At a Glance

  • Beowulf was published sometime around 1000 AD, during the Anglo-Saxon period. Very little Anglo-Saxon literature has survived the centuries, and the 3,182 lines of Beowulf comprise roughly 10% of all extant Anglo-Saxon literature. The poem was written in Old English, in the tradition of great epics. Like many epic poems, Beowulf depicts the battle between good and evil.
  • Beowulf embodies the traits of an epic hero. He displays courage, strength, and loyalty, and he upholds the virtues of freedom, justice, and morality. Beowulf's great flaw is his quest for personal glory. Even after defeating Grendel and his mother and becoming King of Geatland, Beowulf feels the need to prove himself in battle against the dragon. Ultimately, Beowulf's quest for glory leads to his death.
  • Christianity is a central theme in Beowulf. As a classic of Anglo-Saxon literature, Beowulf upholds all the Christian virtues of the time. It takes place in the 5th or 6th Century, at a time when much of Scandinavia still worshipped pagan gods. This make the poem somewhat anachronistic in that it imposes Christian values on characters who would not naturally display them.

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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...

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