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is an epic, a long poem telling a story about a hero and his exploits.
It is further classified as a folk epic in that it pieces together its
story from folk tales transmitted orally for centuries, probably sometimes
to the accompaniment of a musical instrument such as a harp. Beowulf
consists of 3,182 lines written in vernacular Old English (native
language of the author's time and place) rather than in Latin, the lofty
language of religion, philosophy, science, history, and, of course, literature.
That fact does not mean that the writing in Beowulf is inferior;
on the contrary, it is superior.
this epic is recognized as the greatest work in Old English. Unlike many
other epics, Beowulf has characteristics of an elegy (a somber
poem or song that praises or laments the dead). In
fact, J.R.R. Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, maintained
that Beowulf is more an elegy than an epic. However, that observation is
not in accord with the prevailing body of opinion about the genre of Beowulf.
and Place of Composition
was probably composed between 700 A.D. and 900 A.D.The place of its composition
was probably Northumbria, an important Anglo-Saxon kingdom between Scotland
on the north and the Humber River on the south. Northumbria was home to
Roman Catholic monks who excelled in learning and literature. The most
famous was the Venerable Bede (672-735), who wrote The Ecclesiastical
History of the English People and popularized the use of "A.D." (abbreviation
for the Latin Anno Domini, meaning in the year of the Lord)
in dating events in relation to the year of the birth of Christ.
of the Story
was first transmitted orally for one to three centuries. Although its author
did not write it down, two English scribes did so in about 1000 A.D. Their
manuscript, considered one of the great heirlooms of world literature,
is now preserved in the British Library in London. The scribes' manuscript
was earlier held in Ashburnham House, the library of Sir Robert Bruce Cotton
(1571-1631), who collected historically important manuscripts. Sir Robert
bound Beowulf with four other manuscripts in a combined codex known
as Cotton MS. Vitellius A.xv, the 15th item on the first shelf of
manuscripts placed under the bust of Emperor Vitellius in his library.
The Beowulf manuscript was in what was known as the Nowell Codex.
fire ravaged the library in 1731, the manuscript was rescued by British
authorities. However, water damage and burned edges made it difficult to
time is the Dark Ages, between 500 and 700 A.D. The action takes place
first in a Danish kingdom ruled by Hrothgar, situated on the island of
Zealand (site of present-day Copenhagen, Denmark). There, in the great
mead hall of the king, Beowulf confronts a monster that has been terrorizing
the king and his men. (A mead hall was a communal gathering place for feasting
and drinking mead, an alcoholic beverage made of water and fermented honey.
Mead was a popular drink in Denmark and other Scandinavian countries during
the Middle Ages because grapes, a crop that thrives in warmer southern
climates, were not readily available to make wine.) Later, Beowulf dives
into a lake and fights the monster's mother. The scene of action then shifts
50 years later to the land of the Geats in Sweden, where an elderly Beowulf
confronts a dragon terrorizing his own land.
warrior from the land of the Geats in Sweden. When a monster terrorizes
a Danish kingdom, Beowulf sails across the sea to come to the aid of the
beleaguered Danes. Beowulf possesses enormous strength and courageously
confronts the monster in hand-to-claw combat. According to Webster's New
World Dictionary, Beowulf may mean bee-hunter (Beo for bee
and wulf for hunter). A bear, of course, hunts bees and,
therefore, Beowulf translates loosely as bear.
Hrothgar: King of
a Danish realm terrorized by a monster. He presides at Heorot, a great
mead hall. Heorot
Hrothgar's wife and queen.
that terrorizes Heorot.
Monster that retaliates after Beowulf defeats Grendel.
Dragon: Monster that
goes on a rampage in the land of the Geats.
Warrior who helps Beowulf fight the dragon.
King of the Geats in Sweden. He is Beowulf's uncle.
Hygd: Hygelac's wife
Son of Hygelac.
Danish warrior who envies Beowulf.
Childhood friend of Beowulf.
Counselor to Hrothgar.
of Hrothgar and Wealhtheow
Scefing: Onetime King of Denmark and great-grandfather of Hrothgar.
He is mentioned in the epic but does not take part in the action.
The Beowulf Manuscript:
and 900 A.D............................................................
Anonymous Author Composes
Between 500 and 700 A.D............................................................
The Fictional Events in
About 1000 A.D...........................................................................
was written Old English in the West Saxon dialect of 1000 A.D. Old English
was used in England between 600 and 1100 A.D. Beowulf is believed
to be the first important literary work of medieval Europe to be written
in the language of the common man rather than in the lofty elegance of
is written in unrhyming verse, without stanzas, with a caesura (pause)
in the middle of each line. The lines contain caesuras to represent the
pauses that speakers normally use in everyday speech. Thus, each line is
divided into two parts. Each part is called a hemistich (HEM e stick),
which is half a line of verse. A complete line is called a stich. Each
hemistich contains two stressed (accented) syllables and a varying number
of unstressed (unaccented) syllables.
are the opening three lines of Beowulf in Old English, with the
space in the middle representing the caesura.
Old English With a Space
for the Caesura
HwŠt! We Gar-Dena
Lo. we have heard of the
glory in days of old
of the Spear-Danes, of the
kings of the people,
hu a Š■elingas
how the athelings did deeds
Quoted in Baugh, Albert C. and George
English Literature. New York:
Appleton, 1954, Page 19.
structure, Beowulf is divided chronologically into two main sections:
one that focuses on Beowulf as a young man and one that focuses on him
as an old man. In terms of action, it is divided into three main sections:
one that introduces the characters and describes Beowulf's conquest of
Grendel, one that describes Beowulf's defeat of Grendel's mother, and one
that describes Beowulf's defeat of the dragon with the help of Wiglaf.
author of Beowulf based his tale in part on pagan myths, fables,
Scandinavian history, and biblical and Christian history. Thus, Beowulfis
a mixture of fiction and fact.
poet tells the tale in omniscient third-person point of view from a Christian
perspective. Though describing events taking place in a pagan culture,
the poet credits the Christian God and the Christian ethic for the triumph
of good over evil.
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conquers evil. Beowulf, of course represents goodness; the three monsters
that he slays represent evil.
(Beowulf's) speak louder than words (Unferth's).
the greatness of a human being by the greatness of his deeds and his noble
neighbor. (Beowulf risks his life to help a neighbor, King Hrothgar, in
of darknessirrational, menacingare always at work in society.
Life is a continuing struggle.
After Beowulf defeats Grendel, Grendel's mother seeks revenge. Beowulf
kills her. Eventually, in old age, he faces still another challenge, this
time from a dragon. He kills the dragon, too, but suffers a mortal wound.
After he dies, new troubles loom on the horizon in the form of wars with
Hero and the Villains
Hero: Beowulf, a mighty warrior from the land of the Geats in Sweden.
He is noble, courageous, bold, and stronger by far than any other living
Villains: (1)Grendel, a foul marsh-dweller born of the hatred
of the biblical Cain. (In Genesis, Cain, the first son of Adam and Eve,
kills his brother, Abel, the second son, after God accepts Abel's sacrifice
but not Cain's.) Grendel is a nightmarish creaturehalf-beast, half-manthat
strikes at the darkest hour. (2) Grendel's mother, a loathsome fiend protected
by sea monsters; (3) a fire-breathing dragon that can destroy an entire
town with a mere exhale.
imagery in Beowulf consists mostly of alliteration and metaphor.
Many apparent hyperboles describing the feats of Beowulf are not true hyperboles,
since what appear to be exaggerationssuch as a passage saying Beowulf
swam from Sweden to Finland or a passage saying Beowulf had the strength
of thirtywere intended to be taken literally. Kenningscompound
expressions, often hyphenated, representing a single nounoccur often in
Examples of kennings are the following: whale-road
for sea, sea-wood for ship, shield-bearer for
for treasure, ring-nets for chain mail, sword-draught
for a sword swallowing the blood of an enemy, and twilight-spoiler
for dragon. A kenning is a form of metaphor and are similar to the Homeric
climax occurs when Beowulf defeats Grendel's mother.
Plot Summary By Michael
ago, in the gray mists of the Danish marshes, a monster born of the hatred
of Cain rises up to terrorize Heorot, the great mead hall of King Hrothgar.
Until the beast's appearance, Hrothgar's kingdomand the kingdoms of his
father, grandfather, and great-grandfather, the long-remembered and much-loved
Scyld Scefinghad prospered without fear of the vile shadow creatures in
the forests, lakes, fens and caves. But one day, the sounds of good cheer
and merriment at Heorot enrage the Cain-born monster Grendel. So he crosses
over from his netherworld into the realm of men to kill and destroy. He
preys on Heorot after nightfall, consuming up to thirty warriors in a single
twelve years, Grendel's raids continue, robbing Hrothgar of men-at-arms
and plunging the court into a deep abyss of qualm and trepidation. To the
east, in the land of the Geats in southern Sweden, a mighty warrior named
Beowulfnephew of the King of the Geats, Hygelachears from seafarers of
the plight of Heorot and sails across the dark seas with fourteen lusty
men to come to Hrothgar's aid. When Hrothgar's coastal sentinels take him
for a spy, Beowulf persuades them that he is no enemy of the Danes. After
he presents himself at Heorot, he tells tales of his exploits: how he battled
trolls, killed sea beasts, and painted himself red with the blood of his
enemies. Hrothgar, a friend of Beowulf's father in earlier times, greets
Beowulf warmly and welcomes his help. .......But
Unferth, an envious Heorot warrior full of drink, scoffs at Beowulf's exploits,
claiming Beowulf lost a swimming match at sea lasting seven days. Noble
Beowulf then defends his honor with his own account of the match. One day
he and his childhood friend, Breca, decided to test their swimming prowess,
one against the other, in a sea match, each carrying a sword for protection
against the ocean beasts. On and on they swam for five days until the roil
and pitch of the water separated them and foul beasts churned up from the
depths. One by one, Beowulf slaughtered the beasts, nine in all, until
calm returned and Beowulf washed up on the shore of Finland. .......Beowulf
next lays a heavy charge against Unferth: Rather than satisfying his blood
lust on the field of battle fighting enemies, he resorts to fighting and
killing his own kin, a crime for which he will burn in hell. So speaks
Beowulf. And, Beowulf asks, if Unferth is so great a warrior, why has he
not ended Grendel's raids? .......After
Hrothgar's wife, Queen Wealhtheow, welcomes Beowulf, he vows to fight Grendel
that very night without weapons. The Danes bed down. Beowulf and the Geats
await the arrival of Grendel in the mead hall. They know he will come;
it is only a matter of time. By and by, the hell-beast opens the door in
the darkest hour of the nightthirsting for blood, his eyes aflameand
attacks and kills a Geat, consuming limbs and lumps of flesh. Turning then
to Beowulf, Grendel wields an open claw against the hero. But Beowulf,
thirty times more strong of arm than any other mortal, locks into Grendel
with a hand grip so powerful that the monster cannot shake it. As the great
hall trembles at the fury of the battle, Beowulf's men strike at the beast.
But their swords do no not penetrate, for no weapon forged in fire can
harm Grendel. No matter. In the end mighty Beowulf wrenches off Grendel's
arm, and the beast flees, mortally wounded. .......The
following day, Heorot rejoices and Hrothgar heaps praise on Beowulf. Unferth
the taunter has naught to say when the Danish thanes
see the arm of Grendel, its claws harder than the hardest iron. The hall
is then repaired, a feast is given, songs are sung, tales are told, and
gifts are presented. .......But
the rejoicing is shortlived. For, when night falls, Grendel's motherfull
wrathdescends upon the hall, kills Hrothgar's counselor, Aeschere, and
drags him into the bogs. Beowulf and Hrothgar follow with warriors, but
Beowulf chooses to battle the monster alone under water. Sea hellions come
to her aid and tear and rip at the Geat. When he strikes her with his sword,
it does not pierce. She strikes back with a dagger. By the grace of God,
Beowulf's chainmail deflects it. He then espies a great sword in her armory,
a weapon brandished long ago by giants who walked the earth. In spite of
its impossible weight, Beowulf wields it against the hell-beast's neck
and kills it. When he sees the corpse of Grendel nearby, Beowulf beheads
it and returns to Heorot with his trophy. .......After
more rejoicing, Beowulf receives a bounty of gifts and returns home to
the land of the Geats. There, he presents his gifts to King Hygelac and
tells him of his great adventures. Hygelac, in turn, rewards Beowulf with
a vast estate. Years pass. After Hygelac and his son, Heardred, die in
battle, Beowulf becomes king and reigns for 50 years. .......Then
great terror spreads across the realm of the Geats after a dragon abandons
its lair to wreak death and destruction by breathing fire. The dragon is
furious because an intruder had entered its lair and took a gem-studded
goblet from a hoard of treasure the fire-breather had been guarding since
ages past. .......Beowulf,
now a very old man, ventures forth with eleven warriors to send the monster
to hell. But after Beowulf engages the dragon in battle, all his cohorts
retreat save for onebrave Wiglafwho goes to his master's aid. In a storm
of smoke and fire, Beowulf slays the dragon with the help of Wiglaf. But,
alas, Beowulf suffers a poisonous wound. Realizing he will soon die, he
bids Wiglaf to bring forth a sampling of the dragon's treasure hoard that
he may look upon it, and Wiglaf does his bidding. Beowulf gives thanks
to God for the treasure that will sustain his people in times to come,
then dies after instructing Wiglaf to have a barrow (a mound of earth or
stones) constructed to mark the burial site of his remains from the funeral
pyre. Wiglaf banishes the ten deserters and arranges for the king's funeral
even as new troubles loom on the horizonwars with neighboring tribes,
including the Franks and the Frisians.
Questions and Essay Topics
he arrives at Heorot, Beowulf tells stories about himself: how he battled
trolls, killed sea beasts, and painted himself red with the blood of his
enemies. Do you believe his accounts indicate that he is a proud, boastful
The word Heorot, the
name of Hrothgar's mead hall, is Old English for hart, a male European
red deer at least five years old. Considering this meaning, do you believe
is an apt name for the mead hall? Is the mead hall also the "heart" of
Hrothgar's kingdom? Explain your answers.
Heorot is on the island of Zealand,
part of present-day Denmark. How many islands does Denmark have? What is
the climate like on these islands? What types of animals and crops flourished
on Zealand to sustain Hrothgar and his people?
The author says Grendel was
born of the hatred of Cain? Who was Cain? What happened to him?