Beowulf: Outline and Notes
Compiled by Jonathan A. Glenn
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From Bede’s A History of the English Church and People, Book II, Chapter XII: Edwin holds a council with his chief men about accepting the Faith of Christ. [This council took place in AD 627; Bede completed his History in AD 731.]
Another of the king’s chief men signified his agreement with this prudent argument, and went on to say: “Your majesty, when we compare the present life of man with that time of which we have no knowledge, it seems to me like the swift flight of a lone sparrow through the banqueting-hall where you sit in the winter months to dine with your thanes and counsellors. Inside there is a comforting fire to warm the room; outside, the wintry storms of snow and rain are raging. This sparrow flies swiftly in through one door of the hall, and out through another. While he is inside, he is safe from the winter storms; but after a few moments of comfort, he vanishes from sight into the darkness whence he came. Similarly, man appears on earth for a little while, but we know nothing of what went before this life, and what follows. Therefore if this new teaching can reveal any more certain knowledge, it seems only right that we should follow it.” [quoted from the translation by Leo Shirley-Price (Baltimore, 1955).]
This model—the framing of life (individual, social, universal) by darkness—is established in the first 114 lines of Beowulf by three stories: that of Scyld, that of Heorot, and that of the world’s creation.
(1) The Hall (see 64 ff. and 311), reflecting (2) the conception of the world suggested by the creation story sung in Heorot (see 86 ff.); then (3) the encroachment of the Dark on Light, the brave battling of heroes against the dark, and eventual defeat.
Within this model, the descriptions of monster-dwellings seem significant in their reinforcement of the model (yet their suggestion that within the circle of light, openings to the darkness exist) and in their particular attention to the theme of isolation that attends evil—the monsters, death, what have you—throughout the poem. See 1345-76a (the land of the Grendelkin) and 2210b-2323 (the history of the dragon Hoard and its relationship to Beowulf’s kingdom).
From the Old English Poem Maxims I, lines 58-70 (ed. and trans. T. A. Shippey [Totowa, NJ, 1976]):
Wearð fæhþo fyra cunne, siþþan
eorðe Abeles blode. Næs þæt andæge nið,
of þam wrohtdropan wide gesprungon
micel mon ældum, monegum þeodum
bealoblonden niþ. Slog his broðor swæsne
Cain, þone cwealm serede. Cuþe wæs wide siþþan
þæt ece nið ældum scod. Swa aþolware
drugon wæpna gewin widne geond eorþan,
ahogodan ond ahyrdon heoro sliþendne.
Gearo sceal guðbord, gar on sceafte,
ecg on sweorde ond ord spere,
hyge heardum men. Helm sceal cenum,
ond a þæs heanan hyge hord unginnost.
[Translation: A state of violence came into being for the race of men, from the moment when the earth swallowed the blood of Abel. That was no one-day disturbance; from the blood-drops of that crime there sprang far and wide great wickedness from men, inextricable hatred and evil for many peoples. It was Cain who killed his own brother and plotted the murder. It was known everywhere after that that an eternal hatred was afflicting men. So the inhabitants of earth endured the clash of weapons through the world, inventing and tempering wounding swords.
The war-shield must be ready, the shaft must have a spear, the sword an edge and the spear a point, the unyielding man must have spirit. The brave man must have a helmet, the man of poor spirit will always have least treasure.]
From the Old Testament (Gen. 4:1-16 [RSV]):
 Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, “I have gotten a man with the help of the Lord.”  And again, she bore his brother Abel. Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a tiller of the ground.  In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground,  and Abel brought of the firstlings of his flock and of their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering,  but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell.  The Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen?  If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.”
 Cain said to Abel his brother, “Let us go out to the field.” And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and killed him.  Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?”  And the Lord said, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground.  And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand.  When you till the ground, it shall no longer yield to you its strength; you shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.”  Cain said to the Lord, “My punishment is greater than I can bear.  Behold, thou hast driven me this day away from the ground; and from thy face I shall be hidden; and I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will slay me.”  Then the Lord said to him, “Not so! If any one slays Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold.” And the Lord put a mark on Cain, lest any who came upon him should kill him.  Then Cain went away from the presence of the Lord, and dwelt in the land of Nod, east of Eden.
Greenfield notes that “the linking of the evil broods to Cain [in medieval thought] probably derives ultimately from the apocryphal Book of Enoch (I)” (A Readable Beowulf 42 n. 14). For the connection between the Giants and the Flood, see Gen. 6 and Enoch 6-10. The precise relationship between Grendel and the “kin of Cain” is unclear in the poem; that he is at least spiritually akin to Cain, however, is never in doubt.
The association of Grendel and other monsters with Cain (and with fundamental alienation from God and humankind) informs the following passages in Beowulf: Lines 105-14 (initial identification); 1258b-78 (and see 1345-76a for the setting); 1557-62 (the sword in the mere) and 1677-98a (Hrothgar reads the hilt).
More generally, the issue of fratricide plays a significant role throughout Beowulf: See lines 81b-85 and 1162b-65a (foreboding of future problems in the kingdom of the Danes); 584-94 and 1165b-69a (Hunferth) and 1455-64 and 1519b-28 (Hrunting, Hunferth’s sword); 902b-04a and 1709b-22 (Heremod); 2435-67 (Hrethel and his sons; the “Elegy of the Old Father”); 2741-43a (Beowulf’s claim of innocence).
A thesis: Beowulf treats the theme of mutability on three levels and in terms of three models: (1) the level of the world, represented in the poem by the model of created land surrounded by the shoreless sea; (2) the level of society, represented in the poem by the bright hall surrounded by the encroaching powers of darkness; and (3) the level of the hero, represented by the structure of the poem itself, a static balance between youth and strength, on the one hand, and old age and death, on the other.
Things to consider:
Bede. A History of the English Church and People [Bedae Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum]. Trans. Leo Shirley-Price. Baltimore: Penguin, 1955.
The Bible. Revised Standard Version.
Greenfield, Stanley B. A Readable Beowulf: The Old English Epic Newly Translated. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois UP, 1982.
Shippey, T. A., ed. and trans. Poems of Wisdom and Learning in Old English. Totowa, NJ: Rowman, 1976.
Tolkien, J. R. R. “Prefatory Remarks on Prose Translation of ‘Beowulf.’” Beowulf and the Finnsburg Fragment. Trans. John R. Clark Hall. Rev. ed. London: Allen, 1958. ix-xliii.
Tolkien, J. R. R. “The Hoard.” The Tolkien Reader. New York: Ballantine, 1966. 240-43.