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Interpretation and criticism
In historical terms, the poem's characters would have been Norse pagans (the historical events of the poem took place before the Christianisation of Scandinavia), yet the poem was recorded by Christian Anglo-Saxons who had largely converted from their native Anglo-Saxon paganism around the 7th century – both Anglo-Saxon paganism and Norse paganism share a common origin as both are forms of Germanic paganism. Beowulf thus depicts a Germanic warrior society, in which the relationship between the lord of the region and those who served under him was of paramount importance. M. H. Abrams and Stephen Greenblatt note that:
Although Hrothgar and Beowulf are portrayed as morally upright and enlightened Pagans, they fully espouse and frequently affirm the values of Germanic heroic poetry. In the poetry depicting warrior society, the most important of human relationships was that which existed between the warrior – the thane – and his lord, a relationship based less on subordination of one man's will to another's than on mutual trust and respect. When a warrior vowed loyalty to his lord, he became not so much his servant as his voluntary companion, one who would take pride in defending him and fighting in his wars. In return, the lord was expected to take care of his thanes and to reward them richly for their valor.
This society was strongly defined in terms of kinship; if someone was killed, it was the duty of surviving kin to exact revenge either with their own lives or through weregild, a payment of reparation.
Stanley B. Greenfield (professor of English, University of Oregon) has suggested that references to the human body throughout Beowulf emphasise the relative position of thanes to their lord. He argues that the term “shoulder-companion” could refer to both a physical arm as well as a thane (Aeschere) who was very valuable to his lord (Hrothgar). With Aeschere's death, Hrothgar turns to Beowulf as his new "arm." In addition, Greenfield argues the foot is used for the opposite effect, only appearing four times in the poem. It is used in conjunction with Unferth (a man described by Beowulf as weak, traitorous, and cowardly). Greenfield notes that Unferth is described as “at the king’s feet” (line 499). Unferth is also a member of the foot troops, who, throughout the story, do nothing and “generally serve as backdrops for more heroic action.”
At the same time, Richard North (professor of English, University College London) argues that the Beowulf poet interpreted "Danish myths in Christian form" (as the poem would have served as a form of entertainment for a Christian audience), and states: "As yet we are no closer to finding out why the first audience of Beowulf liked to hear stories about people routinely classified as damned. This question is pressing, given [...] that Anglo-Saxons saw the Danes as 'heathens' rather than as foreigners." Grendel's mother and Grendel are described as descendants of Cain, a fact which some scholars link to The Cain Tradition.
Other scholars disagree, however, as to the meaning and nature of the poem: is it a Christian work set in a Germanic pagan context? The question suggests that the conversion from the Germanic pagan beliefs to Christian ones was a very slow and gradual process over several centuries, and it remains unclear the ultimate nature of the poem's message in respect to religious belief at the time it was written. Robert F. Yeager (Professor of literature, University of North Carolina at Asheville) notes the facts that form the basis for these questions:
That the scribes of Cotton Vitellius A.XV were Christian is beyond doubt; and it is equally certain that Beowulf was composed in a Christianised England, since conversion took place in the sixth and seventh centuries. Yet the only Biblical references in Beowulf are to the Old Testament, and Christ is never mentioned. The poem is set in pagan times, and none of the characters is demonstrably Christian. In fact, when we are told what anyone in the poem believes, we learn that they are pagans. Beowulf’s own beliefs are not expressed explicitly. He offers eloquent prayers to a higher power, addressing himself to the “Father Almighty” or the “Wielder of All.” Were those the prayers of a pagan who used phrases the Christians subsequently appropriated? Or, did the poem’s author intend to see Beowulf as a Christian Ur-hero, symbolically refulgent with Christian virtues?
Writer E. Talbot Donaldson seemed extremely certain in his criticism of the poem, focusing on the exact age and locational elements that surrounded the poem itself. He claimed that it was probably composed more than twelve hundred years ago during the first half of the eighth century. Donaldson also believes the writer to be a native of what was then West Mercia, located in the Western Midlands of England. However, the late tenth-century manuscript "which alone preserves the poem" originated in the kingdom of the West Saxons – as it is more commonly known.[page needed] As a result of the 1731 fire that seriously damaged the manuscript, Donaldson claims that several lines and words have been lost from the poem. Concerning language, Donaldson argues that the reason as to why Beowulf is difficult to connect with is because there have been numerous transcriptions starting from the poem's composition up until it was copied into manuscript form. Even though there have been many debates about whether there are Christian entities present within the poem, Donaldson is certain that "the poet who put the materials into their present form was a Christian and... poem reflects a Christian tradition".[page needed] He points out the use of God and his recognised will as well as describing Grendel as a descendant of Cain. He also mentions the inclusion of Heaven and Hell in the poem as the dead await God's judgement while the damned such as Grendel and his mother are to be thrust into the flames of Hell.
J.R.R. Tolkien, author and Merton professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford University, criticised his contemporaries' excessive interest in its historical implications. In his 1936 essay Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics he noted that as a result the poem's literary value had been largely overlooked and argued that the poem “is in fact so interesting as poetry, in places poetry so powerful, that this quite overshadows the historical content...”
- Historical background
- Sources and analogues
- The Beowulf manuscript
- Authorship and date
- Form and metre
- Interpretation and criticism
- Translations and glossaries
- Artistic adaptations