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Beowulf Background Info

A brief overview of the cultural setting of Beowulf, a profile of Epic Poems, and a glimpse at the poetry.

Silas St. James

on 2 December 2012

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Transcript of Beowulf Background Info

Beowulf: An Introduction British Literature 2012-2013
Mr. St. James The Cultural Context:
Britain in the Dark Ages Major players: Britons Romans Angles Saxons Vikings Epic Poems A genre of heroes, history, culture, and conquest Examples of epics: The Epic of Gilgamesh (Mesopotamia)
The Iliad & The Odyssey (Homer, Ancient Greece)
The Aeneid (Virgil, Ancient Rome)
The Epic of Sundiata (Malinke people, West Africa)
Beowulf (Old English)
Paradise Lost (John Milton, Early Modern English) Features of Epic Poems The Epic Hero Narration & Setting Liminal Experiences Language Epic poems take place over a vast setting, often involving journeys to distant lands.
Many epics encompass many countries, or even the whole world - or other worlds. The epic traditionally begins "in medias res," or in the middle of the action.
The direct narration tends to be matter-of-fact and straightforward. There are, however, cyclical patterns to the storytelling. For example, characters give long, formal speeches retelling parts of the story. In these speeches, the action and the heroes are glorified and portrayed as "larger than life." Beowulf begins two generations before the action of the poem - with praise for Hrothgar's grandfather, Scyld. Although it was composed in Anglo-Saxon England, the setting is Denmark, and the hero comes from Geatland in southern Sweden. It is "long ago and far away"... Liminal: at the limit or boundary The hero of the epic typically goes through an extreme challenge or hardship beyond the limits of humanity. These liminal experiences serve to test - and thereby show to the reader - the hero's physical and spiritual strength. In ancient epics, this often involved a journey to the underworld or hell.
Along these same lines, the epic includes divine intervention of some kind. Epic Language Characters speak in elevated language Repetition - for emphasis and memorization Stock phrases and "epithets" (name tags) Poetry is metric, non-rhyming Originally oral - probably sung The Language of Beowulf The Beowulf poet writes in meter and uses alliterative patterns in every line.
Old English borrows the "Kennings" of Old Norse: these are like epithets, but for nouns other than people.
The "whale-road" refers to the ocean; "Earth's lamplight" means the sun. The epic hero is an idealized man of his culture. While being exceptionally strong, clever, eloquent, and well respected, he also bears a key fault. For Odysseus, it was his "hubris" - or overweaning pride. The function of the hero is essentially to embody and exemplify the values of the culture.

Look to Beowulf to see what is most important to the Anglo-Saxons and Vikings. Beowulf Oral poem, past on for generations
Written down (we don't know why) sometime between 650 and 1000 C.E.
Probably scribed by a monk
First written work in Old English Beowulf's Poetic Form The poetry of Beowulf depends on meter and on alliteration. Every line has two halves, separated by a "ceasura," or break. Every line has four stresses, or emphasized syllables, at least three of which alliterate.
In the following example, "scansion" marks the stress and meter of the verse.
/ indicates heavy stress
\ indicates light stress
u indicates no stress Painting with the Poet's Pallet Within a relatively strict set of rules, the Beowulf poet does have considerable flexibility and room for creativity. There are a few different patterns used throughout the poem: Here are some examples in modern English lines of poetry: As you read "Beowulf, " remember that you are reading a translation. Seamus Heaney is a poet himself, and much of his purpose in translating was to compose his own poem.
However, the narrative structure and much of the aesthetics of the language come through even in translation. Watch for repetition, motifs, and portrayals of themes, as well as literary devices like alliteration, personification, simile, and metaphor. All of these are features of both the original poem and Heaney's translation.
And, as always, your primary purpose in reading any poem should be to...ENJOY IT! "Beowulf" is full of action, intrigue, and eloquence. Allow yourself to be transported to a far-off place and time, and soak it all in.
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