"Beowulf" is arguably the most important extant poetic work of Anglo-Saxon literature. Commonly referred to as an Old English epic poem, it consists of more than 3,000 lines, all of which use alliteration. Dating back to between the 8th and 11th centuries and set in Scandinavia, the poem likely was used to teach lessons to young warriors of the day, says Alexander M. Bruce, in the free online journal "The Heroic Age." Its lessons still resonate today.
The poem's hero, Beowulf, represents a tribe called the Geats. He travels to help the king of the Danes, another tribe. This king, Hrothgar, has been terrorized by a monster that attacks Heorot, his mead hall (the place where his subjects gather to eat and drink), nightly, usually devouring one or two of his men. Grendel, the monster, is represented as being larger than a man and stronger than a dozen men. Beowulf lays in wait and attacks Grendel, ripping off his arm in a fight. This kills Grendel, and the monster's mother attacks the hall in revenge; she is also killed by Beowulf in her lair beneath the marsh.
A Hero's Welcome
Most students know that much of the poem, but it continues: Beowulf returns to Geatland and eventually becomes king. Decades later, he is fatally wounded killing a dragon. "Beowulf" is an epic poem because it traces the heroic deeds of its main character over the course of his adult life. Though only a man, Beowulf pits his strength against giants, demons and mythological beasts. The poem includes many histories of various warriors: their ancestry, deeds of valor and debts they owe or have paid. On one level, the poem teaches about heroism and the importance of honoring one's lineage (one's parents and ancestors), but it also offers lessons about civic duty, camaraderie, friendship and respect.
Lessons: First Section
Most scholars read Beowulf as a multi-sectional poem, with the first being the story of Heorot, where the Danish warriors celebrate their heroic deeds in song until the attacks by Grendel begin. Beowulf shows a sense of honor by first getting permission from his king to travel to Heorot to help. In this section of the poem. Beowulf is challenged by Unferth, one of Hrothgar's warriors who doubts him. It is Unferth, however, who gives Beowulf a sword with which to fight Grendel's mother, in order to make amends. Beowulf responds by naming Unferth his estate's benefactor if he were to die. After killing Grendel's mother, Beowulf is given many gifts by Hrothgar, including an heirloom sword. Here, the poem stresses honor, forgiveness, camaraderie, indebtedness and loyalty.
Lessons: Second Section
In the second section of the poem, Beowulf is made king of the Geats, which teaches the moral lesson of fairness and merit. Because he is the bravest and strongest of the warriors, Beowulf deserves to be made king, and he is. The incident with the dragon occurs because a Geat slave steals a golden cup from its lair, which teaches the evils of greed. The dragon, angered, attacks Beowulf's kingdom. Because of his civic duty to his people, Beowulf must fight the dragon and, to protect his men, he insists he do it alone. Only one of his warriors, named Wiglaf, stays behind to help, a scene that stresses loyalty and friendship. The poem offers a nod to the power of cooperation as the two together defeat the dragon, although Beowulf is fatally wounded.
An Honorable Death
The poem ends with Beowulf's burial in Geatland. Given a hero's funeral, he's placed in a tumulus on a cliff overlooking the sea, and the dragon's treasure is buried with him. As with other funerals in the poem, the burial is the measure of the stature of the man. The poem therefore ends on a lesson of heroism and rewards -- that one who leads a heroic life is remembered well in death.