‘Beowulf’ is full of rings; it is ‘hringe-rice’ in Anglo-Saxon. It opens with the funeral of Beowulf’s progenitor Scyld Shefing, and ends with the funeral of Beowulf himself. It has long been recognised that the structure of Beowulf is chiasmic; the extent to which it is chiasmic, though, is quite unique.
One need only think of the how the episode in the story of Beowulf’s exploits in the sea adventure with Brecca, and the sea monsters, echoes the episode in the mere as he challenges Grendel’s mother. We would mostly read this as the one setting up for the other, if it were not for how the two events are so closely interwoven. The key to reading these as chiasmic is in the responses of his followers/onlookers: in the first they are wholly supportive; in the latter the Danes leave, expecting the worst to have happened: in effect a reversal of the first
But even Scyld’s funeral that opens the tale is a ring. Look at the pattern:
In order In reverse order
Scyld’s fated time to die Who received Scyld in death?
Retainers carry him to the water Ocean carries him from retainers
He is laid by the mast of the ship Gold standard above his head
Heaped with treasure from far away Treasure compared with childhood treasure
He has incomparable treasure Treasure to go far away
And the turn: The loading up of his funeral ship with weapons and armour
(From: The Four Funerals in Beowulf, Gale R Owen-Crocker)
There is even a cross-reference in the last two before the turn: heaped with treasure from far away, is paralleled with the treasure heaped on him that is to go far away with his body.
But we need to distinguish between chiasmic, and ring-structure. The first indicates a relationship between two parts, one of which is the reversal of the others’ order. This is a characteristic of ring-structure, but ring-structure proper must have a true meeting of beginning and end, and a reversal-event at the heart of the tale. The start of this tale with the, by then mythical, progenitor Scyld Shefing opens with the setting up of the house and people of the Shefings. It ends in Beowulf’s death, with the ending of the house of the Shefings. That both these events are funerary events further strengthens the connection between them into a ring-structure.
Many ring-structured tales frame the central cross event; it is the same in Beowulf. The frame in this case is that of two funerary elegies: firstly, from the tale of the Finnsburg fight, and secondly from what is known as the Last Survivor’s tale.
The Finnsburg piece is a particular version of the independently known Fight at Finnsburg. The ‘Beowulf’ version emphasises the sadness and loss of life, goods, and heritage treasures. The story is of Frisian-Danish relations: Finn has married the daughter of the Danish ruler; the Danes visit Finn at his stronghold, and a fight ensues. Many are killed on both sides so a truce is called. Finn allows the Danes many concessions: a separate lodge for living in through the frozen-in Winter, and equal sharings of all booty. Come the Spring the Danes turned on Finn and his company and killed them all, the daughter was taken back to Denmark, along with all Finn’s treasures.
The second frame tells of the equipping of the barrow the dragon is later to seize – and where Beowulf loses his life – with all the treasures of a people who have perished. It is accomplished by their last survivor. It turns into a personal elegy of loss, and the ending of a way of life. In many ways it can be read as a reversal of the portrayal of the loss at Finnsburg: we see the flip side of the Dane’s glorious success, of what is left once they leave. We also see in this frame a foreshadowing of the death, and through it, the disintegration, of Beowulf and the people/house under his protection.
The two can be seen to agree in their general approach to subject: great loss of life, and of a people’s treasures, and can indeed be seen as a paralleling structure.
What do they frame? Knowing the general story one would expect the main crux to be the fight with Grendel; but what of the fight to the death of Grendel’s mother? That this last is the main event is further given by the build-up of tales and events around the last visit by Grendel’s family. The battle with Grendel’s mother exposes many telling elements that relate back and forward in the story, as in true ring-structure. The doubt of the Danes at Beowulf’s success in the mere, echoes back contrarily to the enthusiastic support they gave him on the defeat of Grendel himself. The character of Unferth also occurs again here, offering Beowulf his valued sword as he is about to enter the mere. In the previous encounter with Unferth we see him cast doubt on Beowulf’s prowess in the sea-challenge with Brecca. This is a complete and telling reversal for Unferth. From hereon also the tone of the tale changes. Instead of Hrothgar’s great pleasure of being rid of the monsters who had plagued him for years, we hear him holding forth to Beowulf on the responsibilities and dangers of kingship. King Heremond is once again brought forth as an example of bad rulership. All this ushers us towards the role that Beowulf is to play eventually in the latter quarter of the tale.
To give some indication of how closely woven is the structure of ‘Beowulf’ allow me to quote from Owen-Crocker: “The Finnsburg Lay ended, the scene in Heorot continues with (Queen) Wealtheow’s approach to uncle and nephew (lines 1162-4). This balances the earlier reference to the Danish uncle and nephew (line 1017) and concludes an elaborate ring-structure at the centre of which an uncle and nephew lie together on the Finnsburg pyre having died fighting on opposite sides. The mention of uncle and nephew at this point is also, however, part of the chiastic structure which centres on the twenty-fourth fit. It is balanced by Beowulf’s mention of his kinship to Hygelac (lines 2150-1)….”.
Owen-Crocker’s readings are so detailed in their teasing out of the interweaving of themes and echoes within the text. He relies as much on textual evidence, the placing of certain textual markers, such as the relationship of spoken elements in the text, as on overall structure.
It has been argued that the Christian elements in the tale have been incorporated at a later date. Owen-Crocker gives evidence that their content is indeed more a part of the structure. Take Syld Shefing; his birth and appearance amongst the Geats shows him to be presented as a Moses figure, complete with being found in a sea-borne basket. This connection is only inasfar as he is presented as a great leader and settler of his people. The Old and New Testaments are extensively referenced throughout the text; they are, as Owen-Crocker reveals, as much a part of the cultural milieu of the piece as are the Anglo-Saxon heroes and kings.