Beowulf Beowulf is to England what Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey are to ancient Greece. It is the first great work of a national literature

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  • Beowulf is to England what Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey are to ancient Greece. It is the first great work of a national literature. It is the mythical and literary record of a formative stage of English civilization—an epic of heroic sources of English culture. Beowulf is oral art, handed down, with changes and embellishments, from one minstrel (scop) to another. Beowulf was composed in Old English c. 650 – 750; however, the world it depicts is much older.

  • The only manuscript of Beowulf dates from 1000 and is housed in the British Museum in London. It was discovered in the 18th century, having survived Henry VIII’s destruction of the monasteries 200 years earlier.

  • EPIC:

--long, narrative poem that deals with themes and characters of heroic


--hero is of noble birth or high position and often of great historical or legendary


--hero’s character traits reflect important ideals of his society

--hero performs courageous—sometimes superhuman—deeds that reflect the

values of that era

--actions of the hero often determine the fate of a nation or group of people

--setting is vast in scope, often involving more than one nation

--poet uses formal diction and a serious tone

--major characters often deliver long, formal speeches

--plot is complicated by supernatural beings or events and may involve a long and dangerous journey through foreign lands

--poem reflects timeless values, such as courage and honor

--poem treats universal themes, such as good and evil or life and death

  • Beowulf fuses pagan and Christian elements, and this contradiction of elements often confuses the modern reader. Beowulf places his faith both in wyrd (fate) and in God. Beowulf implies that man is not a creature possessed of much free will, but rather a creature largely at the mercy of higher forces. Note the pagan and Christian elements as you read this epic.

  • Praise and esteem of one’s contemporaries are thematic in Beowulf. “Fame is the most permanent of all things in an impermanent world. Of all that a man can have, fame survives everything of the transient and unstable.” Throughout this epic, Beowulf is described as a man “hungry for fame.”

  • In summary, Beowulf tells the story of a Geat (Beowulf) from Sweden who crosses the sea to Denmark in a quest to rescue King Hrothgar from the demonic monster Grendel. Beowulf is a hero—a dragon slayer, the representative of a besieged community that stands in precarious unity against the satanic forces that lurk everywhere in the cold darkness.

Why Study Beowulf?

Ponder these questions as we study Beowulf.

  1. Is the universe ruled by a benevolent, Christian deity who allows humans the freedom to make their own choices? Or is it controlled by a rigid wyrd (fate), which humans blindly follow?

  2. Is fame the equivalent of immortality in the male-dominated, war-faring society of Beowulf? How does the pursuit of fame rate throughout history and in our 21st century?

  3. Materialism (winning valuables) is an integral part of this epic. Does materialism rule our world?

  4. Can a human create a change in destiny through the sheer force of heroism?

  5. In Beowulf, what emerges is a culture’s glorious lament for lost heroes, a reckoning of its current condition, and a consideration of its possible destiny. Do these three concerns emerge in our world today?

  6. How would you defend the following premise—for both Beowulf, the hero, and for our current times?

“In a world without hope, a brave soul has nothing to lose.”

The Hero With a Thousand Faces

by Joseph Campbell

  1. Campbell explains that the hero must leave the light and go into the dark, that the hero must descend into an abyss to conquer his or her dragon. The hero must take a journey, experience a “death,” and then return (resurrection) in order to mature.

  2. Water is symbolic. It represents the unconsciousness, a darkness that a hero must endure and conquer. The hero leaves the realm of light and meets some monster—literally, physically, emotionally, spiritually, and/or figuratively—descending into an abyss through water.

  3. “The ultimate aim of the hero’s quest must be neither release nor ecstasy for oneself, but the wisdom and the power to serve others. One of the many distinctions between the celebrity and the hero is that one lives only for self while the other acts to redeem society.” Who are our heroes? Our celebrities?

  4. Campbell reiterates that we are ALL heroes.

  5. Campbell stipulates that dragons represent greed.

  6. We all have dragons. Can you slay your dragon? “Psychologically, the dragon is one’s own binding of oneself to one’s ego. We’re captured in our own dragon cage. The problem of the psychiatrist is to disintegrate that dragon, break him up, so that you may expand to a larger field of relationships. The ultimate dragon is within you; it is your ego clamping you down.

Beowulf Chart

Note quotations/summarizations with line and page numbers as evidence of the following traits exemplified in Beowulf:

Anglo-Saxon Traits:

Loyalty to king/Loyalty to clan (Comitatus):

Hospitality Code:

Warrior culture / BRAVERY/Courage:

Fame is good / Boasting is good:

Over-the-top compliments show respect:

Belief in Fate:

Epic Poem Traits:

Invocation (address the muse) “Listen”:

Repetitions and Catalogues:

Stock phrases/Epithets:

Supernatural Intervention:

Affects the whole nation:

Epic Boasting:

Legendary hero

Christian influence:

Literary Terms:



Compounding: combining two words to make a new word

  • Mead-benches

  • Boy-child

  • Hall-troops

  • Not Old English: baseball, spacesuit, folktale

Kennings: metaphorical compounding

  • Whale road hronrad

  • Bee hunter beowulf

  • Wave steed

  • Wave floater wægflota

  • Sea house  merehus

  • See steed sæhengest 

  • Sky’s jewel

  • Bone cage

  • Bone house banhus

  • Head gem heafodgim

Epithet: a descriptive term for a person/place (glorified nickname) Kenning is epithet / Epithet is not always a kenning

  • The Geatish hero

  • Midnight stalker

  • Bone crusher

Comitatus: Germanic code of Friendship, creates a warband, “can’t leave a man behind”

Foil: character who contrasts with another

Scop: Old English poet, provided an individual immortality by telling tales about him/her
Comitatus and Interlacing

Comitatus is the basic idea that everyone protects the king at all costs even if it means a warrior giving up his own life. If a king is killed, the warriors must avenge the death of the king or they can no longer serve as warriors for the next king. It is an idea that coexists with the interlacing theme. You will see the comitatus theme all through Beowulf and all of the Anglo-Saxon poetry. The diction (ring-giver, hearth-companion, etc) indicates the idea as well as the behavior. Notice how there is the motif of eating, sleeping, dying all the way through the text, and all of it is done as a "team" even to the passing of the cup uniting the group of warriors. They stayed in the meadhall while the king slept in an adjoining "apartment" so they could constantly protect him. You will even see the idea in the avenging of Grendel's death by his mother. Some of the same actions on her part are the same as the actions of the warriors. Beowulf is also a good text to demonstrate how comitatus died with the Anglo-Saxon period. Notice how at the end of the text only Wiglaf follows Beowulf into the battle with the dragon. When Beowulf goes into the various battles, there is a progression of the comitatus dying with the behavior of the warriors: the warriors stand on the bank waiting, the next time they are sleeping and the third time only Wiglaf goes with him.

The comitatus idea goes hand in hand with interlacing. Interlacing is best seen in the artwork of the period and then transferred into the text. You have probably seen a picture of the chalice or the necklace or even the helmet most closely associated with Beowulf. The interlacing is difficult to see on the helmet, but it is in the ridge across the top. The design is actually that of a flying dragon-like creature. The wings go across the top of the eyes like eyebrows, the head is at the nose piece and the body, twists across the head to the back of the helmet. The reason for the ridges across the helmets was to deflect a blow from a sword. It was a great illustration of the strength found in interlacing used to protect the individual.

The Belt Buckle from the Sutton Hoo treasures shows the interlacing theme quite well with its twists and turns. Interlaced human figures, interlaced dogs, and knot pattern.

The idea of interlacing was that nothing in the Anglo-Saxon period was independent. Everything depended on everything else whether agricultural, cultural, personal, or any other way. Women were protected by older men not fighting in battle, king protected by warriors who are well rewarded for their service, etc. Modern celtic designs are "modern" renditions of this early idea.

One of the best ways to illustrate the interlacing idea is through sword making of the time. Swords were made using 4-6 rods of metal. They were first twisted/braided into 2-3 rods and then pounded flat but still allowing for the twisted design to show. Then these 2-3 rods were then twisted/braided into one rod that was pounded flat and then shaped and sharpened. In many of the ancient swords that design is still seen. The idea was that everything was stronger when "braided" together. In isolation one must only depend on himself, but when linked with everything/everyone that exists within the community, one does not fight just for himself but for the entire
Danes - from Denmark / Hrothgar

Geats – from Sweden / Beowulf

Set in the 5th century (400’s) and brought to England by people of Geatish origin in the late 6th century (500’s)
Angle-Saxons - closely tied to their Germanic/Scandinavian roots

  • Prompt reference (key words)

  • Title – underlined (because you’re handwriting it) for long poems (Beowulf), novels, and plays

  • Author (if there is one / Beowulf does not have an author)

  • Theme (statement)

    • What is the message for society/humanity?

The scholar J. R. R. Tolkien has suggested that the theme of Beowulf deals with "man alien in a hostile world, engaged in a struggle which he cannot win . . ." Write a thesis incorporating Tolkien’s statement as your theme.

Use at least 3 specific references to the epic tale, Beowulf, to support your thesis.

THESIS: Write a thesis statement (including ALL thesis parts: Author, title, key prompt words, theme)

Celts in Great Britain

The first British settlers were the Celts. The name, Britain, comes from a group within the Celts, called the Brythons (Britons). The King Arthur mythology originates from this group of people. {more on this later…}

It was the Celts who fought against Roman control from 55 BCE (Julius Caesar) to roughly 409.

It was the Celts who were somewhat Christianized when Christianity became the official religion of Rome in 313 with the Edict of Milan by Roman Emperor Constantine the Great.

It was the Celts who were pushed into Wales and Ireland when invaders from (what we know today as…) Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Germany, and the Netherlands saw an unprotected area when Rome left. These invaders were called Angles, Saxons, and Jutes.

We hear about the Angle-Saxons because the great epic Beowulf is derived from this culture. {more on this soon…}

Celtic stories are very different from Anglo-Saxon tales.



Fantastic animals/spirit world

?Cool, if enemy speared by a horn

Passionate love affairs


Fabulous adventures

Do I get to be famous?

Enchanted lands

Will I kill stuff?


Will they help me kill stuff?


Cool if it helps me kill stuff!

Strong women / equality in gender


Loyalty to leader

Honor in battle is rewarded with riches

Honor in battle is rewarded with stories (famous)

Spirit world

No afterlife


Anglo-Saxon-Style Riddles

  1. I am honored of men, searched for everywhere,

brought from the groves and the mountain-heights,

from the dales and the downs. Wings bear me in air,

and carry me beneath the sheltering roof.

Then men bathe me in a barrel. When I emerge,

I am a binder and a scourger. I throw old men to the earth.

Whoever foolishly wrestles me, sets his strength against mine,

will soon find himself flat on his back, groveling on the ground,

without rule of mind, feet, or hands, though strong still in his speech.

Tell me what I am called-I who fell men to earth, dizzy with my blows.

  1. I am lonely, hacked with steel, wounded by weapons;

the toil of battle has wearied me, swords have worn me out.

Often have I seen war, the rage of battle;

nor do I hope for rest from strife before I die.

Hammered swords have struck me; hard and sharp of edge,

the wrought swords have bitten me; and even more deadly feud I shall endure.

I can never find a leech to heal my wounds with herbs,

but only more mortal blows and deeper wounds each day and night.

  1. My beak is downward, I burrow below;

I grub in the ground and go as he guides,

My gray old master, foe of the forest.

Stoop-shouldered my warder walks at my back,

Fares through the field, urges and drives me,

Sows in my tracks as I sniff along.

Fetched from the wood, cunningly fitted,

Brought in a wagon, I have wondrous skill.

As I go on my way on one side is green;

On the other side plain is my dark path.

Set through my back hangs a cunning spike;

Another fixed forward is fast to my head.

What I tear with my teeth falls to one side,

If he handles me right who is my ruler.

  1. The earth was my mother--I was raised

From her cold, wet womb. I know in my mind

I was not woven from hair or wool

By skillful hands. I have no winding

Weft or warp, no thread to sing

Its rushing song; no whirring shuttle

Slides through me, no weaver's sley

Strikes belly or back. No silkworms spin

With inborn skill their subtle gold

For my sides, yet warriors call me

A coat of joy. I do not fear

The quiver's gift, the deadly arrow's flight.

If you are clever and quick with words,

Say what this strange coat is called.

  1. I saw a silvery creature scurrying

Home, as lovely and light as heaven

Itself, running with stolen treasure

Between its horns. It hoped, by deceit

And daring and art, to set an arbor

There in that soaring castle. Then,

A shining creature, known to everyone

On earth, climbed the mountains and cliffs,

Rescued his prize, and drove the wily

Impostor back to darkness. It fled

To the west, swearing revenge.

The morning Dust scattered away, dew

Fell, and the night was gone. And no one

Knew where the soft-footed thief had vanished.

  1. How many men are so knowing, so wise,

That their tongues can tell Who drives me into exile,

Swells me brave and strong and fierce,

Sends me roaring across the earth,

Wild and cruel, burning men’s homes,

Wrecking their palaces? Smoke leaps up,

Gray like a wolf, and all the world

Crackles with the sounds of pain and death.

When I shake forests, uproot peaceful Groves,

clouds cover me; Exalted powers hurl me far and wide.

What once protected the world, sheltered

Men, I bear on my back, bodies

And souls whirled in the mist. Where am I

Swallowed down, and what is my name?

  1. Our world is lovely in different ways,

Hung with beauty and works of hands.

I saw a strange machine, made

For motion, slide against the sand,

Shrieking as it went. It walked swiftly

On its only foot, this odd-shaped monster,

Traveled in an open country without

Seeing, without arms, or hands,

With many ribs, and its mouth in its middle.

Its work is useful, and welcome, for it loads

Its belly with food, and brings abundance

To men, to poor and to rich, paying

Its tribute year after year. Solve

This riddle, if you can, and unravel its name.

  1. Wob is my name twisted about—

I'm a strange creature shaped for battle.

When I bend and the battle-sting snakes

Through my belly, I am primed to drive off

The death-stroke. When my lord and tormentor

Releases my limbs, I am long again,

As laced with slaughter, I spit out

The death-blend I swallowed before.

What whistles from my belly does not easily pass,

And the man who seizes this sudden cup

Pays with his life for the long, last drink.

Unwound I will not obey any man;

Bound tight, I serve. Say what I am.

"English and French expressions [in English] may have similar denotations but slightly different connotations and associations. Generally the English words are stronger, more physical, and more human. We feel more at ease after getting a hearty welcome than after being granted a cordial reception. Compare freedom with liberty, friendship with amity, kingship with royalty, holiness with sanctity, happiness with felicity, depth with profundity, and love with charity."

(Simeon Potter, Our Language, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1950/66, pp. 37-38.)

Are these feelings of ease connected with the connotation of being the invaded verses the invader?

Note words that aren’t used anymore.

List of English words with dual Old English/Old French variations


Anglo-Saxon origin words

Old French origin words

Cow (Old English )

Beef (Anglo-Norman Beof; Old French Boef)

Calf (Old English Cealf)

Veal (Anglo-Norman Vel; Old French VeelVeal)

Swine (Old English Swīn), or Pig (Old English Picga)

Pork (Old French Porc)

Sheep (Old English Scēap) / Lamb (Old English Lamb)

Mutton (Old French Moton)

Hen (Old English HenHenn) / Chicken (Old English Cicen)

Poultry (Old French Pouletrie)

Deer (Old English Dēor)

Venison (Old Norman Venesoun)

Snail (Old English Snægl)

Escargot (Old Norman Escargot)

Dove (Old English Dūfe)

Pigeon (Old French Pijon)

Other words

Anglo-Saxon origin words

Old French origin words

Thinking, Mindful






Ask, Beseech




Bring, Bear


Amaze, Stun


Fair, Fair-haired




Uphold, Undergird


Smell, Stench


Hue, Blee




Help, Bestand, Bestead

Aid, Abet, Assist











Weep, Sob




Lawyer (A.S. lagu < O.N. lag)






Hosen, Britches



Reply, Response







Fall, Harvest









Use, Utility





Bookstaf, Bookstave



Prudence / Sagacity

Weird, Fremd






Owndom, Belongings


Steven, Reard


Folk, Lede (Leod)








Drought, Dearth


Wish, Will, Yearning, Longing




Drink (noun + verb)

Beverage, Imbibe





Write a short story, non-fiction piece or editorial using 10 words from EITHER Old English or Old French.
(Underline the 10 words.)

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