Ok, I may be 99% alone on this one, but I love the epic poem, Beowulf! This high opinion that I have developed for the anonymously written poem was developed before the 2007 digital 3-D version was released to the general public, and while I used excerpts from it in my classes, I feel as though the 1,500 + year old poem stands the test of time.
First of all, an epic poem sets itself apart in that it’s a long narrative poem that tells of a hero’s deeds. In Beowulf‘s case, it describes the many heroic deeds of the Geatish warrior, Beowulf, including the battles with Evil personified in Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and a ferocious dragon.
Unlocking the poem’s historical context is essential to understanding all of the elements that combine to make this epic one that has indeed remained relevant after finally being put down on paper around 650-825AD by an anonymous poet.
Beowulf was set around 550 AD in modern day Sweden, Denmark, Norway.
During this time period of history, paganism had a legitimate religious following because Christianity had not become as well organized or defined. The poet who finally converted the epic poem from an oral tradition to the written word is given credit for adding in elements of Christianity in order to spread its messages. In the very beginning of the poem, God is given the credit for gracing the Danes with the help of Beowulf, blessing him with the ability to defeat the terrorism that overtakes Hrothgar and his people. All glory is given to God, as it was His doings, Beowulf’s destiny to defeat Grendel. Additionally, the center of the Anglo-Saxon culture balanced on a sense of community and duty, as well as a warrior-based society. Showing loyalty to your lord and king was repaid by gold and treasures during both times of war and peace. This loyalty was essential for a lord to maintain their position, creating a defense system against advancing tribes or expanding one’s own boundaries. The one thing that was feared most in the Anglo-Saxon culture was being dismissed from society, being excommunicated of sorts. Grendel, the most feared, the most evil decedent of Cain was referred to as a rover of borders, demonstrating how he was an outcast. By being a valued member of the community was essential, but to stand out and be an honored member meant that one must create a heroic persona through brave deeds worth remembering. This was accomplished on the battlefield. Beowulf’s celebrity was felt across the waters, far preceding him before even stepping in front of Hrothgar as he offers his services to the Danes.
One may suggest that in order to engage students in literature, you must present them with novels and poetry that does not collect so much dust on their covers. The truth is that there are many universal themes in Beowulf: fate, heroism, bravery, loyalty, and reputation. What attracted me was the way in which the English language has been romanced and choreographed into stunning, captivating lines and phrases. This was accomplished through the use of two of my favorite literary devices: kennings and litotes.
Kennings: usually a two-word compound metaphor
Examples from Beowulf:
- Battle Sweat = Blood
- Bone House = Skeleton or Body
- Whale Road = the Ocean
- Swan of Blood = a Raven
- Foot Clothing = Socks or Shoes
- Reverse Ignorance = Learning/Reading
- Sewer of Knowledge = Teacher
Litotes: an understatement to tell what something is
Example from Beowulf:
- “Cain got no good from committing that murder”
- She’s not the sharpest knife in the drawer
- He’s not a bad dancer