Theme 1: The Dawn of English Literature. The Anglo-Saxon and Norman Periods.
1. The early history of Britons, their culture and traditions.
a) The invasion of the Roman Empire.
b) Anglo-Saxon invasion and its impact on the culture of Britain.
2. The epic Anglo-Saxon poem 'The Song of Beowulf'.
3. The Norman period
The early history of Britons, their culture and traditions
Many hundred years ago (about the 4th cent. before our era) the country we now call England, was known as Britain, and the people who lived there were the Britons. They belonged to the Celtic Race and the language they spoke was Celtic.
In the 1st century before our era Britain was conquered by the powerful state of Rome.
Towards the end of the 4th century the invasion of all Europe by barbaric peoples compelled the Romans to leave Britain. The fall of the Roman Empire followed soon after.
After the fall of the Roman Empire and the withdrawal of the Roman troops the aboriginal Celtic population was again conquered and almost totally exterminated by the Teutonic tribes of Angles, Saxons and Jutes who came from the continent. They settled on the island and named the central part of it England, i. e. the land of Angles. Very few traces of the original Celtic culture can be found in Modern English, its structure and grammar being totally Germanic or Teutonic.
The Anglo-Saxons brought their own folklore from their mother country and therefore early Anglo-Saxon poetry tells of the events, which took place on the continent. For a long period of time the new inhabitants preserved tribal forms of life and remained heathens.
For a very long time the tribes had numerous wars against each other. Then together with the centralization of power feudalism was established. The development of feudal Christianity came and soon it ousted heathenish religions.
Many monasteries were built and many schools were established where Latin was taught, but at the same time common people continued to keep in their memories the songs and epics created by ancient tribes. Only due to the common people we have these ancient songs nowadays.
THE EPIC ANGLO-SAXON POEM 'SONG OF BEOWULF'
This is the greatest monument of Anglo-Saxon poetry. There is only one manuscript of it found at the beginning of the 18th century. It consists of 2 parts and interpolation between two parts. The whole epic consists of 3,182 lines. The scholars say that only two parts are of importance, are of scientific value. The whole song is completely pagan (heathen) in spirit while the interpolation must have been added by the Latin scribes.
The story of the song opens with a description of the Danish king Hrothgar. This king waged many wars against his neighbors, had won many victories in battles and then he decided to build a large hall for himself and his warriors to have feasts in. The hall was built, its walls were decorated. But very soon the hall was deserted
because one night while they were having a feast a sea-monster who lived in a near-by swamp broke the door open and appeared in the doorway. His name was Grendel. He was like a human in appearance but twice as tall and covered with such thick hair that no sword, spear or arrow could pierce. There wasn't a single man who could dare to confront the monster and fight with him.
The news of the disaster which had been fallen the Danes reached the ears of Beowulf — a nephew of king Higelac of Jutes. Hearing the news he took a small band of his warriors and sailed off to the shores of Denmark. When they reached her coast the Danes were at first afraid but when they saw that the Jutes meant no harm they welcomed them and took them to Hrothgar. A great feast was given in honor of Beowulf and when night fell down Beowulf told everybody to go to bed and he himself kept watch. They told him that Grendel always appeared unarmed and he also decided to meet him without any weapons.
In the dead of night the door was broken open and Grendel again appeared. Again he seized the nearest man to him but at the same time Beowulf attacked him. Beowulf grip was so mighty that Grendel could not free himself. And when Beowulf did let him go it turned out that the monster had lost one of his arms. Mourning and screaming with pain he went away to die. The Danes were happy to hear about the victory and another feast was given in honor of Beowulf.
But next night when everyone was asleep and did not expect any harm, monster's mother came to take revenge for her son. She attacked Beowulf and managed to drag him away to her swamp. It was an ugly swamp with stagnant water which was teeming of snakes. Together with the sea-witch Beowulf sank into the water of the swamp. His warriors remained on the bank to wait for him. Many hours had passed before Beowulf appeared. Everybody but his friends had given him up as dead. But this is what happened in the water. When Beowulf found himself there, he suddenly noticed a huge sword hanging on the wall. He grasped it and with its help he managed to cut off the heads of both monsters. But so poisonous was their blood that the sword melted.
After king Higelac's death Beowulf was elected the king of Jutland. He ruled his country for 50 happy years at the end of which a disaster happened. Not far from the sea, in the mountains there lived a dragon, a firedrake who breathed fire and smoke. The dragon had occupied a cave where warriors in long-forgotten times had put away their treasures. One day a traveler quite by chance discovered the cave and as a firedrake was asleep at that time he managed to get into and escape unharmed, taking away with a jeweled cup. When a dragon discovered the theft he decided to revenge and he rushed down upon the neighboring villages. The people were horrified and fled to their beloved king asking for help and protection.
Beowulf decided it was his duty to save them. He put on his armor and took a shield to protect himself from the fire of dragon and went up the mountains. He went there almost alone, but of all his warriors only young Wiglaf, a brave warrior, had the courage to stand by him. The dragon had three heads which were breathing fire. Wiglaf was standing a little side waiting for his turn. At first it was impossible to see anybody, to make out anything. Everything was covered with smoke. When the smoke dispersed Wiglaf saw the dragon with 2 heads off. The third head was still belching fire and smoke and its terrible swinging tale tried to hurt Beowulf. Wiglaf rushed to help his master and together they succeeded to cut off the third head and the tale. So the dragon was defeated and was lying dead on the ground. But Beowulf was dying himself because the fire entered his lungs.
Beowulf understood that his death was at his hands. So he told Wiglaf to take treasures in the cave. When Wiglaf came from the cave with treasures Beowulf was satisfied that treasures would be with people.
He instructed Wiglaf how to bury his body and how his country must be ruled after his death and besides his last words were devoted to his people. And Beowulf's will was carried out. People built a big bonfire and cremated Beowulf's body, their hero. And then they took all the treasures from the cave and buried them with Beowulf's ashes to show that nothing could compensate them for the loss of their king. Then the people of Jutland composed a song of Beowulf which was called a dirge.