Beowulf, Old English, and the Anglo-Saxons
Learning Objectives • To explore the origins of the English language and literature. • To study the early history of the British Isles. • To gain knowledge of vocabulary essential to understanding Anglo-Saxon literature. • To look at the themes most commonly associated with Anglo-Saxon literature. • To see how modern writers perceive and adapt this time period into their own writing.
What is Old English? • Germanic language introduced to the British Isles in the 5th century A.D. • Spoken before the Norman Conquest by William the Conqueror in 1066 AD which introduced French as the language of the noble class. • This language is the ancestor of the Modern English spoken today
Where did Old English come from? • Julius Caesar invades Britain in 55 BC, followed later by Aulus Plautius in 43 AD who was established as Britain’s first governor. They found a people there called the Kelts. • Prosperous trading began between the two, Kelts mixed with Romans, began to speak Latin.
Where did Old English come from? • After the Romans left Britain in 410 AD, the country was attacked beginning in 449 AD: • Jutes (Jutland and Rhineland) • Saxons (Germany) • Angles (Denmark) • Frisians (Netherlands)
Where did Old English come from? • After the invasions and settlements, people began speaking a Germanic language later to be known as Old English. • Use of the language dies out after the Battle of Hastings and the Norman conquest by William the Conqueror in 1066. This introduces French into the language.
What does Old English sound like? • Old English sounds a lot like German • or Scandinavian. • Listen to this passage and see if you • recognize it.
Lo , we of the Spear-Danes in the yore-days Hwæt, we Gar-Dena // in geardagum of the warrior-kings the glory have learned of, ∂eodcyninga // ∂rym gerunon, how the princes deeds of valor accomplished! hu ∂a æ∂elingas // ellen fremedon!
Old English Literature: c. 680- 1066 • 658-680: Caedmon’s “Hymn”—earliest poem in English recorded in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People (completed in 731). The first vernacular poem in English. • 975ish: “The Wanderer,” “The Seafarer,” and “The Wife’s Lament”—elegies for the loss of one’s lord and companions; loneliness, exile, and utter desolation. • 1000: (written down for first time) Beowulf – epic poem about Beowulf – Anglo-Saxon hero.
Literary Terms in Anglo-Saxon Literature • Alliteration: Repetition of initial consonant sounds • Kennings: two-word metaphors used to replace a noun • Caesura: a pause in speech or meter • Allusion: a reference used in literature
The manuscript from which modern scholars translate their versions of Beowulf was probably written about • 1000 AD. • The story itself had been passed down and spread in the oral form for centuries before it was ever written down. • It is set in the 5th or 6th century Scandinavia. It was probably first composed around 750 AD.
The chief characters in Beowulf are Scandinavians: • the Danes, who are attacked by Grendel and saved by Beowulf; • the Geats, of whom Beowulf afterwards becomes king; • the Swedes, whose conflicts with the Geats are recounted in passages in the later part of the poem.
Anglo-Saxon Wyrds to Know • Wyrd – Germanic fatalism; acceptance of the inevitable. • Scop – a traveling minstrel/bard • Wergild – payment made to a family for the wrongful death of a person (man-money). • Friths –objects of value that represent a tribe (cups, rings, torques, etc.). • Flytings – battle speeches • Thegn – a companion/servant/soldier of the king (thane). • Runes – script used to write Old English before the introduction of the Latin alphabet. • Comitatus – (Latin) strategic interweaving of family threads and tribal allegiances
Christianity vs. Anglo-Saxons • Monks were the first to write down the poem – did they change things? • Anglo-Saxons were newly introduced to Christianity at the time of the narrative. • NOT a natural or comfortable religion for Anglo-Saxons • Heroic codes compete with newer religious doctrines • Pride and Boasting vs. Modesty / Self-Abasement • Destroy enemies vs. Love thine Enemy • Gain treasure and fame vs. Shun earthly treasures for heavenly ones • Do deeds to protect self/family/lord vs. Altruism (good for good’s sake)
Themes and Motifs • The characters outside the male community are disruptive: monsters, women, etc. • Nothing lasts; human relations are fraught with discord; all treasure comes laden with history. • No human effort can change the course of wyrd or counter God’s will. • Women and their role (Wealhtheow vs. Mother) • Lineage, pagan vs. Christian values • Ability to speak well • What “should” be done vs. what “is” done.
John Gardner’s Grendel • Grendel is a post-modern work (fragmentary, dark, existential, nihilistic, inter-textual, changing perspectives) • Grendel as a metaphor for the necessity for a dark side to everything; • A hero is only as great as the villain he faces. • Grendel lives in isolation and loneliness with his mother who in her old age is unable to provide any real companionship to her child. As the only being of his kind, he has no one to relate to and feels the need to be understood or have some connection. • Grendel has a complex relationship with the humans who hate and fear him. He feels that he is somehow related to humanity and despite his desire to eat them, he can be moved by them and their works.
John Gardner’s Grendel • His long life grants him the ability to act as a witness to how their lives transpire and their behavior and logic bewilders him. He is cursed to a life of solitude, also being portrayed as having eternal life, which furthers his plight and loneliness as he can only fall in battle and he is immune to all human weapons. • He is only freed from his tormented life through his encounter with Beowulf. • Stream-of-consciousness style • Nihilism and Existentialism - the dragon continues to tell Grendel that nothing matters, and that the only thing Grendel should do is sit on his treasure. This contrasts Grendel's Existentialism (questioning everything).