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...
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