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The Epic of Beowulf Translated by Burton Raffel. The Epic An Epic is a long narrative poem about a larger than life hero who engaged in a dangerous journey, or quest, that is important to the history of a nation and/or its people. Historical Background

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the epic of beowulf translated by burton raffel

The Epic of BeowulfTranslated by Burton Raffel

The Epic

An Epic is a long narrative poem about a larger than life hero who engaged in a dangerous journey, or quest, that is important to the history of a nation and/or its people.

the anglo saxon period 449 1066

Historical Background

  • Romans controlled Britain for 400 years until about 445.
  • Germanic Tribes (Jutes, Angles, Saxons) Began to invade Britain.
    • These tribes enjoyed beauty & adventure.
    • They blended British and Germanic cultures
    • These people originally had pagan beliefs (worshipped god-like heroes,) but with help from St. Augustine, they later became Christians.
  • At this time, most activities revolved around the church/monasteries.
    • Center for social, intellectual, artistic, and literary life
  • During this time, people began to keep historical records, use written contracts, and courts were established.
  • Late 700-800’s- Danish Vikings invaded Britain
    • They raided and destroyed the village & monasteries
    • They were defeated in 886 by King Alfred.
  • Danes returned in 1016 & were defeated 1042
  • Anglo-Saxon period ended in 1066 when the Normans conquered the country.
The Anglo-Saxon Period (449-1066)
anglo saxon literature

Anglo-Saxon Literature

  • Much of the Anglo-Saxon literature was oral-Stories were told, not written down. A scop told or sang the tales about heroes and their adventures. Some of these oral stories were later recorded.
  • Popular kinds of literature in this time period were:
    • Heroic Epic-A long narrative poem about a hero who has great courage & super-human ability (similar to gods)
    • Elegiac Epic- A poem in which a single speaker expressed thoughts & feelings. The lyric often recalls past events.
    • Riddle- Verses that challenged listeners to guess their subjects.
  • Beowulf is a heroic epic set in the 200-300’s. Passed down orally until it was recorded about 800-1000
Anglo-Saxon Literature
types of epics

Folk Epic is a story about a hero that was originally sung or recited. Over generations, these stories were passed down by storytellers until they were eventually written down.

  • Literary Epic is written down by a specific author, usually borrowing the style and characteristics of a folk epic.
Types of Epics
elements of an epic

Elements of an Epic- All epics are characterized by certain key elements.

  • Epic Hero- The larger than life main character. This hero is strong, brave, loyal, and virtuous, although he/she usually has a flaw.
  • Epic Conflict- The hero’s struggle against an obstacle or series of obstacles. The hero proves his/her strength, bravery, wisdom, and virtue through overcoming this conflict.
  • Heroic Quest- The journey that the hero takes in search of something that is valuable to his/her people.
  • Divine Intervention- The help or hindrance that the hero receives from a god or some supernatural force.
Elements of an Epic

Information that can be in a prologue is

Beowulf, like many stories, has a prologue, which gives the reader information he or she needs to better understand a story.

  • Background information
  • Introduction of characters
  • Introduction to setting
  • Introduce a major theme

In this story, the Prologue discusses the lineage, or family history, of the king of the Danes. It expresses the importance of valorous heroes. It also tells us that the story will take place in Denmark.


Hear me! We’ve heard of Danish heroes, Ancient kings and the glory they cut For themselves, swinging mighty swords!How Shild made slaves of soldiers from Every land, crowds of captives he’d beaten Into terror; he’d travel to Denmark alone An abandoned child, but changed his own fate, lived to be rich and much honored. He ruled Lands on all sides: Wherever the sea Would take them his soldiers, sailed returned with tribute and obedience. There was a brave king! And he gave them more than his glory, Conceived a son for the Danes, a new leader allowed them by the grace of God.


They had lived, before his coming, kingless and miserable; Now the Lord of all life, Ruler of Glory, blessed them with a prince, Beo, Whose power and fame soon spread through the world. Shild’s strong son was the glory of Denmark; His father’s worriers were round his heart With gold rings, bound to their prince By his father’s treasure. So young men built the future, wisely open-handed in peace, Protected in War; so warriors earn Their fame, and wealth is shaped with a sword.


When his time was come the old king died, Still strong but called to the Lord’s hands. His comrades carried him down to the shore, Bore him as their leader had asked, their lord And companion, while words could move on his tongue. Shild’s reign had been long; he ruled them well. There in the harbor was a ring-prowed fighting Ships, its timbers icy, waiting, And there they brought the beloved body Of their ring-giving lord, and laid him near the mast. Next to that noble corpse They heaped up treasure, jeweled helmets, hooked swords and coats of mail, armor Carried from the ends of the earth:


no ship Had ever sailed so brightly fitted, No king sent forth more deeply mourned. Forced to set him adrift, floating As far as the tide might run, they refused To give him less from their hoards of gold Than those who’d shipped him away, an orphan And a beggar, to cross the waves alone. High up over his head they flew His shinny banner, then sadly let The water pull at the ship, watched it Slowly sliding to where neither rulers Nor heroes not anyone can say whose hands Opened to take that motionless cargo.


Then Beo was king in that Danish castle, Shild’s son ruling as long as his father And as loved, a famous lord of men. And he in turn gave his people a son, the great Healfdane, a fierce fighter Who led the Danes to the end of his long Life and left them four children, Three princes to guide them in battle, Hergar and Hrothgar and Halga the Good, and one daughter, Yrs, who was given to Onela, king of the Swedes, and became his wife and their queen.

  • The prologue begins with the narrator addressing the reader to “Hear me!” as he begins to tell of Heroic Danish kings of the past.
  • First he introduces Shild, who was an orphan who immigrated to Denmark as a child.
    • Shild was loved and honored by his people.
    • He was brave and a good fighter
    • Before he arrived, the Danes were miserable and kingless
    • He had a son named Beo
    • When Shild died, to honor and respect him, the Danes put his body on a boat with treasures and gold and sent his body to sea (so he had it in the after-life)
    • Everyone in the country mourned his death

Shild’s son Beo took over his reign and became as loved as his father

  • Beo had a son named Healfdane, who was a fierce fighter.
  • Healfdane had four children: Yrs (the only girl), Hrothgar, Halga, &Hergar
  • Yrs married the King of the Swedes
  • Hrothgar became the next king
    • Hrothgar is the king during the tale of Beowulf

As you remember from the background information, Beowulf was told orally for centuries before it was finally written down.

The monks were the ones who recorded the tale, so they added elements for Christianity to the otherwise Pagan story.

We see a mix of both Pagan and Christian beliefs in the Prologue because it tells us that God sent Shild to the Danes, He brought Beo, and He took Shild away.

However, the ceremony following Shild’s death was typical of Pagans, since the treasure the Danes sent with Shild was to go with him into the afterlife.

the coming of grendel

Who is King? Hrothgar

  • What did he build? The great hall- Herot
  • Why did he build it? So they can divide treasure from battle, celebrate & retell stories of victory
  • What is foreshadowed? The building’s eventual destruction by fire
  • Who is the “powerful monster, living down In the darkness, growl(ing) in pain, impatient?” Grendel
  • What is annoying him? The music and celebration in the hall.
  • Why is Grendel so evil? He is a descendent of Cain, who was cursed by God for killing his brother.
“The Coming of Grendel”

Why is Cain an allusion? It is a reference to the Bible

  • What does this allusion say about Grendel? He is inherently evil
  • Why did Grendel go to Herot? To see what the men do when the drinking and partying is done.
  • What does he find when he gets there? All of the men sleeping
  • What does Grendel do? He grabs 30 of them and kills them, then leaves happily
  • How does Hrothgar react? He mourns the death of his warriors.
  • What happens the next night? Grendel returns and kills again
  • What do the warriors do? Flee from Herot to find safe places to sleep since Grendel kills at night

How long did Herot remain empty? 12 years

  • How did other people hear about Grendel’s terror? Because of the length and awfulness of his terror, the story was sung and told even across the sea.
  • What was Grendel doing during this time? Stalking anyone who approached Herot; waiting for his next victim.
  • Why didn’t Grendel kill Hrothgar? He was protected by God
  • What had the Danes tried to get rid of Grendel? Made sacrificed to pagan gods, asked for the devil’s help
  • What is the only thing that could rid them for Grendel’s terror? God

At the same time in a far away country, who hears of Grendel’s terror? Beowulf

  • Who supported Beowulf’s journey? How do we know? God supported his journey; the omens were good
  • Who went with him? 14 of the finest Geats
  • A Kenning is an elaborate phrase that describes a person, place, thing, or event on a metaphoric and indirect way. What are some kennings we see in Beowulf? “Hell-forged hands”- Grendel; “King of the Danes”- Hrothgar; “Mankind’s enemy”- Grendel; “shadow of death”- Grendel; “Healfdane’s son”- Hrothgar; “Higlac’s follower”- Beowulf
the coming of beowulf

Who met Beowulf and his men at the Danish shore? Wulfgar

  • What did he tell them to do? Leave their weapons and go meet Hrothgar at Herot
  • When he meets Hrothgar, what does Beowulf tell him? His credentials
  • What is on Beowulf’s “resume”? He is a good warrior (killed so many enemies in war that he returned dipping in their blood;) He chased giants into chains; He swam in the dark water hunting sea monsters; Now he has come for Grendel.
  • What is Beowulf’s one request? For his men to be able to fight Grendel without Danish help
“The Coming of Beowulf”

What will Beowulf fight with? Why? His bare hands; he doesn’t want Higlac to think less of him because if he used a sword, it would seem like he is afraid to fight the monster himself.

  • Who will decide the battle? God
  • If they lose, what will happen to their bodies and possessions? Grendel will carry them to his lair, crunch on their bones, smear their skin and blood on his walls.
  • What does Beowulf want to happen to his possessions if he is killed? Return his armor to Higlac

What does he think Grendel’s plan will be? To attack at night

  • So what is Beowulf’s plan? To have his Geats lay where the Danes had and wait for Grendel (pretending to sleep.)
  • What happened next? The Geats & Danes feasted & celebrated the potential end of Grendel
the battle with grendel

What do we learn in the intro to this section? The Danes have left & the Geatslay where they once had. Beowulf is lying awake waiting for Grendel.

  • What does Grendel symbolize? What are some reasons we think this?Evil; he is “bearing God’s hatred,” he was “forever joyless,” his eyes “gleamed with darkness & burned with gruesome light”
  • Why does Grendel come to Herot this time? To kill
  • What is dramatic irony & where do we see it? It is when the reader/audience knows some-thing that a character does not. We know that Beowulf & his men are waiting for Grendel, but Grendel does not.
  • What happened when Grendel got to Herot? He ripped the door open & entered the hall seeing it full of sleeping warriors.
  • On lines 387-389, what literary device is being used? What does it mean? Foreshadowing; Grendel will die.
“The Battle with Grendel”

What literary term describes the following lines (390-391): “Eyes were watching his evil steps, Waiting to see his swift claws?” Dramatic Irony

  • What happens to the first GeatGrendel grabs? Grendel ripped him apart, drank his blood, and swallowed him.
  • What happened to the second Geat? It is Beowulf, and he grabbed Grendel’s claws and bent them back.
  • What did Grendel realize at this point? He has met his match & he wanted to run back to his lair.
  • What is going on from lines 420-430? Grendel and Beowulf are fighting.
  • How do the Danes react? shocked with fear

Who is winning the battle? Beowulf

  • Why don’t Beowulf’s men help him? They try, but Grendel has cursed their swords so they don’t even scratch his skin.
  • How did Beowulf defeat Grendel? He ripped his arm off
  • What happens to Grendel in lines 457-465?He was becoming weak and his death was near
  • Where did he display it? He hung it from the ceiling
  • What happened to Grendel? He went back to his lair, we assume, to die.
  • What happened in the morning? A crowd gathered outside of Herot to find the body of Grendel.
  • What did they find? Bloody footprints that led to a bloody boiling lake.
  • What do we assume happened? Hell opened up to receive Grendel

What did the people do? The Rode back to Herot telling the stories of Beowulf’s bravery.

  • How does the end of the selection reiterate the importance of the folk epic? It tells of old soldiers retelling the tales of Beowulf’s bravery & heroic acts.
  • What are some of the ways that the author chooses to refer to Grendel as? What is this literary device called?shepherd of evil, guardian of crime, almighty’s enemy, Hell’s captive, sin-stained demon; kenning
  • What does the last paragraph reveal about this story? How it became a folk epic; they began retelling the story of Beowulf’s bravery
  • What is the main conflict in this story? Good verse evil
  • What is the theme? Good triumphs over evil
the fight with the fire dragon the burning of beowulf s body

What has happened to Beowulf & how much time has passes since the fight with Grendel? Beowulf has become the kind of Geatland; many years

  • How does he encounter the dragon? The dragon plagued his country, so he goes out to fight it.
  • Does Beowulf have any idea that he may die? Yes, he foresees his own death.
  • What happens to the dragon when Bewulf strikes it with his sword? The dragon is not injured, just angered.
“The Fight with the Fire Dragon” & “The Burning of Beowulf’s Body”

Who is the only person to come to Beowulf’s aid? What happens to the rest of his people? Wiglaf; they retreat because they are scared.

  • What happens to Beowulf the third time the dragon charges? He is stabbed in the throat with its tusk.
  • What does Beowulf do next? Cut the dragon in two. Then he with Wiglaf defeat the dragon.
  • What happens to Beowulf in the end? He dies from his wounds
  • What is his regret? He has not heirs.
  • What is his final request? He wants a funeral fire to be built by the sea & a tower erected in his honor to guide sailors.

Did the Geats honor Beowulf’s last request? Yes

  • What did the Geats do? Cry & mourn his death. They feared the future without Beowulf.
  • How long did it take to build the tower? 10 days
  • What did they put in and around the tower? They put his ashes in the walls, bared the treasures of the dragon around the tower
  • What did they do to show respect of Beowulf beyond his requests? the 12 bravest Geats rode around the tower praising & telling stories of their loved leader