Exhaustively researched, authoritatively overviewed, and intellectually rewarding. This book is the end result of my ex
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I proudly dedicate this book to my dear Professor Dr. Pooyan Changizi, whose unswerving support, exhortative guidelines and comprehensive instructions inspire theory into action!
Contents Foreword and Acknowledgments
List of Illustrations
Part I: On Anglo-Saxon Roots and Traditions Anglo-Saxons and Their World
The Anglo-Saxon World: The Migration and the Germanic Past
Anglo-Saxon Roots: Pessimism and Comradeship
Part II: On Beowulf An Introductory Note
Great Authors of the Western Literary Tradition: Beowulf
Plot 1. Synopsis and an In-depth Textual Analysis 2. The Story Behind the Story 3. List of Characters
27 35 36
Maps, Figures, and Plates 1. Character Map 2. Scandinavia in Beowulf’s Day 3. Beowulf’s Geography 4. Manuscripts
38 39 40 41
Genealogy, Nomenclature, and Genesis 1. Genealogies 2. Beowulf’s Name 3. The Genesis of Beowulf
47 49 51
Religion 1. Religion in Beowulf 2. Christian and Pagan Values Blend
Style and Structure 1. Poetic Structure 2. The Epic Quality 3. Symbols in The world of The Poem
57 61 65
Myth and Legend 1. German Origin, Mythical Meaning, and Poetic Value 2. Beowulf: The Fortunate Survivor
Modern Adaptations of Beowulf 1. Books 2. Graphic Arts 3. Films
76 82 84
Part III: Terminology Historical and Literary Terminology Selected Bibliography
P a g e | VI
Foreword and Acknowledgments This book is the end result of my extensive researches carried out on and into the lone survivor of a genre of Old English long epics, Beowulf—a painstakingly laborious, yet pleasurable task through the journey of which I discovered, unearthed, gleaned, and absorbed a great wealth of previously-unknown-to-me information about Old English Literature in general and Beowulf in particular. First, I would like to express my great appreciation to my dear friend Mahdi Javidshad for his invaluable suggestions, constant encouragements, and true inspiration; without the brotherly advice and assistance of whom, I would not have been able to positively shape and cultivate my academic pursuits and engagements. Further, I would like to thank Dr. Omid Azadi for his practical instructions on and assistance with the selected bibliography. I am also grateful to Dr. Amirhossein Vafa whose kind demeanor, decolonial thinking, and liberal attitudes have been definitive to my critical worldliness. Finally, the deepest and sincerest gratitude of mine is expressed to Dr. Pooyan Changizi to whom, incomparable, I owe an inexpressible debt of gratitude. His unflagging support and intellectual enlightenment will never be forgotten. Amirhossein Nemati Shiraz University Shiraz, Iran
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List of Illustrations Map Character Map Scandinavia in Beowulf’s Day Beowulf’s Geography
38 39 40
Plates 1. The Beowulf-manuscript, fol. 129r (Beowulf, lines 1–21) 13 2. The Beowulf-manuscript, fol. 95r (Wonders, sections 13–15) 3. The Beowulf-manuscript, fol. 95v (Wonders, sections 15–16) 4. The Beowulf-manuscript, fol. 128v (Letter, section 41) 5. The Beowulf-manuscript, fol. 160r (Beowulf, lines 1352b–1377a) 6. The Beowulf-manuscript, fol. 189A (197) r (Beowulf, lines 2655b–2682a)
41 42 43 44 45 46
Genealogies I. The Danes, Swedes, Frisians, and Heathobards II. The Geats and Wægmundings
“The Anglo-Saxons and Their World” Lectured by Professor Michael D.C. Drout
Michael D.C. Drout is Professor of English and Director of the Center for the Study of the Medieval at Wheaton College, Norton, Massachusetts, where he teaches Old and Middle English, Science Fiction and the works of J.R.R. Tolkien. Drout is the author of How Tradition Works, Tradition and Influence in Anglo-Saxon Literature, Drout’s Quick and Easy Old English, and How to Think: the Liberal Arts and their Enduring Value, and he is co-author of Beowulf Unlocked: New Evidence from Lexomic Analysis. He edited J.R.R. Tolkien’s Beowulf and the Critics and the J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia and co-edited Transitional States: Cultural Change, Tradition and Memory in Medieval England. One of the founders and a co-editor of the journal Tolkien Studies, he has published widely on Tolkien, fantasy and science fiction, and medieval studies.
On ussera ealdfædera dagum lifdon mihtige cyningas, bealde rincas. Hie begeaton ðis land and hit gesetton. Fela geara ðæræfter wæron hie gefulwode and gehwurfon Cristnan. Þa wunon hie wið ða hæð-nan. Manige boceras brohton wisdom in on land. Swete songas sungon þa scopas on healle. Nu sindon we hiera ierfan. Gif we nyllað dolu beon, uton leornian ða Westseaxna ðeode. In the days of our ancestors lived mighty kings, bold warriors. They took this land and settled it. Many years afterwards they were baptized and converted to Christianity. Then they fought against heathens. Many scholars brought wisdom into the land. Sweet songs sung the poets in the hall. Now we are their heirs. If we do not wish to be foolish, let us learn the West-Saxon tongue. The passage above is from a somewhat old-fashioned textbook of Old English. It is pretty oversimplified, but there’s nothing in there that is obviously wrong, and it gives us a good idea both of the language of the Anglo-Saxons and their history and culture. And even this short passage shows that there are many good reasons for studying the Anglo-Saxons. They are not just the physical ancestors of many people in England, America, Australia, South Africa, and New Zealand, but they are the cultural and linguistic ancestors of millions more people throughout the world. Their language was the source of Modern English, and understanding a bit about it explains why English is the way it is. Their culture laid the foundations upon which so much has been built, even though, obviously, the world has changed substantially. The Anglo-Saxons are also the most fascinating culture in medieval Europe, a remarkable and unique blending of Germanic, Latin, Celtic, and homegrown material. Their art, literature, architecture, and culture are simply intrinsically interesting. But also a deep understanding of the Anglo-Saxons is extremely important for understanding our current cultural situation. From the Protestant Reformation polemicists to Thomas Jefferson, who wanted to put the Anglo-
Saxon warriors Hengest and Horsa on the Great Seal, to the Victorians who readopted the Anglo-Saxons, to racists and Nazis who appropriated Anglo-Saxons identity, to J.R.R. Tolkien, who changed popular perception, to contemporary struggles over identity, over English language and culture, the Anglo-Saxons are extremely important. In this course, we will be learning who the Anglo-Saxons actually were, and then, toward the end of the course, we will see what other people have done with them. Angles, Saxons and Jutes In its entry for the year 449, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells us: Her Mauricius Ualentines onfengon rice ricsodon winter. On hiera dagum Hengest Horsa from Wyrtgeorne geleaþade Bretta kyninge gesohton Bretene on þam staþe þe is genemnedYpwinesfleot, ærest Brettum to fultume, ac hie eft on hie fuhton. Se cing het hi feohtan agien Pihtas, hi swa dydan sige hæfdan swa hwar swa hi comon. Hi ða sende to Angle heton heom sendan mare fultum heom seggan Brytwalana nahtnesse ðæs landes cysta. Hy ða sendan heom mare fultum. Þa comon þa menn of þrim mægþum Germanie, of Ealdseaxum, of Anglum, of Iotum. Of Iotum comon Cantware Wihtware, þæt ys seo mæið ðe nu eardað on Wiht, ðæt cynn on Westsexum þe man gyt hæt Iutna cyn. Of Ealdseaxon comon Eastsexa Suðsexa WestSexan. Of Angle comon, se a siððan stod westi betwyx Iutum Seaxum, Eastengla, Midelangla, Mearca ealle Norðhymbra. This year Martianus and Valentinian received the kingdom and reigned for seven years. In their days the Hengest and Horsa were invited here by King Vortigern, and they came to Britain in three longships, landing at Ebbesfleet. King Vortigern gave them territory in the south-east of this land, on the condition that they fight the Picts. This they did, and had victory wherever they went. They then sent to Angle, commanded more aid, and commanded that they should be told of the Britons’ worthlessness and the choice nature of their land. They soon sent hither a greater host to help the others. Then came the men of three Germanic tribes: Old Saxons; Angles; and Jutes. Of the Jutes come the people of Kent and the Isle of Wight; that is the tribe which now lives on Wight, and that race among the West Saxons which men even now call Jutish. Of the Old Saxons come the East Saxons, South Saxons, and West Saxons. Of the Angles—the country they left has since stood empty between Jutes and Saxons—come the East Anglians, Middle Anglians, Mercians, and all the Northumbrians. This is the “official story” of the arrival in England of three Germanic tribes, the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes. There may be elements of truth in this story, but it also works very well as a foundation myth of Anglo-Saxon England. But for that myth to make sense, we need to go back to the very beginnings of recorded history in the northwest of Europe. The settlement of the British Isles goes back into very deep time, beyond the scope of this course, but we know that there were Neolithic people living there in very ancient times indeed. Then Celtic peoples arrived and controlled the islands. In 55 B.C., Julius Caesar led invasions of Britain, connecting it to the Roman Empire (though there were no permanent Roman settlements until quite a while later). In 43 and 44 A.D., a true Roman invasion led by Claudius brought about a permanent Roman presence in Britain and the eventual creation of the Romano-British, a blending of the Celtic peoples who had already been in Britain with the Roman occupiers. The Romano-British spoke Latin and were integrated into the Western Roman Empire.
But as that Western Empire weakened, and even before Rome fell (traditionally the Fall of Rome is dated to 476), the Legions were withdrawn from Britain (410). Then, the nonRomanized Celtic people, Scots (the contemporary name for the Irish), Picts (who lived in the north in what is now Scotland), and others began to try to take the wealth and power held by the Romano-British. Then the remnants of Roman Britain led by King Vortigern sent across the sea for help from the Saxons, Germanic tribes in southern Denmark and Northern Germany. Led by two brothers, named Hengest and Horsa (both of whose names mean “horse”), these tribes came to England to help King Vortigern but soon turned on the Romano-British and conquered everything for their own. There were, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and the Venerable Bede tell us, three major groupings: The Angles, the Saxons, and the Jutes. The Jutes settled the far east portion of England, Kent, and the Isle of Wight. The Angles took the more north and eastern part, Northumbria and East Anglia, and also Mercia, in the middle. The Saxons took the south and the west of England. This is when Anglo-Saxon history really begins, from just before 500 until the Norman Conquest of 1066. It will help us throughout the course to keep in mind a time-line of Anglo-Saxon history. My former student, John Walsh, realized that the acronym MCGVR gives us a handy reference for the Anglo-Saxon centuries: M = Migration of tribes to England, 500–600 C = Conversion to Christianity, 600–700 G = Golden Age of Anglo-Saxon culture, 700-–800 V = Viking Raids and destruction of Anglo-Saxon culture, 800–900 R = Reform and Rebuilding of Anglo-Saxon culture, 900–1000 There is no simple mnemonic device for the last half-century of Anglo-Saxon culture, but from 1000 to 1066 is the period of Anglo-Danish rule and the end of the Anglo-Saxon period. Each of these periods will get one or more lectures on its own, but right now we want to build up the big picture of Anglo-Saxon history and culture to give us a guide through the rest of the material. Migration: During this time, Germanic tribes crossed the sea to England and settled the countryside, which may have been somewhat depopulated due either to plague, economic collapse in the post-Roman period, or conquest. Conversion: Although Christianity had existed in the British Isles since the Roman period, from the end of the sixth century and throughout the seventh, England was converted by missionaries from both Rome and Ireland and eventually became officially Christian. Golden Age: For over a century England was one of the intellectual and cultural hot spots of Europe. English monasteries and nunneries were centers of learning and book production. The climate was warm, and England was rich. Viking Raids: Riches and undefended monasteries were a target for Viking invaders from Denmark and Norway. They raided, pillaged, and burned England for many summers before sending entire armies to occupy the land and settle it with Danes and
Norwegians. All native English kings and kingdoms but one were destroyed in this time period. Reform: At the end of the Viking period, King Alfred the Great saved England from complete Viking domination and began the rebuilding of the country. Alfred’s grandson Athelstan made England among the most powerful nations in Europe and began a process of Church reform that continued for many years. England was unique in having a culture that was now focused on learning in the vernacular (in English) rather than in Latin. End: King Athelred’s inept leadership eventually led to the fall of England, first to Danish kings and then to William the Conqueror, a prince of Normandy. The larger narrative that you can see in the history of Anglo-Saxon England is the continued mixing and integration of various disparate elements into one people. The Anglo-Saxons are what the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes turned into after they migrated to England, intermarried with the Romano-British, converted to Christianity, were invaded by the Vikings, intermarried with the Danish settlers, reformed themselves, were conquered by Danes, rebuilt their kingdom, and were finally conquered by the French. They were people who spoke the AngloSaxon language. They were people who lived in a land of Celtic place-names, with Roman ruins, with Germanic legends and stories and language, with Christian churches and Latin learning. They thought England was specially singled out by Pope Gregory the Great, and by God, but they also were well aware of their inferiority to the Romans who had come before them and of their marginal place at the edge of Europe. And then, after the Norman Conquest, they were the regular people of England and were Anglo-Norman, until 1214, when King John (you know him as the Prince John of Robin Hood fame, the brother of Richard the LionHearted) lost the English hold over Normandy. At that point, the language of Norman French was no longer official and English became again the language of the kingdom, but the AngloSaxons were mostly a memory. There things stood until Henry VIII and the Protestant Reformation. Henry hated Protestants and brutally repressed them, but ended up breaking the Church away from Rome and dissolving the monasteries between 1536 and 1541. There was a massive loss of Anglo-Saxon manuscripts and material culture (what had survived the Conquest), but Protestants and others suddenly were interested in Anglo-Saxon because they thought that they could find historical precedent in England for the things they wanted to do. So there was a recovery of Old English language and the development of a new respect for the Anglo-Saxon kings, particularly Alfred. The English civil war (1643–1651) caused the destruction of even more precious manuscripts and the destruction of the physical remains of most of the great saints and kings of the AngloSaxon period, but again, scholars were drawn to understand the language and history of their ancestors. The Anglo-Saxons became important for ideas about England. Across the Atlantic, a number of years later, Thomas Jefferson thought America should be Anglo-Saxon. Later still “Anglo-Saxon” became a shorthand for separating previous settlers in America from later immigrants (even though a lot of the people who called themselves or were labeled Anglo-Saxon were Scots-Irish), and after the American Civil War, the phrase the “Anglo-Saxon Race” was used for racist purposes.
Back in Europe, Anglo-Saxons and their origin and identity became important in the struggles surrounding Germany, Denmark, and France. The Victorians were also interested in adopting “Anglo-Saxon” for their history. The Victorians approved of Anglo-Saxon ancestry, as it marked England as being different from the continental powers. Ideas of national identity and language were of course tied in to both World Wars, and although the National Socialist Workers Party in Germany did not explicitly use the Anglo-Saxons, they did invoke a Germanic past, linking up this supposed Pan-Germanic past with justifications for conquest and racism. Thus, for several decades after the war, the Anglo-Saxons ended up tarred with racist and Nazi associations. However, since the 1990s there has been renewed interest in the real (as opposed to the manufactured) Anglo-Saxon past, and Anglo-Saxons have been portrayed positively in major films, such as Peter Jackson’s adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. In summary, the Anglo-Saxons were Germanic people who migrated to England, converted to Christianity, and were in cultural and political control for about five hundred years. During that time, they absorbed Latin culture, clashed with and absorbed other, but Northern, Germanic cultures, developed art and literature and architecture and theology, fell back down almost to collapse, built up again, were conquered but kept their language and culture, were conquered again and lost much, and then had their ideas and culture and language (changed as they were) spread in time and place. They were important in their own day, and they are still very important now.
“The Anglo-Saxon World—The Migration and the Germanic Past” Lectured by Professor Michael D.C. Drout Hwæt! We Gardena in geardagum, þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon, hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon. Oft Scyld Scefing sceaþena þreatum, monegum mægþum, meodosetla ofteah, egsode eorlas. Syððan ærest wearð feasceaft funden, he þæs frofre gebad, weox under wolcnum, weorðmyndum þah, oðþæt him æghwylc þara ymbsittendra ofer hronrade hyran scolde, gomban gyldan. þæt wæs god cyning! Lo! We have heard of the valor of the spear danes in the elder days, of the kings of the people, how those noble ones accomplished great deeds. Often Shild Scefing scourged his enemies of many nations, overturned their mead benches, terrified earls. After he had first become found in a powerless state; he overcame that, grew under the heavens and increased in worth until every one of his neighbors across the whale-road had to submit to him and give him gold. That was a good king! Just as the Mediterranean Sea is the center of the classical world, the North Sea is the center of the Migration-period world. Tribes and peoples conquered and were conquered, moved to seek new land or living space or tribute and plunder. They fought, made alliances and built settlements. And nearly everything they did is lost to history, because they were not literate. We can try to piece together several centuries of lost history through heroic stories, a few chronicles in Latin, and archaeological finds. But these times are what used to be called the Dark Ages, and although we do not use that pejorative terminology any more, much indeed is dark to us, history lost forever or reduced to a few tantalizing hints. Nevertheless, we can extract some information from the scraps and hints and try to reconstruct some of the background of the Anglo-Saxons in the Germanic North both before and soon after they came to England. The Migration period, in our shorthand, from 500 to 600, but really going back to the middle of the fifth century or even further, is the “Heroic Age” for most of the Northern cultures, the time in which myths and legends are set. This era was studied deeply—and in some ways invented—by European scholars interested in creating a past for their own nations. AngloSaxon was so important to these scholars, from Germany and Denmark as well as from. England, because it was the oldest literature that we had that was not in Latin but was from Europe. That is why the poem Beowulf, which I quoted at the beginning of this chapter, is so important even though the poem was copied in the tenth century and never mentions England or the English. Beowulf still gives us more information about the Migration era than just about any text in any language. But it is incredibly difficult to separate historical fact (or at least historical legend) from myth, from magic and from monsters in Beowulf. Even those first eleven lines are full of disputed words and passages that are very important for our understanding of the early history of the Germanic north.
Beowulf begins with a great king, Scyld Scefing, whose name may mean “Shield, son of Sheaf” (that is, weapon, son of agriculture). This may make him mythological, but the Scyldings (the descendants of Scyld) turn out to be important to a whole variety of peoples and dynasties around the North Sea. There are Scyldings everywhere, always associated in one way or another with Denmark. Likewise, the various peoples mentioned in Beowulf seem to be consistent with the actual history we find elsewhere. The most famous example is Beowulf’s uncle, Hygelac. In the nineteenth century, the great scholar N.F.S. Grundtvig noticed that the name Hygelac, in Anglo-Saxon, was the same as the name “Chochilaicus” in a Latin manuscript by Gregory of Tours. Gregory says that Hygelac led a raid in the year 516 into Frisia, that Hygelac was killed, and that his bones were so huge that they were left on an island in the river and people came and stared at them. In Beowulf, we learn that Beowulf’s uncle Hygelac led a raid into Frisia and gets killed in similar circumstances (though there is nothing about giant bones). It does seem that Beowulf is preserving tradition from a very long time back. And the more we investigate, the more it seems that there was a consistent set of stories about the Migration period. Whether these stories are based on fact is harder to determine, but the more we physically dig things up with archaeology, the more we find that are consistent in surprising ways. Another example from Beowulf helps us create a coherent picture of what may have been going on before and during the time the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes got to England. This is the Finnsburg episode. In the poem, after Beowulf kills Grendel, the first monster, there is a large celebration, and a poet sings a song about a failed peace-making attempt in Frisia. Explaining this complicated story sheds a lot of light on the underlying kinship and lordship relationships in Anglo-Saxon England. Finn is king of the Frisians, who live in the present-day Netherlands. They have been at war with the Danes, from Denmark. To try to settle this war, Hoc, the king of the Danes, marries his daughter, Hildeburh, to Finn. Hildeburh has a son and it seems like the war is over: the two kingdoms are joined in the person of the son, and everything is good. Hnæf, the son of King Hoc and the next king of the Danes, is Hildeburh’s brother. He and his men go to Frisia, from Denmark, to visit Hildeburh and her husband Finn. It may be that the son of Hildeburh and Finn has been along with Hnæf, though this is not entirely clear. Hnæf’s right-hand man is named Hengest, but he is apparently not a Dane, but a Jutish mercenary who is serving Hnæf. At some point, a fight breaks out, and Hildeburh’s son, who in his person unified the Danes and the Frisians, is killed, and so is Hnæf, the leader of the Danes. But the two sides, Danes and Frisians, are evenly matched and neither can overcome the other. So they propose a truce. The Danes, who are now being led by Hengest (even though he is not a Dane), agree to spend the winter in Finn’s hall and not kill anyone. Finn agrees to treat them the same as he does his own men, giving treasure to both equally. There is a funeral for Hnæf and the dead son, and Hildeburh—sister of Hnæf and mother of the dead son— mourns, but the truce holds until spring. But there is a problem. Hengest and his men are now serving the person who is responsible for killing their lord. They have a duty to avenge him, but they have also sworn an oath not to kill any Frisians. This is the kind of damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t situation that the Anglo-Saxons loved to think about. Then spring comes and the Danes are going to leave, but
some warriors just cannot stand the humiliation of not avenging their lord any more. Fighting breaks out and this time the Danes are completely victorious. They kill all the Frisians, including King Finn, steal all his treasure, and go back to Denmark with Hildeburh. This is complicated but relatively straightforward. But now we are going to be a little more speculative and link this literary material to the Migration era (the ideas here come from J.R.R. Tolkien, a great scholar of Beowulf long before he wrote The Lord of the Rings). Why is Hengest, a Jute, Hnæf’s right-hand man and not some Dane? And why do the Danes win in the spring when they were so evenly tied in the early winter? Tolkien proposes that there were Jutish mercenaries serving on both sides, with the Danes and the Frisians. So there are three ethnic groups or tribes, but only two sides: Danes and their Jutes, led by Hengest, and Frisians and their Jutes, led by Finn. Why were the Jutes there at all, and why in two groups rather than representing their own tribe? Because, at this time in the early migration period, the Jutes are being squeezed out of their territory by the expanding Danes to the north and the Franks to the south. The Frisians are also in trouble, but they are trying to protect themselves by allying with the Danes (which is why their king, Finn, marries the daughter of the Danish king). So the Danes have expanded south into the Danish peninsula and pretty much defeated the Jutes, and the surviving warriors of the Jutes are serving as mercenaries both to Danes and Frisians. The idea is that Hengest, after this whole disaster of diplomacy and the death of the son who is supposed to join the kingdoms of the Danes and Frisians, manages to convince some of the Jutes on the Frisian side to switch to his side and then, when the fight does break out, they help to massacre the remaining Frisians. Then (and here’s where Tolkien makes a big leap, but one that makes sense), Hengest brings Hildeburh back to Denmark but is really no longer welcome, having been part of the botched peaceful voyage. So Hengest takes his band of Jutes, and perhaps some Danes, and heads over the sea from Denmark to England and settles there. This reconstruction is, of course, Tolkien linking things up that are just hints and names, but it has the benefit of making more sense than other proposed explanations. Remember that the leader of the Anglo-Saxon “migration” is named Hengest in the historical sources. Traditionally this Hengest is thought to have nothing to do with Beowulf, but if Tolkien is right, we can then see a possibly more reasonable explanation than the whole “invitation” story of the migration. Peoples were migrating around the North Sea. The Jutes had been displaced. Some of their warriors, led by Hengest, migrated to England to seek greener pastures than they were finding in continental Europe. We cannot prove such speculation given the present state of our knowledge, but there are other hints that some consistent body of knowledge (a body or traditional stories or even real history) is behind the poems. Another example of this consistency may be found in a poem in the Exeter Book called “Widsith,” in which a traveler lists, at tedious length, all the places and peoples that he has seen. Ic wæs mid Hunum ond mid Hreðgotum, mid Sweom ond mid Geatum ond mid Suþdenum. Mid Wenlum ic wæs ond mid Wærnum ond mid wicingum. Mid Gefþum ic wæs ond mid Winedum ond mid Gefflegum Mid Englum ic wæs ond mid Swæfum ond mid ænenum.
Mid Seaxum ic wæs ond Sycgum ond mid Sweordwerum. Mid Hronum ic wæs ond mid Deanum ond mid Heaþoreamum. Mid þyringum ic wæs ond mid þrowendum, ond mid Burgendum, þær ic beag geþah; This is basically a pretty accurate list of the peoples around the North Sea at this time period. Since Widsith was not written down, as far as we know, until the tenth century, and since there are not a lot of good historical sources that the poet could have drawn on, we are inclined to think he knew a lot of stories. Of direct relevance to Beowulf is this part: Hroþwulf ond Hroðgar heoldon lengest sibbe ætsomne suhtorfædran, siþþan hy forwræcon wicinga cynn ond Ingeldes ord forbigdan, forheowan æt Heorote Heaðobeardna þrym. Hrothulf and Hrothgar, uncle and nephew, held for a long time companionship/peace together after they had driven off the kin of the Vikings and crushed the vanguard of Ingeld and defeated the Heathobards at Heorot. This section of Widsith appears to refer to the part of Beowulf where Hrothgar is jointed with his nephew Hrothulf at the hall of Heorot. Other sources, including Saxo Grammaticus, who was a Dane but wrote in Latin, suggest that someone named Hrothulf would end up killing Hrothgar’s son and taking over the kingdom. This same Hrothulf is probably Rolf Kraki, the King Arthur of Denmark. Again, it requires some speculation, but it seems possible to make the stories fit together with the fragmentary history. So around the North Sea in the migration period we find conflict, movement of whole peoples, alliances and their failure, and people packing up from farmland that may have been inundated by the sea (and so at least temporarily too salty to grow regular crops) and moving to England. It is important to note that Britain, even in 1080, was still not up to even half of its Romantimes population, so there was room for people to settle, and given that the peoples on the continent were growing and expanding, others appear to have been pushed out toward England. The archaeology supports this hypothesis to some degree. We can track Anglo-Saxon-Jutish burials as they start on the coast and move up the waterways into England over the course of the sixth century, moving along the Thames valley, from East Anglia into the interior, north from Kent and the south. We also get the idea, though from somewhat unreliable sources, like Gildas, a historian, that the remaining British kingdoms were relatively weak, even in Wales, where Roman culture held on longer, and by around 570 there were enough English (Angles, Saxons, Jutes) to form some kind of grouping of tribes to fight against the British. The big question is how much of this was conquest and how much was filling a vacuum, but regardless of the background reasons, we do know that by the end of the sixth century, the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes were established all throughout England and were thinking of themselves as one ethnic group and one language, though not as one people. The Migration had come to an end.
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“Anglo-Saxon Roots—Pessimism and Comradeship” Lectured by Professor John Sutherland
John Sutherland is Lord Northcliffe Professor Emeritus of Modern English Literature at UCL ("emeritus" being Latin for "scrapheap" and "Northcliffe" journalistic shorthand for "you cannot be serious"). He currently teaches at the California Institute of Technology and is the author of twenty-odd books, mainly on books of a more important kind than his own.
Scope: We shall begin with a brief look at some of the ideas embodied in the phrase “English literature.” Of course, literature existed long before England did and before printing. We’ll look at the characteristics of Anglo-Saxon poetry, specifically, alliteration, half-lines, and a pattern of four stresses per line, as we read Caedmon’s Hymn, The Seafarer, and portions of Beowulf. This poetry also gives us some idea of the overriding mood of Anglo-Saxon oral literature, a worldview of tough pessimism tempered by the virtues of comradeship. We close with an indepth look at Beowulf, the foundational text of English literature and a text that we modern readers can enjoy and connect with, centuries after it was written. I.
The phrase “English literature” is so familiar that we rarely feel impelled to unpack it. But if we pause to consider what we mean by English literature, it’s anything but simple. Of course, literature existed before England. Literature also existed in the form of oral epics, elegies, and ballads before these things were printed in books. English literature is not the same thing as literature in English. American literature, for example, is not simply English literature written and published in the United States. In 2005, the listeners of the BBC radio program Today voted William Shakespeare the greatest Briton who had ever lived. It was believed that he most embodied the soul of Britain. 1. Linguists have said that a language is a dialect with an army behind it, and one might adapt that quip by defining literature as writing with a national state behind it. More importantly, literature is embedded in the nation, as the heart is embedded in the body. 2. In the wide-ranging remarks found in these lectures, it is not merely the words on the page that we shall be considering, but the United Kingdom itself in its most revealing aspect, its inner self, its soul. In The Poetics, Aristotle, our first great literary critic, makes the claim that literature is truer than history. History, the chronicle of events that actually happened, is shackled to the accidental and incidental. Literature, however, can penetrate to the heart of the human condition. It can generalize. It can extract the truth. We will begin with the first milestones on the long, winding path of English literature— primarily the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf but also some other works of poetry.
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Karl Marx wondered how a society as primitive as Periclean Athens could produce literature as sophisticated as Oedipus Rex. 1. Marx offered by way of explanation his law of uneven development. Primitive, preindustrial communities can produce perfect works of art, as perfect as anything we can produce. 2. Most people coming to Beowulf experience a similar reaction. We wonder how such a complex and, in its own terms, perfect work of literary art could be produced by a primitive tribal community. Much ancient English literature has been lost or exists only in fragments, but we can recover some aspects of how it was put together. 1. The greatest work of the early period of English literature was the creation of minstrels or scops. 2. Early literature was sung, recited, or spoken, not written or printed. 3. Oral literature is fragile, and it presumes a different author-audience relationship. It is literature of the ear as much as the eye. 4. Typically, oral literature is a communal, not a private, experience. The first text on which the structure of English literature rests—Beowulf—dates from around the 6th century, during the Dark Age that fell after the exodus of the Romans from the British Isles. This period was too chaotic for literature, which requires a certain stability. 1. The Romans left, however, one monument behind them, the Latin language, used by the one beacon of light and learning in these dark times, the church. The church was tolerant, although not entirely sympathetic, to pagan literature. 2. During this same time, England was under invasion by the Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Danes, and Vikings. These newcomers brought with them a tribal, oral literature. 3. Of course, the Christian missionaries who came to England brought with them the Bible, and inevitably, long-rooted pagan traditions collided with Christian orthodoxies. 4. The result was a kind of clash of civilizations that would energize and crossfertilize language and literature up until 1066, when the Normans came to England. The church was the foundational institution in these early centuries, based on monasteries and abbeys. These communities encompassed farms, schools, and vineyards and were supported by taxes or tithes. Within their walls, monasteries were sites of higher learning. Above all, these communities were, until the bureaucratic Normans came in the 11th century, the nation’s chroniclers. The institutional language of the church was Latin; nonetheless, the primal text in English literature, Caedmon’s Hymn, is in the vernacular. The Venerable Bede (672/73–735), a monk at the Northumbrian monastery of Saint Peter in the 8th century, tells us about Caedmon in his Ecclesiastical History. 1. Caedmon was an Anglo-Saxon herdsman, working in the fields around the monastery at Whitby. He was illiterate and ignorant of the art of song. After supper, when the harp was passed around among the herdsmen to entertain one another, Caedmon would slink away.
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2. According to Bede, Caedmon was given the art of song in a dream. He went on to become a zealous monk and an inspirational religious poet in his own AngloSaxon tongue. The hymn we have is his only surviving work. How could the Dark Ages produce something so impressively literary as this hymn? Further, how could it be produced, not from the mouth of some privileged noble or prince of the church, but by an ordinary laboring man, who had no claim to education at all? 1. Anglo-Saxon literature is principally poetic, largely because its continuity depended on the scop or the singer. 2. This poetry does not use rhyme, nor does it obey the complicated metrics of Latin prosody. It is composed in half-lines, units that make memorization easier, and these half-lines are divided by a silent pause or caesura, a “cut.” The poetry is alliterative, meaning that the first letter or consonant of every word meets with the next consonant of the next word. 3. This poetry is organized around stress, not syllables. a. Consider the line “This is the house that Jack built” from an English nursery rhyme. In reciting the line, an English speaker will stress two words and understress the rest: “This is the house that Jack built.” b. A 10-syllable line (pentameter), as spoken in English, will divide naturally into two half-lines, each containing two stresses. For example: “To be or not to be, that is the question.” c. Half-lines and organization by two stresses per half-line are found in both English and American poetry to the present day. These features give the poetry its “Englishness.” The poetry of Anglo-Saxon England, the period roughly from the 8th to the 11th centuries, falls into distinct genres, or styles, including hymns or secular songs; elegies, that is, short poems of poignant loss; riddles and other minor works; and of course, epics, such as Beowulf. Elegies are less heroic than stoic. They celebrate suffering nobly borne. In two of the greatest of them, The Wanderer and The Seafarer, the singers are men who have lost their ring-givers (thegn, or chief), and with that, their communities. 1. The great modernist poet Ezra Pound gave us a beautiful translation of The Seafarer that is true to both the alliteration and the two-stress half-line of the original. 2. In this translation, note the compound “bitter breast-cares,” the technical term for which is a kenning. As we’ll see, these are a prime feature of Anglo-Saxon poetry. As the lines from these poems testify, the invaders who came from Friesland and northern Germany brought, along with their swords and chain mail, a somber view of life, a kind of tough pessimism. 1. A line in Beowulf sums up this overriding mood: “Wyrd bith full aread,” “Fate will be fulfilled.” 2. For these pioneers, life was a constant battle against the elements, monsters, their fellow men, and nature. But in that battle, it was believed, the greatness of humanity would shine brightest.
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3. We see this view in the late heroic Anglo-Saxon poem, The Battle of Maldon, which recounts an 11thcentury invasion by the Viking heathens. The English are defeated in this battle, but they go down with defiance and courage. Not all Anglo-Saxon verse was somber. We have a whole library of verse riddles from what must have been an Anglo-Saxon joke book. 1. Riddle 82, written in verse, asks readers to identify a creature with one eye, two feet, 1,200 heads, a back and a belly, two hands, two arms, two shoulders, one neck, and two sides. 2. What was this strange creature? A one-eyed garlic seller. This poetry had more than one mood, but the strongest moods are found in the epic narratives, which also convey an overwhelming sense of the virtue of comradeship, based on the sword. We have Beowulf, the only surviving Anglo-Saxon or Germanic epic, in something like the form in which it was first recited as a result of an almost miraculous series of accidents. Beowulf was composed for recitation, probably in the 6th century, by pagan newcomers from the northeast. It was handed down through generations of minstrels until it was transcribed by a monk, who couldn’t resist interpolating Christian doctrine at various points. The 3,000-line narrative is divided into two parts; the first part is twice as long as the second. 1. Beowulf is a Geat, a member of a tribe in what is now Sweden. He is a mighty warrior, not yet a king but destined to be one. 2. In the first part of the epic, Beowulf comes to Denmark to help Hrothgar, king of the Scyldings, whose great hall has been terrorized by a monster, Grendel, for 12 years. Beowulf defeats both Grendel and the monster’s mother, and there follows feasting, drinking, and treasure giving before Beowulf sails back to his own people. 3. In the second part of the epic, which takes place many years later, Beowulf is king of the Geats, but now his kingdom is being terrorized by a dragon. Beowulf slays the dragon but is mortally wounded, and the poem ends with Beowulf’s burial. Readers who come to Beowulf for the first time usually have two very different reactions. The first is incomprehension; the language is so foreign that it jars. The second reaction is just the opposite. Even for someone who has not read the poem, it seems familiar, largely because of the echoes of the work we see in the writing of J. R. R. Tolkien. The opening three lines of the poem appear below, first in Anglo-Saxon English, then in Seamus Heaney’s 2002 translation. Keep in mind the features of AngloSaxon poetry discussed earlier: half-lines, alliteration, and the four stresses per line. Hwæt! We Gardena / in geardagum, þeodcyninga, / þrym gefrunon, hu ða æþelingas / ellen fremedon. So. The Spear Danes, in Days gone by And the kings who ruled them, had courage and greatness. We have heard of those princes’ heroic campaigns. 1. The first word in the Anglo-Saxon, Hwæt is our word “what,” used here to attract attention and impose silence.
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2. The “Spear Danes” tells listeners what tribes are involved in the story. This will be a historical chronicle, recounting great deeds in the past, among a society known, if only by reputation. 3. We know that the audience is upper class from the references to æþelingas, “princes,” and their “heroic campaigns.” 4. Most impressive in these lines is the poetry. In the first line, the word geardagum (meaning “yore-days” or “days of yore”) contains the essence of Anglo-Saxon verse. Anglo-Saxon compresses into one compound noun, or kenning, a concept that Heaney must translate into four words. 5. The rugged economy of Anglo-Saxon represents its highest linguistic achievement, along with its ability to create new words, neologisms. The creative writer, we may say, remakes language. And in so doing, he or she serves a vital function for society as a whole. It is thanks to such writers that language lives in its best and most precious form. Clearly, the Beowulf poet, whoever he was, was talking to people who were part of his own community. There was common ground between them—just as there is for us, to some extent, in reading the poem hundreds of years later. 1. Literature is a time machine. It can take us back and connect us with people who are no longer here. It is, in the best sense, a conversation with the dead. 2. In fact, this is the reason we read and study literature and the reason that it lives for us. 3. This living quality of literature—the fact that it is still animated over centuries—makes it worth our time and effort and makes a historical approach to literature valuable.
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“An Introductory Note on Beowulf” By Harold Bloom
Harold Bloom is an American literary critic widely known for his original theories on the creation of literature, particularly poetry. Harold Bloom is the author of many books, including The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages, Agon: Towards a Theory of Revisionism, The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry, Wallace Stevens: The Poems of Our Climate, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, How to Read and Why, Stories and Poems for Extremely Intelligent Children of All Ages, Genius: A Mosaic of One Hundred Exemplary Creative Minds, A Map of Misreading, and Hamlet: Poem Unlimited. He is also co-editor with Lionel Trilling of Romantic Poetry and Prose and Victorian Poetry and Prose.
The Old English epic Beowulf may have been written during the first half of the eighth century, or it may have been composed at about the year 1000, which is the date of the manuscript. Either way, it was written in a Christian Britain, but one with many memories of the pagan past. Is Beowulf a Christian poem? Just barely; in any case, it has a profoundly elegiac relation to its Germanic origins. Though the nameless poet of this heroic epic must have been at least ostensibly Christian, Beowulf eschews any mention of Jesus Christ, and all its biblical references are to the Old Testament. The prime human virtue exalted in the poem is courage; Beowulf fights primarily for fame, for the glory of becoming the prime Germanic hero, and secondarily he battles for gain, for treasure he can give away, so as to show his largess at bestowing gifts. Grendel and his even nastier mother are descendants of Cain, but they are not described as being enemies of Christ. Even the dragon of the poem’s conclusion is by no means identified with the dragon of Revelation. Perhaps aesthetic tact governs the poet of Beowulf: his hero’s virtues have nothing to do with salvation, and everything to do with warlike courage. When Beowulf’s people, at the epic’s conclusion, lament the death of their lord—“They said that among the world’s kings, he was the mildest and gentlest of men, most kind to his people and most eager for praise”—mildness, gentleness, and kindness are hardly Christian, since they never are exercised toward Beowulf’s human enemies, and that praise for which the hero was “most eager” is purely Germanic. Since the audience of Beowulf was definitely Christian, what were the motives of the poet? One valid answer may be nostalgia, most brilliantly expressed by Ian Duncan: As Beowulf progresses, the monumental records of past origins grow ambiguous and dark, from the bright mythic-heroic genealogies and creation songs of the opening, through the annals of ancient strife carved on the golden hilt from the Grendel hall, to the dragon hoard itself, a mysterious and sinister, possibly accursed relic, signifying racial extinctions. But Beowulf seems to recognize . . . that his affinity with the dragon has extended to a melancholy kinship. …
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Hence the dark conclusion, where the dragon and the hero expire together. All of the poem then is a beautiful fading away of Germanic origins, presumably into the light of a Christian common day. An even subtler reading is offered by Fred C. Robinson, who sees the poem as a blend of pagan heroism and Christian regret. This double perspective does seem to be a prominent feature of Beowulf and reminds me of the double perspective of the Aeneid, a poem at once Augustan and Epicurean. But does Beowulf conclude with the triumph of the Christian vision? God’s glory as a creator is extolled in the poem, but nowhere are we told of God’s grace. Instead, there are tributes, despairing but firm, to fate, hardly a Christian power. Though the beliefs of the writer of Beowulf doubtless were Christian, his poetic sympathies pragmatically seem to reside in the heroic past.
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“Adumbrating Beowulf” Lectured by Professor Grant L. Voth
Dr. Grant L. Voth is Professor Emeritus at Monterey Peninsula College in California. He earned his M.A. in English Education from St. Thomas College in St. Paul, MN, and his Ph.D. in English from Purdue University. Throughout his distinguished career, Professor Voth has earned a host of teaching awards and accolades, including the Allen Griffin Award for Excellence in Teaching, and he was named Teacher of the Year by the Monterey Peninsula College Students' Association. He is the author of insightful scholarly books and articles on subjects ranging from Shakespeare to Edward Gibbon to modern American fiction, and he wrote many of the official study guides for the BBC's acclaimed project, The Shakespeare Plays.
Scope: This part deals with the Germanic heroic poem, Beowulf. After a summary review of its story, we shall, as a way of opening up the poem for readers, suggest three different readings of Beowulf: a nostalgic tribute to a heroic and pagan past age and culture; the poem as an extended meditation on the destructive nature of the perpetual internecine fighting that characterized Germanic cultures; and the poem as deeply influenced by Christian values and concerned with community and the ways community is fostered and destroyed. We conclude with the reminder that all of good literature is capable of multiple interpretations—part of its appeal and its ability is to stimulate response and thought. Outline I.
Beowulf seems to have come from southern Sweden to England with the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes, who started arriving in the 5th century C.E. It seems to have survived orally for several centuries before being written down somewhere between the 8th and 10th centuries C.E. It survives in a single manuscript which was damaged in a fire. The plot of the poem has three climaxes with each featuring a great fight between Beowulf and a monster; but the poem includes a great deal of other material as well. A great portion of the poem is given over to feasts and celebrations. Beowulf digresses off into about 10 other stories from Germanic history and legend—stories which are only allusively referred to, so we need footnotes to help us sort them out. Beowulf shares features with other epic poems we have discussed. 1. Like Gilgamesh, Achilles, Odysseus, and Arjuna, Beowulf is a hero, larger and stronger than other men but nevertheless mortal. 2. Like Gilgamesh and Odysseus, Beowulf must deal with monsters of more-thanhuman size and strength.
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3. Like virtually all the heroes we have considered, Beowulf is eager to win fame and be remembered in song and story after his death. 4. Like the other epic heroes in this course, he helps us understand the values of Germanic culture and especially the virtues of a great chieftain. Like all good literature, this poem is capable of being read and understood in different ways. We will focus on three interpretations to illustrate the flavor of the debate and explore some of the poem’s possibilities. One of the most famous readings of the poem is by J. R. R. Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings trilogy. 1. Tolkien argues that Beowulf is essentially a pre-Christian poem with a few inadvertent Christian details, unavoidable because the poem was written by a Christian looking back at a pre-Christian past with admiration and some nostalgia 2. The poem’s definition of a “good king” is solidly Germanic, emphasizing fighting, winning treasure, and being remembered after one’s death. 3. Beowulf’s principal enemies—trolls and dragons—are creatures from Germanic mythology associated with cold, darkness, and the wilderness; they are enemies of human values and achievements, and they reflect the hostile environments from which Germanic people came. 4. Beowulf’s death during his battle with the dragon is no surprise; for these Germanic peoples, all stories end in death and destruction, as does their mythology about the world itself. What makes Beowulf a hero is that he takes the dragon with him when he dies. 5. Beowulf’s death means the destruction of his people—another reminder of the gloomy Germanic world view that is underscored by a favorite device of the poet: understatement. Another reading sees the poem as a meditation on the futility of tribal warfare and the Germanic love of fighting. 1. Most of the digressions—and all of them that can be accurately identified—are about inter-tribal feuds, most of which end badly. 2. Beowulf’s own people know what lies ahead for them now that their protector is gone. 3. Paradoxically, violence can only be controlled with violence, which merely perpetuates the vicious cycle. 4. In this reading, the monsters are not symbols of a hostile universe but of a social sickness that pervades the whole culture. They can be killed, but the violence goes on. A reading by John D. Niles sees the poem permeated with the Christian values that Tolkien found only on its margins. 1. This reading sees the poem’s concern as that of community, which accounts for the emphasis on feasts, ceremonial speeches, and gift exchanges—the values for which Beowulf fights. 2. The poem opens with an account of how a thriving community is founded, and it ends with an account of how one is destroyed: Beowulf’s tribe will fall because his people did not support him in his fight with the dragon.
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3. The digressions are about the ways anger, pride, self-will, or the breaking of oaths can destroy a society. The monsters are symbols for these dangers; they live outside the community and are without language, ceremony, or gift exchange. 4. Beowulf comes to the Danish court to help Hrothgar because of a reciprocal network of obligations; in the first two monster fights, the emphasis is on the celebration of bonds after the fights, not the fights themselves. 5. Wiglaf, who stands beside Beowulf in his last battle with the dragon, demonstrates that heroism binds communities together and is preserved through loyalty. Three speeches at the end of the poem confirm these values. 6. For Niles, the poem is not about heroism per se, but about how leaders need to act if society is to be held together. All gifts are merely loans from God; it is how gifts are used that matters, and the digressions reiterate this point. Beowulf, like all good literature, demonstrates its richness by the number of different readings it can support. 1. It can be a poem about humankind’s losing battle with the universe. 2. It can be a meditation on the futility of a culture that defines itself in terms of war. 3. It can be an analysis of the uses and misuses of heroism within the human community. Beowulf represents the end of our study of epic heroes and serves as a transition point for future works. We have seen epic heroes who are individualistic, who fight for causes outside themselves, who dedicate their actions to God or the gods, who fight against other heroes, and who fight against monsters. Although many heroes in later literature borrow traits from the ones we have studied, we will modify our definitions to discuss the heroism of future characters. We will also encounter stories of ordinary people doing ordinary things. Over time, we will see that storytelling becomes more artful, sophisticated, and complicated. A Few more General Notes on Beowulf and its Anonymous Poet:
is the oldest of the great long poems written in English. is at the very root of the great tree of English language and literature. is a work of an anonymous 8th century Anglian poet who fused Scandinavian history and pagan mythology with Christian elements. is about 3000 (3182) lines. It is about a Scandinavian prince named Beowulf. opens with a brief account of some of the great heroes of Norse history and legend, setting the stage for a narrative that establishes BW place among these men of valor. ‘s principal story is divided into three segments, with brief interludes linking them. may have been composed more than twelve hundred years ago, in the first half of eighth century, although some scholars would place it as late as the tenth century. ‘s title has been assigned by modern editors, for the manuscripts do not normally give any indication of title or authorship.
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was originally composed in the dialect of what was then Mercia, the Midlands of England today. may be the lone survivor of a genre of Old English long epics, but it must have been a remarkable and difficult work even in its own day.
was reviving the heroic language, style, and pagan world of ancient Germanic oral poetry, a world that was already remote for his contemporaries and that is stranger to the modern reader, in many respects, than the epic world of Homer and Virgil. imagines such oral performances by having King Hrothgar's court poet recite a heroic lay at a feast celebrating Beowulf's defeat of Grendel. ‘s elliptical references to quasi-historical and legendary material show his audience was still familiar with many old stories, the outlines of which we can only infer, sometimes with the help of later analogous tales in other Germanic languages. is now widely believed to have been a Christian and that his poem reflects wellestablished Christian tradition. ‘s elegiac tone may be informed by something more than the duty to “praise a prince whom he holds dear / and cherish his memory when that moment comes / when he has to be convoyed from his bodily home”
References to the New Testament are notably absent, but Hrothgar and Beowulf often speak of God as though their religion is monotheistic. Although Hrothgar and Beowulf are portrayed as morally upright and enlightened pagans, they fully espouse and frequently affirm the values of Germanic heroic poetry. The relationship between kinsmen was also of deep significance to this society. If one of his kinsmen had been slain, a man had a moral obligation either to kill the slayer or to exact the payment of wergild (man-price) in compensation. The failure to take revenge or to exact compensation was considered shameful. The young Beowulf's attempt to comfort the bereaved old king by invoking the code of vengeance may be one of several instances of the poet's ironic treatment of the tragic futility of the never-ending blood feuds. In the first major episode, the young Beowulf, a noble from Geatland (southern Sweden), leads a party of his countrymen to Denmark. His intent is to rescue the Danish King Hrothgar and his household from a fierce monster, Grendel. This demon has been terrorizing the population in series of nightly visits to Heorot, Hrothgar’s palace, dismembering and devouring warriors in the king’s service. Beowulf is going to achieve this glory in order to be remembered throughout the time because this world is the real world in pagan ideology. In Beowulf: Lord (Hero-King) vs. Thanes (Retainers) The characters, and its original audience, wanted glory, the immortality of good fame, to remain alive human memory across time and space.
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Glory is usually connected with heroism in battle or with generosity. Treasure was the outwards manifestation of glory. Such visible wealth advertised a warrior’s worth and a people’s strength. There are Pagan qualities such as bloodlust, war, vengeance instead of kindness (which is a Christian quality).
P a g e | 22 “Great Authors of the Western Literary Tradition: Beowulf” Lectured by Professor Elizabeth Vandiver
Dr. Elizabeth Vandiver is Professor of Classics and Clement Biddle Penrose Professor of Latin at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington. She was formerly Director of the Honors Humanities program at the University of Maryland at College Park, where she also taught in the Department of Classics. She completed her undergraduate work at Shimer College and went on to earn her M.A. and Ph.D. from The University of Texas at Austin. Prior to taking her position at Maryland, she held visiting professorships at Northwestern University, the University of Georgia, the Intercollegiate Center for Classical Studies in Rome, Loyola University of New Orleans, and Utah State University. In 1998, The American Philological Association recognized her achievements as a lecturer with its Excellence in Teaching Award, the most prestigious teaching prize given to American classicists. In 2013 she received Whitman College's G. Thomas Edwards Award for Excellence in Teaching and Scholarship. Her other awards include the Northwestern University Department of Classics Excellence in Teaching Award and two University of Georgia Outstanding Honors Professor Awards. Professor Vandiver is the author of Stand in the Trench, Achilles: Classical Receptions in British Poetry of the Great War and Heroes in Herodotus: The Interaction of Myth and History. She has also written numerous articles and has delivered many papers at national and international conferences.
Scope: After some preliminary reflections on the aims of the lecturer and the larger subject of this set of lecture, we shall turn to Beowulf, a heroic poem of 3,182 lines in vigorous Old English, a gem without a setting. We do not know who wrote the poem, when it was written, or who its intended audience was. The poem is pleasingly complex. On the one hand, it is full of heroism, courage, duty, and honor. On the other hand, it is no less full of foreboding, doom, transience, and betrayal. Some see the poem as essentially an oral composition comprised of many earlier tales. Others see it as the product of a literate environment. Some feel that its structure is immature and incoherent, while others think that its allusive quality is a mark of sophistication. To some readers, Beowulf provides privileged access to the pagan world of the northern Germans, while other readers detect in the poem a consistent application of themes of Christian morality. Since its rediscovery in the 16th century, Beowulf has puzzled and delighted its readers. Outline
This set of lectures will be delivered by a historian who has taught medieval studies for more than 30 years and who directs the oldest center for medieval studies in the United States. Literary theory and criticism will not be neglected in these lectures, but historical context will be emphasized.
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In any case, before the fairly recent past, historical context and literary antecedents were as important as critical theory in attempts to understand particular works and authors. II. We may begin our explorations with a paradox: The Middle Ages produced a rich and vast array of literary creations, but “medieval literature” did not exist. First of all, medieval people did not know that they were medieval. 1. Only in the 14th century did some thinkers begin to identify themselves closely with the culture of Greek and Roman antiquity and to disdain the millennium that separated them from the ancients. 2. One consequence of the reflections of such scholars was the tripartite division of Western civilization into ancient, medieval, and modern. 3. The Middle Ages—the times in the middle between antiquity and the moderns— (note the curious plural) were not named explicitly until the 17th century. 4. The notion that people of the 14th century held of themselves and their world tells us a lot about them but little about the world they dismissed. 5. For our purposes in these lectures, the term medieval is nothing more than a convenient frame of reference. Second, however we understand the term medieval, it forces us to think about approximately 1,000 years of history and culture. One should be wary of making bold generalizations about so much time. Third, Europe is a big, complex place. This is true today and it was no less true in the Middle Ages. One should be wary about generalizing about something that is allegedly “European.” Fourth, literature itself is an elusive term. 1. We shall consider works in prose and in verse; works in English, French, German, Italian, and Spanish; works purportedly historical and works wholly imaginary. 2. A medieval motto held that “clericus, id est litteratus” (“a cleric, that is to say, a literate man”), but we shall consider in detail only a few works written in Latin, yet we shall certainly be dealing with literate people. III. Medieval European literature did not emerge entire and pristine at some point in the socalled Middle Ages. This literature rested on several foundations. Particularly in the earlier centuries of the Middle Ages, a vast stock of native stories and traditions exercised the imaginations and literary gifts of many writers. The literatures of Greece and Rome—but especially the latter as Greek was rarely known—were always models of both story motifs and formal structures. The Bible, finally, was a source book of unalterable divine truths, of popular stories, and of literary forms. One theme we shall have to track closely is the use that various medieval writers made of the sources that were at their disposal. IV. In order to assess, understand, and enter into medieval European literature, we must take three crucial steps. First, we must clear our minds. 1. We must not assume that medieval people are “just like us.” We are almost better off imagining ourselves on another planet as we attempt to think about the Middle Ages. 2. We must avoid appeals to dubious concepts, such as “human nature.”
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Second, we must try to grasp some fundamental aspects of medieval life and culture. 1. Medieval society was based on ideas of rank, hierarchy, and order that seem alien to our modern, egalitarian values. 2. Christianity was pervasive in medieval culture in ways that seem odd in our modern, secular world. 3. Theology was “the queen of the sciences,” yet in our times, it seems neither prominent nor scientific. Third, we must acknowledge some of the changes and forces that have made our world different from that of the Middle Ages. 1. Romanticism created a Middle Ages that never existed as a way of critiquing the emergence of mass, democratic, urban, industrial society. 2. Darwin, Marx, and Freud—whether one agrees with them particularly or not— have together dramatically changed our basic views about human character, behavior, and motivation. 3. Modern science and technology have fundamentally altered the ways we explain things and where we look for explanations. V. We start with Beowulf and the beginnings of literature in the British Isles. Beowulf is the longest poem surviving from Anglo-Saxon England, but it is by no means the only work in Old English. 1. Old English is what we call the language of the Angles and Saxons who settled between 400 and 600 in what later became England. 2. Angles and Saxons came from what is now Denmark and northern Germany (Saxony). 3. The language is Germanic and closely related to Old Saxon, Old High German, and Old Dutch. Before Old English began being written down, there was Celtic literature in Old Irish and Old Welsh in the British Isles. Together, these Celtic and Old English materials are Europe’s oldest surviving vernacular literatures. VI. Beowulf is a deeply enigmatic work. We have no idea who wrote it. We have only educated guesses as to when it was written. It is remarkable that it survives at all. 1. The poem survives in a single manuscript written about 1000. 2. The surviving manuscript was apparently rediscovered by Laurence Nowell in about 1563. 3. Robert Cotton owned the manuscript in the 17th century, and his library was severely damaged in a fire in 1731. 4. Scholars have had to reconstruct many aspects of the poem, adding to the problems we face in understanding it. VII. Beowulf is a vigorous, fast-paced poem of 3,182 lines. Yale’s Fred Robinson called it “the chief glory of early Germanic poetry.” The poet clearly works with a variety of familiar tales and people, although Beowulf himself never appears in any other known work. The poet could count on a high degree of familiarity on the part of his readers/listeners. He was dealing with their ancestors and the ancestral world from which they had come.
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The basic story may be quickly summarized. 1. Hrothgar, the wise and just king of the Danes, has been ruling well and happily, celebrating in his magnificent hall, Heorot. 2. A fierce beast, Grendel—the misbegotten offspring of Cain—becomes jealous of Hrothgar’s merriment and savagely attacks his hall, killing many retainers. 3. Young Beowulf hears of Hrothgar’s plight and, partly to win fame and partly to acquit an old family debt, travels to Hrothgar’s kingdom to help. 4. Beowulf fights Grendel and wrenches off his arm, but Grendel slinks home to die in his cave in the mere. 5. Grendel’s mother, who is never named, seeks to avenge her son and wreaks havoc. 6. Beowulf plunges unto Grendel’s mere and barely manages to defeat Grendel’s mother. 7. Amidst much celebration, Hrothgar gives Beowulf both his eternal thanks and boundless treasure. 8. Beowulf, a Geat, returns home, ostensibly to what is now southern Sweden; recounts his deeds; and gives his treasure to his own king, Hygelac, who endows Beowulf with, in effect, a sub-kingdom. 9. Eventually, Beowulf succeeds as king and, after 50 years of just rule, sets out to fight a dragon that has been harrowing his kingdom. 10. Beowulf’s retainers abandon him, but his kinsman Wiglaf helps him to defeat the dragon, which mortally wounds Beowulf in the fight. 11. Although the poet jumps from the fight with Grendel’s mother to the battle with the dragon, he introduces many flashbacks to fill in the “history “of the intervening 50 years. These flashbacks, each one a story of war and betrayal, generally reveal the fulfillment of various prophecies uttered by characters in the poem. The story is not, therefore, a straightforward narrative but nevertheless has coherence and closure. How do we understand the poem? We may look at stylistic devices the poet uses. 1. The poem is constructed in half-lines with consonantal alliteration, as can be seen in its opening lines: Hwæt, we gardena In geardagum þeodcyninga þrym gefrunon Hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon. (Listen! We have heard of the glory of the Spear-Danes’ kings in the old days, how the nobles of that people did great deeds.) 2. The poet introduces an “authenticating voice” (“I have heard,” “I learned,” “They say”) to distance himself from the people in the story (and from his readers/listeners?). 3. The poem is full of interweaving and recapitulation; for example, Beowulf has three verbal combats (with a shore-guard, with a sentry, and with Unferth, a retainer of Hrothgar’s) and three physical battles with beasts. We may examine its themes.
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1. 2. 3. 4. 5.
Is it Christian or pagan? Why does this matter? Is the poem primitive or sophisticated? Is the poem ironic? What is the point of the poem’s stress on doom, foreboding, and death? Does the poet admire Beowulf?
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“Synopsis and an In-depth Textual Analysis” All quotations are from Howell D. Chickering Jr.’s 1977 prose translation of Beowulf.
Howell D. Chickering, Jr., is the G. Armour Craig Professor of Language and Literature at Amherst College. His critical essays, chiefly on medieval English poetry, have appeared in such journals as The Chaucer Review, Journal of English and Germanic Philology, Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies, The Kenyon Review, Philological Quarterly, PMLA, Speculum, and Viator.
Beowulf, the longest Anglo-Saxon poem in existence, is a deceptively simple tale about the adventures of a sixth-century Germanic hero who fights three monsters in what is now Denmark and Sweden. Beneath this straightforward and, to a modern reader, somewhat simplistic plot, however, lies a highly structured work filled with historical and legendary allusions that subtly parallel, contrast, and foreshadow the poem’s action. The work begins with the funeral of a great king, Scyld Scefing, the legendary founder of the Danish royal dynasty (lines 1–63). (It will end with the funeral of another great king—Beowulf, the poem’s protagonist.) According to legend, Scyld was found alone in a boat laden with treasure when he was a child. Upon his death the Danes honor him by placing his body in another treasure ship and putting the ship out to sea. Scyld Scefing’s subjects begin to call themselves the Scyldings and are well ruled by his son Beowulf (usually referred to as Beow to differentiate him from the hero of the poem). Beow, in turn, is succeeded by his son Healfdene, who has four children: Heorogar, Hrothgar, Halga, and a daughter whose name has been lost but who married Onela, a Swedish (or in AngloSaxon terms, Scylfing) king. Of these children, Hrothgar is especially successful in battle and becomes ruler of the Scyldings after Heorogar is killed (lines 64–85). Rulers at this time relied on the allegiance of warriorretainers called thanes. Their relationship was embodied in the heroic code, which required of the thane unbounded courage in battle and absolute loyalty to the ruler. In exchange, a ruler was expected to protect and provide for his thanes (who, after all, could not support themselves if they were constantly away fighting). A ruler was supposed to share generously the wealth taken in conquest, giving lavish gifts to his thanes in reward for their services. In addition, he provided them with a mead hall—a place to live, with food, drink, and nightly entertainment. The elderly Hrothgar is a good ruler and builds the largest and most lavish mead hall ever seen, calling it Heorot. Although the poet alludes to Heorot’s later destruction during a war—the result of “the sharp-edged hate of [Hrothgar’s] sworn son-in-law”—at this point it is a welcoming place where the king holds feasts and hands out treasure. Beowulf abounds with
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similar allusions to future sorrows embedded in a joyful present. These references to grim events to come, which the poet’s original audience would readily recognize, serve one of the poem’s primary themes: the vicissitudes of life and the impermanence of all human endeavors. The noise and merriment of the festivities, particularly the song of a scop, or bard, praising God, proves a torment to one creature—Grendel, a powerful and evil monster who lives as an outcast on the nearby moors (lines 86–193). Grendel, the poem explains, is a descendant of the biblical character Cain, who killed his brother Abel and was cursed by God. All malevolent monsters are Cain’s descendants; like Cain, they strive against God but ultimately in vain. Enraged by the happy sounds coming from Heorot, Grendel waits for night to fall. Then he creeps into Heorot, seizes thirty sleeping thanes, and takes “his slaughtered feast of men to his lair.” The next night, Grendel attacks again, until the frightened thanes abandon Heorot and sleep elsewhere. For twelve years, Grendel terrorizes Heorot. Hrothgar is distraught at the deaths of his thanes, but the monster seems unappeasable. Although the Scyldings use Heorot during the day, at night Grendel takes up residence in the hall. Hrothgar and his men appeal to their heathen gods—a practice that Beowulf’s Christian author heartily condemns as ignorance of “God . . . our protector above, / the King of Glory”—but the “night-evil” continues. Word of Grendel eventually reaches Beowulf, a thane of the Geat king Hygelac (lines 194– 370). Strictly speaking, Grendel is no concern of the Geats, a group occupying what is today southern Sweden. But by risking his life in a dangerous battle, Beowulf can win honor (symbolized by the gold he could expect to be given by Hrothgar) and fame—which, it was believed, was the only thing that endured beyond this ephemeral life. Beowulf resolves to destroy the monster and, gathering fourteen fellow warriors, sets off by ship for Denmark. The ship is spotted by a Scylding watchman, who hurries down to the shore to find out who the approaching warriors are. Impressed by Beowulf’s strong appearance and his explanation of why he and his men have come, the guard agrees to conduct the Geats to Heorot. The well-armed Geats enter the mead hall and sit down on one of the hall’s many benches. They excite considerable curiosity, and Hrothgar’s herald, Wulfgar, asks them who they are. Beowulf tells him and asks to speak to Hrothgar. Wulfgar, also impressed by Beowulf’s appearance, encourages his king to speak to them. Hrothgar, it is determined, knew Beowulf’s father, Ecgtheow, and has heard that Beowulf has “the strength of thirty [men] / in his mighty hand-grip.” Hrothgar believes that God, “in the fullness of mercy,” has sent Beowulf to deliver them from Grendel (lines 371–490). Although the author has revealed that these characters are not Christian, their religion—despite their earlier appeal to heathen gods—resembles the monotheism of the Old Testament Jews (rather than the actual religious beliefs of sixth-century Scandinavians). Hrothgar agrees to speak with the Geats, and Beowulf introduces himself, reveals his mission, and gives an account of his previous exploits, including vanquishing a family of giants and slaughtering sea serpents. Asking Hrothgar’s permission to fight Grendel, Beowulf says that, like the monster, he will forsake weapons and use only his bare hands. Expressing a decided fatalism, he declares, “Whoever death takes / will have to trust in the judgment of God.” All he asks is that Hrothgar send his “war-shirt” to his king, Hygelac, should Grendel triumph. In agreeing to let Beowulf fight the monster, Hrothgar reveals that he harbored Beowulf’s father
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after Ecgtheow had “struck up a mighty feud / . . . among the Wylfings” by killing a warrior named Heatholaf, and that Ecgtheow had sworn allegiance to him. Among Germanic warriors—as the poem’s numerous accounts of blood feuds make clear—vengeance for the killing of a lord or kinsman was a moral imperative. Thus feuds created even more feuds, and a warrior without the protection of a lord was extremely vulnerable to acts of retribution. The Geats and Scyldings sit down to feast before night falls (lines 491–606). A jealous Scylding, Unferth, “who would not grant that any other man / under the heavens might ever care more / for famous deeds than he himself,” tries to shame Beowulf. He asks if Beowulf is the same warrior who once lost a seven-day swimming match to a man named Breca and declares that he expects similar failure if Beowulf challenges Grendel. Beowulf reveals that he and Breca did engage in a swimming match—in full armor, no less—but he did not lose. Rather, after five days at sea, Beowulf was attacked by sea monsters. He slaughtered all nine and came to shore in Finland—quite a swim from Sweden. Beowulf then chastises Unferth, declaring, “I never have heard / such struggle, sword-terror, told about you.” He goes on to recriminate Unferth—and his fellow Scylding warriors—for their lack of courage and ferocity, which has brought shame to them and made Grendel’s reign of terror possible: “I’ll tell you a truth . . . : never would Grendel have done so much harm, the awesome monster, against your own leader, shameful in Heorot, if heart and intention, your great battle-spirit, were sharp as your words. But he has discovered he need not dread too great a feud, fierce rush of swords, not from your people, the ‘Victory-Scyldings.’” Tonight, Beowulf declares, he will show the monster “the courage and strength / of the Geats in combat.” The Scyldings are heartened by Beowulf’s resolve (lines 607–709). Hrothgar’s queen, Wealhtheow, comes forward and offers the mead cup to all the warriors, including Beowulf. Evening comes, and the Scyldings retire, leaving the Geats in the hall to face Grendel. Beowulf strips himself of his armor and weapons, and his retainers go to sleep fully expecting to be killed in the night. But God, the poet asserts, has granted the Geats “comfort and help, / a weaving of war-luck.” Grendel glides into the hall, hoping to find a straggler or two (lines 710–836). Seeing a host of men, he exults in his luck, expecting to make a meal of them. Beowulf is quietly watching Grendel when the monster seizes and devours a nearby Geat. Grendel then reaches for Beowulf, who grabs the monster’s arm in his mighty grip. Grendel quickly realizes that he is in trouble and attempts to escape, but the two engage in a tremendous fight that, the poem asserts, would have knocked down a lesser hall. Beowulf’s men try to hack the monster with their swords, but Grendel is charmed against “all weapons of battle.” Grendel cannot shake Beowulf’s grasp, however, and Beowulf rips off the monster’s arm at the shoulder. Mortally wounded, Grendel flees Heorot, never to return. Beowulf is left with the greater glory—and Grendel’s arm, complete from the shoulder to the clawlike fingers.
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Morning comes, and the Scyldings are ecstatic to find that Grendel has been vanquished (lines 837–924). Some Scylding warriors follow the tracks of the wounded monster, who has returned to his den under a lake in the moors. Then they ride back to Heorot, speaking of Beowulf’s tremendous deed. Along the way, a scop composes a poem celebrating Beowulf’s victory, thus assuring that word of the hero’s deeds will survive him. The scop goes on to tell the stories of the heroic Sigemund, who slew a dragon, and the tyrannical Heremod, who killed many of his own subjects before meeting his end. The Scyldings return to Heorot as Hrothgar enters. Upon seeing Grendel’s arm, Hrothgar thanks God and promises to love Beowulf as a son (lines 925–1062). Beowulf recounts the events of the night before, leaving the Scyldings, especially Unferth, appropriately impressed. A tremendous feast is held, during which Hrothgar gives Beowulf and the other Geats horses, armor, and treasure, including “the largest gold collar / ever heard of on earth.” That gold collar links the present with the future as the poem reveals that the Geat king Hygelac will be wearing it when he dies in battle “that time he sought trouble, stirred up a feud, / a fight with the Frisians, in his pride and daring.” The grisly battlefield and the joyous celebration in the mead hall are juxtaposed to great effect (“. . . warriors rifled the corpses / after the battle-harvest. Dead Geats / filled the field. Now cheers for Beowulf rose”), again emphasizing the vicissitudes of men’s fortunes. During the celebration, a scop tells the tragic tale of a war between the Danes and the Jutes (lines 1063–1250). The account is especially sad because Hildeburh, the wife of the Jute king Finn was also the sister of the Danish king Hnaef. (Princesses often served as “peaceweavers”—they were given in marriage to rulers of other peoples as a way of settling conflicts.) But when war broke out between the two peoples, Hildeburh’s brother and son fought on opposing sides, and both were killed. A short peace followed; then the new Danish king, Hengest, attacked the Jutes, killed Finn, and took Hildeburh back to Denmark. After the scop has finished the tragic tale of one queen, another Danish queen, Wealhtheow, speaks of the unity of her people: “Each noble here is true to the other, / every kind heart deathloyal to lord.” The irony is keen, for as the poet has implied, the treachery of Wealhtheow’s nephew Hrothulf will eventually tear apart her family just as Hildeburh’s family was destroyed. The ominous tone is made more explicit as the thanes settle down in Heorot for the night (lines 1251–1299). One will be killed, the poet reports, because Grendel has a mother. As the thanes sleep, Grendel’s mother comes to Heorot seeking revenge for the death of her son. Although not as strong or terrible as Grendel, she bursts into the hall and quickly kills a thane, escaping with his body—and with Grendel’s arm. Beowulf is spending the night elsewhere, but when morning comes he goes to Hrothgar’s chambers and hears the bad news (lines 1300–1382). Hrothgar is distraught at the death of his thane, Aeschere, who was a trusted counselor. But he knows who committed the dastardly act: a female monster who had often been seen accompanying Grendel as he stalked the moors and whose lair is known to be under a lake not far from Heorot. Hrothgar offers Beowulf more treasure if he will go to the lake and kill the monster. Beowulf agrees (lines 1383–1472). In a speech that succinctly expresses the warrior’s fatalistic outlook in the pursuit of renown, Beowulf declares,
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“Grieve not, wise king! Better it is for every man to avenge his friend than mourn overmuch. Each of us must come to the end of his life: let him who may win fame before death. That is the best memorial for a man after he is gone.” Hrothgar, Beowulf, and a group of warriors set out for the lake, which is a sinister place in the middle of a foreboding landscape. When they arrive, they see signs of the previous night’s carnage: The water is red with blood, and Aeschere’s head is lying nearby. The lake is also seething with serpents. A Geat bowman kills one with an arrow, and the others haul it ashore with their spears to reveal its gruesome, monstrous form. Beowulf is nonetheless undaunted and gathers his armor, including a sword, Hrunting, lent to him by a repentant Unferth (lines 1473–1590). Beowulf contains many descriptions of famed swords and their histories. In this warrior culture, a well-made sword was more than a tool—it was a most prized possession, almost an object of veneration, and was passed down from generation to generation. Beowulf makes appropriate provisions for his treasure in case of his death and plunges into the water. Grendel’s mother grabs him and pulls him toward her den, a cave at the bottom of the lake. Although protected by his armor, he cannot draw his sword and is beset by serpents. Once in the den, however, and free of the snakeinfested lake, Beowulf seizes the initiative, striking Grendel’s mother with Hrunting. But the blade does not “bite through to kill”—the first time, we are told, that “a word could be said against that great treasure.” Undaunted by Hrunting’s failure, Beowulf, “battle-furious,” grabs Grendel’s mother by the shoulder and throws her to the floor. She quickly gets up, knocks him down, and sits on him, pulling out her knife to finish him off. But her blade cannot penetrate his armor, and Beowulf gets back onto his feet, at which point, the poet asserts, God decides the struggle in favor of good. Looking around, Beowulf spots a large ancient sword, “longer and heavier than any other man / could have carried in the play of war-strokes.” He grabs this “shearer of life-threads,” draws it, and strikes Grendel’s mother. The sword slices through her neck, killing her. The cave is then illuminated by a light of mysterious origin, “even as from heaven comes the shining light / of God’s candle.” Using this light, Beowulf explores the den and finds Grendel’s body, which he decapitates. Meanwhile, the warriors standing around the lake see a tremendous amount of blood in the water and conclude that Beowulf has been killed (lines 1591–1639). The Scyldings return home, while the Geats maintain a mournful vigil. Beowulf, however, is experiencing even stranger events below. The blood from the monsters begins to melt the sword “in battle-bloody icicles” until Beowulf is left with only the jeweled hilt. Taking the hilt and Grendel’s head, he leaves the den, rises to the surface of the lake, and swims ashore. His men are overjoyed to see him alive, and they return to Heorot, four of them carrying Grendel’s oversized head on a spear. At Heorot, Beowulf recounts his adventure and presents Hrothgar with the sword hilt (lines 1640–1884). The king praises Beowulf for his valor but urges him not to become like Heremod, who began his career as an illustrious warrior and ended it a parsimonious tyrant. In a sermonlike speech, Hrothgar declares that a hero that God permits to “travel far in delight”— that is, to enjoy happiness and pleasure for a long time—can easily assume that his good fortune will last forever. His “portion of arrogance / begins to increase,” and, as he succumbs to the sins of pride and covetousness, “[h]is future state”—death— “is forgotten, forsworn, and so is God’s favor.” Hrothgar implores Beowulf to “guard against that awful curse . . . and choose
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the better, eternal gains.” For though his “fame lives now,” “sickness or war . . . or sword’s swing / thrown spear, or hateful old age” will one day level Beowulf, just as he, Hrothgar, has been humbled by the twelve years of suffering and sorrow Grendel brought him. After Hrothgar’s speech, a feast is served, and when night falls, the guests sleep peacefully in Heorot. The next day Beowulf returns Hrunting to Unferth with thanks and takes his leave of Hrothgar. The two swear friendship, and Hrothgar gives Beowulf many gifts. With tears running down his face, the old king clasps Beowulf’s neck and kisses him, expecting “that never again would they look on each other / as in this brave meeting.” The Geats return to their ship, load their treasure, and set sail. They quickly reach their lord’s lands (lines 1885–1962). The poem praises their hall; their king, Hygelac; and especially their young and generous queen, Hygd, who is compared favorably with Modthrytho, a fourth-century queen who in her youth had any thane who looked at her face in the daytime put to death. Beowulf and his men sit with Hygelac in his hall, and Beowulf recounts his adventures, praising Hrothgar’s hospitality (lines 1963–2199). Beowulf also discusses the hostilities between Hrothgar’s Danes and the Heathobards, a people from southern Denmark. Hrothgar is planning to have his daughter, Freawaru, marry the Heathobard prince Ingeld, in order to ensure peace between the two peoples. But Beowulf is not convinced that their enmity can be overcome by such a match. (His caution, as the poem’s original audience would know, is justified. In 520 Ingeld attacked and burned Heorot before being routed by the Danes.) Beowulf then brings in the treasure he was given by Hrothgar and presents it to Hygelac. In sharing his booty with his king—as in his conduct on the battlefield and in the mead hall— Beowulf shows himself to be a paragon of virtue, the poet maintains. He is “ever loyal” to Hygelac, his lord and kinsman, and generous toward Hygelac’s queen, Hygd, giving her the gold necklace that Wealhtheow had bestowed on him. He has gained renown in battle but has “no savage mind”—he never kills “comrades in drink,” reserving for its appropriate use on the battlefield “the gift / that God [has] given him, the greatest strength / that man ever had.” Yet in his youth, the poet reveals, Beowulf had shown no signs of future greatness. The Geats “were convinced he was slow, or lazy, / a coward of a noble.” As a result, “he got little honor, / no gifts on the mead-bench from the lord of the [Geats].” Now that he has proved his mettle, however, Beowulf receives ample reward from Hygelac, who gives him his father’s gold-covered sword—the most prized among the Geats—as well as land, a hall, and a throne of his own. Beowulf is now a lord. Several years pass, and Hygelac is killed in battle (lines 2200–2277). His son, Heardred, is also killed, and the kingdom passes to Beowulf. Beowulf’s rule is a prosperous time that lasts fifty years, until a fugitive stumbles into a vaulted barrow filled with treasure and—while its guardian, a dragon, sleeps—makes off with a precious cup. Under the dragon’s watchful eye, the hoard—the combined wealth of a people destroyed by war—had been undisturbed for three hundred years (lines 2278–2311). But now, as the fugitive brings the cup back to his lord as a peace offering, the dragon awakes, sees the intruder’s footprints, and, checking his treasure, realizes that he has been robbed.
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Though the dragon (who is not presented as a particularly intelligent creature) has no idea what the treasure is and certainly cannot use it, the theft angers him. That night he seeks retribution, burning houses, including Beowulf ’s hall, the “gift-throne of the Geats” (lines 2312–2344). To Beowulf, this causes “great anguish, pain deep in mind”—in large part because he fears that it might be divine punishment for some sin he has committed. Though filled “with dark thoughts strange to his mind,” he promptly readies himself to battle the beast. Realizing that the traditional wood shield will be of little use against the dragon’s flames, he orders a special shield of iron made. This will not be enough to save him, for, as the poet reveals, Beowulf is destined “to reach the end of his sea-faring days, / his life in this world, together with the serpent.” As in Beowulf’s younger days, when he singlehandedly fought Grendel and Grendel’s mother, the old ruler scorns the notion of approaching his enemy “with troops, with a full army”; having “endured / much violence before, taken great risks / in the smash of battles,” he does not fear the dragon. At this point, the poem reflects upon the highlights of Beowulf’s illustrious career before he became king (lines 2345–2509). After the battle in which Hygelac was killed (which took place in Frisia, in what is now the Netherlands), Beowulf swam back to southern Sweden, carrying as trophies the armor of no less than thirty warriors he had slain. He so impressed Hygd that she offered him the throne over her own son, Heardred. The ever-noble Beowulf turned her down, however, and supported Heardred “among his people with friendly wisdom, / kept him in honor, until he grew older, / [and] could rule the Geats.” When a usurper, Onela, seized the Scylfing throne and exiled the rightful heirs—Eanmund and Eadgils—Heardred gave them refuge, and Onela attacked his hall and killed Heardred and Eanmund in retaliation. Beowulf then became the Geat king and supported Eadgils in his successful attempt to retake the Scylfing throne. “And so he survived,” the poet says, “every encounter, every awful conflict, / heroic battles, till that one day / when he had to fight against the worm [dragon].” Having heard how the feud with the dragon began, Beowulf sets out for the dragon’s lair with eleven retainers, guided reluctantly by the fugitive who had stolen the cup (lines 2510–2601). When they reach the lair, Beowulf, his spirit “sad, / restless, death-ripe,” speaks to his men of events important to his life and to the history of the Geat people. Central to this speech are the concepts of vengeance and honor. Beowulf recounts the story of how Haethcyn, his uncle, accidentally killed his own brother Herebeald—an act made all the more horrible because it could not be avenged, as that would involve murdering a kinsman. Brokenhearted, Hrethel— who was Haethcyn and Herebeald’s father as well as the king of the Geats—died, and the Scylfings seized the opportunity to attack the Geats (an event that will presumably happen again after Beowulf’s death). “My kinsmen and leaders avenged that well,” Beowulf says, though in the battle Haethcyn, who had assumed the Geat throne, was killed. The next day “the third brother,” Hygelac, “brought full vengeance / back to the slayer” when Ongentheow, the Scylfing king, was killed. Beowulf then touches on the exploits he performed in service to Hygelac, including his slaying of the champion of an enemy people, the Hugas, with his bare hands. “I wish even now,” he declares, “to seek a quarrel, do a great deed.” He insists on fighting the dragon alone and commands his men to wait nearby. Although this demonstrates that Beowulf has not lost his valor or desire for renown, some commentators view
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it as an essentially irresponsible act, an example of the kind of pride Hrothgar had warned him against years before. For Beowulf’s death, which might have been unnecessary, will bring calamity to his people. When Beowulf heads to the entrance of the dragon’s lair with a shout to announce his presence, the dragon comes out breathing flames. Beowulf’s armor protects him from the fire, but when he strikes the beast, his sword fails him and the dragon is only slightly wounded. The two rush together again, and Beowulf is hurt. In the meantime, Beowulf’s men have deserted him and run off into the woods. One, however, a young man named Wiglaf, who is a kinsman of Beowulf’s, remembers the favors the king has shown them and implores his comrades to come to Beowulf’s aid (lines 2602–2705). No one responds, so Wiglaf alone takes up his sword (an old family heirloom) in Beowulf’s defense—the first time the young retainer has fought for his lord. As Wiglaf joins Beowulf, the dragon charges again and burns up the thane’s wooden shield. Wiglaf takes refuge behind Beowulf’s shield while Beowulf strikes the dragon with all his strength—only to have his sword shatter on the dragon’s skull. The dragon charges again, biting Beowulf with his huge teeth and burning him with his fire. Wiglaf proves resolute, and despite the flames, he strikes the dragon. His blow lessens the dragon’s fire, giving Beowulf the chance to pull out his knife and deliver the killing stroke to the dragon’s belly. The dragon is vanquished, but Beowulf has been fatally wounded, for the dragon’s bite is poisonous (lines 2706–2820). Wiglaf washes Beowulf’s wounds, and the king, recognizing that he will soon die, laments the fact that he has no son to take his place. He professes joy in his fifty-year reign, however, for during this time no foreign ruler had dared to “seek out a battle, / make any onslaught, terror, oppression, / upon Geatish men.” Nor had Beowulf sought any intrigue, sworn deceitful oaths, or harmed his kin. Just as he had previously been an ideal thane, Beowulf, it seems, has been an ideal ruler. Beowulf now directs Wiglaf to bring out some of the dragon’s treasure—so that he “may more easily give up [his] life / and the dear kingdom that [he has] ruled long.” Wiglaf obeys, but by the time he returns, Beowulf has lost consciousness. Wiglaf revives him with some water, and Beowulf, seeing the treasure, declares, “I give thanks aloud to the Lord of all, King of Glories, eternal Ruler, for the bright treasures I can see here, that I might have gained such gifts as these for the sake of my people before I died.” With his last breaths, he directs Wiglaf “to watch / the country’s needs” and gives instructions for his funeral and for the creation of a large barrow on a cliff to serve as his memorial. Then he gives Wiglaf (who is the last of the Waegmundings, a family to which Beowulf also belongs) his gold necklace, helmet, rings, and mail-shirt. After observing that fate has swept away all his noble kinsmen and he must follow, Beowulf dies. Wiglaf is saddened by his lord’s death, although the poem points out that Beowulf performed an important service to his people by killing the dragon (lines 2821–3027). Wiglaf returns to the cowardly retainers, accusing them of desertion and predicting that their ignominy will haunt them for the rest of their lives. He then sends a messenger to relay to the Geats news of Beowulf’s death. The messenger does so, predicting that their enemies—especially the Scylfings—will attack them now that their protector is gone and summarizing the feud between
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the Geats and Scylfings. The Geats gather to see Beowulf and the dragon, whose treasure is revealed to have been cursed (lines 3028–3182). Wiglaf leads some of the Geats into the dragon’s cave, where they gather treasure to bury with Beowulf. They then push the dragon’s body into the sea. Beowulf’s people bury the remains from his funeral pyre, along with all the treasure, in the memorial barrow they construct. They bemoan the loss of their leader, who was “of the kings in this world, / the kindest to his men, the most courteous man, / the best to his people, and the most eager for fame.” (In Old English poetry, each line was divided into two halves, which were separated by a pause, or caesura. For the sake of typographical simplicity, the caesura has not been rendered here.)
The Story Behind the Story Scholars consider the author of Beowulf an immensely gifted poet, but that is all that is really known about him. His name and biographical information were not preserved, leaving the issue open to much speculation. Some critics suggest that each of the poem’s three fights may have been composed by a different author and later combined by others who added the various digressive narratives, but most subscribe to the notion of a single poet. Judging from the poem’s content and style, certain elements of Beowulf’s composition are clear. Whether or not the poet originally produced an oral or a written composition, the work definitely follows conventions of the oral poetic tradition. While the poet obviously had knowledge of Christianity, he also draws from traditional Germanic heroic poetry spread and passed down through minstrels. No character named Beowulf appears in any other known heroic poem, but his adventures slightly resemble those in the widely recounted “Bear’s Son” tale (also called “Strong John” and “The Three Stolen Princesses”). Although Beowulf seems most connected to Old Norse folklore, some of it is based on fact; historical records document the existence of Hygelac, king of the Geats (and Beowulf ’s uncle in the story), who died in 521 c.e. The only concrete evidence of the poet’s existence is a Beowulf manuscript produced around 1000. Two different scribes copied the poet’s work in West Saxon, an Old English literary dialect, and an early editor gave the poem its title. The only surviving copy, this manuscript was preserved in the library of Sir Robert Cotton and is currently housed in the manuscript codex Cotton Vitellius A. XV (collected with three prose stories about monsters and one poem fragment) in the British Museum. The manuscript was damaged by fire, but Icelandic scholar Grímur Thorkelin transcribed it and published an edition in 1815. Since the early English masterpiece was first published, scholars have tried to determine where and when the work could have originated. They have employed the study of archaeology, history, linguistics, and Christianity in this pursuit but still have no conclusive answers. The poetic dialect does not indicate a specific time or region, nor does the representation of Christianity in the poem indicate a specific period. Historical knowledge can only narrow the date of composition to anywhere between the seventh century, closer to the time the Scandinavian leaders mentioned in the story actually lived, and the ninth century, when the Danes invaded England.
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Within this broad time frame, there are a few likely places where the poet could have composed his work. In identifying areas of high culture and support for the arts, scholars have named two plausible candidates: the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Northumbria, in northern England, and Mercia, in southcentral England. Northumbria seems a possible place of origin between 673 and 735, an era known as the age of Bede, after a noted teacher and historian. The court of King Aldfrith, who reigned from 685 to 705, welcomed scholars and poets. During the reign of King Offa II (757–796), Mercia cultivated many learned artists, making it another likely home for the Beowulf poet. Offa was the most powerful English king of this time, and the digression in Beowulf mentioning Offa, king of Angeln in the fourth century, could have been meant as a tribute to a royal patron. Seventh-century East Anglia, with the highly developed culture of the Wuffingas dynasty (625–55), has also been judged a possibility. Archaeologists unearthed a treasure burial at Sutton Hoo similar to the described burials of Scyld and Beowulf, and grave goods linked to royal burials in Uppsala, Sweden, have also been found that are similar to ones described in the poem. The Wuffingas dynasty and its first two kings, Wehha and Wuffa, who could have migrated from Uppsala to East Anglia, resemble the names Wylfingas, Weohstan, and Wiglaf mentioned in the poem. This mystery will never be solved, but the Beowulf poet lives on through the undisputed greatness of his work.
List of Characters Beowulf, the hero of the poem, is an ideal warrior. Strong, brave, and always honorable and loyal to his kinsmen, he has an illustrious career, first as a warrior, then as a lord, then as king of the Geats. Beowulf’s courage and skill help him vanquish Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and the dragon, but this last victory costs him his life. Grendel is a large monster who devours humans despite the fact that he somewhat resembles a man. He terrorizes Heorot, Hrothgar’s mead hall in Denmark, for twelve years, killing anyone who spends the night in the hall. Grendel is protected against the threat of weapons but meets his match in Beowulf, who dismembers him with his powerful grip. Grendel’s mother, a smaller version of Grendel, attacks Heorot to avenge Grendel’s death. Beowulf kills her with a magical ancient sword he finds in her lair. Hrothgar, the king of the Scyldings or Danes, is a wise and generous ruler but is too old to protect his people from Grendel and Grendel’s mother, a similar challenge Beowulf will face when he becomes an elder king. After Beowulf defeats the two monsters, Hrothgar gives him sage advice about the vicissitudes of life and the dangers of pride. The Dragon is a fire-breathing, snakelike monster that ultimately kills Beowulf, although it dies in the process. Unlike Grendel and his mother, the dragon is not particularly intelligent.
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Unferth, a thane in Hrothgar’s court, challenges Beowulf’s accomplishments and is soundly chastised by him. Unferth eventually accepts Beowulf’s superiority as a warrior and lends him his sword. Wealhtheow, Hrothgar’s wife, epitomizes the ideal queen in her generosity and hospitality toward thanes and guests. The hazards of her essentially diplomatic role are repeatedly expressed in tales of queens caught between warring peoples. Hygelac is Beowulf’s uncle and the king of the Geats. Like Hrothgar, he rewards Beowulf appropriately for his heroic actions. Wiglaf is a young and inexperienced thane who is the only retainer to stand by Beowulf during his fight with the dragon. As befits an honorable thane, Wiglaf is willing to risk his life to repay his lord, who is also a kinsman, for all the gifts the young.
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Map of Scandinavia in Beowulf’s day
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1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6.
Swedes (Scylfings) Geats Danes Heorot Frisians Heathobards
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Plate 1: The Beowulf-manuscript, fol. 129r (Beowulf, lines 1–21).
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Plate 2: The Beowulf-manuscript, fol. 95r (Wonders, sections 13–15).
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Plate 3: The Beowulf-manuscript, fol. 95v (Wonders, sections 15–16).
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Plate 4: The Beowulf-manuscript, fol. 128v (Letter, section 41).
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Plate 5: The Beowulf-manuscript, fol. 160r (Beowulf, lines 1352b–1377a).
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Plate 6, The Beowulf-manuscript, fol. 189A (197) r (Beowulf, lines 2655b–2682a).
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Genealogy I: The Danes, Swedes, Frisians, and Heathobards
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Genealogy II: The Geats and Wægmundings
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“Beowulf’s Name” By Professor Richard North
Richard North got his BA from Oxford in 1983 and his PhD from Cambridge in 1987. He held a postdoc in Rijksuniversiteit Groningen in 1987-88, and was appointed lecturer in Old and Middle English at UCL a year later. Since then he has taught English literature of all kinds, but mainly Old and Middle English, and also some Old Icelandic, to undergraduates and MA students, as well as supervising a small posse of PhD students. Early Medieval Research Interests: These follow works which he teaches, keeping in mostly with Editions. In his book on English heathen gods (1997) North argued for the existence of Ingui, divine focus of a massive fertility cult permeating Anglian Britain from the fifth century to the late seventh. Later he tried to prove that the Icelandic chieftain Sighvatr Sturluson, older brother of the more famous Snorri, wrote the first draft of Víga-Glúms saga in c. 1225. Later still, his book on Beowulf (2006) made a case not only for the poem’s date of composition in 826-27, but also for a place, Breedon-on-the-Hill (NW Leics.), as well as an author in Eanmund, abbot of Breedon in 816 - c. 848. This book has a simple premise, that the resemblance between Beowulf and his sidekick Wiglaf on one hand and the Mercian kings Beornwulf (82326) and Wiglaf (827-39) on the other is not a coincidence. By chance, however, many scholars took exception to this book.
The name Bjarki appears to mean ‘little bear’ (*bjarn-ki); in Hro´lfs saga, Bo˛ðvarr’s father was transformed into a bear, while ‘bear’ is the meaning of both his name and that of Bera, Bo˛ðvarr’s mother; also in Hro´lfs saga, Bo˛ðvarr Wghts Hjo˛rvarðr’s army with his body in a trance, in such a way that bio˛rn einn mikill fo¨r fyrir Hr(olfz) kongz mo˛nnum, og jafnan þar næst sem kongurinn er (‘a big bear advances before King Hro´lfr’s men, and always nearest to where the king was’, ch. 33). The etymology of Beowulf’s name (beo-wulf, ‘wolf of bees’) indicates also that he was formerly conceived as a ‘bear’.1 This homely conclusion is opposed by Andy Orchard, who acknowledges Beowulf’s bearlike qualities (his mighty strength, deathhug of Dæghrefn, three times cited swimming endurance), but glosses OE beowulf as ‘Beowwulf, ‘‘the wolf of (the god) Beow’’ ’ on the basis of a comparison with OIce Þo´ro´lfr (‘the wolf of the god Þo´rr’).2 Yet the Þo´r-preWx can be found in more than one third of Old Norse names, whereas there are no Beow-preWxes in other Anglo-Saxon personal names. Bjarki’s first feat for King Hro´lfr is to kill a monster. Saxo, moving Biarco into Rolvo’s narrative only before the end of this king’s career, nonetheless says that he killed a silvestris fera (‘wild creature from the woods’), an ursum quippe eximiæ magnitudinis obvium sibi inter dumeta (‘a bear of enormous size which he met in a thicket’); Biarco also forces his comrade Hialto to drink from this monster’s blood in order to increase his power.3 It appears that the author of Skjo˛ldunga saga does not include this story, but it is told in Hro´lfs saga, in which Bo˛ðvarr kills dijr eitt . . . mykid ok o¨gurligt (‘a big frightful beast’), ed mesta tro˛ll (‘the biggest demon’, ch. 23), with wings on its back; giving the credit to Hjalti, whom he has already transformed from the coward Ho˛ttr by forcing him to drink its invigorating blood; in
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Bjarkarı´mur the creature is called ylgrin (‘the she-wolf’, IV. 60), but Hjalti drinks her blood just the same.4 Hilda Ellis Davidson believes that Bjarki’s earliest monstrous opponent was a bear, but Beowulf cites the binding of Wve giants and slaying of niceras (‘sea-monsters’) in his curriculum vitae (Beo 419–24), and tells Unferth that he killed nine niceras and other monsters, probably including whales, while he swam in the sea away from Breca (lines 549– 79).5 In England in this way, Beowulf’s reputation seems to have been founded on combats with monsters before the poet made use of him in Beowulf. Bjarki’s wild opponents in the Norse analogues show that Beowulf’s combat with Grendel and other monsters, including Grendel’s Mother (whom the poet calls seo brimwylf, ‘that she-wolf of the sea’, lines 1506 and 1599), was probably integral to his role.6 In this context Beowulf is also described as beadwe heard (‘battlehardened’) in Beo 1539, reminiscent of Bo˛ðvarr, as he begins to grapple with Grendel’s Mother.7 This epithet may be as old as Beowulf’s name, retained here for his role in a traditional scene: Bjarki in the Scandinavian analogues is also known as Bo˛ðvarr bjarki; in Skjo˛ldunga saga, apparently just as Bo˛ðvarr (‘Bodvarus’). The development of the last name is clear in Saxo’s adaptation of Bjarkama´l, in which Biarco claims that belligeri cepi cognomen (‘I took the nickname of ‘‘warlike’’’) from slaying Agner.8 This line is thought to refer to an earlier form of his Norse name as bo˛ðvar-Bjarki (‘Bjarki of battle (bo˛ð)’), which became Bo˛ðvarr bjarki and then Bo˛ðvarr, all before c.1200, when Skjo˛ldunga saga was written. Notes 1. W. W. Skeat, ‘On the SigniWcation of the Monster Grendel in the Poem of Beowulf ; with a 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. 7. 8.
Discussion of Lines 2076–2100’, Journal of Philology, 15 (1886), 120–31. Supported in Chambers, Beowulf, 365–81; discussed with other interpretations in Stanley, ‘ ‘‘A Very Land-Fish’’ ’, 88–9. Companion, 120–1 n. 117. Gesta Danorum, ed. Olrik and Ræder, 51 (ii. vi. 11); see Saxo Grammaticus, trans. Fisher, Hro´lfs saga, ed. Slay, 79. Hro´lfs Saga Kraka, ed. Finnur, 139 (cf. p. 68). Saxo Grammaticus, trans. Fisher, ii. 45–6 n. 51. Berendsohn (Zur Vorgeschichte des ‘Beowulf’, 218) compares the invulnerability of monsters here: of the Lejre winged troll in Hro´lfs saga, ch. 23 (A´A´ þad bijta ecki vopn, in Hro´lfs saga, ed. Slay, 78) with that of Grendel’s Mother in Beo 1523 (se beadoleoma bitan nolde). Saxo Grammaticus, trans. Fisher, ii. 49 (n. 69). Danakonunga So¨gur, ed. Bjarni, 27 n. 33. Gesta Danorum, ed. Olrik and Ræder, 58 (ii. vii. 19).
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“The Genesis of Beowulf” By Levin Schücking
Schücking’s remarks have begun to be influenced by ‘the twentieth-century consensus’ (see Introduction, pp. 68–9), but are included here first because of the interest which Schücking has once more begun to arouse, and second because of the unusual clarity and energy of his remarks. His image of the poet is one of an antiquarian, looking back at the past with ‘a quite conspicuous sympathy for heathen custom and heathen life’, ‘a sort of Old Germanic Walter Scott’. But in what historical context should such a poet be placed?
What astonishes the present-day beholder of the questions most tied up with Beowulf in older research is its belief in the significance the Beowulf epic is supposed to have had in its time. So far as this view does not rest on unconscious grounds like the tacitly assumed parallel with the Nibelungenlied etc., it rests on proofs of a totally brittle kind. Brandl’s heading 33 in Brandl 1908, ‘Beowulf imitated for three centuries’ now needs no further refutation, ‘the dominant position which Beowulf took within the AS. epic’ has only been able to find credence from the fact that this work’s stylistic peculiarities, which are naturally just as eclectic in its language as in its materials, were postulated out of hand as the model for the remaining literary corpus.— Indeed one would be assuming truly bad taste in the literarily highly developed world of the Anglo-Saxons if one were to accept that this poem could have meant very much to it, this work which possesses neither anything of the tragic greatness of the conflict-narratives of Hildebrand’s blow, nor of the sensitivity of elegiac didacticism, nor of the splendid breath of natural life of single riddles (2, 4), and which only knows how to thrill in the dragon-fight of the second part. Great art has at all times had powerful effect only on the feelings. The example of the Ingeld-poem proved to be popular everywhere by Alcuin’s letter shows that this judgement is not an anachronism, but this lost poem, about whose story we can conclude a good deal, shows itself to be precisely full of stirring psychological conflicts. Beowulf knows nothing of these things, unless it brushes by them with fleeting side-glances. It is different from the best Germanic legendary materials through its complete lack of a tragic kernel. Against that it is of a striking ‘propriety’. Chadwick rightly stresses that it lacks any mention ‘of immoral or unseemly conduct’, that it is ‘free from references of any kind which could offend even the most fastidious taste’. Others have wished to find in it ‘a monkish abstinence when speaking of women’, and indeed the mægð scyne of 3016 remains exceptional in her appearance. The discreet mention of Fitela is also striking, in brief, Beowulf is like a book which, as a presentday Christmas catalogue would put it, ‘can without concern be put in the hand of a growing young person’. The life of the hero is a chain of altruistic good deeds for his friends and subordinates. He seems such a model that it has been possible to make a spiritedly carried-out but certainly untenable attempt to interpret him as an allegory of the Redeemer. From this didacticism one cannot shake off the impression, which in view of the important role which Saxon poems play in the instruction of youth perhaps gains probability, that this poem with its
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didactic tendency, which comes out in its story as in its details, was intended above all as an instruction for youth. Naturally however it could then only be intended for the education of a prince or, if one remembers the common education of both sexes, of royal children. Weighty factors speak for this. It has already been stressed that the poem is really dripping with loyalty to the king, while in it there is asserted an almost anxious striving to rescue the king’s authority, even where the events portrayed can hardly allow it. (In this point too there is moreover an unmistakable relationship with Widsith, in whose imagined context thickly laid-on flattery of royalty also appears dragged in by the hair.) Meanwhile, if on the one hand respect for royalty is cultivated in one way, and occasionally, as in verses 862 f. appears naive, like an explanation for children, on the other hand the poet shows a strikingly ‘constitutional’ turn. His loyalty to the king is very far removed from seducing him into giving advice of the kind Alcuin gives with the words, ‘one must according to the divine command guide the people, but not follow them; on should not listen to people who say: the people’s voice is the voice of God. For the impetuousness of the masses always comes close to madness’. It is not the failings of the masses but those of the king which the poet foregrounds as a warning. He tells of princes whom the people would not have as king, and others whom they drove out, and always right is on the side of the people. He indicates with conspicuous clarity the limits of royal power and everywhere describes care and love for his followers and subjects as essential aspects of his ideal royal figure. —This frankness in an obviously courtly poem is most readily explained on the assumption that in this presentation of the ideal we are dealing for the moment with purely academic reflections, which would be especially appropriate in a work for a future king. Thus the poem begins almost immediately, right at line 20 ff., with the admonition. In the same way the pedagogical speech about good and bad kings which Hroðgar makes to his young benefactor, also a sort of crownprince, would again be especially understandable, showing him the warning example of Heremod, and how cruelly a false conception of his rights and duties is avenged on the prince. But for whom then was the Anglo-Saxon Fénélon [tutor of Louis XIV’s grandson, 1651–1715] whom we might wish to find in the author of Beowulf, writing his epic? In the attempt to draw conclusions here we stumble immediately on a marvelous lack of logic in research. Elsewhere, where a work shows a special interest in a particular dynasty, people, or place, it is accepted for the most part as a matter of course that there must be special connections between these and the author. To give only one example instead of many for this well-known phenomenon, it is taken for granted that the place of origin of the first redaction of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle must be the West-Saxon political and religious capital of Winchester, on account of ‘the continuing strong preferential treatment of the deeds of the West-Saxons’. But this same principle has only been extended to Beowulf in appearance. Brandl says, here following Müllenhoff, ‘the episode of praise for Offa (1931–62), which has been inserted here quite unnecessarily, points decisively to the Mercian court’, and the level-headed Chambers also thinks that: ‘The violent introduction of this episode from the Offa-cycle points probably to an Anglian origin for our poem’ (1914:94). But if the author’s home is on this account supposed to be in Anglia, because from time to time he throws a side-glance on Anglian relationships, would he not in consequence and first of all have to stand in the closest relationship to the people with whom he occupies himself throughout the whole poem? This question could possibly be denied. [Schücking offers the reduction ad absurdum case of someone arguing from Hamlet for Shakespeare being a Dane, notes that the Waldere fragments are a clear
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example of an Anglo-Saxon epic set in a foreign country, but argues that Beowulf is not based on a famous international legend like Waldere.] The most striking thing is not that foreign relationships are being treated, but how this comes about. For what stands in the foreground here is the outspoken glorification of a particular, well-known people who speak a different language, and of a foreign dynasty. What does the fleeting mention of the Offa-legend mean against the dithyramb on the old Danish kings with which the poem opens! And furthermore: how every opportunity is taken to praise the Danes to the skies! The singer at Hroðgar’s court recites the lay of Finn. How cleverly considered it was of the Anglo-Saxon, to select exactly this one of all the heroic lays he knows. For this song of the fight against the treacherous king of the Frisians, Finn is first of all an elevated song on Danish bravery. In his insertion there is shown therefore not only a care (one might almost say a cultural-historical care) to fit in with the whole considered style of composition [note refers back to Schücking’s own section 9], but also the effort to emphasize the Danes as much as possible. The fight of the Danes against the Hadubards which is inserted at another place is a further Danish claim to fame, and its presentation is also seen from the Danish standpoint. The astonishing knowledge of older Danish and Geatish history exhibited to us at different places in the poem points in the same direction. Still more conspicuous than all that: how many pains the poet takes, to find one expression after another for the glory of the Scandinavians! It is not enough that compounds with Guð-, Heaðo-, Sæ-[‘war, battle, sea’] are only used for them [note: ‘The Hadubards are a—perhaps only apparent—exception’], while people like the Hugas, Eotenas, Fresan are never so named, the poet also attempts—something which happens only here in OE. literature—to proclaim the spread of the Danes to all the directions of heaven through the synonymous use of Norð-, Suð-, East-, Westdene, he even finds splendid ornamental names for them which are quite without parallel in OE. poetry, doting on them as the Ar-, the Here-, the Sige-, the Þeod-Scyldings [‘honour-, army-, victory-, people Scyldings’], as the Hring- and the Beorhtdene [‘ring-, Bright-Danes’]! And all this is supposed to be spoken from the heart at a Mercian or Northumbrian royal court and to possess a burning interest for it? In a time furthermore, when no political relations of any kind between Scandinavia and England can be shown? It cannot seriously be put forward as a reason for a Danish enthusiasm of this kind in Northumbria that once upon a time long ago the Danish king Hroðgar is supposed to have married a doubtful Northumbrian princess, something which according to the dominant theory must have taken place 200 years before the composition of Beowulf (!) We cannot by such means avoid the compulsion of accepting that the poem has a quite particular relationship to Scandinavia. Bédier’s researches [1912–17] have taught us not to get too far, when considering the origins of medieval poems, from the examination of ‘cui bono?’ But when could this relationship be found? It corresponds with the drive of our investigation, which has pressed again and again towards a date of origin not before the last years of the ninth century, that this would create no difficulties, even if the clues for closer dating are missing. First of all, at the end of the 9th century, we have to do with that peculiar mixture of Anglo-Saxon with Scandinavian culture, in which the Scandinavian lords of Northumbria and parts of Mercia and East-Anglia often appear to adapt to the native as the superior style. This would therefore be the first possibility chronologically for a quite unforced explanation of the origin of Beowulf, and thus give a terminus a quo for the poem.
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It is quite conceivable, without being able to find closer indications, that in the subsequent period a Scandinavian prince in this area could have invited a famous English poet whom he had got to know to compose an epic for his court, possibly especially in view of his children, who were to be instructed in the Anglo-Saxon language. That this should be set for the most part with a Danish background would according to this cause no surprise. If on the other hand the hero himself is presented as a Geat and Geatish history takes up so much space in the poem, this would be an indication of relationships at the court of the commissioning prince, which because of the poverty of our knowledge of the conquerors’ ethnography can, however, only be feebly illuminated by the supposition of old but here still continuing relations with the nations which had always been close by. It might suggest itself against such an approach that one could raise the same or similar objections as those raised above against the early approach to Beowulf, namely that the atmosphere of civilization and gentleness which permeates Beowulf would not suit the rough and warlike one which one might presuppose at the court of a Viking prince. But it follows from what has been said above, that it is exactly the AngloSaxon culture which speaks from the poem and is meant to speak from it. —Some outlines have been given for the personality of the poet through what has been said above. By contrast nothing has been said so far about the reasons for the selection of the fairy-tale material as a theme, or about the use of older material. The dexterous blending of old and new in Widsith shows with what skill old material can be employed. The possibility of interpolation can in spite of what has been said above naturally not be disputed (see section 4), but proof for it remains hard to produce.
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“Religion in Beowulf” By Ruth Johnston Staver Ruth A. Johnston is an independent scholar, writer and former teacher of Advanced Placement English Literature. Her other works include All Things Medieval: An Encyclopedia of the Medieval World (Greenwood Press, 2011) and The Geographer (Pannebaker Press, 2011)
To the extent that Beowulf presents any religion at all, it is a blend of Christian and pagan ideas and feelings. Just what the blend consists of is a matter of some debate. Is the poem originally pagan but altered to a Christian form? Or is it originally Christian, depicting ancient pagan life as historical fiction? Or does it show us the patchwork of Christian and pagan beliefs still alive in its audience? While Anglo-Saxon Christianity is well documented, the earlier pagan practices are not. It is impossible to determine exactly what parts of the poem show pagan influence, when no one knows what that influence would look like. We lack sources on pagan beliefs and practices simply because the pagan Germanic tribes did not use writing; and when writing came with the Celtic and Roman missionaries, it was not used to write about paganism. There are hints of what the Anglo-Saxons believed before Christian conversion, which we usually supplement with the fuller but much later, records of Norse paganism. We know the history of the Christian conversion and how Christian beliefs developed. By putting together the facts and conjectures, we can form a sense of the religious belief of Beowulf. Christian and Pagan Values Blend Many of the pagan values fit well into the new Christian teachings. We can understand how the early English viewed the new religion by reading the poetic versions of Bible stories that they eventually created. God is the king and lives in the hall of heaven. The angels are his war band, and Satan is the warrior who betrayed his lord and tries to stir up a civil war in the hall. Adam's lack of loyalty to his lord causes him to be exiled; Noah's loyalty to God is rewarded. Jesus is the young warrior who comes to earth to fight with Satan, and he succeeds by leaping onto the cross so eagerly that it almost falls over (as in "The Dream of the Rood"). Each Bible story7 was seen through the prism of Germanic values of loyalty and bold action. Just as with the Easter festival, there seemed little need for real change. Similarly, the Christian teaching of marriage fit into their scheme well, since both systems emphasized making and keeping vows. For those entering monasteries, making and keeping vows was not a foreign concept, and the head of the religious order became the new Lord to whom loyalty was due. Probably the high amount of overlap in ethical values was one of the reasons that the conversion was so apparently easy. The pagan value that did not fit into this scheme was revenge. The kin's duty to vengeance was contrary to Jesus' teaching to love an enemy and forgive a sin. The law codes of the English kingdoms began to encourage payment rather than murderous revenge. Some monks were reluctant to tell Bible stories that described vengeance. At least one scribe deliberately mistranslated a Psalm that discusses revenge; the wording was changed into something more positive and peaceful. In spite of this care, feuds continued all through the Christian centuries. It is likely that this point was never resolved except in the most devout followers, but it remained a point where the cultural values and religion clashed.
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The new converts had to decide if the Christian religion interfered with their habits of war. In most cases, they did not see a problem with fighting even other Christian believers or making alliances with pagans to wage war. Even some of the monks had been warriors, and they still continued to fight if attacked. They felt no contradiction in praying for victory before a battle. One notable exception to this ethic was King Edmund of Northumbria during the time of Viking attacks, who found himself unable to mount a defense and chose to die a martyr's death by meeting the Vikings alone and unarmed. Most of the Christian kings continued to fight against not only invaders, but each other. Pagan beliefs, just like pagan holidays, sometimes found a new home. Perhaps some country folk whispered to each other that Woden had hung on a tree just like Christ, or that Jesus and his mother Mary were like Ing and his mother Nerthus. Just as the gods had once blessed the harvest, the new Creator God sent the sunshine to bring the same harvest. The harvest ritual could go on in the name of the Father, complete with a robed shock of wheat or barley. A boar could be roasted for Yule, and God's blessing could be asked for a prosperous new year. Even monsters could be fitted into the Christian world (through Cain), and elves that persecuted innocent men with sickness or poor harvest were just spirits of Satan. "Wyrd," the controlling arm of Fate, became God's will and decree. The idea continued but with a different face. The word continued, too; it was no longer the name of a goddess but of an idea. Every Anglo-Saxon knew that some men were doomed to die and became "fey," and then nothing could save them. "Wyrd" was accepted as one of the facts of life. This is not to say that the Anglo-Saxons, the early English, were not devout Christians. In any culture, level of belief varies among individuals, both with personal devotion and with education. But overall, even if some country7 folk still cut runes into their weapons, the people of Mercia, Northumbria, Wessex, and the other kingdoms were orthodox, cheerful believers in the new faith. The century after conversion, they began sending out missionaries to their relatives, the Saxons. These missionaries met with success but also with some failures, and some died. They were embraced as saints, and enthusiasm for converting the heathen continued. Pope Gregory had recommended not confrontation with paganism, but synthesizing its customs with Christian teaching. If his aim was the overall conversion not just of people but of society as a whole, then it worked.
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“Poetic Structure” By J.R.R. Tolkien
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (1892-1973) was a major scholar of the English language, specializing in Old and Middle English. Twice Professor of Anglo-Saxon (Old English) at the University of Oxford, he also wrote a number of stories, including most famously The Hobbit (1937) and The Lord of the Rings (1954-1955), which are set in a pre-historic era in an invented version of our world which he called by the Middle English name of Middle-earth. This was peopled by Men (and women), Elves, Dwarves, Trolls, Orcs (or Goblins) and of course Hobbits. He has regularly been condemned by the Eng. Lit. establishment, with honourable exceptions, but loved by literally millions of readers worldwide.
The general structure of the poem, so viewed, is not really difficult to perceive, if we look to the main points, the strategy, and neglect the many points of minor tactics. We must dismiss, of course, from mind the notion that Beowulf is a ‘narrative poem’, that it tells a tale or intends to tell a tale sequentially. The poem ‘lacks steady advance’: so Klaeber heads a critical section in his edition.1 But the poem was not meant to advance, steadily or unsteadily. It is essentially a balance, an opposition of ends and beginnings. In its simplest terms it is a contrasted description of two moments in a great life, rising and setting; an elaboration of the ancient and intensely moving contrast between youth and age, first achievement and final death. It is divided in consequence into two opposed portions, different in matter, manner, and length: A, from 1 to 2199 (including an exordium of 52 lines); B, from 2200 to 3182 (the end). There is no reason to cavil at this proportion; in any case, for the purpose and the production of the required effect, it proves in practice to be right. This simple and static structure, solid and strong, is in each part much diversified, and capable of enduring this treatment. In the conduct of the presentation of Beowulf’s rise to fame on the one hand, and of his kingship and death on the other, criticism can find things to question, especially if it is captious, but also much to praise, if it is attentive. But the only serious weakness, or apparent weakness, is the long recapitulation: the report of Beowulf to Hygelac. This recapitulation is well done. Without serious discrepancy2 it retells rapidly the events in Heorot, and retouches the account; and it serves to illustrate, since he himself describes his own deeds, yet more vividly the character of a young man, singled out by destiny, as he steps suddenly forth in his full powers. Yet this is perhaps not quite sufficient to justify the repetition. The explanation, if not complete justification, is probably to be sought in different directions. For one thing, the old tale was not first told or invented by this poet. So much is clear from investigation of the folk-tale analogues. Even the legendary association of the Scylding court with a marauding monster, and with the arrival from abroad of a champion and deliverer was probably already old. The plot was not the poet’s; and though he has infused feeling and
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significance into its crude material, that plot was not a perfect vehicle of the theme or themes that came to hidden life in the poet’s mind as he worked upon it. Not an unusual event in literature. For the contrast—youth and death—it would probably have been better, if we had no journeying. If the single nation of the Geatas had been the scene, we should have felt the stage not narrower, but symbolically wider. More plainly should we have perceived in one people and their hero all mankind and its heroes. This at any rate I have always myself felt in reading Beowulf; but I have also felt that this defect is rectified by the bringing of the tale of Grendel to Geatland. As Beowulf stands in Hygelac’s hail and tells his story, he sets his feet firm again in the land of his own people, and is no longer in danger of appearing a mere wrecca, an errant adventurer and slayer of bogies that do not concern him. There is in fact a double division in the poem: the fundamental one already referred to, and a secondary but important division at line 1887. After that the essentials of the previous part are taken up and compacted, so that all the tragedy of Beowulf is contained between 1888 and the end.3 But, of course, without the first half we should miss much incidental illustration; we should miss also the dark background of the court of Heorot that loomed as large in glory and doom in ancient northern imagination as the court of Arthur: no vision of the past was complete without it. And (most important) we should lose the direct contrast of youth and age in the persons of Beowulf and Hrothgar which is one of the chief purposes of this section: it ends with the pregnant words oþ þæt hine yldo benam mægenes wynnum, se þe oft manegum scod. In any case we must not view this poem as in intention an exciting narrative or a romantic tale. The very nature of Old English metre is often misjudged. In it there is no single rhythmic pattern progressing from the beginning of a line to the end, and repeated with variation in other lines: The lines do not go according to a tune. They are founded on a balance; an opposition between two halves of roughly equivalent4 phonetic weight, and significant content, which are more often rhythmically contrasted than similar. They are more like masonry than music. In this fundamental fact of poetic expression, I think there is a parallel to the total structure of Beowulf. Beowulf is indeed the most successful Old English poem because in it the elements, language, metre, theme, structure, are all most nearly in harmony. Judgement of the verse has often gone astray through listening for an accentual rhythm and pattern: and it seems to halt and stumble. Judgement of the theme goes astray through considering it as the narrative handling of a plot: and it seems to halt and stumble. Language and verse, of course, differ from stone or wood or paint, and can be only heard or read in a time-sequence; so that in any poem that deals at all with characters and events some narrative element must be present. We have none the less in Beowulf a method and structure that within the limits of the verse-kind approaches rather to sculpture or painting. It is a composition not a tune. This is clear in the second half. In the struggle with Grendel one can as a reader dismiss the certainty of literary experience that the hero will not in fact perish, and allow oneself to share the hopes and fears of the Geats upon the shore. In the second part the author has no desire whatever that the issue should remain open, even according to literary convention. There is no need to hasten like the messenger, who rode to bear the lamentable news to the waiting people (2892 ff.). They may have hoped, but we are not supposed to. By now we are supposed to have grasped the plan. Disaster is foreboded. Defeat is the theme. Triumph over the foes of man’s precarious fortress is over, and we approach slowly and reluctantly the inevitable victory of death.5
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‘In structure’, it was said of Beowulf, ‘it is curiously weak, in a sense preposterous,’ though great merits of detail were allowed. In structure actually it is curiously strong, in a sense inevitable, though there are defects of detail. The general design of the poet is not only defensible, it is, I think, admirable. There may have previously existed stirring verse dealing in straightforward manner and even in natural sequence with Beowulf’s deeds, or with the fall of Hygelac; or again with the fluctuations of the feud between the houses of Hrethel the Geat and Ongentheow the Swede; or with the tragedy of the Heathobards, and the treason that destroyed the Scylding dynasty. Indeed, this must be admitted to be practically certain: it was the existence of such connected legends—connected in the mind, not necessarily dealt with in chronicle fashion or in long semihistorical poems—that permitted the peculiar use of them in Beowulf. This poem cannot be criticized or comprehended, if its original audience is imagined in like case to ourselves, possessing only Beowulf in splendid isolation. For Beowulf was not designed to tell the tale of Hygelac’s fall, or for that matter to give the whole biography of Beowulf, still less to write the history of the Geatish kingdom and its downfall. But it used knowledge of these things for its own purpose—to give that sense of perspective, of antiquity with a greater and yet darker antiquity behind. These things are mainly on the outer edges or in the background because they belong there, if they are to function in this way. But in the centre we have a heroic figure of enlarged proportions. Beowulf is not an ‘epic’, not even a magnified ‘lay’. No terms borrowed from Greek or other literatures exactly fit: there is no reason why they should. Though if we must have a term, we should choose rather ‘elegy’. It is an heroic-elegiac poem; and in a sense all its first 3,136 lines are the prelude to a dirge: him þa gegiredan Geata leode ad ofer eorðan unwaclicne: one of the most moving ever written. But for the universal significance which is given to the fortunes of its hero it is an enhancement and not a detraction, in fact it is necessary, that his final foe should be not some Swedish prince, or treacherous friend, but a dragon: a thing made by imagination for just such a purpose. Nowhere does a dragon come in so precisely where he should. But if the hero falls before a dragon, then certainly he should achieve his early glory by vanquishing a foe of similar order. There is, I think, no criticism more beside the mark than that which some have made, complaining that it is monsters in both halves that is so disgusting; one they could have stomached more easily. That is nonsense. I can see the point of asking for no monsters. I can also see the point of the situation in Beowulf. But no point at all in mere reduction of numbers. It would really have been preposterous, if the poet had recounted Beowulf’s rise to fame in a ‘typical’ or ‘commonplace’ war in Frisia, and then ended him with a dragon. Or if he had told of his cleansing of Heorot, and then brought him to defeat and death in a ‘wild’ or ‘trivial’ Swedish invasion! If the dragon is the right end for Beowulf, and I agree with the author that it is, then Grendel is an eminently suitable beginning. They are creatures, feond mancynnes, of a similar order and kindred significance. Triumph over the lesser and more nearly human is cancelled by defeat before the older and more elemental. And the conquest of the ogres comes at the right moment: not in earliest youth, though the nicors are referred to in Beowulf’s geogoðfeore as a presage of the kind of hero we have to deal with; and not during the later period of recognized ability and prowess;6 but in that first moment, which often comes in great lives, when men look up in surprise and see that a hero has unawares leaped forth. The placing of the dragon is inevitable: a man can but die upon his death-day.
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Notes 1. 2.
Though only explicitly referred to here and in disagreement, this edition is, of course, of great authority, and all who have used it have learned much from it. I am not concerned with minor discrepancies at any point in the poem. They are no proof of composite authorship, nor even of incompetent authorship. It is very difficult, even in a newly invented tale of any length, to avoid such defects; more so still in rehandling old and oft-told tales. The points that are seized in the study, with a copy that can be indexed and turned to and fro (even if never read straight through as it was meant to be), are usually such as may easily escape an author and still more easily his natural audience. Virgil certainly does not escape such faults, even within the limits of a single book. Modern printed tales, that have presumably had the advantage of proof-correction, can even be observed to hesitate in the heroine’s Christian name. The least satisfactory arrangement possible is thus to read only lines 1–1887 and not the remainder. This procedure has none the less been, from time to time, directed or encouraged by more than one ‘English syllabus’. Equivalent, but not necessarily equal, certainly not as such things may be measured by machines. That the particular bearer of enmity, the Dragon, also dies is important chiefly to Beowulf himself. He was a great man. Not many even in dying can achieve the death of a single worm, or the temporary salvation of their kindred. Within the limits of human life Beowulf neither lived nor died in vain— brave men might say. But there is no hint, indeed there are many to the contrary, that it was a war to end war, or a dragon-fight to end dragons. It is the end of Beowulf, and of the hope of his people. We do, however, learn incidentally much of this period: it is not strictly true, even of our poem as it is, to say that after the deeds in Heorot Beowulf ‘has nothing else to do’. Great heroes, like great saints, should show themselves capable of dealing also with the ordinary things of life, even though they may do so with a strength more than ordinary. We may wish to be assured of this (and the poet has assured us), without demanding that he should put such things in the center, when they are not the center of his thought.
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“The Epic Quality” By Stanley B. Greenfield After a distinguished career as teacher, scholar, bibliographer, and literary critic, Stanley Brian Greenfield, professor of English at the University of Oregon, one of the founders of Anglo-Saxon England and of the International Society of Anglo-Saxonists, died on July 30, 1987. Throughout his career, from 1951 to 1987, he wrote primarily on Anglo-Saxon topics, though he was well versed in later English literature as well, particularly poetry. His death is a major loss to OE studies, though his notable contributions form a consoling legacy. Fortunately, he was honored while still alive with a festschrift, Modes of Interpretations in Old English Literature, edited by Phyllis Rugg Brown, Georgia Ronan Crampton, and Fred C. Robinson (1986).
Although the digressions in the second part of Beowulf have been fruitful material for historically-oriented students of the poem, they have been somewhat unyielding to literary critics. The former have found ample sustenance in Hygelac’s Frisian expedition, the poem’s one historically verifiable fact; and with the aid of archaeological evidence and the testimony of Scandinavian saga they have drawn the battle lines between Swedes and Geats. The latter, concerned with structural unity and aesthetic decorum, have too frequently felt constrained to denigrate the second part of Beowulf. They find the fight with the dragon too much encumbered with “history”, with retrospection and prognostication, as if the poet had not found his dragon combustible enough and needed more fuel for his poetic fire. These critics are more apt to perceive an aesthetic rationale in the digressions and episodes of Part I: in the tragic dramas of Finn and Ingeld, in the comparisons of Beowulf to Sigemund and Heremod, in the poignant foreshadowings of Danish downfall. Even favorable criticism of Part II has largely relegated the historical material to a background or framework role, viewing it in approving but rather general terms. For example: . . . the whole elaborately investigated matter of the Geatish-Swedish wars, which seem to play so relatively large a part in the later Beowulf, is really significant from the point of view of the poem, as part of a lively and most moving framework or setting in which the rising tragedy of the hero can the more effectively be brought home—not only the tragedy of Beowulf, but the temporal tragedy of men in this world. Or one might say that these allusions and digressions, like so many others, help to give something of universal quality and meaning to the poem.1 That the Beowulf-poet has handled the events of Geatish history with insight and poetic power the recent researches of Adrien Bonjour and Arthur G. Brodeur2 clearly demonstrate, and the observations which follow are designed, for the most part, to supplement their perceptions. First let us consider in certain historical passages the poet’s selection of events from the totality of “history” in the poem, the themes he seems to emphasize in the different selections, and some aspects of the diction in these accounts. Three passages in Part II of Beowulf conjoin Hygelac’s Frisian raid and the Swedish-Geatish wars: lines 2349b–2399a, 2425–2515, and 2910b–3000. (There is a fourth reference to the wars which stands by itself, accounting for the provenience of Wiglaf’s sword. This passage structurally balances an earlier reference to Hygelac’s death in Part I of the poem.) The circumstances of the Frisian Fall come easily to mind: Hygelac’s at-first-successful foray and ultimate defeat by the Hetware, Beowulf’s revenge on Hygelac’s slayer, and the champion’s escape over the sea with thirty suits of armor. The Northern wars offer more trouble to the memory. As Miss Whitelock remarks, “The poet’s account of these matters is scattered, and
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out of chronological order, so that modern readers find it difficult to gather the sequence of events without the aid of pencil and paper”3 It may not be amiss, therefore, to set down briefly the dramatis personae and chronology of events in these wars, that we may see the historic totality plain. On the Geatish side, the principal actors are King Hrethel and his sons Herebeald, Haethcyn, and Hygelac; Hygelac’s wife Hygd and son Heardred; and Beowulf, Hygelac’s nephew. On the Swedish side are King Ongentheow and his sons Ohthere and Onela, and Ohthere’s sons Eanmund and Eadgils. The wars begin after Hrethel’s death from sorrow over the unavenged and unavengeable death of his eldest son. With Haethcyn on the Geatish throne, an attack is made, but as to who dared first presume, critics still debate. The upshot is the battle at Ravenswood in Sweden, where Ongentheow kills Haethcyn and threatens to exterminate his followers. But when Hygelac comes to the aid of his brother, Ongentheow prudently retreats into his fortress. But retreat is insufficient, and there he is killed by the Geat brothers Wulf and Eofor, whom Hygelac rewards handsomely. The first phase of the feud is ended, with the Geats victorious. Ohthere rules in Sweden when Hygelac, now King of the Geats, makes his fatal raid on the Franks. He rules, too, during the period of Beowulf’s regency. But when Heardred reaches maturity and occupies his rightful place as king, Onela, much to the wintry discontent of Ohthere’s son Eanmund, occupies the Swedish throne. Eanmund and his brother Eadgils, revolting against their uncle, are forced to flee; they take refuge with Heardred in Geatland. Onela pursues, and having killed Eanmund and his Geatish protector, he departs, leaving Beowulf to rule the Geats. In uferan do-grum Beowulf supports Eadgils against Onela, avenging Heardred’s death when Onela falls. Finally, with Beowulf’s own death in the fight with the dragon, it is predicted that the Swedes will again attack, and this time destroy the Geats as a nation. So much for a chronological reconstruction. But how do we actually learn about the historic events? How may we construe their segmented presentation in the three passages under consideration? We may first note, with Brodeur,4 that the three accounts are presented from different points of view: the poet’s, Beowulf’s, and Wiglaf’s Messenger’s. . . . Passage III (lines 2910b–3000), the third point of view on the wars, is part of the speech of Wiglaf’s Messenger. Unlike the first two passages, it does not move chronologically. First the Messenger alludes to the Fall of Hygelac; then he moves back in time to give the longest exposition of the first phase of the wars between Swedes and Geats, supplying the needed details in the Ongentheow-Haethcyn-Eofor battles. This order of events stresses the conflict in the North as the ultimate source of Geatish destruction. Thematically, the Messenger’s speech has a double concern: presumption and rewards. Whereas the poet, in referring to the Fall of Hygelac, had focused on Beowulf’s survival, and Beowulf had emphasized revenge, the Messenger views the outcome of the action as a result of Hygelac’s arrogance5 in making the raid; and in his account of the SwedishGeatish feud, he finds the Geats presumptuous and the causa belli.6 He dwells on Hygelac’s inability to give treasure when he was killed in Frisia, contrasting with his largess in rewarding Eofor and Wulf for their dispatching of Ongentheow. The Messenger minimizes the concept of revenge until he begins his prophecy of doom: “Þæt ys sîo fæhðo ond se fêondscipe, / . . . ðe ic / we -n / hafo.” His emphasis on arrogance vs. humbling and on treasures paid and unpaid suits the context of his speech very well: the death
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of Beowulf and the renewal of feud begun in arrogance and ending in loss of treasure to all— the maiden who will tread a foreign land deprived of gold, the reburial of the cursed and useless treasure, and the ultimate loss of gle-odre-am to all the Geats. The apparent contradictions between Passages II and III (and the earlier reference to Hygelac’s Fall) may best be viewed, I think, in terms of their speakers and contexts. Since Beowulf, in Passage II, is intent on revenge as he prepares his attack on the old night-flyer, it is aesthetically suitable and psychologically proper that he single out his revenge on Daeghrefn in talking about Hygelac’s Fall, that he blame the sons of Ongentheow for starting the Northern feud, and that he give credit obliquely to Hygelac in propria persona for avenging Haethcyn’s death. It is understandable, too, that he should intimate that he prevented the famous necklace from passing into the hands of the Franks. He is a Germanic warrior uttering his gylp, however subdued and elegiac the tone of that boast may be. The Messenger, on the other hand, has another axe to grind. As a result of Beowulf’s Fall, the Geats themselves will fall; and he is determined to locate the responsibility for the imminent disaster in the Geats: in their aggression against the Frisians, in large measure already paid for, and in their aggression against the Swedes, not yet fully paid for. He bypasses the more recent phase of the wars, involving the sons of Ohthere and their uncle Onela—more a Swedish civil war, anyway, as Bonjour has pointed out,12 in which the Geats got accidentally involved—in favor of the ruin and destruction the Geats in their arrogance carried to Ongentheow. Even if we accept Dobbie’s reconciliation of the two different accounts of the start of hostilities, that “we are probably to understand that the first invasion was made by the Swedes . . . and that shortly thereafter Haethcyn initiated a war of retaliation and invaded Sweden”,9 the difference in emphasis in Beowulf’s and the Messenger’s speeches remains and is, I believe, aesthetically effective. Also, the Messenger, like the poet in Passage I and unlike Beowulf, achieves a fine balance of sympathy between the Geats, of whom he is one, and the Swedes, the traditional enemy, broadening our perspective once again as the epic draws toward its appointed end. If the passages are thus viewed, no real contradictions exist; we are presented rather with refractions of historical truth seen through the prisms of the speaker’s perspectives and states of mind. The Beowulf-poet’s artistry is amply revealed in these three prismatic views of Geatish history. Where Olympian detachment sustains a theme of survival, heroic purpose lingers on revenge, and vatic admonition, in turn, sees beyond heroic presumption. The totality of such views and themes may well lead to the universal quality that Wrenn and others have noted. Perhaps it also contributes to the epic quality of the Old English poem. Coleridge has defined what seems to me to be a central attribute of epic: in epic, he says, Fate subordinates human will to its purposes; human will, in effect, subserves the larger ends of destiny.11 Such a Fate-controlled universe we find in Homer, in Vergil, in Milton. Odysseus’s will, for example, in a sense serves the purposes of Poseidon and Athena, and Hector stands before Troy’s gate because Fate will have it so; Aeneas leaves his Dido to fulfill his destiny and Rome’s; and Adam and Eve, though acting freely, are clearly attuned to God’s providence. In Beowulf, epic effect is achieved differently. Wyrd and God may be repeatedly mentioned, but their force is less personal, less directive, than the Olympian and Heavenly decrees. The poem gives us no sense that Beowulf moves through his heroic deeds in accord with a higher will. Rather, Beowulf’s is an historic destiny, as are all the doom-laden movements of the poem. The Scylding dynasty will fall—because historically it fell; the Geats will lose their national independence—because history records the loss. Wyrd will no longer grant Beowulf
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unalloyed victory when he fights the dragon—because the doom of the Geats is nigh. There is no “higher” destiny in Beowulf; and yet there is epic sweep. If there is a distinction and withal a similarity between other epics and Beowulf, it is in the kinds of destiny manifest; and it is precisely in the accretion of historical material—the manyviewed repetitions of the SwedishGeatish wars in particular— that we are made epically aware. While the universal quality of other epics may reside in the assimilation of human motives and forces to suprahuman though basically anthropomorphic purposes, in Beowulf, it would appear, history subsumes the hero as an individual. This historic destiny, in a centrally significant way, universalizes and makes epic this Old English heroic poem. Notes 1. 2.
C. L. Wrenn, ed., Beowulf (London, 1953, 1958), Adrien Bonjour, The Digressions in Beowulf (Oxford, 1950); Arthur G. Brodeur, The Art of Beowulf (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1959), esp. Chap. III. 3. Dorothy Whitelock, The Audience of Beowulf (Oxford, 1951), 4. Brodeur, op. cit., 5. Most edited texts read genægdon “attacked” in line 29l6b to avoid alliteration on the fourth stress of the line; but the MS. has ge hnœgdon “humbled”. Cf. the poet’s account in Part I of the poem, in the earliest reference to Hygelac’s raid, lines 1206–07a: “syddan he- for wlenco wean a - hsode, / fæhðe to - Frysum.” – 6. The passage is, I am aware, subject to differing interpretations. I follow Klaeber (Beowulf, 3rd ed.) here, p. xxxviii: “It is started by the Swedes, who attack their Southern neighbors. . . .” 7. The Messenger’s emphasis on the Geats’ past aggressiveness contrasts ironically with their unheroic behavior in the dragon fight. It is not just Beowulf’s death that will precipitate the Geats’ downfall, but report of their cowardly conduct, as Wiglaf had made clear to them. After all, Beowulf was old and would have died soon anyway; but there is bitter irony in the fact that the circumstances of his death gave the Geats the opportunity to show their cowardice, thus inviting their neighbor’s attack. The Geats are responsible for their own destruction. Not enough emphasis is placed on this point, it seems to me, in discussions on the “tragedy” of Beowulf’s death. 8. Bonjour, op. cit., 9. E. V. K. Dobbie, ed., Beowulf and Judith, ASPR IV (New York, 1953), p. xxxix. 10. For some indication of critical hesitancy to call Beowulf an epic, see note 6 of my article, “Beowulf and Epic Tragedy”, CL, xiv (1962), 92. 11. Samuel T. Coleridge, Shakespearean Criticism, ed. Thomas M. Raysor (London, 1960), I, 125.
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“Symbols in The world of The Poem, Beowulf” By T.A. Shippey
Thomas Alan Shippey (born 9 September 1943) is a British scholar and retired professor of Middle and Old English literature, as well as medievalism and modern fantasy and science fiction. In particular he is widely considered one of the world's leading academic scholars on the works of J. R. R. Tolkien about whom he has written several books and many scholarly papers.
A consistent fusion of tangible and intangible is built into the poem’s scenery as into its words. Though the poet never says straight out that ‘glory’, ‘worth’, ‘treasure’, and ‘weapons’ are all aspects of the same thing, his phraseology does the job for him: Beowulf is dome gewurþad at line 1645, just as Hrothgar’s saddle is since gewurþad at 1038 and the ‘hall-man’ (a tinge of skepticism here) wæpnum gewurþad, ‘made to look worthy by weapons’ at 331. Translation must inevitably be cultural as well as semantic. It is worth noting, though, that this complex of evaluations is not as alien as it might look. Over the last couple of centuries modern English has been busily developing the word ‘prestige’. This meant originally ‘illusion’, but shifted during the nineteenth century in the direction of ‘influence or reputation derived from previous character . . . or esp. from past successes’ (so says the Oxford English Dictionary entry, published in 1909). Now, of course, it has become something possessed by men of power and (unlike honour) conferred very largely by the trappings of success—the ‘prestigious’ car, clothes, wristwatch, home-address. As such it has strong links with dom and lof. Admittedly, Mr Gladstone in 1878 called ‘prestige’ a ‘base-born thing’ and said specifically that it was not to be used in translating ancient epics. However, being ‘high-minded’ probably spoils more criticism than being ‘baseborn’. The word is a useful reminder of the way abstracts and objects can mix. Swords, Halls, and Symbols We are liable to call such mixtures ‘symbolism’. Indeed, according to the OED a symbol is ‘something that stands for, represents, or denotes something else . . . esp. a material object representing or taken to represent something immaterial or abstract.’ The coastguard’s sword is a symbol, then, a material object which everyone takes to represent the abstraction weorþ. However, one can easily imagine a member of Beowulfian society insisting that this is not symbolism at all, just matterof-fact. ‘Look’ (he might say) ‘you wear a sword to show you’re ready to fight, and people treat you politely because they can see you are. Distinguishing between being ready physically (swords), being ready emotionally (courage), and having social status (honour)—that’s just splitting hairs! The three things go together, and if you lose any one of them you’ll forfeit the other two very soon.’ To return to modern terminology, there is a cause-and-effect relationship between the object and what it represents (like that between
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wealth and Rolls-Royces). The sword is an ‘index’ of honour—admittedly a stylized one— rather than a ‘symbol’ tout pur.1 This is not just a dispute over vocabulary. We need to keep in mind (as I have said already) that social signs in Beowulf function systematically, in systems which cannot be entirely, or even largely, the creation of the poet. The literary associations which ‘symbolism’ has acquired tend to blur this perception and hinder appreciation. Swords in Beowulf, for instance, evidently have a life of their own. The young retainer Wiglaf draws his as he prepares to help his king in the dragon’s den; and the poet stops for twenty lines (2611–30) to remark on the weapon’s significance. This one was not donated, but first won in battle and then inherited. Accordingly, it is a reflection of the courage shown by Wiglaf’s father and (given Anglo-Saxon notions of good breeding) a sign of hereditary worth. In the end it becomes totally identified with its owner’s personality, so much so, as E. B. Irving has noted,2 that it does not weaken and he does not melt—we would have expected these verbs the other way round. But what happens if you inherit nothing? Since weapons are indexes of honour and status, deprivation of them becomes doubly unendurable. Beowulf himself imagines a scene (2032– 69) in which a sword is worn by someone like Wiglaf who had it from his father; but this is seen by the man from whose father’s corpse it was gloriously taken. ‘Meaht ðu, min wine, mece gecnawan?’ asks a troublemaker [Can you, my friend, recognize that sword?]. He means, ‘Are you a man or a mouse?’, but neither Beowulf nor the poet bothers to explain this, since everyone knows the next act has to be murder. In exactly the same way the poet feels that the displaying of a sword to Hengest at the climax of the ‘Finnsburh Episode’ (lines 1143–5) will be self-explanatory. To us, as it happens, it is not; but we can see that the object prompts revenge with irresistible force and in total silence. In Beowulf objects can communicate whole chains of abstraction and reflection by their presence alone, and in a way felt by poet and audience to be too natural for words. Some objects in fact reach ‘mythic’ status—most obviously, halls. What the poet thinks about these can be derived most immediately from his run of twenty to thirty compound words for describing them. Halls are for drinking in (‘winehall’, ‘beerhall’, ‘meadhall’); they are filled with people (‘guesthall’, ‘retainer-hall’); in them worth is recognized (‘gold-hall’, ‘gifthall’, ‘ringhall’). They are also the typical though not the only setting for festivity and for poetry. It is this ‘loud merriment in hall’ [dream . . . hludne in healle] which Grendel hears and hates from the beginning, while Hrothgar’s poet sings ‘clear in Heorot’ on every one of the three nights. Beowulf spends there. What he produces is healgamen [the sport (you expect) of halls], and when the Geats look into their gloomy future at the end, the two things they fear to lose are their ‘prestigious rings’ [hringweorðung] and the ‘melody of the harp’ which, rather implausibly, used to ‘wake the warriors’ (from their beds on the hall floor, that is, see lines 1237–40). Finally, whether it is from paint or firelight or candles, halls are associated with brightness. Heorot is goldfah [gold ornamented], and shines like a beacon: lixte se leoma ofer landa fela [the light blazed over many lands]. Inside it is decorated with glittering tapestries, goldfag scinon web after wagum [on the walls the webs shone golden], while at line 997 the poet calls it simply þæt beorhte bold [the bright building]. In the end the dragon comes to Beowulf’s home ‘to burn the bright halls’ [beorht hofu bærnan], and there is a sudden striking image early on of Grendel prowling ‘the treasure-ornamented hall on the black nights’ [sincfage sel sweartum nihtum].
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Already one can see how the ‘mythic’ interpretations come in. The hall equals happiness equals light. What do the monsters which invade halls equal? They are creatures of the night, ‘shadowwalkers’, ‘lurkers in darkness’, things which have to be under cover by dawn. It is no great stretch of the imagination to link their darkness with death. Meanwhile the poet’s vocabulary, once more, shows an assumption that the happiness of the hall means life. In line 2469 old King Hrethel ‘gumdream ofgeaf’ [gave up the joys of men], his grandson Beowulf (3020–21) ‘laid aside laughter, gamen ond gleodream, merriment and the joys of song’, the Last Survivor’s kinsmen (2252) ‘gave up this life, gesawon seledream, had seen the joy of the hall’. The compound words show how tightly men and harps and halls cluster together in the poet’s mind, and presumably in his audience’s. A similar familiarity informs the untranslated and possibly unconscious metaphor near the end, when the poet ruminates that it is a mystery where we all must go: þonne leng ne mæg mon mid his magum meduseld buan. (3064–5) 66 [When a man can no longer, with his kinsmen, inhabit the meadhall.] Meduseld is semantically indistinguishable from its familiar precursors medoærn, medoheal. By this time, however, what it means is ‘Life-Gone-By’. The poet has no need to explain. Halls are ‘indexes’ of happiness, then, because in them people are most likely to be free from poverty. They are ‘symbols’ too, because they are crowded with not entirely realistic conventional signs, like harps and gold and brightness. Their vulnerability implies a shared social myth about the limits of human capacity (stated most overtly by the councilor of King Edwin in Bede).3 However, they remain at all times stubborn and solid facts, things which could be seen in reality as well as heard about in poetry. It is important that literal-minded AngloSaxons could always take halls literally, because what they would get from Beowulf was not the notion that Heorot was like life, but the more searching one that life was like Heorot. ‘We too’, they might conclude, ‘live in a little circle of light. Every time we go to sleep expecting to wake up, we could be as wrong as Hrothgar’s retainers. Æschere is us.’ Involvement of this nature deepens many of the scenes in the poem. Modern readers no longer reach it naturally and wordlessly, but they are not completely immune to it either. Professor Tolkien’s ‘Golden Hall’ in the second volume of The Lord of the Rings is still called ‘Meduseld’, and the name still has its power. Notes 1.
These distinctions, and others, are clearly drawn in Jonathan Culler’s Structuralist Poetics (London 1975), pp. 16–20. Several of the points made in this essay form particular examples of the general procedure Culler recommends. E. B. Irving Jr, A Reading of Beowulf (New Haven and London, 1968), p. 159. Bede, A History of the English Church and People (Penguin Classics translated by L. Sherley-Price, revised edn Harmondsworth, 1968), Book 2, Chapter 13. See further Kathryn Hume, ‘The Concept of the Hall in Old English Poetry’, Anglo-Saxon England 3 (1974) pp. 63–74.
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“Myth and Legend: German Origin, Mythical Meaning, and Poetic Value” By Karl Joseph Simrock
Karl Simrock (1802–76) was the most influential German-language popularizer of medieval poetry of the nineteenth century, with translations of the Nibelungenlied, the Edda, Kudrun, the Heliand, Parzival, and many others—almost the complete corpus of medieval German literature—done from the outset with an avowedly nationalistic impulse. This translation, Beowulf: das älteste deutsche Epos, übersetzt und erläutert, Stuttgart and Augsburg 1859, is thus on the one hand an extreme example of German nationalistic ‘appropriation’. On the other, it has to be said that Simrock is one of few commentators to admire the poem for itself, and even to say a few words in defense of the artistic (rather than accidental or incompetent) nature of the ‘episodes’.
It has already been declared by others that the Beowulf, though handed down in the AngloSaxon language, is from its basis a German poem. The ‘commentaries’ given at the end proceed further to the demonstration that the myth is a German one, which has left many traces among us. We do admittedly already possess two most meritorious translations of the poem, and the most recent one of Grein (1857), to which I acknowledge myself still more indebted than to that of Ettmüller (1840), deserves in full measure the praise paid to it as to the whole work by that most professional of judges, Prof. Dietrich of Marburg [1810–83]. Just the same, it did not seem to me superfluous to offer a third, directed to a larger public, and one which without wishing to compete with the former works in literal translation should proceed rather from a poetic rebirth of the old poem. To let the spirit and atmosphere of a far-off time of heroes reecho, and yet to lend to the expression the fresh color of life, to the speech the unforced movement and above all the sound which is inextricably bound up with true poetry, that seemed to me to be the first requirement, so that the reader could understand the sense without needing a note at every third word, and be carried on from page to page gripped by the poem’s beauty. Only in this way did I believe I could bridge over a thousand-year chasm and win a new naturalization among us for this poem, emigrated with the Angles and Saxons. If I have come no nearer to this goal than have my predecessors, it is certainly due to my own lack of skill, and not to the fact that this ancient poem stands too far away from us, in need of some other previous mediation, nor to the fact that the device of alliteration (as has indeed been said) is too weak to give charm to these long lines for our ears grown accustomed to rhyme. I have already made trial of the powerful force of this poetry and the unweakened strength of alliteration on more than one. It is true that it has the more powerful effect, the more one accustoms oneself to note the harmony; but the totally unaccustomed ear also does not entirely escape its spell. The case would be the same with rhyme, except that it is harder to set up the experiment, since those totally unaccustomed to it are hardly to be found.
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German Origin Besides us Germans, the English, Danes and Swedes also have claims to the Beowulf. They have however been asserted only by Danes and Englishmen; the Germans have only too often let valid claims lie. They do that with their provinces the other side of the Rhine, etc. What does a province matter anyway? And now a poem, even? Every market-fair brings new ones, and they are forgotten before the next. How is a thousand-year glory of our people supposed to depend on an epic? How were the Homeric poems of the Germans, once they had finally been dragged out of the rubble, supposed to be able to contribute to strengthening our self-awareness and making us in the end into a nation? It is really not over once they have been dragged out. From the rubble of the centuries into the dust of the libraries, that is a step from one oblivion into another: it leads no closer to the goal. This goal is the heart of the nation: if our old poetry once finds its place there, then Sleeping Beauty has woken from her enchanted sleep, then the heroes sleeping in the mountains rise again, then the dry tree buds on the Alpine meadow, then the old Kaiser hangs his shield on the green bough, then the battle is fought, which will bring back the last of our lost provinces to Germany. The poem of Beowulf has been transmitted in the Anglo-Saxon language and as heirs of the Anglo-Saxons the English are entitled to proclaim it as their property. But the Angles and Saxons were German peoples, and the setting of the poem lies on this side of the North Sea, near the old seats of these peoples before the conquest of Britain, and seems from its basis to be of older origin than the Anglo-Saxon people; it is accordingly an Anglian or a Saxon, not an Anglo-Saxon poem. The Danish claim, which was raised first, as the first editor was a Dane, can also not be weighed lightly. Thorkelin could furthermore appeal to the opening words, which do indeed indicate the praise of the Danish heroes as the poem’s subject. But these opening words must come from a reworker who had still not thought deeply into the poem, which in more than one place sounds so unfavorable to the Danes that an exclusively Danish origin for the poem is least credible. It remains most likely then that it was Anglian singers who joined so many legends of their and neighbouring peoples, Swedes, Geats, Danes, Jutes, Heathobards, Hugas, Frisians, Hetware (Chattuarii) and Franks, into one great epic whole. All the peoples named then formed a single whole. The traffic carried on by trade and seafaring between these coast-dwelling neighbour peoples had made them into a community which was not broken even by occasional warlike and piratical expeditions. It was based on descent, as they all belonged to the great Ingvaeonic stock, which Tacitus indicates as dwelling by the Ocean, while he places the seats of the Herminones in the centre of Germany, so that accordingly only the lands this side of the Danube remain over for the third Istaevonic stock. As we have understood from Zeuss , the German coasts of the North Sea and both sides of the Baltic were inhabited by Ingvaeonic peoples. The descent from Ingwi (Ingo), still known and often referred to by our poem, is also hardly as obvious among the Germans in the narrower sense as it is among the peoples of Scandinavia. Tacitus counts the latter still as part of Germania: it formed a part of Germany, from which it was only separated when Christianity was successfully established on the Continent, while the island-countries remained true to heathendom. Our poem is not the only one which deals with the great cycle of Baltic and North Sea legends: the much later Gudrun is also set on these northern coasts from Denmark to Normandy, it is
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similarly a legacy of the old community of the Ingvaeonic peoples, and just as we are not able to assign the Gudrun, just because it contains Danes and Normans, to one of those peoples, so we do not wish to resign Beowulf to the Swedes, a poem which takes place on the same stage and like Gudrun bears witness to the Germanic hero-life once richly displayed by the North and Baltic seas. Mythical Meaning I do not regard the question of the mythic meaning of a heroic poem as legitimate. Only in divine epic is the mythic content so much attacked and distorted by the freedoms which the poet has to allow himself to reach his goals, that a trained eye can manage to recognize it once again. The heroic poem, which makes people out of gods, has practically no mythic meaning left: investigation can do no more than track the myth which has here been transposed to a human occasion. As far as the first two parts of our poem are concerned, legend-comparison has already allowed us to recognize Thor beneath the covering of Beowulf. It may not be one of the already-known Thor-myths which the poem echoes, although Grendel’s mother reminds one so much of the 900-headed ancestor of Hymir that one might well consider an Anglian or Saxon analogue of the Hymiskvida as the mythic basis of the epic. If neither a poem nor a prose relation of this myth has survived, but only the later echoes discussed above, it nevertheless belongs obviously to those which refer to Thor’s summertime labors, in which—in the giants, in Ecke, in Oegir’s race as in his first fight with the Midgard Serpent on his fishing-trip with Hymir, etc.—he conquers the uncontrolled forces of nature, the raging and disastrous floods. If Beowulf on his swimming-trip with Breca clears the sea of monsters so as to make it traversable, in order to wrestle with Grendel’s mother in her watery hall, then we can recognise Thor from the Edda as the wading god, from whose existence the giant Wade has split off as a heathen Christopher. Thor does not only wade daily across the heavenly streams of Körmt and Ormt and Kerlaug both, he also yearly wades across the Eliwagar, the icy streams at the northern end of the world, and the hell-stream Mimur. Even if according to the Edda we are talking here only of wading, not of swimming, Grendel’s hall will still be mythically identical with Oegir’s sea-hall, and differ from it only according to the seasons. In the same way Thor can only reach the latter, which is to be imagined as at the bottom of the sea, by swimming. If Oegir illuminates his hall with golden light, the analogous Anglian image of this myth shows us Grendel’s lake-hall shining with a pale light, which nevertheless gleams as brightly as if the sun were shining from heaven. The fact that Beowulf fights bare-handed, not with hammer or club, does not contradict the interpretation with regard to Thor, as he also, like Beowulf, vowed before the trip to Geirrödsgard (or as it says in Prose Edda 26, Loki did for him) that he would not use his weapon, the hammer. In his last fight against the dragon Beowulf does not fight without weapons and armor, and why should the poet, who in his purely human treatment of the subject was not committed to the truth of any divine legend, have given him a club or a hammer in his hand instead of the two swords, the greater and the lesser? of which no use could be made in a detailed description of the fight that placed the mythical Beowulf by the side of the historical Wiglaf. I could turn this argument asserted against Thor against Freyr instead, as in his last fight Freyr is without his sword. But still this last fight of Beowulf corresponds point for point to the last fight of Thor, in which he kills the Midgard Serpent, but sinks to the ground drenched in its poison. This takes place once more with Beowulf. He too lays low the worm, but then dies as the wounds which the dragon-fire gave him swell and fester. This trait, absent in Freyr’s dragon-fight, is decisive for Thor.
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The last fight of Thor is to be conceived of as an autumn-fight: in it the god who is victorious in spring, must succumb to the gigantic monster which represents winter. The Edda has, however, displaced this autumn-fight—which from its meaning must be repeated every year— to the end of the world, at a time after the myth of the destruction of the world had become dominant in the Norse mythology: similarly, our heroic poem places it in Beowulf s old age, as a new proof of the doctrine, that the myths originally dealing with summer and winter were sometimes transposed to refer to the life and death of gods and heroes, sometimes to the destruction of the world. Poetic Value Like all Germanic epic poetry, our poem has suffered from the transition from heathendom to Christianity. However, the heathen element in it has been weeded out with a sparing hand, and a Christianity itself often half-heathen or even colored by rabbinical Judaism has been so sparingly imposed that it comes to light almost alone in the derivation of the giant-race from Cain and his fratricide, or when a Christian trust in God is foisted on or added to the trust of heathen heroes in their own strength, still revealed in the gilp-speeches. But these are not the only ways in which the poem has suffered damage. Apart from the fact that the in many places now quite unreadable manuscript transmits it only with many lacunae, it has also been heavily interpolated apparently by more than one hand. Thus the episode of Freaware already discussed can come only with difficulty from the first poet, who never thinks of her during Beowulf’s stay at Hrothgar’s hall. It is still worse that editorial errors have taken place and that things hard to unite have been allowed next to each other, as when Müllenhoff disclosed a contradiction in Beowulf’s motives for his last fight, which at one time is said to be undertaken from pure heroic temper, at another to be compelled and purely defensive. He promises to disclose others in future. In the same way, as Ettmüller observed, some places betray that the old chieftain hides the treasures of his race, swept away by war, in the earth, was once one being with the dragon who later guards them, a circumstance which points back to a heathen outlook not totally obliterated by the Christian reworker. But failings of this nature are also to be found in the Nibelungenlied and in the Gudrun; fortunately, neither here nor there do they become so strongly evident that one’s enjoyment is hindered by it. As every genuine epic grows out of the belief and history of the people, so the Beowulf also shows mythical as well as historical components, even if the latter rarely correspond exactly with documentary history. The mythical ones appear in the introduction and the three main parts of the poem; the historical ones more in the intermediate narrations, of which two however, those of Breca and Sigmund, likewise have a mythical character. In the mythical parts the hero is equipped with semi-divine strength; the historical ones do not surpass the human measure. But this poem is not enlivened by any breath of romance, is adorned by no romantic love, even marital love pales in Ingeld before the feeling for revenge. If even in the Eddic Helgi-poems the tears of the abandoned spouse drag back the transfigured hero from the joys of Walhall, if in the Tristan love blooms in full splendor and the psychologically deep representation of the irresistible force of love entrances and delights the morally disapproving reader, it must appear by contrast as a disadvantage for Beowulf, which knows only the love for children and relatives, only the sweet bonds of blood, only the hallowed power of relationship. Here everything is innate, everything is natural and original: free choice and self-determination, with their demands on love and
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friendship, are what is most evident in the gilp-speeches and words of vaunt, and in the relationship of retainer to lord, and here also not always decisively; at least Wiglaf s loyalty to his feudal lord Beowulf is simultaneously founded in relationship; only Hrodgar in the end feels himself so seized by affection for the departing Beowulf ‘that a secret longing for the hero dear to his heart burned in his blood’. And yet the lasting beauty of the poem lies in this ancient simplicity of motives: the more deeply they are grounded in nature, the surer and more strongly they grip us. Along with this simplicity one is amazed at the art with which the many attractive episodes are woven in, some of them discussed above. Their effect is for the most part touching, only the swimming trip with Breca is of elevated effect, like the blood-curdling description of the moordistrict. Above all what recommends the Beowulf to us is the lively depiction of the Germanic hero-life, still resplendent in self-developed individuality, alienated as yet from pure humanity by no feeling for propriety, no knightly courtoisie. These merits will recommend it to the later generation, which without renouncing the mildness of Christian feeling or the advantages of modern culture still wishes to recuperate from romantic sentimentality and French frivolity through a return to original simplicity and uprightness of manners and feeling, depicted in the liveliest way by our poem, following Tacitus.
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“Beowulf—The Fortunate Survivor” Lectured by Professor John M. Bowers
Dr. John M. Bowers is Professor of English at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He holds a B.A. from Duke University, an M.A. and a Ph.D. from the University of Virginia, and an M.Phil. from the University of Oxford, where he was also a Rhodes Scholar. Before joining the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Professor Bowers taught at the University of Virginia, Hamilton College, the California Institute of Technology, and Princeton University. Professor Bowers has received numerous awards for his scholarship, including fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation. He was a Visiting Research Fellow at Merton College, Oxford, and a resident scholar at the Rockefeller Foundation's Study Center at Bellagio, Italy. Among his many teaching recognitions are a Nevada Regents' Teaching Award. He also was UNLV's nominee for the CASE Carnegie Professor of the Year Award in 2005 and 2006. A widely published scholar, Professor Bowers has written four books, including The Politics of Pearl: Court Poetry in the Age of Richard II and Chaucer and Langland: The Antagonistic Tradition; more than 30 articles and essays; and entries in the 2006 Oxford Encyclopedia of British Literature.
Scope: Britannia was a Roman province for four centuries before being invaded by pagan Anglo-Saxons. Not until Roman missionaries came in the 6th century was the new population converted to Christianity. Thereafter, England became the birthplace of Europe’s first vernacular literature. The greatest single survivor of this poetic tradition is the epic Beowulf. The sole surviving manuscript just barely escaped destruction in a London fire in 1731, further evidence that sheer luck often determines which texts are available for canonization. Like all enduring works, Beowulf is beautifully written with a moving story, as well as being our first heroic quest-romance. Its canonic status is perpetuated by college courses and film adaptations, as well as a bestselling translation by Seamus Heaney. Outline I.
It is sometimes said that Beowulf is the product of centuries—the centuries that came before its composition and the centuries that followed. Britannia had been a Roman province for 400 years following its conquest by Emperor Claudius. It was very much a part of the Roman Empire. When Beowulf references the old works from the “days of giants,” the poet was probably thinking about the ruins left behind by the Romans. The Anglo-Saxons remained part of the Mediterranean world by extension, as evidenced by Byzantine, Greek, and Egyptian artifacts found in Anglo-Saxon tombs.
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The Codex Amiatinus, the earliest complete copy of Saint Jerome’s Latin translation of the Bible, was a product of northern England in the late 7th–early 8th centuries and represents a sort of renaissance in England during this time. The Venerable Bede wrote the Ecclesiastical History of the English People, in which he told the story of the Roman occupation, the coming of the Saxons, and eventually the arrival of Christianity. Bede had agents at the Vatican doing research for this text; that an Anglo-Saxon scholar could have had communication with Rome indicates the connection that existed, even during this period, between England and the Mediterranean. After the Anglo-Saxons filled the power vacuum left by the Roman evacuation of Britain, they remained pagan until the arrival of Christian missionaries 150 years later. This would be an important element of Bede’s story, since he and his contemporaries were aware of their recent pagan heritage. Beowulf explores this extraordinary clash of civilizations between the Germanic warrior culture of the Anglo-Saxons and the Mediterranean Christian culture. The poem’s reference to historical events allows us to date its plot to the 6th century, during the pre-Christian Anglo-Saxon era. However, the poem itself was probably written in the 9th century and went through many stages of copying before the creation of the only surviving text, which dates to the 11th century. This opens a huge historical and cultural gap between the audience of the 11thcentury manuscript and the original deeds of the early 6th century. In a sense, Beowulf is an epic, much along the lines of Virgil’s Aeneid. Like the Aeneid, Beowulf was written in part to flatter and reflect favorably upon the power elite of the time. Unlike Virgil, however, the Beowulf Poet had a sense of writing over a greater temporal and cultural gap. Beowulf also inaugurated a new genre that would have extraordinary tenacity in the Western tradition: the quest-romance. The quest-romance has such an easy structure that it can be quickly recognized in our storytelling tradition. 1. The first scene occurs in court, where there is male dominance and an established code of conduct. 2. A challenge presents itself from the outside, and the hero embarks to face the challenge. 3. The hero enters the wilderness; there are monsters and there is mystery, very often in the form of a female threat. 4. The hero achieves the goal of his quest and returns to court, where he is hailed as the triumphant victor. This general narrative structure can be seen everywhere, from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight to The Wizard of Oz. Beowulf’s quest follows this form and in fact was the original pattern for it. But the poem continues for quite a while after Beowulf’s mission is complete. This final segment contains an element that was essential to the poet and the audience: Beowulf’s downfall.
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In the final pages, Beowulf becomes a Boethian tragic hero, falling on Fortune’s Wheel. This is probably why Beowulf was written. It may have been originally banned as too pagan in the monasteries, until the element of Boethian tragedy was introduced to counteract the hero’s attachment to fortune and fame. There is a sense of sadness throughout the poem, an idea that the hero had tried to be virtuous but simply had the bad luck to be born before the coming of Christianity to his people. As is often the case with very early literature, Beowulf has survived by a concatenation of accidents. It may not have been the only Old English epic, or even the best, but it is the one that has survived. Beowulf represents about 10 percent of the Old English poetry that has come down to us. Another notable survivor is the Vercelli Manuscript, which was preserved in a cathedral in Italy. Many Old English works were destroyed during the Reformation. Our one copy of Beowulf squeaked through and reappeared in the collection of Sir Robert Cotton in the 18th century. The Cotton library caught fire in 1731. The copy of Beowulf sustained damage but survived, along with our one and only copy of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. When Beowulf was finally edited and circulated in the 19th century, it was not appreciated as literature but as a historical artifact intended to boost nationalistic pride. It was also recognized as an archive of the Old English language. Many publications of Old English works were sponsored by the editors of dictionaries, who needed the words in print in order to properly cite them. The poem was also seen as a repository of folklore from the preliterate period of English history. The poem finally achieved literary recognition after Tolkien’s 1936 lecture “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics.” Tolkien was in a position to ensure Beowulf’s inclusion in the English syllabus at Oxford University. The English syllabus is where it can still be found, often as the anchor or starting point. The poem is so central to the standard English curriculum that it has acquired a reputation as a grueling educational duty. Tolkien also helped guarantee the longevity of Beowulf by reinventing some of its characters in his own work. The novelists John Gardner and Michael Crichton also reimagined the story of Beowulf in their writings. Filmmakers have not done so well adapting Beowulf, though they have tried. Perhaps this is because of the Ovidian pressure they feel to introduce a love interest to the story. Beowulf has also benefitted from translation. A translation by Nobel Prize winner Seamus Heaney appeared on bestseller lists across the country and is now a standard inclusion in the Norton anthologies.
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Modern Adaptations of Beowulf During the twentieth century, some adaptations of the poem and its world began to be published. These adaptations include books, graphic art, and film. They include faithful adaptations of the story that attempt to bring its style up to date to make it easier to read, and they also include interpretations of the story from other angles. The least obvious and most famous adaptation is the work of J. R. R. Tolkien. The following reviews are arranged to cover first books, then graphic art, and last film. BOOKS Beowulf Is My Name, by Frederick R. Rebsamen, 1971.
Rebsamen's straight translation of the epic poem was published in 1991, but this earlier version is part translation, part adaptation. Many of the questions that the original poem leaves unanswered are addressed here. W h o was Beowulf before he came to Denmark, and why did he come? What were his thoughts? H o w did he feel about the raid on Frankia? H o w would the story have been told if the narrator had been Beowulf himself? Rebsamen's version sticks close to the original but tries to answer these questions. It is written in prose, not poetry, and it reads smoothly.
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Beowulf: A Likeness, by Randolph Swearer, Raymond Oliver, and Marijane Osborn, 1990.
The central feature of this adaptation is Raymond Oliver's poetic interpretation of the story. As Swearer explains in a preface, the purpose of the work is to "explore the poem's silences." Oliver's stanzas, often rhymed, describe the sights, smells, and other sensations of Heorot (here simplified to "Hart"). Among other "silences" this poem fills in, Hrothgar's understanding of the Christian God is expanded with references to Old English Christian works, and Beowulf's ascension to ruling the Geats is marked by his marriage to the widow, Hygd. The facing pages of this oversize volume are filled with stunning images created mostly from artifacts. Pages of Beowulf's manuscript, reconstructed weapons, ships, and halls, ancient wood carvings, photographs of Scandinavia, and old woodcut illustrations are artistically arranged. Osborn's essay on the setting of the poem in the real world of Scandinavia completes a graceful adaptation.
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Grendel by John Gardner, 1971.
As the title suggests, this short novel is about Grendel, not Beowulf. It is told in the first person, partly as a narrative and explanation of the past years leading up to the conflict, and partly in the present tense up to the moment of his death. Gardner's Grendel is a highly self-aware monster, and if self-awareness is one of the defining traits of humanity, then this Grendel is a human monster. Self-awareness is Grendel's burden. He can speak but usually chooses not to communicate; he lives with a more beast-like nonverbal mother. He is drowned by a flood of mental speech as he tries to understand his condition and his place in the world. Living among beasts when he was young, he fit in with them as a more intelligent beast himself. W h e n the Danes first came to settle, he found them and their reaction to him startling and fascinating. He watches them for many years, creeping close enough to see and hear. Grendel cannot understand why they go to war, but he watches them grow wealthy and build their great hall. He is especially fascinated when a poet, "the Shaper," comes to the court and uses his song to redefine people's actions. The ragged, inglorious fighting that Grendel had watched turns into the glorious founding of a kingdom by a mythical Scyld, through his skillful use of words. Grendel has no place in this re-imagined kingdom, and the glorification of man leaves him no place except with the beasts, or with the "dark side" (Cain's race). From this point on, Grendel's fascination becomes tormented as he tries to understand his role in life. Two characters from the original poem become major characters: the dragon and Unferth. The grieving and confused Grendel goes first to the dragon, who is ages old and very wise. The dragon confuses him more with existentialist advice and a flood of even more sophisticated words. His advice is that no action matters in the long years of the world, and that Grendel can accept playing his role of antihero or turn to the dragon's own pursuit of collecting gold. Grendel, who believed in the values that the Shaper sang, finds himself more confused and angry than ever when he is told that the solution to his question is nothingness. Whether from
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this advice or from some magic, Grendel now finds himself charmed against iron and able to walk among men without fear. He finds this state more isolating than ever. Grendel's solution is to become the antihero: "the Wrecker of Kings." After guards attack him when he comes to eavesdrop, he decides to begin raiding the hall. Unferth is the only hero who tries to stand up to him after a few murderous raids. In Gardner's depiction, Grendel's strength against Unferth is not in his arms and teeth, but in his power of speech. Wavering between beast and human, Grendel decides to speak to Unferth and mocks his heroism in a tone reminiscent of the dragon's. When Unferth comes to the underwater cave to pursue the fight, Grendel again denies him a hero's role. After mocking the idea of heroic values, he waits for Unferth to fall asleep and takes him back to the surface. In this exchange, sparing Unferth becomes his weapon against something more powerful than Unferth's sword: the idea that something great and noble might exist. Gardner includes many names from Beowulf'as minor characters. Wealhtheow arrives as a peacemaking princess of unbelievable beauty and shakes up Grendel's world again. Grendel, having accepted his role as demon, does not want to admit anything noble or lovely and wishes vainly to cast down the young queen from the pedestal that even he places her on. Hrothulf arrives as an orphaned teenager (like Grendel unsure of his role), and like Grendel, he is tempted by a peasant who speaks with the tone of the dragon, urging him to revolution. Hrothgar, of course, is the aged king, once strong in pillaging surrounding tribes but now weak, tired, and unsure of what to do. One challenge of writing a book based on a known story is that the ending is already known: in the end, Grendel must die. The interest here is not in how the great hall will finally be rid of the monster, but in how Grendel's mental story will play out. Rejecting heroic values that cast him as the villain, he becomes a cynical antihero, and in the end he grows bored. He cannot believe in the glorious past or in enduring love, but he cannot completely debunk them, either. After the Shaper's death, he finds life a burden of self-aware tedium. The inevitable arrival of the foreign hero casts Grendel at last in his proper role and allows him to fulfill himself by going to meet Beowulf, hoping at last to kill the embodiment of heroic values. What kills Grendel in the end is as much Beowulf's words as his wrestling. As they fight, Beowulf makes it clear that he is fighting for the reality of a moral system, for the eventual triumph of human ideals. Grendel's mind is divided: he wants to believe in these things, but in order for them to triumph, he must expire. This novel treats the original poem with great respect. The characters, people, and story line are all preserved and even given visible freshening. Hrothulf, a mere name in the poem, becomes a believably melancholy fourteen-year-old playing with his baby cousins. Unferth's bitterness, and his apparent blend of bravery and cowardice, are explained through his moral defeat. The psychological story, however, is entirely modern. The dragon speaks in the voice of an existentialist philosopher, and the peasant who tempts Hrothulf uses the language of modern revolution. Grendel's hyper-verbal stream of consciousness belongs to a modern novel, not to an ancient epic. At times he constructs poems or dramatic scripts, and at all times his tone is sophisticated, ironic, and poetic. His conflict of self-definition expresses a modern question: Who am I? Am I who others say I am?
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Eaters of the Dead, by Michael Crichton, 1976.
Eaters of the Dead, newly released as The Thirteenth Warrior, attempts to retell Beowulf's story through the foreign voice of the Arab Ibn Fadlan. The new story, while recognizable, is changed to a point of confusion, at least for unwary readers. The confusion begins with the novel's format. It is apparently a manuscript translated from Arabic and Latin and written around AD 922 by an Arab emissary7 from Baghdad, who was sent to meet with the King of the Bulgars and was caught up on a side adventure. The novel opens with an introduction that appears to be a scholarly history of the manuscript, and it sounds like real histories of manuscript fragments. There are places, names, and dates, but they are all fictional. All through the novel this pretense is maintained, with fictional scholarly footnotes on the translation and a fictional appendix. Only in a brief acknowledgement to the translators of the real Ibn Fadlan manuscript does Crichton state that only the first three chapters are drawn from this material. The real manuscript describes some people called the "Rus," who were probably Scandinavians. During the Viking Age (AD 800—1000), Scandinavians settled along the Volga River and founded the first kingdom of Kiev. Ibn Fadlan met a group of these Rus and described them as very tall and blond, tattooed, and always armed. His Muslim customs of washing made him see the Rus as unusually dirty and disgusting, and he describes in detail both their slave markets and the funeral customs he observed. No one knows if the customs he saw were those actually followed by the Norse in Scandinavia, or if they were a local variant; some scholars believe that the people he describes were an ethnic blend of Scandinavian and Volga Khazar. Crichton's novel continues the tone of Ibn Fadlan's narrative and tells how the Rus entangled him in an adventure. An emissary from the North comes to them, asking for help against some mysterious foe. With the help of an old woman's fortune-telling, an expedition forms around the warrior Buliwyf, but for luck they require a thirteenth member w h o is not Rus. They choose Ibn Fadlan, who was only passing through. Traveling by ship and horse, they journey back to their homelands and to the hall of Rothgar. Here they find that a cannibalistic nighttime
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foe is killing not only warriors but farmers, children, and animals. The band of warriors must withstand several attacks, and finally, acting on the advice of a dwarf, they attack the foe in an underwater cave. Although the story is recognizable, there are more differences than similarities. The monster is not a single entity but a community of primitive semi-human creatures. They attack in a realistic, human way, in large numbers and with weapons. Defenses such as wooden palisades are useful. Buliwyf does not fight alone, but the whole band tries to defend the hall and loses several warriors. The "dragon" is a massive attack at night, carrying torches to set the hall on fire. The only supernatural beings are the dwarves (who live in a cave), and there is no motive given to the foe apart from cannibalism. Names from Beowulf show up in altered spellings, but the new relationships might confuse a reader who tries to use them to understand the original poem. For example, "Higlac" is Buliwyf's father, and Wulfgar (the doorkeeper in the original story) is a son of Rothgar. Rothgar has five sons instead of two; Unferth is not named but is presumably the herald said to be helping the son, "Wiglif," to conspire against his father. The warrior band includes familiar names like Edgtho (the original Beowulf's father) and Rethel (the original Hygelac's father). Cultural details are the most misleading on two levels. Beowulf "is set in the Dark Ages (no later than AD 600), but Ibn Fadlan's account is set in the later Viking Age (AD 922). This difference alone could change cultural customs, since most cultures change over the course of 300 years. However, most of the narrator's cultural comments are fictional. Since they continue in the voice of the real Ibn Fadlan, they sound like authoritative descriptions. The narrator tells us that the Northmen believed, said, or did various things. A careful reader may realize that the superstition about mist is only for the sake of the story, but the same reader may not realize that other beliefs about death or gods are also fictional. The narrator appears to describe as an eyewitness how the Northmen treated their slaves and how they handled sexual matters, but these descriptions are also fictional. Crichton's narrator contradicts other eyewitnesses, such as Tacitus and Boniface, in stating that adultery was openly tolerated, and we do not have any record of how Scandinavians treated slaves. There are many more small details like this, such as how the " Rus " traveled, dressed, and ate. Some details show Crichton's research and are accurate according to what we know from other sources. The general building (wood) and terrain are accurate, and Ibn Fadlan sees realistic "northern lights" display in the night sky. Tacitus wrote that Germanic warriors did not farm, and Crichton's "Trelburg" is a wooden fort with no agriculture. We know from Tacitus that some women were considered seers, a detail which Crichton uses in the person of the "Angel of Death" (whose auguries set up the thirteen warriors for the expedition). We know from many Germanic sources that their writing (runes) were cut or carved into wood or stone and were considered magical. Crichton's Northmen regard writing with suspicion and consider it a kind of magic. Many readers will enjoy Crichton's story, but it should be read with the understanding that it is not well-researched historical fiction, but rather fiction masquerading as history.
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GRAPHIC ART Beowulf, drawn by Michael Uslan and Ricardo Villamonte for DC Comics, 1975.
This comic uses Gardner's Grendel, along with the original poem, as a source of ideas. Unferth is a treacherous villain, Grendel is a tormented monster with a vaguely human form, and Beowulf is a traditional comic-book hero who wears a horned skull helmet. The comic added a female warrior to make up for the heavily male-oriented original poem. After describing Grendel's defeat, the comic created further adventures of "Beowulf the Dragon-Slayer. Beowulf, drawn by Jerry Bingham for First Comics Inc., 1984. Bingham's version is a graphic novel, not a serial comic that required further adventures. His Beowulf wears a horned helmet and fur loincloth, but the art is a more serious attempt at translating the story into a picture form. Grendel is similarly a monster in vaguely human form with large muscles and long claws. The huge, Chinese-looking dragon towers over Beowulf with fangs as long as the hero's head.
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The Collected Beowulf, drawn by Gareth Hinds for The Comic.com, 2000.
Originally in three separate comics, this graphic novel is also available in a single paperback edition. Hinds' Beowulf wears armor modeled after recent archeological finds and is faithful to the period and setting. His Grendel is darker and less human than the earlier graphic representations, with yellow eyes and fangs in a skull-like face. The story and characters are all from the original, and rather than inventing dialogue, Hinds uses the 1910 translation by Francis Gummere to tell the story where narrative is needed. Each part uses a different art technique, and most effectively, the elegiac third episode is expressed mainly in gray and black. Combining realism and the sense that this story is from a book, he uses star charts to fill in the night skies over Heorot and includes labeled constellations. Blue-green water backgrounds give the "mere" scenes a watery feeling, even when the pictured action is taking place on land. (The sea monster that Beowulf's men shoot looks like the Loch Ness Monster.) The dragon is snake-like with a bird-like head. The most provocative scene illustrates Hrothgar's "Sermon." As Hrothgar speaks of the certainty of downfall and death even to the courageous, he and Beowulf look at an image of New York City's skyline with clouds of smoke billowing behind. Drawn before the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, the artist's vision suggests that any center of success and pride becomes a vulnerable target. Whether the attack is through pollution, war, or natural disaster, Hrothgar's warning to remember your mortality is always timely. There is no time that does not require courage and wisdom; even a time that no longer believes in demons and dragons. Beowulf wrestles with Grendel, pinning him by the arm. Hinds represents the message of Hrothgar's "sermon" with modern symbols of pride and success that may be vulnerable to destruction. This drawing was completed before the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center.
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FILM Grendel, Grendel, Grendel, directed by Alexander Stitt, 1980.
This animated film of Gardner's novel was made in Australia and features the voice of Peter Ustinov. It is a musical and follows Gardner's novel, Grendel (though not the original Beowulf), faithfully. The Thirteenth Warrior, directed by John McTiernan, 1999.
Michael Crichton produced and helped direct this film version of his novel, Eaters of the Dead. It stars Antonio Banderas as Ibn Fadlan, Vladimir Kulich as Buliwyf, and Dennis Beowulf
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battles the dragon in the surf outside the barrow's entrance. Storhoi as Ibn Fadlan's interpreter and friend, Herger. The film is a faithful representation of the novel. As with the novel, the film includes some aspects of historical accuracy and some flights of fancy. For example, the chain mail that Ibn Fadlan wears is more historical than the armor that the Norsemen wear, which often uses elements of later medieval periods. On the other hand, the duel ("holmgang" in Norse) in which several wooden shields are split, is reasonably accurate. The time period portrayed is Viking Age, about the year 900, not the earlier Dark Ages time of 550—600. Its connection to the story of Beowulf is thin enough that many viewers do not realize that the link is intended. Beowulf directed by Graham Baker, 1999.
This film stars Christopher Lambert and uses the setting of Beowulf, a castle under attack by an evil demon, but then alters it from that point. The source of the evil is thought to be inside the hall itself, so the castle is quarantined by a besieging army. Beowulf arrives alone, unlike in the poem, and he is supernatural and "damned," not heroic. He has difficulty fighting the demon, because it is able to move through walls and acts unpredictably. The source of evil turns out to be Rothgar himself, and Grendel's mother is played not as a monster, but as a temptress. This film does not relate well to the poem Beowulf and is not recommended for classrooms.
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Beowulf and Grendel, directed by Sturla Gunnarsson, 2005.
This film, starring Gerard Butler as Beowulf and Stellan Skarsgard as Hrothgar, is intended to be a faithful reproduction of the poem. The characters are mostly intact from the poem, but the film supplies motivation for Grendel (who is a kind of Bigfoot). Hrothgar's men have killed his father and terrified the young monster, thus creating an avenger who will later terrorize their hall. Filmed in Iceland, the movie strives to be faithful in its historical details and setting.
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Historical and Literary Terminology ___________________________________________________________________________ Envoi: (F ‘a sending on the way’) Also envoy. The usually explanatory or commendatory concluding remarks to a poem, essay, or book; especially a short final stanza of a ballad serving as summary or dedication. In a ballade there are usually four lines, in chant royal five or seven. The envoi also repeats the refrain (q.v.) of the poem. Among English poets Chaucer used it in Lenvoy de Chaucer à Scogan and in Lenvoy de Chaucer à Bukton. But Chaucer’s envoi to Scogan was equal in length to the other stanzas. Scott, Southey, Swinburne and Wilde, among others, also employed the device. More recently, Chesterton, in A Ballade of an Anti-Puritan: Prince Bayard would have smashed his sword To see the sort of knights you dub – Is that the last of them – O Lord! Will someone take me to a pub? ________________________________________________________________________ Scop: An Old English bard or Poet. Bard: A tribal poet-singer skilled in composing and reciting verses on heroes and their deeds. Synonym Minstrel: one of a class of medieval musical entertainers; especially: a singer of verses to the accompaniment of a harp. Lyre: a stringed instrument of the harp class having an approximately U-shaped frame and used by the ancient Greeks specially to accompany song and recitation
Harp: a plucked stringed instrument consisting of a resonator, an arched or angled neck that may be supported by a post, and strings of graded length that are perpendicular to the soundboard
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book: In its inclusive sense, the term designates any written or printed document which is of considerable length, yet is light and durable enough to be easily portable. Studies devoted to the identification of the authorship, dates of issue, editions, and physical properties of books are called bibliography. In ancient Greece and Rome, the standard form of the book was the double papyrus roll. Papyrus, which had been developed in Egypt, was made from the papyrus reed, which grows profusely in the Nile delta; the stems of the reed were cut into strips, soaked, and impregnated with paste. The texts were manuscripts (that is, written by hand), and were inscribed in columns; as the reader went along, he unwound the papyrus from the right-hand roll and wound it on the left-hand roll. In a very important change in the form of the book during the fifth century of the Middle Ages, papyrus rolls were superseded by the parchment or vellum codex. Parchment was made from the skins of sheep, goats, or calves which were stretched and scraped clean to serve as a material for writing. Vellum is sometimes used interchangeably with “parchment,” but is more useful as a term for an especially fine type of parchment that was prepared from the delicate skin of a calf or a kid. To make a codex (the plural is “codices”), the parchment was cut into leaves; as in the modern printed book, the leaves were stitched together on one side and then bound. The great advantages of the codex over the roll were that the codex could be opened at any point; the text could be inscribed on both sides of a leaf; and the resulting book was able to contain a much longer text than a manuscript roll. In its early era, the codex was used primarily for biblical texts—a single volume could contain all four Gospels, where a roll had been able to encompass only a single Gospel. In the course of the Middle Ages, many monasteries had scriptoria—rooms in which scribes copied out texts; often, a number of scribes copied texts that were dictated by a reader, in an early form of the mass production of books. To make especially fine codices—at first for religious, and later for secular texts, including works of literature—the manuscripts were illuminated; that is, they were adorned by artists with bright-colored miniature paintings and ornamental scrolls. Since all kinds of parchment were expensive, written surfaces were sometimes scraped off, then used for a new text. Such parchments are called palimpsests (Greek for “scraped clean”); often, the original text, or in some cases multiple layers of texts, remain visible under an ultraviolet light. Paper, invented by the Chinese as early as the first century AD, was introduced to Europe by the Arabs in the eighth century, after which it increasingly replaced parchment. Early paper was made from linen and cotton rags; later, technology was invented for making paper from the pulp of wood and other vegetable fibers. The use of paper was essential for the invention of printing. The Chinese had been printing from carved wood blocks since the sixth century; but in 1440–50, Johannes Gutenberg introduced in Germany a new craft of printing from movable metal type, with ink, on paper, by means Copyright 2011 Cengage Learning. All Rights Reserved. May not be copied, scanned, or duplicated, in whole or in part. Due to electronic rights, some third party content may be suppressed from the eBook and/or eChapter(s). Editorial review has deemed that any suppressed content does not materially affect the overall learning experience. Cengage Learning reserves the right to remove additional content at any time if subsequent rights restrictions require it. of a press that was tightened by turning a levered screw. Within the next half century this cheap method of making many
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uniform copies of a book had spread throughout Europe, with enormous consequences for the growth of literacy and learning, and for the widespread development of the experimental sciences. See Elizabeth Eisenstein, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change: Communications and Cultural Transformations in Early Modern Europe, 2 vols., 1979. The term incunabula (ın0 kyoonab00 yoola; the singular is incunabulum) designates books that were produced in the infancy of printing, during the half century before 1500. “Incunabula” is Latin for “swaddling clothes” or “cradle.” From the mid-seventeenth century on, there was a great increase in literacy and in the demand by the general public for literary and all other types of books. The accessibility and affordability of books was greatly expedited, beginning in the nineteenth century, by the invention of machines—powered first by steam, then by electricity—for producing paper and type, printing and binding books, and reproducing illustrations. In the twentieth century, and even more in the present era, the primacy of the printed book for recording and disseminating all forms of information has been challenged by the invention and rapid proliferation of electronic media for processing texts and images. ___________________________________________________________________________ Comititus: In Anglo-Saxon literature, comitatus is a term used to describe a mutually beneficial relationship between noblemen and landholders. In this lesson, we will discuss the importance of a comitatus in Beowulf. Life in Anglo-Saxon times was hard in many ways, even for kings and noblemen. The richer or more powerful they were, the more they needed to protect their property and themselves. There were also freemen who wanted to make more than a subsistence living. The noblemen and freemen needed each other. In Anglo-Saxon literature, comitatus refers to a relationship that benefited both noblemen and freemen. According to the comitatus relationship, nobleman provided the freemen with land in exchange for protection and loyalty. For freemen, it was an opportunity to rise in social status while the nobility gained protection and loyalty. Eventually, the freemen became known as thanes. The expectations of the comitatus were rigorous, but there were some great benefits. The thane must agree to defend the king or nobleman to his death if necessary. In return, the nobility shared their wealth and provided weapons. Perhaps more important is the mutual respect, friendship, and honor that the nobility and thanes shared. Beowulf and Hrothgar An early example of comitatus in Beowulf occurs when Beowulf answers King Hrothgar's call for help. A really bad monster named Grendel has plundered Hrothgar's mead hall. Grendel's presence makes it impossible to drink mead in peace without the fear of being eaten alive. Equipped with a ferocious appetite, Grendel consumes at least one or two of Hrothgar's warriors every night. Beowulf is more than willing to do whatever is necessary to help Hrothgar euthanize the monster, even if it means dying in the process:
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‘My purpose was this: to win the good will Of your people or die in battle, pressed In Grendel's fierce grip.’ In return, Hrothgar gives Beowulf treasures and pronounces his appreciation for Beowulf's loyalty: ‘Now Beowulf, best of men, I will love you in my heart like a son; keep to our new kinship from this day on.’ According to the code of comitatus, the close relationship between lord and thane is often one of close kinship. Beowulf and His Warriors Comitatus also clearly exists between Beowulf and his warriors. When Beowulf fights Grendel his own warriors stood strong beside him: ‘All of Beowulf's Band had jumped from their beds, ancestral Swords raised and ready, determined To protect their prince if they could.’ This behavior is, of course honorable and much appreciated, but Beowulf still took care of Grendel barehanded, and without help. Unfortunately, years later when Beowulf really needs help, his warriors let him down, violating the code of comitatus. Fifty years after the fight with Grendel, Beowulf took it upon himself to fight a terrible fire-breathing dragon. He just wants to help defend his people even though he is now an old guy. But this time, he could use some help. Unfortunately, his not-so-loyal warriors chicken out and run away, leaving Beowulf to fight with only the help of Wiglaf. ___________________________________________________________________________ Hyperbole and Understatement The figure of speech, or trope, called hyperbole (Greek for “overshooting”) is bold overstatement, or the extravagant exaggeration of fact or of possibility. It may be used either for serious or ironic or comic effect. Iago says gloatingly of Othello (III. iii. 330ff.): Not poppy nor mandragora, Nor all the drowsy syrups of the world, Shall ever medicine thee to that sweet sleep Which thou ow’dst yesterday. Famed examples in the seventeenth century are Ben Jonson’s gallantly hyperbolic compliments to his lady in “Drink to me only with thine eyes,” and the ironic hyperboles in “To His Coy Mistress,” by which Andrew Marvell attests how infinitely slowly his “vegetable love should grow”—if he had “but world enough and time.” The “tall talk” or tall tale of the American West is a form of mainly comic hyperbole. There is the story of a cowboy in an eastern restaurant who ordered a steak well done. “Do you call this well done?” he roared at the server. “I’ve seen critters hurt worse than that get well!”
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The contrary figure is understatement (the Greek term is meiosis, “lessening”), which deliberately represents something as very much less in magnitude or importance than it really is, or is ordinarily considered to be. The effect is usually ironic. It is savagely (and complexly) ironic in Jonathan Swift’s A Tale of a Tub (1704), in which the narrator asserts the “superiority” of “that Wisdom, which converses about the surface” to “that pretended Philosophy which enters into the Depth of Things,” giving as example that “last week I saw a Woman flay’d, and you will hardly believe how much it altered her Person for the worse.” The understatement is comically ironic in Mark Twain’s comment, “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.” Some critics extend “meiosis” to the use in literature of a simple, un-emphatic statement to enhance the effect of a deeply pathetic or tragic event; an example is the line at the close of the narrative in William Wordsworth’s “Michael” (1800): “And never lifted up a single stone.” A special form of understatement is litotes (Greek for “plain” or “simple”), the assertion of an affirmative by negating its contrary: “He’s not the brightest man in the world” meaning “He is stupid.” The figure is frequent in Anglo-Saxon poetry, where the effect is usually one of grim irony. In Beowulf, after Hrothgar has described the ghastly mere where the monster Grendel dwells, he comments, “That is not a pleasant place.” ___________________________________________________________________________ Kenning The term derives from the use of the ON verb kenna, ‘to know, recognize’, in the phrase kenna eitt við, ‘to express or describe one thing in terms of another’. The kenning (pl. kenningar) was a favorite figure in skaldic verse, where it is employed most lavishly. It is a device for introducing descriptive color or for suggesting associations without distracting attention from the essential statement. Some Old Norse kennings were fairly complex: (a) Fróda mjo¸l – ‘meal (or corn) of Fródi’ and so ‘gold’ (Fródi was an early and legendary king of Denmark. He had a mill named Grotti which would grind out whatever was asked of it. Gold was the first material for which Fródi asked); (b) Vidris munstrandar marr – ‘the weather-maker’s mind-strand’; that is, ‘sea of Odin’s breast’ and so ‘poetry’; (c) brimils vo¸llr – ‘seal’s feld’ and so ‘sea’; (d) malmhrið – ‘metal storm’ and so ‘battle’; (e) Odins eiki – ‘Odin’s oak’ and so ‘warrior’. Old English kennings were simpler: (a) helmberend – ‘helmet-bearer’ and so ‘warrior’; (b) beadoleoma – ‘battle light’ and so ‘ﬂashing sword’; (c) swansrad – ‘swan road’ and so ‘sea’. See also Homeric epithet; periphrasis; poetic diction; rímur. ___________________________________________________________________________ Variation The calculated avoidance of uniformity of expression, seems to be a feature of all art-forms (music, literature, etc.) having a time dimension. A pervasive characteristic of literary language, it occurs on lexical, syntactic and phonological levels. Lexical variation has its most commonplace manifestation in the ‘elegant variation’ of fictional and journalistic prose: avoidance of repeated use of the same expression by choosing an alternative expression having the same reference; for example, by successively referring to a character as Parson Smith, the man of God, Mr. Smith, our clerical friend, etc. Lexical variation
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is also a stylistic convention of much heroic poetry, for example, Old English verse, where the use of variant co-referential phrases is an inseparable part of the technique of alliterative composition. Syntactic variation can take the form of repeating the same structure but with different ordering (often with a chiasmic, or mirror-image pattern), as in Whitman’s Jehovah am I/Old Brahm I, and I Saturnius am (from ‘Chanting the Square Deific’). Phonological variation can take the form of ‘ringing the changes’ on stressed vowel sounds (particularly long vowels and diphthongs) for euphonious effect (Paradise Lost, 3): Then feed on thoughts that voluntary move Harmonious numbers; as the wakeful bird. A further kind of variation is the breaking up of excessive regularity in parallelistic patterns, whether these are patterns on a metrical or a lexico-syntactic level. Metrical variation is an accepted license of English verse whereby (under certain conditions) the positions of stressed and unstressed syllables may be reversed. A similar phenomenon is the final twist in the verbal pattern of (Merchant of Venice, 3,1): If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? Whatever the differences between the above cases, they all illustrate enhancement of the element of unpredictability in language, often where in ordinary language the orderliness of repetition might have been expected. It is notable that whereas verbal parallelism characteristically follows a strictly predictable pattern in compositions such as folk-songs and language games, it rarely does so in literature. Similarly, metrical variation is found in serious poetry, but not in doggerel verse or nursery rhymes. Such observations suggest that variation has a more significant role in literature than the mere negative one of avoiding the tedium of mechanical repetition. One possible explanation is prompted by the Russian formalist thesis that art ‘makes strange’ the experience it describes, and hence that the language of art has to be a ‘twisted’, oblique mode of discourse. Variation, unexpectedness, establishes a medium or ‘scenario’ of poetic heightening, in which daring departures from linguistic norms become acceptable. ___________________________________________________________________________ Formulaic, characterized by the repetition of certain stock phrases, known as formulae. Many orally composed poems, especially epics, are formulaic in that they repeatedly use the same epithets and the same forms of introduction to episodes and speeches. In another sense, a work may be called formulaic if it conforms in a predictable way to the work may be called formulaic if it conforms in a predictable way to the established patterns of a genre. ___________________________________________________________________________ Meter, is the recurrence, in regular units, of a prominent feature in the sequence of speech sounds of a language. There are four main types of meter in European languages: (1) In classical Greek and Latin, the meter was quantitative; that is, it was established by the relative duration of the utterance of a syllable, and consisted of recurrent patterns of long and short syllables. (2) In French and many other Romance languages, the meter is syllabic, depending
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on the number of syllables within a line of verse, without regard to the fall of the stresses. (3) In the older Germanic languages, including Old English, the meter is accentual, depending on the number of stressed syllables within a line, without regard to the number of intervening unstressed syllables. (4) The fourth type of meter, combining the features of the two preceding types, is accentual-syllabic, in which the metric units consist of a recurrent pattern of stresses on a recurrent number of syllables. The stress-and-syllable type has been the predominant meter of English poetry since the fourteenth century. There is considerable dispute about the most valid or useful way to analyze and classify English meters. This entry will begin by presenting a traditional accentual-syllabic analysis which has the virtues of being simple, widely used, and applicable to by far the greater part of English poetry from Chaucer to the present. Major departures from this stress-and-syllable meter will be described in the latter part of the entry. In all sustained spoken English, we sense a rhythm; that is, a recognizable although varying pattern in the beat of the stresses, or accents (the more forcefully uttered, hence louder syllables) in the stream of speech sounds. In meter, this rhythm is structured into a recurrence of regular—that is, approximately equivalent—units of stress pattern. Compositions written in meter are also known as verse. We attend, in reading verse, to the individual line, which is a sequence of words printed as a separate entity on the page. The meter is determined by the pattern of stronger and weaker stresses on the syllables composing the words in the verse line; the stronger is called the “stressed” syllable and all the weaker ones the “unstressed” syllables. (What the ear perceives as a strong stress is not an absolute quantity, but is relative to the degree of stress in the adjacent syllables.) Three major factors determine where the stresses (in the sense of the relatively stronger stresses or accents) will fall in a line of verse: (1) Most important is the “word accent” in words of more than one syllable; in the noun “áccent” itself, for example, the stress falls on the first syllable. (2) There are also many monosyllabic words in the language, and on which of these—in a sentence or a phrase— the stress will fall depends on the grammatical function of the word (we normally put stronger stress on nouns, verbs, and adjectives, for example, than on articles or prepositions), and depends also on the “rhetorical accent,” or the emphasis we give a word because we want to enhance its importance in a particular utterance. (3) Another determinant of perceived stress is the prevailing “metrical accent,” which is the beat that we have come to expect, in accordance with the stress pattern that was established earlier in the metrical composition. If the prevailing stress pattern enforces a drastic alteration of the normal word accent, we get a wrenched accent. Wrenching may be the result of a lack of metrical skill; it was, however, conventional in the folk ballad (for example, “fair ladíe,” “far countrée”), and is sometimes deliberately used for comic effects, as in Lord Byron’s Don Juan (1819–24) and in the verses of Ogden Nash. It is possible to distinguish a number of degrees of syllabic stress in English speech, but the most common and generally useful fashion of analyzing and classifying the standard English meters is “binary.” That is, we distinguish only two categories—strong stress and weak stress—and group the syllables into metric feet according to the patterning of these two degrees. A foot is the combination of a strong stress and the associated weak stress or stresses which make up the recurrent metric unit of a line. The relatively stronger-stressed
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syllable is called, for short, “stressed”; the relatively weaker-stressed syllables are called “light,” or most commonly, “unstressed.” The four standard feet distinguished in English are: 1. Iambic (the noun is “iamb”): an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. The cúr | few tólls | the knéll | of pár | tıng dáy. | (Thomas Gray, “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”) 2. Anapestic (the noun is “anapest”): two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed syllable. The A˘ s sýr | ian came dówn | lıke a wólf | on the fóld. | (Lord Byron, “The Destruction of Sennacherib”) 3. Trochaic (the noun is “trochee”): a stressed followed by an unstressed syllable. Thére they | áre, my | fíf ty | mén and | wó men. | (Robert Browning, “One Word More”) Most trochaic lines lack the final unstressed syllable—in the technical term, such lines are catalectic. So in Blake’s “The Tiger”: Tí ger! | tí ger! | búrn ıng | bríght | Ín the | fó rest | óf the | níght. | 4. Dactylic (the noun is “dactyl”): a stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables. Éve, wıth her | bás ket, was | Déep ın the | bélls and grass. | (Ralph Hodgson, “Eve”) Iambs and anapests, since the strong stress is at the end, are called “rising meter”; trochees and dactyls, with the strong stress at the beginning, are called “falling meter.” Iambs and trochees, having two syllables, are called “duple meter”; anapests and dactyls, having three syllables, are called “triple meter.” It should be noted that the iamb is by far the commonest English foot; some metric theorists treat other types of stress patterns as variants of the iamb. (For the development of the iambic line in English, see John Thompson, The Founding of English Metre, 1961.) Two other feet are often distinguished by special titles, although they occur in English meter only as occasional variants from standard feet: Spondaic (the noun is “spondee”): two successive syllables with approximately equal strong stresses, as in each of the first two feet of this line: Góod stróng| thíck stú|pe fý| ıng ín|cense smóke.| (Browning, “The Bishop Orders His Tomb”) Pyrrhic (the noun is also “pyrrhic”): a foot composed of two successive syllables with approximately equal light stresses, as in the second and fourth feet in this line: Mý way | is to | be gín | wıth the | be gín nıng| (Byron, Don Juan) This latter term is used only infrequently. Some traditional metrists deny the existence of a true pyrrhic, on the grounds that the prevailing metrical accent—in the above instance, iambic— always imposes a slightly stronger stress on one of the two syllables. A metric line is named according to the number of feet composing it:
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1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. 7.
monometer: one foot dimeter: two feet trimeter: three feet tetrameter: four feet pentameter: five feet hexameter: six feet (an Alexandrine is a line of six iambic feet) heptameter: seven feet (a fourteener is another term for a line of seven iambic feet— hence, of fourteen syllables; it tends to break into a unit of four feet followed by a unit of three feet) 8. octameter: eight feet to describe the meter of a line we name (1) the predominant foot and (2) the number of feet it contains. In the illustrations above, for example, the line from Gray’s “Elegy” is “iambic pentameter,” and the line from Byron’s “The Destruction of Sennacherib” is “anapestic tetrameter.” To scan a passage of verse is to go through it line by line, analyzing the component feet, and also indicating where any major pauses in the phrasing fall within a line. Here is a scansion, signified by conventional symbols, of the first five lines from John Keats’ Endymion (1818). The passage was chosen because it exemplifies a flexible and variable rather than a highly regular metrical pattern. 1. 2. 3. 4. 5.
A˘ thíng | of béau | ty ís | a jóy | for é ver: | I ˘ts lóve | lı ness | ın créas | es; // ít | wıll név er | Páss ın | to nóth | ıng ness, | // but stíll | wıll kéep | A˘ bów | er quí | et for | us, // ánd | a sléep | Fúll of | sweet dréams, | and héalth, | and quí | et bréath ıng. |
The prevailing meter is iambic pentameter. As in all fluent verse, however, there are many variations upon the basic iambic foot; these are sometimes called “substitutions.” Thus: 1. The closing feet of lines 1, 2, and 5 end with an extra unstressed syllable, and are said to have a feminine ending. In lines 3 and 4, the closing feet, because they are standard iambs, end with a stressed syllable and are said to have masculine endings. 2. In lines 3 and 5, the opening iambic feet have been “inverted” to form trochees. (This initial position is the most common place for inversions in iambic verse.) 3. I have marked the second foot in line 2, and the third foot of line 3 and line 4, as pyrrhics (two unstressed syllables); these help to give Keats’ verses their rapid movement. This is a procedure in scansion about which metric analysts disagree: some will feel enough of a metric beat to mark all these feet as iambs; others will mark still other feet (for example, the third foot of line 1) as pyrrhics also. And some metrists prefer to use symbols measuring two degrees of strong stress, and will indicate a difference in the feet, as follows: ˘Its lo´´ve | lı néss | ın cr ´´eas | e˘s. Notice, however, that these are differences only in nuance; analysts agree that the prevailing pulse of Keats’ versification is iambic throughout, and that despite many variations, the felt norm is of five stresses in the verse line. Two other elements are important in the metric movement of Keats’ passage: (1) In lines 1 and 5, the pause in the reading—which occurs naturally at the end of a sentence, clause, or other syntactic unit—coincides with the end of the line; such lines are called end-
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stopped. Lines 2 through 4, on the other hand, are called run-on lines (or in a term derived from the French, they exhibit enjambment— “a striding-over”), because the pressure of the incomplete syntactic unit toward closure carries on over the end of the verse line. (2) When a strong phrasal pause falls within a line, as in lines 2, 3, and 4, it is called a caesura—indicated in the quoted passage by the conventional symbol //. The management of these internal pauses is important for giving variety and for providing expressive emphases in the long pentameter line. To understand the use and limitations of an analysis such as this, we must realize that a prevailing metric pattern (iambic pentameter, in the passage from Keats) establishes itself as a perceived norm which controls the reader’s expectations, even though the number of lines that deviate from the norm may exceed the number that fit the norm exactly. In addition, scansion is an abstract scheme which deliberately omits notation of many aspects of the actual reading of a poem that contribute importantly to its pace, rhythm, and total impression. It does not specify, for example, whether the component words in a metric line are short words or long words, or whether the strong stresses fall on short vowels or long vowels; it does not give any indication of the intonation—the overall rise and fall in the pitch and loudness of the voice— which we use to bring out the meaning and rhetorical effect of these poetic lines; nor does it indicate the interplay of the metric stresses with the rhythms and lengths of the varied phrasal and clausal structures within a sustained poetic passage. Such details are omitted in order to lay bare the essential metric skeleton; that is, the pattern of the stronger and weaker stresses in the syllabic sequence of a verse line. Moreover, an actual reading of a poem, if it is a skillful reading, will not accord mechanically with the scansion. There is a marked difference between the scansion, as an abstract metrical norm, and a skilled and expressive oral reading, or performance, of a poem; and no two competent readers will perform the same lines in precisely the same way. But in a performance, the metric norm indicated by the scansion is sensed as an implicit understructure of pulses; in fact, the interplay of an expressive performance, sometimes with and sometimes against this underlying structural pattern, gives tension and vitality to our experience of verse. We need to note, finally, that some kinds of versification which occur in English poetry differ from the syllable-and-stress type already described: 1. Strong-stress meters or accentual verse. In this meter, native to English and other Germanic languages, only the beat of the strong stresses counts in the scanning, while the number of intervening light syllables is highly variable. Usually there are four strong-stressed syllables in a line, whose beat is emphasized by alliteration. This was the meter of Old English poetry and continued to be the meter of many Middle English poems, until Chaucer and others popularized the syllable-and-stress meter. In the opening passage, for example, of Piers Plowman (later fourteenth century) the four strong stresses (always divided by a medial caesura) are for the most part reinforced by alliteration (see alliterative meter); the light syllables, which vary in number, are recessive and do not assert their individual presence: In a sómer séson, // whan sóft was the sónne, I shópe me in shróudes, // as Í a shépe were, In hábits like an héremite, // unhóly of wórkes, Went wýde in this wórld, // wónders to hére.
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Strong-stress meter survives in some folk poetry and in traditional children’s rhymes such as “Hickory, dickory, dock” and was revived as an artful literary meter by Samuel Taylor Coleridge in Christabel (1816), in which each line has four strong stresses but the number of syllables within a line varies from four to twelve. What G. M. Hopkins in the later nineteenth century called his sprung rhythm is a variant of strong-stress meter: each foot, as he describes it, begins with a stressed syllable, which may either stand alone or be associated with from one to three (occasionally even more) light syllables. Two six-stress lines from Hopkins’ “The Wreck of the Deutschland” indicate the variety of the rhythms in this meter, and also exemplify its most striking feature: the great weight of the strong stresses, and the frequent juxtaposition of strong stresses (spondees) at any point in the line. The stresses in the second line were marked in a manuscript by Hopkins himself; they indicate that in complex instances, his metric decisions may seem arbitrary: The | sóur | scythe | crínge, and the | bléar | sháre | cóme. | Our | héarts’ chárity’s | héarth’s | fíre, our | thóughts’ chivalry’s | thróng’s | Lórd. | (See Marcella M. Holloway, The Prosodic Theory of Gerard Manley Hopkins, 1947.) A number of modern metrists, including T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, skillfully interweave both strong-stress and syllable-and-stress meters in some of their versification. 2. Quantitative meters in English are written in imitation of classical Greek and Latin versification, in which the metrical pattern is not determined by the stress but by the “quantity” (duration of pronunciation) of a syllable, and the foot consists of a combination of “long” and “short” syllables. Sir Philip Sidney, Edmund Spenser, Thomas Campion, and other Elizabethan poets experimented with this meter in English, as did Coleridge, Tennyson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Robert Bridges later on. The strong accentual character of English, however, as well as the indeterminateness of the duration of a syllable in the English language, makes it impossible to sustain a quantitative meter for any length. See Derek Attridge, WellWeighted Syllables: Elizabethan Verse in Classical Meters (1974). 3. In free verse (discussed in a separate entry), the component lines have no (or only occasional) metric feet, or uniform stress patterns.
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Selected Bibliography Abrams, M. H., and Geoffrey G. Harpham. A Glossary of Literary Terms. Boston, Mass: Thomson Wadsworth, 1999. Baker, P. Honour, Exchange and Violence in Beowulf. Woodbridge, Suffolk, England: Boydell & Brewer, 2013. Baldick, Chris. The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001. Beowulf. “Anglo-Saxon Literature” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 8th ed. Eds. Stephen Greenblatt et al. Vol A. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2006. 29-32.
Bloom, Harold. Bloom’s Guides: Beowulf. USA: Bloom’s Literary Criticism, 2008. Bloom, Harold. Bloom’s Modern Critical Interpretations: Beowulf, Updated Edition. USA: Chelsea House Publishers, 2007. Childs, Peter, and Roger Fowler. The Routledge Dictionary of Literary Terms. London: Routledge, 2006. Cuddon, J. A., Claire Preston, and J. A. Cuddon. The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory. London: Penguin Books, 1999. Heaney, Seamus. Beowulf: A New Verse Translation. 2000. North, Richard. The Origins of Beowulf: From Vergil to Wiglaf, New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. Orchard, Andy. A Critical Companion to Beowulf. Rochester, NY: D.S. Brewer, 2003. Staver, Ruth Johnston. A Companion to Beowulf. 88 Post Road West, Westport: Greenwood Press, 2005.