Listen to Beowulf , read by its translator, Seamus Heaney. Click here for Part 1. British Islands, pre 50 B.C. Prior to Julius Caesar’s invasion of Britain around 50 B.C. , the British Isles were tribal and pagan. The three most powerful tribes were the Britons, the Picts, and the Gaels.
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Prior to Julius Caesar’s invasion of Britain around 50 B.C., the British Isles were tribal and pagan. The three most powerful tribes were the Britons, the Picts, and the Gaels.
British Islands, c. 50 B.C. to c. 450 A.D.
Caesar controls the island now called Britain only as far north as what is roughly the border with modern-day Scotland.
British Islands, c. 450 B.C. to c. 1066 A.D..
Tribes from northern Germany and southern Scandanavia settle in the southeastern parts of the island now called England. These tribes are (among others) the Jutes, the Danes, the Frisians, the Geats, the Angles, and the Saxons.
Achilles remembers what his mother Thetis told him about his fate:
“If I stay [in Troy] and fight, I’ll never return home, but my glory will be undying forever. If I return home to my dear fatherland, my glory is lost, but my life will be long.” (IX, 422 ff)
The hero willingly sacrifices his life for the promise of eternal glory or honor.
The Beowulf manuscript was discovered in England. At the time the manuscript was created, though, “England” did not exist. The manuscript was written by an unknown poet.
It remains the oldest known work of literature in “English.”
This Anglo-Saxon letter is called “thorn”. Phonetically, it represents a “thh” sound, as in “the”. This letter once was used to spell the word “The” in titles, as in “Ye Olde Shoppe”
Manuscript dates to 700-900 A.D.
Like Homer’s Iliad, Beowulfhas a loose grounding in history.
A Geatish king, Hygelac, did lead raids on Denmark
c. 525 A.D.
But, like the Iliad (and other epics) the “truth” of Beowulf lies in the values it seeks to pass down from generation-to-generation, first as an artifact of ORAL TRADITION, then as a written narrative poem/song.
Dane-land – Hrothgar’s Kingdom
Geat-land – Hygelac’s Kingdom
“Shield was still thriving when his time came and he crossed over into the Lord’s keeping. His warrior band did what he bade them… they shouldered him out to the sea’s flood… stretched their beloved lord in his boat… and launched him alone out over the waves.” (lines 30 ff)
Because methods of smithing and smelting metals had improved, and because iron and steel had long since replaced bronze, Viking swords were much longer, heavier, and sharper than the swords used by the Greeks at the time of the Trojan War.
Beowulf’s sword has a name. He called it “Hrunting”.
A meadhall is an “audience chamber or “throne room” that was also used for banquets and celebrations. Hrothgar’s meadhall is called Heorot (or Herot).
Mead is mentioned several times in Beowulf. Mead is the world’s first known alcoholic beverage. It is made from fermented honey. As the Scandanavians drank it, mead would have been very much like ale, or lightly carbonated, very strong beer.
“Grendel was the name of this grim demon haunting the marshes, marauding round the heath and desolate fens; he had dwelt for a time in misery, among the banished monsters, Cain’s clan, whom the creator had outlawed and condemned as outcasts.” (lines 102 ff)
a Viking longboat
“The Geat captain had boldly fulfilled his boast to the Danes: he had healed and relieved a huge distress…
Clear proof of this could be seen in the hand the hero displayed high up near the roof: the whole of Grendel’s shoulder and arm, his awesome grasp.”
(ll. 815 ff)
“The monster’s whole body was in pain, a tremendous wound appeared on his shoulder. Sinews split, and the bone-lappings burst. Beowulf was granted the glory of winning.”
Hrothgar is king of the Danes. He is a widely respected, very generous man. (through l. 98)
Hrothgar’s father (Halfdane), grandfather (Beow – no relation to Beowulf), and great-grandfather (Scyld Scēfing) were also good, generous, respected warrior-kings. (through l. 98)
Hrothgar builds a meadhall – Heorot – a where he celebrates his good fortune with his loyal warriors. (through l. 98)
Grendel, a descendant of Cain, is driven to murder by the songs of praise which are sung constantly in Heorot. (through l. 110)