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Anonymous: Excerpts from Beowulf

Vocabulary: alliteration, alliterative verse, Anglo-Saxon (or Old English), beot, blood-feud, comitatus, cyning, flyting, hlaford, kenning, litotes, mead-hall, peace-weaver, scop, shame/fame culture, thegn, Volkerwanderüng, wergild, Wyrd

Lecture or Handouts: What does the name "Beowulf" mean in Anglo-Saxon when we look at the roots Beo and Wulf? How is the Anglo-Saxon idea of Wyrd different from or similar to the Greek idea of fate or moira? What do we know about the probable religious background of the individual who copied down Beowulf, given the literacy-levels of England after the the fall of Rome? What does the word Heorot mean in Anglo-Saxon? Which character in Beowulf is based on a real figure from medieval history? Why does Grendel's mother only kill one individual in retaliation for her son's death? How is the mere or lake an inversion of the mead-hall?

Identify the Following Primary Characters and Places from Beowulf
Beowulf, Hrothgar, Heorot, Hygelac, Breca, Unferth, Wealhtheow, Wiglaf, Ashhere, Grendel's Mother, Grendel, the Dragon, the Mere or Lake, the Dragon's Lair

Explain the Significance of the Following Cultural Terms and How They Relate to the Beowulf Narrative or Poem

Wergild, Flyting, shame/fame culture

Reading Questions:

  • What project does Hrothgar order undertaken to ensure his fame? What is the name of that constuction project?
  • What typical activities do the people engage in at this place Hrothgar makes?
  • What does the bard sing about inside the hall early in the narrative? Why does this anger Grendel?
  • According to the story, from what famous person does Grendel trace his monstrous lineage?
  • How many warriors does Grendel eat on the first night he attacks Heorot?
  • How long does Grendel haunt Heorot until Beowulf comes to help the Danes?
  • What is the one thing in the mead-hall Grendel is unable to touch or ruin (see lines 165-70)?
  • What king does Beowulf serve? Why does Beowulf leave this king to help out Hrothgar? What qualification or achievements does Beowulf have that make him suitable for fighting Grendel?
  • When Beowulf fights Grendel, what special weapon does he use to dispatch the monster? (trick question!)
  • Give one example of a beot that Beowulf makes during the course of the story.
  • What is Unferth's reaction to Beowulf showing up to save the day? How does he challenge Beowulf?
  • How is Beowulf's story about the swimming match with Breca different than Unferth's version of the tale?
  • What does Beowulf do to Grendel that mortally wounds the monster?
  • What decoration or trophy does Beowulf stick on a spike over the entry-way to Heorot?
  • Who comes to avenge Grendel's death?
  • Grendel's mother kills whom in retaliation for her son's death?
  • Where does Grendel's mother live?
  • What unusual supernatural features does the lake have? How do deer react when they are chased by hunters to the edge of the lake? How is that symbolic, given the name of King Hrothgar's hall?
  • Who loans Beowulf a sword initially to go fight Grendel's mother?
  • How long does the text say it took Beowulf to reach the bottom of the lake? (See line 1505.)
  • What happens when Beowulf uses the first borrowed sword to strike the Troll-Wife (Grendel's Mother)? Where does he find a second weapon? According to the text, who made this weapon? When Beowulf retells his battle to Hrothgar, he lets us know what happened to the sword after it penetrated the female monster's skin. Although the hilt and handle and crossguard survive, what happens to the blade itself after fatally stabbing the monster?
  • When Hrothgar examines the damaged blade, what decorations does he find on the sword? (i.e., what Biblical event is carved on it from the Old Testament?)
  • According to the summary of excerpted material, how long does Beowulf rule as king over the Geats?
  • According to the summary of excerpted material, what arouses the dragon's wrath and lures it from its lair to attack men?
  • Where does the dragon make its lair?
  • Give a brief blow-by-blow of Beowulf's fight with the dragon.
  • Who is the one warrior that remains loyal to Beowulf when the other thegns run away?
  • After Beowulf appoints Wiglaf king, what is Beowulf's last dying request? (i.e., what does he want to look at before he dies?) What does he ask be done with his body when it comes to burial?
  • What punishment does Wiglaf order for those men who fled from the scene of battle?

Sample Passages for Identification--Be able to identify what work these quotations come from, what the author is (if known), what character (if any) is speaking, and briefly comment upon the quotations significance or importance in the work:

A: Attend! We have heard of the thriving of the throne of Denmark,
How the folk-kings flourished in former days
How those royal athelings earned that glory. . . .

: Heorot he named it, / whose word ruled a wide empire. / He made good his boast, gave out rings, / arm-bands at the banquet.

C: It was with pain that the powerful spirit / dwelling in darkness endured that time, / hearing daily the hall filled / with loud amusement.

D: This unhappy being
had long lived in the land of monsters
since the Creator cast them out
as kindred of Cain. For that killing of Abel
the eternal Lord took vengeance.
There was no joy of that feud: far from mankind
God drove him out for his deed of shame!
From Cain came down all kinds misbegotten
--ogres and elves and evil shades--
as also the Giants, who joined in long
wars with God.

E: "Health to Hrothgar! I am Hygelac's kinsman
and serve in his fellowship. Fame-winning deeds
have come early to my hands. The affair of Grendel
has been made known to me on my native turf....
Had [my men] not seen me come home from fights
where I had bound five-Giants--their blood was upon me--
cleaned out a nest of them? Had I not crushed on the wave
sea-serpents by night in narrow struggle?

F: "So that my lord Hygelac, my leader in war,
may take joy in me, I abjure utterly
the bearing of sword or shielding yellow
board in this battle! With bare hands shall I
grapple with the fiend, fight to the death. . . .

FF: Gliding through the shadows came
the walker in night; the warriors slept
whose task was tohold the horned building. . . .
Down off the moorlands' misting fells came
Grendel stalking; God's brand was on him.
The spoiler ment to snatch away
From the high hall some of the human race.

G: Mysterious is the region / they live in--of wolf-fells, wind-picked moors / and treacherous fen-paths: a torrent of water / pours down dark cliffs and plunges into the earth, / an underground flood. It is not far from here, in terms of miles, that the Mere lies, overcast with dark, crag-rooted trees / that hang in groves hoary with frost. / An uncanny sight be seen at night there--the fire in the water!

GG: The blood it had shed made the sword dwindle into deadly icicles;
the war-tool wasted away. It was wonderful indeed
how it melted away entirely, as the ice does in the spring
when the Father unfastens the frost's grip,
unwinds the water's rope--He who watches over
the times and the seasons; He is the true God.

H: "Wyrd saves oft / the man undoomed if he undaunted be!"

I: The spring was cut on it / of the primal strife, with the destruction at last / of the race of Giants by the rushing Flood, / a terrible end. Estranged was that race / from the Lord of Eternity: the tide of water / was the final reward that the Ruler sent them.

I:J Passion filled the prince of the Geats:
he allowed a cry to utter from his breast,
roared from his stout heart: as the horn clear in battle
his voice re-echoed through the vault of grey stone.
The hoard-guard recognized a human voice,
and there was no more time to talk of friendship:
hatred stirred. Straightaway
The breath of the dragon billowed from the rock
in a hissing gust; the ground boomed.

K: "I remember the time, as we were taking mead / in the banqueting hall, when we bound ourselves to the gracious lord who granted us arms, / that we would make return for these trappings of war / these helms and hard swords, if such as this / should ever chance for him. . . / That day has now come / when he stands in need of the strength of good fighters, our lord and liege. Let us go to him / help our leader for as long as it requires . . ."

L: "Quickly go now,
beloved Wiglaf, and look upon the hoard
under the grey stone, now the serpent lies dead,
sleeps rawly wounded, bereft of his treasure.
Make haste, that I may gaze upon that golden inheritance,
that ancient wealth, that my eyes may behold
the clear skillful jewels: more calmly then may I
on the treasure's account take my departure
of life and of the lordship I have long held."

M: "Your kinsmen every one,
Shall become wanderers without land-rights
as soon as aethelings over the world
Shall hear the report of how you fled,
a deed of ill fame. Death is better
for any earl than an existence of disgrace!"

N: A woman of the Geats sang out
the lament for his death. Loudly she sang,
her hair bound up, the burden of her fear
that evil days were destined her
--troops cut down, terror of armies,
bondage, humiliation. Heaven swallowed the smoke. . . .
. . . they said that he was of all the world's kings
the gentlest of men, and the most gracious,
the kindest to his people, the keenest for fame.


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