Points to Ponder
Even though the title of the poem is Beowulf, it could be argued that the poem is concerned not so much with the single exploits of a hero, but with the question of kingship: how a hero becomes king, and the necessitous but tense relation in which the office of kingship stands to mortality. Given the above, analyze the relation between Beowulf and Hrothgar. What do you make of the tension that is created in the first half of the poem between an aged, unable king and the valiant hero, and how does this tension inform the second half of the poem, where Beowulf himself becomes king?
As mentioned, a primary concern of the poet is with the aspect of mortality: the inevitability of death is in fact a theme that informs that entire poem. Yet death caused due to warfare poses immense problems as it causes kingdoms to be hurled into chaotic warfare to avenge the death of a kin. One of the ways in which this chaos is stemmed is through the practice of wergild that entails a payment to the kin of the dead warrior to re-establish honor without shedding blood. Analyze the manner in which wergild serves as an effective or non-effective means of maintaining peace. Is there a shift in the poem from a stance that wergild is an adequate means of maintaining order, to a position where wergild becomes untenable, thus pointing to a changing world order?
Beowulf has traditionally been read as an epic poem recounting the exploits of a hero's victory over the forces of evil. Do you think the story could be read from a feminist point of view: of the story being a triumph not merely of good over evil, but of the triumph of the masculine world order over the feminine, with the good being aligned with the male and the evil with the feminine? To support your answer, you might want to examine the status of 'real' women in the poem as objects of exchange in wergild, and the representations of 'mythical' women such a Grendel's mother.
The poem has been commonly accepted to be the work of a Christian poet, and the work itself is informed by certain Christian (primarily Old Testament) precepts. Do you think the poem can be read adequately as a work preaching Christian morality? Or does the Christian theme sit somewhat uneasily with an underlying message that is pagan in belief? If the latter is true, what might this message be?
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Points to Ponder
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