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A Background to Beowulf

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Jason Dinkler

on 20 January 2017

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Transcript of A Background to Beowulf

A Background to

Who were the Anglo Saxons?
Germanic tribes from Scandinavia that invaded the island of Britain after fall of Roman empire
450-1066 AD
Who were the Anglo Saxons?
Germanic Warrior Society
in battle
Patriarchal society based in the concepts of kinship, comitatus and fraternity
Who were the Anglo Saxons?

Relationship between individual and members of the tribe

One’s ancestry as traced through patriarchs of the family
Who were the Anglo Saxons?
Power structure where kings were obliged to rule in consultation with thanes (knights)
Thanes swore allegiance to king
King would bestow land, jewelry, war gear and other items in exchange for allegiance

Close social bonds among the tribe
Warriors were motivated by glory for


Pursuit of glory dominated everything they did
Violence was commonplace

Fraternity demanded vengeance for death of a tribe member

Money paid to the family of the victim of a revenge killing
Amount was determined by one’s station in life
Mead and Mead Halls

Mead is an alcoholic drink made with honey

Mead halls were large central rooms where warriors would celebrate their culture

Hall was a symbol of king’s power
Polytheistic society

Worshiped Norse gods and goddesses

Fate or destiny determined by gods
The earliest form of the English language comes from this group

Now often known as Old English
Days of the Week in Anglo Saxon
Sunanndaeg (Sun’s day)
Monansdaeg (Moon’s day)
Tiwesdaeg (Tiwe’s day/A.S. God of war)
Wodensdaeg (Woden’s day/Supreme A.S God)
Thorsdaeg (Thor’s day)
Frigesdaeg (Frige’s day)
Saeternesdaeg (Latin; Saturn’s day)

Story of Germanic warrior who lived in Scandinavia during 5th Century
Story began to be told during the 8th Century
Story told by immigrants of the land from which they came

Reading and listening to Beowulf's fight with Grendel


Told by a scop
Anglo Saxon oral poet
Recited poem from memory
Helped to unify the tribe
Enjoyed immense power and prestige

Island of Britain saw many converts to Christianity during 6th and 7th century
Christianity and paganism existed side by side
As poem is told and retold it takes on many elements of Christianity

Manuscript created in late 10th, early 11th Century
Written down by Christian monks
Largely forgotten about for nearly a thousand years
Author J.R.R. Tolkein revived interest in the artistry of the poem in early 20th century
Argued that culture had much more artistic value than previously recognized
Archeological dig at Sutton Hoo in southeast England reinforced this idea

Carefully watch this clip to gain a sense of Beowulf's purpose for fighting Grendel.

What is epic poetry?

An epic poem has the following characteristics:
It is
, and characterized by
dignified tone
and highly-stylized language.
It features a central character – the
– who must accomplish great and difficult deeds.
fate of the hero’s people
depends upon his success.
The hero embodies
social, cultural
, or
Supernatural forces
work for or against the hero.
The Epic Hero

makes a
long and challenging journey
has a
heroic reputation
that precedes him
makes the journey to use his heroic talents on behalf of a
foreign people or in a foreign land
The Hero's Code

The hero willingly sacrifices his life for the promise of eternal

Beowulf, lines _____
“I mean to perform to the uttermost what your people want, or perish in the attempt, in the fiend’s clutches… I shall fulfill that purpose [and] prove myself with a proud deed or meet my death here in the mead-hall.”
Poetic Devices

- a pause or break in the middle of a line of poetic verse. From the Latin word for "cut".
- a poetic description which substitutes for a common noun
- repetition of consonant sounds across a line of verse.
- repetition of vowel sounds across a line of verse

Link for annotations: https://is.muni.cz/el/1441/podzim2013/AJ2RC_STAL/2._Beowulf.pdf
Annotations for lines 808-851

Highlight examples of
poetic devices
and label in the margins
Highlight examples of the
Anglo Saxon heroic code
and label in the margins
other examples
of important aspects of Anglo Saxon culture described in the section

Quiz for pages 3-57 (lines 1-851) of Beowulf

Use a blank sheet of paper to answer each of the questions
Full transcript