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the oldest of the great long poems written in English more than 1200 years ago
composed in the first half of the 8th century
deals with their Germanic forebears, with 2 south Scandinavian tribes--the Danes and the Geats.
concerns a time following the initial invasion of England by Germanic tribes in 449 (5th~6th Cent.)
the composer Christianizes most of the supernatural references and softens the bloody overtones of the original poem (to remove the pagan deities

Beowulf reflects a Christian tradition and the warrior society

God: the Creator of all things; the ruler of the Heavens
God's will: identical with fate (wyrd)
Grendel: descendent of Cain
the race of giant destroyed by flood ; the dead await God's judgement
But no reference to the New Testament
Beowulf  also reflects an ancient pagan, warrior society tradition, as shown in the sense of tragic waste.


calls powerful responses from people of that time though it was several centuries after the conversion of the English
In the warrior society, the values the poem invokes are:
  1) human relationship between the warrior (the thane) and his lord--mutual trust and respect, loyalty
treasure--a kind of visible proof that all parties are realizing themselves to the full in a spiritual sense; symbolic importance (spiritual material; give honor/worth, value; ultimate achievement) The warrior society centered in the mead-hall provided by the lord for his and their protection Gift-giving: acknowledging one's worth    (primitive and sophisticated) Boasting: challenging yourself to gain renown, reputation: feeling of worth

relationship between kinsmen to exact wergild (manprice) or to take vengeance for their kinsmen's death
the need to take vengeance created never-ending feuds, bloodshed, a vast web of reprisals and counter-reprisals   (a strong sense of doom)
fatal evil: Grendel and the dragon In undertaking to slay Grendel, and later Grendel's mother, Beowulf is testing his relationship with unknowable destiny. Whether he lives or dies, he will have done all that any man could do to develop his character heroically
courage/ fate / "the boasting"
pagan immortality--the memory in the minds of later generation; through the writing of the poet.


Existential:  death/darkness closing in-- each day, pushing death away
Belonging to finding something meaningful; basic to all men
1) What is the function of the sea in Beowulf?
2) What happens in the Finnsburg episode? What is the relationship of this interpolated tale to the rest of the poem?


Kennings in Beowulf (as a synonym for a simple noun)

Ship:  "the bent-necked wood," "the ringed prow," "the foamy-necked," "the sea-wood," "the sea-farer"
Sea:   "the swan-road"   "the whale-road" "the sea-bird's baths"
Sword: "the leaving of the file"   "battle-lightning"
Dragon: "the twilight-spoiler"
Battle:  "the storm of swords"
Queen:  "peace-bringer among nations"
Lord/king:   "the protector of warriors;" "ring-giver;"  "dispenser of treasure


Techniques and Themes

Techniques: alliteration; kenning; boasting; litotes (understatements); interlacing (digression) story; epic
Themes:   the transience and the potentiality--or inevitability--of sudden attack, sudden change, swift eath is omnipresent in    Beowulf. There is little hope to escape--the strong sense of doom.
Feud: the tragic waste--the system of revenge repeated in the poem  feud peace feud
Wars settled by Beowulf peach kept Beowulf's death feud going on again the contest /eternal conflict between dark and light, good and evil
Fate: "fate often saves the undoomed man when his courage is good." "God often saves the man when his  courage is good."  Fate: God's will and one's own courage together (p. 40) Courage is the quality that can perhaps influence Fate.
But Beowulf himself is chiefly concerned not with tribal feuds but with fatal evil that threatens to the security of the lands. Because the evil monsters are outside the normal order of things, they require of their conqueror something greater than normal warfare requires. Unlike Beowulf, the old Hrothgar lacks this quality that later impels the old Beowulf to fight the dragon. Hrothgar is not the kind of man to develop his human potential to the fullest extent that Fate would permit: that is Beowulf's role.
Boasting:  a warrior's tradition--a way of forcing oneself to achieve a higher level, to find the best.  When one boasts, he is choosing the heroic way of life. One's boast becomes a vow; the hero has put himself in a position from which he cannot withdraw.
Treasure :Beowulf gives the gift received from Hrothgar to Hygelac, his king (p.55)--a gesture of good will, a gesture of generosity. These gifts are proof of Beowulf's value/worth as a warrior. p.40
Understatement(to say less than might be said; a typical way of speaking in old English)


"He had no need to be ashamed before fighting men of those rich gifts." (p. 40)
 "There was no need for the Hetware to exult in the foot-battle when they bore their shields against him: few came again from that warrior to seek their homes." (Most of them died)

Stories of Sigmund and Heremod told by a scop (bard) seem to be material outside the epic--digression(sth. not to the point)--stories of earlier heros--but actually not.
Interlacing (weaving things together)

Ex.  Unferth tells the story of Beowulf's swimming contest with Breca (p. 33) which leads to the story of Beowulf's fight with water monsters. This story is repeated later as Beowulf fights with Grendel's mother.

Grendel's mother's revenge
A simple story told in complicated way to make it rich. The seeming digression is actually interlacing (a way oo understatement, too) --for comparison and contrast.  ex. Unferth & Beowulf

Unferth (a false hero; lost his name for valor)  Beowulf (a real hero; glory and fame)Beowulf (a good king: comfort to his people)  Heremod (a bad ruler, proud, brutal, cruel) p.49

the basic contradiction in social fabric of the time:


a warrior taking risk to become greatest possible hero, to get glory and protect his people. But sometimes these two values (to get fame and to protect people) cannot be reconciled just like Beowulf at the end who dies after fighting with the dragon and leaves his people leaderless, unprotected. ( --to develop heroism to the highest as a hero =/= --to protect his people)
 the problem of feud (tragic waste): the system of revenge brings no long peace to avenge one's kinsmen's death yet lead constant fighting. Sometimes the king's daughter is used as peace bringer; manprice--wergild--a way to end feud Grendel's mother's revenge & dragon's revenge


the society in Beowulf:  quite high civilization, not primitive,  have good manner
Beowulf: an epic, not as complete as Homer's epics more elegy than epic: a poem honoring Beowulf: his heroic exploits and his death-- the past hero--honoring the past way of life
The poet honored the hero and the end of a cultural group far earlier in the old English period to take the past of old culture that is coming to an end and a good start of new Christian culture.  The poem ends with Beowulf's death: the old society, something beautiful has passed away Human--mortality


Study Questions on Beowulf:

  1. What qualities should a king possess?
  2. What significance does "treasure" have to these kings and warriors?  In Beowulf's last speeches, he will again touch on the importance of treasure.   Why is treasure important?
  3. What special meaning does a hall like Heorot have to them?
  4. Following a feast or a happy event, the poet always foretells a disaster or a war and vice versa.   What do you think about the purpose of this arrangement?
  5. Give at least two example of each synecdoche, metonymy, and litotes from the text.
  6. Point out at least three kennings in the text.
  7. Describe how you see the relationships between the warriors and their lord in Beowulf.
  8. Give some examples of the Christian elements in Beowulf.
  9. Give some examples of the pagan (non-Christian) elements in Beowulf. Which influence is stronger in Beowulf, the pagan or the Christian?
  10. Describe Beowulf's character. How do you compare him with Hrothgar as the king?  How do you contrast the young and old Beowulf?
  11. Does Beowulf's funeral remind you of anything at the beginning of the poem?
  12. What has been your experience in reading Beowulf?


Relevant Links

Beowulf Resources - bibliography, manuscripts, etc.
Adventures of Beowulf - a serialized adaptation from the Old English version by Dr. David Breeden.
Forgotten Ground Regained - alliterative poetry in the style of Beowulf or Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: original poetry by Paul Deane and links to epics, resources, and essays.
Beowulf: The Last Moments




[Medieval Literature] [Christian Tradition] [Techniques & Themes]

[Kennings] [Study Questions] [Relevant Links]