The Anglo-Saxons and Beowulf
The Anglo-Saxons and Beowulf
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 antiquityIt is like a piece of ancient armor; rusty and battered, and yet strong.Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
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.
Anglo-Saxon Era: TimelineAnglo-Saxon societyPagan vs. ChristianityAnglo-Saxon LiteratureBeowulfResourcesTable of Contents
43 CE Romans invade Britain.Encountered the Celts.Romans build roads, villas, huge buildings, and forts.Introduced Christianity.420 CE Romans leave.The Anglo-Saxon Era: Timeline
450 CE Jutes from Denmark, and the Angles and Saxons from Northern Germany invade England.Germanic tribes.Anglo-Saxons push out Celts597 CE Anglo-Saxons become Christian
787 CE Viking raids begin871-899 CE King Alfred the Great becomes King of England.Established education systems, rebuilt monasteries.Fought Danes and forced them from Wessex.Unified Anglo-Saxons under one king to resist the Viking invasions.Danes ruled in the North, Anglo-Saxons in the South.1066 CE Norman Conquest by William the Conqueror.From Norman French.Defeated Danes and Anglo-Saxons.Officially ended Anglo-Saxon era and brought about the beginning of the Medieval Period.Timeline Continued
Anglo-Saxon society.Lived in tribal groups with a high class of warriors.Kings emerged as society developed.Spoke Old English. This was the language that Beowulf was written in.Became Christian but still valued heroic ideals and traditional heroes.Their culture valued human contact, family, virtue, and a good story. They feared humiliation and loneliness in their lives. In addition, the Anglo-Saxons desired richness, power, and appreciated heroic actions of warriors.
PaganStrong nature presenceStrength of the warriorGod is mentioned by two of the main characters in the poem: Beowulf and Hrothgar.Grendel as LuciferBoth are outcastsPerform a task for GodGrendel is described as a son or descendant of Cain, a clear Biblical reference.Pagan vs. Christianity in BeowulfChristianityThe Anglo-Saxons mixed both pagan and Christian traditions. Beowulf contains traces of both beliefs.
Anglo-Saxon literature began as an oral tradition. Stories, poems, and songs were all told aloud and passed from generation to generation orally through minstrels (also called scops).Poems traditionally had a strong beat, alliteration, and no rhyme.Caesura: a cutting. A break in a line of poetry, used in Old English to depict a half line. We use a comma for a modern effect.i.e. Da com of moreunder mistheleopum Out from the marsh, from the foot of the hills.Kenning: derived from the Norse word kenna which means to know, to recognize. It is a compact metaphor that functions as a name.i.e. helmberend: Helm bearer or warriorAnglo-Saxon Literature
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, its full of revelations.It gives us information about Old English social life and politics.
Why Is Beowulf Important?
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.
Language of the Age
Beowulf is the most well-known Anglo-Saxon poem, and is a form of poetry called Epic. Such other examples are Homers The Iliad and The Odissey.Long narrative that celebrates a heros long journeys and heroic deeds.J.R.R. Tolkiens The Lord of the Ring series and George Lucas Stars Wars could be called modern epics.Characteristics include a noble hero whose character traits reflect their societys ideals. The hero performs brave acts and appears superhuman.
The epic poem Beowulf strengthens the Heroic Code. This code was derived from the Anglo-Saxons Germanic roots, and called for strength, courage, and loyalty in warriors. It also required kings to be hospitable, generous, and have great political skills. This code was a basis for Anglo-Saxon honor.Heroic Code
Universal themes of epic poetryGood vs. EvilBeowulf vs. GrendelIsolationCourage and honorBeowulf is fearless and brave while fighting the monsters.Gods or semi-divine creaturesGrendel, Grendels mother, the dragonTale involves the fate of an entire raceBeowulf saves Hrothgars village from Grendel.
Common Themes of an Epic Poem
Takes the form of a long narrative poem about a quest, told in formal, elevated languageNarrates the exploits of a larger-than-life hero who embodies the values of a particular cultureBegins with a statement of subject and theme and, sometimes, a prayer to a deityDeals with events on a large scaleUses many of the conventions of oral storytelling, such as repetition, sound effects, figures of speech, and stock epithetsOften includes gods and goddesses as charactersMixes myth, legend, and history [Holt 55]
Common Themes of an Epic
Most famous of early Germanic poemsWritten anywhere between 400-1000, but most likely after the 500s.The author is unknown, but likely to be Christian. It is likely that a few different authors elaborated on the tale.Takes place in Sweden, Denmark, and Frisia.The Norse were at this time attacking Britain, thus allowing knowledge of places, people, and ancestors to be available.
Beowulf: main character, a hero featuring all the qualities of an epic hero. He has superhuman strength and is fearless and brave in battle.Hrothgar: the king of the village that Beowulf saves from Grendel.Grendel: a monster terrorizing Hrothgars village.Grendels mother: a monster set out to avenge her sons death.Characters
View of Grandel
Beowulf travels to Hrothgars village to save them from Grendel, a terrifying monster eating their warriors. An epic battle ensues with Beowulf is the winner. Grendels mother comes seeking vengeance for her sons death. Again, Beowulf is called upon to save them all, and he fights heroically and defeats the evil monster. After being vastly rewarded and refusing an offer from Hrothgar to be his heir, Beowulf makes the long trek back to his homeland where he becomes a mighty and generous king for many years. He fights a massive dragon who is threatening his people. He and the dragon both die in the struggle, but he is heroic until the end.The Plotin six sentences.
Stern, barbarous lifeReligious feeling, fatalism of Anglo-SaxonMixtures of savagery, sentiment, and nobilityLove of nature and especially being influenced by the seaCommon sense, power of endurance, seriousness of thoughtEmotional, imaginative, sensitive.
Anglo Saxon Elements in the Poem
Love of gloryAllegiance to lord or kingReverence for womenLove of personal freedomOpen-handed hospitality of lord to thaneHonoring truthRepression of too much sentiment
Ideals of Society
Old English ExampleOld English circa 500CE-1100CECyning means king, so Cyningas must mean kings.
What other words look familiar to todays language?