Published on February 7, 2008
Background: The Time and Place: Background: The Time and Place Imagine a time when tribes from northern Europe regularly raided one another’s shores to loot and burn each other’s settlements; when great warriors feasted, drank, and bragged of their bloody conquests in huge mead halls (banquet halls named after the fermented honey wine drunk there); when kings bestowed riches upon their bravest warriors to retain their allegiance; and when people believed in monsters and dragons. That time was the sixth or seventh century- the period in which Beowulf, the oldest known English literary work is set. Background: The Time and Place: Background: The Time and Place The tale of Beowulf is not set in England, however, nor are its characters English. The story, which takes place in Scandinavia, involves the Geats, a tribe from southern Sweden, and the Danes, a tribe from Denmark. So, how did Beowulf come to be the first great literary work of England? During the 500s and 600s, Scandinavian tribes invaded and settled the territory that would become known as England. Wherever they settled, stories like Beowulf traveled with them. Scholars believe that a scop, or storyteller, first set Beowulf down in writing sometime in the 700s. However, the oldest known manuscript was written nearly 300 years later. Transmission of the Epic: Transmission of the Epic Beowulf was first transmitted orally for one to three centuries, then written down in about 1000 A.D. by two English scribes. Their manuscript, considered one of the great heirlooms of world literature, is now preserved in the British Library. The scribes' manuscript was earlier held in the library of Sir Robert Cotton (1571-1631). After fire ravaged the library in 1731, the manuscript was rescued by British authorities. Author’s Style: Author’s Style Verse (poetry) with a caesura (si’zjeura) (pause) within each line. The lines contain caesuras to represent the pauses that speakers normally use to establish a rhythm or to help convey meaning. Example: “Only to die, to wait for the end” Epic Structure: Epic Structure Beowulf is divided chronologically into two main sections: one that focuses on Beowulf as a young man and one that focuses on him as an old man. In terms of action, it is divided into three main sections: one that introduces the characters and describes Beowulf's conquest of Grendel, one that describes Beowulf's defeat of Grendel's mother, and one that describes Beowulf's defeat of the dragon with the help of Wiglaf. Epic Sources: Epic Sources Pagan myths, fables, Scandinavian history, Biblical and Christian history. Epic Themes: Epic Themes Goodness conquers evil. Actions (Beowulf's) speak louder than words Judge the greatness of a human being by the greatness of his deeds and his noble ancestry. Help thy neighbor. (Beowulf risks his life to help a neighbor, King Hrothgar, in trouble.) Forces of darkness--irrational, menacing--are always at work in society. Epic Imagery: Epic Imagery Mostly alliteration and metaphor. Many apparent hyperboles describing the feats of Beowulf are not true hyperboles, since what appear to be exaggerations--such as a passage saying Beowulf swam from Sweden to Finland or a passage saying Beowulf had the strength of thirty--were intended to be taken literally. Kennings--a hyphenated terms such as whale-road for sea--occur frequently in Beowulf. They are a form of metaphor. The Geats: The Geats The Geats were Beowulf's clan - a seafaring tribe residing in the south of Sweden. The last few lines of the poem suggest the Geats appear to have been conquered and disappeared into history. Speculation is that Beowulf himself was born in about the year 495. He defeats Grendel and his mother to save Hroðgar's kingdom in 515. Following Hygelac's raid in 520, he eventually becomes king of the Geats when Heardred was killed in 533. Fifty years after that, the poem says that Beowulf is killed by the dragon, but few scholars are willing to commit to any specific date. The Danes: The Danes The Danes were residents of Denmark. Hroðgar's Heorot is likely to have been located on the island of Sjaelland near the present day city of Roskilde. Grendel: Grendel Grendel was a monster, one of a giant race which survived the great flood, slain by Beowulf. It is told that his origins stretch back to Cain, who killed Abel. He is of particular cause of trouble to Hrothgar because of his disregard for law and custom: he refuses to negotiate a peace settlement or to accept tributes of gold. Grendel’s Mother: Grendel’s Mother Grendel's mother is supposedly a smaller creature than her son. She is a vengeful creature who illustrates the constant cycle of war in the poem, even when the enemy appears to be defeated. Grendel and His Mother: Grendel and His Mother As part of a mythical giant race, both Grendel and his mother appear impervious to normal swords, hence the difficulty the Danes must have had in trying to deal with them. Beowulf eventually finds a sword forged by the giants themselves in order to defeat them, but their blood runs hot enough to melt even that blade. Christian Elements: Christian Elements Beowulf is heavily embedded with Christian elements as are most early texts. However, one can easily change the Christian elements to pagan by the replacement of a word or omission of a phrase, thus seeing how scribes may have done so in the past. Reversing the Christianizing process, we may see that at some point, Beowulf may have been an entirely pagan text. What is clear about the religious coloring of Beowulf is that while it is clearly Christian, there is little Christian doctrine. References are only to the Old Testament narratives and concepts easily refigured from their pagan equivalents. It seems that Beowulf tells of a period in the midst of religious change being neither entirely pagan, nor fully Christian [or to be an attempt to integrate Germanic history into an old testament time frame]. Possible Reasons?: Possible Reasons? The sympathetic treatment of the pagan values in Beowulf provides a framework that allowed the Christian to admire the pagan. the poet knew of the ambivalence of the symbolism used and utilized these to his advantage Example: The great hall and the treasure seem to embody grandeur and wealth, the hero's reward, while to the Christian audience they exemplify man's pride and are to be viewed as costly and worthless Christian Elements: Christian Elements We can classify these Christian elements: Passages containing biblical history or allusions to some scriptural narrative. These include references to Cain, Abel, and the flood. Passages containing expressions in disapproval of heathen ideas or heathen worship. There is one of these in the introduction to the Danes near the beginning of the poem. Passages containing references to symbolism distinctively Christian: references to heaven, hell, and the day of judgment. We can find ten cases in the text. Incidental allusions to the Christian God. We can find some fifty-three cases. PAGAN ELEMENTS: PAGAN ELEMENTS Beowulf's funeral ship The observance of omens The practice of cremation Gold/wealth as a hero’s reward Ancient warrior society – the thane and his lord Boasting Lack of belief in an after-life – pagan immortality Concept of fate – wyrd Monsters Beowulf- Grendel’s Beginning: Beowulf- Grendel’s Beginning Long ago, in the gray mists of the Danish marshes, a monster born of the hatred of Cain rises up to terrorize Heorot, the great mead hall of King Hrothgar. Until the beast's appearance, Hrothgar's kingdom--and the kingdoms of his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather, the long-remembered and much-loved Scyld Scefing--had prospered without fear of the vile shadow creatures in the forests, lakes, fens and caves. But one day, the sounds of good cheer and merriment at Heorot enrage the Cain-born monster Grendel. So he crosses over from his netherworld into the realm of men to kill and destroy. He preys on Heorot after nightfall, consuming up to thirty warriors in a single raid. Beowulf: Call for Help: Beowulf: Call for Help For twelve years, Grendel's raids continue, robbing Hrothgar of men-at-arms and plunging the court into a deep abyss of qualm and trepidation. To the east, in the land of the Geats in Sweden, a mighty warrior named Beowulf--nephew of the King of the Geats, Hygelac--hears of the plight of Heorot and sails across the dark seas with fourteen lusty men to come to Hrothgar's aid. After Beowulf presents himself at Heorot, he tells tales of his exploits: how he battled trolls, killed sea beasts, and painted himself red with the blood of his enemies. Hrothgar, a friend of Beowulf's father in earlier times, greets Beowulf warmly and welcomes his help. Beowulf: A Critic: Beowulf: A Critic But Unferth, an envious Heorot warrior full of drink, scoffs at Beowulf's exploits, claiming Beowufl lost a swimming match at sea lasting seven days. Noble Beowulf then defends his honor with his own account of the match. One day he and his childhood friend, Breca, decided to test their swimming prowess, one against the other, in a sea match, each carrying a sword for protection against the ocean beasts. On and on they swam for five days until the roil and pitch of the water separated them and foul beasts churned up from the depths. One by one, Beowulf slaughtered the beasts, nine in all, until calm returned and Beowulf washed up on the shore of Finland. Beowulf next lays a heavy charge against Unferth: Rather than satisfying his blood lust on the field of battle fighting enemies, he resorts to fighting and killing his own kin, a crime for which he will burn in hell. So speaks Beowulf. And, Beowulf asks, if Unferth is so great a warrior, why has he not ended Grendel's raids? Beowulf: The Hero: Beowulf: The Hero After Hrothgar's wife, Queen Wealhtheow, welcomes Beowulf, he vows to fight Grendel that very night without weapons. The Danes bed down. Beowulf and the Geats await the arrival of Grendel in the mead hall. They know he will come; it is only a matter of time.By and by, the hell-beast opens the door in the darkest hour of the night--thirsting for blood, his eyes aflame--and attacks and kills a Geat, consuming limbs and lumps of flesh. Turning then to Beowulf, Grendel wields an open claw against the hero. But Beowulf, thirty times more strong of arm than any other mortal, locks into Grendel with a hand grip so powerful that the monster cannot shake it. As the great hall trembles at the fury of the battle, Beowulf's men strike at the beast. But their swords do no not penetrate, for no weapon forged in fire can harm Grendel. No matter. In the end mighty Beowulf wrenches off Grendel's arm, and the beast flees, mortally wounded. Beowulf: Grendel’s Mother: Beowulf: Grendel’s Mother The following day, Heorot rejoices and Hrothgar heaps praise on Beowulf. Unferth has nothing to say when the they see the arm of Grendel, its claws harder than the hardest iron. The hall is then repaired, a feast is given, songs are sung, tales are told, and gifts are presented. But the rejoicing is short-lived. For, when night falls, Grendel's mother wrathfully descends upon the hall, kills Hrothgar's counselor, Aeschere, and drags him into the bogs. Beowulf and Hrothgar follow with warriors, but Beowulf chooses to battle the monster alone under water. Sea hellions come to her aid and tear and rip at the Geat. When he strikes her with his sword, it does not pierce. She strikes back with a dagger. By the grace of God, Beowulf's chainmail deflects it. He then sees a great sword in her armory, a weapon brandished long ago by giants who walked the earth. In spite of its impossible weight, Beowulf wields it against the hell-beast's neck and kills it. When he sees the corpse of Grendel nearby, Beowulf beheads it and returns to Heorot with his trophy. Beowulf: The Aftermath: Beowulf: The Aftermath After more rejoicing, Beowulf receives a bounty of gifts and returns home to the land of the Geats. There, he presents his gifts to King Hygelac and tells him of his great adventures. Hygelac, in turn, rewards Beowulf with a vast estate. Years pass. After Hygelac and his son die in battle, Beowulf becomes king and reigns for fifty years. Beowulf: More Controversy: Beowulf: More Controversy Then great terror spreads across the realm of the Geats after a dragon abandons its lair to wreak death and destruction by breathing fire. The dragon is furious because an intruder had entered its lair and took a gem-studded goblet from a hoard of treasure the fire-breather had been guarding since ages past. Beowulf: The Hero Strikes Again: Beowulf: The Hero Strikes Again Beowulf, now a very old man, ventures forth with eleven warriors to send the monster to hell. But after Beowulf engages the dragon in battle, all his cohorts retreat save for one--brave Wiglaf--who goes to his master's aid. In a storm of smoke and fire, Beowulf slays the dragon with the help of Wiglaf. But, alas, Beowulf suffers a poisonous wound. Beowulf: The Death: Beowulf: The Death Realizing he will soon die, Beowulf bids Wiglaf to bring forth a sampling of the dragon's treasure hoard that he may look upon it, and Wiglaf does his bidding. Beowulf gives thanks to God for the treasure that will sustain his people in times to come, then dies after instructing Wiglaf to have a barrow (a mound of earth or stones) constructed to mark the burial site of his remains from the funeral pyre. Wiglaf banishes the ten deserters and arranges for the king's funeral even as new troubles loom on the horizon--wars with neighboring tribes, including the Franks and the Frisians.