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Beowulf. The Epic. What is Beowulf ?. Epic: a long poem telling a story about a hero and his exploits. Components of an epic: legendary figure actions on a grand scale requiring superhuman courage supernatural forces are involved style is elevated

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The Epic

what is beowulf
What is Beowulf?
  • Epic: a long poem telling a story about a hero and his exploits.
  • Components of an epic:
    • legendary figure
    • actions on a grand scale
    • requiring superhuman courage
    • supernatural forces are involved
    • style is elevated
  • Folk Epic: a work that pieces together its story from folk tales transmitted orally for centuries
  • Elegy: a somber poem or song that praises or laments the dead
format and point of view
Format and Point of View
  • 3,182 lines written in vernacular Old English (native language of the author's time and place)
    • Old English: language of the “common people”
    • Latin: the lofty language of “scholars”
  • The author of Beowulf based his tale in part on pagan myths, fables, Scandinavian history, and biblical and Christian history. Thus, Beowulf is a mixture of fiction and fact.
  • The poet tells the tale in omniscient third-person point of view from a Christian perspective.
  • Though describing events taking place in a pagan culture, the poet credits the Christian God and the Christian ethic for the triumph of good over evil.
the time place of beowulf
The Time & Place of Beowulf
  • Beowulf was probably composed between 700 A.D. and 900 A.D. though the events took place hundreds of years earlier.
  • Northumbria: an important Anglo-Saxon kingdom between Scotland on the north and the Humber River on the south.
  • Home to Roman Catholic monks who excelled in learning and literature.

telling of the story
Telling of the Story
  • The author of Beowulf did not write the story down. For one to three centuries, it was told orally.
  • In 1000 A.D. two English scribes write down the story
  • This Beowulf manuscript, considered one of the great heirlooms of world literature, is now preserved in the British Library in London.
  • After fire ravaged the library in 1731, the manuscript was rescued by British authorities. However, water damage and burned edges made it difficult to read.

the settings of beowulf
The Settings of Beowulf
  • Dark Ages between 500 and 700 A.D.
  • Denmark: Ruled by Hrothgar, on the island of Zealand (present-day Copenhagen, Denmark)
  • Herot: King Hrothgar’s great mead hall where Beowulf confronts a monster that has been terrorizing the Danes
  • The Lake: Home of the monster and his mother. Beowulf goes here to battle the mother
  • Geatland: Beowulf’s home country (present-day Sweden). 50 years later, he battles a dragon here
main characters
Main Characters
  • Beowulf: Illustrious warrior from Geatland. He possesses enormous strength and courageously confronts the monster in hand-to-claw combat.
  • Hrothgar: King of a Danes. He presides at Heorot, a great mead hall being terrorized by a monster.
  • Wealtheow: Hrothgar's wife and queen.
  • Grendel: Monster that terrorizes Heorot. 
  • Grendel's Mother: Monster that retaliates after Beowulf defeats Grendel.
other important characters
Other Important Characters
  • Wiglaf: Beowulf’s friend. He helps him fight the dragon. 
  • Dragon: Monster that goes on a rampage in Geatland.
  • Hygelac: King of the Geatland. He is Beowulf's uncle.
  • Hygd: Hygelac's wife and queen.
  • Heardred: Son of Hygelac.

Ecgtheow: Beowulf's father.

Unferth: Danish warrior who envies Beowulf.

Breca: Childhood friend of Beowulf.

Aeschere: Counselor to Hrothgar.

ScyldScefing: Once King of Denmark and great-grandfather of

Hrothgar. He is referenced in the epic but does not take part in the action.

verse format
Verse Format
  • Beowulf is written in unrhyming verse, without stanzas, with a caesura (pause) in the middle of each line.
  • Caesuras are used to represent the pauses that speakers normally use in everyday speech
  • Thus, each line is divided into two parts. Each part is called a hemistich (HEM e stick), which is half a line of verse. A complete line is called a stich. Each hemistich contains two stressed (accented) syllables and a varying number of unstressed (unaccented) syllables. 
  • Following are the opening three lines of Beowulf in Old English, with the space in the middle representing the caesura:
  • Hwæt! We Gar-Dena         in geardagum,  Lo. we have heard of the glory in days of old þeodcyninga,         þrymgefrunon, of the Spear-Danes, of the kings of the people, huðaæþelingasellenfremedon. how the athelings did deeds of valor. 
  • Beowulf is divided chronologically into two main sections:
    • Beowulf as a young man
    • Beowulf as an old man (50 years later)
  • Beowulf is divided by action into three main sections:
    • Introduction to characters and Beowulf's conquest of Grendel
    • Beowulf's battle with Grendel's mother
    • Beowulf's battle with the dragon with the help of Wiglaf
writing style
Writing Style
  • The imagery in Beowulf consists mostly of alliteration and metaphor.
  • Many apparent hyperboles describing the feats of Beowulf are not true hyperboles, since what appear to be exaggerations–such as a passage saying Beowulf swam from Sweden to Finland or a passage saying Beowulf had the strength of thirty–were intended to be taken literally.
  • Kennings: Compound expressions, often hyphenated, representing a single noun. A form of metaphor. Examples of kennings are the following:
    • whale-road for sea
    • sea-wood for ship
    • shield-bearer for warrior
    • battle-spoil for treasure
    • ring-nets for chain mail
    • sword-draught for a sword swallowing the blood of an enemy
    • twilight-spoiler for dragon