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Beowulf is the oldest epic poem written in English and is probably the most important extant Old English literary work. It exists in only one manuscript, the Nowell Codex of the British Library MS Cotton Vitellius A.xv. Julian Harrison, Curator of Medieval Manuscripts, British Library, provides a comprehensive introduction to Beowulf in “What Is Beowulf?”
Although the events in the poem take place in the 5th century, the poem was likely composed somewhere from the 8th century to the early 11th century. No one, however, knows exactly when the poem was composed or who composed it. It is also possible that the poem had existed through generations as an oral work.
Although Beowulf is considered the first great English poem, the events are set in what is now Scandinavia. Beowulf and his people, the Geats, are from an area that is now part of Sweden; Hrothgar is king of the Danes. The culture portrayed, however, is the Anglo-Saxon culture using the language brought to Britain beginning with the 5th-century Anglo-Saxon invasions. View a video about the Sutton Hoo ship burial, an archaeological source of much information about the culture portrayed in Beowulf.
Some scholars see Beowulf as having a two-part structure:
Other scholars see the structure as corresponding to the three battles:
One theme of Beowulf involves the preservation of the Anglo-Saxon societal structure. Every society worries that their values and standards will be abandoned and that their social order will die out as a result. An elegiac tone and a mood of longing for the past permeates the epic Beowulf. At the end of the poem, Wiglaf mourns both the death of Beowulf and the potential passing of his tribe, vulnerable to attack because their reputation for cowardice will spread among other tribes after the retainers fail in their vows of loyalty.
Beowulf challenged by the coast guard by Evelyn Paul, from Guerber’s Myths & Legends of the Middle Ages (1911).
Anglo-Saxon society was based on the Germanic heroic idealthe standard of excellence required of a leader, excellence in all that was important to the tribe: hunting, sea-faring, fighting, the standard of excellence required of a leader, excellence in all that was important to the tribe: hunting, sea-faring, fighting. The leader of each tribal unit, often family units especially in earlier years, gained his position because of his physical strength and capabilities in the activities necessary for survival. The men of the tribe, the thanes or retainers, swore loyalty to the leader and in return he rewarded them with the spoils of their battles and raids.
An important part of the Germanic heroic ideal was the king-retainer relationshipa reciprocal relationship which dictated that the thanes should be loyal to their leader and in return the leader would protect them and share the treasures obtained in battle with them, a reciprocal relationship which dictated that the thanes should be loyal to their leader and in return the leader would protect them and share the treasures obtained in battle with them. The group bound by this relationship, the comitatus, formed the basis of Anglo-Saxon society.
The theme of concern for cultural values, in this case the comitatus, plays out in the details of the three battles:
Notice the speeches that Wiglaf makes to the cowardly retainers. He shames them for running, and he even tells them that now their society will fall. Other tribes will hear about how cowardly they are and, believing them to be easy targets, will come to attack them. The three battles, then, form the structure of the poem and suggest the theme of failing values.
Many scholars believe that the story of Beowulf existed in oral tradition, perhaps for hundreds of years, before it was recorded in writing, the story told around the fires of the mead hall by the scopthe singer, the shaper or creator of tales, the singer, the shaper or creator of tales. The scop may have used certain memory aids to help him remember the long story, one of which was the formulaa set pattern of words, a set pattern of words. For example: “Þæt wæs god cyning” in line 11 (line numbers may differ according to the translation consulted) of the Prologue uses the formula “Þæt wæs X Y.” The X and Y are filled in with different words each time the formula is used.
Another formula is “X maÞelode [X spoke].
The idea of the formula is that the scop could remember the list of set phrases to remind him of various events in the plot which he needed to tell. Think of telling a children’s story such as “Goldilocks and the Three Bears.” No one uses exactly the same words each time the story is told. However, we all remember the formula: “This X is just right!” And we remember the variation of the formula: this porridge, this chair, this bed, and thus we remember the main events of the plot that need to be told. The formula worked the same way for the Anglo-Saxon scop.
The names from Beowulf are unusual and hard to remember; use the following list to identify major characters in the poem.
Old English verses are divided into two half lines with a pause in the middle of the line. The cæsurathe pause in the middle of a line of Old English poetry, the pause in the middle of a line of Old English poetry, is indicated in print by the space in the middle of each line:
|line 1||Hwæt! wē Gār-Dena||in geār-dagum|
|line 2||Þēod-cyninga||Þrym gefrūnon,|
|line 3||hū Þā æðelingas||ellen fremedon.|
|line 4||Oft Scyld Scēfing||sceaðena Þrēatum,|
|line 5||monegum mǣgðum||meodo-setla oftēah.|
|line 6||Egsode eorl,||syððan ǣrest wearð|
|line 7||fēa-sceaft funden:||hē Þæs frōfre gebād,|
|line 8||wēox under wolcnum,||weorð-myndum ðāh,|
|line 9||oð Þæt him ǣghwylc||Þāra ymb-sittendra|
|line 10||ofer hron-rāde||hȳran scolde,|
|line 11||gomban gyldan:||Þæt wæs gōd cyning!|
Old English poetry does not use rhyme. Instead, it uses alliterationthe repetition of initial sounds of words in a line of poetry, the repetition of initial sounds of words in a line of poetry. For example, note the repetition of initial “s” sounds in line 4 above and the repetition of initial “m” sounds in line 5.
Old English poetry is characterized by the use of kenningsa compound metaphor used in place of a simple noun, compound metaphors used in place of a simple noun. Examples include whale’s way or swan’s road for ocean, heaven’s candle for the sun, battle sweat for blood, and ring-giver for king.
Old English poetry sometimes expresses ideas with the use of litotesa type of understatement in which meaning is expressed by negating its opposite, a type of understatement in which meaning is expressed by negating its opposite. For example, litotes may be found in the “that was X Y” formula in statements such as “That was not a good place” to mean it was a bad place.
Boasting, for example, would likely be considered an unattractive trait in our society. However, in the Anglo-Saxon culture, the beot served two important functions. First, it became a type of vow. When Beowulf boasted to Unferth about his exploits in the swimming match against Breca, he not only established himself as a hero with the physical strength and cunning to defeat Grendel, he obligated himself to fight Grendel to the death. He also helped insure his own immortality by making his deeds the subject of legends that would be told by scops long after his death.
Sword failings parallel the degree of loyalty of retainers and become a means to trace the theme of loyalty through the various battles that comprise the plot of Beowulf.
Gift-giving and revenge are essential components of the Anglo-Saxon king-retainer relationship, and they too become a means to trace the plot and theme.