An Analysis of the Arguably Unified Poem, Beowulf Essay example

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An Analysis of the Arguably Unified Poem, Beowulf

Beowulf as a less than unified work, more important for its historical and philological content than its literary merit, and critics after him regard Beowulf as a unified work of art. For example, of the critics who discuss the poem as a whole in An Anthology of Beowulf Criticism, most agree pace Tolkien that Beowulf is a unified poem, even if they argue so on different grounds. Burton Raffel's introduction to his own translation offers a particularly exuberant example of post-Tolkien Beowulf criticism:

[W]e are remarkably lucky to have [Beowulf]: not only is it unique, the sole survivor of what might have been a thriving epic tradition, but it is great poetry. Approached as an
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It is primarily for these reasons that critics prior to Tolkien argue against the unity of Beowulf.

Though this paper agrees more with Tolkien and Raffel, it does not assume the self-evident unity of Beowulf; rather it will briefly review and assess the main issues relevant to the question of the poem's unity, of which there are three: (1) Beowulf's structure, (2) the significance of its subject matter, and (3) its thematic unity. One possible caveat here is that modern ideas about artistic unity do not apply to Beowulf. H. L. Rogers makes this claim, for example. However, Aristotle presented sophisticated ideas about poetic unity long before Beowulf, and hence there is no reason to believe that Old English authors had "primitive" notions of artistic unity. Moreover, those who argue against the single authorship of Beowulf already apply "modern" standards of unity to support their case, as Rogers indeed does. Thus there should be no great objection to applying these standards in support of the opposing view.

The prima facie evidence for the structural unity of the poem is strong. The narrative centers around three fight scenes that parallel one another and link together part one and part two. In each part, a monster plagues a helpless people, and Beowulf comes to the rescue. Throughout this basic narrative, there are themes of kingly wisdom and tribal loyalty, descriptions
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