Beowulf, composed in Old English at the end of the 7th century, is the most famous of the early Anglo-Saxon poems. It is set in the south of Scandinavia and is an example of an epic (a long narrative poem which celebrates the actions of a hero). It tells about a hero called Beowulf. He achieves fame by helping Hrothgar, the king of the Danes. Hrothgar's people are being terrified by Grendel, a halfhuman monster. Beowulf kills first the monster and then Grendel's mother, who has promised to take revenge for her son's blood. Beowulf eventually returns to his own country yo become king but late in life he decides to fight a dragon which is endangering his own people. Beowulf is killed during the fight and the poems ends on a sombre note with Beowulf's funeral. People of Geatland, deprived of their great leader, are once again vulnerable to attack.
There's an interesting mix of religious and cultural references and attitudes. The poem contains both pagan and Christian elements. There are signs of Christian influence, for example, when Beowulf dies because he gives thanks to God. The christianised Anglo-Saxons still felt a strong connection with the myths and legends of the past and with the Scandinavian people. However in Beowulf the paganism of the Danes is muted because Beowulf's religious practices seem completely compatible with the ideas of Christianity. The poem mixes also myth and legend with reported historical fact. It begins with the magnificent scene of the ship burial of the Danish hero king: Scyld Shefing. He was found washed up in a small boat. He's a child sent by providence just like Moses in the Old Testament.
The monster can be seen as a physical manifestation of the internal conflicts and tensions underlying the apparently calm and prosperous surface of the royal household. The coming of Beowulf signals the return of the true hero who will kill the monster and put society back in order.
In the text there's a highly inventive use of kennings and alliteration. The rhythm is dominated by the use of caesura.
To hold onto their power, kings depended upon military strenght and wealth, which they needed to secure the loyalty of their men. The Anglo-Saxon kingdoms were full of internal struggles. One way to hide the conflicts inside a society was to evoke a menace from outside, a monstrous figure of supreme evil. Such a figure also had the function of creating an illusion of solidarity inside the kingdom. The monster becomes a metaphor for outsiders in general, a symbol of the figure of other clans, other people, other races, that produces a convenient division between good and bad. In Beowulf, Grendel is characterised by his insatiable greed and terrible violence, character traits that were manifest in the behaviour of a number of Anglo-Saxon kings. Grendel's typical strategy is to kill men while they sleep.
In Shakespeare's The Tempest, the character of Caliban, the native inhabitant of the island where a duke and his daughter are exiled, is described as a 'thing of darkness'. By the 17th century the monstrous outsider was no longer a predator or potential invader but had become a figure rapresenting 'uncivilised' non-western peoples that stood in the way of colonisation. In the second half of the 19th century, after the publication of Darwin's theory of evolution, the monster bacame seen as a potential presence hidden in everyone. In this interpretation, human beings contained a primordial, savage self that had been repressed by civilisation. Two side of the same person are in Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.
Every age produces new manifestations of the 'monster', figures which become the new repository for our fears of the outsider, against whom, we must defend our way of life.