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Introduction to Beowulf. Story isn’t about the English—it’s about the Danes and the Geats. So what’s it doing in England? Romans controlled England (up to Hadrian’s Wall) until the 5 th century Waves of post-Roman invasions by Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Danes, and Irish

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Introduction to Beowulf

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Introduction to beowulf

Introduction to Beowulf

  • Story isn’t about the English—it’s about the Danes and the Geats. So what’s it doing in England?

  • Romans controlled England (up to Hadrian’s Wall) until the 5th century

  • Waves of post-Roman invasions by Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Danes, and Irish

  • Native Britons couldn’t hold them off

Anglo saxon kingdoms

Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms

Map from C. Warren Hollister,

The Making of England, p. 64

I historical background

I. Historical background

  • 400-600 A.D. -- Angles, Saxons, and Jutes invade (Beowulf set)

  • 410 A.D. – Rome renounces control of Britain

  • 521 A.D. – Hygelac invades the Netherlands

  • 597 A.D. – St. Augustine

  • 625 A.D. – Sutton Hoo

  • 700-950 A.D. -- Christian poet composed the poem, setting it in the past

The danelaw

The Danelaw

  • Viking raids in late 8th century along East coast of England, Ireland, northern France

  • In 850, Danish Vikings began to settle in Kent

  • In 865, a large Danish army invaded and took control of nearly all of England except Wessex

  • In 870, Danes attacked Wessex

The danelaw1

The Danelaw

  • 871: Alfred the Great becomes king of Wessex

  • Warrior, diplomat, administrator, scholar, Christian; Greatest Anglo-Saxon king

  • 872: Alfred had to bribe the Danes to stop the fighting

  • Built a navy of 60-oared ships, bigger and faster than the Danes’ ships

The danelaw2

The Danelaw

  • After almost losing his kingdom in 872, Alfred’s military reforms allowed him to begin retaking land

  • By 886, Alfred had retaken London and made a treaty with the Danes establishing their area of authority in England—the Danelaw

  • By Alfred’s death in 899, the Danish threat was over, and subsequent kings reconquered the Danelaw

Sutton hoo

Sutton Hoo

  • Ship burial of a 7th-century Anglo-Saxon king, possibly Raedwald (d. 624/625)

  • Found in 1939 at Sutton Hoo in eastern England, formerly the Danelaw

  • Ship was nearly 80 feet long, laden with treasures and everyday equipment (even if it is everyday equipment made of gold)

  • Window into the early Anglo-Saxon world

Sutton hoo1

Sutton Hoo

Photos from British Museum

Sutton hoo2

Sutton Hoo

Sutton hoo3

Sutton Hoo

Introduction to beowulf1

Introduction to Beowulf

  • Oral vs. written text

  • Many ancient works were memorized and recited—and were not written down until centuries later (Odyssey, Iliad, Beowulf)

  • Only surviving Beowulf manuscript dates from late 10th century

  • Probably composed mid-8th century

Introduction to beowulf2

Introduction to Beowulf

  • The scop: Anglo-Saxon equivalent of a singing poet or bard

  • Oral techniques used in the epic poem: alliteration, repetition, variation, kennings, half-lines, metonymy (one thing substituted for another), synecdoche (part for the whole)

Introduction to beowulf

Beowulf Manuscript(Note the burn marks on the top and sides—the ms. was severely damaged in a fire while housed in a museum in London)



Hwaet! Wē Gār-Denain geārdagum

þēodcyningaþrym gefrūnon,

hū ðā æþelingasellen fremedon.

Oft Scyld Scēfingsceaþena þrēatum

monegum mægþummeodosetla oftēah,

egsode eorlassyððan ærest wearð

fēasceaft funden.Hē þæs frōfre gebād,

wēox under wolcnum,weorðmundum þāh

oð þæt him æghwylcþāra ymbsittendra

ofer hronrādehyran scolde,

gomban gyldan.Þæt wæs gōd cyning!



  • A metaphorical expression used in place of a noun

  • Sea = “whale-road” or “swan’s way”

  • Joints, ligaments = “bone-locks”

  • Sun = “sky-candle”

  • Icicles = “water-ropes”

Metonymy and synecdoche

Metonymy and Synecdoche

  • Metonymy: Name of one thing is substituted for the name of something else that most people would associate with the first thing

    • “Iron” for “Sword”

    • “Crown” for “king” or “monarchy”

  • Synecdoche: Substitute a part for the whole

    • “keel” for “ship”

    • “All hands on deck”

    • “Heads of cattle”

Anglo saxon society

Anglo-Saxon Society

  • Tribal society with kinship bonds and a heroic code of behavior

    • bravery

    • loyalty to one's lord (thane), one's warband (comitatus), and one's kin; based on mutual trust and respect

    • willingness to avenge one's warband or lord at all costs – death preferable to exile.

    • generosity of lord to thanes and of hero to warband and lord--gift-giving

Anglo saxon society contd

Anglo-Saxon Society Contd.

  • heroism (i.e., great deeds) brings honor, eternal fame, and political power

  • Good king is referred to as the “ring-giver,” the “helmet,” or “the shield” of his people

Key vocabulary

Key Vocabulary

  • Wergild – man price; if kinsman is slain, a man had a moral obligation to kill the slayer or exact a payment to compensate for the loss of life; the payment itself was less important than doing what they considered right

Beowulf vocabulary contd

Beowulf Vocabulary Contd.

  • Comitatus: Germanic warrior band (Tacitus)

  • Scop: poet in oral culture (“shaper”); bard

    • Preserves history

    • Entertains court

    • Spreads hero’s fame

  • Thane (thegn): warrior retainer/lord

  • Wyrd: fate (to the POET = God’s will)

Anglo saxon values

Anglo-Saxon values

  • Loyalty

    • Fighting for one’s king

    • Avenging one’s kinsmen (wergild – man price)

    • Keeping one’s word

  • Generosity -- gifts symbolize bonds

  • Brotherly love -- not romantic love

  • Heroism

    • Physical strength

    • Skill and resourcefulness in battle

    • Courage

  • Public reputation (boasting), not private conscience

What about the women

What about the women?

  • Women make peace, bearing children who create blood ties

  • Women pass the cup at the mead-hall, cementing social bonds

  • Women lament loss, don’t avenge

Religion in anglo saxon times

Religion in Anglo Saxon Times

  • Mix of pagan and Christian values--often in conflict.

    • Pagan (secular (non-religious) lineage vs. Christian lineage)

    • Eternal earthly fame through deeds vs. afterlife in hell or heaven;

    • honor & gift-giving vs. sin of pride (hubris)

    • revenge vs pacifist view (forgiveness);

    • Wyrd (Anglo-Saxon "Fate") vs God's will, etc.

Characteristics of an epic

Characteristics of an Epic

  • most epics share certain

  • conventions, which reflect the larger thanlife

  • events that a hero might experience.

  • • The setting is vast in scope, often involving

  • more than one nation.

  • • The plot is complicated by supernatural

  • beings or events and may involve a long and

  • dangerous journey through foreign lands.

Characteristics contd

Characteristics Contd.

  • Dialogue often includes long, formal

  • speeches delivered by the major characters.

  • • The theme reflects timeless values, such as

  • courage and honor, and encompasses

  • universal ideas, such as good and evil or life and

  • death.

  • • The style includes formal diction (the writer’s

  • choice of words and sentence structure) and a

  • serious tone (the expression of the writer’s

  • attitude toward the subject).

Epic hero traits

Epic hero traits

  • Is significant and glorified

  • Is on a quest/journey

  • Has superior or superhuman strength, intelligence, and/or courage

  • Is ethical

  • Risks death for glory or for the greater good of society

  • Is a strong and responsible leader

  • Performs brave deeds

  • Reflects ideals of a particular society

Is beowulf a hero

Is Beowulf a hero?

  • Does Beowulf act for selfish motives – glory? treasure?

  • Does Beowulf act for selfless motives – preserving the community?

  • Does Beowulf ever make a raid or start a feud?

  • Does B stand for violence or civilization?

  • Is Beowulf successful as a warrior? As a king?

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