Anglo Saxon & Beowulf Notes

Anglo Saxon &
Beowulf Notes
Anglo-Saxon England (449-1066)
In the 5th and 6th centuries, Britain was invaded and conquered by
Germanic tribes – the Angles, the Saxons, and the Jutes – collectively
know as the Anglo-Saxons.
The Anglo-Saxons was a tribal society, ruled by a warrior king and his
fighting men who had sworn oaths to defend their leader. In return, the
leader rewarded their service with gifts of treasure, usually captured from
their enemies. The society centered around the king’s quarters and its
main structure, the mead hall. Here, the king and his men would feast,
drink mead, listen to the music and poems of a scop, and boast of their
fame. The warriors would often sleep in the mead hall, as much from
drunken exhaustion as from habit.
Anglo-Saxon Ideals:
As a group, the Anglo-Saxons valued
military discipline
+ The characteristics of their society
were as follows:
They valued personal liberty.
They understood the responsibility
of leadership.
They loved adventure, fought hard,
and scorned danger.
The Coming of Christianity The Anglo-Saxons were pagan until the end of the 6th century. In 597,
Pope Gregory the Great sent Augustine to convert King Aethelbert of
Kent, one of the greatest Anglo-Saxon kings. During the next 40 years,
missionaries were able to convert most of the kings and their people to
The coming of Christianity seemed to offer more hope than the AngloSaxon view of life, which was compared to the flight of a bird, from
darkness into a brightly lit hall, then back into darkness.
Anglo-Saxon Language and Literature English is divided into three periods: Old English (ca. 449-1100), Middle
English (ca. 1100-1500), and Modern English (ca. 1500-). While many
people think of Shakespeare's English as old, Shakespeare wrote and
spoke Modern English, albeit, an early form of it. Chaucer's poetry,
including his most famous work, The Canterbury Tales, are a good examples
of Middle English poetry. Beowulf, which probably dates to some time
between 700 – 1000 CE, is an Old English poem. Old English is
sometimes known as Anglo- Saxon.
The language of the Anglo-Saxons, though a forerunner to Modern
English, in unrecognizable as English. Old English is a Germanic tongue,
and it sounds harsh to the modern ear.
Sample of Old English
HWÆT, WE GAR-DEna in geardagum,
þeodcyninga þrym gefrunon, hu ða
æþelingas ellen fremedon! oft Scyld Scefing
sceaþena þreatum, monegum mægþum
meodosetla ofteah, egsode eorlas,
syððanærest wearð feasceaft funden; he þæs
frofre gebad, weox under wolcnum
weorðmyndum þah, oð þæt him æghwylc
ymbsittendra ofer hronrade hyran scolde,
gomban gyldan; þæt wæs god cyning!
Anglo-Saxon Lang. & Lit. cont.:
The poetry of the Anglo-Saxons is known for 5 characteristics:
a love of adventure
a sense of the importance of honor
an awe of natural beauty
a delight in word-play
an underlying sense of melancholy for the times gone by
The Structure of Beowulf Beowulf is an EPIC POEM, believed to be written in the early 8th century by a single,
unknown author. Prior to being written, the story was passed down orally by bards/scops.
While the poem is pagan in subject, its transcriber added Christian elements to it.
Characteristics of an Epic:
Hero – legendary, heroic, important nationally or internationally
Setting – vast; covering great nations, the world, or the universe
Action – deeds of great valor, requiring superhuman strength or courage
Supernatural – gods, demons, angels, monsters intervene in action
Style – elevated and simple
Objectivity – hero’s deeds are told without moralizing
Conventions of the Epic 
Opens with a statement of the theme
Invokes a muse or guiding spirit
Often begins “in media res” (in the middle of things), then flashes back
Includes catalogues of armies, warriors, ships, etc.
Makes extensive use of the epic simile
Main characters give extended formal speeches
Beowulf Beowulf is divided into 3 parts:
An introduction
The adventures of his young life
The adventure that finally kills him
Beowulf fights 3 monsters:
Grendel – a tall, hairy monster with tremendous strength
Grendel’s mother – lives underwater, has hideous strength and poisonous
A dragon – fire-breathing beats that overcomes the aged hero
+ Important Names & Characters:
– King of the Danes
Herot – Hrothgar’s new mead hall
Grendel – a monster; descendant of Cain
Beowulf – famous Geat warrior
Higlac – Beowulf ’s uncle and king
Danes – inhabitants of Denmark
Geats – inhabitants of Sweden
Beowulf cont.
Beowulf ’s Characteristics:
Great strength
Great courage
+ Intelligence
Love of battle
Anglo-Saxon Themes / Principles in
Fate (wyrd) cannot be avoided. In order to survive, a man needs
strength, courage, and intelligence.
Humans want 2 types of immortality:
 Some type of afterlife
 To be remembered by future generations
Beowulf cont.:
Christian Elements:
Pagan Elements:
Lines 21-29: Grendel’s origins
Lines 64-72: need for revenge
Lines 85-86: Grendel’s
Lines 85-96: Pagan sacrifice
Lines 149-160: boasting
Lines 174-175: God’s
Literary Terms:
Kenning: a specialized metaphor
made up of compound words or
Examples: “sea stallion,” “wolf
of wounds,” “shepherd of evil,”
“guardian of crime”
Caesura: a pause or break in a line
of poetry
Alliteration: repetition of initial
consonant sounds at the in words
close to one another

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