The Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian peoples had invaded the island of Britain and settled there several hundred years earlier, bringing with them several closely related Germanic languages that would evolve into Old English. Elements of the Beowulf story—including its setting and characters—date back to the period before the migration. The action of the poem takes place around 500 A.D. Many of the characters in the poem—the Swedish and Danish royal family members, for example—correspond to actual historical figures.
The world that Beowulf depicts and the heroic code of honor that defines much of the story is a relic of pre–Anglo-Saxon culture. The story is set in Scandinavia, before the migration. Though it is a traditional story—part of a Germanic oral tradition—the poem as we have it is thought to be the work of a single poet. It was composed in England (not in Scandinavia) and is historical in its perspective, recording the values and culture of a bygone era. Many of those values, including the heroic code, were still operative to some degree in when the poem was written.
Although these mead-halls offered sanctuary, the early Middle Ages were a dangerous time, and the paranoid sense of foreboding and doom that runs throughout Beowulf evidences the constant fear of invasion that plagued Scandinavian society.
Poetic style in Beowulf
Compounds words are very common to refer to one word. Ex: battle-light: sword.
In only one word you have a metaphor: Ship could be sea or stallion.
Synonyms and variation are presented. The language in this poem is the one in manuscripts. The poem that we have now is a copy of another poem composed 3000 years ago, so it could have suffered modifications.
The difficulties that the reader who approaches a translated version of Beowulf are due to the unique nature of its verses. It was composed to be heard aloud, the effectiveness depends on the sound of the language, which is difficult to duplicate in other words. The artfulness of its language was likely to be set apart from ordinary speech during its time.
Structure and plot
There are four main episodes: 1) Beowulf´s fight with Grendel 2) The fight with Grendel´s mother 3) Beowulf´s return 4) The fight with the dragon
The idea of the “interface structure” of the poem: Juxtaposition in Beowulf is similar to the interfacings of zoomorphic ornaments in Anglo-Saxon art. Past, present and future are related.
The idea of a strong destiny and fate, sooner or later the big society of the Danes will suffer an invasion. The have a sense of insecurity.
The poem could be considered as the destinies of three people with interweaving stories conneceted to the central character:
The Danes suffer many years of fear, danger, and death at the hands of Grendel. The Danes are again overjoyed, and Beowulf’s fame spreads across the kingdom. Beowulf departs after a sorrowful goodbye to Hrothgar, who has treated him like a son. He returns to Geatland. Beowulf ascends to the throne of the Geats
Christianity 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.