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Structure in Beowulf -- Several Possibilities

"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

"A nasty puzzle."
--Tolkien, Fenn and Hengest

Narrative Units in Beowulf

  • 1-65: Prologue--Hrothgar's lineage

  • 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 defeats Grendel.

  • 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 festivities.

  • 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:

J.R.R. Tolkien -- Two Part Structure

Part I -- Beowulf fights Grendel and his Mother -- Heroism and Youth. (1-1849)

Part II -- Beowulf fights the Dragon -- Old Age and Doom. (1850-2665)

Fred C. Robinson -- Three Part Structure

Part I -- Beowulf fights Grendel without weapons and with relative assurance of victory. (1-1037)

Part II -- Beowulf fights Grendel's Mother with armor, a discovered sword, and nearly loses his life. (1038-1849)

Part III -- Beowulf fights the dragon with extensive armor, needs assistance, and is fatally wounded. (1850-2665)

Alvin A. Lee -- Elegy Within a Elegy

Outer Song: Beowulf the Hero -- admired but ultimately fails.

Inner Song: The Geats and the Danes -- the ultimate failure of the heroic society.

John Leyerle -- Interlace Structure

Beowulf's tale parallels the historical intrigues of the Frisians. Frisian Episode is interlaced throughout the tale of Beowulf --Historical Elements
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"All manner of thing shall be well/ When the tongues of flame are in-folded/ Into the crowned knot of fire/ And the fire and the rose are one." -- T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding