The epic poem, Beowulf (author unknown, attributed to the Beowulf poet), is the oldest work of written literature in the English language. As such, it holds a particular spot of importance within the history of English literature. The poem tells the story of the hero, Beowulf, as he protects his people from a series of monsters, including Grendel, Grendel’s mother and the dragon. However, the poem also has several narratives that exist within the greater narrative. This paper will discuss the narratives within the narrative of the poem Beowulf.
The poem tells the story of the hero, Beowulf. The hero serves Hrothgar in his kingdom in Denmark. Hrothgar had once performed a great service for the father of Beowulf and as such, Beowulf believed himself to be in Hrothgar’s debt. The celebrations that occurred in Hrothgar’s great mead hall anger Grendel, a demon that lives nearby. Grendel responds by killing several members of the community, which rightfully terrifies them. Beowulf fights and destroys Grendel, which then angers Grendel’s mother. He must then confront her and destroy her, which he does. His last enemy to face is the dragon, which he also kills.
However, within this epic framework, there are many other narratives. One such narrative occurs early in the poem. In this narrative, Beowulf describes his past actions and glories. This the narrative in which Beowulf tries to earn the respect of the king and his people. His narrative is a response to Unferth, who taunts Beowulf and Beowulf’s belief that he can slay Grendel unarmed. It is apparent that Unferth is drunk or “fuddled with beer” (Section IX, line 33). This narrative involves the swimming match between Brecca and Beowulf. Unferth argues that he heard that Beowulf lost this great match, which has caused him dishonor. Furthermore, Unferth argues that Beowulf will lose again when he faces Grendel. Beowulf explains that this was a match based upon an agreement that was made quite early in life. They made the agreement when they were “Younkers in years” or quite young (Section IX, line 39). As gentlemen, they must uphold the agreement. The waters were quite strong and they stripped down when they entered the waters. They were careful of the sharks in the waters as well. “While swimming the sea-floods, sword blade unscabbarded, / Boldly we brandished, our bodies expected / To shield from the sharks” (Section IX, lines 41-43).
Beowulf recognized that his old friend could not swim farther than he could. Rather than outswim him, Beowulf merely chose to swim by his side. In this way, no one won a competition that was set early in life among two friends. Obviously, if Beowulf chose to swim a greater distance than his friend could, his friend would have likely drowned. This narrative explains that Beowulf did not lose a match based on physical strength and endurance. Furthermore, it also indicates the Beowulf is a good man and a true friend. While he could have won the match, it would have resulted in the death of his friend. Beowulf chose to have the match end in a “draw” in order to save his friend. It was the true and honorable thing to do. This narrative is used as a means to indicate that.
Another narrative within the framework is that of Queen Hygd. The narrator relates this story to the reader. Queen Hygd represents the ideal woman and most certainly, the ideal queen. She is described as “very young was / Fine-mooded, clever” (Section XVIII, lines 37-38). She is also quite generous and gives lavish presents to her subjects. She is also submissive to her husband. Essentially, she is young intelligent, pleasant and generous. It is easy to see why she is held up as a shining example of what a queen should be. At this time, women were also expected to be submissive to their husbands (Procházková, 2007, p. 3). She is contrasted with another queen, Queen Thyro. Queen Thryo is none of the things that Qyeen Hygd is. Thyro is most certainly described in horrendous terms.
She “nursed anger, excellent folk-queen / Hot burning hatred” (Section XVIII, lines 42-43). It is noted that no man, save her husband, would dare to look Thyro in the eyes. She is considered evil, angry and dangerous. Men are submissive to her in this poem; this is not an acceptable way for society to act at this time in history. She was known for torturing and killing innocent men, something no queen should ever be accused of in this time, or any time. However, if torture was going to be ordered at this time in history, it should have been done by the King, not the Queen. Women were expected to be the weaker sex and unable to tolerate the idea of torture and killing. Queen Thryo is not the typical queen or the typical woman.
This narrative may have served several purposes in the story. This story is dominated by men: their actions, their tales, their desires and their strengths. Women appear to have little part in the story. It may have been the poet’s way of discussing women to some extent in the work. Furthermore, he may have used them to illustrate that women also have their differences, same as men. Just as all men were not as kind, worthy, and strong as Beowulf, all women were not as kind, loving and generous as Queen Hygd. Just as Beowulf exemplifies the qualities that a man should have to be of good character, Hygd exemplifies the characters that a woman was expected to have at this time. Queen Thryo represents the recognition that not all women had these qualities. In this way, the narrative offers a larger perspective on culture at this time in history (Sparknotes.
The epic poem, Beowulf, is revered in English literature because it is the oldest surviving work of written literature in the English language, albeit Old English. It tells the story of the epic hero, Beowulf, as he recounts his tales and slaughters three monsters that terrorize the people. These monsters are Grendel, Grendel’s mother and the dragon. However, these are not the only stories that are told in this epic. The narrative framework also contains narratives within the narratives. Two of these include Beowulf telling of a swimming match that he had with an old friend. The second one tells of two queens who clearly contrast in qualities. These narratives expand the story and broaden the reader’s knowledge of the characters and culture.
- Procházková, P. (2007). Female Characters in Beowulf. Retrieved from: http://is.muni.cz
- SparkNotes Editors. (2003). SparkNote on Beowulf. Retrieved October 14, 2014, from http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/beowulf/