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Barron's Booknotes-Beowulf-Free Chapter Summary Synopsis
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REFERENCE

THE CRITICS

Beowulf is essentially a balance, an opposition of ends and beginnings. In its simplest terms it is a contrasted description of two moments in a great life, rising and setting; an elaboration of the ancient and intensely moving contrast between youth and age, first achievement and final death. J. R. R. Tolkien, "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics," 1936

We have in Beowulf a story of giant-killing and dragon-slaying. Why should we construct a legend of the gods or a nature-myth to account for these tales? Why must Grendel or his mother represent the tempest, or the malaria, or the drear long winter nights? We know that tales of giant-killers and dragon-slayers have been current among the people of Europe for thousands of years. Is it not far more easy to regard the story of the fight between Beowulf and Grendel merely as a fairy tale, glorified into an epic? R. W. Chambers, Beowulf: An Introduction to the Study of the Poem, 1959


The poet's consistency of tone reveals his mastery of texture and structure, mostly in the handling of digressions of various length. A long one, such as the Finnsburg episode, can set the grim past of the Danes into an atmosphere of treachery in Hrothgar's court. The over-whelming tension of that long Frisian winter with its resolution by slaughter is emblematic and prophetic of the impending horrors of Hrothulf's revolt and the Hathobard feud. Donald K. Fry, "The Artistry of Beowulf," 1968

The Christian influence in the Beowulf is a matter of transforming spirit rather than of reference to dogma or doctrine. And it is, in the main, an influence reflecting the Old Testament rather than the New. The poem contains specific references to Cain's murder of Abel, and to the stories of the Creation, the giants and the Flood. But we find no such allusions to New Testament themes.... Indeed, considering the nature of the material with which the poet is working, we should hardly expect such references. Charles W. Kennedy, Beowulf, The Oldest English Epic, 1964

...in this work the poet was not much concerned with Christianity and paganism. Beowulf was a hero mainly because of his deeds. All his adventures come from pagan stories, and the pagan motives and actions persist. Hrothgar is made eminent by his speeches, which were not governed by pagan tradition. The Christian poet was free to mold them as he wished, and so to make belief in God a leading figure of the character. He was likely to make the most of it, since Hrothgar is not just the pathetic figure of a king incapable through old age of protecting his people: he is a famous hero, still great because of his wisdom and goodness. Kenneth Sisam, The Structure of Beowulf, 1965

The most unexpected quality in Beowulf is its abiding communication of joy. In contrast with the Mediterranean glitter of the Odyssey... Beowulf takes place in an atmosphere of semi-darkness, the gloom of fire-lit halls, stormy wastelands, and underwater caverns. It is full of blood and fierceness.... Men exult in their conflict with each other and the elements.

Even Grendel and his mother are serious in the way Greek demons never are. They may be horrors survived from the pagan Norse world of frost giants, wolf men, and dragons of the waters, but nobody would ever dream of calling them frivolous. They share Beowulf's dogged earnestness; what they lack is his joy.... Kenneth Rexroth, "Classics Revisited-IV: Beowulf," 1965

Certain peculiarities in the structure of Beowulf can hardly fail to strike the reader. (1) The poem is not a biography of Beowulf, nor yet an episode in his life-it is 2 distinct episodes: The Grendel business and the dragon business, joined by a narrow bridge. (2) Both these stories are broken in upon by digressions: some of these concern Beowulf himself, so that we get a fairly complete idea of the life of our hero... (3) Even apart from these digressions, the narrative is often hampered: the poet begins his story, diverges and returns. (4) The traces of Christian thought and knowledge which meet us from time to time seem to belong to a different world from that of the Germanic life in which our poem has its roots. R. W. Chambers: Beowulf: An Introduction to the Study of the Poem, 1959

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