Beowulf Introduction to Anglo-Saxon Literature
A classical heroic novel and a mixture of pagan and Christian traditions in it
The period of history since 449 to 1066 is called the Anglo-Saxon period, and, fortunately, we have more than thirty thousand poetry lines left from it. One tenth of this lines belongs to the epic poem “Beowulf”. Being one of the heroic novels, this poem describes, though metaphorically, the real historical events and also gives us the image of the traditions of that time, like hospitality and gift-giving. Another interesting trait of the poem is a unique mixture of pagan and Christian traditions presented in it and existing in that period of time.
Old english, developed from tribes in Beowulf
The period described in the book is full of conflicts between different warrior tribes: the Britons fought with Celts, Picts and Scots, the Romans, the Angles and the Saxons. We can hear the echo of these fights in the lines of the poem: though the language mainly stays similar to Old High German, we still can pick up a few words and descriptions of nearly every of aforementioned cultures. Even the Anglo-Saxon culture isn’t solid: there are lots of dialects and spelling peculiarities that make this poem the rich soil for the language researchers.
The mixture of Pagan and Christian traditions can be explained with the rewriting and revisions of the ancient, still Pagan legend by the Christian monks, who wrote it down in the more Christianized version, shifting the accents from personal bravery and fidelity (that was one of the defining traits in Anglo-Saxon culture) to faith in God and devotion to spiritual values, not the material ones. They also add some of the traditional Christian symbols, such as titles of Grendel referring to the Devil and the appearance of the Wyrm, also representing the Devil. The author of the latest revision we know now is probably Alfred, who also translated biblical texts and adapted other local legends to help spreading Christianity, together with teaching the locals reading and writing.
Though there is enough of the traits special to the native Anglo-Saxon literature left in the poem. For example we see the game of riddles, where the inanimate objects speak for themselves, describing them and asking to guess what they are. This manner of riddles is common for that age (by the way it was implemented into “Hobbit” tale by J.R.R. Tolkien, who was a big fan of Anglo-Saxon literature) and for that region. The answers for the riddles describe common items, used in daily life, that also give us a vivid image about Anglo-Saxon mundane activities.
When we read the description of Beowulf we understand that he possesses exactly the traits that were considered heroic in Anglo-Saxon culture: he is brave to the point of discarding the instinct of self-preservation, fiercely loyal to his lord, values honor above all else and talks like he is saying a speech before his people all the time. Though this image may seem exaggerated, this was the ideal Anglo-Saxons were willing to live to. Loyalty was valued and praised very high among their society. The tanes had to spend lot of time away from their lords, make decisions by themselves in the far lands and for a long time. So the lords need to be sure that their subordinates are extremely loyal to them, that they will resist the temptations of the other lands and return back having accomplished the task they were given. Beowulf passes this test excellently. Despite he was offered a luxurious life in Danelends, he refuses and decides to stay faithful to his king Hygelac, return and help Hrothgar, even if this help means he would most probably die fighting Grendel.
Another, quite strange for the modern eye, trait of the hero is his well-crafted armor and weapons. Modern beliefs state that heroism doesn’t depend on the quality of your stuff, but in the ages of Anglo-Saxon people the views were more practical. A hero should not only be brave, but skilled enough to provide himself and his people with the best gear available, thus ensuring their safety in the battle. So, the elaborate armor of his and his people isn’t only the sign of noble origins (everyone suggested he and his fellow warriors were noble heroes just seeing their armor), but also the proof that Beowulf cares about his people and is able to provide them with supplies they need.
When Beowulf arrives to Hrothgar, we see the women acting in very particular way, showing their hospitality. Wealtheow offers the cup of mead to Beowulf and welcomes him, and this – from a woman of high social status – is a demonstration of respect in her house. The rituals of hospitality and the emphasis of gift-giving and accepting were very important for the culture of warrior tribes, where everyone had to assure the other side of their peaceful intentions. Letting the women – the ones who has to be protected – to come out to the stranger is the sign of trust, and taking the cup or eating the dish given by them seals an unspoken peace treaty between the guest and the host.
Beowulf — Introduction in Literature of Anglo-Saxon
Beowulf is introduced and one of one of the defining traits in his biography is “excellence”, the thing that ancient Greeks called “arete”. For the hero, the excellence is measured in victories in battle and trophies captured. These trophies were usually presented to the King or displayed in the hero’s house to add credibility to his titles and multiply his fame and respect. The duty of the hero was also to redistribute the part of the trophies among his tanes or warriors, to admit their courage and contribution to victory. The strange thing for us is that the material value of the items isn’t as much important as their symbolic values: in heroic system the stolen trophy is worth nothing. That’s why thieves and liars fell to the very bottom (or outright out) of the social hierarchy: they violated the rules all the society bases at. This explains the fact why, after the death of Beowulf, the treasure of fallen dragon isn’t distributed amongst the warriors. Not because without Beowulf no one cares about their reward, but because they fled and he fought alone. They didn’t deserve the trophies, so they can’t use them in any way.
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Another important topic that is not unique to the Anglo-Saxon culture, but is very prominent in it, is the cooperation of hero and society. Society needs a hero to solve the problems the ordinary people are incapable of solving. But, as Hrothgar warns Beowulf (again, in a weird mixture of Pagan and Christian traditions), hero needs the society too, so he should beware the sin of vanity. Without the society praising the deeds of the hero, they also worth nothing. Beowulf listens to this advice and is humble after he defeats Grendel. He can use his authority to get any reward he wants, but he shows respect and allows Hrothgar to choose. This is a win-win situation: not only Beowulf and his people are generously rewarded, but they also multiply their fame by being not only strong but virtuous and not blinded by greed and vanity. When he returns to his King and also is humble about his deeds, he earns even more respect and ends as the new King later.
Thus the Christian interpretation of his battles emphasizes his faith to God and trusting his fate into His hands (though the name of God is omitted, so we don’t know if it’s Odin or Christian God), we see the original Anglo-Saxon values underneath: the Gods help the ones who are already ready and able to do anything for the victory. Beowulf works hard and risks everything to defeat Grendel, earning the divine favor with it. It solidifies his hero traits described above as approved by higher powers. Even in his last battle, when Beowulf, an aged man, knows that he won’t probably make it alive, he still goes, believing that God will provide him with good afterlife for being brave and faithful to heroic ideals and his people to the end. This is faith, but this is also the certainty that the ancient laws of doing this and that (e.g. dying in battle with honor) result in going to the good afterlife.