel and reenact the fight with his mother. However, like many students, they struggle to choose an essay topic once we have finished reading the poem.
Choosing literature essay topics is difficult, because you have to narrow your focus to a single aspect of a book and then give a detailed analysis of it. The best advice I have found for choosing essay topics is to maintain an inquisitive mind. Write down questions you have as you read the book, and then select the most interesting one and respond to it in your essay. Here are some questions my students have asked while reading Beowulf.
Potential Beowulf Essay Topics
- Which of Beowulf's fights was most heroic?
- Was Beowulf a good leader?
- Should Beowulf have fought the dragon?
Now let's look at teach of these topics in more detail.
Which of Beowulf's Fights Was Most Heroic?
Beowulf emerged victorious from numerous fights throughout his life. However, Beowulf focuses its attention on his three greatest feats: the fights against Grendel, Grendel's mother, and the dragon.
Each of the fights was unique. The demon Grendel was perhaps the most powerful foe, and he also possessed a magical hex which prevented swords from harming him. Thus Beowulf had to fight Grendel in hand-to-hand combat. However, since Grendel invaded the Danish mead-hall, Beowulf got to fight him on friendly turf, thus giving him a slight advantage over the demon.
Which of Beowulf's Fights Do You Think Was Most Heroic?
Following Grendel's death, his mother raged against the Danes and sought to exact revenge. She too invaded the Danish mead-hall, but then she escaped to her underwater lair. Though less powerful than Grendel, she was a vicious foe, and Beowulf had to fight her in her territory, thus putting him at a disadvantage. Moreover, his sword (the sword he had borrowed from Unferth) broke during the fight, and he had to use a found weapon to kill her.
Many years later, Beowulf fought his last monster--a dragon which had been terrorizing his kingdom. Beowulf was an old man, but he was still a powerful warrior. The author reveals that fate was against him during this fight--as evidenced by his death following the combat--but he overcame these encumbrances and slew the dragon.
Clearly, this topic gives you a lot to consider! Here is a sample thesis:
Beowulf's most heroic fight was his fight against the dragon, because he overcame both fate and the relative frailty of old age to protect his people from the fire-winged foe.
Now let's consider Beowulf's leadership. Beowulf ruled the Geat people for 50 years before he died after defeating the dragon. Beowulf does not give much insight into the protagonists' qualities as a leader or his specific actions while king. Nevertheless, the author reveals that his people were extremely sorrowful at his death, and they repeatedly declared that he was a good king. But perhaps Beowulf's virtues as a leader are not so cut-and-dried, for Beowulf's death left the Geat people in dire straits.
During Beowulf's fight with the dragon, only one of his hand-picked warriors--the young Wiglaf--did not flee in terror. Could this indicate that Beowulf--relying on his own strength as a warrior--had done a poor job of training his mean to be valiant warriors themselves?
Moreover, following his lord's death, Wiglaf lamented that the Frisians, Franks, and Swedes would probably now invade and conquer the Geats. Beowulf had to have known that his death would embolden the Geats' foes, yet he chose to ignore the risk of death and fight the dragon anyway. Was he being a heroic leader by fighting the dragon himself instead of sending in his men, or was recklessly pursuing his own glory at the expense of his kingdom's future?
A sample thesis for this topic could be as follows:
Although Beowulf was valiant warrior, he was a poor leader because he put his own glory before the well-being of his kingdom.
Should Beowulf Have Fought the Dragon?
This topic relates to the previous one about Beowulf's qualities as a leader. Beowulf put his kingdom at great risk by fighting the dragon. We do not know what happened as a result of his death, but Wiglaf seemed sure that the Geat foes would conquer Beowulf's kingdom.
Nevertheless, the dragon was a very real threat; it had terrorized the Geats and even razed Beowulf's throne-room. Perhaps Beowulf was trying to protect the lives of his men by fighting the dragon himself, rather than sending them to do his dirty work for him. Were his men skilled enough to defeat the dragon without his help?
This is a controversial topic, and it should prove fertile ground for you to write your Beowulf essay. Here is a sample thesis:
Beowulf's decision to fight the dragon himself was correct, because he was the only warrior valiant enough to defeat this dreadful monster.
Summary: Beowulf Essay Topics and Sample Theses
Hopefully this article has sparked your imagination and helped you choose a topic for your Beowulf essay. In summary, here are the sample Beowulf essay topics and their corresponding sample theses.
- Archetypes in beowulf
- Beowulf analysis
- Beowulf and grendel
- Beowulf anglo saxon
- Beowulf book review
- Beowulf compare and contrast essay
- Beowulf critical analysis
- Beowulf descriptive essay
- Beowulf dragon
- Beowulf essay conclusion
- Beowulf essay epic hero
- Beowulf essay introduction
- Beowulf essay outline
- Beowulf essay thesis
- Beowulf eulogy essay
- Beowulf fights
- Beowulf good vs evil essay
- Beowulf leadership
- Beowulf literary analysis
- Beowulf overview
- Beowulf poem summary
- Beowulf research paper
- Beowulf the last battle
- Beowulf the monsters and the critics
- Bravery in beowulf
- Characters of beowulf and their roles
- Compare and contrast beowulf movie and book
- Courage in beowulf
- Describe beowulf
- Fate in beowulf
- Foreshadowing in beowulf
- Generosity in beowulf
- Greed in beowulf
- Heroism in beowulf
- Hrothgar in beowulf
- Irony in beowulf
- Kennings in beowulf
- Loyalty in beowulf
- Monster in beowulf
- Paganism in beowulf
- Reading of beowulf
- Seamus heaney beowulf
- The story of beowulf
- Theme of beowulf
- Three battles of beowulf
- Values in beowulf
- Warrior culture in beowulf
- Why is beowulf important
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Comparing Oedipus Rex And Beowulf
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Essay Topic Suggestions
1. How does Christianity work in Beowulf? Discuss where aspects of Christianity can be found and how how these elements affect the poem. Also discuss whether, in your opinion, the story is benefited by these aspects or not.
2. How does the poet use the theme of revenge in the poem? Consider the motivation of characters such as Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and the dragon, as well as Beowulf.
3. What does Beowulf tell us about the Anglo Saxon culture? Use the text to support your answer.
4. Describe Beowulf's heroic journey. Make sure to use the text to describe all steps that apply.
5. What is the status of gold and gift-giving in the poem? Who gives gifts, who receives them, and why? Are the modern concepts of wealth, payment, monetary worth and greed appropriate for the world of Beowulf?
6. Repeatedly the poet of Beowulf either states or implies that the presence of wyrd (Fate)is prominent in the characters' lives. Create an essay in which you argue that either Fate or Free Will is more prominent in the lives of the principal characters in this poem.
7. Battles with monsters. In Beowulf’s three fights with three monsters he uses different methods, techniques, and weapons, and he wins different “trophies” each time. Analyze these differences and explain what this says about his development as a hero.
If any other aspect of Beowulf interests you, feel free to think up your own essay topic. MAKE SURE to get it approved before you start writing!