Beowulf Introduction

An Introduction to the Anglo
Saxon Epic
• Set down in manuscript form between the middle
of the 7th and the end of the 10th century A.D.
• A Heroic narrative spanning over 3,000 lines, the
poem would have been originally conveyed orally,
and later set down into written form.
• Composed in Old English (Anglo Saxon); one of
the seminal poetic works in English.
• The manuscript survived centuries of political
turmoil … even a horrendous fire. Its existence
today is nothing short of miraculous.
Set between 500 and 700 AD, the epic tells
the story of Beowulf, who is the son of Scyld
Shefing, a Scandanavian King. The
narration opens with a recapitulation of
Scyld’s honor, and a description of his
funeral. When Scyld passes away, Beowulf
becomes his heir, and the new hero of the
Beowulf, a Geat, heads to Denmark to
visit his cousin, Hrothgar.
Anglo-Saxon Expansion
Hrothgar has constructed a tremendous mead hall—Heorot– on the island of
Zealand (present day Copenhagen) … but there is just one problem …
Grendel is a scary monster that terrorizes Hrothgar’s mead hall.
Ye Olde English
Old English contains several sounds unrepresented in the Latin alphabet.
The runes for these sounds were:
æ ("asc", pronounced "ash”)
ð ("eth”, sometimes rendered “oe”
þ ("thorn”)
and (”wynn").
So the opening lines of the epic look like this:
Hwæt! We Gardena
in geardagum,
þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas
ellen fremedon.
Oft Scyld Scefing
sceaþena þreatum,
monegum mægþum,
meodosetla ofteah,
egsode eorlas.
Syððan ærest wearð
feasceaft funden,
he þæs frofre gebad,
weox under wolcnum,
weorðmyndum þah,
oðþæt him æghwylc
þara ymbsittendra
ofer hronrade
gomban gyldan.
hyran scolde,
þæt wæs god cyning!
And sound like this …
Let’s try that in “New” English, shall we?
“What is the secret of this poem that has kept it quintessential to the English literary
canon? To this question there must be many answers, perhaps as many as there have
been hearers or readers of the poem. But certainly common to every experience of
Beowulf is the sense that its poetry reaches, somehow like lightning, to the core of
what we understand about ourselves stripped to basics, even amid the twentieth
century world of central heating and computers.
Interlaced with the stories of Beowulf’s battles with monsters are tales of human
struggle and less than exemplary people: Heremod, the wicked king who hoarded
people, and put many of his own to death; Modthryth, the queen who arbitrarily
executed those who displeased her; and Hrothulf, the treacherous usurper-in-waiting.
The struggles the poem depicts are of the good against evil: strength of sinew, heart
and spirit, truth and light, pitted against dark power that gives no quarter as it shifts
from shape to shape. That the darkness (be it Grendel, a dragon, or treachery, greed,
and pride) is familiar only renders it more frightening -- and the more instructive.”
-- Robert F. Yeager, “Why Read Beowulf?”
• Yeager, Robert F. “Why Read Beowulf?”
• A Pictorial Guide to Beowulf:
•Greene Hamlet “Resources for the Study of Beowulf”:
• Audio Extracts from Heaney’s Translation:
•Beowulf Comparative Translations:

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