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Transcript of Beowulf
Anglo Saxon traditions
Beowulf is an epic poem from the oral tradition--that is, from before written language when poems and literature were memorized and spoken aloud by scops (pronounced "shoaps"), or the Anglo-Saxon equivalent of bards. There is one single existing manuscript of the poem, and it is incomplete because it was damaged in a fire in 1731. It is written in Old English, and portrays the traditions of Anglo-Saxon poetry, culture, and heritage. It was probably created between 700-1000AD and written down between 900-1025AD. Because the only literate people at this time were in the clergy, it was most likely written down by monks.
The Anglo Saxons were pagan, but the monks who wrote out the poem were Christian. Therefore, while transcribing the poem, the monks added a number of Christian elements to it. We have no idea what the poem looked like before this. The monks, however, saw an opportunity to use this piece of literature to help their missionary movement to convert the Anglo Saxons to their religion--so a lot of the poem says, "Hey! Look how close your pagan religion is to Christianity! It really wouldn't be that big of a stretch for you to convert!" (Hint--look for ways that Beowulf can be seen as a Christ figure.)
Anglo Saxon poetry has some very specific literary forms. It uses alliteration, which is the same consonant sound at the beginning of words, and "kenning", which is the act of creating compound words to represent an object or noun ("whale-road" for ocean and "ring-giver" for king). It uses "caesura" which is a pause or break in the middle of each line, and various forms of rhyme and meter to help the scops remember a 3000+ line poem.
The story itself involves great battles against three monsters--Grendel, his mother, and a dragon. Each monster represents some sort of anxiety or "evil" in the Anglo Saxon world--to put it simplistically, the supernatural elements of evil, women, and imperialistic invasion of England from a foreign power. Grendel is demonic, devilish, and cannot abide laughter and happiness; Grendel's mother exhibits maternal fury and the womanly ability to destroy men (more on that later), and the dragon represents a force capable of toppling an empire and destroying the king (think also of the story of St. George and the dragon of England).
It is specifically stated in the text that Hrothgar and his Danes are pagan, and that Beowulf--a Christian savior figure--must be brought in to save (and convert) them. Grendel represents sin, hell (he lives below the surface of the earth) and demons (he's from the tribe of Cain). He literally consumes the warriors for 12 years, which demonstrates Hrothgar's utter failure as a proper Anglo Saxon king--they were supposed to put their warriors and people above all other considerations. He has a monstrous appearance, can not speak, and exhibits bestial characteristics. He also dies "offstage" as it were, which brings up some interesting questions.
Grendel's mother has no name, but she is described as looking much more human than her son. She also acts much more human, seeking vengeance for the death of Grendel and choosing only to kill the man that would hurt Hrothgar the most. Women of high status had fairly good lives during this time, but lower-born women did not. Also, with the influx of Christianity, women were being portrayed as evil and dangerous to men. At this time--and I swear I'm not making this up--the word "hell" was a euphemism for the vagina and "death" was a euphemism for male orgasm, because it was thought that each time a man slept with a woman he lost part of his soul (semen).
Here we have a creature with no humanity at all, and this is the one that finally gets our great hero. The dragon, woken up by a slave, is enraged when a chalice (grail) is stolen and attacks the villages, and so Beowulf takes 12 warriors (disciples) with him to take down the beast. All his warriors save Wiglaf (pronounced "WEE-laff") forsake him and run off, but Beowulf and Wiglaf finally bring down the beast together. Having no heirs, Beowulf makes Wiglaf his successor as King and has him share out the dragon's treasure amongst his people to ensure their survival.
It is easy to see Beowulf a incredibly arrogant because of all the boasting he does, but you have to understand that "boasting" was considered a competitive sport in Anglo Saxon society. Men would have boasting contests, knowing their stories were all hooey, but boasting itself was a type of storytelling. Look at this deleted scene from the movie "Thor" to get an idea.
Beowulf also shows concern for the concept of "weregeld" or "life-price", which is the idea that every person's life has a certain monetary value. Obviously, the value is higher for kings than for peasants, but every life is worth something. The idea is that if you take a life, you then owe that life-price to the king; if you pay it, all is even. If yo do not, then a blood-feud ensues and wars begin. So...perhaps Grendel's mother was enraged not just by the death of her son, but by the fact that no weregeld was paid to her for his loss?
Death in battle was considered the highest honor a warrior could achieve, and only warriors would enter Valhalla, which literally means "Hall of the Slain". Kinship and community were the most important Anglo Saxon values--therefore the worst punishment was not death, but exile. Being an outcast was literally a fate worse than death. Is Grendel, then, as an outcast, perhaps deserving of some sympathy?