In 1936, J.R.R. Tolkien delivered a lecture before members of the British Academy entitled “Beowulf: The Monsters and critics.” Tolkien remarked, “Beowulf is in fact so interesting as poetry, that it overshadows other pieces of the same period. It is the greatest achievement of Old English literature.
Once Henry separated himself from the Catholic Church, most references to Catholicism, including written texts, were destroyed due to Henry claiming they were “pagan” in origin. The manuscripts housed in the monasteries were then ripped apart and used to polish candlesticks, clean boots and furniture, some were sold as scrap paper to grocers and soap makers; some were sent to bookbinders, who cut them into strips and used them to form the book covers of other books. Somehow, a single manuscript managed to survive this travesty. Yes, the epic poem known as Beowulf. However, the current manuscript is not the original, but a copy, in two distinct hand writings. How many other copies existed, or how close to the original this particular version actually is, we will never know. This copy survived a fire in 1731; however, the top and outer edges of the manuscript were damaged. Fortunately, due to ultra-violet photography, the chard sections, that were once gaps, have now been translated. The poem still bears the scars of the fire. The Beowulf poem is significant because it is a miraculous survivor of the ravages of history. It is now housed in the British Library London, England. I am sure that you will enjoy reading it.
Beowulf is an epic poem, a work of fiction, centered on the main character, Beowulf, and his fight with three monsters. Beowulf blends a fairytale type of narrative, where monsters are defeated with the hero receiving honor and fame. The always relevant theme of “Good vs. Evil” is significant to this piece of literature. The battle between Grendle, Grendle’s mother, and the Dragon illustrate a society that valued war and aristocracy. Layers of morality, tenderness, and piety are intermixed in Beowulf, with the glorification of war, death, and fame. The Beowulf poet captures battle scenes with magnificent skill and vividness in this poem about kings and kingship.
“…He ruled Land on all sides: where ever the sea would take them, his soldiers sailed, returned with tribute and obedience. There was a brace King!” (8-12)
“Then the monster charged again, omitting fire, wild with pain, rushed out fierce and dreadful, its fear forgotten watching for its chance it drove its tusks into Beowulf’s neck; he staggered, the blood came flooding forth, fell like the rain.” (2688-2693)
“… No female, no matter how fierce, could have come with a man’s strength, fought with power and courage men fight with. Smashing their shining swords, their bloody, hammer-forged blades onto boar-headed helmets, slashing and stabbing with the sharpest points.” (1282-1287)
The significance of battle against supernatural forces is what moves the poet, in addition to the hero’s driving force for glory. The strong fighter, the hero, the man who wins that most precious of all treasures, fame, is the man who never gives up, and who does not worry about the possible consequences of bravery.
“… so fame Comes to the men who means to win it, and care about nothing else.”
“… I am old now, But I will fight again, seek fame still…” (2512-2513)
“…But the brave old Swede felt no fear; he quickly returned a better blow than he’d gotten, and struck the beast savagely again…”
“…Grendle Saw that his strength was deserting him, his claws bound fast, Beowulf tearing at his claws. The monster’s hatred rose higher, but power had gone. He twisted in pain…”
Beowulf is a Swedish Geat (Nordic tribe in Sweden), who comes to aid the Danes (Nordic tribe in Denmark) to defeat Grendle, a monster who has terrorized them for years. When Grendle’s mother appears, hungry for revenge due to the killing of her son, Beowulf follows her back to her watery lair and kills her too. Showered with gifts from the Danes, he returns to Sweden where he becomes a great leader of his people. Many years pass, and he faces the threat of an angry fire-breathing dragon, aroused by the theft of a jeweled cup from its treasure hoard. The aging hero kills the dragon, only after suffering a mortal wound, and then dies himself. The Geats bury Beowulf’s ashes in an earthen tower at the sea’s edge, to guide sailors from far and wide.
Principle Character and Terms:
Hrothgar (Dane/Denmark/King of Danes/mead hall is ravaged by Grendle)
Wiglaf: Beowulf’s nephew/fights with B. against the Dragon
Herot/name of mead hall built by Hrothgar
Wergild: “Life for Life”
Unferth: best Danish warrior; jealous of Beowulf
Hygelac: King of Geats (Sweden); Beowulf’s uncle
Brecca: Beowulf’s Childhood friend
Wyrd (urd): unalterable fate/ predetermination of life
Background on Poet and Significance of Poem
The poem is full of Christian sentiments, superimposed with a pagan code of battle, heroism, and kingship. The poet was either a Christian or was familiar with and influenced by Christianity. Some scholars believe that some monkish hand could have added the Christian references to improve and correct an essentially pagan epic. Most of the Christianity within Beowulf can not be so easily dismissed as there is too much of it. “Let God be thanked!” cries Hrothgar when the Danes assemble to celebrate Beowulf’s victory over Grendle. These are his first words; he goes on, almost at once, to assert with great feeling that
“…the Almighty makes miracles
When He pleases, wonder after wonder, and this world
Rests in His hands…” (960-962)
In addition, the poet describes Grendle as being a relation of Cain.
“He was spawn in that slime, Shut away from men; they split
Conceived by a pair of those monsters born Into a thousand forms of evil-spirits and
Of Cain, murderous creatures banished fiends, goblins, monsters, giants,
By God, punished forever for the crime of A brood forever opposing the Lord’s
Abel’s death. The Almighty drove those demons Will, and again and again defeated.”
Out, and their exile was bitter, (103-114)
It is God, who leads Beowulf into victory over Grendle’s vicious mother, once Beowulf has proved that he is willing and able to help himself. The essential nature of this Christianity may not be quite the same as those found in California, London, or Utah, but it is an integral part of the poet’s though and his view of life. The poet is quite skilled at blending pagan beliefs with Christianity. Personally I find it hard to believe that he wasn’t a Christian. If not, he must have had significant interaction with individuals that were of that faith. This is a mystery surrounding the poet that will never be solved as he never openly declared his faith!
We do know several aspects about the Beowulf poet, his name unfortunately, is not one of them. We know that he was an Anglo-Saxon, as the poem is written in his language (Old-English), who must have had some contact with the Vikings. This would have been a strong possibility, as the Vikings had settlements in England between 680-1010 A.D. The central settings of the poem are Sweden, Denmark, and several names occur within the poem in association with Norse religion; these include Hermod and Woden. Beowulf is also described as a Viking by the poet. In addition, the Norse believed in the concept of Wyrd (pronounced ‘urd’) which translated means, “that which will happen.” It is mentioned several times within the poem, and seems to take on a female persona.
- The Necklace of the Brisings
- Theft of Idun's Apples
- Marriage of Njord and Skadi
NOTE: Your quiz has two parts. You will take one part in class on Friday and then the other is a "take-home" quiz.
3. Regarding your Practice Quiz........If you would like to receive extra-credit, then you are welcome to record responses to the following aspects, and then submit them tomorrow with Part 1 of your quiz.
- Please be familiar with the following characters: Thiazi, Idun, Loki, Odin, Honir, Skadi, Njord, Freyja
- Please be familiar with events within the three myths. You should be able to recount, without the use of your text, the plot of each myth.
- Please be familiar with the outcome of each of the above characters in the three myths.
I look forward to reading Beowulf with you on Friday.