martes, 17 de septiembre de 2013


An introduction to Beowulf. Basic facts from The Oxford Companion to English Literature, followed by some introductory study guide videos. Plus an account by David Daiches, and other materials.

an Old English poem of 3,182 lines, surviving in a 10th-cent. manuscript. It tells of two major events in the life of the Geatish hero Beowulf: the first when, in his youth, he fights and kills first Grendel, a monster who has been attacking Heorot, the hall of the Danish king Hrothgar, and then Grendel's mother who comes the next night to avenge her son; the second, 50 years later, when Beowulf, who has for a long time been king of the Geats, fights a dragon who has attacked his people, in a combat in which both Beowulf and the dragon are mortally wounded. The historical period of the poem's events can be dated in the 6th cent. from a reference to Beowulf's king Hygelac by the historian Gregory of Tours; but much of the material of the poem is legendary and paralleled in other Germanic historical-mythological literature in Norse, Old English, and German.

Although it has been suggested that the date of the poem may be nearer to that of its manuscript in the 10th cent., the poem is generally dated in the 8th cent., perhaps in its second quarter, at a time when England was being won over from paganism to Christianity. This date is taken to account for the strong thread of Christian commentary which runs through the poem, seemingly inappropriate to the date of its historical events. The degree of Christian morality inherent in the poem has been one of the two principal critical talking points about Beowulf; the second is the consistency or otherwise of the poem's construction. W. P. Ker (in Epic and Romance, 1896) regarded the monster stories as insignificant and the peripheral historical allusions as weighty and important. This view was most famously opposed by Tolkien in "The Monsters and the Critics" (1936) where he argued that it was precisely the superhuman opposition of the heathen monsters that elevated the poem to heroic stature, and that all the other allusions were related directly to the transient grandeur of Beowulf's life and battles with the monsters.

Beowulf is much the most important poem in Old English and it is the first major poem in a European vernacular language. It is remarkable for its sustained grandeur of tone and for the brilliance of its style, both in its rather baroque diction and in the association of the elements of its plot.

Ed. F. Klaeber (1922), etc.; C. L. Wrenn (1953, rev. W. F. Bolton, 1973); trans. E. T. Donaldson (1966); G. N. Gammonsway and then others in Beowulf and Its Analogues (1968); R. W. Chambers, Beowulf: An  Introduction (3rd edn with supplement by C. L. Wrenn, 1959); L. E. Nicholson (ed.), An Anthology of Beowulf Criticism (1963). Heaney's new translation appeared in 1999.

Study Guides for Beowulf:

Lessons on Beowulf  from the University School at Nashville:




Now a longer introduction, from A Critical History of English Literature, by David Daiches (London: Secker and Warburg, 1960). Followed by Michael Wood's documentary In Search of Beowulf.


Of surviving Anglo-Saxon literature, that which brings us most closely into contact with the Germanic origins of the invaders is the heroic poetry, which still bears traces not only of the pre-Christian heroic society of the continental Saxons and others, but also of that community of subject which linked these early English with the wider civilization of Germania. This is written in the language we know as Old English or Anglo-Saxon, which is essentially the English language in an earlier stage of its development, with inflections which have since disappeared, a relatively small vocabulary from which many words have since been lost (though some which are lost to standard English remain in altered from in Scots and in regional English dialects), and significant differences between, for example, the West Saxon dialect of the south and the Anglian dialect of Northumbria. The verse is alliterative and stressed, without rhyme, each line containing four stressed syllables and a varying number unstressed. There is a definite pause (caesura) between the two halves of each line, with two stresses in each half. 

We geascodon   Eormenrices
wylfenne ge þoht;   ahte wide folc
Gotena rices;  þæt wæs grim cyning.
Sæt secg monig   sorgum gebunden,
wean on wenan, wyscte geneahhe
þæt þæs cynerices   ofercumen wære.

To the superficial eye this looks very far removed from modern English; and in a sense it is. (The letter þ—"thorn"—has the sound of "th"). But a literal translation helps to bring out its relation to modern English: 

We have learned of Eormanric's
wolfish disposition; he held wide dominion
in the realm of the Goths. That was a cruel king.
Many a man sat bound in sorrows,
anticipating woe, often wishing
that his kingdom were overcome.

Some thirty thousand lines of Anglo-Saxon poetry have survived, nearly all of it contained in four manuscripts (1), and we have no reason to believe that the older, nonreligious poetry that survives is more than a casually preserved fragment of what was written. Specifically religious poetry might be expected to have earned ecclesiastical care and preservation, but the heroic poetry which connects more directly with the Germanic origins of the Anglo-Saxons could not be expected to arouse any special ecclesiastical interest even when it had been superficially purged of its pagan feeling and in some degree Christianized in thought. The conversion of the English peoples began with the arrival of Augustine in Kent in 597; he had been sent by Gregory the Great with a band of monks in order to achieve his missionary task. But, though Æthelbert, king of Kent, was duly converted to Christianity and Augustine was soon able to establish the seat of his bishopric at Canterbury, the permanent establishment of Christianity through England proved to be a much lengthier task and one which required the active intervention of Celtic missionaries from Ireland and Scotland. Differences between the customs and practices of the Irish Church—which had remained somewhat isolated from Rome—and the Roman Church, which had sponsored Augustine's mission, made for certain difficulties between those English ecclesiastics who looked to Rome and those who looked to Iona and to Ireland, and these were not resolved until the Synod of Whitby in 663 (2); but it is sufficient for the student of literature to note that the development of English Christianity was not continuous but sporadic from the first century and more, with certain notable setbacks such as the defeat and death of the Christian Edwin, king of Northumbria, at the hands of the pagan Prenda, king of Mercia, in 632, which meant the disappearance of the Christian Church in Northumbria until its re-establishment by Aidan and his followers from Iona. If even the external ecclesiastical organization was thus unstable in the early centuries, it is not difficult to see how traces of pagan thought in varying kinds of relation to Christianity persisted for some time after the nominal conversion of the English.

Unfortunately, though much is known in general about the mythology of the Germanic and the Norse peoples, we have very little definite information about the heathen background of Old English culture. Though we can drawn analogies between what we know of Scandinavian heathendom and what we surmise of its Old English equivalent, the fact remains that the common origin of the two was was already far in the past by the time we find the Anglo-Saxons in England. Old English place names give some indication of pre-Christian activity associated with certain localities in Anglo-Saxon England, but tell us nothing of the larger patterns of attitude and belief which are of the most relevance for a study of the literature. That Anglo-Saxon heroic poetry, even as we have it, is the product of a pagan heroic society and in social tone and general mood bears evidence of its origins, can hardly be disputed. But debate on the degree to which Beowulf, for example, has been modified by a relatively sophisticated Latin culture—not only by Christian sentiment but, as has been claimed, by a Virgilian tradition,—cannot be resolved without knowledge of more details than it seems likely we shall ever possess about primitive Anglo-Saxon beliefs. On the whole, it would seem likely that Beowulf and such other remains of early English heroic poetry as survive are closer to their pagan origins in mood and purpose than is sometimes believed.

Though there are difficulties in placing the earliest extant Anglo-Saxon poetry in its cultural context, we can take some comfort from the knowledge that what has survived of Anglo-Saxon poetry, fragmentary though it is and an arbitrary sample though it may be, is of earlier date than any extant poetry of the other Germanic literatures—of Old High German or Old Norse, for example. Anglo-Saxon heroic poetry is the nearest we can get to the oral pagan literature of the Heroic Age of Germania. The stressed alliterative verse of Anglo-Saxon poetry is clearly the product of an oral court minstrelsy; it was intended to be recited by the scop, the itinerant minstrel who frequented the halls of kings and chiefs and sometimes found continuous service with one master. One of the earliest surviving Anglo-Saxon poems, Widsith, is the autobiographical record of such a scop. The poem as we have it is probably not homogeneous—some of the lines seem to be later interpolations—but the core of the work finely reflects the heroic attitude to the bard's function and gives us a fascinating glimpse of the Germanic world as it appeared to the imagination of the Anglo-Saxons. The text we have of the poem is in the Exeter Book, and is thus tenth-century and in the West Saxon dialect; the poem—which must have been originally composed in Northumbria—dates from the late seventh or early eight century, though parts of it must be older even than that. Widsith, the "far wanderer," tells of his travels throughout the Germanic world and mentions the many rulers he has visited. Many of the characters he mentions figure in other poems—in Beowulf, for example, and in the fragmentary stories of Finn and Waldhere. The princes he claims to have visited cover virtually the whole Germanic world and their lifetimes extend over two hundred years. He was, he tells us, with Eormanric (the Gothic king who died about 370): "likewise I was in Italy with Ælfwine," he tells us elsewhere in the poem, and
Ælfwine is Alboin, king of the Lombards, who died about 572 (and who is, incidentally, the latest character to be mentioned in any Germanic heroic poem). The poem thus cannot be true autobiography. It is, however, something much more interesting than that: it is a view of Germanic history and geography as it appeared to a Northumbrian bard of the seventh century drawing on the traditions of his people. What strikes us most forcibly is its catholicity: praise is meted out impartially to Huns, Goths, Burgundians, Franks, Danes, Swedes, Angles, Wends, Saxons, Langobards, and many others. "Ætla [Attila] ruled the Huns, Eormanric the Goths, Becca the Bannings, Gifica the Burgundians, . . . Theodric ruled the Franks, Thyle the Rondings, Breoca the Brondings, Billing the Wærnas. Oswine ruled the Eowan, and Gefwulf the Jutes, Fin Folcwalding the race of the Frisians.  . . . Offa ruled Angel, Alewih the Danes; he was the most courageous of all these men, but he did not excel Offa in his mighty deeds." We are given here a bird's eye view of the subject matter of Germanic heroic poetry; and we are reminded that the heroes of that poetry were not regional or national but common to all Germania.

Widsith may be primitive stuff as poetry—indeed, the first catalogue of rulers in the poem is cast in the form of a very early early type of genealogical verse and may well date from the beginning of the sixth century or even from before the coming of the Anglo-Saxons to Britain—but it is this very primitive quality which is of most interest. In its combination of historical memories and heroic traditions it shows us something of the historical foundations of heroic poetry and reminds us of the nature and extent of that wide world of Germania which the author of Beowulf was equally to take for granted as familiar to his audience and thus as suitable material for allusion and analogy. The whole world of barbarian wanderings and conquests—the world which collided with, in a sense destroyed, and in a sense was absorbed by, the Roman Empire—is here sketched out. And that world provides the orchestration, as it were, for Beowulf.

Beowulf holds a special position in Anglo-Saxon literature—indeed, in older Germanic literature as a whole—because it is the only complete extant epic of its kind in an ancient Germanic language. Nowhere else is a traditional theme handled in a long narrative poem against a background which reveals to us the culture and society of the Heroic Age of the Germanic peoples. Whether there were in fact other Anglo-Saxon epics, which have not survived, is a question which may well be debated forever; but the fact remains that Beowulf survives in a single manuscript, which was damaged by fire before it was ever studied or transcribed. If it is impossible to determine conclusively whether it was the Anglo-Saxon epic or simply an Anglo-Saxon epic (though it should be mentioned  that modern opinion inclines to the belief that it was the only poem of its kind composed in Anglo-Saxon times), it can at least be said that it is a poem technically impressive in its handling of narrative verse, remarkably successful in rendering that combination of heroic idealism and somber fatalism which seems to have been part of the Germanic temper, yet structurally weak and providing insufficient unity of tone or organization to hold together effectively the two central episodes and the many digressions which make up the whole. Though the ultimate origin of the story is folklore (working, as folklore does, on history), and behind the poem probably lies a variety of popular lays, the poem as we have it is generally agreed to be the work of a single author writing in the first half of the eighth century, though a powerful case has been made out for its having been composed orally by a heathen considerably earlier, with the Christian references (of which there are about seventy) representing later revision or interpolations. Future scholars may well return to this latter view.

Beowulf falls into two main parts. The first deals with the visit of Beowulf, nephew of King Hygelac of the Geats (the Geats probably occupied what is now southern Sweden), to the court of King Hrothgar of Denmark. The aging Hrothgar had long been plagued by a man-eating monster, Grendel, who came regularly to the king's great hall of Heorot to prey on his warriors, and it was to slay the monster that Beowulf came to Denmark. He fights with and mortally wounds Grendel in Heorot, and when Grendel's mother comes to take revenge for the death of her son he follows her to her underwater home and after a desperate struggle slays her too. Beowulf and his companions then leave for home, laden with honors and presents from the Danish king. The second part takes place fifty years later, when Beowulf has long been king of the Geats. A dragon, guarding a hoard of treasure, has been disturbed, and has been going out to wreak slaughter throughout the land. Beowulf, to save his country from the dragon's ravages, undertakes to fight it, and though he succeeds in slaying it he is himself mortally wounded in the struggle. The poem ends with an account of Beowulf's funeral: his body is burned on an elaborate funeral pyre, amid the lamentations of his warriors.

There are historical elements in Beowulf, though they are seen through the folk memory and the folk imagination, in combination with a variety of marvelous legends. There are also onumerous digressions and allusions which make it clear that the author is taking for granted among his readers (or auditors) knowledge of a whole body of stories concerning Germanic heroes. In the feast of Heorot celebrating Beowulf's victory over Grendel we are told how the minstrel recited the story of Hnæf's death at the hands of the sons of Finn and the subsequent vengeance taken on Finn by the Danes, whose leader
Hnæf had been. Part of the minstrel's recital is given at considerable length in Beowulf, but it can have had little meaning to anyone without a knowledge of the whole story. We can in some degree reconstruct the sequence of events with the help of a fragmentary Anglo-Saxon lay, The Fight at Finnsburh, which appears to deal with other events in the same story, told on a different scale. Other stories are referred to in Beowulf more casually, and part of its interest lies in the thread of Germanic story that runs, through allusions, analogies, and references, through the poem. Though it is an Anglo-Saxon poem, composed in England, it harks back to the period of Germanic history before the Anglo-Saxon invasion and shows no bias toward English heroes. Geats, Danes, and Swedes occupy the foreground of the narrative, and emerging briefly from the background are a number of figures whom we also meet in Scandinavian tradition and in the poetry and legends of a variety of Teutonic peoples.

On the surface, Beowulf is a heroic poem, celebrating the exploits of a great warrior whose character and actions are held up as a model of aristocratic virtue. It reflects the ideals of that state of society we call the Heroic Age, and its resemblance to the Odyssey in this respect has often been noted. The grave courtesy with which men of rank are received and dismissed, the generosity of rulers and the loyalty of retainers, the thirst for fame through the achievement of deeds of courage and endurance, the solemn boasting of warriors before and after performance, the interest in genealogies and pride in a noble heredity—all these things are to be found in both poems. But Beowulf is also a record of marvels rather different in kind from those encountered by Ulysses in his adventures, and, further, its Anglo-Saxon gravity is reinforced by the introduction of Christian elements which do not, however, seriously weaken the pagan atmosphere of the poem, for they are concerned with large elemental facts such as God's creation and governance of the world and such Old Testament stories as that of Cain's murder of Abel. If the general atmosphere of Beowulf can be called seriously pagan, with the seriousness deepened and the pagan heroic ideal enlarged by Christian elements, it is certainly not uncivilized, though the civilization it reflects is primitive enough. There is a genuine ideal of nobility underlying its adventure stories.

It is the splendid gravity of the poem that falls more impressively on modern ears. Sometimes in a single line the poem conveys atmosphere and mood to perfection. We are given an acount of Beowulf's reception at Heorot, and his confident words before his warriors lay themselves down to sleep. Then:

                           Com on warne niht
scrið (3) an sceadu-3en3a.   Sceotend swaefon,
þa þæt horn-reced         healdan scoldon,
ealle buton anum. . . .
    Ða com of more   under mist-hleoþum
3rendel 3on3an, 3odes yrre bær. . . .
                            Came on the dark night
gliding, the shadowy prowler. The warriors slept
who were to hold the antlered hall,
all but one. . . .
    Then from the moor under the misty cliffs
came Grendel marching, he bore God's anger.

The tone is not uniform, but the poem is at its most effective in its moments of slow terror or suspense, and in its more elegiac moods. It has neither the larger epic conception of the Odyssey nor the fine polish of a "secondary" epic such as the Aeneid. But it is an impressive, if uneven, performance, carrying us successfully into the Anglo-Saxon heroic imagination, with its emphasis on solemn courtesy, generosity, fidelity, and sheer endurance. And underlying all is the sense of the shortness of life and the passing away of all things except the fame a man leaves behind.

There is little else surviving of Anglo-Saxon literature which makes direct contact with the older heroic view of life. Deor, an interesting poem of forty-two lines, is the complaint of a minstrel who, after years of service to his lord, has been supplanted by a rival, Heorrenda. He comforts himself by recounting the trials of Germanic heroes, all of which were eventually overcome. After each reference to the troubles of some famous character there occurs the refrain

Þæs ofereode,     þisses swa mæg.
That was surmounted; so may this be
We get fascinating glimpses of figures famous in Germanic legend—Weland the smith, Theodoric the Ostrogoth, Eormanric the Goth, and others—and of the troubles they suffered or caused; but the main interest of the poem lies in its combination of this kind of subject matter with a personal, elegiac note, not common in Anglo-Saxon poetry, though found even more intensely in The Wanderer and The Seafarer, to be discussed later.


(1) These are: (1) MS Cotton Vitellius A XV in the British Museum, which contains Beowulf, Judith, and three prose works. (2) The Junius Manuscript in the Bodleian Library, Oxford (MS Bodleian Junius 11), which contains Genesis, Exodus, Daniel, and Christ and Satan. (3). The Exeter Book, given by Bishop Leofric to Exeter Cathedral, containing Christ, Juliana, The Wanderer, The Seafarer, Widsith, Deor, and many other short pieces. (4). The Vercelli Book, preserved in the cathedral library at Vercelli, in northern Italy, which contains Andreas, The Fates of the Apostles, Address of the Soul to the Body, The Dream of the Rood, and Elene.

(2) Not 664, as is traditionally held. Bede dates it 664, but he begins his year in September, and as the Synod can be shown to have been held in late September or early October, this would mean 663 in our dating.

(3) ð, like þ, has the sound of "th". Ð is the capital form of ð.


Michael Wood, In Search of Beowulf. A BBC documentary: 


Some additional materials:

"Beowulf the Legendary Geatish Hero" (History Channel - Clash of the Gods series).

In Search of the Dark Ages. Michael Wood documentary video series.

The Wanderer  


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