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Beowulf (Compilation of All Lectures)

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Western University
English 2307E
Peter Thoms

Beowulf Context - Old English poetic use of alliteration – See p.24 of Norton volume A for longer explanation - Epic/heroic poem criteria: Long verse narrative on a serious subject, told in formal and elevated style, centred on a heroic or quasi-divine figure on whose actions depends the fate of a tribe, a nation, or in the instance of Paradise Lost, the human race Shield’s Funeral - Poem begins and ends with death/funeral (Shield’s at the beginning, Beowulf’s at the end) - Characters are preoccupied with the frailty of human life - Trying to deal with mortality and inescapable-ness - Pagan funeral gesture – Dead goes equipped with items that will serve him in the after world - Treasure is a pervasive motif in the poem - Treasure is a kind of glue in this society (especially important in the relationship of a warrior to his lord) - However, as the story progresses an attitude starts to emerge that treasure may be insufficient glue - Characters are trying to make their lives meaningful – Beowulf would like to become famous through his actions and live past his death through his legacy as a great warrior - Artfulness provides beauty and significance in an uncertain world (like poetry often does for us) - Litotes: understatement – Shield was a foundling and now he is laden with great wealth (but even though he is laden with goods, they are not much use to him in death) Heorot - Heorot – the notion of the house/home - A certain hubris in trying to build something stable and lasting in a world of fragility - The threat is not just from the monsters, but also from within – blood-lust in human nature (tribes always feuding and killing each other)(see line 85) - The building of Heorot is an attempt to create a place of light to block out the darkness and the unforgiving world of nature - Opposition between egotism and selflessness – some characters can prison of egotism and interact with people on a selfless/empathetic level - Heorot linked with light, art, poetry, stories - Grendel linked with darkness, hatefulness of order Beowulf’s Goals - Beowulf knows that each battle may be his last - He is resigned to the fact that if he dies then it was God’s will - He tries to win glory even by risking death - It is more honorable to die fighting as a warrior than to be a coward - Glory will give Beowulf a kind of immortality – his memory will live on Heorot is Attacked - We as individuals exist in a cultural envelope - Our ceremonies, traditions, etc. give us comfort in a forbidding, wild world - The building of Heorot is an attempt to impose human order in the midst of the unforgiving and unknowable world around them - The death/attacks undercut the comfort of the cultural envelope of Heorot - Grendel is an outcast living in unpleasant and isolating nature – linked to Cain, who murdered his own brother – breaks the bonds of kinship - Kinship is very important in the world of Beowulf; social bonds very important - Grendel embodies the hostility of the natural world and its anti-social aspects - As a result of his violence, the hall stands empty – was supposed to be a center of social gathering and civilization - Humiliating for the king Hrothgar to live under this oppressive terror – the code of the time would dictate that they avenge the deaths, but they lack anyone adequate to go up against Grendel Beowulf Arrives at Heorot - Kenning: a compound of two words in place of another (eg. Sea = “whale road”)(see p.9 for more info) - “Word-hoard” – shows that Beowulf has good vocabulary and the skill of using words - Words are important in locating oneself in a world that has meaning - Beowulf places himself in a line of genealogy – who came before him, father, grandfather, etc. - He also makes formal boasts to solidify his identity, and then in battle he remembers his earlier boasts and fights to fulfill them - Description at the top of p.48 – Continues light imagery surrounding Heorot, but also used in descriptions of the warriors in their shining armor – an image of the possibility of restoration - Lines 371-376 – social bonds again enforced; friendship between tribes - “Ring-giver” (more kenning) – idea that a good kind is a generous king - The king gives treasure to his thanes, and the thanes are loyal to their king – a relationship not based on subordination, but on mutual trust and respect (see p.38) Elegiac Elements - Beowulf as an epic is sometimes seen as a sort of elegy for heroic epic values - It sets up a heroic society, but also seems to see the limitations of it - The tradition of avenging the dead leads to blood feuds that go on for a long time – Heorot will eventually be burned down as the result of one of these feuds Nobody Likes Unferth - Unferth is consumed by envy – similarity to Grendel who is “nursing a hard grievance” - Beowulf handles Unferth well, showing again his resourcefulness with words - Unferth has also killed his “own kith and kin” – another reference to Cain – more similarity to Grendel - Unferth is a sort of anti-social force – shows the dangers of egotism Formal Boasts - Beowulf boasts that he will not use weapons; he will fight hand-to-hand as Grendel does - More glory will come to him if he wins by only relying on his brute strength - Fortuitous – we later find out that Grendel cannot be hurt by swords anyway - Beowulf’s boasts are necessary to prime him for battle, and for inspiring him during battle - The king and queen are pleased by his formal boast on p.54 – he will restore Heorot to light as he set out to do or he will die trying - On p.57 Beowulf recalls his boast during the fight and it inspires him to triumph over Grendel - Beowulf constructs his identity by imagining how he will perform, being inspired by his imagined performance, and then proving himself by fulfilling it Problem of Religion - Strange mix of pagan views and rituals and Christian views of a single God controlling outcomes - May be the consequence of a Christian poet putting his own slant on these materials - The voice of the poet talking about the word of God - The Danes backsliding and making offerings to idols/pagan shrines (or if they’re not backsliding, then it’s a documentation of their beliefs) - All biblical references are to the Old Testament, none to the New Testament or Christ - When Beowulf goes to battle, he is on a quest for glory and treasure, not Christ or God - This issue of religions being mixed in Beowulf will continue to vex and intrigue people – not a resolved debate Selflessness and Civilization - p.59 line 866 – a poet engages in “rehearsing Beowulf’s triumphs and feats in well-fashioned lines” - Beowulf is praised over and over again for restoring light and civilization to the hall - God is also praised for the victory - Hrothgar says that he will adopt Beowulf in his heart as a son – a great reward considering the importance of social bonds and kinship in building civilization - Figures like Unferth, Cain, Grendel, and Grendel’s mother operate in opposition to society with their selfish acts - What is important for civilization to thrive is do
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