Introduction to Beowulf
English literature begins with Beowulf. It is England’s heroic epic, a proper beginning for a national literature, but it belongs to everyone because it is profoundly human. The poem shapes and interprets materials connected with the tribes from northern Europe, the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes, who invaded England after the Romans left in the fifth century. Their tribal history is in the poem. It is remote, even monstrous, and yet familiar: “keeping the bloody feud/Alive . . . and paying the living/For one crime only with another” (lines 90—94). It is a history of festering pride, loud talk, and drunken violence, of spies, bloody borders, and raids. But against this dark background the poem presents another kind of history. It is a history in which a stranger comes openly to help rather than covertly to kill and loot, in which eating and drinking and speaking and gift-giving are natural ceremonies uniting young and old, in which heroic strength is wise and generous. It is a history of ideal possibilities.
The only surviving manuscript of Beowulf dates from around 1000, but the work itself was probably composed sometime during the eighth century. The poem, which recounts the exploits of third- or fourth-century Geats (gets) and Danes, is doubtless based on earlier unwritten stories that had been passed from generation to generation by word of mouth. The Anglo-Saxons of Britain shared a common group of heroes with other Germanic peoples, and the hero Beowulf certainly has his origins in an earlier, pagan era. The author of the written version that has come down to us seems to have been a Christian. The language of this version is Old English. The translation you will read in Modern English is by the poet Burton Raffel.
Beowulf, like all epic poems, is about a hero who becomes leader of his people. The action is extraordinary, the hero larger than life. The diction is stately and many of its scenes—the banquet, the battle, the boast, the voyage, and the funeral—are traditional. The general tone of the poem is somber, owing to a vision of evil in the world, a belief in the power of Fate (Wyrd is the Old English word for it) to rule human destiny, and resignation to the certainty of death.
The opening of the poem tells about the ancestors of the Danish king Hrothgar. Hrothgar wins great fame and wealth in battles. He builds a mead-hall called Herot, to commem-orate his victories. The mead-hall (or banqueting-hall) is so called because of a popular drink, mead, a fermented liquor made of water, honey, malt, and yeast, which was drunk at banquets and celebrations. Herot is also intended to be a place of peace and community. It is a symbol of the loyalty and interdependence of the lord and his faithful warriors. However, Fate has the monster Grendel in store for the Danes.
Literary Notes: The Epic Poem
Beowulf is an example of an Epic Poem. An epic poem is a long, stylized narrative poem celebrating the deeds of a national hero. (Please memorize this definition!)
The Traditional Heroic Virtues demonstrated by Beowulf are fortitude (strength), prudence (wisdom), and comitatus (loyalty). Comitatus, or loyalty, in the Old English culture meant “the unquestioning loyalty of warrior to King and King to warrior which required the members of a warrior band to protect one another until death.” These virtues form the heroic ideal and you should memorize them. We will make reference to them in later assignments and quizzes. As you read through Beowulf, notice how these virtues are displayed.
NOTE: In Old English culture, a “boast” was a solemn promise or a commitment rather than prideful bragging. A warrior was able to be courageous in battle because of a prior boast or commitment to carry out some terrifying task or deed. For example, when Beowulf says, “I made up my mind when my mates and I embarked in our boat, outbound on the sea, that full I’d work the will of thy people, or fall in the fight, in the clutch of the fiend.” He was making a proper “boast.”
READING BEOWULF: It is important that you read this poem according to its punctuation, NOT according to line breaks. It will be easy to understand if you carefully follow the punctuation. For example, do not stop at the end of a line, but wait until you find a period. You may pause at commas, but realize that the sentence is not yet complete.