The Structure of Beowulf
There are several structures which scholars find in the poem Beowulf. It is the purpose of this essay to briefly elaborate on these structures.
The first theory regarding the structure of Beowulf is put forth by J.R.R. Tolkien in “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics.” Tolkien states:
The poem “lacks steady advance”: so Klaeber heads a critical section in his edition. But the poem was not meant to advance, steadily or unsteadily. It is essentially a balance, an opposition of ends and beginnings. In its simplest terms it is a contrasted description of two moments in a great life, rising and setting; an elaboration of the ancient and intensely moving contrast between youth and age, first achievement and final death. It is divided in consequence into two opposed portions, different in matter, manner and length: A from 1 to 2199 (including an exordium of 52 lines); B from 2200 to 3182 (the end)…. This simple and static structure, solid and strong, is in each part much diversified….(34-5)
Tolkien views the stated division or structure as the main one in the poem, but he later qualifies this with the addition of another division:
There is in fact a double division in the poem: the fundamental one already referred to, and a secondary but important division at line 1887. After that the essentials of the previous part are taken up and compacted, so that all the tragedy of Beowulf is contained between 1888 and the end (36).
In following Tolkien’s “static” structure of the poem, we may not expect to find in Part I the references to Hygelac’s raid in lines 1202-14:
This collar-ring traveled on Hygelac’s breast
on his final voyage, nephew of Swerting,
when under the standard he defended his treasure,
spoils of the kill; fate took him off
that time he sought trouble, stirred up a feud,
a fight with the Frisians, in his pride and daring.
He wore those gold wires, rarest gem-stones,
across the cup of waves, a mighty prince.
He fell beneath his shield. Into Frankish hands
came his life, body-gold, and the great ringed collar;
lesser warriors rifled the corpses
after the battle-harvest. Dead Geats
filled the field (1202-14).
In consequence of this, some scholars have given the poem a tri-partite division, seeing very clearly a middle to the poem in the fight with Grendel’s mother and Hrothgar’s sermon. So each of the three divisions of the poem involves a fight with a monster. These are the three stages through which the hero evolves, from the powerful, ideal warrior to the perfect ruler who has ruled for 50 years.