English 245 with Dr. G @ SUNY TC3   




Link Library




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




***   3. Beowulf, Part 2   ***


Gems, Woes and Jests


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  

         autonomic nervous system


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. 


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.

How do the two main parts of the Beowulf poem (young Beowulf, old Beowulf) relate to each other? Is the poem unified or does the structure seem haphazard?

How are women portrayed in Beowulf? Look at the specifics.

What kind of society is portrayed in Beowulf? Is it like our society or not? What is the attitude toward gold and treasure? Is the poem materialistic or anti-materialistic?


See General instructions  for journaling in this course. See Dr. G's 2007 Journal.


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

JRR Tolkien, popularizer of early English and related literatures. You may have heard of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings? Their author, J. R. R. Tolkien (1892-1973), cultivated his imagination as an editor and translator of Beowulf 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.

UNITY?  Is Beowulf unified by a central theme or idea? Do the episodes add up? Or are they simply a set of stories that a bard can serve up at a three-course banquet (Grendel, Grendel's Mother, the dragon)?

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

Belt Buckle from Sutton Hoo (cir 625 CE)

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:

nested stories (stories within stories): the main narrative is interrupted repeatedly by digressions about related characters and events. Many of the characters are story-tellers. Bards are prominent.

omniscient point of view: the narrator knows all of the stories and how they ended. So he often sees human lives as doomed or fated. Some are "foolish," not knowing the future and not making good use of time, but some are prophets who can foresee.

genealogies galore: mention of ancestors frequently accompanies the introduction of a character; individuals tend to named as son of X or daughter of Y.

settings in a distant legendary time: characters are presented as if they are historical, but they are freely imagined and mythic.

fantasy elements: there are interventions of gods and spirits, monsters; savage violence at times is presented with almost macabre humor.

repetitions of action: actions are recurrent, and sometimes there is an entire repetition of a story (such as Beowulf's narration to Hygelac of events that happened earlier in the poem).

female laments: women are not prominent but they show up in the aftermath of tragedy as mourners, lamenting their misfortunes, especially the deaths of husbands, children and kin.

anger/stress theme: mental states of anger are portrayed as a central motif. Plot is a chain of revenges that broadens out into a general slaughter.

hospitality: hosts and guests are a central theme; monsters make bad hosts and guests, the good characters are good hosts and good guests.

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.  

Lindow ManGrendel 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?


Silbury Hill, cir. 2660 BCE, near Wilshire England.THE DRAGON  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! 






Sigurd Favnesbane

Sigurd kills Regin, wood carving  from the Hylestad stave church (Norway cir 1300): the Old Norse  uses some of the same conventions as Beowulf and the dragon and Lord of the Rings.

An apparent textual inconsistency in the poem suggests that the dragon's body was added in a revision. In what may be the original version "there was no sign of the stricken worm" (line 2450). Nobody saw the dragon, presumably, because there was no dragon there. In what may be the revision of the text, however, Beowulf's death is not left so mysterious; next to Beowulf's corpse lies the scorched and crumpled scaly body of a monster fifty feet long (line 2667) which the Geats then heave into the sea (line 2752)-- conveniently disposing of the proof! (I don't know about you, but I would have kept this curiosity as a conversation piece: it seems to me to be much more interesting than Grendel's arm.) Interweaves of older and newer layers of writing are common in the age of manuscripts. 



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 Murphy’s 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


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)
hoards more than $200 million

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  Baker’s site at U Va:

Englisc Composition

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

Other Resources

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:
Does "Britain" come from "britten"?

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:

britten, v.

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 forhealdenžone selestan sęcyninga žara šein Swiorice sinc brytnade.

OE Harley Gloss. (1966) 137 Dispertiens, brytniende.

†2.  trans. To divide. Obsolete.

?c1200 Ormulum (Burchfield transcript) l. 14178 Žiss werelldiss dęledd. & brittnedd inn till daless žre.

†3.  trans.

 a.  To cut into pieces; to kill, slay, butcher. Obsolete.

a1375 William of Palerne (1867) l. 1073 Že douȝti dukbet 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 sallBryne 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 segewatz 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!

Copyright 2008-2012 by Gary H Gutchess