English 205:
Lecture 2

Lecture 2: Old English Literature


map of Beowulf's Europe

The name of the poet who wrote Beowulf is unknown. The poem was probably composed ca. 650-700 A.D. but that's an estimate. It was first transcribed at the end of the 900s; it was first titled "Beowulf" in 1805; and it was first printed in 1815. There are references to it in King Alfred's work during the 800s, and by other poets of the time. The author of The Battle of Maldon, 991, borrowed from it. And an anonymous sermon writer at the time borrowed the description of Gendel's mere. So there were probably earlier written manuscripts; in fact, it is probable that a written version existed by the middle of the 700s.

Beowulf was a Geat, a member of a group which occupied what is now southern Sweden. He travelled to the land of the Danes (or Deanes), on what is now the Danish island of Zealand, to fight the monster Grendel. Fifty years later, he slew a dragon. Although this seems like fantasy to most contemporary readers, people who were told the tale in the 600s or 700s would have had no trouble believing it. In fact, sober historical sources record a dragon as late as the end of the 700s, and people still believed in them centuries later.

Beowulf is an elegiac tragedy, a poem of praise and tribute to a hero. Its allusions and digressions are irritating to many modern readers; but to audiences then, they would have aroused associations and given messages. For example, the digressions concerning the feud between the Danes and the Heathobards, the fight at Finnsburg, Hygelac's fatal expedition, the story of Sigmund and the dragon, all would have prepared listeners for the tragic outcome of Beowulf. And the allusions would have taught lessons about the transitory nature of human glory and human life and the imminence of death.

The poet who recorded Beowulf was Christian, but Beowulf is not wholly Christian or pagan. In fact, almost all of the Biblical references in the poem are to the Old Testament: Grendel, for example, is described as a descendant of Cain; Grendel's mother's sword has the story of the Flood engraved on it; there are references to Hell and the Devil which await Grendel and his mother.

The morality of the play, despite the Biblical references, is closer to the Old Germanic, in which the hero's fulfillment is not reached in victory alone, but in unflinching courage in all circumstances--most of all when the odds (adversaries, conditions and age) are stacked against him and he must die. A glorious death is the only fitting end to a glorious life.

During this time of Germanic invasion and migration, the "Heroic Ideal" shaped values. The family unit, with a patriarch at its head, was the basis for the power and safety of all its members. As more families united, the leading patriarch became the king, and the king kept power by his strength and achievements, not by his birth. The ideal for kingly behavior, therefore, was important. The Heroic Ideal equated with excellence in every area: physical, mental and spiritual. The ideal king could sail a ship safely through a storm, swim a river, tame a horse, set firm defenses, and most of all, fight successfully in a battle. Skill and courage were the primary characteristics of the leader in battle; and a true leader was one who could also sustain his people in peacetime.

All male members of this society tended to aspire to the Heroic Ideal. (Germanic society was totally dominated by men; women were very rarely mentioned in surviving records, and then only if they were wives or daughters of kings; romantic love is rarely mentioned.)

A successful king won from his followers complete loyalty. Their duty was to defend him in battle, even to give up their own lives to defend or avenge his. (This would have made the actions of Beowulf's followers in the dragon episode more shocking to the listeners.) In return, the king gave his followers gifts from the spoils of war. Royal generosity was one of the most important aspects of the king's character; it symbolized that his retainers deserved what they were given because of their loyalty, and showed that the king was worthy of such loyalty.

The Heroic Ideal has an even more important aspect: enduring fame. Unlike Christian cultures, the Germanic cultures had no belief in an afterlife. Fame--one's name living on after one's death--was the closest a king (or anyone else) could come to immortality. Thus, what seems to modern readers to be boastful is actually, in Beowulf's culture, a thoroughly acceptable way of life: one tells one's achievements so that they are not forgotten, so that they will propel you into the memories of men and the stories of poets and last long after your death.

The telling and retelling of the story, therefore, acquires a ceremonial importance and tone: it is carefully ordered to reveal and highlight the hero's strengths; it is repetitive, partly as a function of its form (oral storytelling needs to repeat, since the audience can't go back and just reread anything important it might have missed); and partly because of the culture's profound belief in the ability of a story such as Beowulf's to impart important lessons and examples for behavior.

Despite its repetition, however, Beowulf is relatively sparing in its imagery. As one Beowulf scholar, Donald Fry, points out, it leaves "most of the background to the audience's imagination, but [provides] enough significant details to stimulate and yet control the emotional impact of any scene. For example, by the time of the exciting moment of confrontation between Grendel and Beowulf, we know only that the monster walks, thinks, has a hand, a mouth, and flaming eyes. From these details plus his own fears and literary background of legends, the reader (or listener) supplies his own monster, which must inevitably be more frightening because of its personal tailoring."

J.R.R. Tolkien, one of the foremost Old English scholars (yes, the same guy who wrote Lord of the Rings), said that the theme of Beowulf is "man at war with the hostile world, and his inevitable overthrow in Time." In response to the many critics who had said that Beowulf was not heroic enough, Tolkien says, "He is a man, and that for him and many is sufficient tragedy. It is not an irritating accident that the tone of the poem is so high and its theme so low. It is the theme in its deadly seriousness that begets the dignity of tone:...'life is transitory: light and life together all hasten away.'" Tolkien also had a few words to say about the poem's structure:

We must dismiss, of course, from the mind the notion that Beowulf is a "narrative poem," that it tells a tale or intends to tell a tale sequentially. The poem "lacks steady advance": so Klaeber heads a critical section in his edition. But the poem was not meant to advance, steadily or unsteadily. It is essentially a balance, an opposition of ends and beginnings. In its simplest terms it is a contrasted description of two moments in a great life, rising and setting; and elaboration of the ancient and intensely moving contrast between youth and age, first achievement and final death.

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Some of the information in this lecture derives from:
1. The Oxford Anthology of English Literature: The Middle Ages through the 18th Century, eds. Frank Kermode, John Hollander, et al.
2. Donald Fry's essay, "The Artistry of Beowulf," which serves as the introduction to The Beowulf Poet.
3. J.R.R. Tolkien's essay, "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics," which can be found in The Beowulf Poet.