Content Marketing Lessons from Beowulf — Yes, Beowulf
Some of the best life lessons are centuries old. Same goes for writing. Beowulf is one of the oldest texts in modern literature — its exact origins are unknown but was likely written between the 8th and 11th centuries.
It’s written as an epic poem of about 3,000 lines and recounts the battles of Beowulf, the story’s hero. The text precedes the English language and has been translated many times from Old English.
So, what does Beowulf have to do with content marketing?
Nothing and everything.
Content marketers don’t fight supernatural dragons, nor do they become kings (and queens) over mythical places. They don’t wear armor, drink mead, or communicate with audiences using heroic poetry. In fact, one might argue that connecting content marketing with Old English poetry is more than a bit of a stretch — yes, yes, and yes.
Stay with me here.
The contribution that Beowulf has made to the literary community is undeniable. The text has kept audiences and literary scholars entertained and engaged for centuries.
And that’s what content marketing is at its core — a means to captivate and engage audiences.
“Beowulf is in fact so interesting as poetry, in places poetry so powerful, that this quite overshadows the historical content, and is largely independent even of the most important facts … that research has discovered,” said J.R.R. Tolkien in Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics, a 1936 lecture on literary criticism.
Be a Hero
What makes Beowulf a hero is not his strength, valor, wealth or flashiness.
“Beowulf’s role is that of civilization’s champion, the hero who restores order when it has been weakened or destroyed,” wrote John Halverson in The World of Beowulf, an essay written in 1969.
Beyond fighting epic battles with monsters, Beowulf is the ultimate storyteller.
He fights his battles solo, so his people aren’t there to watch. It’s through Beowulf’s speeches that his people learn of his experiences — it’s through speeches that Beowulf builds his heroism and reputation.
Sounds a lot like content marketing, huh? Only now, thanks to technology, anybody can be a hero. Communication is an art form that any business — large or small — can leverage as an art form.
So be a hero. Solve problems by telling stories. Create structure from chaos.
Recruit Kinsmen (and Women), Not Spectators
Beyond his natural talents, it’s Beowulf’s community that empowers him to be a strong leader.
“The role of kinship groups in the development of medieval forms of social organization was fundamental,” wrote Halverson. “This obligation and mutual responsibility were still virtually unquestioned even at the end of the Middle Ages. The psychological foundation … is the nature of the family: its interdependence, its proximity, its ‘natural’ solidarity. If anything was secure and reliable, it was first of all the immediate family.”
“At least one’s kinsmen could be trusted.”
Why build an audience? Focus on building a community of advocates instead. And why stop at community? Create a climate of kinship.
Trust your audience as much as they trust you.
Content is supposed to be beautiful, so don’t ignore the beauty and power of the medium you’re wielding.
“Speech fills Beowulf, yet scholars have paid scant attention to it, devoting just two articles, part of a third, and three dissertations to this salient feature of the epic,” wrote Robert E. Bjork in a 1994 essay, “Speech as Gift in Beowulf.”
Beowulf itself has been translated over and over into English (among other languages). Each translation uncovers a different nuance or literary perspective. Each version incorporates a new dimension of originality.
Content marketing does much of the same by articulating and re-articulating similar concepts. It’s not about always being original — so have fun presenting ideas in new ways.