Freshman Language Arts Complete Study Guide for "Beowulf"

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Bryan G.


Freshman Language Arts

Complete Study Guide for “Beowulf”

Translated by Burton Raffel

Beowulf Background Information

Start of the Anglo-Saxons

  1. Anglo-Saxons invade Britain in 449 AD

  2. First people to inhabit the area that is now Great Britain were called Romano-Britons

  3. Britons were under attack from many directions

    1. Irish invaded from the West

    2. Picts invaded from the North

    3. Angles, Jutes, and Saxons invaded from the East

  4. Where did they all settle?

    1. Jutes settled in Kent

    2. Celts settled in western Britain (Wales)

    3. Angles and Saxons settled in England

Anglo-Saxon England

  1. Formed a common language from the Germanic tribes

      1. Old English

  2. Separated into 4 main sections

      1. Northumbria (North)

      2. Mercia (Middle)

      3. Kent (East)

      4. Wessex (South)

  3. Politics

      1. Monarchy

        1. King was head of state

          1. Chief magistrate

          2. Wise men elected king

          3. King wasn’t always a direct heir of the king, but rather was of the royal family and showed characteristics to rule

          4. Had control of army, calling the witan to meet, and bringing forth public issues

            1. Privileges granted by consent of the witenagamot (meeting of the wise)

        2. Ealdormen

          1. Next in line

          2. Chief witan

          3. Head of administration of justice

            1. Covers judicial and executive

          4. Had officers

            1. Called scirgerefan or sheriffs

          5. Led armed forces

          6. Entitled to lots of land and wealth

        3. Thanes or thegnas

          1. Next in line

          2. Bound or held close ties to their superiors

            1. King and ealdormen

          3. Higher in rank second only to the ealdormen

          4. Had some land

            1. Smaller than ealdormen’s land

          5. Filled offices of personal service to the king or administrative service of justice

  4. Religion

      1. The days of the Heathen

      2. Worshipped gods and goddesses for thousands of years before Christianity

      3. Gods and goddesses were part of every aspect of life

      4. Later developed into Norse mythology

About Beowulf

  1. Written sometime before the tenth century AD

  2. Describes the adventure of a great Scandinavian warrior/hero of the sixth century

  3. It is the oldest surviving epic in British literature

  4. Orally passed down from bard to bard

  5. Author is theorized to be a Northumbrian monk

      1. Scenery resembles Northumbria

      2. Epic has Christian elements

  6. Is a poem/epic

      1. Caesura (rhythmic pause)

        1. Used to create unity

        2. Created with space (the space key)

      2. Same lines from our text

      3. Caesura is created with a comma

      4. Kennings

        1. Metaphorical phrase or compound word used to name a person, place, thing, or event

        2. Enhances the literal meaning of the words; explains how the words connect in a richer, emotionally complex way

          1. Examples:

            1. Bone-house: human body

            2. Wave-floater: ship

            3. Whale-road: sea

            4. Cave-guard: dragon

            5. Man-of-steel: Superman

      5. Uses alliteration

        1. Repeating sounds

      6. Uses assonance

        1. Repeating vowels

  7. Characters

      1. Beowulf

        1. Main character

        2. Scandinavian warrior/hero

        3. Nephew of Higlac, king of Geats

      2. Grendel

        1. Demonic monster

        2. Eats men

        3. Lives at the bottom of a foul mere (mountain lake)

        4. Beowulf fights him

      3. Grendel’s Mother

        1. Kenning of water-witch

        2. Seeking revenge

      4. Hrothgar

        1. King of the Danes

      5. Wiglaf

        1. A great warrior

        2. One of Beowulf’s select hand

        3. Only person to help him in his final fight with the dragon

      6. Dragon

        1. Giant fire-breathing serpent

        2. Fights Beowulf in part 2 of the poem

  8. Places

      1. Beowulf takes place in Sandinavia

      2. Scholars think Herot might have been on the coast of Zealand, Denmark

      3. Herot is the golden guest hall built by King Hrothgar where warriors gathered to celebrate

        1. Built in solid guild

        2. Is more or less of the Beowulf world

Anglo-Saxons Reading

Britain as a Source of Influence and Power

  1. Britain has given us many things

    1. Stonehenge

    2. Robin Hood

    3. Shakespeare

    4. Theory of gravity

    5. Industrial Revolution

    6. Radar

    7. Penicillin

    8. Beatles

    9. English language

  2. Government

    1. Monarchy

    2. Political system “by and for the people”

    3. Remains a “source of envy and inspiration for many nations”


  1. People

    1. Tall

    2. Blond

    3. Warrior-status

    4. Called themselves Celts

    5. Brythons

      1. (alternate spelling: Britons)

      2. Origin of the name Britain

  2. Religion

    1. Animism

      1. Latin for spirit

      2. Believed that everything was a spirit

        1. Rivers

        2. Trees

        3. Stones

        4. Ponds

        5. Fires

      3. The spirits/gods in nature controlled everything

      4. Druids (priests) acted as the middle men and “communicated” with the gods

      5. Events were held to satisfy the gods

        1. Ritual dances

        2. Human sacrifices

        3. Stonehenge might have been a ritual site; dealt with solar and lunar cycles

  3. Influence on Literature

    1. Le Morte Darthur

      1. Written by Sir Thomas Malory

      2. 15th Century

      3. Used Celtic legends about a warrior named Arthur

    2. Poetry/Plays

      1. Written by William Butler Yeats

      2. 20th Century

      3. Used Celtic myths in his writings to make the Irish aware of their lost heroic past

  4. Differences Between Anglo-Saxon Writings

    1. Gender

      1. Anglo-Saxon focus on males

      2. Celtic legends focus on strong women

    2. Outcomes

      1. Anglo-Saxon stories are usually brutal

      2. Celtic stories “leap into the sunlight”

    3. Focus

      1. Anglo-Saxon stories are somewhat more realistic

      2. Celtic tales “take you to enchanted lands where magic and imagination rule”


  1. War

    1. Julius Caesar led an army in 55 BC

    2. Emperor Claudius led another army 100 years later

    3. Both wars eventually overthrew the Britons

  2. Advancements

    1. Created and used “administrative genius” to avoid being reconquered

    2. Built a large system or roads, some of which are still used today

    3. Defensive wall 74 miles long

  3. Religion

    1. Christianity started to move its way in

    2. Celtic Animism began to fade

  4. Evacuation

    1. Evacuated by 409 AD

    2. Left roads, walls, villas, and public bathrooms behind, but no central government

    3. Without a strong government remaining, other, non-Christian people invaded from the Germanic regions of Europe


  1. Invasion

    1. The Angles and Saxons invaded from the North

      1. At this time, they were two separate parties

    2. From Germany and Denmark

    3. Crossed the North Sea

    4. Killed/pushed out the old Britons

    5. The new language became that of the Anglo-Saxons

      1. English

    6. Country took a new name

      1. Engla (from the Angles) Land

      2. Also known as England

    7. Celts put up a strong resistance

      1. Afterwards, they retreated into Wales

    8. Traces of Celtic culture were left behind

  2. New Anglo-Saxon England

    1. Split into different, independent principalities

      1. Each had their own king

    2. Eventually, the land became one nation

      1. King Alfred of Wessex (AKA Alfred the Great) ked the Anglo-Saxons against the invading Danes

        1. The Danes were fierce Vikings

        2. Crossed the North Sea

        3. They destroyed and plundered everything in their path

        4. Took over part of northeast and central England

  3. Religion During the War

    1. Reemergence of Christianity occurred

    2. Irish and Continental missionaries converted the Anglo-Saxon kings

      1. The subjects under the Kings’ rule therefore converted as well

    3. Christianity provided a common faith and system of morals and conduct

    4. King Alfred the Great and the Anglo-Saxons fought against the Danes to protect their churches, religion, and culture

  4. Continuation of War

    1. After Alfred could no longer lead the war efforts, his descendants took over and fought the Danes

      1. Ethelfleda

        1. Military leader

        2. Strategist

      2. Edward

        1. Ethelfleda’s brother

    2. Battle continued until both parties were defeated by William, Duke of Normandy, and his invading force of Normans from northwestern France

      1. Occurred in 1066

  5. Women in Anglo-Saxon Culture

    1. Women held and inherited property

      1. Reigns lasted even after marriage

      2. Women were offered land and money when married

    2. Religion

      1. Joined religious communities

      2. Some became powerful abbesses

        1. In charge of large double houses that included a nunnery and monastery

  6. Anglo-Saxon Life

    1. Anglo-Saxons were not barbarians

      1. Often depicted as such, however

    2. Didn’t live luxurious lives

      1. Warfare became the order of the day

        1. Law and order was the responsibility of the leader in any given group

        2. Fame, success, and survival were gained solely through loyalty to the respective leader of the group (especially during times of war and great difficulty)

      2. Most lived in single family homes

        1. Wooden buildings

        2. Close quarters

          1. Often near animals

        3. Surrounded a communal court or a warm, fire-lit chieftain’s hall

        4. Cluster of buildings was protected by a wooden fence

  7. Religion After the War

    1. Had ties to Christianity

    2. Mainly focused on warrior gods

      1. Today’s equivalent is Norse/Scandinavian mythology

      2. One main god was Odin

        1. God of death, poetry, and magic

        2. Anglo-Saxon name was Woden

          1. Origin of Wednesday (Woden’s day)

        3. Helped humans communicate with spirits

        4. Especially related with burial rites

      3. Thunor

        1. Essentially the same as Thor

          1. Norse god of thunder and lightning

          2. Sign was hammer and possibly the swastika

            1. Found on many Anglo-Saxon gravestones

      4. Dragon mythology

        1. Protector of treasure

        2. Could be a personification of “death the devourer”

    3. Mostly concerned with ethics over mysticism

  8. Bards

    1. Singing of Gods and heroes

      1. Sang to the strumming of a harp

    2. Communal halls acted as a place to tell stories

    3. Bards were skilled storytellers

  9. Monasteries

    1. Served as strongholds of Christianity

    2. Centers of learning

    3. Preserved some of the older traditions of the Anglo-Saxon religion

      1. Recorded by hand from oral stories

      2. Wrote in the vernacular (language or the people)

        1. Old English

      3. Monks assigned to the scriptorium spent nearly all of their daylight hours copying manuscripts by hand

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