Beowulf: Strong Northern European (Germanic) influence but
shows a Christian influence. Christian ethic undercuts heroic influence
Only complete Old English epic.
Composed about 750 A.D., written down about 1000 A.D.
Mingles Pagan (heroic virtue) & Christian (man's mortality) values.
Refers to events in the 6th century that became legends.
Superhero who is called to kill monsters.
Myths developed from conflicts.
People in Old England feared invasions & so developed a hero to deal
with it, just as Americans confronted with a vast wilderness created Paul
Bunyan to conquer it.
Supernatural curiosity also influenced myth.
Tribal setup-similar to culture in Odyssey (750 b.c.)
Used crisis to typify own situation in reality.
Beowulf, a Geat, is the hero; extraordinary swimmer & warrior. He
comes to defend the Danes and King Hrothgar against monsters. His father,
Ecgtheow, owed the Danish King because he had raised a ransom (wergeld,
blood money) for him. Beowulf repays the debt by slaying Grendel and his
mother. Beowulf comes to save the Danes. 1. Strips off his clothes &
fights hand-to-hand with Grendel. 2. Kills mom with sword. 3. Slays dragon
with sword, shield, & another warrior, Wiglaf. Although Wiglaf was
afraid, he aided the king because of personal loyalty. When Beowulf leaves,
Hrothgar's son comes to stay with Beowulf. He returns home where he eventually
becomes king. Rules for 50 years; dies after battling a dragon who had
begun to terrorize the Geats because Beowulf had received his stolen cup
through the gift-giving circuit. Beowulf is old and has lost some of his
strength. He is aided in the battle by Wiglaf; other warriors have deserted
Beowulf. Ending is bad. People fear that the Swedes will "swarm" their
land. Typifies situation in England at that time. People feared invasions.
Like Beowulf, the Romans were no longer there to protect them.
Transitional period between paganism & Christianity. Reason why monster
traced to Biblical period & not to Norse/Greek gods.
Grendel is similar to the Cyclops in the Odyssey. Liked to eat flesh.
Lives deep in water in a palace which had air.
Idea that a degenerate society comes from underworld.
Line 1633: Monster can be viewed as bad ruler-one who hoards-Dragon. Grendel
can't be considered human because he kills/eats people, but Beowulf could
become like him ("his double"). Beowulf is what you can attain if you use
your power, fame wisely. Grendel is the monster from within.
If Beowulf becomes too proud, he can become like Grendel.
Tribal relationships: friendship or feud (war). Tribal ethic: if you're
in my tribe, anything you do is excusable. Has spiral of violence. If one
of your tribe is killed by the other, it is terrible, but OK if the opposite
happens. Ends when everyone dies or when some truce is reached (reason
for arranged marriages).
Anglo-Saxon, Germanic, Celtic backgrounds.
Monster comes from:
Cain (Hell, & feud-revenge)
Status comes from display of spoils (wealth) and achievements.
Rich man in story gives; his possessions are from pillaging cities. "Ring
Giver" passes around loot to retain loyalty. If you are greedy, people
lose respect for you.
Emblem on helmets is boar's head.
Danes can't kill Grendel because swords can't pierce his skin. Beowulf
has terrible grip. (Took 4 men to carry Grendel's head).
Beowulf's boast: Pagan. To one from a purely Christian background, it would
be foolish pride.
Queen (women) mixes with men. We don't see them much in the epic, but they
seem to move freely.
Beowulf seeks glory in battle which God will give.
Idea of Fate: God protects you until it's your time to go.
Noble Fighting: rules for fighting, for engagement. After killing enemy,
return him to tribe or burn him. Grendel has no idea of this; he's fierce,
but not noble. Beowulf tears off his arm.
Grendel's mother represents another social ill of the time-feuding. She
doesn't care that he was a murderer, only that he was her son. The idea
of justice is familial & tribal. They support their side no matter
The dragon represents a third ill of the time-greed. Our monsters always
represent and warn us against parts of ourselves & dragons change with
the time. The dragon who terrified us after WWII was Godzilla, who is the
product of nuclear science. The "dragons" of Jurassic Park represent
the dangers of cloning & of big business' drive for profits. I guess
it brings us back to greed after all.
||Envy and anger.
||Greed and hoarding.