No one knows when Beowulf was composed, or by whom, or why. A single manuscript managed to survive Henry VIIIs dissolution of monasteries, and the destruction of their great libraries. But we do have a poem, and we are remarkably lucky to have it; not only it is unique, the sole survivor of what may have been a thriving epic tradition, but it is great poetry.
It is essentially an aristocratic poem, concerned with kings and kingship: He ruled/ lands on all sides: wherever the sea/ would take them his soldiers sailed, returned/ with tribute and obedience. There was a brave king. (8-12) Strength and courage are basic virtues for both followed and follower. But where the followers overriding commitment is to loyalty, the kings position is more complex. A king/ born, entrusted with ancient treasures/ and cities full of stronghearted soldiers,/ his vanity swelled him so vile and rank/ that he could hear no voices but his own. He deserved/ to suffer and die (908-913).
Another motivating factor for Beowulf- and a central theme in the epic- is reputation or fame. From the beginning, Beowulf is rightly concerned about how the rest of the world will see him. Fame after death/ is the noblest of goals.(1388-1389). The final words of the poem, stating that Beowulf was most eager for fame (3182), might be best understood by a modern audience by remembering that, un Beowulfs world, fame is synonymous with reputation.
Hospitality is such an established part of the culture that the poet feels free to refer to it with casual humor. When Beowulf reports to Hrothgar on his victory over Grendel (957 ff.), he ironically speaks in terms of hospitality. He says, to "welcome my enemy" (969) with a firm handshake but was disappointed when he received only a "visitor's token" (971), Grendel's giant claw, "that dear [meaning 'precious'] gift" (973), a kind of macabre gratuity for services rendered. Beowulf had, ironically speaking, tried to be the perfect host; but he wanted the entire ogre body as his tip. Grendel left only his claw as a cheap compensation.
The cave where Grendel and his mother hide from the world is symbolic of their lives as outcasts. Hidden beneath a treacherous mere in the middle of a dark, forbidding swamp, the cave allows them a degree of safety and privacy in a world that they view as hostile. They certainly are not welcome at Heorot, and they know it.
The cave also represents their heritage. As descendants of Cain, they are associated with sorcery, black magic, demons, ancient runes, and hell itself. When Grendel's mother is able to fight Beowulf in the cave, she has a distinct advantage; his victory is all the more significant. It is not clear whether he wins because of his own ability, the influence of magic (the giant sword), or God's intervention. All are mentioned, probably because the poet borrowed from various influences in creating the poem. The cave itself represents a world alien to Heorot. One is high and bright and full of song and joy, towering as the Scyldings' greatest achievement. The other is dark and dank and full of evil, beneath a mere in the middle of a fen and the symbolic home of resentful outcasts.
As poetry, Beowulf is rich in meaning. Some see it as an early celebration of Christianity. Others think it extols or condemns heroic values. English novelist and scholar J. R. R. Tolkien argued that Beowulf is a balance between beginnings and endings, of youth and age, the most dominating being Beowulf's. While the poem is of value historically, it is more interesting as a powerful work of art.