- The Beowulf manuscript dates to roughly 1000 CE. Very little Anglo-Saxon literature has survived, and Beowulf comprises roughly ten percent of all surviving Anglo-Saxon literature.
- The poem contains touchstone techniques of Anglo-Saxon verse, such as rhythmic alliteration and kennings, or descriptive compound phrases.
- Christianity is a central theme in Beowulf. Beowulf upholds the Christian virtues of the the fifth or sixth century, at a time when much of Scandinavia still worshipped pagan gods. This makes the poem somewhat anachronistic in that it imposes Christian values on characters who would not have possessed them.
Last Updated on January 27, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2208
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.
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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 BCE 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 earliest dream-vision poem of the English language, this poem describes Christ’s crucifixion and death on the cross from the point of view of the cross itself. By portraying Christ as a warrior-king, “The Dream of the Rood” represents a common trend in Anglo-Saxon literature: using the heroic diction of Old English to help make Christianity more acceptable to the Anglo-Saxons. The images used in the poem are strong and powerful, such as the drops of blood from the cross congealing into beautiful gems and then turning back into blood once again.
Any discussion of Anglo-Saxon literature must begin with the understanding that it is, in fact, a completely different language from modern English and that originally any manuscript in Anglo-Saxon required painstaking and complicated translation. There are even several letters in the Old English alphabet that no longer exist. These are (æ) called “ash” and probably pronounced as we say the “a” in “hat”; and two letters (þ) called “thorn” and (ð) or (Ð) called “eth” which are both pronounced as “th” in “cloth” or “clothe.”
Although the alphabet is different, the syntax of Anglo-Saxon is recognizably English. There are, however, several idiosyncrasies which add to the difficulty of translation. For one thing, Anglo-Saxon began as an inflected language, implying that the meaning of a sentence is determined by the case endings added to the beginnings and endings of words. In modern English, which is not an inflected language, meaning is determined for the most part by the order of words in a sentence. There are, however, some vestiges of inflection left in English as we use it today—the adding of “-s” or “-es” to make a word plural, for instance. The inflection in Old English is a direct product of its German ancestry. Throughout the course of its development, Old English became less and less inflected, and word order became more important in determining meaning, and closer to what we recognize in our language today.
Another idiosyncrasy of syntax which adds to the difficulty of translation is the fact that Anglo-Saxon was originally mostly a spoken language. When King Alfred and his companions struggled to develop the language as a written vehicle for abstract thought and complex narratives, they utilized complicated patterns of words. These, coupled with erratic spelling and lack of punctuation, can cause the translation of Old English to be more like solving a puzzle or finding one’s way out of a maze than translating from another language.
These complexities of language often affected the sentence structure. For instance, the author would frequently pause mid-sentence and start afresh with a group of words or a pronoun to summarize what had come before:
þa þæt Offan mæg ærest onfunde,
þæt se eorl nolde yrhðo geþolian (1)
This passage is translated as “Then the kinsman of Offa first learned that thing, that the leader would not tolerate slackness” (2). This device is probably used to stress an important idea in order to recapitulate what has been said, or to anticipate what is to be said.
Another practice which complicates translation of Old English is that of splitting groups of words which we would never consider splitting in modern English. To wit, two adjectives describing the same noun may come at different points in the sentence, divided by unrelated words. Or a subject containing two people or objects will be divided on either side of the verb. In modern English, this might result in a sentence such as, “I am going to work and my friend,” rather than “My friend and I are going to work.”
The vocabulary of Anglo-Saxon is extensive and imaginative, and it reflects the importance in the literature of strong, suggestive images. New words were acquired in three ways: borrowing from other languages, such as Latin, Greek, Scandinavian, or French; adding prefixes or suffixes which changed the function or meaning of the words; or making compounds of words. This last method—making compounds—resulted in some of the most imaginative and powerful images in the literature. Anglo-Saxon is typified by a unique brand of condensed metaphor, called a “kenning,” in which (a) is compared to (b) without (a) or the point of comparison being made explicit. To illustrate, one word for “sea” was “hwæl-weg,” which translates literally as “whale way”; a ship was called a “yþ-hengest” or “whale horse”; and a minstrel was a “hleahtor-smiþ” or “laughter smith.”
These compounds helped the scop to work in alliterative measure. Because Anglo-Saxon poetry was originally oral rather than written, the poet had to rely on several different tricks to help himself remember the material. These kennings became like open patterns: different words could be replaced to change the meaning or work within a certain alliteration or rhythm.
The structure of the poems also functioned to help the poet tell his story. Poems are not in stanzaic form, nor do they usually intentionally rhyme. They are organized, rather, into two half-lines which have a natural pause between them. The sentences can conclude either at the middle or at the end of any given line. There is not a set number of syllables to be included in any half-line, although in Beowulf the average is eight to twelve per line. The half-lines are held together by alliteration, either of consonants or vowels.
The placement of the alliteration is determined by the stresses in the sentence. Each half-line has two strong stresses. The first stress of the second line (called the “head-stave”) cannot alliterate with the second stress of that half-line but must alliterate with one or both stressed syllables of the first half-line. All of these devices were part of an “oral-formulaic” system designed to help the poet remember his tale. There were many prefabricated half-lines or lines, designed to hold the tale together and give the poet time to think ahead.
The following section of Beowulf, describing Beowulf’s fight with the monster Grendel, demonstrates many of these patterns:
Cōm on wanre niht
scrīðan sceadugenga. Scēotend swæfon,
þa þaet hornreced healdan scoldon –
ealle būton ānum. þæt wæs yldum cūþ,
þæt hīe ne mōste, þā metod nolde,
se scyscaþa under sceadu bregdan;
ac hē wæccende wrāþum on andan
bād bolgenmōd beadwa geþinges.
Đa cōm of mōre under mistheleoþum
Grendel gongan; Godes yrre bær;
mynte se mānscaða Manna cynnes
summe besyrwan in sela þām hēan.
Wōd under wolcnum tō þæs þe hē wīnreced
goldsele gumena gearwosi-wisse
fættum fāhne. 3
This passage translates as:
He slipped through the darkness under deep nightfall
sliding through shadows. Shield-warriors rested
slumbering guardians of that gabled hall—
all except one. That wandering spirit
could never drag them to cold death-shadow
if the world’s Measurer wished to stop him.
(A waking warrior watched among them
anger mounting aching for revenge.)
He moved through the mist past moors and ice-streams
Grendel gliding God’s wrath on him
simmering to snare some sleeping hall-thanes
trap some visitors in that tall gift-house.
He moved under cloudbanks crossed the meadowlands
till the wine-hall towered tall gold-gables
rising in night-sky. (4)
Although this may seem very foreign to modern readers, it must be remembered that Old English poetry is far from primitive. It is highly sophisticated and artificial. This is sustained by the fact that the language used in poetry varies widely from that used in prose. This poetry differs from other types of poetry in that the metrical patterns are selected from among those which occur most commonly in natural speech. Perhaps this is part of what makes a recitation of Old English poetry such a moving and memorable occasion. The driving rhythm of the stresses, the beauty of the alliteration, the power of the subject matter, and the vividness of the imagery combine to make the literature well worth the difficulties and complexities of translation.
1 Bruce Mitchell and Frederick C. Robinson, A Guide to Old English. Oxford: Basil Blackwell Ltd., 1988, p. 66.
2 Mitchell and Robinson, A Guide to Old English, 61–62.
3 Mitchell and Robinson, A Guide to Old English, 268–269.
4 Frederick C. Rebsamen, trans., Beowulf: A Verse Translation. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1991, p. 23.
Last Updated on January 27, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 839
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 kingdom and thus forfeits his own chance for brave deeds.
As Beowulf sinks beneath the waters of the marsh, he is beset on every side by prodigious monsters. After a long swim he comes to the lair of Grendel’s mother. Failing to wound her with Unferth’s sword, he seizes the monster by the shoulder and throws her to the ground. During a grim hand-to-hand battle, in which Beowulf is being worsted, he sights a famous old sword of the giants, which he seizes and thrusts at Grendel’s mother, who falls in helpless death throes. Then Beowulf turns and sees Grendel lying weak and maimed on the floor of the lair. Quickly he swings the sword and severs Grendel’s head from his body. As he begins to swim back up to the surface of the marsh, the sword with which he has killed his enemies melts until only the head and hilt are left. On his return, the Danes rejoice and fete him with another high feast. He presents the sword hilt to Hrothgar and returns Unferth’s sword without telling that it failed him.
The time comes for Beowulf’s return to his homeland. He leaves Denmark in great glory and sails toward the land of the Geats. Once more at the court of his lord Hygelac, he is held in high esteem and is rewarded with riches and position. After many years, Beowulf himself becomes the king of the Geats. One of the Geats accidentally discovers an ancient hoard of treasure and, while its guardian dragon sleeps, carries away a golden goblet that he presents to Beowulf. The discovery of the loss causes the dragon to rise in fury and to devastate the land. Old man that he is, Beowulf determines to rid his kingdom of the dragon’s scourge. Daring the flames of the dragon’s nostrils, he smites his foe with his sword, but without effect. Once more Beowulf is forced to rely on the grip of his mighty hands. Of all his warriors only Wiglaf stands by his king; the others flee. The dragon rushes at Beowulf and sinks its teeth deeply into his neck, but Wiglaf smites the dragon with his sword, and Beowulf with his war-knife gives the dragon its deathblow.
Weak from loss of blood, the old hero is dying. His last act is to give Wiglaf a king’s collar of gold. The other warriors now come out of hiding and burn with pagan rites the body of their dead king. From the dragon’s lair they take the treasure hoard and bury it in the great mound they build over Beowulf’s ashes. Then with due ceremony they mourn the passing of the great and dauntless Beowulf.
Last Updated on January 27, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 635
Heorot (HEH-oh-rot) is the 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 for their force and meaning. The stories give the values of the culture, both positively and negatively. They teach about the importance of loyalty and about the consequences of both loyalty and betrayal.
Here the people, or rather the nobles, carry on all the activities of human life; it is where they eat and drink and where many sleep. But it is nevertheless also close to the wild, not only in being made of wood, but in its name, for Heorot means “Hart,” or male deer—a noble animal but still animal. In being wood, like others mentioned in the poem, it can be and will be burned, with great slaughter. The humans who live here can and will be terrible to one another. Moreover, Heorot’s bright lights and noises offend Grendel, a monstrous descendant of Cain who is condemned to wander alone in the wastelands. Grendel visits Hrothgar’s hall regularly and carries off warriors to devour.
There is no description of farming or herding activities in the land around Heorot; indeed, there seem to be no human inhabitants there. Beowulf and his companions are alone as they pass through it. The great hall contains everything human in this world. Outside, the world is a great wasteland, with dark forest; mists; moors; narrow, dangerous paths; great, gray crags; and no animals or birds, except terrifying water monsters.
This underwater home of the monstrous Grendel and his mother is the opposite of Heorot. It is home to only two beings, and everything about it is unnatural. Although the entrance to the cave is by way of water, the cave itself is dry. It, too, is lit by a fire, but its fire is certainly uncanny. After Beowulf kills Grendel’s mother, the cave is suddenly illuminated by a magical light. Like the cave of the dragon, it is filled with many treasures; however, they do not seem to be connected with human activity in any way, not even the sword that Beowulf finds there and uses.
The dragon lives in a dark cave from which a dark stream of water issues. He guards a great treasure of precious materials, goblets, bowls, cups, dishes, rings, weapons, and armor. The swords are partially eaten away by time since they are iron, but most of the objects are made of gold. The hoard was accumulated and left behind by the last man of a long-forgotten community. All the treasures were created by men and are thus products of “civilization.” While they seem to give off a kind of light, they are slowly reverting to the darkness of the nonhuman.
The waters of the sea are dangerous for travelers, largely because of sea monsters but implicitly because of threat to the ships that carry men. Beowulf tells the story of his dreadful battles with these monsters. He wins these battles, but all bodies of water are nonhuman and perilous, as in Beowulf’s terrifying descent into the great pool or mere where Grendel’s mother lives.
Last Updated on January 27, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1476
The historical Hygelac died circa 521. The Beowulf manuscript was written about 1000 CE. In the intervening centuries there was both change and continuity in every area of Anglo-Saxon life. Because we cannot date Beowulf with certainty, we cannot draw specific parallels. We do not know if the society the poet described is the one they knew at first hand and projected into the past from their present, or if it was a poetic reconstruction, pieced together from memories and older Anglo-Saxon and Latin poetry.
There is no indication of who wrote Beowulf; scholars have suggested at least two possible candidates, but neither of these identifications has been generally accepted.
Many dates and places have been suggested for the composition of Beowulf. Most of the theories suffer from wishful thinking: scholars connect it to a favorite time and place. It is no use, however, to show where and when it might have been written. It must be shown that it could not have been written anywhere else at any other time in order for a theory to be conclusive. Early critics often stressed the antiquity of the poet’s material and attempted to break the poem down into a number of older “lays” (see Style section below). Northumbria during the lifetime of the scholar Bede has often been suggested because it was culturally advanced and Bede was the greatest Anglo-Saxon scholar. The kingdom of Mercia during the reign of Offa the Great (756–798) has been suggested, partially because the poet included thirty-one lines praising Offa’s ancestor, also named Offa. Recently a late date has become popular. Kevin Kiernan believes that the existing manuscript may be the author’s own copy. This would mean the poem was written very close to 1000 CE. An early date for Beowulf (675–700) is now usually connected with East Anglia. It has been suggested that the East Anglian royal family considered themselves descended from Wiglaf, who comes to Beowulf’s aid during the dragon fight.
The main argument for this early date, however, is based on archaeology. The poem’s descriptions of magnificent burials reflect practices of the late sixth and seventh centuries, but this does not mean that the poem was written then. A person witnessing such a burial might describe it accurately fifty years later to a child, who might then repeat the description another fifty years later to the person who would then write it down a century after it happened. Some scholars assume that the poem, celebrating the ancestors of the Vikings, could not have been written after their raids on England began. Others suggest that a mixed Viking Anglo-Saxon area or even the reign of the Danish Canute (king of England when the manuscript was written) would have been the most obvious time and place. It has also been suggested that the poem might have been written to gain the allegiance of Vikings settled in England to the family of Alfred, since they claimed Scyld as an ancestor. On the other hand, Alfred’s family may have added Scyld to their family tree because he and his family were so famous through an already existing Beowulf.
The Origins of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms
The Germanic peoples arrived in Britain over a period of perhaps a century and a half. They did not always arrive in tribal or family groups. They do not seem to have brought their kings with them. Only the Mercian royal family claimed to be descended from a continental king. Certainly groups based on kinship or on loyalty to a military leader—whether one of their own or a Roman-Britain—began to coalesce into proto-kingdoms. The wars between the Geats and the Swedes in Beowulf may represent remembered incidents on the continent. At the same time, the wars may represent the continual struggle among the kingdoms of Anglo-Saxon England.
These areas absorbed one another and Romano-British areas until at the time of the Viking invasions (circa 800) there were three major kingdoms: Mercia, Northumbria, and Wessex, and two smaller ones, Kent and East Angha. When Alfred had fought the Vikings to a standstill circa 890, Wessex alone was left. Through all these centuries, government, society, and culture was changing and developing.
Loyalty and Society
Throughout this period, however, some things remained constant. One is the personal loyalty which held society together. The mutual loyalty within the kindred and within the war band was at the heart of Anglo-Saxon social organization. Institutions were centered on individuals. A noble, even a royal household was held together by loyalty to a lord who was generous and worthy of respect. Within this relationship the beotword' was important. It was not a boast, as we understand it, but a formal statement of intention.
Learning, Literature and Craftsmanship
Life in Anglo-Saxon England had few of the comforts which we take for granted, but it was not without achievement and personal satisfaction. Anglo-Saxon society appreciated craftsmanship and was open to new ideas and technologies. Within a century of the arrival of Roman and Irish missionaries among them, the Anglo-Saxons had mastered the manufacture of parchment, paint and ink, glass and masonry. By the eighth century they had several kinds of watermills with relatively elaborate wooden machinery, monumental sculpture, and the potter’s wheel. By the eighth century Anglo-Saxons were producing literature in Latin and carrying Christianity to related tribes on mainland Europe. The love of craftsmanship, learning, and literature survived the greatest hardships. When the educational base was nearly wiped out by the Viking raids in the ninth century, Alfred of Wessex, in the middle of his struggles to defend his kingdom, set about reestablishing schools and encouraging scholarship. He encouraged translators, even translating texts himself, so that those who did not know Latin could still have access to “the books most necessary for men to know.”
The Germanic immigrants from the continent who became the Anglo-Saxons brought a writing system—runes—with them from the continent. Runes were used for short inscriptions, occasionally magical, usually merely a statement of who made or who owned an object. Their literature and history were preserved orally using an elaborate poetic technique and vocabulary. Even after the introduction of Latin learning, this poetry held its own and began to be written using the Latin alphabet. Nevertheless, literature was still heard rather than read, even when the text was a written one. The difficulties of book production meant that multiple copies of anything except the most basic religious books were a luxury even in monasteries. Whether literate or illiterate, people would rely on hearing books read aloud. Even when reading privately people read aloud. This made them conscious of the rhythm of poetry and even prose.
Besides their love of literature, the Anglo-Saxons had a passion for music. Small harps, called lyres, are even found in warriors’ graves, and in Beowulf at least one warrior is also a poet-singer. Songs and chants were popular among the Anglo-Saxons, and some of the earliest manuscripts of chant still in existence are from Anglo-Saxon England. There are even mentions of large organs in the tenth century.
Halls like Hrothgar's mead-hall or drinking hall, Heorot, if not so magnificent, were the normal homes of wealthier landowners. A great deal like the old-fashioned wooden barns still seen in parts of the United States, they had great central open fires and beamed roofs. The walls were hung with woven and embroidered hangings. By the tenth century some halls had an upper floor. Some had smaller attached rooms or halls to give the women of the family some privacy.
Women in Anglo-Saxon Society
The hall was in many ways a men’s club, but the owner’s wife and her eldest daughter would extend hospitality to guests and retainers, offering them a drink from a special cup. The word wassail, an early English toast that later came to be applied to a hot alcoholic brewed drink, derives from Waes thu hael, “Be you healthy,” which was said as a drink was handed to a guest.
Women were active in dairying and textile production. Wool and linen were spun by hand and woven on upright frames. English woolen cloth and fine embroidery were already prized on the continent by the end of the eighth century. Women, particularly from ruling families, could have considerable power, influence, and education.
Every Anglo-Saxon man and woman carried a plain practical knife for work and eating. Men who could be called up for military service would be equipped with a spear and shield. Warriors and nobles would also own a sword. Swords were very expensive, worth as much as the price of a small farm, and armor even more so. They were important possessions often handed down from father to son. To bury them with a man was a great mark of honor and a display of wealth and status.
Last Updated on January 27, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1038
Beowulf has an omniscient (“all-knowing”) narrator. The narrative voice comments on the characters’ actions and knows and is able to report on what they think. The narrator is aware of things—for example, the curse on the dragon’s treasure (lines 3066–75)—that are not known to the epic’s characters. Beowulf shares this omniscient narration with other epics, such as the Iliad, the Odyssey, and the Aeneid, but remains subtly different. The narrator of Beowulf makes an explicit connection with the audience, acknowledging a shared background of cultural knowledge, in the opening lines of the poem: “We have heard of the thriving of the throne of Denmark.” The narrator’s voice is also intimately connected with those of the characters. Both use narratives in the same way, to point to a moral or to project future events.
The poet used several methods to create character. The narrator describes characters. The poet uses direct speech, a popular method in Germanic poetry to develop character. Characters define each other, as when the coast guard (lines 237–57) or Wulfgar (lines 336a–70) speak of their impressions of Beowulf and his men. More striking is the poet’s careful development of characters through their own speeches. The voices of the individual characters are just that, the voices of individuals. Beowulf’s speeches could not be confused with Hrothgar’s.
Old English poetry is different from that of most English verse written since the Norman Conquest. It is based on a pattern of stressed syllables linked by alliteration (the repetition of identical initial consonant sounds or any vowel sounds appearing close together) across a line of verse divided by a distinct pause in the middle.
Old English verse follows these basic rules:
1. The basic unit is the half line. Each half line has two stressed syllables and up to six unstressed syllables.
2. In a full line the two half lines are divided by a pause (called a caesura). They are joined by alliteration, the repetition of the initial consonants or vowels of stressed syllables, as in “Anna angry, Arthur bold.”
Two or three (never all four) stressed syllables alliterate with one another. They may be the first and/or the second and the third. The third stressed syllable must alliterate. The fourth stressed syllable does not.
Episodes and Digressions
One of the most characteristic features of Beowulf is the use of shorter narratives embedded in the main action of the poem. They are not part of the main narrative, but they can be part of its past or present. These narratives can be divided into two types, episodes and digressions. An episode is a narrative which is complete in itself but merged one way or another into the main narrative. An example is the Finnsburg Tale (lines 1063–1159a), which is sung during the celebration after Beowulf kills Grendel’s mother. A digression is much shorter, allusive rather than entire and complete, and it breaks the flow of the main narrative. Episodes and digressions often illustrate good or bad conduct or suggest to the audience a particular way of looking at the main action.
From Lay to Epic
Except for Beowulf, existing secular narrative poetry in Old English, like “The Battle of Maldon,” “The Battle of Brunnanburh,” and the “Finnsburg Fragment,” are all lays, or fairly short narratives telling the story of one event. Only the “Waldhere Fragment” (sixty-three remaining lines) may have been part of a poem as long as Beowulf. The lay seems to have been the usual native narrative poem. Longer, more complex epic structure appears to have come into existence with the introduction of Christian Latin culture, whose educational system included the Aeneid as a school text for study. For this reason, nineteenth-century scholars assumed that Beowulf was made up of earlier lays. Scholars now accept that Beowulf is not a patchwork of older material stitched together, but an original composition using completely recast older material from a variety of sources.
Many scholars have attempted to demonstrate that Beowulf was composed orally. Whether the poet wrote or spoke, the Beowulf poet did use a traditional stock of words and patterns of composition used by all Anglo-Saxon poets and recognized and appreciated by their audiences.
The poetic formula used can be broken down into three parts:
1) Epithets and short modifying formulas
2) Sentence formulas
3) Formulaic elaboration of themes
1. One kind of epithet, the kenning, is a kind of condensed or boiled-down metaphor: isern-scur (“iron shower”) for a flight of arrows; hildegicelum (“battle-icicle”) for sword. Another kind of epithet is a literal description similarly reduced to its essentials: hildebord (“battle board,” a shield). The difference between a kenning and a normal noun compound can be seen by comparing hilde-mece (“battle sword”) with hilde-leoma (“battle light”). There are many different compounds for warriors, weapons, and relationships in a heroic culture. By varying the first word of the compound, the poet could make different alliterative patterns. Thus hilde can be varied with beado, guth, wael. The words formed do not necessarily mean exactly the same thing. Hilde means battle, but wael means specifically “slaughter.”
2. Sentence formulas provided summaries and transitions. Many are short half-lines: “I recall all that,” line 2427. There are also sentence patterns, for instance those beginning “not at all” or “not only,” which then go on to “but,” “after,” “until,” “then.” These are often used for ironic understatement, another characteristic of Anglo-Saxon verse. For example: “Not at all did the personal retainers, the children of princes stand about him in valour, but they ran to the woods” (lines 2596–9a). Sentence formulas were developed to allow quick shifts of action and to carry the parallels and contrasts which are characteristic of Old English style.
3. Certain themes were addressed through the use of specific words, images, and symbolic objects. These words and ideas had an understood meaning among Anglo-Saxons. Using such words invoked their understood meaning, so that the themes they referred to need not be further elaborated by the poet. A good example is the group of words and images used to develop battle descriptions: the "beasts of battle,'' the wolf, the raven, and the eagle, who, it was understood, traditionally fed on the bodies of those slain.
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This is a difficult poem to classify since it has no predecessors, and nothing like it has survived. While usually considered an epic poem, Beowulf has also been labeled an elegy, perhaps for Beowulf himself or perhaps for the heroism of the past (and obviously admired by the Christian poet) pagan era. Others have felt it to be solely historical poetry about paganism.
One reason not to consider it an epic is that Beowulf has no specific tragic flaw which precipitates his downfall. He is an excellent, deeply religious pagan warrior who does precisely what his culture expects of him—including seeking glory and protecting his people. Another reason is that it is longer than an epic, having three main episodes over a period of fifty years, rather than one event as is usual.
On the other hand, there is Beowulf as the epic hero who represents his culture and is noble, and who has considerable military prowess and undying virtue. Several other elements of the epic poem are also evident in the poem: the lofty tone and style, the lengthy narrative, the genealogies, the involvement of the supernatural (in the form of the monsters, dragons, and giants), the invocation, and the voyage across the sea. Beowulf’s battle in the dragon’s underground lair may or may not be considered the obligatory trip to the underworld as found in the epic poem. While there are epic battles, they are not between universal champions, but rather between good and evil.
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- Anglo-Saxon period: The pre-electrical world was a world of darkness. People got up and went to bed with the sun. Artificial lighting consisted of firelight and candles or small lamps burning whale or olive oil, or rushes dipped in animal fat. On a clear night in Anglo-Saxon England the sky would have been powdered with stars.
Late twentieth century: Today earth’s great urban centers can light up the night. Airplane travelers can see the lights of towns, cities, and interstates. Relatively few stars can be seen.
- Anglo-Saxon period: The population of Britain in the early Middle Ages was probably under three million people. Land was still being reclaimed for farming, difficult in a country where most of the native trees will readily regrow from stumps. In Anglo-Saxon England, wolves still roamed the countryside. The edges of forests were important for game, wood, and food for foraging semi-domesticated animals. Wetlands were important for fish, waterfowl, and basketry materials, such as alder, willow, and rushes.
Late twentieth century: Today the population of Britain is over fifty-seven million. Most people live in cities. There is a constant struggle to save woodlands, wetlands, and areas of traditional agriculture.
- Anglo-Saxon period: Most Anglo-Saxons lived in largely self-sufficient communities. People grew what they ate, made what they needed, built their homes out of local materials, and traded for goods made locally. Local or traveling smiths made knives and tools to order. Salt and millstones and luxury goods, like wine, spices, and silk, would be bought at fairs. Items such as swords, and gold and silver jewelry, were less the objects of commerce than of socially meaningful gift exchange.
Late twentieth century: Modern consumers buy nearly everything they use in daily life. Very few subsistence cultures are left. Even food is often bought already prepared. Many, if not most, consumer goods originate hundreds or thousands of miles from where they are sold and used.
- Anglo-Saxon period: Most Anglo-Saxons died before the age of forty. Some people lived into their sixties and seventies, but the average age of death for those who lived passed infancy was probably between thirty-five and thirty-eight. Medicine was primitive. Herbal remedies had limited effectiveness. There was no clear idea of how diseases were contracted or how they could be prevented. There were few ways of deadening pain. Many common ailments were fatal because of ineffective treatments. Blood-poisoning and death in childbirth were both frequent.
Late twentieth century: Today people in industrialized nations can expect to live into their seventies and even beyond. Most of the illnesses and conditions which killed Anglo-Saxons are no longer a threat to people with access to basic modern medicine. Improved hygiene, abundant clean water supplies, the ability to preserve food safely, and greater knowledge about the causes and prevention of communicable illnesses have all contributed to longer and healthier lives.
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- After being the preserve of specialists for the first 150 years after its rediscovery, Beowulf began to catch the attention of general readers after the Second World War. This is partially the result of the popularity of J. R. R. Tolkein's The Lord of the Rings. Partially it is the result of a shift in attitudes concerning the bizarre and the marvelous. For whatever reasons, late twentieth-century audiences are willing to take seriously stories which pivot on human responses to monsters. Beowulf's monsters may be terrestrial, but they are essentially the terrors of modern science fiction and of horror stories even closer to daily life. Many of the fears that Beowulf expressed and sublimated for its original audience are those which are similarly expressed and sublimated by the television series The X-Files or the movie The Creature from the Black Lagoon or even Independence Day. We may even note that in The X-Files, the character Fox Mulder, like Beowulf, draws much of his motivation from his love of his family, a family which has grown to include his partner, Dana Scully, just as Beowulf’s grew to include Hrothgar. Many of the ideals which we find in Beowulf and other Old English and Old Norse heroic poetry have made their way into the fictional development of Klingon culture in the various Star Trek television series and movies.
- Star Trek Voyager used a holodeck setting of Beowulf as a plot line in the first-season episode “Heroes and Demons.”
- John Gardiner adapted Beowulf as a novel, Grendel, published by Knopf in 1972.
- Beowulf was adapted as a feature-length animated film, Grendel, Grendel, Grendel by independent Australian director and producer Alexander Stitt in 1981. The film is narrated by Peter Ustinov as the voice of Grendel.
- In 1982 Kenneth Pickering and Christopher Segal adapted Beowulf as a rock musical. The book and music were published as Beowulf: A Rock Musical, London: Samuel French, Inc., 1982.
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Sources for Further Study
Alexander, Michael. “Introduction.” In Beowulf: A Verse Translation. Penguin Books, 1973. Alexander offers a detailed introduction to the poem, discussing the history of the manuscript, the epic tradition, and the characters and plot of the poem.
———. “Epic.” In A Dictionary of Modern Critical Terms, edited by Roger Fowler. Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1987, pp. 73–75. Alexander provides a short, clear introduction to the Western epic with brief, well-integrated extracts from important critical texts.
Backhouse, Janet, D. H. Turner, and Leslie Webster. The Golden Age of Anglo-Saxon Art: 966–1066. British Museum, 1984. Provides marvelous illustrations of Anglo-Saxon art, fine and applied, covering the period in which the Beowulf manuscript was written.
Basset, Steven, ed. The Origins of Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms. Leicester University Press, 1989. Provides a discussion of the political and social circumstances which may be reflected in Beowulf.
Benson, L. D. “The Originality of Beowulf.” In The Interpretation of Narrative: Theory and Practice, Harvard Studies in English, Vol. 1, edited by M. W. Bloomfield. Harvard University Press, 1970, pp. 1–43. An excellent discussion of the originality of the poem and its characters.
Bessinger, Jess B., and Robert F. Yeager. Approaches to Teaching Beowulf. Modern Language Association, 1984. Essentially a teacher’s guide. Includes an excellent bibliography and list of derivative works which may be of use to students.
Bonjour, Adrien. The Digressions in Beowulf. Medium Aevum Monographs 5. Basil Blackwell, 1950. Bonjour studies the workings and implications of the “digressions,” the short narratives and allusions which are embedded in the main narrative.
Boyle, Leonard. “The Nowell Codex and the Poem of Beowulf.” In The Dating of Beowulf, edited by Colin Chase. University of Toronto Press, 1981, pp. 23–32. An excellent short study of the Beowulf manuscript. It challenges Kevin Kiernan’s theory that the manuscript is the author’s copy.
Bradley, S. S. J., trans. Anglo-Saxon Poetry. Everyman Books, 1992. A good prose translation of the poem with a short and useful beginners’ introduction.
Brown, Michelle. Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts. British Library, 1991. A good beginners’ introduction to the process of making a manuscript. It covers the materials used in a manuscript, how the writing was done, how a page and a text were laid out, and finally discusses individual manuscripts made by Anglo-Saxons.
Chambers, R. W. Beowulf: An Introduction to the Study of the Poem, 3rd Supplement by C. L. Wrenn. Cambridge University Press, 1963. Chambers’s book remains one of the most valuable studies of the poem’s background. It is a scholarly book, but user-friendly, clearly and even entertainingly written.
Chase, Colin, ed. The Dating of Beowulf. University of Toronto Press, 1981. This collection of essays restarted the controversy over the dating of Beowulf and redirected interest back to the manuscript of the poem.
Clark, George. Beowulf. Twayne Publishers, 1990. A first-class beginners’ introduction to the poem. There are chapters on the history of Beowulf criticism, the other legends embedded in the poem, the ethics of heroism, the monsters, and kingship.
Curtius, Ernest. European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, translated by Willard Trask. University of Princeton Press, 1973. A study of the ways medieval writers absorbed and used the heritage of Greece and Rome in their writing. It stresses the importance of this process to the formation of the Western mind. It pays particular attention to the idea and presentation of the hero.
Engelhardt, George J. “Beowulf: A Study of Dilation.” In PMLA, Vol. 70, 1955, pp. 269–82. Very technical, but an excellent discussion of how the poet organized and developed their material.
Evans, Angela. The Sutton Hoo Ship Burial. British Museum, 1994. A richly illustrated introduction to the splendid Anglo-Saxon ship burial first excavated in 1939. The objects uncovered and the burial itself have been an important factor in Beowulf studies since the poem was quoted by the inquest which sat in 1939 to decide the treasure’s legal ownership.
Garmonsway, G. N., Jacqueline Simpson, and Hilda Ellis Davidson. Beowulf and its Analogue. E. P. Dutton and Co., Inc., 1971. This is a collection of translations of northern tales similar to the poem and to the oldest forms of the stories and characters which are alluded to or used in Beowulf. However, the chapter on archaeology is now out of date.
Goldsmith, Margaret. The Mode and Meaning of Beowulf. Athlone Press, 1975. The high-water mark of allegorical interpretations of the poem, Goldsmith’s book studies the biblical and theological texts which may have influenced the poet of Beowulf, leading to the poem’s identification as an allegory.
Irving, E. B. A Reading of Beowulf. Yale University Press, 1968. A sober, close reading of the poem of great insight. Written without pretensions and with enviable clarity, there is something in Irving for every reader of the poem from beginner to professional scholar.
Jack, George. Beowulf: A Student Edition. Clarendon Press, 1994. One of the best introductory texts in Old English. There are very full marginal vocabularies and equally extensive footnotes on the text. Jack provides an excellent introduction to the poem and its criticism. The bibliography is particularly good.
Kerr, W. Epic and Romance: Essays on Medieval Literature, 2nd edition, Eversley Series. London and New York, 1908. One of the classic discussions of Beowulf. J. R. R. Tolkein’s “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics” is in many ways specifically an answer to Kerr.
Kiernan, Kevin, S. “The Eleventh Century Origin of Beowulf and the Beowulf Manuscript.” In The Dating of Beowulf, edited by Colin Chase. University of Toronto Press, 1981, pp. 9–22. Kiernan argues that the Beowulf manuscript in the British library is the author’s own working copy.
Kirby, D. P. The Earliest English Kings. Unwin Hyman, 1991. A study of the development of kingship and kingdoms among the Anglo-Saxons. Kirby offers insights into the circumstances which formed the poet’s and their audience’s view of the political world.
Klaeber, Friedrich. Beowulf and the Fight at Finnsburg, 3rd edition. D. C. Heath and Co, 1950. Still the standard edition of the poem, Klaeber's introductory material is still useful nearly fifty years after the last edition was published.
Leyerle, John. “Beowulf the Hero and King.” In Medium Aevum, Vol. 34, 1965, pp. 89–102. Leyerle argues that Beowulf fails to understand that the responsibilities of kingship must override the personal desire for glory and that Beowulf destroys himself and his people by insisting on fighting the dragon.
Malone, Kemp. “Beowulf the Headstrong.” In Anglo-Saxon England, Vol. 1, 1972, pp. 139–45. Malone argues that Beowulf, in facing the dragon, takes the only realistic course available to him. Malone forcefully explains that the modern distinction between king and hero would be incomprehensible to the poem’s original audience.
Nicholson, Lewis E. An Anthology of Beowulf Criticism. University of Notre Dame Press, 1963. One of the most cited critical anthologies, this volume includes Tolkein’s “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics.”
Niles, John D. Beowulf: The Poem and Its Tradition. University of Harvard Press, 1983. A detailed discussion of all aspects of the poem. Niles believes that Beowulf is an essentially “middlebrow” work of the tenth century.
Ogilvy, J. D. A., and Donald C. Baker. Reading Beowulf. University of Oklahoma Press, 1984. Another excellent beginners’ introduction to the poem. There are chapters on Beowulf and other Germanic poetry, its date and authorship, versification and style and modern interpretation and criticism, as well as a detailed synopsis of the story.
Robinson, Fred C. “History, Religion, Culture: The Background Necessary for Teaching Beowulf.” In Approaches to Teaching Beowulf, by Jess B. Bessinger and Robert F. Yeager, Modern Language Association, 1984, pp. 107–22; reprinted in his The Tomb of Beowulf and Other Essays on Old English, Blackwell Publishers, 1993, pp 36–51. Another overview of the poem, concentrating on the culture in which the poem is set.
———. “An Introduction to Beowulf.” In his The Tomb of Beowulf and Other Essays on Old English, Blackwell Publishers, 1993, pp. 52–67; reprinted from Beowulf: A Verse Translation with Treasures of the Ancient North, by Marijane Osborn, 1983, pp. xi–xix. A brief introduction to the poem by a noted scholar. Most of the articles in this collection are meant for specialist students of Old English literature, but they are written in a clear and unassuming style that makes Beowulf scholarship accessible to the general reader.
Short, Douglas D. Beowulf Scholarship: An Annotated Bibliography. Garland, 1980, 538 p. The annotations make this bibliography indispensable to the beginner. It also includes useful indices.
Tolkein, J. R. R. “The Monsters and the Critics.” In Publications of the British Academy, Vol. 22, 1936, pp. 245–95. The granddaddy of modern Beowulf criticism, this is essential reading. It is reprinted in both the Nicholson and Tuso anthologies listed here.
Tuso, Joseph F. Beowulf. W. W. Norton and Co., 1975. This book from the Norton series of Critical Editions includes the Donaldson translation and a good selection of criticism through the late 1960s. There is very little overlap with the Nicholson collection.
Whitelock, Dorothy. The Audience of Beowulf. Clarendon Press, 1951. A classic study of what the original audience of the poem might have been like in their culture, tastes, and expectations.
———. The Beginnings of English Society, The Pelican History of England 2. Penguin Books, 1968. An introduction to Anglo-Saxon society and institutions enlivened with anecdotes and historical examples.
Wilson, David M. Anglo-Saxon Art from the Seventh Century to the Norman Conquest. Thames and Hudson, 1984. Lavishly illustrated, this is an excellent introduction to what sort of mental pictures the descriptions in Beowulf must have conjured up to its Anglo-Saxon audiences.
———. The Anglo-Saxons. Penguin Books, 1971. One reviewer called this the best introduction to Anglo-Saxon archaeology ever written. It has served students for well over twenty-five years. The line illustrations are very useful.
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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 importance of Christianity in shaping the themes of the poem.
Brodeur, Arthur G. The Art of “Beowulf.” Berkeley: University of California Press, 1960. From the starting point of belief in a singular author having written Beowulf, this volume provides a structural and thematic criticism of the work. It discusses diction, unity, setting, and Christian elements. A landmark reference.
Davis, Craig R. “Beowulf ”and the Demise of Germanic Legend in England. New York: Garland, 1996. Discusses ways that Christian elements are blended with Germanic religious traditions.
Goldsmith, Margaret E. The Mode and Meaning of “Beowulf.” London: Athlone Press, 1970. This book revises earlier discussions of Christian allegory in Beowulf. An attempt is made to prove the text to be an extended Christian allegory. A classic examination of the manuscript’s Christian hero pitted against evil.
The New York Review of Books 47 (July 20, 2000): 18. A review of Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf.
The New York Times Book Review 105 (February 27, 2000): 6. A review of Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf.
Nicholson, Lewis E. An Anthology of “Beowulf” Criticism. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1963. This early volume saves hours of searching through scholarly journals by presenting a comprehensive collection of widely recognized articles. It covers over two dozen aspects of the text from allegory to zoology.
Ogilvy, Jack D. A., and Donald C. Baker. Reading “Beowulf.” Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1983. This work provides a modern and thorough view of the poem. After providing the historical background for the piece, it focuses on a two-part summary of the story and a subsequent analysis of theme, versification, and style. It includes an extensive annotated bibliography as well as many illustrations.
Publishers Weekly 247 (February 21, 2000): 84. A review of Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf.
Pulvel, Martin. Cause and Effect in “Beowulf.” Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 2005. Interweaves commentary about the Christian elements of the poem throughout a discussion of the forces that motivate characters in the narrative.
Staver, Ruth Johnston. A Companion to “Beowulf.” Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2005. Series of essays providing background on the poem, including one focusing on religious elements.
Time 155 (March 20, 2000): 84. A review of Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf.
Whitelock, Dorothy. The Audience of “Beowulf.” Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1951. A transcription of a series of lectures that concentrates on the poet and audience of Beowulf in their context of early Christianity. There are several references to other scholarly works as well as translations of the actual text. It contains an extensive index.