Beowulf is about things distant in time and culture, even from the perspective of its anonymous author. Like Homer’s Iliad, the epic poem was not written down until the spirit and people that first gave it life had all but vanished from history. The poem as we have it today bridges two bygone worlds: ancient, pre-Christian Scandinavia, where it was born, and eighth-century (or later), Christianized Britain, where it was laid down to rest in old English script, probably by a monk. The written poem is, then, already an adaptation, a retelling.
The quest for undying fame is a strong, consistent thread in the literature of the ancient west. It drives the heroes of poetry in Greek, Sanskrit, and the old Germanic languages. This and other evidence suggests undying fame as the heroic prize going all the way back to the unwritten songs of Proto-Indo-European. The coming of Christianity to the west largely undid the winning of undying fame as the chief virtue of the masculine code, at least explicitly, substituting instead the defense of the defenseless, the virtues of self-renunciation, the rescuing of damsels and the protection of their honor, and the like. This, of course, is an over-simplification; but if allowed to stand for the moment, it brings out a central, unresolved tension in the Christian remixing of the pagan song.
Beowulf begins and ends with the funeral of a king. The first is the funeral of Shield Sheafson, an original “good king”. The last funeral is of the titular character (it will help your reading of the poem if you know that Beowulf dies at the end). All his heroic and kingly deeds are done under the shadow of death, in pursuit of honor that will not die.
The story is woven around three battles with as many monsters. At the outset, the young Beowulf travels from his native Geatland (in southern Sweden) to come to the aid of the Danish King Hrothgar, whose lands are beset by a dark being, Grendel. After slaying him in Hrothgar’s great hall, Beowulf must also defeat Grendel’s mother, who naturally comes to avenge her son, in her underwater home. These battles, and the honor and gold they bring to his homeland, ensure that Beowulf’s fame will be sung long after his death, which comes in the third battle of the story. In his final conflict, Beowulf fights in his old age, as the long-lived king of his people, against a rampaging dragon with a lair full of treasure. In killing the dragon, he achieves his undying fame. In dying from his battle-wounds, he leaves treasure to his people, but also leaves them headless and defenseless. Does the author suggest here that what is required to be a hero and what is required to be a good king are different, perhaps irreconcilable, sets of virtues? Read for yourself and decide.
Besides this conflict, attentive readers will sense a deeper clash of Christian culture itself. In Beowulf, we see into a moment in the process of converting pagan poetic culture into Christian culture, a process incomplete in the text of the poem, and perhaps forever incomplete in the real world. The author wants us to know that, in his tradition of the poem, Grendel is descended from the biblical Cain. The dragon, likewise, easily maps onto the image of Satan, via the Revelation to St. John. The monsters of the story are connected with biblical archetypes of pure evil. Beowulf, however, is not yet St. George. Yet he and his culture as presented in the poem are still very much dominated by the same darkness that the monsters personify.
Pre-Christian Scandinavia is shown to be a world held together by shifting networks of loyalty, rebellion, blood-feuding, honor-killing, and negotiations of retribution and revenge as complicated as they are violent. How much difference is there between the motives of Beowulf and those of Grendel or his mother? Between king Beowulf, and the dragon? Beowulf dies desiring not the vision of “Jerusalem the Golden,” but the comfort of the sight of the gold he has won; there his treasure, and there his heart. And any descendant of Cain, or any architect of Babel, could make his own this creed of vengeance and undying fame, confessed by Beowulf himself: “It is better for us all to avenge our friends, not mourn them forever. Each of us will come to the end of this life on earth; he who can earn it should fight for the glory of his name; fame after death is the noblest of goals” (1384-1389).
As the anonymous monk was retelling the story in print, the pre-Christian worldview was giving way to Christian culture. The author never resolves this tension between the two, between his own Christian interpretation of the world and the clearly pagan values—including undying fame—of the myth. We also live in this tension, but from the other side. We are living through the slow-rolling divorce of the marriage that is being made in the pages of Beowulf.
Recommended translations are those of Burton Raffel (quoted above), or, more recently, of Seamus Heaney, among many others.