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- Common Themes in Literature
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Why is Beowulf important? by Araby Greene, Univ. of Nevada
Beowulf is both the first English literary masterpiece and the earliest European epic written in the vernacular, or native language, instead of literary Latin. The story, summarized in Bulfinch's Mythology, survives in one fragile manuscript copied by two scribes near the end of the 10th or the first quarter of the 11th century. Until quite recently, most scholars thought that this surprisingly complex and poignant poem was written in the 8th century or earlier, but Kevin Kiernan stirred up controversy in 1981 by asserting that the work was composed in the 11th century, and that the manuscript itself may have even been the author's working copy.
The manuscript was badly damaged by fire in 1731, and its charred edges crumbled over time, losing words on the outer margins of the leaves. Finally, each leaf was carefully pasted into a frame to stop this process. Of course the frames and the paste holding them in place obliterated a little more of the text! Fortunately, many of the lost words were recovered from a copy made before the manuscript deteriorated. Today, ultraviolet light and other technologies reveal erasures, text under the frames, and characteristics of the manuscript that were previously undetectable.
The Beowulf manuscript is now in the British Library, but has been made accessible to all by The Electronic Beowulf Project. It was once owned by Sir Robert Bruce Cotton, an "antiquary" or collector of Anglo-Saxon Charters and manuscripts, whose library was among three foundation collections brought together by the creation of the British Museum in 1753.
Read the story of Beowulf
Primary Epic: an epic is a poem that records and celebrates the heroic achievements of an individual or individuals. A primary epic is an epic poem that comes from an oral tradition. The Iliad and Odyssey are primary epics. A secondary epic, such as The Aeneid, is a more deliberately literary production. Both terms were developed by C. S. Lewis.
Scop: an Old English term for poet. In Anglo-Saxon culture, the scop had the important job of singing about the accomplishments of his patron and his people. The scop functioned as both an entertainer and as an historian.
Heroic Ideal: Anglo-Saxon culture was governed by the ideals of bravery, loyalty and generosity. The king or lord surrounded himself with a band of retainers, who are rewarded with the spoils of their victories. As E. Talbot Donaldson writes, “the retainers are obligated to fight for their lord to the death, and if he is slain, to avenge him or die in the attempt. Blood vengeance is regarded as a sacred duty, and in poetry, everlasting shame awaits those who fail to observe it.”
Comitatus: This term was developed by the Roman historian Tacitus in Germania. Comitatus describes, as Robert C. Hughes writes, “the society . . . or brotherhood of men who owed allegiance to a chieftain and expected his benevolence in return.”
Wyrd: Old English for fate, which was believed to be the controlling force of the world for pre-Christian Anglo-Saxon culture.
Wergild: “manprice”; As Donaldson writes, “If one of his kinsmen had been slain, a man had a special duty of either killing the slayer or exacting from him the payment of wergild. . . . The money itself had less significance as wealth than as proof that the kinsmen had done what was right. Relatives who failed either to exact wergild or to take vengeance could never be happy, having found no practical way of satisfying their grief.”
Kenning: a poetic device in Old English poetry consisting of a compound of two words in place of another, such as Whale-road for sea.
Litotes: an ironic understatement, also a common feature of Old English poetry. Pronounced "LIE-TA-TEES."
Alliteration: the occurrence in a phrase or line of poetry of two or more words having the same initial sound. In OE poetry, alliteration is the principal poetic device.
Caesura: a pause in a line of poetry.
Metonymy: a figure of speech in which one thing is used to designate something with which it is commonly associated, for example, using "bottle" for "liquor."
Synecdoche: a figure of speech in which a part of something is is used to designate a whole, for example, using "keel" for "ship."
Beowulf is an epic poem dating from the 700's AD, about a great Anglo-Saxon hero and is the most important relic of its literature. The poem tells of the adventures andheroics of Beowulf and his victories over the monster Grendel and Grendel's mother. It ends with Beowulf's final battle with the Firedrake and the hero's death.
The poem shows the qualities most admired by the Anglo-Saxons. Beowulf is a true hero -- one who is flawed, yet uses his weaknesses to his advantage. "Beowulf had made the best of all he had, putting each imperfection to work in the service of his integrity. Thus, his real strength lay in the balance of his person --which is, perhaps, another way of saying that he was strong because he was good, and good because he had the strength to accept things in him that were bad." Beowulf was the rare kind of a person who makes strength out of his own weaknesses.
Beowulf also examines the Anglo-Saxon's fears of the unknown. The fears of death, failure, and the future are mixed with a fear of natural phenomenonnot understood during the Middle Ages.
Its message is that evil destroys itself; good cannot destroy evil because good cannot destroy. The theme of Good vs. Evil - Black vs. White - Light vs. Dark isevident in the characters of Beowulf and Grendel. Beowulf calls out, "I am light." He appears white. Grendel hates light and lives for the darkness. He is pictured as black and torches go out when he passes. Beowulf burns Grendel with the touch of light and heat.
- Danes -- in the Middle Ages, one of the Viking peoples
- Geats -- Anglo-Saxons (from Briton)
- fen -- swampy marsh area; foggy; damp
- Scyld Scefing -- ruler of all the Danes
- King Hrothgar -- the strongest of Scyld's sons; builder of Heorot;
- Grendel -- archenemyof all things good; the personification of evil
- Unferth -- rude, unpopular drunkard with a rotten boil; believer in Grendel
- Queen Wealhtheow -- wife of Hrothgar
- Beowulf -- nephew of King Hygelac; slayer of Grendel, Grendel's mother, the Firedrake, and nine sea monsters; personification of true good
- She -- Grendel's mother; totally evil
Viking-Age Ship from Norway:
University of California at Berkeley
Study questions (under construction)
Interested in finding out about heraldic designs on shields and what they mean? You will design a shield for yourself in class.
Illustration by Randy Grochoske