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Introduction to Beowulf

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Simon Thomson

on 7 May 2018

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Transcript of Introduction to Beowulf

1 - Plot and setting
2 - Themes and ideas
3 - Production and reception
4 - Language and style
Hygelac died around here in about 520
Two parts: Youth and Age
Many different 'lays' put together
Three parts: Grendel, Grendel's Mother, the Dragon
One big structureless mess
A single extended meditation on kingship
Heroism and masculinity
The "Other"
Wealth and value
Earliest date for Hygelac's death: 516

Latest date for the Beowulf manuscript: 1025
Some other useful dates:
(Re)conversion of England from Kent: 597 onwards

Reign of Raedwald of East Anglia: c.599-c.624

Life of Bede in Northumbria: c.672-735

Reign of Offa of Mercia: 757-796

Reign of Beornwulf of Mercia: 823-826

Reign of Alfred the Great: 871-899

Reign of Cnut the Great: 1016-1035
Key dates:
500 year period: equivalent to 1513-2013
Other Old English poetry
Norse sagas
Skaldic verse
Latin and Old English histories
Manuscript culture
“like to the swift flight of a sparrow through the room wherein you sit at supper in winter, with your commanders and ministers, and a good fire in the midst, whilst the storms of rain and snow prevail abroad; the sparrow, I say, flying in at one door, and immediately out at another: whilst he is within, he is safe from the wintry storm; but after a short space of fair weather, he immediately vanishes out of your sight, into the dark winter from which he had emerged. So this life of man appears for a short space, but of what went before, or what is to follow, we are utterly ignorant.”
Two parts: Denmark and Geatland
Hwilum cyninges þegn,
guma gilphlæden, gidda gemyndig,
se ðe eal fela ealdgesegena
worn gemunde, word oþer fand
soðe gebunden; secg eft ongan
sið Beowulfes snyttrum styrian
ond on sped wrecan spel gerade,
wordum wrixlan' (lines 867b-74a)
'Meanwhile, a thane
of the king's household, a carrier of tales,
a traditional singer deeply schooled
in the lore of the past, linked a new theme
to a strict meter. The man started
to recite with skill...in well-fashioned lines
entwining his words.' (lines 866b-73a)
light of battle:
battle sweat:
whale's road:
horse of the whale's road:
bone house:
'a young prince must be prudent like that;
giving freely while his father lives'
'anyone with gumption
and a sharp mind will take the measure
of two things: what's said and what's done.'
'fate goes ever as fate must'
'It is always better
to avenge dear ones than to indulge in mourning.'
'in a man of worth
the claims of kinship cannot be denied.'
'it came gliding and flexing
and racing towards its fate'
'an old harrower of the dark...
the burning one who hunts out barrows,
the slick-skinned dragon...scourge of the people'
'Take your place, then, with pride and pleasure,
and move to the feast. Tomorrow morning
our treasure will be shared and showered upon you.'
Performative voice
Latin literature
Charters and legal texts
l. 2589a:
'sceolde ofer willan': 'against his will, had to...'
or: 'sceolde willan': 'willingly, had to...'
Full transcript