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Of Beowulf
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Beowulf
A Terrifying Tale of Good vs Evil
Study Guide
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Plot Summary
Settings
Main Characters
Type of Work
Date, Place of Publication
Transmission of the Story
Verse Format
Structure and Source
Language
Point of View
Themes
Heroes and Villains
Imagery
Climax
Manuscript Timeline
Study Questions
Essay Topics
View Original Manuscript
Free Text in Modern English
Free Text in Old English
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Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...ę 2003
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Type of Work

.......Beowulf is an epic, a long poem telling a story about a hero and his exploits. It is further classified as a folk epic in that it pieces together its story from folk tales transmitted orally for centuries, probably sometimes to the accompaniment of a musical instrument such as a harp. Beowulf consists of  3,182 lines written in vernacular Old English (native language of the author's time and place) rather than in Latin, the lofty language of religion, philosophy, science, history, and, of course, literature. That fact does not mean that the writing in Beowulf is inferior; on the contrary, it is superior. 
.......Today, this epic is recognized as the greatest work in Old English. Unlike many other epics, Beowulf has characteristics of an elegy (a somber poem or song that praises or laments the dead). In fact, J.R.R. Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, maintained that Beowulf is more an elegy than an epic. However, that observation is not in accord with the prevailing body of opinion about the genre of Beowulf.

Date and Place of Composition

.......Beowulf was probably composed between 700 A.D. and 900 A.D.The place of its composition was probably Northumbria, an important Anglo-Saxon kingdom between Scotland on the north and the Humber River on the south. Northumbria was home to Roman Catholic monks who excelled in learning and literature. The most famous was the Venerable Bede (672-735), who wrote The Ecclesiastical History of the English People and popularized the use of "A.D." (abbreviation for the Latin Anno Domini, meaning in the year of the Lord) in dating events in relation to the year of the birth of Christ.

Transmission of the Story

.......Beowulf was first transmitted orally for one to three centuries. Although its author did not write it down, two English scribes did so in about 1000 A.D. Their manuscript, considered one of the great heirlooms of world literature, is now preserved in the British Library in London. The scribes' manuscript was earlier held in Ashburnham House, the library of Sir Robert Bruce Cotton (1571-1631), who collected historically important manuscripts. Sir Robert bound Beowulf with four other manuscripts in a combined codex known as Cotton MS. Vitellius A.xv, the 15th item on the first shelf of manuscripts placed under the bust of Emperor Vitellius in his library. The Beowulf manuscript was in what was known as the Nowell Codex. 
.......After fire ravaged the library in 1731, the manuscript was rescued by British authorities. However, water damage and burned edges made it difficult to read. 

Settings

.......The time is the Dark Ages, between 500 and 700 A.D. The action takes place first in a Danish kingdom ruled by Hrothgar, situated on the island of Zealand (site of present-day Copenhagen, Denmark). There, in the great mead hall of the king, Beowulf confronts a monster that has been terrorizing the king and his men. (A mead hall was a communal gathering place for feasting and drinking mead, an alcoholic beverage made of water and fermented honey. Mead was a popular drink in Denmark and other Scandinavian countries during the Middle Ages because grapes, a crop that thrives in warmer southern climates, were not readily available to make wine.) Later, Beowulf dives into a lake and fights the monster's mother. The scene of action then shifts 50 years later to the land of the Geats in Sweden, where an elderly Beowulf confronts a dragon terrorizing his own land.

Main Characters

Beowulf: Illustrious warrior from the land of the Geats in Sweden. When a monster terrorizes a Danish kingdom, Beowulf sails across the sea to come to the aid of the beleaguered Danes. Beowulf possesses enormous strength and courageously confronts the monster in hand-to-claw combat. According to Webster's New World Dictionary, Beowulf may mean bee-hunter (Beo for bee and wulf for hunter). A bear, of course, hunts bees and, therefore, Beowulf translates loosely as bear.
Hrothgar: King of a Danish realm terrorized by a monster. He presides at Heorot, a great mead hall. Heorot
Wealhtheow: Hrothgar's wife and queen.
Grendel: Monster that terrorizes Heorot. 
Grendel's Mother: Monster that retaliates after Beowulf defeats Grendel.
Dragon: Monster that goes on a rampage in the land of the Geats.
Wiglaf: Warrior who helps Beowulf fight the dragon. 
Hygelac: King of the Geats in Sweden. He is Beowulf's uncle.
Hygd: Hygelac's wife and queen.
Heardred: Son of Hygelac.
Ecgtheow: Beowulf's father.
Unferth: Danish warrior who envies Beowulf.
Breca: Childhood friend of Beowulf.
Aeschere: Counselor to Hrothgar.
Freawaru: daughter of Hrothgar and Wealhtheow 
Scyld Scefing: Onetime King of Denmark and great-grandfather of Hrothgar. He is mentioned in the epic but does not take part in the action.
 

The Beowulf Manuscript: a Timeline

Time What Happens
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Between 700 and 900 A.D............................................................ Anonymous Author Composes Beowulf
Between 500 and 700 A.D............................................................ The Fictional Events in Beowulf Take Place
About 1000 A.D........................................................................... Scribes Write Down the Anonymous Author's Story
1563........................................................................................... Englishman Laurence Nowell Acquires Scribes' Manuscript, 
Probably From a Catholic Monastery Demolished by Henry VIII
Between 1585 and 1631............................................................... Sir Robert Cotton Acquires the Manuscript for His Library
1700........................................................................................... Cotton's Grandson Donates Library to British Government
After 1700................................................................................... Library Moved to Essex House, Then Ashburnham House, in 
London area
1731........................................................................................... Ashburnham House Burns. Manuscript Saved After Water 
Damages It and Fire Chars the Edges
1753........................................................................................... British Museum Established; Manuscript Becomes Part of Its 
Collection
1753-Present............................................................................... Manuscript Preserved, Translated, Published

Language

.......Beowulf was written Old English in the West Saxon dialect of 1000 A.D. Old English was used in England between 600 and 1100 A.D. Beowulf is believed to be the first important literary work of medieval Europe to be written in the language of the common man rather than in the lofty elegance of Latin. 

Verse Format

.......Beowulf is written in unrhyming verse, without stanzas, with a caesura (pause) in the middle of each line. The lines contain caesuras to represent the pauses that speakers normally use in everyday speech. Thus, each line is divided into two parts. Each part is called a hemistich (HEM e stick), which is half a line of verse. A complete line is called a stich. Each hemistich contains two stressed (accented) syllables and a varying number of unstressed (unaccented) syllables. 
.......Following are the opening three lines of Beowulf in Old English, with the space in the middle representing the caesura. 
 

Old English With a Space for the Caesura Translation
HwŠt! We Gar-Dena in geardagum, Lo. we have heard of the glory in days of old
■eodcyninga,         ■rym gefrunon, of the Spear-Danes, of the kings of the people,
hu ­a Š■elingas         ellen fremedon. how the athelings did deeds of valor. 
Quoted in Baugh, Albert C. and George Wm. McClelland.
English Literature. New York: Appleton, 1954, Page 19.
Structure

.......In structure, Beowulf is divided chronologically into two main sections: one that focuses on Beowulf as a young man and one that focuses on him as an old man. In terms of action, it is divided into three main sections: one that introduces the characters and describes Beowulf's conquest of Grendel, one that describes Beowulf's defeat of Grendel's mother, and one that describes Beowulf's defeat of the dragon with the help of Wiglaf.

Source

.......The author of Beowulf based his tale in part on pagan myths, fables, Scandinavian history, and biblical and Christian history. Thus, Beowulfis a mixture of fiction and fact.

Point of View

.......The poet tells the tale in omniscient third-person point of view from a Christian perspective. Though describing events taking place in a pagan culture, the poet credits the Christian God and the Christian ethic for the triumph of good over evil.

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Themes
  1. Goodness conquers evil. Beowulf, of course represents goodness; the three monsters that he slays represent evil.  
  2. Actions (Beowulf's) speak louder than words (Unferth's).  
  3. Judge the greatness of a human being by the greatness of his deeds and his noble ancestry.  
  4. Help thy neighbor. (Beowulf risks his life to help a neighbor, King Hrothgar, in trouble.)  
  5. Forces of darkness–irrational, menacing–are always at work in society.
  6. Life is a continuing struggle. After Beowulf defeats Grendel, Grendel's mother seeks revenge. Beowulf kills her. Eventually, in old age, he faces still another challenge, this time from a dragon. He kills the dragon, too, but suffers a mortal wound. After he dies, new troubles loom on the horizon in the form of wars with neighboring tribes. 
The Hero and the Villains

Poem's Hero: Beowulf, a mighty warrior from the land of the Geats in Sweden. He is noble, courageous, bold, and stronger by far than any other living mortal.
Poem's Villains: (1) Grendel, a foul marsh-dweller born of the hatred of the biblical Cain. (In Genesis, Cain, the first son of Adam and Eve, kills his brother, Abel, the second son, after God accepts Abel's sacrifice but not Cain's.) Grendel is a nightmarish creature–half-beast, half-man–that strikes at the darkest hour. (2) Grendel's mother, a loathsome fiend protected by sea monsters; (3) a fire-breathing dragon that can destroy an entire town with a mere exhale.

Imagery

.......The imagery in Beowulf consists mostly of alliteration and metaphor. Many apparent hyperboles describing the feats of Beowulf are not true hyperboles, since what appear to be exaggerations–such as a passage saying Beowulf swam from Sweden to Finland or a passage saying Beowulf had the strength of thirty–were intended to be taken literally. Kennings–compound expressions, often hyphenated, representing a single noun–occur often in Beowulf. Examples of kennings are the following: whale-road for sea, sea-wood for ship, shield-bearer for warrior, battle-spoil for treasure, ring-nets for chain mail, sword-draught for a sword swallowing the blood of an enemy, and twilight-spoiler for dragon. A kenning is a form of metaphor and are similar to the Homeric epithet.

Climax

The climax occurs when Beowulf defeats Grendel's mother.


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Plot Summary
By Michael J. Cummings..ę 2003
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.......Long ago, in the gray mists of the Danish marshes, a monster born of the hatred of Cain rises up to terrorize Heorot, the great mead hall of King Hrothgar. Until the beast's appearance, Hrothgar's kingdom–and the kingdoms of his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather, the long-remembered and much-loved Scyld Scefing–had prospered without fear of the vile shadow creatures in the forests, lakes, fens and caves. But one day, the sounds of good cheer and merriment at Heorot enrage the Cain-born monster Grendel. So he crosses over from his netherworld into the realm of men to kill and destroy. He preys on Heorot after nightfall, consuming up to thirty warriors in a single raid.
.......For twelve years, Grendel's raids continue, robbing Hrothgar of men-at-arms and plunging the court into a deep abyss of qualm and trepidation. To the east, in the land of the Geats in southern Sweden, a mighty warrior named Beowulf–nephew of the King of the Geats, Hygelac–hears from seafarers of the plight of Heorot and sails across the dark seas with fourteen lusty men to come to Hrothgar's aid. When Hrothgar's coastal sentinels take him for a spy, Beowulf persuades them that he is no enemy of the Danes. After he presents himself at Heorot, he tells tales of his exploits: how he battled trolls, killed sea beasts, and painted himself red with the blood of his enemies. Hrothgar, a friend of Beowulf's father in earlier times, greets Beowulf warmly and welcomes his help.
.......But Unferth, an envious Heorot warrior full of drink, scoffs at Beowulf's exploits, claiming Beowulf lost a swimming match at sea lasting seven days. Noble Beowulf then defends his honor with his own account of the match. One day he and his childhood friend, Breca, decided to test their swimming prowess, one against the other, in a sea match, each carrying a sword for protection against the ocean beasts. On and on they swam for five days until the roil and pitch of the water separated them and foul beasts churned up from the depths. One by one, Beowulf slaughtered the beasts, nine in all, until calm returned and Beowulf washed up on the shore of Finland. 
.......Beowulf next lays a heavy charge against Unferth: Rather than satisfying his blood lust on the field of battle fighting enemies, he resorts to fighting and killing his own kin, a crime for which he will burn in hell. So speaks Beowulf. And, Beowulf asks, if Unferth is so great a warrior, why has he not ended Grendel's raids?
.......After Hrothgar's wife, Queen Wealhtheow, welcomes Beowulf, he vows to fight Grendel that very night without weapons. The Danes bed down. Beowulf and the Geats await the arrival of Grendel in the mead hall. They know he will come; it is only a matter of time. By and by, the hell-beast opens the door in the darkest hour of the night–thirsting for blood, his eyes aflame–and attacks and kills a Geat, consuming limbs and lumps of flesh. Turning then to Beowulf, Grendel wields an open claw against the hero. But Beowulf, thirty times more strong of arm than any other mortal, locks into Grendel with a hand grip so powerful that the monster cannot shake it. As the great hall trembles at the fury of the battle, Beowulf's men strike at the beast. But their swords do no not penetrate, for no weapon forged in fire can harm Grendel. No matter. In the end mighty Beowulf wrenches off Grendel's arm, and the beast flees, mortally wounded.
.......The following day, Heorot rejoices and Hrothgar heaps praise on Beowulf. Unferth the taunter has naught to say when the Danish 
thanes see the arm of Grendel, its claws harder than the hardest iron. The hall is then repaired, a feast is given, songs are sung, tales are told, and gifts are presented.
.......But the rejoicing is shortlived. For, when night falls, Grendel's mother–full wrath–descends upon the hall, kills Hrothgar's counselor, Aeschere, and drags him into the bogs. Beowulf and Hrothgar follow with warriors, but Beowulf chooses to battle the monster alone under water. Sea hellions come to her aid and tear and rip at the Geat. When he strikes her with his sword, it does not pierce. She strikes back with a dagger. By the grace of God, Beowulf's chainmail deflects it. He then espies a great sword in her armory, a weapon brandished long ago by giants who walked the earth. In spite of its impossible weight, Beowulf wields it against the hell-beast's neck and kills it. When he sees the corpse of Grendel nearby, Beowulf beheads it and returns to Heorot with his trophy.
.......After more rejoicing, Beowulf receives a bounty of gifts and returns home to the land of the Geats. There, he presents his gifts to King Hygelac and tells him of his great adventures. Hygelac, in turn, rewards Beowulf with a vast estate. Years pass. After Hygelac and his son, Heardred, die in battle, Beowulf becomes king and reigns for 50 years.
.......Then great terror spreads across the realm of the Geats after a dragon abandons its lair to wreak death and destruction by breathing fire. The dragon is furious because an intruder had entered its lair and took a gem-studded goblet from a hoard of treasure the fire-breather had been guarding since ages past.
.......Beowulf, now a very old man, ventures forth with eleven warriors to send the monster to hell. But after Beowulf engages the dragon in battle, all his cohorts retreat save for one–brave Wiglaf–who goes to his master's aid. In a storm of smoke and fire, Beowulf slays the dragon with the help of Wiglaf. But, alas, Beowulf suffers a poisonous wound. Realizing he will soon die, he bids Wiglaf to bring forth a sampling of the dragon's treasure hoard that he may look upon it, and Wiglaf does his bidding. Beowulf gives thanks to God for the treasure that will sustain his people in times to come, then dies after instructing Wiglaf to have a barrow (a mound of earth or stones) constructed to mark the burial site of his remains from the funeral pyre. Wiglaf banishes the ten deserters and arranges for the king's funeral even as new troubles loom on the horizon–wars with neighboring tribes, including the Franks and the Frisians.
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Study Questions and Essay Topics
  1. After he arrives at Heorot, Beowulf tells stories about himself: how he battled trolls, killed sea beasts, and painted himself red with the blood of his enemies. Do you believe his accounts indicate that he is a proud, boastful person?
  2. The word Heorot, the name of Hrothgar's mead hall, is Old English for hart, a male European red deer at least five years old. Considering this meaning, do you believe Heorot is an apt name for the mead hall? Is the mead hall also the "heart" of Hrothgar's kingdom? Explain your answers. 
  3. Heorot is on the island of Zealand, part of present-day Denmark. How many islands does Denmark have? What is the climate like on these islands? What types of animals and crops flourished on Zealand to sustain Hrothgar and his people?
  4. The author says Grendel was born of the hatred of Cain? Who was Cain? What happened to him?

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