English 245 with Dr. G @ SUNY TC3
2. Beowulf 1
3. Beowulf 2
4. Middle Ages
6. Sir Gawain
9. Wife of Bath
11. Biblical Drama
12. Play of Mankind
14. Thomas More
15. Philip Sidney
16. Print Culture
17. Walter Raleigh
18. Twelfth Night 1
19. Twelfth Night 2
20. Civil War
22. Aphra Behn
23. Reading Papers
25. Rape of the Lock
27. New God
*** 3. Beowulf, Part 2 ***
Gems, Woes and Jests
READINGS FOR THIS LESSON
Read in Longman 3rd ed. Vol. 1A pages 7-8, 74-92, 153-162."Pagan and Christian," 1A 7-8. Beowulf, "The Dragon," 1A 74-92 (lines 1935-end). "The Wanderer," "Wulf and Edwacer and The Wife's Lament," and "Riddles," 1A 153-162
Beowulf also can be found online. Versions include Beowulf, tr. Francis B. Gummere at Bartleby, and an annotated Beowulf at Beowulf on Steorarume translated by Benjamin Slade. There are lots of paperback versions: still popular currently is the 1999 Seamus Heaney translation for Faber & Faber.
ASSIGNMENTS FOR THIS LESSON
The lesson includes both a quiz and a journal writing assignment to be submitted on the interactive course site at SUNY Learning Network.
Write for most of an hour (or more if you have time). Outline the readings from Lesson 2 and 3-- or summarize in detail some part of the readings that interests you.
If you have time remaining after summarizing or outlining, respond to a question that your journal has raised. If the summary has not raised questions, respond instead to one of the questions listed below.
See General instructions for journaling in this course. See Dr. G's 2007 Journal.
may have heard of The Hobbit
and The Lord of the Rings?
J. R. R. Tolkien
(1892-1973), cultivated his imagination as an editor and translator of
and other medieval European epics, sagas and romances, many of which had
been neglected or misunderstood before his time. Tolkein's classic
scholarly article, Beowulf:
the Monsters and the Critics (1936), attempted to answer critics
who had questioned the poem's coherence.
Beowulf is episodic and digressive, but readers have noted the relevance of apparent digressions to the main thread of the narrative, by way of comparison and contrast or foreshadowing and echo. For example, the scop's song of Finn and Hildeburh (lines 931-1018) disrupts Beowulf's story, but it serves as a thematic transition between episodes from Grendel to Grendel's mother. These episodes broadly show that two things are rotten in Denmark: males are unable to contain their rivalries, and females are unable to keep the peace. Hildeburh is the female counterpart to Cain and Unferth in her responsibility for the death of her brother Hnaef. The relationships between stories are not explicit: we have to think why one is juxtaposed to another.
The poet's attention to events that will transpire beyond Hrothgar's time effectively develops the theme of the transitory nature of power, happiness and life itself. Almost as soon as Grendel has been slain, the poem turns attention on Hrothulf (line 1021) who will usurp the kingdom from Hrothgar's sons Hrethric and Hrothmund. When Grendel's mother has been slain, attention is turned to Hrothgar's daughter Freaware, whose later marriage to Ingeld will not prevent further feuds with the Heathobards which will result in the destruction of Heorot (line 1781). The future of the Goths is clouded similarly in Wiglaf's prophecy (line 2557): new rulers inherit feuds that are not going to be controlled. Wealth is here today and gone tomorrow.
Some of the relationships between parts of the poem can be missed in reading because of things that the poet could not say directly. For instance, note that the royal house of the Danes and the royal house of the Goths are paralleled. Both feature three brothers and a sister. The oldest brother is a king who is famous for hunting. The Goth Herebeald dies when his brother Hathcyn kills him in a hunting "accident," which conveniently makes Hathcyn king, as a scape goat hangs for it. How the Dane king Heorogar ("spearman of deer"?) dies is not stated explicitly in Beowulf, but the imagery of Cain surrounding Heorot implies that Hrothgar somehow has been involved in his brother's death. Hrothgar's past is associated with the Grendel story and the Hathcyn story, and other stories of kin treachery. The sense of the poem arises only by thinking about the relationships between apparently dissociated parts.
The interwoven strands of narrative in Beowulf are often compared to the busy, interlace designs common in Anglo-Saxon manuscript illumination, metal work, and stone carving. Illustrations of this style include the gold belt buckle from the Sutton Hoo ship burial (image below) and the so-called carpet pages from the Lindisfarne Gospels.
It does not do to leave a live dragon out of your calculations, if you happen to live near him-- JRR Tolkien
The Ardagh chalice (color plate 3 in your text book) and the Book of Kells are other examples of the Insular or Hiberno-Saxon interlace style of Celtic and Anglo-Saxon arts. Interlacing continued to be used in Renaissance fiction (e.g.. Malory's Morte Darthur and Spenser's Faerie Queene; cf. the Shakespearean multiple plot), and it is still in use today. As James Joyce writes of Ulysses, you can compare much of my work to the intricate illuminations of the Book of Kells.
HOMERIC QUALITIES. Beowulf also shares thematic and structural attributes with the Homeric songs, composed about 1500 years earlier, such as:
What is effective about these attributes? What might account for their longevity of use?
Anglo-Saxon and Celtic designs are often very similar. The style is referred to as Hiberno-Saxon.
RELIGION? Other readers' questions of Beowulf arise from references in the poem to both Christianity and Germanic polytheism. How Christian is the poem? Interpretation has ranged from the contention that the Christian coloring contaminates the pagan Germanic purity of the epic to the opposite argument that the poem is a full-fledged Christian allegory, with the hero either a figure of Christ or a deeply flawed materialist, unaware of the transience of earthly wealth and glory. These inconsistencies may evidence the history of the poem. The original sixth century story in all likelihood was polytheist, but the final version, written perhaps 400 years later, was extensively revised for a monastic audience.
Grendel and his mother once may have been Germanic deities that lived in the lakes and demanded human sacrifices of the sort that produced bog bodies. These old gods may have been immortal and unslayable, but the hero could have won from them some boon that protected the kingdom. In the Christian retelling, these gods became monsters, to be slain by the Christian God's champion. In any case, here in Beowulf are early seeds for a million later British horror stories about the terror and defeat of nightmare worlds of evil spirits.
The coincidence of pre-Christian and Christian worlds is most interesting in the episode of "the dragon" which guards buried treasures in an ancient barrow tomb.
Left: Lindow Man, a bog body from northern England who was brutally murdered sometime in the first century BCE. Is he a ritual sacrifice victim of a nasty heathen religion, or is he an executed criminal or traitor? What stories can be told about him?
To the Christian poet, this monster seems to
represent the devil or evil incarnate, but could the fire-thrower really
have been the spontaneous combustion of trapped
methane given off from underground, perhaps in part from the decomposed bodies
in the barrow? When the tomb is opened by a grave robber, fire
blasts out from his torch, and it quickly spreads to nearly Geat dwellings
(probably made of very combustible timbers and
thatch). Even the throne of Beowulf melts (perhaps the parts of gold or
silver). The poet and audience obviously would not have had
a modern scientific explanation for such a stunning accident. The poet
speaks of it in terms of what he wants to believe: he sees it as hell
fire in which the pagan dead in their barrows are being toasted!
Left: a barrow grave in England, the Anglo-Saxon version of a pyramid. Is there a dragon inside? If you go in one of these, don't steal anything!
TECHNOLOGY: Beowulf reflects the devices and techniques of the scop or preliterate Germanic bard. While it is possible to memorize and recite the poem from memory, as some entertainers do today, the traditional method would have been more creative. The scop knew poetic order (standard rhythms and sounds, standard phrases, standard scenes) and he applied it to stories of well known gods and heroes. How well he improvised, fitting old stories into the standard poetic forms, was the measure of his artistic creativity.
Prior to mechanical printing and mass production of copies, stories freely changed from one retelling to the next, and history was transformed into fantasy. If fascination with literature grows in proportion to the darkness of the age in which they were produced, Beowulf is the greatest mystery in English.
LITERATE LISTENERS LIKE ALLITERATION: The gloom of Old English lives, e.g., in the last line of The Great Gatsby (1925): "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."
SO LISTEN ON CD: It is generally assumed that the audiences that heard Beowulf were illiterate, that they listened until eventually a written version was produced, based on a scop's song. The poem's language is oral in this sense: its formulaic features are the scop's tools used to shape any story content that audiences might want to hear. For instance, the structural use of alliteration, which Alan Sullivan and Tim Murphys translation (in Damrosch) attempts to capture, would have been a mnemonic aid for the singer. It's sound is surprisingly powerful. Imagine hearing it around the fire on your next dark and stormy night.
For recreation of Beowulf, it is hard to beat Benjamin Bagby
OTHER RESOURCES & AMUSEMENTS
Beowulf Read Aloud - audio renderings:
Readings from Beowulf by Professor Peter S. Baker from University of Virginia
A splendid performance recording in Old English (with subtitles) and Anglo-Saxon harp is available on CD from www.bagbybeowulf.com
Beowulf the Cartoon (2007)
The Robert Zemeckis film animation (screenplay by Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary) unifies the three episodes of Grendel, Grendel's Mother, and the Dragon in a most unheroic way. Hrothgar mates with Grendel's Mother producing Grendel; then Beowulf mates with Grendel's Mother producing the dragon. Lust for glory destroys both of these kings and their people. For the screenplay and the story of its development see Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary, Beowulf: The Scriptbook. Harper Entertainment: New York 2007.
Zemeckis regards the Beowulf poem as a boring lie produced by Christian monks who sought to suppress the real Beowulf story. The lead actor is quoted as stating that he "had the beauty of not reading the book." The film contains Viking, Norman, Arthurian, and other anachronisms, including echoes of Lord of the Rings. "We men are the monsters now," Beowulf remarks.
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.
For journaling a longer work like Beowulf, try outlining or mapping the general structure of the text, instead of summarizing all of it. See for example Dr. G's sample outline/notes of Beowulf.
Learning Old English
Professor Bakers site at U Va:
Hwęt! Interactive learning from Georgetown: http://www.georgetown.edu/cball/hwaet/hwaet_toc.html
OE lessons from the University of Calgary: http://www.ucalgary.ca/UofC/eduweb/engl401/
Anglo-Saxon Dictionary: http://beowulf.engl.uky.edu/~kiernan/BT/Bosworth-Toller.htm
Heroic literature and hero cults by Dr. G on this web site.
The burial of Saxon King cir. 625 CE in southeast Suffolk was excavated in the 1930's providing new clues about the Saxons. See Sutton Hoo Society web site and Sam Newton's Sutton Hoo: Burial Site of the Wuffings.
Bog Bodies of the Iron Age from PBS Nova.
Lindisfarne Gospels specimen pages are provided by the British Library's Online Gallery.
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.
Bill Schipper's Modern English to Old English Vocabulary.
Oxford English Dictionary:
The history of English words often suggests much more than their current meaning. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the Old English verb for gift giving, which later came to mean slaughtering, as follows:
Pronunciation: Brit. /ˈbrɪtn/, U.S. /ˈbrɪtn/, /ˈbrɪdn/
Etymology: < the Germanic base of brit v.1 + the Germanic base of -en suffix5. Compare Old Icelandic brotna to burst, break. Compare also Old English brytta someone who dispenses (gifts), lord, prince, Old Icelandic bryti steward (both n-stems). With the sense development compare brit v.1 Compare brittle adj.
In Old English the prefixed form gebrytnian to distribute, apportion (compare y- prefix) is also attested.
Now rare. Perh. Obsolete. (Eng. regional (north.) in later use).
1. trans. To deal out, apportion; to distribute, dispense. Obsolete.
Only in Old English.
eOE (Kentish) Charter: Oswulf & Beornšryš to Christ Church, Canterbury (Sawyer 1188) in F. E. Harmer Sel. Eng. Hist. Docs. 9th & 10th Cents. (1914) 2 Ond šas forecuędenan suęsenda all agefe mon šęm reogolwarde & he brytnię swę higum maest red sie.
OE Beowulf 2383 Hęfdon hy forhealden‥žone selestan sęcyninga žara še‥in Swiorice sinc brytnade.
OE Harley Gloss. (1966) 137 Dispertiens, brytniende.
2. trans. To divide. Obsolete.
?c1200 Ormulum (Burchfield transcript) l. 14178 Žiss werelld‥iss dęledd. & brittnedd inn till daless žre.
a. To cut into pieces; to kill, slay, butcher. Obsolete.
a1375 William of Palerne (1867) l. 1073 Že douȝti duk‥bet a-doun burwes, & brutned moche peple.
a1400 (1325) Cursor Mundi (Vesp.) l. 8720 God it wit-schild Žat žou [sc. Solomon] britten [1400 Fairf. briten, a1400 Gött. brettyn] sua mi child. Yee giue him all til hir allan!
c1440 (1400) Morte Arthure l. 106 He sall‥Bryne Bretayn že brade, and bryttyn thy knyghtys.
1488 (1478) Hary Actis & Deidis Schir William Wallace (Adv.) iii. l. 400 Sothroun men that bertynit war to dede.
a1522 G. Douglas tr. Virgil Ęneid (1957) ii. x. 183 Cruell Pyrrus, Quhilk brytnys the son befor the faderis face.
c1540 Destr. Troy 1971 Drawen as a dog & to dethe broght: Brittonet ži body into bare qwarters.
b. Hunting. To cut up (a boar or deer). Cf. brittle v.1 Obsolete.
c1400 (1390) Sir Gawain & Green Knight (1940) l. 1339 Sižen britned žay že brest and brayden hit in twynne.
c1440 (1400) Sir Eglamour (Thornton) (1965) 490 To bryttyn [a1500 Calig. byrten] že bare žay went full tite; Žar wolde no knyves in hym bytte, So hard of hyde was he.
c1450 (1425) Avowynge of King Arthur l. 261 in W. H. French & C. B. Hale Middle Eng. Metrical Romances (1930) 616 Sethun brittuns he the best, As venesun in forest.
1535 W. Stewart tr. H. Boethius Bk. Cron. Scotl. II. 431 Tha bar[t]nit thame lyke ony bludie deir.
c. Eng. regional (north.). To cut (meat) into pieces. Obsolete or rare.
1688 Dictionariolum Islandicum in R. Jonsson Recentissima Antiquissimę Linguę Septentrionalis Incunabula 101/1 Brioota, frangere‥. A. Bor. To britten beef, i.e. to break the bones of beef.
4. trans. To demolish, destroy; to smash, shatter. Obs.
c1400 (1390) Sir Gawain & Green Knight (1940) 2 Sižen že sege‥watz sesed at Troye, Že borȝ brittened & brent to brondez & askez.
c1440 (1400) Morte Arthure l. 1487 With brandes of broun stele žey brettened maylez.
a1450 York Plays 292 Žus schall I brittyn all youre bones on brede.
a1500 (1400) Wars Alexander (Trin. Dublin) l. 2256 Oure burgh ayayn to be beld žat brytynd is to noght.
5. trans. Eng. regional (north-west.). To beat, thrash. Now rare.
1897 B. Kirkby in Eng. Dial. Dict. (1898) I. 406/2 [Westmorland] Ah'll britt'n thee thi jacket, thoo gurt slenk.
She was the first to speak Old English with an faux east German accent while wearing only high heels!