What is Beowulf? • It is a familiar theme: a brave hero battles his archenemy, an evildoer who will stop at nothing to win. • This theme of hero and villain goes back more than 1200 years to a time when Anglo-Saxon storytellers sang of the legend of Beowulf, the warrior. EQ: How is Beowulf an epic hero?
Why is Beowulf important? • the first English literary masterpiece • one of the earliest European epics written in the vernacular, or native language, instead of literary Latin
Epics of other cultures • You can compare the magnitude of Beowulf with that of the Iliad and the Odyssey of ancient Greece and the Sundiata of Mali. • The Anglo-Saxons left few records of their life and history. Beowulf shows their dreams, goals and fears, as well as their values of loyalty, bravery and honor. EQ: How is Beowulf an epic hero?
When was it written? Estimates of the date of composition range between 700 and 1000 AD.; written in England The story survives in one fragile manuscript copied by two scribes near the end of the 10th or the first quarter of the 11th century EQ: How is Beowulf an epic hero?
History Beowulf began as an oral poem, passed by singers of one generation to the next. It’s a good guess Beowulf would have disappeared along with those singers themselves if it had not been written down EQ: How is Beowulf an epic hero?
Who wrote the poem? No one knows. Like all early oral poetry, it had as many authors as singers who performed it. The singers may have performed it when warriors gathered in meadhalls to celebrate like those described in Beowulf. It was originally spoken in Old English, the language spoken by the Anglo-Saxons during the years 500 to 1100. EQ: How is Beowulf an epic hero?
Setting • set around 500 AD • the narrative also recounts historical events that happened much earlier. EQ: How is Beowulf an epic hero?
Setting • Denmark and Geatland (a region in what is now southern Sweden) EQ: How is Beowulf an epic hero?
Trivia: Beowulf as inspiration Beowulf has influenced … classical music (the American composer Howard Hanson’s Lament for Beowulf, ca. 1926), a novel (John Gardner's Grendel, 1971), animated film (Grendel! Grendel! Grendel! with Peter Ustinov, ca. 1982), even a comic-book series (Beowulf, Dragon-Slayer, ca. 1975). EQ: How is Beowulf an epic hero?
Tensions Between the Heroic Code and Other Value Systems • Much of Beowulf is devoted to illustrating the Germanic heroic code, which values strength, courage, and loyalty in warriors; hospitality, generosity, and political skill in kings; ceremoniousness* in women; and good reputation in all people. • * formally or elaborately polite EQ: How is Beowulf an epic hero?
Traditional and much respected, this code is vital to warrior societies as a means of understanding their relationships to the world and the menaces lurking beyond their boundaries. • All of the characters’ moral judgments stem from the code’s mandates. Thus individual actions can be seen only as either conforming to or violating the code. EQ: How is Beowulf an epic hero?
Germanic heroic code values strength, courage, and loyalty in warriors; hospitality, generosity, and political skill in kings; ceremoniousness in women; and good reputation in all people. • The poem presents situations that expose a contradiction in values, seen especially with the values of medieval Christianity in contrast to that of the heroic code. • heroic code: glory is achieved in this life through noble deeds versus Christian doctrine: glory lies only in the hereafter • warrior tradition: it is always better to get revenge than to grieve versus Christian belief: forgive those who have done us wrong EQ: How is Beowulf an epic hero?
He’s an Archetypal Hero… • unusual birth • great strength/ superhero qualities • great intelligence • resourcefulness • reverence for God or society • always conquers evil • shows elements of immortality
Poet accommodates two sets of values: pagan and Christian • Heroic code: honor is gained during life through deeds versus Christianity: glory lies in the afterlife. • warrior culture: it is always better to retaliate than to mourn versus Christian doctrine: advocates a peaceful, forgiving attitude toward enemies. • Though the author is Christian, he cannot (and does not seem to want to) deny the fundamental pagan values of the story of this epic hero. EQ: How is Beowulf an epic hero?
About the Poem • Uses three primary literary devices • Alliteration • Versifications and Caesuras • Compounding and Kennings
Alliteration • Repetition of stressed sounds • Why do this? • Oral tradition!
Versification • Use of two half lines separated by a strong pause • þa gyt hie him asetton segen geldenneheah ofer heafod, leton holm beran,geafon on garsecg; him wæs geomor sefa, • Caesura = strong pause • Usually noted in natural break in rhythm of the language
Compounding • Combining two words to make a new word • Usually done to meet the meter of the poem • Spear-danes • Mead-benches • Boy-child
kenning • A type of COMPOUNDING metaphor used in place of a noun, not just a comparison • “mankind’s enemy” = Grendel • These compounds like “swan’s road” for “ocean” or “sea wood” for ship form key elements in the rhythm and alliteration • You will add these to your study guide as we read. EQ: How is Beowulf an epic hero?
Kennings • Still used today! Take a few minutes and see how many you can identify: • An athlete who does not get to play much • a person who reads frequently • a person who wears glasses • a football • British soldiers during the American Revolution • a dollar bill • a person who is nice to a teacher in order to get good grades
To quote lines: • “… him who of all the men on earth/Was the strongest” (364-365). • “… Higlac’s/Follower and the strongest of the Geats– greater/And stronger than anyone anywhere in this world…” (109-111). EQ: How is Beowulf an epic hero?
Let’s get ready to read! • On a sheet of paper, write the word “hero” in the middle. • As you listen to the epic poem, you will complete a "doodle sheet" (sounds official, huh?!), with the word HERO in the center, adding graphic representations (words, images, drawings) that connect to the poem EQ: How is Beowulf an epic hero?