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Allegory in Beowulf Video

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  • 0:00 Allegory
  • 0:51 Allegory In Beowulf
  • 3:36 What's The Point Of Allegory?
  • 4:29 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Melissa Rohen

Melissa has taught college English and has a master's degree in English and Composition.

Sometimes, in literature, what we read is not necessarily what it seems. In this lesson, we'll explore the epic poem 'Beowulf,' and look for instances of allegory. We'll discuss what allegory is, why authors use it, and look at some examples from the epic poem.

Allegory

Allegory is a type of writing that has hidden meanings, usually political or moral ones. In other words, it's a poem or story that, if we read between the lines a bit, we can find a deeper meaning. Usually, authors accomplish this by having characters or objects in the story represent something else (a political movement, a religious idea, or a specific moral).

Consider The Wizard of Oz. In this story, we have three allegorical characters: the lion, the scarecrow, and the tin-man. The lion represents cowardice; the scarecrow, a character with no brains, represents the agricultural past of the United States; and the tin-man, essentially a robot, represents the future of technology. We can read this story and enjoy a fun adventure, but we can also interpret it to have a different meaning about the political climate of the United States.

Allegory in Beowulf

Beowulf was passed down in the oral tradition, meaning, at first, it was a story people told each other. Between the 8th and 11th centuries in England, it was finally written down. However, it was set in Scandinavia, and the story takes place around the 6th century. It's commonly accepted that Beowulf began as a pagan tale. Over time, it was altered to include undertones of Christianity. By looking at it in this light, we can see several allegories of Christianity in Beowulf's adventures.

Beowulf is what we call an epic poem. This is a very long piece of poetry that usually tells a fairly serious story. Typically, it focuses on an intense and, well, epic fight between the forces of good and evil.

Beowulf is an amazingly heroic pagan warrior. He fights on behalf of his people, but he also wants to be famous. Through the course of his journey he fights three epic battles. The first is against Grendel, a monster who attacks the king of the Danes, Hrothgar. Beowulf kills him with his bare hands. This makes Grendel's mother pretty angry, and leads our hero to his next battle. Beowulf fights her in her underwater lair and, after a struggle, successfully kills her. The third and final battle is fifty years later, when Beowulf is king. This time, one of his slaves stole a goblet from a dragon and Beowulf has to slay the dragon before it destroys his whole kingdom in an act of revenge. In the end, Beowulf dies, but is remembered as the world's greatest warrior.

Grendel

Grendel, through his mother, is a descendant of Cain. Cain, the son of Adam and Eve, killed his brother Abel and is considered to be the first true instance of evil in the Christian faith. Because he is a direct descendant of such a bad guy, Grendel can be seen as an allegory of evil. By defeating him, Beowulf is defeating the concept of evil itself.

Grendel's Mother

Grendel's mother, often portrayed as a monster with features that could be seen as pretty and feminine, is an allegory for the original sin, when Eve first convinced Adam to betray God. By defeating Grendel's mother, Beowulf is overcoming sin and temptation.

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