Beowulf 9th century Introductory Material

This text survived as a tattered document written in Old English. It describes an heroic age of heroes, dragons and monsters; family, enemies, song and celebration. It celebrates the culture of the past that by the year 1000 had all but disappeared. The book can be dated to 1000 a.d. and is called Anglo-Saxon literature. There are other tales in the book that was found. They varied by genres, but all contained monsters and heroes. There are three monsters in Beowulf: Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and the dragon. This shows medieval English culture and its ability to integrate pagan Germanic history within frameworks of the Christian Middle Ages. The poem must be older than the book, for the copying of the story contains copying errors. These tales are known among the Scandinavians with the poem’s setting taking place sometime in the 6th century. Oral tradition of the tale would have existed first. It is an English poem, but not about English people. The character, Beowulf, is Swedish and serves in a Danish court. In the setting, England is only beginning to be settled by Germans. The Christian audience would have heard of a pre-Christian world where fate (wyrd) governs life events. Yet in the poem, Christianity is left ambiguous; Grendel is one of “Cain’s clan.” Beowulf first fights Grendel, then Grendel’s mother, returning home a celebrated hero. Decades later he confronts a dragon and Wiglaf comes to help Beowulf. The monsters are complex. Grendel is combination monster and man; a forlorn outcast. Grendel shows human emotions. Grendel’s mother is motivated by the desire to avenge her son’s death—viewed as an appropriate response. When Beowulf fights the dragon, our hero is the one who is invading the dragon’s territory. Every clash is couched in terms of equality and balance.

Another level of the story explores kinship, tribe, warrior and lord. Beowulf goes from one of an army of Geats to moving up into the ranks of Hrothgar. Later he returns to rule the Geats. The most valuable gift here is that of community. Heorot, the meeting place, is seen as the heart of community. Swords and weapons also link warriors over time and space. Rings, or golden collars, carry both material and social value and they mark loyalty between individuals and groups. Material possessions can be passed on to others to represent connections. Weapons are instruments of warfare and a symbol of continuity. Heroic songs are also a communal ritual connecting the past to the present and building bonds of friendship. In its original form, the poem had a strong rhythmic quality with an alliterative and songlike quality.

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I'm a doctor of philosophy in Literary and Cultural Studies which makes me interested in everything! I possess special training in text analysis, African American literature, Women and Gender Studies, American lit, World Lit and writing. I work as an assistant professor of English in Memphis.

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