Beowulf Eulogy: Summary & Analysis

Instructor: Lucy Barnhouse
The eulogy of Beowulf's people for their king is an expression of mourning that gives historical insight into the culture that produced the epic and is remarkable for its emotional immediacy. This lesson analyzes it in the Seamus Heaney translation.

Beowulf: Epic and History

The Beowulf manuscript
Cotton MS

Beowulf is a great epic poem, written between the 7th and 10th centuries in Old English. The poem survives today in a single manuscript! If the manuscript had been lost, or more badly damaged in an eighteenth-century fire, we wouldn't know of Beowulf's existence. As it is, the work is seen as foundational to English literature. In part, this is due to the scholarly work of none other than J.R.R. Tolkien, who loved the poem and argued for its stature as a masterpiece.

The Poem and its Protagonist

Beowulf takes place in Scandinavia, and follows the title character Beowulf's career as a warrior and, later, as a king. Throughout the poem, Beowulf is praised as the mightiest of men. He embodies ideal leadership qualities as a skilled fighter and a generous king. These heroic qualities, and his heroic deeds, are commemorated by his people in his funeral rites.

Mourning Beowulf

Beowulf ends with the funeral of its protagonist, in the same way that The Iliad ends with the funeral of Hector, prince of Troy. Beowulf's funeral, on lines 3138-3182 of the poem, is remarkable for expressing diverse reactions to his death, from fear, to respect, to simple grief. It's worth noting that the poem doesn't use the term eulogy, nor does a standard funeral speech appear in it. 'Eulogy' (from the Greek for 'good words') is simply a convenient term for us to use to describe the praise of the Geats for their king.

In Beowulf, the old king's death is seen as representing the passing of a heroic age. The messenger who tells of his death says, in the same breath, that all should 'take a last look at the king / and launch him, lord and lavisher of rings, / on the funeral road' (lines 3007-3010). The messenger foretells that, with Beowulf's death, the society he protected will disintegrate. Vivid imagery is used to contrast prosperity with doom: 'the swept harp / won't waken warriors, but the raven winging / darkly over the doomed will have news' (lines 3023-3025).

For the Geats, Beowulf's funeral is a way not only of honoring the dead man's achievements, but also of expressing the loyalty they owed him in life. The ceremonial heaping of gold on his pyre, for instance, is seen as a way of honoring Beowulf's generosity to his warriors, and of commemorating the prosperity he brought to his kingdom. The tensions between Christianity and Paganism typical of the poem are especially apparent in Beowulf's funeral. Providing Beowulf with grave goods and burning his body are typically Pagan acts, but in describing these rites Wiglaf also expresses the faith that Beowulf 'will lodge for a long time in the care of the Almighty' (lines 3108-3109).

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