BEOWULF First epic of England
What is it? • Anglo-Saxon literature (starting in 449 A.D.) takes on two typical forms: • Elegiac poem: poem that grieves for the dead • Heroic poem: epic verse that recounts the deeds of a famous warrior or warriors • Beowulf is the first surviving heroic poem written entirely in the English language.
Dates from the 8th-11th centuries (manuscript survives from the 11th) Action takes place in sixth-century Scandinavia Originally told in Old English (language spoken by Anglo-Saxons in England during the years 500-1100) by scops, traveling minstrels who made their living by entertaining listeners (usually after feasting!) with poems, songs, and stories. Beowulf read aloud in Old English
Could have been easily lost… • Manuscript survived in a Renaissance antiquarian’s possession; in 1731, the manuscript was saved from a fire but did not escape damage: 2,000 letters crumbled away from the edges of the manuscript. • An Icelandic scholar (GrimurJonssonThorkelin) transcribed the manuscript in 1786 and published it in 1815. As the manuscript itself deteriorated further; Thorkelin’s work was essential for scholars to preserve certain parts of the poem. And thank goodness! Just imagine if you couldn’t read Beowulf today!
Many sources • Scandinavian Sagas • German Heroic Poetry • Irish folk tales • Classical Epics (Odyssseyand Aeneid) • Old Testament • Newly Christian society
Huge debate over the pagan and Christian elements in the poem • The FACTS: • That the scribes of the Beowulf manuscript were Christian is beyond doubt (monks transcribing in a monastery). • And, Beowulf was transcribed in Christianized England (conversion took place in the sixth and seventh centuries A.D.) • YET the only Biblical references in the poem are to the Old Testament: Christ is never mentioned.
Questions to ponder • The poem is set in pagan times. • Beowulf does offer prayers to the Father Almighty, however. • So is Beowulf a pagan who uses Christian phrases? Is Beowulf a Christian? Is the “narrator” a Christian? How is he describing (or even judging) this pagan society? Finally, is the poem a Christian or a pagan poem?
Review • Beowulf is the ________ surviving heroic poem in the English language. (most accurate, most distinguished, oldest, most violent). • German storytellers who first told the tale of Beowulf were known as _______ (bards, minstrels, tenors, scops). • Which of these is not a source for Beowulf?: Irish folktales, Scandinavian sagas, the New Testament, The Odyssey