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Tone of ending of Beowulf

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What is the tone of the ending of Beowulf?

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Feb 21st, 2015

The narrator of Beowulf uses several different tones over the course of this long epic poem, but throughout everything he is always formal. This isn't a chummy, chatty, nudge-you-in-the-ribs kind of narrator. Instead, everything in Beowulf seems to be spoken with grave, calm, even stiff formality. We see this in the characters as well as in the narrator; even Beowulf himself announces his own name through an elaborate speech about his deeds. Although his tone is always formal, the narrator of Beowulf does shift between three more specific tones, depending on what's happening at the moment in the story. When Beowulf or someone else is behaving especially heroically, the narrator becomes laudatory, or praising. In fact, we'd go so far as to say that this narrator does some real boot-licking. To listen to the narrator, you'd think that Beowulf was just the most awesome, honorable, powerful hero who ever lived – which is exactly what epics are supposed to be about. But when Beowulf starts losing, the narrator becomes mournful, lamenting the hero's defeat and the suffering of the people, orpious, reminding us that all heroism is dependent on God's favor.

Apart from the poetic qualities of the alliterative verse in which Beowulf is written (see "Genre" for more on that), the epic has a grand, majestic style that seems to lift you up as you read it. Beowulf isn't just a hero, he's a "prince of goodness" (676). Grendel isn't just a demon, he's a "captain of evil" (749). Beowulf isn't just trying to win a wrestling contest for the Danes, he's going to "ease their afflictions" (628). Of course, all these phrases are in translation, but you get the idea. In Beowulf, you never just take off a necklace; you unclasp a collar of gold from your neck in your great-hardheartedness (2809-10) – now that's a grandiose statement. Of course, sometimes all this grandeur and majesty gives way to gruesomedescriptions of violent deaths. Grendel doesn't just eat a man; he "bit into his bone-lappings, bolted down his blood / and gorged on him in lumps" (741-742). We recommend that you eat one to two hours before reading Beowulf and give your meal a chance to settle, because otherwise you might end up feeling just a little sick.

Beowulf: it's the name of our hero and it's the name of his story. And it's a pretty cool name: scholars like to argue about where exactly it came from, but the most persuasive theory we've heard is that it literally means "bee wolf," as in the two animals. We know what you're thinking: what's a "bee wolf"? Well, in Old English, there are a lot of poetic-sounding compound words called "kennings." For example, the sea is described as a "whale road" and a throne is called a "treasure seat." So a "bee wolf" – an animal that attacks bees in a wolfish way – is a bear. 
It's interesting to think about this animalistic warrior-prince Beowulf and why he and the story of his deeds are called by the same name. It just goes to show that, if today "you are what you eat," then in Anglo-Saxon and ancient Scandinavian culture "you are what you do" – you're the same thing as your reputation. Of course, what's really up with the title is that there isn't one. Today we call this long epic poem Beowulf, but in the original manuscript, it doesn't have a title, just like it doesn't have an author. Anglo-Saxon scribes didn't care much about those things. So maybe we shouldn't make too big a deal about Beowulf's name being the title.Oh, wait, you thought that, just because Beowulf is heroic, virtuous, and brave, that he was going to live happily ever after? Nope, that's not how ancient warrior culture rolled. The first rule of Anglo-Saxon epics is that a tragic defeat is way cooler than a triumph – especially if the tragic defeat is followed by a really expensive funeral. 


Why are death and defeat better than victory? Well, those early medieval warriors were pessimists. After all, if nobody lives to be very old because almost everyone dies in battle, then you probably start thinking that death comes to us all, and the only thing that matters is how you meet your end. To the Anglo-Saxons, the real test of a warrior isn't whether he can win a fight; it's what he'll do on the day he finally loses, and how he'll behave when he knows he's doomed to die. Then, after he's dead, you can see how much everyone else valued him by what amount of treasure there is at his funeral. Lots of gold and jewels equals a great man. It's pretty straightforward. That's why, even though the ending of Beowulf might be a surprise to us as 21st century readers, it wouldn't have been a surprise to the Anglo-Saxon audiences listening to a storyteller recite the epic in the 8th century. They weren't interested in experiencing a vicarious thrill of victory when the hero triumphed. They wanted to know whether he could actually face down certain death and not flinch – and not because he knew he'd win in the end, but because he cared about honor and valor more than about his own life. That's why the narrator keeps ruining the ending for you, making references to Beowulf's eventual demise long before it actually happens. And, heck, if nobody can defeat you except a dragon, and you still manage to kill the dragon despite being mortally wounded yourself, then you're just that much more awesome.

Feb 21st, 2015

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