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Lecture 2

ENGL 200 Lecture 2 - Beowulf Part 1.docx

7 Pages
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Department
English (Arts)
Course Code
ENGL 200
Professor
Wes Folkerth

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Beowulf Part I Historical and Cultural Background  Story is set in the dark ages, culturally and knowledge-wise, a period between the Roman occupation and the Elizabethan era (and the Renaissance)  From this period, you got many tales such as this.  It is likely that Beowulf is only 1 of many tales, many which were destroyed in a fire  It is an early document of English literature, that is oddly not set in England, but lower Scandinavia with different types of people  This poem gets picked out of time, just like the main character, Beowulf  It is a Germanic heroic poem (not really an epic, although it does have features of an epic, such as the grandeur of language and the heroes present in the poem)  Nobody knew how to read it until scholarship deciphered what the poem was talking about  Considered to be the best earliest poem in English, but it’s not about English, it set near Sweden  It is clear that it is a Christian re-reading of the poem, that the author took the core elements of the story and constructed it using a Christian background, which can be made clear by the many references to biblical stories and to the lord o Although the Christian aspects of the poem are not compelling, it is clear that the poem was authored, or recorded, by a Christian or religious person (not Pagan) o This poem concentrates the cultural background from a Christian point of view o Christian monasteries, in their effort to recruit more people in their belief, made stories such as this to glorify the role of the lord in the context of the culture of the people, such is the setting in Beowulf o It is clear that this Christian background is artificially set-up by the author o Some clear examples are:  The reference to Cain and Able, where Grendal is a descendant of Cain (bad people)  This style is quite common to that period, and is folktale in nature  Has Christian qualities mixed with Germanic-heroic poetry, together with many elements of epic poetry Page 34 Lines 1-3 ―So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness. We have heard of those princes' heroic campaigns.‖  This poem is only part of a larger collection of poems and we have heard of many other great stories  People have been trying to figure out how to fit this poem into the context of other poems  On its own terms, it does not exist on its own, it is just one story of this one guy  The construction of the poem is a hybrid, which has elements of a Germanic-heroic-epic  It has an oral-formulaic structure, which helps the alliteration that is present in this culture, and in this poem (present in stories such as Iliad and with Homer)  You could use many kennings to get the message across, and they give the author some structural nuances  Kennings definition: A compound word or phrase similar to an epithet, but which involves a multi-noun replacement for a single noun, such as wave traveller for boat or whale  This stuff is composed on the fly – while the poet is reciting it – it helps the poet remember what he is saying too, since it takes many hours to tell such a story. It is sort of a skill to recite it like this.  There is a desire to connect this poem to other poems and it has many elements that are common with other writing in Europe.  There is some historical quality and accuracy in the poem, and we know that some events and historical figures mentioned in the poem are real (some realism)  They give some accurate accounts of events in history  There are also many fantastical and supernatural elements, such as the monsters, and the dragons o It is difficult to envision what the characters look like o For example, Grendal: What is he? A virus? A demon? o Don’t try to guess, because the poem never gives a good picture – rather it is the unknown that scares us  There is also an uneasy balance between the heroic lifestyle and the Christian faith, and how they can be reconciled. This is something that much is taken into account throughout the poem.  This reminds us that this work was composed by a monk in the middle ages, and was therefore authored by a poet who wrote it down who was influenced by Christian teachings.  What would happen is that these monks would gather around and tell these stories in monasteries  These become kind of like a tool for non-Christians to get into the church, since it is appealing to the pagan culture, while being intertwined with Christian culture.  This story reflects the Germanic background at that time Page 34 Lines 18-25 ―Shield had fathered a famous son: Beow’s name was known through the north. And a young prince must be prudent like that, giving freely while his father lives so that afterward in age when fighting starts steadfast companions will stand by him and hold the line. Behavior that is admired is the path to power among people everywhere.‖  Doesn’t sound exactly Christian, but there is a sort of wisdom associated with this statement  This is a form of evaluative commentary, not necessary a Christian commentary, but a sort of cultural commentary.  There is sort of a judgment call that displays how people do it everywhere (the common method)  Therefore, there is heroic-Germanic commentary intertwined with Christian elements Bear’s Son Tale  A type of folktale that is common in Northern Europe at that time is the Bear’s Son Tale o In this type of poem, the hero is descended from a bear o The hero also has a name connected to a bear o The hero will defend the right, chase the enemy after it escapes, and kill the enemy o He will then bring something back of value o Beowulf means ―bee’s enemy‖, which implies that he is the bear that steals the honey  In the culture of that era, gold and precious materials were very important to the people, and the burial site at Sutton Hoo (sometime around WWII) demonstrated that. o Many nice things were found there, and it demonstrated the material culture then o Ships were found, along with very nice materials, such as golden stuff (spoons, swords, crowns) o More profoundly, they found the same type of boat that the people in Beowulf would put their deceased lords in, and fill up with gold, food, and everything he needed to rule in the afterlife o These objects that were found really affirm what was within the culture, and they help us understand the culture better. o These people were not Neanderthals – they were already pretty good at making these well-crafted stuff  Poem is probably authored by a Christian author, probably a monk who lived in a monastery  Some Christian elements, such as the origin of Grendal, who is a descendant of Cain  In the society that existed at that time, warriors were the aristocrats; they formed groups and bands called communitas (or communities), which are social units. They are usually related to each other, or are invited to the group  Although there were more people involved in society, such as blacksmiths, farmers, etc., they are not mentioned  Many of them are not mentioned because they were not believed to be significant enough for the author to state – however, later on in English literature, they will be mentioned  The main focus is always on the lords and the warriors, and their achievements are recorded through poems such as this  These records represent the immortality of these figures into the permanent psyche of mankind  Violence and bloodshed are very common in this society  Revenge is particular important – when somebody kills somebody who you love or are loyal to, it is your honorable responsibility to kill that person in order to exact revenge  However, the person could also pay the griever, in a process called ―wer-gild‖ o This is done in order to stop the perpetuating bloodshed that will have to ensue Opening of the Poem Page 34 Lines 4-6 ―There was Shield Sheafson, scourge of many tribes, a wrecker of mead-benches, rampaging among foes. This terror of the hall-troops had come far‖  The opening of the poem epitomizes the respect that the people had for the culture  The poem begins by introducing the historical aspect of the lords  The ―Shield‖ is often used me
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