Structure of the Poem “Beowulf”

Structure of the Poem “Beowulf”
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    Jun 29, 2019
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The greatest honor and the life-time achievement for a hero are to meet a challenging death for the cause for which he strives throughout his life. He is great in victory and glorious in defeat. Rather, victory and defeat are like the alternative beats of the same heart for him. Beowulf is a heroic poem in which evil constantly challenges good, morality is repeatedly tested and violent confrontations happen on a recurring basis. Beowulf, a heroic member of the Geats, exemplifies those constant engagements, he challenges the evils fronting him and his people and as such death (mortality) in Beowulf turns out to be the inherent part of its structure, both from the religious and secular standpoints.

Beowulf has a cause; he has a heart and the physical strength to fight for that cause. The first characteristic of an epic hero is superior strength and bravery. Among others, two noticeable examples prove the superhuman strength of Beowulf. Beowulf and Unferth, his jealous opponent who had no appreciative words about Beowulf’s remarkable deeds, enter into an argument. For an ordinary individual it is not possible to react in the manner in which Beowulf does. When Beowulf is fighting the dragon, the incident is described thus: “the warrior tore the tree from the earth, heaving it toward the hoard guard, hammering its head to the ground” (Lines 610-12)). Such a strong, deathly reaction can be expected from a totally fearless super human. There are many subsidiary themes in Beowulf; since the theme of mortality shadows around the hero, it can be singled out as the most important theme. Throughout the poem, death is a perpetual topic and nearly everything Beowulf does leads to a death. While many would see this as gloomy and disheartening, it is the quintessence of Beowulfs ability and valor.

What is that so special about the heroes? They become heroes because of their outstanding achievements in the initial phases of their lives. These are two of the many examples that elevated Beowulf to the top rank among the heroes: “Beowulf was granted the glory of winning; Grendel was driven under the fen-banks, fatally hurt, to his desolate lair.”(englishforfun) And another example is described thus: “So the Shieldings’ hero, hard-pressed and enraged, took a firm hold of the hilt and swung the blade in an arc, a resolute blow that bit deep into her neck-bone and severed it entirely, toppling the doomed house of her flesh; she fell to the floor” (www.ancientworlds). If the warriors know that they are going to challenge death, why do they still fight? For a true warrior, victory or defeat does not matter. They are guided by the fighting spirit, irrespective of the consequences. Beowulf is relentlessly conceited about his strength, and instead of running away from his responsibility he is willing to face mortality (death). He wants to protect his people at all times and at all costs and in the process he gets reputation and admiration. The bravest of the brave is mortal. The cowards die a thousand deaths but the hero dies but once, that too for a cause and that is generally about the well-being of his people and to help others. Only God is immortal and the immortality the heroes can achieve is through legends and achievements during their lives and that continues to be hailed for ever after their deaths. Viewed from this perspective, the heroes are immortal.

“Though much has been done in the past thirty years to elucidate the themes and motifs which dominate the poem, the principle by which these motifs are developed has not been satisfactorily elucidated”(E. Carrigan, 1968). But death dominates all other themes. The inescapability from death is highlighted throughout the story thus: “But death is not easily escaped from by anyone: of us with souls, earth-dwellers and children and men, must make our way to a destination already ordained where the body, after the banqueting, sleeps on its deathbed” (Lines 1001-1007). Thus death is one of the resilient themes of the story. Death may be glorified from the philosophical (religious) point of view or from the point of view of the sterling achievements of a particular individual. The former is the dogmatic belief and the latter is the preservation of self through history. The narrative emphasizes the idea that the individuals are warriors in the real sense when they will unite with God after death. This again is a strong belief, comparable to other systems of religious beliefs, and is not available for scientific verification. It is just the matter of superior faith. As such, the society attaches great importance to moral conduct to reach the abode of Almighty. Mention is made in the story about the final destination of the hero thus: “The furious heat of the pyre would assail him. His soul fled from his breast to its destined place among the steadfast ones. It was hard then on the young hero, having to watch the one he held so dear there on the ground, going through his death agony”(Lines, 2818-2824). Further elucidating the theme of death the author writes “ Let a bier be made and got ready quickly when we come out and then let us bring the body of our lord, the man we loved, to where he will lodge for a long time in the care of the Almighty” (Lines, 3105-3109). This is comparable to the oriental belief that salvation (reaching the abode of God) is possible through karma (performance of action without the motivated desires) or through dynamic surrender to God through sincere devotion. Beowulf contains both the belief systems and they are elucidated and supported at the relevant situations throughout the story.


Man is the creator of destiny and also its victim. Destiny and self-effort are like the parallel tracks on which the train of life moves. The story of Beowulf is the combination of these important factors in the life of the hero. The hero in the story is a man of immense courage, and yet he has the realization that he can fight for glory only till he reaches the destined place of his graveyard. The biggest event in the life of a hero is his final submission to the rule of mortality. The tallest of the heroes and the biggest of the religious leaders have finally surrendered at the altar of death, when the immutable laws of Nature declare that their work is done! Beowulf is engulfed with events related to mortality at every turn of the story.

References Cited
Beowulf. Trans. Seamus Heany. W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2000; New York, Print
Carrigan, E. Structure and Thematic development in Beowulf;Proceedings of the Royal Irish
Academy. Section C: Archaeology, Celtic Studies, History, Linguistics, Literature Vol. 66,
(1967/1968), pp. 1-51