Notes On Beowulf

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Beowulf can be read in two different ways: A) as an anthropological "case study" of a primitive people, or B) as a story, a literary piece, even, perhaps, a work of art.

A) The Relic Although it is not the oldest surviving manuscript in Old English, it does represent the only sustained view of the Germanic tribes that settled England during the first millennium A. D.

To call the poem "English," however, is something of a mistake; its language is an antecedent of English and its setting is Scandinavian. An oral poem, it was probably transcribed by an "English" monk around the 7th century. (Click here to see a sample of Old English, as well as pictures of the manuscript) Its frame of reference is somewhere around the late 5th or early 6th centuries, though the quality of life it presents could be much earlier or much later.

In Beowulf we glimpse several facets of the Anglo-Saxon/Germanic customs: Mythology: Although there are many Christian references, these are thought to be primarily the insertions of the monks who transcribed the poem.

Otherwise, the world of Beowulf, refered to as "middle-earth," largely belongs to Norse myth.

Social Organization: Obviously, Beowulf lives in a warrior society, one in which the king/thane relationship is extremely important. As you read through Beowulf, note the number of occasions in which service to a king is rewarded; or, as a result of some service, a king is obligated to bestow protection or to take revenge. In addition, there is the concept of wyrgild: seeking restitution for death, injury or insult. The failure to take or to pay wyrgild can lead to expulsion from the community. Note, too, the communal structure, the way in which the mead hall is at the center, surrounded by outlying buildings. The mead...