What do the poets in Beowulf sing about? To whom do they sing their songs? What is the purpose of their performances?

Much of the subject matter the poets relate in Beowulf (click here for a full analysis of Beowulf) revolves around epic heroic traditions, including important lineages and established links to heroic deeds. They go into great detail about who is the son of what great leader, all with the ultimate purpose of establishing a tradition of heroic behavior, particularly in the case of Beowulf’s family. They are also singing their songs to their audience (who is, presumably , comprised of future generations of Anglo Saxons) in order to relate a long and complex history of wars, conquests, and honor in a relatively simple manner that both establishes history itself and puts the hero and his family in historical and cultural context.

Where does the dragon come from? Why does it attack the Geats? Is the dragon a greater or lesser threat than Grendel? Why does Beowulf want to fight him?

The dragon in this final part of the epic of Beowulf is not terrorizing the Geats for the same reasons Grendel, a female villain, was causing mayhem, this time it was directly provoked when a kinsman of Beowulf’s (who is now king in his homeland) stumbles upon an undiscovered treasure and takes a golden cup to present to his king. The dragon had been sleeping while protecting the treasure, and once he awoke, he came to raze the land until Beowulf went to defend his kingdom. This was an equal threat as Grendel in the sense that the dragon came and invaded his people but with the help of his men, he might have had an easier time defeating him. Beowulf fought in defense of his land and he might have been able to overcome the dragon with the help of his other fighters, but all but one ran away, thus leaving Beowulf to die.

Who are the Swedes and the Frisians? Why are they given so much detailed information about the history of their quarrels with the Geats?

The Swedes and the Frisians were at constant war with the Geats and are given so much information is dedicated to them because again, just as in terms with the long histories of ancestry that are given throughout the epic poem, because it establishes a concise history of a people. The Geats are seen as a people in need of defense and furthermore, the uniting figure of Beowulf gives them hope for a better future because of alliances forged.

Look at the religious references in the poem: What are the names of the Gods? What Biblical events are mentioned, and who mentions them? What specifically pagan practices (sacrifice, burial, augury, etc) are described? How does the character see their relationship to God (or the Gods) Why would a Christian author write a poem about a pagan hero?

The last part of this question is the most important element in the response, as this is not a story that has been derived directly from any kind of Christian tradition. Beowulf is an epic tale that had been passed down through the oral tradition before it was finally transcribed by what is believed to be a Christian monk. While there are certainly some elements of Christianity that appear in the epic poem as a result of the transcriber, the tale is preserved with many of the same aspects that were important to the early Anglo-Saxon culture that originated the story. From beginning to end, many aspects of pre-Christian paganism appear, from the burial rites of Beowulf in flame to the code of honor that emphasizes revenge over “turning the other cheek."

The first monster in the tale, Grendel, is referred to in the Christian tradition as one of the children of Cain, a direct reference to the Bible and is said to have been greatly disturbed by the joyful songs about creation, in this context, assumed to be God’s creation rather than that of some pagan god such as Sigemund, whom Hrothgard’s bard sings of and compares to the hero, Beowulf.

What is the status of the gold and gift-giving in the poem? Who gives gifts and who receives them, why?

Gift and gold-giving in this Anglo-Saxon culture is a sign of bestowing honor and showing appreciation and appears to be an expected and accepted part of this culture. For instance, when Wealtheow gives Beowulf the golden torque, this is not only a sign of extreme gratitude, but of bonding or of tying the histories of two people together symbolically with the gifting of something as precious as gold, and to a lesser extent, great feasts and other gifts. Another gift of gold is given both as a sign of the tying of histories and heroics as well as in gratitude when at the end of story, just before dying, Beowulf bestows the golden gift to Wiglaf as a sign of his bravery and willingness to continue the heroic code that Beowulf’s character embodies.

Related Articles

Social Order, Culture and the Epic Form

The Rise of Secularism in Medieval Europe: Historical Circumstances and Advantages

13 Definitions from European History Every History Student Should Know

 

13 Definitions from European History Every History Student Should Know