English 245 with Dr. G @ SUNY TC3   




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Syllabus & Schedule



How to read

How to Journal



1. Classical Britain

2. Beowulf 1

3. Beowulf 2

4. Middle Ages

5. Romance

6. Sir Gawain

7. Malory

8. Chaucer's Miller

9. Wife of Bath

10. Religious Protest

11. Biblical Drama

12. Play of Mankind

13. Early Modern Period

14. Thomas More

15. Philip Sidney

16. Print Culture

17. Walter Raleigh

18. Twelfth Night 1

19. Twelfth Night  2

20. Civil War

21. An Age of Irreverence

22. Aphra Behn

23. Reading Papers

24. Gulliver

25. Rape of the Lock

26. School for Scandal

27. New God

28. Revolution

Final Exam




*****  2. Beowulf, Part 1   *****


Rest in Peace!


Read Longman 3rd ed. Vol. 1A pages 3-7, 27-74:
"The Middle Ages" & "The Germanic Invasions," and
Beowulf, "Grendel" & "Grendel's Mother" (lines 1-1934).


If the Longman anthology is unavailable, Beowulf can be found online. Versions include Beowulf, tr. Francis B. Gummere at Bartleby, and --better-- an annotated Beowulf translated by Benjamin Slade at Beowulf on Steorarume. There are several paperback versions. A popular one currently is the 1999 Seamus Heaney translation published by Faber & Faber.


The only assignment for Lesson 2 is to read carefully. (The quiz and journal on Beowulf appear in the next lesson, Lesson 3.)


Adapted and much enlarged from David Damrosch, et al.,
Teaching British Literature
(New York: Longman, 2003)

from the Sutton Hoo burial ship, a helmet thought to have belonged to an Anglo-Saxon king

I think it is good that books still exist,
but they do make me sleepy -- Frank Zappa

DREAM HERO. Why waste time with literature? What use is it?

Entertainment has physiological function. It helps to regulate our bodies by unwinding our autonomic nervous system (ANS), a peculiarly human neural network that both increases and decreases stress. The stress-increasing half of the ANS (the sympathetic nervous system) starts our emergency pumps in a fight or other dangerous situation, or whenever we need increased blood pressure for immediate muscle power. However, this basic animal machinery can be harmful to beings capable of imagining things. The pumps of nervous folk tend to stick in the "on" position, even though there's no present emergency or immediate need for heightened blood flow. Excess stress leads to sleeplessness and irritability, and it can cause heart attack and a variety of dangerous conditions, including ulcers, inability to digest food and other malfunctions of the gastrointestinal tract. We switch the stress "off" only by stimulating the stress-reducing half of the ANS (the parasympathetic nervous system). Our conscious minds can flip this switch. All we have to do is stop worrying. 

Fiction and other fine arts are tools for shifting temporarily into the relaxed parasympathetic state. It's no accident that these arts tend to flourish in high-stress settings, such as the seats of empires (imperial Athens, Alexandria, Rome, Castile, Versailles, London, etc.), often when future prospects are not looking bright or after some disaster like the destruction of a temple or the end of a powerful dynasty. It's well known that recession, depression and war are good for Hollywood movie ticket sales--and especially when the film makers produce light-hearted, upbeat or fantasy films.

The soporific use of fiction can be traced back in history at least as far as the ancient Greek world, where bards entertained palace guests with after-dinner stories of heroes and gods. Through monotonous rhythms, and artful manipulation of tensions and emotions, these surreal myths, legends, ancestral tales and pseudo-histories helped distraught banqueters physiologically to digest dinner and to relax into pleasing drowsiness. As Hesiod noted:

Though we sorrow and grieve in freshly-troubled spirits, and though we live in dread because our hearts are distressed, yet when the servant of the Muses sings the glorious deeds of people of old with their blessed gods of Olympus, at once we forget all of our heaviness and sorrows. The gifts of the goddesses soon turn our cares away. Theogony 90-103

The use of fiction appears unchanged more than 1500 years later, in Germanic mead halls of the dark age. Grendel and Grendel's mother are terrors of the night. Beowulf is the sleep-protector, the slayer of the enemies of our rest. If he were really present with us, we would not sleep a wink, but in story form he has only enough presence to make us forget our worries. His only half-believable nature, his fictitiousness, is what makes him useful to us.  



Left: Helmet now in the British Museum unearthed from the Scandinavian-style  Sutton Hoo treasure ship unearthed in Suffolk, England, which is believed to be the burial vessel of a Saxon King, possibly King Raedwald of the East Angles, who ruled c 599-c 624 AD .



























Image left: from an ancient Greek vase, Penelope dreams that her husband Odysseus is coming home. She's been grieving for ten years since the war ended and he failed to return. Their son Telemakhos doesn't know what to do about his mother's grief. Homer's story makes her dream appear to be real by bringing Odysseus home. The surrealism in Homer and later imitators provides the listener with a simulated dream state. 

BAD BOYS' FANTASY? Of course, not everybody  today experiences Beowulf in a mead hall on the night after mortal hand-to-hand ax combat. Critics may not necessarily have any use for the poem. One of these, for instance, sees evidence in the poem of systematic merchandizing of women, which provokes her merciless attack: “the system of masculine alliance allows women to signify in a system of apparent exchange, but there is no place for them outside this chain of signification; they must be continually translated by and into the masculine economy” (Gillian Overing, Language, Sign, and Gender in Beowulf (1990), xxiii).

Are women in Beowulf slighted in this way--or in any way? Are the female characters in the poem, like a chorus in a Greek tragedy, present only to lament for the dead men and to fear for the safety of their male children? Is Beowulf "men's literature"? Should it be banned from the canon of modern reading? (This actually has been proposed!)

Or does Beowulf show, on the contrary, that women suffer tragically due to male feuding? Are women portrayed as hopeful “peaceweavers” in an otherwise catastrophic male world? What are the facts? Consider Wealtheow (548, 1019-1088), Hildeburh (931-1018), Grendel's mother (1088-1431), Freaware (1784-1822). 

Is it appropriate to judge literature of distant times and places in terms of present-day values and concerns? If we are not  reading to relax, why are we reading?

Left: reconstructed Anglo-Saxon cottage at West Stow near Bury St. Edmunds, Suffolk, UK.

Do you live in a house like this?

SAXON HISTORY AND MYTH  Saxons, Angles and related tribes came to Britain in the migration period of Germanic peoples, many of them at the darkest point of the dark ages. They brought their stories and religion with them from Zealand (home of Hrothgar and the Danes in Beowulf), Götaland (home of Beowulf, today's southwestern Sweden) and other points around the Baltic Sea. Beowulf suggests that the old homelands were kept in memory after arrival in the new world.

To the monk Gildas, Beowulf's contemporary writing in about 540 CE, Roman Catholic Britain was being destroyed by pagan newcomers, "a race hateful to both God and men." It seems unlikely that British resistance was formidable. Roman Britain had ended by 410, when Rome had been sacked by Alaric I, King of Goths (Christians who did not believe in the divine nature of Christ). Already by that time the last Roman legions in Britain had defected in rebellions of Marcus, Gratian, Constantine III and Constans II. Britain in Gildas' day was devastated by Justinian's plague and famine caused by extreme weather events of 535-536.  The island could have been nearly defenseless.

 In any case the Saxon migration was completed by about 600 CE. The area of occupation, like that of Roman settlement before, extended everywhere in Britain except the areas known today as "the Celtic fringe": the Scottish north and the Welsh and Cornish west. The occupied lands were divided into at least nine petty states (left), frequently unstable in their feuding family leadership and often at war with each other.

The high point of Anglo Saxon political power came only under threat of its extinction by Viking invaders, when the kingdoms united under Alfred the Great (849-899) and his daughter Aethelflaed and grandson Aethelstan. These were the first people to call themselves "English," to distinguish themselves from the new wave of Scandinavians ("Vikings," i.e., pirates), but their dynasty was short lived. After several decades of English succession squabbles, William the Conqueror (1028-1087) led continental retainers to victory over the English speakers at the Battle of Hastings in 1066, and all of Britain soon became in effect a territory both of Normandy and France.

The Norman Conquest is the terminal point for the Saxon language, which we call Old English. The new language at court was French, and as the influence of the church in Rome grew stronger Latin also assumed greater importance. The melding of French and Latin into English eventually produced the rich Middle English dialects that were to become the language of Chaucer and English poets of the high middle ages. The extensive vocabulary of modern English is due in large part to its Saxon, Norman and Latin roots.


Left: Beowulf's ship from the rather goofy feature film "Beowulf and Grendel" (2005).

























POLITICS: The general social philosophy of modern Anglo-America also derives Saxon origins. Beowulf, like the ancient Greek Iliad, portrays social relations among men as democratic. As Homer's angry Achilles is no pawn of King Agamemnon, so Beowulf similarly is no slave of Hrothgar or Hygelac. In these poems the king holds little more than nominal power, for he is dependent on his fighting men. Indeed, Hrothgar's job seems to be, like Agamemnon's, to dish out generous rewards to the deserving warriors who have served the group well, even when they are not his kin or fellow tribe members. Similarly, the role of Queen Wealthow is to make the hall hospitable to all. This is good government serving its people--an image that is not at all common in ancient or medieval literature.

In this English proto-democracy there is debate and even, as the Unferth episode indicates, freedom of speech, so that policy and personal merit both are open to question. Ultimately, as the final episode of Beowulf's fight with the dragon shows, it is possible for the warrior who plays the game correctly to be chosen as king. To be king, however, is not to be empowered to command followers to run through fire or face down dragons: the men can pick their fights.

In all of these respects, and in its raw delight in treasure, the society depicted in Beowulf is far more capitalist and far less hierarchical than any we will see in post-Saxon British literature until the eighteenth century. Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson and other creators of the late American system of personal liberties looked back to Saxon culture for inspiration in their revolt against a tyrannical king.


MANUSCRIPT:  It seems likely that a narrative on Beowulf's life originally was composed at the time of his death (cir. 575 CE) or immediately after. This is likely to have been an oral composition, not a written one. The Old English manuscript on which the Beowulf poem is preserved today appears to date from about 400 years later. Through these centuries, there could have been many retellings and, parchment having a limited life, several manuscript copyings or rewrites. Anyone may guess how closely the original version resembled the poem that we see today.

Beowulf is by far the longest poem that survives in Old English. Were there many other poems like it in its day? If so, is Beowulf  best of breed, average, or in any way representative? Nobody knows. It is miraculous that this poem survives at all. It is preserved in a single British Library manuscript known as Cotton Vitellius A (named for manuscript collector Sir Robert Bruce Cotton, who lived from 1571-1631), a manuscript particularly hard to decipher because of burn marks from a fire at the library on October 23, 1731.

Cotton Vitellius A contains a compilation of tales that emphasize the exotic and the monstrous. It has been argued that Beowulf itself is a compilation of earlier literature woven together in novel-like fashion. The poem contains genealogical verse, a creation hymn, several elegies, a lament, a heroic lay, a praise poem, historical poems, a flyting (boast contest), gnomic verse, a sermon, and more. Maybe this compilation method of construction may explain why, to many modern readers, the poem does not feel unified, but to a medieval bard it may have seemed a virtuoso piece demanding a great range of performance skills. You may see only words on pages, but the play's the thing.



Beowulf Read Aloud - audio rendering:

Stephen Pollington reads Beowulf in Old English (Scyld Scefing's funeral) - selected passage in the original language [Ğa Engliscan Gesişas]

Readings from Beowulf by Professor Peter S. Baker from University of Virginia

Other links

Paul Butler's The Anglo Saxon Lyre at Rutgers reconstructs the instrument and provides links.

Beowulf on Steorarume site by Benjamin Slade. Includes explanatory notes to Beowulf and other resources.

Old English fonts for the web: downloads from Professor Baker at U VA.

Very cool indeed: the northern myth and legend web site from Northvegr Foundation. This has all kinds of literature of the northern peoples: Norse, Icelandic, Viking, German, including the complete corpus of Anglo-Saxon poetry.

Anglo Saxon resources from Trinity College, Cambridge: includes calendar, coins, manuscripts, sites, etc.

a Saxon cross


Students are not examined on these "other resources and amusements." However, if you know of an excellent website that would wonderfully  complement this lesson, please send it to Dr. G.

 Copyright 2008 - 2012 by Gary Homer Gutchess