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Introductory Lecture and Objectives
Beowulf epitomizes the epic genre: a long narrative poem written in an elevated style that relates the trials and great achievements of an idealized hero. In this poem, Anglo-Saxon warriors live by the Heroic Code, which demands loyalty and a life lived honorably. The epic’s hero, the Geat (Swedish) Introductory warrior Beowulf, wins glory by coming to the aid of Hrothgar, an aging Danish king besieged by the monster Grendel. Beowulf battles and beats Grendel and Grendel’s fearsome mother, becomes king over his own people, rules his land well for fifty years, and, finally, meets his death when he kills a dragon that threatens his people.
The values and culture reflected in Beowulf belong to a bygone age of strong kings ruling over small tribes that frequently war with each other. The king, or thane, bestows treasure on his warriors to reward them for their loyalty and competence in battle, and tales of the warriors’ feats are passed along through generations. In Beowulf, stories about the trials and tribulations of historical heroes such as Shield Sheafson, the progenitor of the Danish royal line, serve as digressions meant to entertain and to accentuate Beowulf’s accomplishments as the hero.
In addition to digressions, the epic contains literary devices that reflect the Old English in which it was first written: kennings, short and often hyphenated metaphorical descriptions used in place of a thing’s name (e.g., sea-rider = ship; ring-giver = king), and alliteration, the repetition of the initial consonant sound in two or more words in a line. In the original Beowulf, alliteration appears in every line, and kennings are found throughout the text. Both kennings and alliteration are mnemonic devices that aid memory; their frequent presence in Beowulf reflects how the story was first shared, told orally as it was passed down through generations. Caesuras, a break or pause in a line of poetry, usually in the middle of a line, and epithets, a descriptive expression (a word or phrase), often preceding or following a name which serves to describe the character (e.g., Beowulf, son of Ecgtheow), are additional literary devices used throughout Beowulf and are characteristic of Anglo-Saxon poetry.
While the story takes place in what is now Denmark and Sweden, Beowulf is the oldest surviving piece of literature in the English language. It may have been created orally as early as AD 700 before it was written down in Old English, the language of the Anglo-Saxons, most likely around AD 1000. A resurgence of literary interest in the poem occurred during the 1800s; as the work lacked an author or a title, scholars at that time named it after its Scandinavian hero, Beowulf.
The epic reflects the philosophical beliefs and cultural values of the pagan Saxons, but by the time Beowulf was transcribed, most Anglo-Saxons had converted to Christianity. Consequently, essential elements of Christian theology and numerous biblical allusions were incorporated into the text, creating obvious contradictions within its content: God is supreme, but Wyrd (fate) rules men’s lives; Grendel is a mythical monster with supernatural powers, but he is also “a fiend out of hell” who “[works] his evil in the world”; and Grendel and his race of monsters are cast as the direct descendants of Cain, forever banished by the Creator for the original sin of murdering Abel. The presence of Christian theology in Beowulf, however, is only a thin literary veneer; the circumstances of the story itself and its violent, mythical events remain pagan in content and tone as the Heroic Code is embraced through the character of Beowulf. Additionally, the importance of revenge and the prevalence of blood feuds were central to the heroic culture and contrast completely with Christian values of peace and forgiveness.
Beowulf is a deceptively simple tale in terms of plot: Goodness confronts and ultimately destroys evil. However, significant and often complex ideas are developed through symbolism: the intrinsic value of community, the true nature of evil, and the essential importance of filial and tribal identity. Preserved for more than a thousand years, the poem reflects a culture far different from our own, yet the ideals of loyalty, courage, and sacrifice it celebrates transcend cultural differences and resonate with modern readers. Additionally, the influence of Beowulf as an ideal hero can been seen in various forms of contemporary literature and in the media.
By the end of the unit the student will be able to:
1. Identify the primary themes in Beowulf.
2. Identify the symbols developed in Beowulf and discuss their significance.
3. Identify the common roots of the Heroic Code (reputation, honor, and loyalty) and of identity (filial and tribal) and discuss how these are developed thematically in the poem.
4. Determine and define the elements that make Beowulf one of the most celebrated epics of all time.
5. Identify examples of pagan values and Christian beliefs and explain the notions of “good” and “evil” illustrated in the poem.
6. Consider and discuss the themes of fame and glory, especially in regard to Beowulf’s character.
7. Identify examples of the motifs of monsters, demons, death, and violence and discuss their significance.
8. Explain how, and through which characters, revenge is exacted throughout the poem.
9. Identify examples of kennings and alliteration and discuss their value as mnemonic devices.
10. Compare and contrast Beowulf and Hrothgar as kings.