Beowulf As your textbook notes, Beowulf was the first great poem in the English tradition. It is considered the first English epic, composed in about the eighth century, but preserved in a single manuscript dating from about AD 1000. Here we see some of the sense of doom in the face of evil that Hamilton noted in the Norse myths . The world is full of dark creatures, swampdwellers, who will come in the dead of night and destroy men unless they remain vigilant. Beowulf is a Geat (from a tribe in Sweden) who has been invited to come to assist his friend Hrothgar the Dane at the battle hall of Heorot to fight with the monsters who keep raiding their hall. (If you have seen the film The 13th Warrior starring Antonio Banderas as a Muslim among the Vikings of about AD 1000, you’ll recognize some of the themes we’ve studied this term; the film is based on Michael Crichton’s novel Eaters of the Dead, and I bet we can all tell where he got his plot. The Viking warriors go to help a king named Hrothgar circumvent the marauding of groups of unkillable swampdwellers who only come at night and who worship a great goddess statue that looks astonishingly like the Venus of Wellendorf, the human priestess of whom lives in a cave with her snakes. The movie, though I have some issues with it because of its negative portrayal of the Great Goddess, is certainly fully explainable by some of the ideas we’ve studied in this class. The Muslim, who is the true hero of the film, is also the only one who knows how to write. Leonard Shlain, where were you when Hollywood needed you?) In particular, the people in Beowulf are being beset by Grendel and his mother. Grendel is a half-man, half-monster creature who it is suggested is descended from Cain, the first murderer, whose mark he bears (God’s brand). Grendel is "God’s enemy"; he is "feuding with God"; and it is God as conceptualized by early Christianity that is being evoked here. Despite the savagery of the descriptions, and the dread of these monsters that evokes the doom and gloom of the pre-Christian Germanic tribes, and despite Beowulf’s desire for fame, glory, and heroic recognition, the poet’s world is Christian, as evidenced by the claim that nothing can happen "without God’s willing it." As your text notes, these two influences are probably the result of the fact that Christianity had only been a part of the consciousness of these people for about a century (and things changed a whole lot more slowly then than they do nowadays.) One piece of the poem that marks its Christianity is called the "Song of Creation" (not in our text), which demonstrates the influence of Judaeo-Christian creation stories: . . . the poet’s clear songs, sung Of the ancient beginnings of us all, recalling The Almighty making the earth, shaping These beautiful plains marked off by oceans, Then proudly setting the sun and moon To glow across the land and light it; The corners of the earth were made lovely with trees And leaves, made quick with life, with each Of the nations who now move on its face . . . . (Lines 90-98; translation by Burton Raffel, Beowulf. New York: Signet Classics, 1963.) And it is God who leads Beowulf to victory over Grendel’s vicious mother, once he has demonstrated he is willing to help himself. After he destroys Grendel and his mother, Beowulf returns to his Geatish kingdom, where he rules for fifty years. In the second half of the poem, he must fight a primordial dra gon. With the help of his friend and comrade Wiglaf, he defeats the dragon, but dies of his wounds. The poem’s original language was Anglo-Saxon, or Old English, which was the language of the tribes of the Angles and the Saxons, two of the Germanic tribes that had settled in what is now England after the Roman withdrawal that had occurred about AD 400. But the Anglo-Saxon culture of the eighth century was law-abiding and aristocratic, civilized, and much different from their pagan ancestors. The poem is written in alliterative verse, without rhyme, but with the repetition of consonant sounds, usually at the beginning of words. Other poems we’ve examined during this course have been mostly in iambic pentameter, a five- beat line made up mostly of iambic beats (i.e., da-dum, da-dum, da-dum, da-dum, da-dum); this one is most often in trochaic tetrameter, meaning a four-beat line made up mostly of trochaic beats (i.e., dum-da, dum-da, dum-da, dum- da). It was originally part of oral tradition, meant to be recited aloud in the meeting halls of the people who composed it. And because of this four-beat line, it has been suggested that it may have been recited to the beating of a drum. Made with Xara Website by Susan Smily