ARCHAEOLOGICAL EVIDENCE – ENGLISH LITERATURE
Beowulf – Interpretation and criticism:
The history of modern Beowulf criticism is often said to begin with J.R.R. Tolkien, author and Merton professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford University, who in his 1936 lecture to the British Academy CRITICISED HIS CONTEMPORARIES’ EXCESSIVE INTEREST IN ITS HISTORICAL IMPLICATIONS. He noted in Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics that as a result the poem’s literary value had been largely overlooked and argued that the poem “is in fact so interesting as poetry, in places poetry so powerful, that this quite overshadows the historical content…”
BEFORE THE CHRISTIANIZATION OF SCANDANAVIA – ANGLO-SAXONS CONVERTED – 7TH CENTURY A.D. :
IN HISTORICAL TERMS, THE POEM’S CHARACTERS WOULD HAVE BEEN NORSE PAGANS
(THE HISTORICAL EVENTS OF THE POEM TOOK PLACE BEFORE THE CHRISTIANISATION OF SCANDINAVIA),
YET THE POEM WAS RECORDED BY CHRISTIAN ANGLO-SAXONS WHO HAD LARGELY CONVERTED FROM THEIR NATIVE ANGLO-SAXON PAGANISM AROUND THE 7TH CENTURY –
both Anglo-Saxon paganism and Norse paganism share a common origin as both are forms of Germanic paganism. BEOWULF THUS DEPICTS A GERMANIC WARRIOR SOCIETY, IN WHICH THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN THE LORD OF THE REGION AND THOSE WHO SERVED UNDER HIM WAS OF PARAMOUNT IMPORTANCE.
Stanley B. Greenfield (professor of English, University of Oregon) has suggested that references to the human body throughout Beowulf emphasise the relative position of thanes to their lord. He argues that the term “shoulder-companion” could refer to both a physical arm as well as a thane (Aeschere) who was very valuable to his lord (Hrothgar). With Aeschere’s death, Hrothgar turns to Beowulf as his new “arm.” In addition, Greenfield argues the foot is used for the opposite effect, only appearing four times in the poem. It is used in conjunction with Unferth (a man described by Beowulf as weak, traitorous, and cowardly). Greenfield notes that Unferth is described as “at the king’s feet” (line 499). Unferth is also a member of the foot troops, who, throughout the story, do nothing and “generally serve as backdrops for more heroic action.”
At the same time, Richard North (professor of English, University College London) ARGUES THAT THE BEOWULF POET INTERPRETED “DANISH MYTHS IN CHRISTIAN FORM” (AS THE POEM WOULD HAVE SERVED AS A FORM OF ENTERTAINMENT FOR A CHRISTIAN AUDIENCE), and states: “As yet we are no closer to finding out why the first audience of Beowulf liked to hear stories about people routinely classified as damned. This question is pressing, given […]
HEBREW ORIGIN OF BEOWULF:
THAT ANGLO-SAXONS SAW THE DANES AS ‘HEATHENS’ RATHER THAN AS FOREIGNERS.” GRENDEL’S MOTHER AND GRENDEL ARE DESCRIBED AS DESCENDANTS OF CAIN, A FACT WHICH SOME SCHOLARS LINK TO THE CAIN TRADITION.
Other scholars disagree, however, as to the meaning and nature of the poem: is it a Christian work set in a Germanic pagan context? The question suggests that the conversion from the Germanic pagan beliefs to Christian ones was a very slow and gradual process over several centuries, and it remains unclear the ultimate nature of the poem’s message in respect to religious belief at the time it was written. Robert F. Yeager (Professor of literature, University of North Carolina at Asheville) notes the facts that form the basis for these questions:
That the scribes of Cotton Vitellius A.XV were Christian is beyond doubt; and IT IS EQUALLY CERTAIN THAT BEOWULF WAS COMPOSED IN A CHRISTIANISED ENGLAND, SINCE CONVERSION TOOK PLACE IN THE SIXTH AND SEVENTH CENTURIES. YET THE ONLY BIBLICAL REFERENCES IN BEOWULF ARE TO THE OLD TESTAMENT, AND CHRIST IS NEVER MENTIONED. THE POEM IS SET IN PAGAN TIMES, AND NONE OF THE CHARACTERS IS DEMONSTRABLY CHRISTIAN. In fact, when we are told what anyone in the poem believes, we learn that they are pagans. Beowulf’s own beliefs are not expressed explicitly.
HE OFFERS ELOQUENT PRAYERS TO A HIGHER POWER, ADDRESSING HIMSELF TO THE “FATHER ALMIGHTY” OR THE “WIELDER OF ALL.” Were those the prayers of a pagan who used phrases the Christians subsequently appropriated? Or, did the poem’s author intend to see Beowulf as a Christian Ur-hero, symbolically refulgent with Christian virtues? – Beowulf
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This article is about the epic poem. For the character, see Beowulf (hero). For other uses, see Beowulf (disambiguation).
Beowulf Cotton MS Vitellius A XV f. 132r.jpg
First page of Beowulf in Cotton Vitellius A. xv
West Saxon dialect of Old English
c. 700–1000 (date of poem), c. 975–1025 (date of manuscript)
State of existence
Manuscript suffered damage from fire in 1731
Cotton Vitellius A. xv
First printed edition
epic heroic poetry
c. 3182 lines
The battles of Beowulf, the Geatish hero, in youth and old age
Beowulf, Hygelac, Hrothgar, Wealhþeow, Hrothulf, Æschere, Unferth, Grendel, Grendel’s mother, Wiglaf, Hildeburh.
Beowulf (/ˈbeɪ.ɵwʊlf/; in Old English [ˈbeːo̯ˌwulf]) is an Old English epic poem consisting of 3182 alliterative lines. It is the oldest surviving long poem in Old English and is commonly cited as one of the most important works of Old English literature. It was written in England some time between the 8th and the early 11th century. The author was an anonymous Anglo-Saxon poet, referred to by scholars as the “Beowulf poet”.
The poem is set in Scandinavia. Beowulf, a hero of the Geats, comes to the aid of Hrothgar, the king of the Danes, whose mead hall in Heorot has been under attack by a monster known as Grendel. After Beowulf slays him, Grendel’s mother attacks the hall and is then also defeated. Victorious, Beowulf goes home to Geatland (Götaland in modern Sweden) and later becomes king of the Geats. After a period of fifty years has passed, Beowulf defeats a dragon, but is fatally wounded in the battle. After his death, his attendants cremate his body and erect a tower on a headland in his memory – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beowulf