"Why did he make Scyld
the child in the boat? . . . A mood in which the symbolism
(what we should call the ritual) of a departure over the sea
whose further shore was unknown; and an actual belief in a magical
land or otherworld located 'over the sea', can hardly be
distinguished--and for neither of these elements or motives is
conscious symbolism, or real belief, a true description. It was murnende
mod filled with doubt and darkness."
--Tolkien, cited in The Lost Road
--Tolkien, Fenn and Hengest
Narrative Units in Beowulf
65-156: Hrothgar's people are
tormented by Grendel.
157-258: Beowulf is sent to
help and explains his mission to the coastal watchman.
259-404: Beowulf journeys to
Heorot and offers his services to Hrothgar.
405-560: Doings in the
mead-hall--Beowulf defends himself before Unferth; pledges his
service to Wealhtheow; boasts what he will accomplish.
561-679: Beowulf battles and
680-1037: Celebration of
Beowulf's victory with the tales of Sigemund the dragon-slayer
(884-914) and the Frisian massacre (1070-1158) sung as part of the
1038-1382: Grendel's mother
attacks, and Beowulf searches her out and slays her.
1383-1645: Beowulf is rewarded,
Hrothgar speaks his wisdom, and the Geats depart.
1646-1849: Beowulf reports to
Hygelac, recalling his deeds and analyzes the political landscape.
1850-1860: Hygelac's and Heardred's deaths and Beowulf's rise to leadership.
- 1860-1954: The dragon's ire is
awakened, and Beowulf prepares to fight him.
- 1955-2129: Beowulf's reconnaissance
and his reflections on past and present feuds.
- 2130-2387: Beowulf and Wiglaf
defeat the dragon, but Beowulf is mortally wounded and dies.
- 2388-2630: Wiglaf rebukes the
others for being cowards and predicts the political instability
that will result, including the battle at Ravenswood (2913-3007).
- 2631-2665: Beowulf's funeral
pyre is prepared and his funeral carried out.
The question of Beowulf's
structure can be debated in formal terms, in the terms of the
narrative and aesthetic language of the culture, or in mythical versus
historical terms. For instance, is a narrative pattern over the whole
poem discoverable? Did the poet place things in this order for a
certain reason? Can this be understood thematically? While the plot of the poem is mostly clear (with the
exception of the Finnsburg Episode, or Frisian Massacre [fres-waele]
as Tolkien insisted it be called), the overarching organization of
those units is much debated. In particular, one has to decide
why the various historical references are there: Do they function as
simple background material? Do they act as commentary on the main plot
or the actions of characters? Are they part of the overall purpose or
message of the poem as it stands?
The following are the more predominant
approaches to Beowulf's structure: