Professor of Humanities Timothy Shutt reflects on the values in the Old English epic "Beowulf."
For the College’s limited edition book on the literary windows of Peirce’s Great Hall, Professor of Humanities Timothy Shutt wrote about the values dramatized in the Old English epic Beowulf. Here, an excerpt from his reflections.
Beowulf, the oldest extensive work of what can plausibly be termed English literature, was composed—probably around the eighth century CE—in an Old English version of the alliterative meter used elsewhere in the linguistically Germanic North for narrative poetry. The tale draws from a fund of tradition and legend widespread in the old North, Germany, and Scandinavia as well as England, and can be correlated, in part at least, to historical events during the sixth century. But the poem’s eponymous hero, Beowulf (or “bee-wolf,” or “bear”), seems to be totally legendary, and his exploits, both as a monsterfighter—subduing the terrifying Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and, at the cost of his own life, a dragon—and likewise against human adversaries, thoroughly exemplify the grim courage and world-view of the pre-Christian warriors of the North.
Beowulf, though, was a work written in appreciative retrospect, about the pre-Christian past from the vantage point of the now Christian present, and Beowulf likewise exemplifies a deep fellow-feeling and self-sacrificing commitment to his people and to his friends which earns him, after his death, as the Christian poet puts it, a place among those who, under pressure—and, indeed, unto death—stood fast in and for truth.