The death of Beowulf. (L. Lengers)


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Beowulf has been many times interpreted, re-interpreted and, undoubtedly, misinterpreted by a never-ending sequence of readers and critics. There are many reasons Beowulf is not easy to understand. Very little is certain about the time and manner of its composition, it is a product of an ancient time, set in times even more ancient and very different to our own. A student who is new to the poem, must rely on footnotes and commentary to make sense of much of it. Thus, we see the story through many layers of tinted glass: the opinions, comments and interpretations of generations of translators and interpreters. This paper is therefore a study of the critical reception of the poem as much as of the poem itself. Testing the critics against each other and against the text and getting rid of what is least likely can result in a coherent view of the poem. Doing this without bias, however, is impossible. My personal bias is simple: I believe the Beowulf poet set out to celebrate what he felt was a glorious past that was worth commemorating in a long poem. He did this by writing the life and death of Beowulf, a man who embodied all that was good and noble about this time. I do not believe the poet was making a political or religious statement at the expense of his characters. To support this interpretation, or rather, to test it, I will focus on one of the mysteries of Beowulf: Beowulf's death. Up until the moment of his death, Beowulf has been a great hero and a shining example, but in his fight with the dragon, he is defeated, although he defeats the dragon as well. He both wins and loses but with his death, it seems everything he has achieved has come to nought: the treasure he won for his people is buried; the Geats look forward to their destruction. Even Heorot, which he returned to a state of peace by his brave actions when he was young, is burned to the ground. All he has worked for is lost. The tone of the last part of the poem is tragic and dark, as if the poet did think of these days as "heathen, noble and hopeless".[1] I will try to show that the Geats were not in fact without hope, that burying the treasure was the only right thing to do, and that Beowulf's death was not a defeat, but a shining victory over time.







Before investigating the meaning of Beowulf's death, I will have a look at the character itself, and at what kind of man he was. In the story named after him, Beowulf is the most detailed character; he is characterised both directly and indirectly by his actions and by the way others see him. Together, his traits form a picture of the ideal hero. However, he is more than just a type, he is a fully imagined character who grows wise with experience.

            The first thing that is said to characterise Hygelac's thane is that he is strong: "se ws moncynnes mgenes strengest"; "he was the strongest of mankind" (l. 194). Especially his handgrip is remarkably strong. His strength plays an important role in the monster fights; it is the strength of his grip that makes Grendel realise immediately that he has met his match (ll. 750-753), and it enables him to tear the monster's arm off. In the dragon fight, Beowulf hits the dragon so hard that his sword breaks, and the poet explains Beowulf is simply too strong to gain any benefit from the use of swords (ll. 2682-87). He is at his best when he can fight unarmed, like in Frisia, where he squeezes the life out of Dghrefn with his bare hands (ll. 2506b-08a). This abnormal strength sets him apart from the beginning as a kind of superman. Fred C. Robinson stresses that Beowulf is human rather than superhuman; in his reading, Beowulf's feats of strength are remarkable but not impossible.[2] The poet was wise to keep Beowulf on a human level: if Beowulf would have had supernatural powers like those of Grendel and the dragon, the hero would have appeared as one of the monsters. Beowulf would not have been a heroic poem but a romantic fable about the battle between good monsters and bad monsters (Robinson, p. 79). That he is not superhuman does not mean Beowulf is in any way ordinary; on the contrary, he clearly stands out as the strongest, bravest and best man around. He has a strength unequalled among mankind (ll. 2181-82), but he is a man rather than a monster. He has a family and a history; he is one of his people and therefore a shining example to them as well as the audience of the story. 

Courage is another important trait for heroes in general, and Beowulf in particular. The main events of the story, the three monster fights, demonstrate his courage, and he is praised for it repeatedly. In both halves of the poem, there are foils to put Beowulf's courage into contrast. In Denmark, there is Unferth, who, as Beowulf points out, lacks the heart needed to defeat Grendel:

Secge ic e to soe,   sunu Ecglafes,

t nfre Grendel swa fela   gryra gefremede,

atol glca,   ealdre inum,

hyno on Heorote,   gif in hige wre,

sefa swa searogrim,   swa u self talast.

I tell you truly, son of Ecglaf, that Grendel, the awful monster, would never have done so many terrible deeds against your lord, humiliation in Heorot, if your spirit, your heart, were so fierce in the fight as you yourself hold (ll. 590-94).


In the part set in his homeland, it is Beowulf's own retainers who shun battle. These were supposed to be brave men, hand-picked by Beowulf, (ll. 2638-40) and their flight illustrates the courage needed to stand against the dragon. It is acts of courage that win a warrior glory, so Beowulf's fearlessness flows directly from his desire for glory, which is stressed both in the last lines of the poem, and in several of Beowulf's speeches (e.g. ll. 1386-89 and ll. 2513-14).

            It has been argued that it was this desire for glory that destroyed Beowulf in the end, and that it is possible to be too courageous. An overdose of courage turns into pride, and pride comes before the fall, as Hrothgar warned Beowulf. Having told him of Heremod (ll. 1709 - 22), Hrothgar explains to Beowulf how a man who does well in the world can succumb to pride and greed. "He his selfa ne mg / for his unsnyttrum  ende geencean"; "he cannot imagine, in his foolishness, that an end will come" (ll. 1733-34). This kind of pride is something that Beowulf avoids. He always remembers the possibility that he might die; it just does not stop him from taking heroic action. His boasts show self-assurance, but always balanced with the awareness that the battle might end in his death. Especially before his last fight, when he is weighed down with age and experience, Beowulf dwells on his mortality. "Him ws geomor sefa, / wfre ond wlfus"; "He was sad at heart, restless and ready for death" (ll. 2419b-20a). During the preparation for the two other monster fights, he is just as aware of his mortality. He asks Hrothgar to send his armour back to Hygelac should Grendel defeat him, and remarks with a kind of dark humour that he need not worry about a funeral, as Grendel will eat him whole (ll. 445b-451). Likewise, before he dives into the mere, he asks Hrothgar to take his retainers under his wing if he does not return (ll. 1480-81). So while he is not afraid to die, he is always aware that he might, and he is careful to make the proper arrangements in case he does.

            There is a marked difference in disposition between the young Beowulf of the first half and the grey haired king of the second. In his later years, Beowulf has grown more thoughtful; he falls to brooding when the dragon burns down his hall, although the poet adds this was unusual for him (ll. 2327-32). He has the many deaths of his kinsmen pressing on his mind and many memories of battle, and the speech he delivers before facing the dragon is long and heavy with the stories of battles won and lost. Beowulf's experiences have changed him. He had a rash, impatient self-confidence when he was younger: he went off to fight monsters against his lord's advice (ll. 1994b-95),[3] and dove into the mere without waiting or caring for a response to his boast (ll. 1493b-94a). Growing older, he has slowed down, become more gloomy and thoughtful. However, his courage is no less, he does what he has to do without hesitation or doubt. During his long reminiscence, he pictures himself always in the front of the battle, fighting for as long as he lives:

Symle ic him on fean   beforan wolde,

ana on orde,   ond swa to aldre sceall

scce fremman,   enden is sweord ola

I would always go before him [Hrothgar] in the band on foot, alone in the vanguard, and so all my life I will do battle while this sword lasts (ll. 2497-99).


This courage is not the same kind as the courage he showed in Denmark: Beowulf can no longer be charged with a naive sort of idealism. As the lone survivor of his kin, he knows very well that all men's lives end in death. Nonetheless, he goes out to defend his kingdom without fear or doubt. Far from bringing his spirit down, the tragedies of life have only strengthened his resolve.

            His sense of propriety is another important trait: Beowulf does the right thing almost to a fault. His greeting the coastguard is courteous and polite, even though the coastguard was not very respectful when he called him and his men 'leassceaweras', spies (l. 253). When Beowulf returns Hrunting to Unferth, he comments that he found no fault with the blade (ll. 1811-12a), even though the day before, he had stated truthfully that it had been of no use to him at all (ll. 1659-60). It is his generosity of spirit that compels him to make this gesture,  "t ws modig secg"; "that was a noble-minded man" (l. 1812), the poet comments. Unferth has lost much esteem in the light of Beowulf's victory but Beowulf at least does not make it worse. Instead, he restores some of Unferth's reputation by dealing with him in an honourable way. In addition, after Beowulf's return from Frisia, he refuses to take the crown in spite of the requests of the Geats and their queen, Hygd (ll. 2369-76). Courage and strength were important qualities in a retainer, but courtesy, or correct behaviour, were admirable as well. "Cue he dugue ea,"; "he knew the ways of the warband" (l. 359) the poet says admiringly of Wulfgar, and the comment is equally applicable to Beowulf.





Beowulf is full of virtues, and if he has any flaws he has been accused of many by several interpreters they are at least not explicitly stated by the poet. The poet as well as the other characters have only praise for Beowulf. The only time he is charged with a lack of bravery or inappropriate behaviour is before he has had a chance to prove himself. Unferth had heard of Beowulf before he came to Denmark, but knows him only as the losing party in an ill-advised swimming match. Beowulf and Breca risked their lives without any need, and Beowulf lost the match. This does not bode well for his fight with Grendel, Unferth points out, but in his reply, Beowulf explains they were only boys then (cnihtwesende l. 535) and if he lost this is only because he had to fight off some sea-monsters. He corrects the story and with this, the Danes are happy and full of hope again. That Unferth did not have a high opinion of Beowulf should not surprise us, as the Geats themselves never thought much of him before he set out to Denmark. "Swye wendon  t he sleac wre, eling unfrom"; "they believed that he was indolent, a feeble atheling" (ll. 2187- 83a). This mistake is corrected when he returns laden with treasures. Once he has proven himself, Beowulf is never questioned again. He is given high praise on his return: by Hygelac, who honours him with a royal sword and an estate, (ll. 2190-99) and by the poet:

Swa bealdode   bearn Ecgeowes,

guma guum cu,   godum ddum,

dreah fter dome,   nealles druncne slog 

heorgeneatas;   ns him hreoh sefa

Such was the showing of the son of Edgetheow, known for his combats and his courage in action. His dealings were honourable: in drink, he did not strike at the companions of his hearth; his heart was not savage (ll. 2177-80).


            After his death, there are a few more hints that we should judge Beowulf positively. The phrase "sofstra dom"; "judgement of the righteous" (l. 2820) is ambiguous, it may mean that God will judge Beowulf a righteous man or it may mean the righteous are to judge Beowulf. However, in other Old English texts the same phrase is used to mean "he went to heaven".[4] Saying Beowulf went to heaven would not be in line with Christian doctrine, the opinion held almost universally among clergy was that pagans went to hell. The poet may have had a different view on this, although it is hard to decide on such scant evidence. Another indication of the way Beowulf was judged at his death is given at his cremation: "heofon riece swealg"; "heaven swallowed the smoke" (l. 3155). This line is discussed by Taylor who considers it a sign of divine favour.[5] The wind dies down as the pyre is lit, allowing the smoke to rise high, so high that the sky seems to swallow it. The subsiding of the wind may indicate a divine purpose, and the sky swallowing the smoke may suggest the acceptance of Beowulf's spirit into heaven. It was an ancient belief, described in Ynglingasaga, that the higher the smoke rose, the higher the dead person would be in heaven (Taylor, p. 258). The rising smoke could be taken as a sign that Beowulf was judged favourably by God, regardless of the meaning of the word "heafon" which could mean either "sky" or "heaven".

            Fred C. Robinson, with due care, suggests that after his death, Beowulf may even have been revered as a god. The poet hints on this with the description of the burial, which could be considered redundant, as Beowulf had already been cremated. We know heroes and kings were sometimes deified and worshiped, and that, in the Christian era, pagan gods were often explained away as ancient kings. Some Anglo-Saxons might have understood from the ritual surrounding Beowulf's funeral and monument created for him that Beowulf was here deified.[6] Jos Bazelmans takes a slightly different view: in his model, heroic society consists of supernatural entities as well as living people, although the poet does not go into much detail about the former. The cremation and burial, with treasure, marks Beowulf's transformation from a king into an ancestor. As he becomes an ancestor, his name and his reputation will live on and provide guidance to his people, while his successor is now free to fully assume the position of king.[7] What these two views have in common is that they provide an explanation for the elaborate double ritual at Beowulf's death, and they both indicate that Beowulf was still alive to the Geats in a way that is distinctly non-Christian. Pagan gods and ancestors have no place in the Christian worldview, except as ancestors in a very abstract sense: as people who once lived and now are dead. From the rich funeral pyre and the elaborate ceremony surrounding the burial, we may infer that to the Geats, Beowulf was more than that; he was more than just a memory. The poet usually refrains from commenting on the meaning of pagan ritual, or on the details of pagan beliefs. Exactly how he understood these rituals or intended them to be interpreted is hard to decide. However, it is clear that the Geats remember their lord in the most positive way imaginable, and the poet explicitly praises them for this (ll. 3174b-77). It is one of the signs the poet approved of everything Beowulf did and believed. He awards him only the highest praise. 





The properties strength, courage and propriety are the most important qualities in a retainer, but to be a good king, more is needed. Beowulf the king has been charged with making bad decisions and having the wrong motivations. If we accept the hypothesis, put forward by Leyerle,[8] that Beowulf was not a good king and somehow failed to provide for his people, the melancholic tone and the disastrous predictions for the future in the last third of the poem would be perfectly explicable. The tragedy can be blamed on Beowulf and the intention of the poet is not to give us an example to emulate but a warning against bad kings. The problem with this interpretation is that the poet never makes this warning explicit. In fact, Beowulf has all the characteristics of a good king.

            Leyerle describes how the poet used the old material of heroic poetry to describe a "fatal contradiction" at the heart of heroic society (Leyerle, p. 89). The qualities that make a good retainer blind courage and self-sacrifice for the sake of personal glory are very bad qualities for a king. A king's most important duty is to his people, and his survival is necessary for maintaining social stability. Leyerle believes Beowulf made the wrong choice in fighting the dragon; this task was better left to heroes who could be missed rather than to kings, who could not. He sees Hrothgar as giving the good example when he chooses not to face Grendel in battle, as his death would have resulted in a chaotic struggle over the throne, which would be a greater calamity than Grendel's attacks. It is to be doubted, however, that the Danes, terrorised in their hall, would have seen things the same way. Hrothgar's inaction seems to stem from incapability rather than a "prudent choice of a lesser evil" (Leyerle, p 92). He is not blamed anywhere for not taking on Grendel himself, but this is only because he is too old to fight him:

t ws an cyning,

ghws orleahtre,   ot hine yldo benam

mgenes wynnum,   se e oft manegum scod.

That was a king, blameless in all things until old age took his strength, as it has often harmed many (ll. 1885b-87 emphasis added).


Hrothgar is valued for his wisdom, but his choice to let Grendel rule the hall at night is not described as wisdom anywhere. He simply has no choice, as he has no one strong enough to defeat the monster. His inability to do anything weighs heavy on his heart. It is true that Beowulf died in a fight he took on partially for selfish reasons; his desire for glory played an important role. That Beowulf's death caused trouble for the Geats is also true. However, he did kill the dragon, and whatever the outcome of the wars that will follow Beowulf's death, the Geats must have had some advantage from not having all their lands and buildings reduced to ashes. There is another reason to be sceptical of Leyerle's views. Beowulf has reigned for fifty years, and cannot have been young when he accepted the throne. "Those who condemn the king for dying seem to assume that he was going to live forever," as Niles put it.[9] Beowulf himself was very aware of his mortality. There is no reason we should lose sight of it.

            Leyerle contrasts the heroic code with the responsibilities of a king, and detects a conflict of duties. This conflict was also perceived and commented on by Anglo-Saxons. Leyerle refers to the witness of St. Thomas Aquinas, but Colin Chase has found a more compelling example in the anonymous Vita Oswini (Life of Saint Oswine).[10] King Oswine, as Bede tells us, decided to give himself up as prisoner rather than being the cause of a battle. His dilemma is between meeting the demands of God, who will not tolerate bloodshed, and the demands of men, his men, who would rather die on the battlefield than walk away from a fight. This conflict is similar to that described by Leyerle, and according to Leyerle, Beowulf made the wrong choice. However, as Chase points out, Oswine's desire to shun disgrace and gain glory in battle is not equated with pride, even though in this religious context, the writer could be expected to describe his hero's choice as good, and the other option as evil (Chase, p. 188). The conflict was perceived, but not resolved, even in such a clearly religious context as a saint's life.

Neither Oswine nor his author conclude that the generous spirit which makes the king's men want so much to fight his enemies is wrong or not to be admired, or that in determining to break off the fight, the king is resisting the blandishments of pride or cupidity (Chase, p 189).


It seems unlikely, then, that the Beowulf poet, who had no explicit religious agenda, meant for the audience to draw this conclusion from his subtle ironies or interlace structure. It is more likely that to him, the gaining of glory and treasure was something different entirely from the sins of pride and cupidity.

            Our personal feelings about what makes a good king can easily mislead us. The Anglo-Saxons, and certainly the Geats and Danes, had ideas about war and peace, and good or bad leaders, that were very different from our own.[11] A better test is to look at the models given in the poem; there are many good kings and bad kings in the world of Beowulf. The first king the poet names lived in days long gone even in Beowulf's time. "t ws god cyning"; "that was a good king" (l. 11), the poet says of Scyld, and his shining example is a touchstone for the other kings in the poem. We are told much more about his youth and his death than about his political decisions, but one thing the poet states with undisguised admiration: he taught his enemies to fear him and all the neighbouring tribes obeyed him and paid tribute (ll. 9-11a). Keeping the enemies at bay is an important quality in a king, and one of the things Beowulf achieves for his people. For fifty years, they lived in peace, and in those years, there were no raids or attacks from any of the surrounding kingdoms. Just how much of an accomplishment this is, is stressed by the glimpses into the past and future. The Geats have many enemies with scores to settle, but Beowulf's presence as a king has kept them away.

Ic as leode heold

fiftig wintra;   ns se folccyning,

ymbesittendra   nig ara,

e mec guwinum   gretan dorste,

egesan eon,

I have ruled this people for fifty years; none of the kings of the surrounding peoples dared attack me with his war friends or threaten my homeland (ll. 2732b-36a).


Beowulf states this with pride, and he has reason to be proud of it. Beowulf has brought his people peace, a rare gift in their violent world.

            When it comes to peace Hrothgar did not do as well: his own hall was attacked by night for many years. Hrothgar is admired in spite of this weakness, mainly because he is considered very wise, both by the poet and by his characters. Beowulf calls him "snotor guma"; "wise man" (l. 1384), the poet describes him as "Wisa fengel"; "the wise lord" (l. 1400) and  "se wisa"; "the wise man" (l. 1698). He shows this wisdom in his speeches, which contain keen observations and correct predictions. He can foresee that Beowulf will be king one day, and warns Beowulf against becoming the wrong kind of king. Beowulf is a wise man as well, and like Hrothgar, he shows this wisdom when he speaks. Hrothgar himself comments:

e a wordcwydas   wigtig drihten

on sefan sende;   ne hyrde ic snotorlicor

on swa geongum feore   guman ingian.

u eart mgenes strang   ond on mode frod,

wis wordcwida

The all-knowing Lord sent those words into your mind: I have not heard a man of such a young age speak more wisely. You are great of strength, mature of mind and wise of words (ll. 1841-45a).


  The poet describes Beowulf as "snotor ond swyferh"; "wise and stout-hearted" (l. 826) after his battle with Grendel and as "se wisa"; "the wise man" (l. 2329) before his fight with the dragon. Wisdom is an important quality, because it balances strength. Strength without wisdom would make a person quarrelsome and untrustworthy, like Heremod, who was blessed with strength but turned his rage onto his own friends. Wisdom without strength is likewise admirable, but insufficient. Hrothgar is a wise man, but since old age has taken away his strength, he can no longer protect his people the way he should. Beowulf combines these two qualities; even when he was young he showed considerable wisdom, and although he is now old, his strength is no less. When he was young Beowulf could even foresee events Hrothgar could not or was not willing to see. He predicts (correctly, as we know from other sources) that the truce between the Danes and Heathobards will not hold, in spite of Hrothgar giving his daughter away in marriage. This shows he has a good understanding of political relations and the reasons behind wars and raids. This must have served him well when he acted as an advisor to the younger Heardred, and it certainly served him when he ruled as a king. His wisdom and restraint helped him prevent wars. In wisdom, Beowulf is not inferior to Hrothgar.





Beowulf is also generous, and this is a most important quality for a king. Again, the example is set in the first few lines.

Swa sceal geong guma   gode gewyrcean,

fromum feohgiftum   on fder bearme,

t hine on ylde   eft gewunigen

wilgesias,   onne wig cume,

leode gelsten; 

So should a young man by good deeds, by splendid gifts while still in his father's house, make sure that in old age his dear companions will remain with him, that when war comes, the people will support him (ll. 20-24a).


A king, or a person aspiring to be a king, will bestow gifts on his followers, in return for which they will show him loyalty in battle. That does not mean these gifts should be seen as mercenaries' wages. The contract between a mercenary and his lord can be terminated by either party, but the gifts as described in Beowulf forge a lasting bond.[12] Breaking this bond would be an act of treachery. The contract can be violated in two ways, by the warrior if he fails to serve his lord (which will brand him as a coward or even a traitor) or by the lord, if he fails to reward the service of his men. This is why avarice, keeping valuables to oneself instead of distributing them, is to be taken very seriously. It is not mere greed, it is the violation of the moral codes of society: the generous lord and the loyal retainer together form the central structure the rest of society is built around. If their relationship falls apart, so does social stability.

The importance of generosity is stressed by the speech Hrothgar gives before Beowulf leaves for Geatland. Hrothgar recognises that Beowulf will probably be king one day, and warns him against the vices shown by King Heremod. Heremod, like Beowulf, was blessed with strength (ll. 1716-18a), but the Danes remember him as a plague. The reason was that he killed his companions (l. 1713) and would not give out rings to them (ll. 1719b-20a), two serious shortcomings. That Beowulf cannot be charged with the first is a relief to him when he dies:

Ic s ealles mg

feorhbennum seoc   gefean habban;

for am me witan ne earf   waldend fira

mororbealo maga

In all this, with my mortal wound, I still have joy because the ruler of men cannot charge me with the murder of my kinsmen (ll. 2739b-42a).


That he was not guilty of stinginess is evident from his final act: the gift of a hoard of treasure to his people. It also shows from Wiglaf's speeches to the cowardly retainers. First, when they run away, he reminds them how they swore to return their lord's gifts in battle (ll. 2633-38), and when the dragon is dead and they come out of hiding, he reminds them again of their lord's generosity, and how he always gave the best he could find (ll. 2868-70). Heremod's stinginess has been compared to the un-Christian interest Beowulf shows in the treasure.[13] However, these are two different things. Wanting to gain treasure, to deal out in characteristic generosity to one's people, is not the same as wanting to keep treasure to oneself. As far as his people are concerned, Beowulf was a generous lord.

            The qualities for which other kings in the poem are praised generally follow the pattern established. Offa, for instance, was a good king too:

Foram Offa ws

geofum ond guum,   garcene man,

wide geweorod,   wisdome heold

eel sinne

So it was that Offa, brave with the spear, was spoken of abroad for his wars and his gifts; he governed with wisdom the land of his birth (ll. 1956-60).


Courage, wars, gifts and wisdom these are the qualities that make a king worth remembering. Compared to other kings in the poem, Beowulf does not do badly. He was generous, has kept the enemies from attacking, has refrained from blood-lusty slaughter but was ready to defend his people against a supernatural monster when that was necessary. That he was well loved by his people may well be considered the point of everything that transpires once he has died. Wiglaf's mourning, the messenger's anxiety about coming wars and the burning and burying of treasure are all ways in which the poet shows how much the Geats loved their lord, and how sorely he will be missed. They are all signs that Beowulf was in fact an excellent king, as good a king as he was a hero.







Treasure plays an important part in the poem. Many lines are spent on the description of treasure, the appearance and history of swords, armour and neck-rings. Beowulf in his dying moments wishes to see the hoard he has won for his people. The prominent role of treasure has irked especially Christian-minded critics, who have accused Beowulf of avarice. One's dying thoughts ought to be concerned with the afterlife, not worldly treasure, and Christian Anglo-Saxons would easily recognise Beowulf's shortcomings in this scene. Gold is the object of avarice, and becomes a symbol for avarice in Bolton's interpretation.[14] Bolton makes use of an interesting trick: he reconstructs Alcuin's personality and opinions from his writing, and has this reconstructed person read and interpret Beowulf, to see how a contemporary reader might respond to the poem. In the resulting reading, the gold hoard deceives Beowulf, who is unaware of the danger represented by earthly riches. The gold draws Beowulf to his death (Bolton, p. 150). The problem with Bolton's approach is that Alcuin was a very unhappy choice for a reader. From his famous letter, containing the line: "what has Ingeld to do with Christ," it is clear that Alcuin was not very likely to read Beowulf, nor was he likely to appreciate the poem if he did. From his writings, Alcuin emerges as a rather humourless man, who might indeed have concluded that Beowulf was an avaricious and vainglorious pagan who deserved to die and burn in hell. However, I am not sure the poet held the same opinion. Our view of the mind of the Anglo-Saxon is likely to be tainted by church doctrine; the body of writing we have available has been produced and preserved in monasteries and churches. In all probability, much more was written than has been preserved, and much more was thought than was written. Although it is not very useful to speculate on the contents of what was lost, there is no reason to assume that the writings we have are a representative sample. The average Christian Anglo-Saxon may have had ideas quite different from the ideas arising from the writing that has been preserved from Anglo-Saxon times.

            To one steeped in the writings of Alcuin, it may seem a natural conclusion that a hoard of gold indicates the danger of avarice, but the poet does not describe it as such. The problem with these kinds of allegorisations is that there is very little in the text to support the idea that the poet meant the poem as an allegory. As Sisam pointed out, allegories written in this era were normally explained in the text. If the poet intended his work to be read as an allegory, he failed to leave us the key, which is very unusual.[15] If gold is a symbol of avarice, it is strange that treasure is consistently described as a good thing, something that beautifies or honours the possessor. The standard hung above the dragon's hoard shines with light, enabling Wiglaf to see in the darkness of the barrow (ll. 2767-71), a fact that is hard to reconcile with the idea that treasure represents temptation. Furthermore, the gold of the dragon's hoard is not the same kind of gold as that of the typical miser: these are not stacks of coins, but of helmets, swords and armour: objects of practical value. In the heroic world of the poem, treasure and gold did not have the same meaning as in the world of patristic writers.

            Treasure and status are closely related in heroic society; the value of a man's arms and armour is an indication of his value as a warrior. This can be seen very clearly when Beowulf gives the coastguard a sword, for which the man "on meodubence  mame y weorra"; "was more honoured among the mead benches" (ll. 1902-03a). His honour is not derived from anything he has achieved, but from the fine sword he has been offered, a sign of his value as a man. Michael Cherniss provides a lucid explanation of the way treasure, and thereby status, is distributed in society and changes hands.[16] Treasure can change hands in one of two ways: either through gift giving, which represents honour given, and thus esteem gained by the receiver, or in battle, by defeating the possessor. By his defeat, a man loses his esteem, which passes over to the victor. This loss and gain of honour is symbolised by the treasure, which also changes hands. "In the Heroic system of values, the plundering of enemies slain in battle is an integral part of worthy conduct" (Cherniss, p. 484).

            Jos Bazelmans, writing from an anthropological point of view, links men and their possessions even more closely together. In his model, weapons and armour do not only represent a man's honour; they i.e. his honour are part of his identity. More important than the object's monetary value is its genealogy; the men who possessed it in the past lend value to the object, and to the man who possesses it now, who is expected to use it for heroic acts, which will in turn increase the value of the object. Gifts have a living quality; they bestow courage and strength on the receiver, which they derive from previous owners.[17] Even when treasures come in the shape of jewellery, their social significance is more important than their aesthetic or monetary value. The interest shown in treasure by the poet does not stem from materialism but from admiration for the men he celebrates; the value of the treasures they share reflects onto them. Likewise, the interest shown in the dragon's hoard by Beowulf has nothing to do with greed: the treasure represents the increase in honour and fame he would gain if he defeated the dragon.

            According to Cherniss, the honour the treasure represents is the dragon's. It is a dragon's duty to guard the treasure, and by performing that duty, he has gained the rights to the honour represented by the treasure. The theft of the cup was an insult against the dragon, who has a right to take vengeance, although his vengeance is out of proportion to the crime (Cherniss, p. 481). The problem with this view is that the dragon in Beowulf seems more like an animal than like an intelligent creature. His thoughts and emotions are limited to a strong destructive urge and it is unclear if animals (or dragons) can have any kind of honour. A second problem is that the dragon did not come by his treasure legitimately. He may be performing his duty by defending it so that no one can gain the treasure by simply stumbling across it, but the dragon himself did precisely that in the first place. It seems to me more likely that the honour represented by the treasure is that of the people who put it in the ground. The last survivor realised he was going to die when he was still in possession of the treasure, and, having no one to pass it on to, he buried it. His people's honour (their treasure) lies unclaimed. Now that the men it belonged to are dead, it cannot be won legitimately. For a man to find it and take it outside would be dishonourable: honour taken but not deserved. For the hoard to be legitimately claimed, someone has to defend it, and this is where the dragon comes in.

            It is in the nature of dragons to guard treasure, as the Old English maxim tells us: "a dragon lives in a mound, old and proud of his treasure."[18] This is the function of a dragon; he guards the treasure even though it profits him nothing. It does profit the men who owned the treasure originally, by guarding their treasure against robbers and keeping their honour intact, though buried. Cherniss makes mention of an early pagan belief that dragons are the reincarnations of the warriors whose burial mounds they inhabit and are, therefore, protecting their own treasures (Cherniss, p. 481). The poet makes no mention of this belief and may not have been aware of it. To him, dragons and hoards probably made a natural couple, they occur together in many stories. If he wondered why they occurred together, he provided a neat solution: the treasure was buried by a dying race, and a dragon later claimed it (ll. 2270-74). The combination of an ancient race, a treasure and a dragon is fortuitous from a storyteller's point of view: they lock together perfectly. The lay of the last survivor explains how the dragon came by his treasure, and the fight with Beowulf explains why the treasure has a dragon guarding it. If there were no dragon, there would be no opportunity for heroic behaviour, and Beowulf would not be able to win the glory that is represented by the hoard.

            Another traditional element that goes with treasure-hoards is a curse on whoever steals it. There is one of these curses in Beowulf, although its workings and who, if anyone, it affects, remains unclear. The curse comes with a condition: no one may touch the hoard unless God would grant him permission, whoever He would think worthy (ll. 3052-57). Presumably, these lines mean that one man, the one God considered worthy, would be allowed to posses the hoard, even though the poet never makes it explicit who this is. If the function of the dragon was to replace the dead warriors in the protection of their possessions, this could be taken to mean that whoever killed the dragon was the worthy man. In a sense, the dragon is the curse, and by defeating the dragon, Beowulf also overcomes the curse. The problem with this interpretation is the fact that Beowulf does not live to hold the treasure in his possession, and that Wiglaf is the first one to touch it. Still, the poet does not state explicitly that anyone was affected by the curse, and this may be because Beowulf broke it when he defeated the dragon. Alternatively, the curse might be taken as the reason that the treasure was later buried with Beowulf. I shall discuss this possibility in section 2.3.

            Gaining the treasure is the same thing as defeating the dragon. If treasure is simply a way to represent glory gained, Beowulf's interest in the treasure is perfectly explicable. To face the dragon is an act of great courage that would gain a man honour, which is represented in tangible form by the treasure. In boasting that he will do battle for the treasure, Beowulf is merely saying he will fight the dragon in different words.

            Margaret Goldsmith detects a kind of dramatic irony in the final part of the poem.[19] In her view, Beowulf has grown arrogant and makes a mistake in fighting the dragon alone. Beowulf was reckless to fight the dragon on his own, it is a sign of his "arrogant self-confidence" (Goldsmith, p. 225). By dying in his fight with the dragon, Beowulf has brought his people out of the frying pan into the fire, and he made this mistake because he was blinded by the gold. According to Goldsmith, the poet makes this clear by including in Beowulf's speeches references to winning the treasure (ll. 2508-09 and ll. 2535-37). "I cannot see that Beowulf's boast that he would obtain the treasure, or his dying wish to set eyes upon it, were necessary ingredients of the plot" (Goldsmith, p. 227). Whether they were necessary ingredients of the plot depends on what one presumes to be the theme of the plot, of course. If gaining treasure and gaining personal glory are the same thing, or at least closely related, these boasts need not be ironic comments on Beowulf's flaws, they simply fit in with Beowulf's characterisation as a man most eager for fame (l. 3182). Gaining glory is Beowulf's motivation for all of his heroic actions, that and the loyalty to kinsmen. To the poet, these are noble motivations. Moreover, the words "arrogant self-confidence" are hard to apply to someone as aware of his immanent demise as Beowulf shows himself. Beowulf was far from blinded by the treasure, he made a conscious choice to risk his life for two reasons: to gain glory and to save his kingdom from the dragon. He achieved both.





The dragon is the most direct cause for Beowulf's death, and it has been at the centre of fierce debate. Tolkien called it "a personification of malice, greed, destruction (the evil side of heroic life), and of the undiscriminating cruelty of fortune that distinguishes not good or bad (the evil aspect of all life)."[20] This is exactly what the dragon is, but Tolkien's concise statement can do with some explanation.

            Tolkien described Beowulf as a myth, a story about Man (Beowulf) fighting Evil (the Grendelkin and the dragon), and ultimately losing. Gang thought this conclusion was too simple and unfounded.[21] After all, the Grendelkin and the dragon are very different kinds of evil. Grendel is the enemy of God, and the descendent of Cain, but the dragon is neither of these things. As Gang puts it, "no words of moral disapprobation are applied to him" (Gang, p. 6). Furthermore, dragons were not creatures of the imagination to the Anglo-Saxons, as Tolkien suggested (p. 64), they were real enough for the author of the Anglo-Saxon chronicle. Gang would consider the dragon a dangerous animal, evil only in an impersonal and amoral sense, "rather as we might think of a disease as an evil" (Gang, p. 6). This description is not actually very far removed from "the undiscriminating cruelty of fortune that distinguishes not good or bad", the second half of Tolkien's defenition. Gang is right in pointing out the reality of the dragon, and Tolkien's description of the dragon as "draconitas" rather than "draco" (Tolkien, p. 66) does not seem to do justice to the palpable reality and particularity of the dragon in the poem. However, there is no reason why an animal, however real and particular, could not have symbolical significance as well. In fact, there is no reason it could not signify several things at the same time.

            Adrien Bonjour combined and consolidated the different approaches of Gang and Tolkien to the nature and significance of the dragon.[22] He concedes that there are differences between the two types of monsters, but wonders, "is it really proper to definitely white-wash the dragon and clear him of evil in any moral sense?" (Bonjour, p. 103). It is true that the dragon was provoked by the theft of his precious cup, but the terror and destruction he unleashes on the kingdom and its people may be a little out of proportion, to say the least. The dragon does not consider it sufficient to burn down the hall; "no r aht cwices / la lyftfloga  lfan wolde"; "the hateful flying creature did not mean to leave any living thing there" (ll. 2314b-15). The dragon seems to have a distinct prejudice against humans, and is all too eager to start his reign of fire (l. 2304). On top of this, he is poisonous, and "venom brands a creature as harmful and evil, one might even say treacherously evil" (Bonjour p. 112). According to Bonjour, the dragon most certainly is a personification of "malice, greed and destruction", as well as a real animal.

            These three qualities of malice, greed and destruction will not be unfamiliar to a close reader of the poem. Analysis of Hrothgar's speech shows that malice, greed and destruction are Heremod's main flaws. His heart grew raw and bloodthirsty, he would not give out rings, and he brought death and destruction to the Danes (ll. 1711b-20). Hrothgar warns his guest against the dangers of such behaviour. If, as I argued above, the profile provided by Heremod does not apply to Beowulf, perhaps it fits the dragon better. Irving remarks, like others, that the dragon is a kind of mock king, much like Grendel is a kind of terrible retainer.[23] The dragon has his own hall (dryhtsele dyrnne; a hidden royal hall, l. 2320a), and he has an immense treasure. Like Heremod, he is a stingy king. "His chief purpose indeed seems to transcend ordinary stinginess: he does not even use the treasure himself but exerts every effort to keep it from being put to any use what-ever" (Irving, p. 209). A slight provocation is enough to send it on a rampage of murder and destruction, just like Heremod once lashed out at his own men.

            If we see the dragon as an enlarged and exaggerated version of the bad king as described by Hrothgar, such a view can add a layer of significance to the dragon fight. When Beowulf fights the dragon, he does not only fight a dangerous creature and a personification of cruel fortune, he also fights the kind of king that he has tried all his life to avoid becoming. The dragon is his shadow, to use a Jungian term, and in confronting him, Beowulf is fighting his own malice and greed. It is not very likely the poet would have thought of the conflict in these terms, but the likeness of the dragon to a king is remarkable. There is some ground to read the dragon fight as a metaphor for Beowulf's internal struggle.

            Goldsmith read the dragon fight in a similar way, but came to a different conclusion. She considers the dragon fight to be symbolic of an internal struggle with the Enemy, a struggle he lost. In Christian allegory, the dragon usually equals the devil, but the problem with applying this equation to Beowulf is that there is little evidence in the text that this particular dragon is considered demonic. It certainly does not seem to be the enemy of God in the same way as Grendel is. To equate the dragon with the devil is a generalisation that, in my view, simplifies the conflict too much. The dragon represents a specific kind of evil, namely, evil kingship. He is a negative of Beowulf, characterised by traits that are the opposite of Beowulf's most important virtues. If this is an internal struggle, Beowulf comes out as the victor, as his dying words show: they are words of love and generosity for his people and his kinsman Wiglaf (ll. 2794-98 and ll. 2813-14).





The fact that the Geats bury the treasure is often taken as a sign of their despair. Many commentators believe the Geats look forward to the destruction of their race, and this is why they bury the treasure: to keep anyone else from gaining hold of it.[24] Below, I will argue that the future of the Geats was not as bleak as has been widely assumed, in this section I will consider other reasons the Geats might have decided to bury the treasure; the fact that they do is not necessarily a sign that they expect to be destroyed as a nation. 

            To start out by stating the obvious, burying treasure with the dead is a pagan custom. It is a way to honour the dead, and the Geats may have felt it was simply the only proper thing to do. Like Scyld at the start of the poem, Beowulf was a good king who will be sorely missed by his people, and deserves the honour of a rich burial. The poet, as a Christian, could probably have thought of better things to do with it. The objects from the treasure hoard would have made valuable gifts, perhaps even suitable peace offerings to the Franks or Swedes. The church did not approve of the burying of grave-goods with the dead, and it is perhaps in this light that we should see the poet's remark that after it was buried, the treasure was "eldum swa unnyt  swa hit ror ws"; "useless to men as it was before" (l. 3168). It is a sign of the poet's disapproval, comparable to his disapproval of the idol-worshipping Danes earlier (l. 175-183). He may disapprove, but the poet still knows about these pagan customs, and seems to understand how they function. The great kings in the poem are given great treasures when they die. The poet evidently understands that as far as his characters were concerned, the treasure hoard had a useful and valuable destination in the barrow of their king.

            There is another reason the Geats might have thought that burying the treasure would be the best thing to do. If treasure is an indication of glory won in battle, the Geats have no claim to the treasure-hoard won by Beowulf. Wiglaf played a decisive role in the fight with the dragon, but he does not claim the honour for himself. In his version of events, he was barely able to help Beowulf:

Ic him lifwrae   lytle meahte

tgifan t gue,   ond ongan swa eah

ofer min gemet   mges helpan

I could do little to protect his life, give combat, yet I tried to help my kinsman beyond my measure of strength (ll. 2877-79).


By not telling how important his help was to Beowulf, Wiglaf gives up that part of the glory and treasure that could be his.[25] He does this undoubtedly out of respect for Beowulf; by diminishing in his account his own role, Wiglaf allows Beowulf to have all the glory. Apart from Wiglaf, only the cowards were present at the fight, and they are far from having any claim to the treasure they do not even deserve the weapons they are carrying. The Geats do not have anything to boast of, so even though in his dying speech Beowulf says he has won the treasure for his people, they feel they have no claim to it. Thus, the treasure belongs to Beowulf alone, and it is committed to his barrow. It will remain there as a lasting symbol of Beowulf's excellence.

            As stated above in section 2.1, the curse on the hoard is a difficult detail to interpret, or at least, its workings have been interpreted in different ways. If the gold was indeed cursed, this may have been one reason why Wiglaf decided to bury the treasure. Wade Tarzia combined narrative traditions with archaeological evidence and concluded that gold-hoards were cursed, and that putting the gold back to where it came from (in the earth) was the only way to escape this curse.[26] She perceives a conflict between "Beowulf's happiness at having won the hoard" and "Wiglaf's repulsion towards the accursed stuff" (Tarzia, p 109). That Wiglaf is repulsed by the hoard is an interpretation with little ground in the text (only the fact that he has it buried possibly points in this direction), but the theory Tarzia develops is interesting. She assumes that at least some of the hoards of valuables found by archaeology were deposited for ritualistic purposes, and stresses the difference between grave-goods (valuable objects buried with the dead), and ritual hoards deposited for religious and social reasons. For this hoarding ritual to work, it is important that valuables that are taken out of circulation must never be recovered. This is where the narrative tradition of the curse comes from. One who steals from deposited hoards has to fear punishment by natural and supernatural law.

Tarzia assumes the dragon's hoard was one of these ritual hoards. The traditional curse is what compels Wiglaf to bury the treasure once again, as this is the only safe way to dispose of it. Tarzia believes the poet is confused at this point, because he is between traditions: the heroic code calls for the hoard to be distributed among Beowulf's people, but an older Germanic tradition says that a disturbed hoard must be returned to the place from which it came (Tarzia, 111). So although Beowulf is happy he gained the treasure, and meant for it to be distributed among his people, Wiglaf is aware of the curse that rests on hoards, and does the only thing that can allow him to escape this curse: putting the treasure back in the ground.

I do not believe that the poet was confused; Beowulf and Wiglaf may simply view the treasure and the curse in different ways. In Beowulf, God appears as the one who can break the curse: one He considered worthy would be able to possess the hoard (ll. 3054-57). If we take this to mean that Beowulf was the worthy one and that Wiglaf was not, the inconsistency is explained. Beowulf knew he was the one chosen to possess the hoard. Wiglaf knew he was not the chosen one. He could not hold on to the treasure but had it buried with Beowulf.

In conclusion, there are several possible reasons for Wiglaf and the Geats to bury the hoard with Beowulf. It is hard to determine exactly what reason the poet had in mind, but clearly the fact that the Geats bury the treasure need not be taken as a definite sign that they expect to be destroyed.







In Beowulf criticism, Wiglaf often receives a rather cold treatment. He is rarely considered as a potentially good king and often ignored or at best described as a weaker figure.[27] That Wiglaf is physically weaker than Beowulf is no surprise; after all, Beowulf was the strongest man in the world. Wiglaf may not be as strong, but this does not mean Wiglaf was not a worthy successor to Beowulf. Not much is said about his reign the focus is on Beowulf in the final parts of the poem but what we are told of Wiglaf should inspire more faith in his abilities than he has generally been granted.

            Wiglaf does not have much experience in battle (ll. 2625b-27), but he has shown to be made of the right material. He shows great courage and loyalty as a retainer in his speech to the cowards:

God wat on mec

t me is micle leofre   t minne lichaman

mid minne goldgyfan   gled fmie

God knows of me that I had much rather that my body would be enfolded in flame with my gold-giver [than that I would fail to help him] (ll. 2650b-52).


This sentiment is again expressed after the fight, when the other retainers return to the scene of the battle in shame:

Dea bi sella

eorla gehwylcum   onne edwitlif

Death is better for any warrior than a life of disgrace (ll. 2890b-91).


Wiglaf clearly has the same self-sacrificing courage that made Beowulf such an excellent thane.

            Leyerle,[28] who thinks Beowulf would have done better to leave the dragon be in case he would die in the fight, believes Wiglaf begs Beowulf to save his life when he jumps into the battle:

Leofa Biowulf,   lst eall tela,

swa u on geogufeore   geara gecwde

t u ne alte   be e lifigendum

dom gedreosan.   Scealt nu ddum rof,

eling anhydig,   ealle mgene

feorh ealgian;   ic e fullstu

Dear Beowulf, do all things well, you said long ago in your youth, that you would not allow your glory to decline while you would live, now, resolute prince, most famous in deeds, you must defend your life with all your strength. I will help you (ll. 2663-68).


This passage seems more like an apology than a plea for Beowulf to run away. After all, Wiglaf is acting against his lord's express orders by not waiting on the headland as he has been told. "I know you value your glory more than anything," he says, "but now it may well get you killed, so I think you need my help." "Feorh ealgian" (l. 2668a) means Beowulf must defend himself, not run away from battle. Even if it would save his life, running from battle would break his vow ("nelle ic beorges weard / forfleon fotes trem"; "I will not flee from the guardian of the barrow one foot" ll. 2524-25) and irreparably damage his reputation. Wiglaf would have understood that this would be worse than losing his life, as it is exactly what he tells the men who did run away from battle: "Dea bi sella eorla gehwylcum  onne edwitlif"; "Death is better for any warrior than a life of disgrace" (ll. 2890b-91). In the first fight of his career, Wiglaf shows himself an exemplary retainer and a worthy successor.

            There are many signs that Wiglaf was the natural successor to king Beowulf. Beowulf regrets he has no son to inherit his armour (and, we may add, his kingdom) (ll. 2729-32a). Wiglaf takes the place of the son Beowulf never had. By analogy and indications from the text, Bremmer concluded that Wiglaf must be the son of Beowulf's sister, who is not mentioned in the poem. This gives them a special bond; the relationship between a mother's brother and sister's son is especially close as is evident from Anglo-Saxon sources including Beowulf itself.[29] It also means Wiglaf and Beowulf share the same relationship as Beowulf and Hygelac once did. As we know, Beowulf succeeded Hygelac when all his sons had died, and was even asked to succeed him before this was the case. In the poet's eyes, a sister's son is clearly a credible candidate for succession of the king. Beowulf clearly marks Wiglaf as his successor when he asks him to attend to the people's needs, and gives him his armour and gold rings:

"Nu ic on mama hord   mine bebohte

frode feorhlege,   fremma gena

leoda earfe;   ne mg ic her leng wesan."


Dyde him of healse   hring gyldenne

ioden risthydig,   egne gesealde,

geongum garwigan,   goldfahne helm,

beah ond byrnan,   het hyne brucan well

"Now that I have bought with my old life the treasure hoard, you must attend to the people's needs; I can stay here no longer." .... He took the golden ring from his neck, the brave hearted prince, gave it to the thane, the young warrior, the gold-adorned helmet, ring and mail-coat, and told him to use them well (ll. 2799-12).


As Beowulf himself says, Wiglaf is of a noble family, the Waymundings (ll. 2813-14a). In the fight with the dragon Wiglaf shows he will not betray his heritage. Although Wiglaf himself does not mention his decisive role in the battle with the dragon, the poet states clearly that they defeated the monster together:

Feond gefyldan   (ferh ellen wrc),

ond hi hyne a begen   abroten hfdon,


They had felled the foe, their valour had driven out its life, and they had destroyed him together, the noble kinsmen (ll. 2706-08a).


After his lord has died, Wiglaf sits there dejectedly for a moment, but the arrival of the rest of the army stirs him back into action. He seizes control immediately: he gives the cowards a stern lecture about their failures (ll. 2864-91) and orders a messenger to bring the news to the encampment (l. 2892). His orders are followed, and it seems his rule is accepted without question. When he orders the warriors who had their own hall under Beowulf to bring wood for the funeral pyre, they do so (ll. 3110-14a). This shows not only that Beowulf was a beloved leader, but also that Wiglaf's succession to the throne is accepted by what were before now, his peers.

            Wiglaf is the new king, and may well have been a successful one. He has been given all the qualities of a heroic leader, and shows no flaws, other than perhaps his inexperience. Wiglaf is even called wise: "se snotra  sunu Wihstanes"; "the wise son of Wihstan" (l. 3120). His career is like a lightning version of Beowulf's: from brave and loyal retainer to wise king in one day. The trust Beowulf puts in Wiglaf, and the similarities between the two, show that Wiglaf was a worthy successor.





The dark future predicted by the Geats is largely responsible for the tragic, despairing tone at the end of the poem. It is often stated that the Geats were wiped out by the Swedes after Beowulf's death, even in otherwise neutral paraphrases such as the one by Stanley Greenfield.[30] He lists the events described in the latter half of the poem, without additional speculation, but sums up the end in these words: "it is predicted that the Swedes will again attack, and this time destroy the Geats as a nation" (Greenfield, p. 21). Many critics, including Tolkien, who speaks of "the history of the Geatish kingdom and its downfall" (Tolkien, p. 85), assume that after Beowulf's death, the Geats were annihilated by the Swedes. Laurence N. De Looze analyses the long speech Beowulf gives before challenging the dragon.[31] He reads in it the workings of Beowulf's mind as he tries to make an impossible choice: the dragon presents a challenge to his authority that demands revenge, but he also has a responsibility to protect his people, which means he cannot sacrifice himself needlessly. These demands are irreconcilable (De Looze, p. 244). This analysis makes a poignant tragedy out of Beowulf's situation, but it ignores the fact that Beowulf did not know and could not have known he was going to die (ll. 3066-68). More importantly, it ignores the fact that Beowulf does not foresee disaster for his people anywhere. He dies shortly after the fight, but he is satisfied, he has done everything for his people that could be expected: he has killed the dragon and won the treasure. He now passes his responsibility on to the next in line, Wiglaf. De Looze ignores Wiglaf completely, stating that "Beowulf's death in the fight with the dragon will mean a resumption of the Swedish-Geatish conflict and the near annihilation of the leaderless Geatish nation" (Looze, p. 243). This seems very unfair on Beowulf's brave and worthy kinsman, and ignores Beowulf's own opinion, as far as we know it.

            The images of exile and battle in the speeches of the messenger and the mourning woman add up to a certainty: the Geats are looking forward to a time of war. However, nothing suggests this war will end in their annihilation. Their political position is not very good, now that the protecting presence of Beowulf is gone. Wiglaf is inexperienced and has not yet gained himself a reputation as a fierce warrior or a leader. Enemies are threatening the Geats from different sides. Some of Beowulf's best warriors have proven to be cowards. No one should doubt that the Geats are in a bad situation, looking forward to raids and defeats. However, raids and counter raids were not uncommon in the world of Beowulf, and it is unclear why the Geats particularly have to fear destruction.

            The notion that the Geats were annihilated is so widespread that one might be surprised to find it is not in the text. The idea stems from historical research, and J.D. Niles attacks it as a misleading "historicist notion". Critics looking for an Aristotelian kind of tragedy based on hamartia, (the fatal flaw of a high-ranking person) cling to the idea that the ending of Beowulf refers to the literal annihilation of the Geats. This supposed extinction of the Geats is then blamed on the rash judgement of Beowulf.[32] This theory of hamartia in Beowulf, which is used for widely varying interpretations, leans on grounds that are not solid enough to support it. Later historical research shows it is not likely the Geats (who are identified as the Gautar of southern Sweden) were wiped out, or even conquered by the Swedes around this time. The sources this notion was originally based on are dubious and contradicted by much more convincing evidence from other sources. R. T. Farrell investigated the history of the Gautar and the Svear, and finds no evidence of the destruction of the Gautar as a people. Evidence suggests that the Gautar were gradually dominated by the Svear, and ultimately subsumed into the larger kingdom of Sweden, but this was a slow process. It involved several generations and was not completed until well after A.D. 1000. Outside of Beowulf, there is not enough evidence to support the claim that the Geats were destroyed, or even subjugated in the sixth century.[33] 

            Even if in historical reality the Geats were not destroyed, the poet may have held to this notion for dramatic reasons, or simply because he believed it was true. Historical reality as we know it is less relevant to the interpretation of the poem than the history described by the poet. F. C. Robinson is unimpressed by the historical evidence for the survival of the Geats.[34] He remarks quite accurately that, "for readers of Beowulf, late Scandinavian sources and even the facts of Scandinavian history are irrelevant: the history that matters for Beowulf is the history that the poet knew and used in the poem" (Robinson, p. 111). If the poet states explicitly that the Geats were annihilated, then for purposes of interpretation of the poem, we must assume they were. Robinson believes the poet is explicit enough. He validates the messenger's words before they are spoken: "he solice  sgde ofer ealle"; "he spoke to them all truthfully" (l. 2899) and afterwards: "he ne leag fela / wyrda ne worda"; "nor did he much lie in his words or his prophecies" (ll. 3029-30). Secondly, the woman singing at Beowulf's cremation, who fears warfare and captivity (ll. 3153-54) could be speaking prophesies. Women were credited with special powers of prophecy in Germanic cultures, so we should take her fears seriously (Robinson, p. 111). However, the debate is not about the reliability of the speakers but about the meaning of their words. No doubt, the messenger spoke the truth when he said that after Beowulf's death, they could expect a time of war, but that is all he says. After explaining why he fears battle from the Frisians, the Franks and the Swedes, he illustrates his statement about coming wars with compelling images of a woman in exile, the grasping of spears in the morning, a lack of harp-playing, and the feasting of the raven and wolf (ll. 3016b-27). These scenes accompany any fierce battle; they are not indications of the immanent destruction of the nation. The messenger fears the coming battle, but does not say anything about the complete or near annihilation of the Geats as prophesied by the critics. Likewise, all the lamenting woman says whether she is speaking prophesies or not is that she fears invasion, warfare, and captivity (ll. 3153-5a). She speaks of waelfylla worn, much slaughter (l. 3154), but not of the entire nation lying slain. War was especially harsh on women, as the poet has shown in several of his digressions. The mourning woman probably had reasons to fear humiliation and captivity personally, but she does not paint a picture of the whole war band taken prisoner. If wars between two peoples meant the destruction of one, the region would soon be emptied out: they fight each other constantly.

            Beowulf's death is not the only time that the death of a king leads to a renewal of hostilities in the poem. Strong rulers are the guardians of peace and order. When kings die or their power wanes, war and chaos ensue.[35] The death of the king is a good moment for enemies to attack: the kingdom is weakened by an inexperienced leader, or even internal struggle for the throne. Although the Geats have lived in peace for fifty years, they were not unaccustomed to war; this much is evident from the many flashbacks into the time before Beowulf's reign: this too was a time of many battles. In fact, almost every single one of the digressions tells of battle, murder and misery.

            Beowulf's world is generally violent. His prediction of what will happen to Freawaru and Ingeld, (ll. 2024-69) told at his return from Denmark, illustrates how feuds may perpetuate themselves. In spite of a sincere attempt by Hrothgar to achieve peace, the battle will start up again, as Beowulf predicts. The presence of a father's sword at the killer's side is unbearable to the son, and so strife is renewed. When one warrior defeats another he has a right to the arms and armour of the one he defeats, according to the rules of heroic society, but the dead man's heirs may well feel they have a right to these heirlooms as well. This conflict, and the infinite cycle of vengeance are ways in which heroic society has trapped itself in a situation of never ending violence. We may think this is terrible, but it is not said the poet held the same opinion. The poet's view on violence was different from our own; it seems likely he accepted warfare as a fact of life.[36] In his world, war is not a calamity; it is the resumption of the normal state of affairs. Unless a tribe is ruled by an exceptionally good king, like Scyld, or Beowulf, who also prefers peace to battle, wars are what they will have. If Wiglaf proves a worthy leader, his enemies will eventually retreat to their own lands, but before that can happen, battles will have to be fought to reach a new state of stability. These are the battles the Geats are looking forward to. They are in a weak position, but this does not mean they face destruction. After all, the Danes went through a leaderless period before the coming of Scyld, and their kingdom survived even the bad king Heremod.[37] The death of a king is the start of a problem, but it is not necessarily disastrous. It is fitting that the Geats (and the poet behind them) should focus on the pain of war now that their beloved lord has died. We are not told about the reign of Wiglaf because it would distract attention from Beowulf, not because there was nothing worth telling.

            It is not clear what happened to the retainers Beowulf brought with him to the dragon's hall, who ran away when their lord needed them most. As they are the elite warriors, handpicked by Beowulf himself to stand by him, their cowardly behaviour does not bode well for future battles the Geats will have to fight. That they were in fact following Beowulf's orders in standing back is irrelevant: it is obvious from the text that Wiglaf's choice was the only correct one. As Sisam points out, their behaviour is not hard to understand, the enemy they faced was supernatural and seemed invulnerable to attack. Unlike Beowulf, they had no special shields to protect themselves. They are commonly referred to as "the cowards", but they are not cowards in the usual sense of the word.[38] Running away from an overwhelmingly powerful enemy is not cowardly, but sensible, by modern standards. The poet's standards are different; heroic behaviour by definition is not very sensible. Running away from battle has made these men cowards, regardless of how real the danger was. Wiglaf's speech makes this clear (ll. 2864-91). It is worth noting however, that after Wiglaf has officially exposed their behaviour, the cowards are not mentioned again. Wiglaf threatens them with a life in exile for them and their kin, but nowhere does the poet say they leave, or where they go, or if they are present when the treasure is moved or when their lord is cremated and buried.

            The running retainers are an effective narrative device: their behaviour makes the dragon look more fearsome (Grendel never scared them that much) and it makes Wiglaf's decisive action look even braver. Once they have served their purpose and their behaviour has been condemned, the poet seems to forget about them in favour of the grief of the Geatish people. The behaviour of Beowulf's personal retainers are not indicative of the quality of the Geatish warriors, who are in line 3169 called "hildedeore"; brave in battle.

            The Geats' mourning is deep; they loved their king dearly. The despair they show in the bleak stories about their future is part of the expression of their grief. These predictions serve to put Beowulf's excellence into perspective. "The forebodings of war are best taken as part of the poetic representation of a people's grief and fears when their great king dies" (Sisam, structure, 58). To consider these battles worse than the attacks of the dragon, and then to blame the people's plight on Beowulf is to misunderstand the poet's intentions completely. He admired the men from these ancient times, and celebrates Beowulf, the supreme example of their virtues. Neither he, nor his characters ever blame Beowulf for the coming wars.







To judge whether Beowulf was successful in life, and thus to decide whether we should admire or condemn him, it is important take his own opinion into account, and not just that of his people and the poet. The goals Beowulf has set himself should be the standards to test his achievements against. In his many speeches, Beowulf often clearly states his motivations and judges his own performance. These speeches show that sometimes even Beowulf cannot do everything he wants. For instance, when Hrothgar inspects the arm, which he tore off Grendel, Beowulf admits that he intended to kill Grendel on spot, but that the monster got away (ll. 958-979). When Beowulf realises he is going to die, however, he has few regrets. He seems to regret the fact that he does not have a son, but remembers his rule as a king with satisfaction. "I have kept my people safe," he states with pride, "I have always kept my word, been loyal and frank" (ll. 2729-42a). When Wiglaf brings him an armful of treasures, he thanks the eternal Lord (ecum dryhtne, l. 2796) for allowing him to acquire this treasure for his people. He asks for a barrow to be built as a reminder to his people, and passes on the kingship to Wiglaf with the words: "u eart endelaf usses cynnes"; "you are the last man of our kindred" (l. 2813). George Clark has pointed out, "The poem's recurring periphrases identify good kings as protectors of their people and givers of treasure. In his last great battle, Beowulf fulfils both of these royal duties to the ultimate limit of his obligation." In his last moments, Beowulf provides for his people by choosing a worthy successor, and deals out treasure in the form of the dragon's hoard.[39] In Beowulf's speeches, there is no hint of the dark future the Geats predict for themselves. On the contrary, his dying words are words of gratitude and hope: although he himself must follow his kinsmen in death, Wiglaf is there to carry the torch. He hopes to be remembered by his people, which indicates he does not foresee their immanent destruction. Rather, he pictures the seafarers in years to come (syan, l. 2806) using his grave as a landmark and calling it Beowulf's barrow. Beowulf did not consider himself a failure. There really is no reason why he should. He has led a long and successful life as a loyal retainer and a beloved king, has done many deeds of daring and can expect the people to remember him, which is all he wanted out of life.





Immortality, in the sense of being remembered in years to come, is important to Beowulf, and it is an important concept in Beowulf as a whole. Beowulf's philosophy on life may well be summed up in these lines:

Ure ghwylc sceal   ende gebidan

worolde lifes;   wyrce se e mote

domes r deae;   t bi drihtguman 

unlifgendum   fter selest

Each of us must expect an end to worldly life. Let him achieve glory before death who may, that is best for the warrior after life (ll. 1386-89).


As we are all going to die, we must do some things to be remembered for. Clark considers this the sustained theme of the poem and states, "the poem's theme and the hero's goal are one" (p. 290). In Bazelmans' model, fame won by brave deeds (and awarded with treasure) is part of a man's "worth", it is the part of a man that endures after death.[40] To a modern reader personal glory may seem like a very selfish reason to do heroic deeds, a motivation inferior to martyrdom. Our preferences however need not have been those of the poet. However much one may want to see Beowulf as a Christ figure sacrificing himself to save his people from the dragon, Beowulf did not die to save his people. Before the fight with the dragon he made a vow to save his people or die in the attempt.[41] Achieving fame and glory is his motivation throughout the poem, and it is what he died for. His death does not help anyone the way Christ's did; things would have looked much better for the Geats if he had not died. To Beowulf, the danger threatening the Geats is less important than the honour he gained in the fight.

            In the world of Beowulf, fame was considered as least as important for life after death as (Christian) virtue. Although Beowulf hopes to be judged favourably by the eternal Lord (l. 2742) and Wiglaf pictures him in His keeping (ll. 3108-09), they both stress the importance of fame and of the barrow. Wiglaf stresses Beowulf's barrow should be great and glorious, like the man it is meant to remember (ll. 3096-3100). Both Wiglaf and Beowulf seem to put more trust in human memory than in the keeping of the Lord. Posthumous fame was an important way of achieving some kind of immortality; as long as scops will sing of a hero's glorious deeds the hero still lives on. The Beowulf poet seems to subscribe to this philosophy. There are many positive statements about the value of glorious deeds and fame in the poem, the clearest example being his statement that, "lofddum sceal / in mga gehwre man geeon"; "praiseworthy deeds make men prosper in any race" (ll. 24-25). The poet is also fulfilling an essential task in keeping the memory of these deeds alive, by retelling the tales of ancient heroes. He believed they were worth remembering; otherwise, he would not have composed Beowulf. His audience, or at least that part of it that would have enjoyed his poem the most, will have shared this belief.

            The concept of fame (dom) as an important goal in life did not disappear with the coming of Christianity. Like the doctrine of vengeance, it was alive for some time after the conversion, and Beowulf is evidence of this. Dom is not only an important concept in Beowulf, it is also found in the Maxims: dom bi selast, fame is best.[42] There are echoes of the same philosophy of life in The Battle of Maldon.[43] It makes sense to assume that the poet shared many beliefs and values with his characters. Otherwise, how was he able to represent them so clearly and accurately, and without further comment? The poet was not a modern anthropologist, if he was describing a society that held to quaint and antiquarian values and beliefs, we might have expected more interjections along the lines of "so did these men of old behave", "this is what they believed". The only point at which the poet makes a comment of this sort is when the Danes resort to the worshipping of idols (ll. 178-183), a practice that was condemned by the church and presumably not practiced in England when Beowulf was written. This is of course not the only event that would have seemed strange to a Christian Anglo-Saxon: cremation, the burying of grave goods and the consulting of omens were likewise against the rules of the new religion. These rituals were not performed in the poet's environment. However, these are physical actions; reports from either pre-Christian times or pagan parts of the world could have described them in detail. The memory of them may have been alive even if they were not practiced anymore. Something as important, as abstract, and as close to the heart of the poem as the concept of dom must be more than local colour. It was a belief that the poet understood and held himself.

Anthropologists make a distinction between shame-cultures and guilt-cultures. In shame-cultures, it is most important for a man to have a good reputation, while in guilt-cultures it is most important to have a clear conscience. Christianity promotes the attitudes of guilt-cultures: only with a clear conscience can you enter heaven, and to be good in the eyes of God is more important than to be good in the eyes of the world. I believe that the poet's expert handling of the concept of dom, and of his character's motivations shows that he himself was part of a shame-culture and that Christianity had not yet transformed the Anglo-Saxon culture into a guilt-culture around the time Beowulf was written. Robinson believes that Beowulf is the story of a shame-culture seen through the eyes of a guilt-culture. The difference shows through, according to Robinson, is when Beowulf falls to brooding, which is unusual for a man more used to action.[44] This is thin evidence though. If the worldviews of the poet and his characters differed that much, the poet would have drawn more attention to this difference. Anglo-Saxon England, at least the Anglo-Saxon England that produced Beowulf, was still a shame-culture. The influence of Christianity may have changed English culture eventually, but only after a long time.

            Beowulf has achieved as much fame as Ingeld, Offa or Hrothgar. In our age, he is more famous than anyone else in the poem. In the world of the poem, no one will deny he was a great hero; even his enemies respected his rule. His barrow will remind the generations to come of his greatness. Beowulf died at the end of his life, as every hero must, but before that time he had achieved that which he most wanted.





If Beowulf considered himself successful, this still leaves the question of why the ending is so dark. In many ways, Beowulf did not fail, he achieved his goals in life, and his people are not in as dire a position as has often been assumed. In spite of this, Beowulf's death is a sad event, it is a disappointment that the dragon managed to mortally wound him. Beowulf was a great hero, but the dragon still defeated him. We might wonder why the poet chose to write about this defeat, and stress the sadness of it quite so much. Defeat does not seem to be very heroic. However, this question should not just be asked of Beowulf. Why did the man who wrote the Battle of Maldon choose a battle in which his hero lost his life, and half his army ran away?

            Professor Tolkien touched on this problem (and its solution) when he compared Beowulf to the Icelandic myth of Ragnark. In this myth, as in Beowulf, there is an ongoing war between mankind and the gods on one side, and the monsters on the other. In the end, the monsters win, and the gods (the heroes) die. Tolkien has been criticised for making this comparison, as there is no evidence that the Ragnark myth was known in Anglo-Saxon England. However, Ragnark was not presented as a source for Beowulf, but as an illustration of the general philosophy of life behind Beowulf and other heroic tales. It illustrates a theme in heroic literature and culture: that all men (and even gods) are mortal, and that everything is transient, except for dom. This transience can inspire deep sadness, a sadness we find in the poem's elegiac scenes, but also in the songs recited by Hrothgar at the feast after Grendel's defeat. Although we are not told their contents, they are described as "soth ond sarlic"; "true and sad". Germanic myth is filled with tales of death, defeat and disaster.[45]

            On the other hand, the keen awareness of the mortality of man and the transience of his works also inspired acts of great courage. By courage and endurance, a man who is not doomed to die can often save his own life (ll. 572b-573). Even if a man was doomed, he ought to show courage in the face of defeat, as this will win him more fame than anything else (Phillpotts, p. 5). The assumption that a defeat is less heroic than a victory is wrong. Modern readers may expect the heroes to win, but to show true courage, a hero must fight a battle that can be lost. After all, if the battle is won, this proves not the hero's courage, but his superiority. Even if he battles against seemingly impossible odds, his victory would show the odds were not impossible after all. To be a real hero, you have to lose. This seems like a paradox in modern culture, where winners are celebrated and losers derided, regardless of their merits. In heroic poetry however, winners are not necessarily heroes. In fact, most of the Germanic heroes eventually faced a situation where they could not win. Rather than giving up, they resolved their impossible dilemmas by losing with all the strength and willpower they could muster, and in this way achieved heroic status.

                        In some ways, Beowulf won his fight with the dragon: he gained the hoard of treasure, and he defeated the dragon. In other ways, he loses: he has been mortally wounded in the fight, and he can no longer protect his people from a hostile world. This failure does not undo any of his glorious deeds or the things he achieved. He was a strong warrior, a monster-slayer, a king who brought his people peace and safety for fifty years, and he has shown ultimate courage in facing the dragon. Beowulf's defeat does not mean he was wrong in his beliefs or his actions. His ideals still stand, tall as his barrow. Beowulf's death did not mean the end of his glory; it gained him more glory than anything else might have. Beowulf was a great hero not in spite of his defeat, but because of it.





The tragic ending of Beowulf does not imply that Beowulf was not an ideal hero and a perfect king. He did everything he could for his people, who will remember him always. Their grief at his passing is deepened by the poet into a general grief at the transience of things, and permeates the last third of the poem. The dark predictions for the future of the Geats are the poetic illustrations of this grief. Burying Beowulf with the treasure which he died for was the ultimate way to honour him, and would not have seemed useless or ironic to the Geats. Beowulf leaves his kingdom in the hands of an inexperienced but promising kinsman, who lives, and will probably die, by the same ideals as Beowulf did. The deep understanding the poet shows of these ideals and the explicit approval of the characters' actions show that the ideals of courage, honour and dom did not die out at the conversion to Christianity. Like the ancient principles of vengeance, they were alive and practiced at whatever time Beowulf was composed.

            Although Beowulf has died, his values and beliefs live on in Wiglaf. Beowulf's barrow is a monument to these same values and beliefs, and will stand as a moral compass to the Geats in years to come. The poem itself, although from a very different time, is also a kind of monument, providing a model of how heroes and kings should behave. From it speaks a philosophy of life that does not depend on the belief in a higher power. It mainly requires the belief in oneself, and this is perhaps one of the reasons why through centuries of neglect and more than a century of scholarship, Beowulf still stirs the imagination today. It speaks to readers in a secular age. Although few will hold today that the Christian colouring was a later addition to the poem, it certainly seems to play second fiddle to a darker, yet at the same time more vital philosophy: "dom bi selast."





Baker, Peter S., ed., The Beowulf Reader, New York & London, 2000.

Bazelmans, Jos, By Weapons Made Worthy: Lords, Retainers and Their Relationship in Beowulf, Amsterdam University Press, 1999.

Bessinger, Jess B. Jr. and Robert F. Yeager, eds., Approaches to Teaching Beowulf, The Modern Language Association of America, 1984.

Bjork, R.E. & J.D. Niles, eds., A Beowulf Handbook, University of Exeter Press 1997, University of Nebraska Press 1996.

Bolton, W.F., Alcuin and Beowulf: an Eighth-Century view, London, 1979.

Bonjour, Adrien, Twelve Beowulf Papers 1940 - 1960, with additional comments, Neuchatel, 1962.

Bremmer, Rolf H., "The Importance of Kinship: Uncle and Nephew in Beowulf", in Amsterdamer Beitrge zur lteren Germanistik 15 (1980), pp. 21-38.

Chase, Colin, "Beowulf, Bede, and St. Oswine: The Hero's Pride in Old English Hagiography" (1985), in The Beowulf Reader, Peter S. Baker, ed., pp. 181-193.

Cherniss, Michael, "The Progress of the Hoard in Beowulf", Philological Quarterly 47 (1968), pp. 473-486.

Clark, George, "The Hero & Theme", in A Beowulf Handbook, R.E. Bjork and J.D. Niles, eds., pp. 271-290.

De Looze, Laurence N., "Frame Narratives & Fictionalisation: Beowulf as Narrator" (1984), in Interpretations of Beowulf, a Critical Anthology, R.D. Fulk, ed., pp. 242-250.

Farrell, R.T., Beowulf, Swedes and Geats, London, 1972.

Fulk, R.D., ed., Interpretations of Beowulf: a Critical Anthology, Indiana University Press, 1991.

Gang, T.M. "Approaches to Beowulf", in Review of English Studies III (1952), pp. 1-12.

Goldsmith, M.E. The Mode and Meaning of 'Beowulf', London, 1970.

Greenfield, Stanley B., Hero and Exile, the Art of Old-English Poetry, London & Ronceverte 1989.

Hill, John M. "Beowulf, Value and the Frame of Time", Modern Language Quarterly 40 (1979), pp. 3-16.

Irving, Edward B. jr., A Reading of Beowulf, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1968.

Leyerle, UJ., "Beowulf the Hero and the King", Medium vum 34 (1965), pp. 89-102.

Nicholson, Lewis E., ed., An Anthology of Beowulf Criticism, Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame press, 1963.

Niles, J.D., Beowulf: the Poem and its Tradition, Harvard University Press, 1983.

Niles, J.D., "Myth and History", in A Beowulf Handbook, R.E. Bjork and J.D. Niles, eds., pp. 213-232.

Owen-Crocker, Gale R., The Four Funerals in Beowulf and the Structure of the Poem, Manchester University Press, 2000.

Phillpotts, Bertha S., "Wyrd and Providence in as Thought" (1928), in Interpretations of Beowulf, a Critical Anthology, R.D. Fulk, ed., pp. 1-13.

Robinson, F.C., "Elements of the Marvellous in the Characterization of Beowulf: a Reconsideration of the Textual Evidence" (1974), in The Beowulf Reader, Peter S. Baker, ed., pp. 79-96.

Robinson, F.C., The Tomb of Beowulf and other Essays on Old English, Blackwell publishers, 1993.

Robinson, F.C., "History, Religion, Culture", in Approaches to Teaching Beowulf, Jess B.  Bessinger Jr. and Robert F. Yeager, eds., pp. 107-122.

Shippey, T.A., Beowulf, London, 1978.

Sisam, Kenneth, The Structure of Beowulf, Oxford, 1965.

Tarzia, Wade, "The Hoarding Ritual in Germanic Epic Tradition", in Journal of Folklore Research Vol 26 (1989), pp. 99-121.

Taylor, P.B., "Heafon Riece Swealg: a sign of Beowulf's state of Grace", in Pilological Quarterly 42 (1963), pp. 257-259.

Tolkien, J.R.R., "Beowulf: the Monsters and the Critics" (1936), in An Anthology of Beowulf Criticism, Lewis E. Nicholson, ed., pp. 51-103.


home lijst scripties inhoud  


[1] As in J.R.R. Tolkien, "Beowulf: the Monsters and the Critics", (1936), in Lewis E. Nicholson (ed), An Anthology of Beowulf Criticism, Notre Dame, 1963, pp. 51-103.

[2] F.C. Robinson, "Elements of the Marvellous in the Characterization of Beowulf: a Reconsideration of the Textual Evidence" (1974), in Peter S. Baker, ed., The Beowulf Reader, pp. 79-96.

[3] This is not necessarily inconsistent with Beowulf's claim he was sent by the wise counselors (ll. 415-417), a claim the poet supports  (ll. 202-203).

[4] See J.D. Niles, Beowulf: the Poem and its Tradition, Cambridge, 1983.

[5] P.B. Taylor, "Heafon Riece Swealg: a sign of Beowulf's state of Grace", Philological Quarterly 42 (1963), pp. 257-259.

[6] F.C. Robinson, The Tomb of Beowulf and other essays on Old English, Blackwell publishers, 1993, p. 15.

[7] Jos Bazelmans, By Weapons Made Worthy: Lords, Retainers and Their Relationship in Beowulf, Amsterdam University Press, 1999, p. 188.

[8] J. Leyerle, "Beowulf the Hero and the King", Medium vum 34 (1965), pp. 89-102.

[9] J.D. Niles, Beowulf: the Poem and its Tradition, Cambridge, 1983, p. 245.

[10] Colin Chase, "Beowulf, Bede, and St. Oswine: The Hero's Pride in Old English Hagiography", (1985) in The Beowulf Reader, Peter S. Baker, ed., pp. 181-193.

[11] Especially violence played a different role; see T.A. Shippey, Beowulf, London, 1978, pp. 10-11.

[12] See Jos Bazelmans, By Weapons Made Worthy, Amsterdam, 1999, p. 111.

[13] See M.E. Goldsmith, The Mode and Meaning of 'Beowulf', London, 1970, p. 78.

[14] W.F. Bolton, Alcuin and Beowulf: an Eighth-Century view, London 1978.

[15] Kenneth Sisam, The Structure of Beowulf, Oxford 1965, pp. 27-28.

[16] Michael Cherniss, "The Progress of the Hoard in Beowulf", Philological Quarterly 47 (1968), pp. 473-486.

[17] Jos Bazelmans, By Weapons Made Worthy, Amsterdam, 1999.

[18] Maxims II, ll. 26-27, in The Anglo Saxon Minor Poems.

[19] M.E. Goldsmith, The Mode and Meaning of 'Beowulf', London: 1970.

[20] J.R.R. Tolkien, "Beowulf: the Monsters and the Critics" (1936), in An Anthology of Beowulf Criticism, Lewis E. Nicholson, ed., p. 66.

[21] T.M. Gang, "Approaches to Beowulf", Review of English Studies III (1952), pp. 1-12.

[22] Adrien Bonjour, "Monsters Crouching and Critics Rampant: or the Beowulf Dragon Debated", in Twelve Beowulf Papers, pp. 97-113.

[23] Edward B. Irving, jr., A Reading of Beowulf, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1968.

[24] e.g. Cherniss: "The final fate of the treasure hoard... marks the end of the Geatas' glory and, subsequently, the end of the race," (Cherniss, p. 486) and Bonjour, who considers the 'lay of the last survivor' a prediction and parallel of the Geats's own destruction, (Bonjour, p. 105). 

[25] See Cherniss, p. 485.

[26] Wade Tarzia, "The Hoarding Ritual in Germanic Epic Tradition" Journal of Folklore Research, Vol. 26, 1989, pp. 99-121.

[27] e.g. John M. Hill, "Beowulf, Value and the Frame of Time" Modern Language Quarterly 40, pp. 3-16.

[28] J. Leyerle, "Beowulf the Hero and the King", Medium vum 34 (1965), pp. 89-102.

[29] Rolf H. Bremmer, "The Importance of Kinship: Uncle and Nephew in Beowulf" in Amsterdamer Beitrge zur lteren Germanistik, 15 (1980), pp. 21-38.

[30] Stanley B. Greenfield, "Geatish History: Poetic Art and Epic Quality in Beowulf", in Hero and Exile, pp. 19-26.

[31] Laurence N. De Looze, "Frame Narratives & Fictionalisation: Beowulf as Narrator" (1984), in Interpretations of Beowulf, a Critical Anthology, R.D. Fulk, ed., pp. 242-250.

[32] J.D. Niles, "Myth and History", in A Beowulf Handbook, R.E. Bjork and J.D. Niles, eds., pp. 213-232.

[33] R.T. Farrell, Beowulf, Swedes and Geats, London, 1972, p. 42.

[34] F.C. Robinson, "History, Religion, Culture" in Approaches to Teaching Beowulf, Jess B. Bessinger Jr. and Robert F. Yeager, eds., pp. 107-122.

[35] c.f. Edward B. Irving, jr., A Reading of Beowulf, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1968, p. 33.

[36] See T.A. Shippey, Beowulf, London, 1978, p. 60.

[37] See Hill, p. 15.

[38] Kenneth Sisam, The Structure of Beowulf, Oxford 1965, p. 15.

[39] George Clark, "The Hero & Theme", in A Beowulf Handbook, R.E. Bjork and J.D. Niles, eds., p. 283.

[40] Jos Bazelmans, By Weapons Made Worthy, Amsterdam, 1999, pp. 156-560.

[41] This distinction was pointed out by W.F. Bolton, Alcuin and Beowulf: an Eighth-Century view, London 1978, p. 154.

[42] Maxims 80.

[43] e.g. Maldon, ll. 289-298.

[44] F.C. Robinson, "History, Religion, Culture" in Approaches to Teaching Beowulf, Jess B. Bessinger Jr. and Robert F. Yeager, eds., p. 119.

[45] see Bertha S. Phillpotts, "Wyrd and Providence in as Thought" (1928), in Interpretations of Beowulf, a Critical Anthology, R.D. Fulk, ed., pp. 1-13.