P1 > The epic poem Beowulf, written in Old English, is the earliest existing Germanic epic and one of four surviving Anglo-Saxon manuscripts. Although Beowulf was written by an anonymous Englishman in Old English, the tale takes place in that part of Scandinavia from which Germanic tribes emigrated to England. Beowulf comes from Geatland, the southeastern part of what is now Sweden. Hrothgar, king of the Danes, lives near what is now Leire, on Zealand, Denmark’s largest island. The Beowulf epic contains three major tales about Beowulf and several minor tales that reflect a rich Germanic oral tradition of myths, legends, and folklore.
P2 > The Beowulf warriors have a foot in both the Bronze and Iron Ages. Their mead-halls reflect the wealthy living of the Bronze Age Northmen, and their wooden shields, wood-shafted spears, and bronze-hilted swords are those of the Bronze Age warrior. However, they carry iron-tipped spears, and their best swords have iron or iron-edged blades. Beowulf also orders an iron shield for his fight with a dragon. Iron replaced bronze because it produced a blade with a cutting edge that was stronger and sharper. The Northmen learned how to forge iron in about 500 B.C. Although they had been superior to the European Celts in bronze work, it was the Celts who taught them how to make and design ironwork. Iron was accessible everywhere in Scandinavia, usually in the form of “bog-iron” found in the layers of peat in peat bogs.
P3 > The Beowulf epic also reveals interesting aspects of the lives of the Anglo-Saxons who lived in England at the time of the anonymous Beowulf poet. The Germanic tribes, including the Angles, the Saxons, and the Jutes, invaded England from about A.d. 450 to 600. By the time of the Beowulf poet, Anglo-Saxon society in England was neither primitive nor uncultured.
P4 > Although the Beowulf manuscript was written in about A.d. 1000, it was not discovered until the seventeenth century. Scholars do not know whether Beowulf is the sole surviving epic from a flourishing Anglo-Saxon literary period that produced other great epics or whether it was unique even in its own time. Many scholars think that the epic was probably written sometime between the late seventh century and the early ninth century. If they are correct, the original manuscript was probably lost during the ninth-century Viking invasions of Anglia, in which the Danes destroyed the Anglo-Saxon monasteries and their great libraries. However, other scholars think that the poet’s favorable attitude toward the Danes must place the epic’s composition after the Viking invasions and at the start of the eleventh century when this Beowulf manuscript was written.
P5 > The identity of the Beowulf poet is also uncertain. He apparently was a Christian who loved the pagan heroic tradition of his ancestors and blended the values of the pagan hero with the Christian values of his own country and time. Because he wrote in the Anglian dialect, he probably was either a monk in a monastery or a poet in an Anglo-Saxon court located north of the Thames River.
Appeal and Value
P6 > Beowulf interests contemporary readers for many reasons. First, it is an outstanding adventure story. Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and the dragon are marvelous characters, and each fight is unique, action-packed, and exciting. Second, Beowulf is a very appealing hero. He is the perfect warrior, combining extraordinary strength, skill, courage, and loyalty. like Hercules, he devotes his life to making the world a safer place. He chooses to risk death in order to help other people, and he faces his inevitable death with heroism and dignity. Third, the Beowulf poet is interested in the psychological aspects of human behavior. For example, the Danish hero’s welcoming speech illustrates his jealousy of Beowulf. The behavior of Beowulf’s warriors in the dragon fight reveals their cowardice. Beowulf’s attitudes toward heroism reflect his maturity and experience, while King Hrothgar’s attitudes toward life show the experiences of an aged nobleman.
P7 > Finally, the Beowulf poet exhibits a mature appreciation of the transitory nature of human life and achievement. In Beowulf, as in the major epics of other cultures, the hero must create a meaningful life in a world that is often dangerous and uncaring. He must accept the inevitability of death. He chooses to reject despair; instead, he takes pride in himself and in his accomplishments, and he values human relationships.
Direction: Choose the best answer to multiple-choice questions. Follow the directions on the page or on
the screen for computer-assisted questions.
1. According to paragraph 1, which of the following is true about Beowulf?