One of the most important remains of Anglo-Saxon literature is the epic poem Beowulf . Its age is unknown; but it comes from a very distant and hoar antiquity…It is like a piece of ancient armor; rusty and battered, and yet strong.
What is it about Beowulf that moved the American poet Longfellow to compare it to “a piece of ancient armor; rusty and battered, and yet strong”?
Perhaps it is that the poet fused early Germanic history, legends, mythology, and ideals with Christian faith and values to create an enduring work of art that inspires as it entertains.
Or perhaps it is that we still cherish many of the qualities that Beowulf embodies—among them courage, loyalty, and generosity.
Ancient civilizations, some of which were quite advanced, had arisen in other parts of the world well before the Anglo-Saxon period.
For example, the great pyramids had already been built along the Nile.
City states had risen and fallen in Mesopotamia.
Persia had already united many lands.
China was a unified, powerful empire.
The beginnings of democracy had already come and gone in Greece.
By contrast, Britain was a green, dark, isolated, sleepy island where civilization and empire had yet to bloom.
Beowulf is an English poem, yet the setting is northern Europe in what is now Denmark and Sweden.
The events described probably took place at the same time as invasions of England by Scandinavian tribes from Denmark in the 5 th & 6 th centuries.
After the first foothold in c. 440, the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes inhabited most of England by the middle 6 th century.
Although Beowulf appears to be a fictional character, Hygelac, Beowulf’s uncle and king, is an historical character who was killed in battle c. 521.
The story includes Beowulf early adventures in Denmark through his succession to Hygelac’s throne after the death of both Hygelac and the son whom Beowulf helped to succeed him.
Thus, Beowulf’s story occurs in the homelands about the same time the first Englishmen were migrating to England and establishing themselves as a dominant culture.
Meet the Geats, Danes, and Swedes of Beowulf
By the time that Beowulf was written down, Germanic tribes from Scandinavia and elsewhere in northern Europe had been invading England’s shores for centuries. The principal human characters in Beowulf hail from three Scandinavian tribes: the Geats, the Danes, and the Swedes.
It is not known exactly, but it tells of people who lived in Denmark or southern Sweden between 550 and 600 A.D.
The tribes who made the poem came with the Angles, Saxons, and the Jutes to conquer Britain.
Finally, in Britain, or England, between 800 and 900 A.D. someone wrote Beowulf down in the West-Saxon dialect.
About 1000 A.D. someone transcribed a single copy of the manuscript, probably a monk from Northumbria.
Pagan and Christian Elements in Beowulf
The monasteries served as centers of learning in this period, just as they would in the Middle Ages.
In England the cultural and spiritual influence of monasteries existed right alongside the older Anglo-Saxon religion.
The monasteries preserved not only the Latin and Greek classics but also some of the works by popular literature, such as Beowulf.
The copy of Beowulf has been lost. A copy is now safely guarded in the British Museum.
A single copy survived Henry VIII’s destruction of all the monasteries and the great libraries.
It has two distinct handwritings and the edges are burned and ragged as the result of a fire in 1731.
It is the sole survivor of a great epic tradition.
It is great poetry.
It is an archaeological relic which is most interesting.
As a linguistic document, it’s full of revelations.
It gives us information about Old English social life and politics.
Why is this poem important to us?
English is divided into three periods: Old English (ca.449-1100), Middle English (ca. 1100-1500), and Modern English (ca. 1500-).
Old English is sometimes known as Anglo-Saxon.
The English language changed from Old English to Middle English in 1100 and from Middle English to Modern English in 1500. These shifts took place over hundreds of years.
It is important to realize that the wide-spread notion of a standard language or even of standardized spelling are modern notions made possible by the printing press.
Evolution of English Language
Although major grammatical and phonetic changes took place throughout the Old English period, the Norman invasion of 1066 and its resulting influx of French words into the language meant that the English of 1100 was much different from the English of 1000.
Likewise, while English underwent a number of grammatical and phonetic changes throughout the Middle English period, the 15 th century saw such a radical change in the pronunciation of English that 1500 serves as a useful date for the shift from Middle to Modern English.
Language Evolution continued
Old English makes use of unfamiliar letters, most of which derive from the runic alphabet, an alphabet used by the Germanic peoples.
The Features of an Epic
Takes the form of a long narrative poem about a quest, told in formal, elevated language
Narrates the exploits of a larger-than-life hero who embodies the values of a particular culture
Begins with a statement of subject and theme and, sometimes, a prayer to a deity
Deals with events on a large scale
Uses many of the conventions of oral storytelling, such as repetition, sound effects, figures of speech, and stock epithets
Often includes gods and goddesses as characters
Mixes myth, legend, and history [Holt 55]
Other Examples of Epics
Gilgamesh from Mesopotamia
The Iliad and the Odyssey from Greece
The Aeneid by Virgil from Rome
Paadise Lost by Milton
Why is the poem an epic?
It is the first great work of the English national literature—the mythical and literary record of a formative stage of English civilization. It is also an epic of the heroic sources of English culture.
Tells of the traditions of the people
Is a long, dignified narrative poem
Tells of the actions of the hero
Has definite verse
The characters are of noble birth.
What characteristics of the heroic epic do we find in Beowulf ?
Stern, barbarous life
Relgious feeling, fatalism of Anglo-Saxon
Mixtures of savagery, sentiment, and nobility
Love of nature and especially being influenced by the sea
Common sense, power of endurance, seriousness of thought
Emotional, imaginative, sensitive.
Also—the ideals are
Love of glory
Allegiance to lord or king
Reverence for women
Love of personal freedom
Open-handed hospitality of lord to thane
Repression of too much sentiment
Four episodes of Beowulf
The purging of Herot, the Danish mead-hall of Hrothgar, the king, from Grendel, the giant
The killing of Grendel’s mother down in her watery lair
The triumphant return of the hero to his homeland
After fifty years of peace, the hero-king saves his own people by slaying the fire-drake, but he dies in this attempt.
Beowulf as Verse Form
Four stressed syllables with three syllables alliterated /’(‘)/’
Alliteration means repetition of the same letter sound, usually the first letter of the accented syllable. “Ship, its timbers icy, waiting” (three s ’s – one c )
The verse does not rhyme
Lines have a pause in the middle, called a caesura, or are end-stopped (definite pause at the end of the line)
Rhythm is free.
Use of parallelism – ideas expressed in the same form or repeated for emphasis
Use of kennings – two words separated by a hyphen as sea-horse, a ship; whale’s road, the sea; sky-candle, the sun
Gnomic sentences – used for emphasis as “There was a king!”
Written to be accompanied by a harp with a person singing—meant to be heard, not read.
a long, dignified narrative poem of 3,182 lines telling the story in a serious way of a hero and his great deeds trying to save people in danger
What is the source of Beowulf ?
It is a version of the widespread “Bear’s Son Tale.” There are over two hundred different versions, ranging from Iceland to Japan. The American Indians knew it. The hero is usually brought up by bears or as a child of bears, comparable to the story of Romulus and Remus and the founding of Rome. This hero’s name would be “Beewulf”, a kenning for “Bear.” Again the hero fights with his hands, having great strength so he can crush his enemies
The Translations of Beowulf
Part One of the text you will read is from Burton Raffel’s 1963 translation of the epic.
Part Two is from the Irish poet Seamus Heaney’s award-winning, bestselling translation of the work published in 2000.
Other translators include Bruce Mitchell and Fred C. Robinson (1998),Charles Scott Moncrieff (1921), Francis B. Gummere (1923), R.K. Gordon (1926), William Ellery Leonard (1939),Charles W. Kennedy (1940), Lucien Dean Pearson (1965), E. Talbot Donaldson(1975), Howell D. Chickering, Jr. (1977),Ruth P.M. Lehmann (1988), R.M. Liuzza (2000).
What was the Anglo-Saxon religion?
It was a dark fatalistic religion influenced by Norse Myth
What figures in Norse mythology influenced ethics?
Anglo-saxon ethics ha
d much in common with Norse/Scandinavian mythology.
Woden (Odin) represents death, poetry, magic
Woden’s Day becomes Wednesday.
Origin of poetry
In Norse myth poetry was originally a sacred mead that came into possession of a giant (Kvasir) but was stolen by Odin, who assumed the shape of an eagle and carried it to the world of the gods
Poetry was called Odin’s theft or Kvasir’s Blood
Norse Myth continued
Thunor (Thor) symbolized lightening and thunder. His symbol is the hammer and the twisted cross (swastika)
Thursday comes from Thor’s Day.
Norse Myth continued
Anglo-saxons believed that immortality or lof – fame that survives death– could be earned through heroic action.
The deity Wyrd (Norms) in Norse myth represents fate in life
An important element of the Anglo-Saxon worldview was the concept of fate (wyrd).
Specifically, the Anglo-Saxons believed that a hero could postpone death through personal bravery but that fate eventually would win out.
The dragon is the protector of the treasure; the fiery dragon is the personification of “death the devourer” and the guardian of the grave mound (where warriors’ ashes & treasure lay)
The dragon was the living embodiment of evil and death. [Danes sailed boats with prows carved in shape of dragons’ heads and fangs]
Iormungand, the Midgard Serpent, is the dragon of the Northlanders.
The dragon is an archetypal figure that emerges from the bowels of the earth and dominates the air with its flames.
Translator Seamus Heaney says that the dragon appears less a physical opponent than an embodiment of wyrd .
Norse Myth & Grendel
Grendel’s character has roots in Old Norse stories of the draugar , or dead men of supernatural strength who walked at night, spreading evil and terror. Often a draugar had a mother even more terrible than he —a ketta or she-cat.
What earthly virtues did Anglo-Saxons value?
The Epic Hero
The epic hero is the central figure in a long narrative that reflects the values and heroic ideals of a particular society. An epic is a quest story on a grand scale.
Beowulf is ancient England’s hero, but he is also an archetype , or perfect example, of an epic hero.
The hero archetype in Beowulf is the dragon slayer, representing a besieged community facing evil forces that lurk in the cold darkness (Grendel).
Beowulf, the epic hero
Beowulf, like all epic heroes, possesses superior physical strength and supremely ethical
He embodies the highest ideals of Anglo-Saxon culture. In his quest he must defeat monsters that embody dark, destructive powers. At the end of the quest, he is glorified by the people he has saved.
The Oral Tradition
To the anglo-saxon poetry was as important as fighting, hunting, & farming.
The anglo-saxon bard was a honored member of society.
The anglo-saxon communal hall, besides offering shelter and a place for council meetings, provided space for storytellers & their audience
As in other parts of the ancient world (Homeric Greece), skilled story tellers, or bards [ rhapsodes ], sang of gods and heroes.
The Irish allamhs were both historians and entertainers who preserved their culture’s myths & legends. The Irish shanachies , the tellers of tales of history, were entrusted with 178 accounts.
Other cultures have their traditional storytellers, too. These include Navajo singers, who recite stories in Blessingway ceremonies that last for days, and the Inuit of the far north, who use whalebone knives to trace scenes from their traditional stories in the snow and mud.
All these storytellers preserve oral traditions and in the end influence the written literature of their people .
The Anglo-Saxon Storyteller or Bard
The Anglo-Saxons did not regard
these bards – whom they called
scops (pronounced shop) – as inferior to warriors.
The poets sang to the strumming of a harp.
As sources for their improvisational poetry, the storytellers had a rich supply of heroic tales that reflected the concerns of a people constantly under threat of war, disease, or old age.
Beowulf, the text 43 - 48 14 – 17 The Final Battle 36 – 38 12 – 13 The Monster’s Mother 31 – 36 8 – 11 The Battle with Grendel 26 – 31 6 – 7 Unferth’s Challenge 24 - 26 4 – 5 The Arrival of the Hero 21 - 24 1 - 3 The Monster Grendel Page #s Section #s Section Title
The Anglo-Saxons had a custom called wergild , of paying compensation to the relatives of the people they murdered. If the murdered person was not related to the murderer, then this kind of payment was considered satisfactory by the relatives of the victim. No such way of making amends existed, however, for taking the life of one’s own kin.
Anglo-Saxon Concepts continued
According to the Anglo-Saxon code of the comitatus , warriors must defend their lord to the death. Some critics see the failure of Beowulf’s men to come to his aid — a catastrophic breach of comitatus — as an ominous forecast of the demise of the Geats. In ll. 802 – 809 Beowulf wants to see the treasure to assure himself that he has provided for his people’s welfare after he is gone. Dispensing treasure as a symbol of the loyalty between a king and his people, according to the Anglo-Saxon code, is comitatus .
Anglo-Saxon Mead Hall
Herot means “hart” or “stag.” The hart was an Anglo-Saxon symbol of kinship.
Archaeologists have confirmed that Herot was built of wood held together with iron bands. The gabled roof was overlaid with gold, and the floor was inlaid.
The mead hall was a communal gathering place. Warriors gathered here to drink mead and celebrate victories. The community gathered here to hear ancient epic tales told by scops.
In literature, the mead hall symbolizes safety, fellowship, and all that is good in humanity. The Anglo-Saxons lived in a dark, cold, often frightening world. The mead hall was a bright spot in this darkness.