The Language and Setting of Beowulf
Since Beowulf was written in Old English, any student studying this poem will be helped by learning something of the history of this language, and understanding the basic elements of Old English poetry.
According to most historians, the Anglo-Saxon period began in 449 and ended in 1066 with the Norman conquest. This was a period of 617 years, almost three times longer than America has been a country. From this period, only some 30,000 lines of poetry remain, about the length of a long best seller. Of this number, 3,182 lines comprise the poem Beowulf.
The Anglo-Saxon language reflects a history fraught with conquest and invasion. Prior to 449, there was already a great deal of conflict in the country. The Britons fought with the Celts, the Picts, and the Scots, even before the waves of invasions by the Romans, the Angles, the Saxons and the Jutes. Although the language retained some elements of these myriad cultures, it remained largely Germanic, sharing many aspects of Old High German, the language spoken in the homeland of the invaders.
Even within the Anglo-Saxon culture there was a great deal of diversity. The invaders settled in many kingdoms, separated by geographic boundaries and by the hostile British. Because of the isolation of each of these kingdoms, sound changes and tribal and individual peculiarities flourished in the different dialects. These differences surfaced mainly in the spelling of various words. The language is frequently divided into four main dialects determined by geography. These are: Northumbrian, Mercian, West-Saxon, and Kentish. After the year 900, West-Saxon was increasingly used as the standard written language, and to this day, students learning Old English are commonly taught the spellings used by the West-Saxons.
Probably a large reason for the dominance of the language of the West-Saxons was that in the year 871 Alfred became ruler of their kingdom, by that point called “Wessex.” Alfred came to be known as a more complex and forceful ruler than any previous king. He was both innovative and devoted to his subjects. To ensure a period of peace, he married his daughter to an ealdorman of Mercia, causing a strengthening alliance within the country which allowed him to more effectively protect his subjects from outside invaders. While his main objective was to ward off Danish invasions, he was also very concerned with the state of law, religion and education within his country.
Although there is no definitive proof, it is not unlikely that Alfred was the inspiration behind one of the longest surviving Anglo-Saxon texts—The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. This is a historical account of the Anglo-Saxon history, beginning with the year 1 A.D. and the birth of Christ, and terminating in the year 1154 with the death of King Stephen. This represents the longest continuous record in Western History. The entries were recorded by monks, and told of battles, famines, monarchs, saints and religious leaders. They began as sparse entries of a sentence or two, but in later years, became extended and detailed descriptions of events. The Chronicle is remarkable in its use of the vernacular. The decline of the use of Latin in ninth century Britain made it necessary for Anglo-Saxon to become a written language, and began a process of refinement and sophistication of the language which would last until the Norman conquest.
Aside from The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Alfred is responsible for translations of biblical texts, treatises on the laws of the land, and other intellectually complicated writings. One notable work, reflecting the fact that during his reign the language became more commonly and more sophisticatedly written, explored his opinions on the necessity of education for his subjects, especially the teaching of writing and reading.
Alfred is one of the few authors of Anglo-Saxon literature about whom anything is known. Most of the work was anonymous, and much of it is quite mysterious and beautiful. Many unusual works, both of prose and of poetry, still survive to fascinate scholars. There are seven divisions of prose writing: The Anglo-Saxon chronicle; the translations of Alfred and his circle; homiletic writings; religious prose, including translations of the Old and New Testaments of the Bible; prose fiction; scientific and technical writings; and laws and charters. In the field of poetry, there are certain subjects which are commonly found: heroic subjects; historic poems; Biblical paraphrases; lives of the saints; other religious poems; short elegies and lyrics, and riddles and gnomic verse.
Closer examination of these poems reveals elements of Anglo-Saxon language usage that are unusual and very powerful. For instance, the riddles employ a practice of using the first person to speak for inanimate objects that helps to bring them alive. The subject of the riddle describes itself and asks to be identified. The answers of the riddle are frequently common, everyday things such as farm implements, items of food and drink, animals, insects, and weapons, helping to give a glimpse into the daily life of the Anglo-Saxons. For instance, one describes mead, one describes a swan, and another describes a one-eyed garlic peddler.
This method of personifying inanimate objects is expanded in one of the most unusual and beautiful of Old English poems, “The Dream of the Rood.” The...
(The entire section is 2221 words.)
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The Poem (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Once, long ago in Hrothgar’s kingdom, a monster named Grendel roamed the countryside at night. Rising from his marshy home, Grendel would stalk to the hall of the king, where he would seize fifteen of Hrothgar’s sleeping warriors and devour them. Departing, he would gather fifteen more into his huge arms and carry them back to his watery lair. For twelve years this slaughter continues.
Word of the terror spreads. In the land of the Geats, ruled over by Hygelac, lives Beowulf, a man of great strength and bravery. When he hears the tale of Hrothgar’s distress, he sets sail for Denmark to rid the land of its fear. With a company of fourteen men he comes ashore and asks a coast watcher to lead him to Hrothgar’s high hall. There he is feasted in great honor while the mead cup goes around the table. Unferth reminds Beowulf of a swimming contest that Beowulf was said to have lost. Beowulf says only that he has more strength and that he also slaughtered many deadly monsters in the sea. At the close of the feast, Hrothgar and his warriors go to their rest, leaving Beowulf and his band in the hall. Then the awful Grendel comes to the hall and seizes one of the sleeping warriors. He is fated to kill no more that night, for Beowulf without shield or spear seizes the dreaded monster and wrenches off his right arm. Thus maimed, Grendel flees to his marshland home. His bloody arm is hung in Hrothgar’s hall.
The next night Grendel’s mother comes to avenge her son. Bursting into the great hall, she seizes one of the warriors, Aeschere, Hrothgar’s chief counselor, and flees with him into the night. She also takes with her the prized arm of Grendel. Beowulf is asleep in a house removed from the hall and not until morning does he learn of the monster’s visit. Then, with Hrothgar leading the way, a mournful procession approaches the dire marsh. At its edge they see the head of the ill-fated Aeschere and see the stain of blood on the water. Beowulf prepares for a descent to the home of the foe. Unferth offers Beowulf the finest sword in...
(The entire section is 839 words.)
Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
Heorot (HEH-oh-rot). Headquarters of the aging Danish ruler Hrothgar. The great timbered hall is elaborately described, for only here can human beings be, within limits, civilized. (The unnamed great hall of the warrior-hero Beowulf’s uncle, King Hygelac of the Geats, resembles Heorot.) A great open hall with smaller divisions, Heorot is adorned with gold. Its approach is by a stone-paved road. It has benches and tables at which the retainers of Hrothgar sit. At night it is lit by torches, and its light reaches out to the surrounding wild. It is only within the king’s hall that court poets can tell and retell the heroic and dreadful tales of the northern peoples, for these tales demand a proper setting...
(The entire section is 640 words.)
Lines 1-370 Questions and Answers
1. Why is Hrothgar’s lineage given?
2. Why is Grendel’s lineage given?
3. What is Herot?
4. Why did Hrothgar build Herot?
5. Why did Herot lay empty for 12 years?
6. Why did Grendel attack Herot?
7. Why hasn’t Hrothgar rid Herot of Grendel?
8. Why does Beowulf come to Denmark?
9. Why does the sentry personally lead Beowulf and his men to Herot after hearing their reason for coming to Denmark?
10. Why does Wulfgar, the herald, urge Hrothgar to see Beowulf?
1. Hrothgar’s lineage is given to establish that he is a king. It also serves to...
(The entire section is 488 words.)
Lines 371–835 Questions and Answers
1. How does Hrothgar know of Beowulf?
2. What information does Beowulf’s greeting to Hrothgar include?
3. What are the activities at the feast?
4. How does Unferth taunt Beowulf?
5. What is Beowulf’s response to Unferth’s taunts?
6. How does Welthow react to Beowulf?
7. Why does Beowulf meet Grendel bare-handed?
8. How may Grendel’s attack be described?
9. Why are the Geats’ weapons useless when they rush to Beo-wulf’s aid?
10. What is done with the prize of the battle?
1. Years prior to Grendel’s attacks, Beowulf’s father,...
(The entire section is 690 words.)
Lines 836–1,250 Questions and Answers
1. Why do the crowds come to Herot?
2. What is the song of Siegmund?
3. Who is Hermod?
4. How does Hrothgar express his gratitude to Beowulf?
5. How does Beowulf describe the battle with Grendel when speaking to Hrothgar?
6. What is the song of Finn?
7. What is it Welthow tells Hrothgar when the songs are finished?
8. What does she say to Beowulf?
9. What is to happen to Herot once this feast is over?
10. What are the soldiers’ sleeping arrangements?
1. The crowds come to Herot in order to trace Grendel’s path from Herot to the edge of the...
(The entire section is 579 words.)
Lines 1,251–1,650 Questions and Answers
1. What happens the first night the Danes return to sleep in Herot?
2. Why does Grendel’s mother flee from Herot?
3. Why does Hrothgar send for Beowulf?
4. How does Beowulf respond to Hrothgar’s request?
5. Where does Hrothgar lead Beowulf?
6. How may the lake containing Grendel’s mother and her lair be described?
7. Why is Beowulf careful to wear his armor?
8. How does Unferth’s behavior toward Beowulf change now?
9. How does Beowulf attempt to save his life when he realizes his weapons and helmet are ineffective?
10. What are Hrothgar and his soldiers doing while Beowulf...
(The entire section is 561 words.)
Lines 1,651–1,887 Questions and Answers
1. What is the sign of victory Beowulf gives to Hrothgar?
2. How does Beowulf feel his life was saved?
3. What does Hrothgar do when Beowulf gives him the sword hilt?
4. What happened to the magical giants who made the sword?
5. What is the story of Hermod?
6. What, specifically, is Hrothgar warning Beowulf about in telling this story?
7. What is the occasion for Unferth’s visit?
8. What promises does Beowulf make as he takes his leave of Hrothgar?
9. Hrothgar says he is pleased with Beowulf for what reasons?
10. Why does Hrothgar weep?
(The entire section is 574 words.)
Lines 1,888–2,220 Questions and Answers
1. What does Beowulf give the boat watcher?
2. How are the Geats greeted once they arrive home?
3. What is the story of Thrith?
4. Why didn’t Higlac initially allow Beowulf to go to Hrothgar’s aid when they first heard of the monsters threatening Herot?
5. What is Beowulf’s opinion of Hrothgar’s plan concerning Ingeld and Freaw?
6. What is the heritage of the gifts Beowulf gives Higlac from Hrothgar?
7. What gift does Higlac bestow upon Beowulf?
8. At what point in the family lineage does Beowulf agree to assume the throne of Geatland?
9. How long does Beowulf rule peacefully?
(The entire section is 556 words.)
Lines 2,221–2,601 Questions and Answers
1. How did the tower come to be the dragon’s lair?
2. Why does the dragon burn down the Geats’ homes?
3. What is Beowulf’s reaction to this?
4. What does he order made for his battle with the dragon?
5. How is Herbald killed?
6. What does Beowulf say in his farewell speech to his followers?
7. How does Beowulf call the dragon?
8. How does the dragon respond to this?
9. Why does Beowulf lose the battle?
10. Where are his followers as he is losing the battle?
1. The last remaining member of an ancient race built the tower before he died to...
(The entire section is 459 words.)
Lines 2,602–3,057 Questions and Answers
1. How did Wiglaf come to own his armor?
2. Why does Wiglaf go to Beowulf’s aid?
3. How is Beowulf mortally wounded?
4. How do the two men kill the dragon?
5. What is it Beowulf asks of Wiglaf after he is wounded?
6. When Wiglaf returns from fulfilling Beowulf’s request, what further request is made of him by Beowulf?
7. What does Wiglaf say to Beowulf’s followers when they return?
8. What is the message he sends with the herald to the people?
9. What is the Swedes’ argument with the Geats?
10. What is it the warriors see that causes them to weep?
(The entire section is 574 words.)
Lines 3,058–3,182 Questions and Answers
1. What does Wiglaf vainly attempt to tell Beowulf before he seeks the dragon?
2. According to Wiglaf, what are Beowulf’s post-mortem instructions?
3. Who is to bring wood for Beowulf’s funeral?
4. Why does Wiglaf bring the seven noblest Geats to the dragon’s treasure?
5. What is done with the dragon’s corpse?
6. How may the Geatish king’s funeral pyre be described?
7. What do the Geats do as the fire is burning?
8. How long does it take to build the tomb Beowulf has asked for?
9. Why do 12 of the bravest Geats ride around the tower?
10. In the closing lines of the poem, how...
(The entire section is 385 words.)
Compare and Contrast
Topics for Further Study
What Do I Read Next?
Bibliography and Further Reading
Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Sources for Further Study
Bjork, Robert E., and John D. Niles, eds. A “Beowulf ”Handbook. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997. Includes an essay explaining how overtly Christian and Germanic pre-Christian elements are blended in the portrait of the hero and throughout the narrative.
Booklist 96 (February 15, 2000): 1073. A review of Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf.
Bloom, Harold, ed. Modern Critical Interpretations: “Beowulf.” New York: Chelsea House, 1987. Collection containing important essays by J. R. R. Tolkien and Fred C. Robinson establishing the...
(The entire section is 479 words.)