One of the great poems in English or any language, Beowulf has a simple storyline, but it exhibits many curious facets and interlaces of cultures and concerns, making it an ideal subject for students interested in a variety of fields, from literature to linguistics to history to religion to anthropology. Once thought a mere "thumping good tale of our pagan forebears," Beowulf now rates with Hamlet and Moby Dick among the most often written upon masterpieces of our literary heritage, and it persistently finds its way into college courses from freshman introductions to graduate seminars. Like the work of Shakespeare, Melville, Joyce, and Milton, it continually repays rereading and close attention by yielding up a multitude of linguistic and poetic treasures.
As the first great European poem after the fall of Rome, Beowulf would have historical and anthropological significance even if it didn't have literary merit. But in my experience students seldom encounter the poem, in undergraduate or even high school courses, without its leaving at least a ghost or two in their memory. Beowulf has a compelling, archetypal power, perhaps because of its antiquity, perhaps because of its style, or perhaps because in dealing with such traditional motifs as life and death, good and evil, the natural and the supernatural, courage and cowardice, and the nature of kingship and heroism--in an exciting tale of swords and sorcery--it delves deeply into our psychological selves and our cultural roots.
The story is recountable in a few lines. Hrothgar, king of the Danes, finds his kingdom troubled by the murderous rampages of the night-beast Grendel. Across the water the Geatish hero Beowulf hears of Hrothgar's plight and comes to his aid. Beowulf awaits the monster in the darkness and grapples with him. Feeling Beowulf's strength, the monster tries to flee, and Beowulf tears Grendel's arm from its socket, after which the creature returns to his lair, a tarn among the mist-slopes, to die. The Danes rejoice, but only briefly, as Grendel's mother appears, taking blood-vengeance by killing one of Hrothgar's favorite counselors. When Beowulf is informed of the murder, he again seeks