Background► Composed around 700 A.D.► The story had been in circulation as an oral narrative for many years before it was written.► The action of the poem takes place around 500 AD► Poet is reviving the heroic language, style and values and pagan values of ancient Germanic oral poetry► The poem deals with ancient Germanic forebears, the Danes and the Geats► Only a single manuscript of the poem survived the Anglo- Saxon era. In the 1700’s it was nearly destroyed in a fire► It was not until 1936 when the Oxford scholar J.R.R> Tolkien published a paper on the poem that is became popular.
The Beowulf Poet► The poet is Christian► The poem reflects established Christian tradition► Allusions to the Old Testament► Beowulf is a Redeemer who is sent by God to save man from sin► The price of salvation is life itself► Correspondences between Beowulf’s death and the death of Christ
Heroic Values in Beowulf► Relationship between king and his warriors► The king rewards his warriors with gifts► If a kinsman is slain, obligation to kill the slayer or obtain payment (wergeld) in compensation
Conflict Christian Values and Heroic Values► This tension is at the heart of the poem► Pagan history and myth are made to point to a Christian moral► Beowulf is poised between two value systems
The Character of Beowulf► He fights for personal honor, but is committed to service to his own people and humanity.► A superhuman who remains recognizable► Contrast old and young Beowulf► Beowulf as savior
Themes► Good vs. Evil► Fate► The Importance of Establishing Identity► Tension between Heroic Code and Christianity► Significance of artifacts► The past
Important Elements of the Poem► Elegaic tone► Heroic poem► Contrasts Christian and pagan Youth and old age Rise and fall of nations Joy and sorrow Fate and God’s will Violence Irony
Sutton Hoo► Burial site discovered in 1939► Important links to Anglo-Saxon world and Beowulf► Remains of a boat were discovered and large burial chamber containing numerous artifacts► Artifacts suggest a distinctly Christian element intermingled with pagan ritual.► Episodes in Beowulf now have tangible archaeological violence to add creditability to the blend of customs in the text.
Suggested Further Reading► Beowulf, A Verse Translatioin. Trans. Seamus Heaney. Ed. Daniel Donaghue. Norton Critical Edition. 2002.► Norton bibliography on Beowulf , p. 2902.► Websites on Beowulf, Old English poetry, and Sutton Hoo.