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Building Background

The Time and Place Imagine a time when war bands from northern Europe regularly raided one another’s shores to loot and burn each other’s settlements; when great warriors feasted, drank, and bragged of their bloody conquests in huge mead halls—banquet halls named after the fermented honey (or mead) wine drunk there; when kings bestowed riches upon their bravest warriors to retain their allegiance; and when people believed in monsters and dragons. That time was the 6th century—the period in which Beowulf, the oldest surviving English epic, is set.

The story of Beowulf is not set in England, however, nor are its characters English. The story takes place in Scandinavia, and it involves the Geats, a tribe from southern Sweden, and the Danes, a tribe from Denmark.

So, how did Beowulf come to be the first great literary work of England? Beginning in the 400s, Germanic peoples, later known collectively as the Anglo-Saxons, invaded and settled the territory that would become known as England. Wherever they went, stories like Beowulf went with them, passed on from one scop, or oral poet, to another and reshaped with each performance. Scholars believe that an Anglo-Saxon poet thoroughly versed in the scops’ stock of legends, historical accounts, and poetic devices wrote Beowulf sometime between the late 700s and 1000.

Literary Devices in Beowulf Anglo-Saxon scops relied on certain poetic devices to aid their memory and give their poems structure and impact. Some of these devices are described in the chart below.

Poetic Device Definition Example
alliteration Beginning nearby words or stressed syllables with the same, usually consonant, sound. miserable, mighty men tormented  
caesura An obvious pause in line of poetry. In Old English poetry, it usually comes near the middle of a line, with two stressed syllables before and two after, often allowing little or no “run-on” of meaning from the first half line to the second. A prince of the Geats, // had killed Grendel.  
kenning A stock metaphorical phrase used instead of a simple noun to identify something with something it is not. whale-road for sea life-house for body  

Literary analysis: characteristics of an epic

An epic,a long narrative poem that traces the adventures of a great hero, has the power to transport you to another time and place. Beowulf takes you to the Anglo-Saxon period and the land of the Danes and the Geats, where a mighty warrior battles fantastic monsters. As you read the poem, note some of the following characteristics of epic poetry:

• The herois a legendary figure who performs deeds requiring incredible courage and strength.

• The hero embodies character traitsthat reflect lofty ideals.

• The poet uses formal dictionand a serious tone.

• The poem reflects timeless values and universal themes.

Literary element: conflict

Conflict is a struggle between opposing forces in a story or drama. An external conflict exists when a character struggles against some outside force, such as another person or nature. An internal conflict is a struggle within the mind of a character. As you read Beowulf, ask yourself, In what conflicts is the hero involved?

Reading strategy: reading Old English poetry

Old English poetry is marked by a strong rhythm that is easy to chant or sing. Here are some of the techniques used in an Old English poem:

alliteration,or the repetition of consonant sounds at the beginning of words, which helps unify the lines: So mankind’s enemy continued his crimes

caesura, or a pause dividing each line, with each part having two accented syllables; this helps maintain the rhythm of the lines: He took what he wanted, // all the treasures

kenning,a metaphorical compound word or phrase substituted for a noun or name, which enhances meaning—for example, “mankind’s enemy” used in place of “Grendel” As you read Beowulf, note examples of these techniques and consider their effect on rhythm and meaning in the poem.


                                                                                                Grendel A powerful monster, living dow
In the darkness, growled in pain, impatient[1]

As day after day the music rang

Loud in that hall, the harp’s rejoicing

Call and the poet’s clear songs, sung

Of the ancient beginnings of us all, recalling

The Almighty making the earth, shaping

These beautiful plains marked off by oceans,

Then proudly setting the sun and moon

To glow across the land and light it;

The corners of the earth were made lovely with trees

And leaves, made quick with life, with each

Of the nations who now move on its face. And then

As now warriors sang of their pleasure:

So Hrothgar’s men lived happy in his hall

Till the monster stirred, that demon, that fiend,

Grendel, who haunted the moors, the wild

Marshes, and made his home in a hell

Not hell but earth. He was spawned in that slime,

Conceived by a pair of those monsters born

Of Cain, murderous creatures banished

By God, punished forever for the crime

Of Abel’s death. The Almighty drove

Those demons out, and their exile was bitter,

Shut away from men; they split

Into a thousand forms of evil—spirits

And fiends, goblins, monsters, giants,

A brood forever opposing the Lord’s

Will, and again and again defeated[2].

Then, when darkness had dropped, Grendel

Went up to Herot, wondering what the warriors

Would do in that hall when their drinking was done.

He found them sprawled in sleep, suspecting

Nothing, their dreams undisturbed. The monster’s

Thoughts were as quick as his greed or his claws:

He slipped through the door and there in the silence

Snatched up thirty men, smashed them

Unknowing in their beds and ran out with their bodies,

The blood dripping behind him, back

To his lair, delighted with his night’s slaughter[3].

At daybreak, with the sun’s first light, they saw

How well he had worked, and in that gray morning

Broke their long feast with tears and laments

For the dead. Hrothgar, their lord, sat joyless

In Herot, a mighty prince mourning

The fate of his lost friends and companions,

Knowing by its tracks that some demon had torn

His followers apart. He wept, fearing

The beginning might not be the end. And that night[4]

Grendel came again, so set

On murder that no crime could ever be enough,

No savage assault quench his lust

For evil. Then each warrior tried

To escape him, searched for rest in different

Beds, as far from Herot as they could find,

Seeing how Grendel hunted when they slept.

Distance was safety; the only survivors

Were those who fled him. Hate had triumphed.

So Grendel ruled, fought with the righteous,

One against many, and won; so Herot

Stood empty, and stayed deserted for years,

Twelve winters of grief for Hrothgar, king

Of the Danes, sorrow heaped at his door

By hell-forged hands. His misery leaped[5]

The seas, was told and sung in all

Men’s ears: how Grendel’s hatred began,

How the monster relished his savage war

On the Danes, keeping the bloody feud

Alive, seeking no peace, offering

No truce, accepting no settlement, no price

In gold or land, and paying the living

For one crime only with another. No one

Waited for reparation from his plundering claws:

That shadow of death hunted in the darkness,

Stalked Hrothgar’s warriors, old

And young, lying in waiting, hidden

In mist, invisibly following them from the edge

Of the marsh, always there, unseen.

So mankind’s enemy continued his crimes,

Killing as often as he could, coming

Alone, bloodthirsty and horrible. Though he lived

In Herot, when the night hid him, he never

Dared to touch king Hrothgar’s glorious

Throne, protected by God—God,

Whose love Grendel could not know. But Hrothgar’s

Heart was bent. The best and most noble

Of his council debated remedies, sat

In secret sessions, talking of terror

And wondering what the bravest of warriors could do.

And sometimes they sacrificed to the old stone gods,

Made heathen vows, hoping for Hell’s

Support, the Devil’s guidance in driving

Their affliction off. That was their way,

And the heathen’s only hope, Hell

Always in their hearts, knowing neither God

Nor His passing as He walks through our world, the Lord

Of Heaven and earth; their ears could not hear

His praise nor know His glory. Let them

Beware, those who are thrust into danger,

Clutched at by trouble, yet can carry no solace

In their hearts, cannot hope to be better! Hail

To those who will rise to God, drop off

Their dead bodies and seek our Father’s peace!


Date: 2016-03-03; view: 912

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UNIT 1. ANGLO-SAXON LITERATURE | The Coming of Beowulf
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