Modern literary criticism of Beowulf has raised the poem' far above its value as merely an historical document. That the author worked primarily as an artist, and only secondarily as an historian of the Anglo-Saxon pre-migration period, is widely recognized. Nor did he merely retell an older folktale about heroes and monsters, although the main events, the three great fights, are arranged chronologically. Rather, the poet has fixed in his mind the ideals of a pre-Christian heroic society, and he designs his poem to reveal these ideals through the character and actions of Beowulf, presented first as a young retainer nnd then as an old king. Beowulf comes into the story as he comes into the land of the Danes---as a complete stranger; but In the exchange of speeches it is evident that he is no wandering adventurer seeking personal glory. He has come to help the Danes in their twelve-year feud against Grendel, and he awaits Krothgar's permission to act as the Danish champion. The first 700 lines of the poem lead up to Krothgar's entrusting his great hall, the symbol of Danish glory, to Beowulf's protection, and the actual fight is thus only a crowning point, verifying all that has been revealed of Beowulf---his great strength and his equally great courage. Although there is a leap in the chronological progression of events after Beowulf returns to his Geatish king---we are suddenly told that he became king and has ruled well for fifty years---there is no break in the poet's imaginative progression. Krothgar had preached to Beowulf the virtues of good kingship, declaring that the young thane has only to use well those gifts which God has given him, and which he has already displayed. It is with this knowledge of Beowulf's character that we must interpret his last great fight, in which he again reveals the qualities he had shown against the descendants of Cain. His death is given also an historical significance, set as it is between the earlier wars of the Geats and Swedes and the future wars in which his people expect to be defeated. Beowulf has given the Greats fifty years of peace---not by overcoming possible enemies, but, we are led to believe, by his character alone. The last 350 lines of the poem concentrate upon the profound sorrow of the Geats in the death of their king: for they realise that their loss is even the loss of their living ideal of heroic conduct and of their own security.
Thesis (M.A.) - Dept. of English - Simon Fraser University
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Thesis advisor: Mason, M.A.
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