Beowulf The Basics • Who? • What? • When? • Where? • Why? By Whom? • By whom was it written? – Most Anglo-Saxon poetry was oral at first, meaning it was transmitted or performed by a Bard (Scop) from memory; it wasn’t actually written down, per se until . . . – Somewhere between the eighth and ninth centuries A.D., ―The Beowulf-Poet‖ (his identity is unknown) wrote down the poem which for many years had been sung/spoken. – The Beowulf-poet, scholars believe, was an English monk (and therefore, Christian) who probably lived in one of the Anglo-Saxon settlements in Western England (Mercia) About Whom? • Even though the poet himself was English and Christian, the poem is about neither Englishmen nor (full-fledged) Christians • It is the story of several Scandinavian peoples (tribes, really), mainly the Geats and the Danes, but also the Swedes. Beowulf is a Geat. He goes to the aid of the Danes, whose king is Hrothgar • They live in . . . Map of Baltic Region of Scandinavia and the Viking Invasions (700-800) ―Who?‖ in Review • The poem’s hero is Beowulf, a Geat who lives in Scandinavia. He is probably a fictional character. He is certainly an epic hero. More on this later. The poem is also about three races or tribes: – The Geats – The Danes – The Swedes • It is written by an English (Anglo-Saxon) monk who is looking back in time to the days when his ancestors still lived in Scandinavia and by a different code of ethics. (The Anglo-Saxon code was on its way out, soon to be replaced by Christian values) • The original audiences would have heard the poem, and they would probably have been distant relatives of those tribes who play major roles in the poem Who are the main characters? • Beowulf (Geat) • Hrothgar (Dane) • Unferth (Dane) • Wiglaf (Geat) • Grendel • Grendel’s mother • The dragon Main Characters Part Deux • Many people divide the poem into thirds; it is about Beowulf’s three epic battles with evil creatures – Grendel – Grendel’s Mother – The Dragon • However, as Heaney points out, it is also really about three tribes: – The Geats – The Danes – The Swedes What? • What is it? Beowulf is an epic poem. An epic is ―a long narrative poem that relates the great deeds of a larger- than-life hero who embodies the values of a particular society‖ (Elements 1263). • What is he? Beowulf is an epic hero; the essay you write about this work will deal with one of the Anglo- Saxon or Christian values he represents • What is it about? It is about a transitional point in history (though it is mostly mythological and fictional) • It is poetic, creative, imaginative, and one of the earliest works of art in the English language (albeit Old English) • It is also important to remember that it is NOT a work written in Latin. It is written in the vernacular (OE) and about people who were England’s founders (or conquerors) in the middle of the first millennium. What (else)? • Fuller definition of epic: An epic is ―a long narrative poem that relates the great deeds of a larger-than-life hero who embodies the values of a particular society. Most epics include elements of myth, legend, folklore, and history. Their tone is serious, and their language is grand. Most epic heroes undertake quests to achieve something of tremendous value to themselves and their society. Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad and Virgil’s Aeneid are the best-known epics in the Western tradition. The two most important English epics are the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf . . . and Milton’s Paradise Lost‖ (Elements 1263). • Beowulf is also, in very many ways, allegorical. An allegory is ―A story in which the characters, settings, and events stand for abstract or moral concepts‖ (Elements 1259). It would be better to say that there are allegorical features in Beowulf than to call it an allegory. Just looking at the three creatures Bewoulf defeats may help show how the poem can be read allegorically: – Grendel stands for the monstrous features of fratricide; consider that he is born of Cain (who is know for killing his brother). The Geats, Danes, and Swedes, were in many ways ―brothers,‖ but they were also at war. Who else kills his brother (or kinsmen) in the poem? – Grendel’s mother may stand for the root of (or mother of) our deepest animalistic aggressions. When heroes go into the sea, it is said by some scholars that they are actually going into the deepest recesses of their psyche. IS Beowulf, by defeating Grendel’s mother, simply ―killing‖ the concept of revenge for revenge’s sake? – Dragons often represent greed. They horde treasure and become violent if the treasure is touched. By killing the dragon, is Beowulf killing his own greed? Notice what he bequeaths to his people after he dies. When? • When was it written? It was probably written sometime around 700 A.D. • When did the events in it take place? Again, it is a fictional work. However, it is an imaginative work about people who occupied the Baltic region sometime in the fifth century A.D. • Some events in the poem did take place: – The raid against the Franks by Hygelac, Beowulf’s lord, took place in the sixth century A.D. • It is important to remember the vast role time (Past, Present, and Future) plays within the poem itself. Beowulf and the other characters who populate the poem seem to be obsessed themselves with the human relationship to time (or ―when‖) • Most important thing to remember is that it is a poem that reminisces about a previous, ―dead‖ world. Where? • Where was it written? It was written down, most likely, in the kingdom of Mercia (East Central Enlgand today). • Where do the events in the poem take place? The action in the poem takes place in Geatland and Denmark (the island of Zealand and in Southern Sweden) . . . Or more generally, in the Baltic region of Scandinavia • Also consider more specific settings: – The sea, the meadhall, the swamp, the cliff, the battlefield, etc. • In the modern world, it is Denmark and Sweden and the islands in the Baltic between the two countries. • But it is also indirectly about the poet who wrote the poem down; we can say this because so many Christian features exist in the work. So it is also about Anglo- Saxon England, but only indirectly. None of the action takes place in England. The Scary, Horror Movie ―Where‖ • Heaney puts it nicely in his introduction when he says that Beowulf takes place in a ―once upon a time world‖ and that it taps into ―three archetypal sites of fear‖: – The barricaded night house (Grendel) – The infested underwater current (Grendel’s mother) – Reptile-haunted rocks of a wilderness (dragon) • I like to think of them this way, in terms which may mean more to your and my generation: – Our beds on a stormy night when we are alone in the house (where we should feel safe) – A murky lake, or the beach where Jaws takes place (Ever been waterskiing and wondered what was nibbling on your toes?). Or, how about a dark forest by yourself? – The dark recesses of the earth: a cave, or even better, your own, dark basement Why? • Why do we read it? – It’s a very creative, imaginative, poetic masterpiece (see the Heaney intro; this is why he wants us to read it—not ―because we have to‖!!!) – It gives us insight into the origins of the British people, the culture who, through seafaring conquest, founded the world we currently live in – It gives us insight into the origins of our language – It gives us insight into all people everywhere and throughout time (time, birth, death, fame/success/glory, honor, friendship, conflict, home, country, adventure, spirituality—all of these things transcend English literature and matter to all people) – It’s challenging and we all love a good challenge! – It’s scary and gets us to think about our own worst fears – It’s a VERY important piece of literature historically (this is the ―because we have to‖ reason!). Important Themes in the Poem • Past, Present, and Future (and Fate) • Life and Death • Fame (often achieved through war) • Setting – Geography (Denmark, Geatland, Sweden, . . . And England??) – The Meadhall (Heorot) • Good vs. Evil & Religion – Man vs. Man – Man vs. Beast (Man vs. Himself? If allegorical) – Good Christian Traits vs. Evil – Good Pagan (Anglo-Saxon traits) vs. Evil – Bad Pagan Traits – Christianity vs. Paganism (Paganism not evil) • Anglo-Saxon Code – Friendship – Loyalty – Fame, Honor – Bravery – Generosity – Man-Price – Thane’s duty to his Lord; Lord’ duty to his Thanes • Christianity emerging as the dominant faith and worldview in the Scandinavian world • Stories and Songs themselves • Masculine and feminine roles in the world Review of Important Details • Epic poem • Written in Old-English about the early Christian, but still pagan, Scandinavians who eventually conquered most of England • Epic hero represents the values of his culture Study Questions Respond to each question using a complete (but brief!) sentence. Each student will turn in all their answers when they have finished ALL of the questions. Turn in to turnitin.com only when every question is complete. Each subsequent slide corresponds to one night’s reading. The numbers in the slides’ titles are the line numbers of the poem. Study Questions for ll. 1-300 The poem opens with the story of Shield Sheafson. 1. Who is he? 2. What is he like? 3. How is he related to Hrothgar? 4. Describe the funeral rites given to Shield Sheafson? It then discusses Hrothgar 5. When Hrothgar has achieved fame from fighting, he turns his mind to what? 6. What is the name of what he builds? Monsters in the Night 7. Describe the demon who threatens the meadhall. 8. To whom is Grendel related? (Hint: Think Biblical) Paganism and Christianity (―You mean they fight, too???) 9. According to the poet, who made the earth? 10. While Grendel attacks Heorot, he does NOT approach what? Why? 11. To whom/what do many of the Danes’ ―powerful counsellors‖ turn for help? Heroes, Heroism, and the Anglo-Saxon Code 12. Who is Hygelac’s thane? From which region/country does he come? 13. What does he hear about? 14. Who is Beowulf’s father? What is the world’s opinion of him? Study Questions for ll. 301-1007 Belief Systems 15. According to Hrothgar, why is Bewoulf there? 16. What does Beowulf mean by ―Fate goes ever as fate must‖ (455)? 17. Look at the stanza which runs from ll. 473-79. In what/whom does Hrothgar believe? Friendship 18. What kind of words does Unferth speak? 19. What story does Unferth cite when challenging Beowulf? Describe it. 20. How does Beowulf respond to Unferth’s challenge? The Role of Women in the Poem 21. Who is Wealhtheow? What does she do when she enters? The Battle with Grendel 22. What will Beowulf use to defeat Grendel? 23. Describe, ever so briefly, the battle between Beowulf and Grendel. 24. How do Beowulf’s men help him? 25. What does Beowulf get from Grendel that is proof he has defeated him? 26. Where does Grendel go to die? Stories within Stories 27. Describe the man who appears in ll. 866-873. What does he do to honor Beowulf and why? Honor, Fame, and Riches 28. How does Hrothgar thank Beowulf? 29. What does Hrothgar say about Bewoulf’s mother? 30. What do Danes and Geats do to Heorot (990- ?)? What do they do next? Study Questions for ll. 1008-1709 Heorot Continued 31. Fill in the blank: ―Inside Heorot / There was nothing but ________‖ (1016-17). 32. What kind of gifts are bestowed on Beowulf? Another Song 33. The man who sang of Siegmund’s and Beowulf’s greatness sings again. What, in very general terms, is the second song about? The Role of Women 34. What does Hrothgar’s Queen say as a toast? Another Attack? 35. What happens when everyone goes to sleep after the feast? 36. What two things does Grendel’s mother take back to her fen? Preparing to Fight Again 37. What does Hrothgar say about his friend? What does this say about friendship and loyalty? 38. Re-read the passage running from ll. 1345-82. 1. Describe the two creatures. 2. What kind of birth did Grendel have? 3. What does this passage say about nature and the natural world? 39. After reading the passage running from ll. 1383-96, go to the BritLitDogs blog and respond to the ―Train Wreck‖ entry. (Read the intro, then respond informally to the prompt. I and other students will be able to read it!!) 40. What does the above passage (1383-96) tell us about the Anglo-Saxon heroic code? 41. What is Beowulf’s attitude toward death at line 1442? 42. What does Unferth give Beowulf? 43. What does Unferth lose? Battle #2 44. Describe Grendel’s mother’s lair. 45. In the end, who decides the victory between Beowulf and Grendel’s mother? 46. What does Beowulf then see that might help him? 47. Who is the ―true Lord‖ (1610-11)? Who do you think this really is? Study Questions for 1709-2509 48. After defeating Grendel, Beowulf was compared to Siegemund; to whom is Beowulf compared now, this time the character is a foil to Beowulf. Describe the comparison. 49. A long passage delivered by Hrothgar on ―true values‖ is spoken to Beowulf. Summarize some of the important lessons Hrothgar gives Beowulf. 50. After Hrothgar give this advice, what happens? 51. What does Beowulf tell Unferth about Hrunting? Is this true? Why would Beowulf say what he says? 52. At l. 1841, Hrothgar begins to say that Beowulf has three traits that will make him a great king. What are they? 53. By defeating Grendel and Grendel’s mother, and coming in friendship, Beowulf has ―done‖ something (l. 1855). What has he done, and how is this a real-world, non-mythological victory? 54. Who is Queen Hygd? Who is her ―opposite‖? What should a queen be like? 55. After the story of Frea, what does Beowulf start to discuss? Why might the poet use these digressions? 56. What happens between Beowulf and Hygelac (2144-76)? 57. How long does Beowulf rule the kingdom before the dragon appears? 58. What provokes the dragon’s wrath? 59. What is one building that is so important to Beowulf that gets burned down? Why does he think this has happened? 60. What keeps Beowulf from lining up with a large army to defeat the dragon? 61. The Flashback to Hygelac’s death occurs at lines (???): 1. Where did Hygelac get killed? 2. What does Hygd offer Beowulf? 3. Why does she offer this to him? 4. Does he accept? Why do you think he does what he does? 5. Why does this story get told at all? 6. What is one of the first things Beowulf did as king? 62. When Beowulf sits on the cliff, what makes him ―sad at heart‖? 63. What story does Beowulf tell before he goes to fight the dragon? Study Questions for 2510-end 64. Does Beowulf finally decide to use a weapon? 65. Do Beowulf’s men help him? 66. Who does help him? 67. What do we learn about Wiglaf and his family? 68. What does Wiglaf say to Beowulf’s men? 69. What happens to Naegling? Why? What does this tell us about Beowulf and swords? 70. What is meant by the line, ―So every man should act‖ (2708)? 71. Describe what Beowulf thinks about his life as he dies. 72. Who does Beowulf thank at line 2794? What does he think will be so good about all the treasure he recovered? 73. To whom does Beowulf give power? 74. What do you think Beowulf means by, ―You are the lat of us . . .‖? 75. What is Wiglaf’s prediction beginning at line 2884? 76. Summarize the story of Ongentheow. How is it commentary on what the future of the Geats will be like? 77. Describe Beowulf’s funeral. 78. Describe the Geat woman’s lament. 79. What do you think will happen to the Geats? Why?
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