Beowulf Epic Approximately 3,200 lines long – Relatively short as epics go! Estimates of the date of composition range between 700 and 1000 a.d.
genre · Alliterative verse; elegy; resembles heroic epic, though smaller in scope than most classical epics
Narrator · A Christian narrator telling a story of pagan times Point of view · Third person, generally objective standpoint—detailing the action that occurs. Does access character’s depths. Reveals minds of most of the characters (even Grendel) at one point or another. Moves forward and backward in time with considerable freedom. Tone · enthusiastic about Beowulf’s feats; events narrated with a sense of doom. Setting (time) · around 500 a.d.; the narrative also recounts historical events that happened much earlier. (place) · Denmark and Geatland (a region in what is now southern Sweden)
Old English (We’re reading a translation!) • Benjamin Bagby – live performance! • Hwaet! We gardena in geardagum Lo! We the Spear-Danes in the days of youre (line 1). • Swa begnornodon Geata leode So mourned the Geatish people (3178).
Comitatus Life without loyalty or courage was worse than death. Comitatus – pledge of a warrior to defend their lord to the death. A true hero feared being disloyal over dying. Last year – Patrick Henry’s “Give me liberty, or give me death” speech. Later this year – Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light brigade” - “Theirs not to reason why, / Theirs but to do or die.”
Anglo-Saxon Values The culture celebrates heroes that express their values and customs: • Honoring courage over long life • Enjoying feasting, storytelling, and music • Viewing life fatalistically, even within the Christian tradition • Admiring physical strength more than intelligence • Valuing loyalty to the lord or king above all
Three Adons • Beowulf faces Grendel • Evokes the importance of reputation as a means of expanding one’s existence beyond death. • Beowulf faces Sea Hag • represent the evil in Scandinavian society of marauding and killing others. • Evokes the importance of vengeance. • Beowulf faces Dragon • traditional figure of medieval folklore and a common Christian symbol of sin; death. • Evokes heroic approach to wyrd, or fate. Recognizes he will not survive , he bravely embraces his duty to protect his people, sacrificing his life to save them. • Allegoric meetings
Themes • Importance of Establishing Identity • ancestral heritage • individual reputation • Heroic Code • values strength, courage, and loyalty in warriors; • hospitality, generosity, and political skill in kings; • ceremoniousness in women; • good reputation in all people.
Tension derived when values of medieval Christianity rise • Pagan heroic code – deeds bring honor / remembrance – retaliate… • Christian doctrine - glory lies in the afterlife. Advocates a peaceful, forgiving attitude toward one’s enemies.
Good Warrior Versus a Good King • Warriors have nothing to lose and desire personal glory • Kings have much to lose and seek protection for his people and promote stability. • Monster Motif • Pagan vision – outsider • Christian medieval culture - word refers to birth defects tied to an ominous sign from God—a sign of transgression
Beowulf Pronunciation Guide • Accent always falls on the first syllable of a name. • "sc" that starts many of the names is pronounced "sh." • "e" is usually pronounced as an independent vowel, so "Beowulf" sound like "Bay'-oh-wolf," "Heorot" is "Hay-oh-roht," and "Geats" are Gay'ahts." • "h" is aspirated (strongly-breathed). • "g" is not always sounded, but it may have a hard "g" sound, and when it follows "c," as in "Ecgtheow," the sound "edge" is pronounced. • "Ch" sounds like the "ch" in Bach or loch. • -aya and -ayo- are single syllables, somewhat like the vowel sounds in "yeah" and "hail."
How would you say them? • When I show you the character identications next, try saying them to your partner.
Principal Characters – The Geats: • Beowulf– boastful yet encounters reveal him to be the strongest, ablest warrior around. Personifies all of the best values of the heroic culture. In his old age, he proves a wise and effective ruler. • Breca - Beowulf’s childhood friend, whom he defeated in a swimming match. • Hygelac- Beowulf’s uncle, king of the Geats. • Hygd - Hygelac’s wife, the young, beautiful, and intelligent queen of the Geats. • Wiglaf- Young kinsman and retainer of Beowulf. • King Hrethel - The Geatish king who took Beowulf in as a ward after the death of Ecgtheow, Beowulf’s father.
The Danes • King Hrothgar– established military success and prosperity until Grendel terrorizes his realm. Wise and aged ruler, a father figure. • Wealhtheow - Hrothgar’s wife, gracious queen. • Unferth - Warrior jealously challenges Beowulf, unable or unwilling to fight Grendel, thus proving himself inferior. • Shield Sheafson - Legendary Danish king from whom Hrothgar is descended, mythical founder of Danish rulers and embodies heroism and leadership. • Beow - Second king; son of Shield Sheafson. • Halfdane– Hrothgar’s father
The Antagonists • Grendel - Demon descended from Cain, ruthless and miserable. Description ambiguous - has many animal attributes and a grotesque, monstrous appearance • Grendel’s mother - Unnamed swamp-hag, less human than Grendel. • The dragon - Ancient, powerful serpent, guards a horde of treasure in a hidden mound.
Plot Depicts Campbell’s Hero Cycle Beowulf hears the call: “Hail, Hrothgar! Higlac is my cousin, and my king: the days Of my youth have been filled with glory. Now Grendel’s Name has echoed in our land: Sailors 145 Have brought us stories of Herot, the best Of all mead-halls, deserted and useless when the moon Hangs in the skies the sun had lit, Light and life fleeing together. My people have said, the wisest, most knowing 150 And best of them, that my duty was to go to the Danes’ Great king… Now Grendel and I are called 160 Together, and I’ve come.
Crosses the Threshold and Gathers Helpers In his far-off home Beowulf, Higlac’s • Follower and the strongest of the Geats – greater And stronger than anyone anywhere in the world – Heard how Grendel filled nights with horror And quickly commanded a boat fitted out, Proclaiming that he’d go to that famous king, 115 Would sail across the sea to Hrothgar, Now when help was needed. None Of the wise ones regretted his going, much As he was loved by the Geats: The omens were good, And they urged the adventure on. So Beowulf • Chose the mightiest men he could find, The bravest and the best of the Geats, fourteen In all, and led them down to their boat; He knew the sea, would point the prow Straight to that distant Danish shore…
Descent of Trials / Ordeals In the darkness, the horrible shrieks of pain And defeat, the tears torn out of Grendel’s 470 Taut throat, hell’s captive caught in the arms Of him who of all the men on earth Was the strongest. The mighty protector of men Meant to hold the monster till its life Leaped out, […] The battle was over, Beowulf 500 Had been granted new glory: Grendel escaped, But wounded as he was could flee to his den, His miserable hole at the bottom of the marsh, Only to die, to wait for the end Of all his days. […]
Abyss If weapons were useless he’d use • His hands, the strength in his fingers. So fame Comes to the men who mean to win it And care about nothing else! He raised His arms and seized her by the shoulder; anger Doubled his strength, he threw her to the floor. She fell, Grendel’s fierce mother, […] He’d have traveled to the bottom of the earth, Edgetho’s son, and died there, if that shining Woven metal had not helped – and Holy God, who sent him victory, gave judgment For truth and right. […] Her body fell To the floor, lilfeless, the sword was wet With her blood, and Beowulf rejoiced at the sight.
Transformation • Beowulf becomes king
Kennings A metaphor made of compound words. • Shepherd of evil = Grendel • Ring bearer = king • Sky-candle = sun • Foamy-throated sea-stallion = ship • Battle-dew = blood