Study Guide for Beowulf

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Introduction

The oldest example of Anglo-Saxon literature, Beowulf really marks the beginning of what we call English Literature. The poem was originally part of an oral tradition in which scops, or bards would recite the poem from memory in order to commemorate special events and to celebrate the culture of ancient Anglo-Saxon life.

The question when was Beowulf written is long answered by the researchers – Beowulf was written down sometime in the 11th century in what we now call Old English. It appears as a foreign language to us now, but it is the language that carries the rudiments of the English language. The exact author of the poem was never found out. The unknown scribes who wrote down the poem transformed certain elements of the ancient pagan culture into Christian versions of events. Thus Grendel is a descendant of Cain whereas the origins of a demon figure such as Grendel would have preceded the Christian teachings that connect him to the Bible.

Nevertheless, the poem retains most of the pre-Christian virtues of an ancient warrior culture. That some of these overlap with virtues that would guide the modern tradition is no accident. These epic virtues would take their place in modern culture in some part due to the influence of ancient Anglo-Saxon culture.

As with all epic poetry, Beowulf exists as a myth of the people who created the poem. It describes their mythic history and origins. Yet the poem takes place in what is called the epic past. This is a past that is not actually connected to history. The epic past is the long-gone time of heroes and monsters which civilization managed to tame. The earliest listeners of Beowulf would have identified with the heroic exploits of Beowulf and understood that this time is gone. However, archeologists claim to have found the exact place where the ancient hall was located in which the events of the poem start, so probably some of the characters mentioned in the story were actual living people.

It is easy to see how some of the features of Beowulf persist in our own time. Grendel is a terrifying demon-ogre. His mother is menacing demon. The dragon is the familiar feature of great tales to this day.

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