A robust paragraph for each question, 5 questions total
answer all three general question in a robust paragraph and then choose one of the three excerpt groupings and answer those two questions in a second robust paragraph.
Why is it significant that an Anglo-Saxon poem, written in Old English in England, describes events across the ocean in Scandinavia?
What elements can you point to in the excerpts of this poem that tell us about the place of Christianity in early Anglo-Saxon society (probably around 600-800 AD)?
What “pagan” elements do you see in this poem? Please give specific examples.
Excerpt 1 and 2
What does the description of the mead hall tell us about Anglo-Saxon culture and how society was structured?
What does the description of Grendel tell us about Anglo-Saxons values and beliefs?
Excerpt 3, 4, 5
What do these two excerpts tell us about the ideal Anglo-Saxon hero and the values they esteemed?
How was “fate” understood in Anglo-Saxon society?
Excerpt 6 and 7
What does the description of Hrothgar and Queen Wealthow’s response to Beowulf’s victory over Grendel tell us about the structure of Anglo-Saxon society and the role of material wealth?
What does the cremation ceremony tell us about Anglo-Saxon values and/or religious beliefs?
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AN ANGLO-SAXON EPIC POEM
THE STORY (synopsis by Lesslie Hall, Ph.D., Professor of
English and History at the College of William and Mary)
Hrothgar, king of the Danes, or Scyldings, builds a great mead-hall, or palace, in which he
hopes to feast his liegemen and to give them presents. The joy of king and retainers is, however,
of short duration. Grendel, the monster, is seized with hateful jealousy. He cannot brook the sounds
of joyance that reach him down in his fen-dwelling near the hall. Oft and anon he goes to the
joyous building, bent on direful mischief. Thane after thane is ruthlessly carried off and devoured,
while no one is found strong enough and bold enough to cope with the monster. For twelve years
he persecutes Hrothgar and his vassals.
Over sea, a day’s voyage off, Beowulf, of the Geats, nephew of Hygelac, king of the Geats,
hears of Grendel’s doings and of Hrothgar’s misery. He resolves to crush the fell monster and
relieve the aged king. With fourteen chosen companions, he sets sail for Dane-land. Reaching that
country, he soon persuades Hrothgar of his ability to help him. The hours that elapse before night
are spent in beer-drinking and conversation. When Hrothgar’s bedtime comes he leaves the hall in
charge of Beowulf, telling him that never before has he given to another the absolute wardship of
his palace. All retire to rest, Beowulf, as it were, sleeping upon his arms.
Grendel comes, the great march-stepper, bearing God’s anger. He seizes and kills one of the
sleeping warriors. Then he advances towards Beowulf. A fierce and desperate hand-to-hand
struggle ensues. No arms are used, both combatants trusting to strength and hand-grip. Beowulf
tears Grendel’s shoulder from its socket, and the monster retreats to his den, howling and yelling
with agony and fury. The wound is fatal.
The next morning, at early dawn, warriors in numbers flock to the hall Heorot, to hear the news.
Joy is boundless. Glee runs high. Hrothgar and his retainers are lavish of gratitude and of gifts.
Grendel’s mother, however, comes the next night to avenge his death. She is furious and raging.
While Beowulf is sleeping in a room somewhat apart [x]from the quarters of the other warriors,
she seizes one of Hrothgar’s favorite counsellors, and carries him off and devours him. Beowulf
is called. Determined to leave Heorot entirely purified, he arms himself, and goes down to look
for the female monster. After traveling through the waters many hours, he meets her near the seabottom. She drags him to her den. There he sees Grendel lying dead. After a desperate and almost
fatal struggle with the woman, he slays her, and swims upward in triumph, taking with him
Joy is renewed at Heorot. Congratulations crowd upon the victor. Hrothgar literally pours
treasures into the lap of Beowulf; and it is agreed among the vassals of the king that Beowulf will
be their next liegelord.
Beowulf leaves Dane-land. Hrothgar weeps and laments at his departure.
When the hero arrives in his own land, Hygelac treats him as a distinguished guest. He is the
hero of the hour.
Beowulf subsequently becomes king of his own people, the Geats. After he has been ruling for
fifty years, his own neighborhood is wofully harried by a fire-spewing dragon. Beowulf determines
to kill him. In the ensuing struggle both Beowulf and the dragon are slain. The grief of the Geats
is inexpressible. They determine, however, to leave nothing undone to honor the memory of their
lord. A great funeral-pyre is built, and his body is burnt. Then a memorial-barrow is made, visible
from a great distance, that sailors afar may be constantly reminded of the prowess of the national
hero of Geatland.
The poem closes with a glowing tribute to his bravery, his gentleness, his goodness of heart,
and his generosity.
Map of the places discussed in the poem Beowulf.
Beowulf: The hero of the poem. Sprung from the stock of Geats, son of Ecgtheow. Brought up by
his maternal grandfather Hrethel, and figuring in manhood as a devoted liegeman of his
uncle Hygelac. A hero from his youth. Has the strength of thirty men. Engages in a
swimming-match with Breca. Goes to the help of Hrothgar against the monster Grendel.
Vanquishes Grendel and his mother. Afterwards becomes king of the Geats. Late in life
attempts to kill a fire-spewing dragon, and is slain. Is buried with great honors. His
Danes: Subjects of Scyld and his descendants, and hence often called Scyldings. Other names for
them are Victory-Scyldings, Honor-Scyldings, Armor-Danes, Bright-Danes, East-Danes,
West-Danes, North-Danes, South-Danes, Ingwins, Hrethmen.
Geats, Geatmen: The race to which the hero of the poem belongs. Also called Weder-Geats, or
Weders, War-Geats, Sea-Geats. They are ruled by Hrethel, Hæthcyn, Higelac, and Beowulf.
Grendel: A monster of the race of Cain. Dwells in the fens and moors. Is furiously envious when
he hears sounds of joy in Hrothgar’s palace. Causes the king untold agony for years. Is
finally conquered by Beowulf, and dies of his wound. His hand and arm are hung up in
Hrothgar’s hall Heorot. His head is cut off by Beowulf when he goes down to fight with
Heorot: The great mead-hall which King Hrothgar builds. It is invaded by Grendel for twelve
years. Finally cleansed by Beowulf, the Geat. It is called Heort on account of the hartantlers which decorate it.
Hrothgar: The Danish king who built the hall Heort, but was long unable to enjoy it on account
of Grendel’s persecutions. Marries Wealhtheow, a Helming lady. Has two sons and a
daughter. Is a typical Teutonic king, lavish of gifts. A devoted liegelord, as his lamentations
over slain liegemen prove. Also very appreciative of kindness, as is shown by his loving
gratitude to Beowulf.
Hygelac: King of the Geats, uncle and liegelord of Beowulf, the hero of the poem.—His second
wife is the lovely Hygd, daughter of Hæreth. The son of their union is Heardred. Is slain in
a war with the Hugs, Franks, and Frisians combined. Beowulf is regent, and afterwards
king of the Geats.
Thane: warrior who takes an oath to serve a lord (in return for a portion of the booty/plunder).
Wealhtheow: Wife of Hrothgar. Her queenly courtesy is well shown in the poem.
Wulfgar: Lord of the Wendels, and retainer of Hrothgar.
Excerpts from the Poem
Note: if you decide to site parts of this poem in your final paper please make sure you site the
line numbers. For example, if you quote the first four lines of the first excerpt it should be sited
like this: (Beowulf, 64-68). You can also write: (Heaney, 64-68) as we are using the Seamus
Heaney translation from the Old English in to Modern English.
Excerpt 1: A Description of Heorot
The fortunes of war favored Hrothgar.
Friends and kinsmen flocked to his ranks,
Young followers, a force that grew
To be a mighty army. So his mind turned
To hall-building: he handed down orders
For men to work on a great mead-hall
Meant to be a wonder of the world forever;
It would be his throne-room and there he would dispense
His God-given goods to young and old–But not the common land or people’s lives.
Far and wide through the world, I have heard,
Orders for work to adorn that wall stead
Were sent to many peoples. And soon it stood there,
Finished and ready, in full view,
The hall of halls. Heorot was the name
He had settled on it, whose utterance was law.
Nor did he renege, but doled out rings
And torques at the table.
Excerpt 2: The Description of Grendel
So times were pleasant for the people there
Until finally one, a fiend out of Hell,
Began to work his evil in the world.
Grendel was the name of this grim demon
Haunting the marches, marauding round the heath
And the desolate fens; he had dwelt for a time
In misery among the banished monsters,
Cain’s clan, whom the creator had outlawed
And condemned as outcasts. For the killing of Abel
The Eternal Lord had exacted a price:
Cain got no good from committing that murder
Because the Almighty made him anathema
And out of the curse of his exile there sprang
Ogres and elves and evil phantoms
And the giants too who strove with God
Time and again until He gave them their final reward.
Excerpt 3: Beowulf Decides to Help Hrothgar
So that troubled time continued, woe
That never stopped, steady affliction
For Halfdane’s son [Hrothgar], too hard an ordeal.
There was panic after dark, people endured
Raids in the night, riven by terror.
When he heard about Grendel, Hygelac’s thane
Was on home ground, over in Geatland.
There was no one else like him alive.
In his day, he was the mightiest man on earth,
High-born and powerful. He ordered a boat
That would ply the waves. He announced his plan:
To sail the swan’s roads and search out that king,
The famous prince who needed defenders.
Nobody tried to keep him from going,
No elder denied him, dear as he was to them.
Instead, they inspected omens and spurred
His ambition to go, whilst he moved about
Like the leader he was, enlisting men,
The best he could find; with fourteen others
The warrior boarded the boat as captain,
A canny pilot along coast and currents.
Excerpt 4: Beowulf Arrives at Heorot
At the door of the hall, Wulfgar duly delivered the message:
“My lord, the conquering king of the Danes,
Bids me announce that he knows your ancestry;
Also that he welcomes you here to Heorot
And salutes your arrival from across the sea.
You are free now to move forward
To meet Hrothgar, in helmets and armor,
But shields must stay here and spears be stacked
Until the outcome of the audience is clear.”
The hero arose, surrounded closely
By his powerful thanes. A party remained
Under orders to keep watch on the arms;
The rest proceeded, lead by their prince
Under Heorot’s roof. And standing on the hearth
In webbed links that the smith had woven,
The fine-forged mesh of his gleaming mail shirt,
Resolute in his helmet, Beowulf spoke:
“Greetings to Hrothgar. I am Hygelac’s kinsman,
One of his hall-troop. When I was younger,
I had great triumphs. Then news of Grendel,
Hard to ignore, reached me at home:
Sailors brought stories of the plight you suffer
In this legendary hall, how it lies deserted,
Empty and useless once the evening light
Hides itself under Heaven’s dome.
So every elder and experience councilman
Among my people supported my resolve
To come here to you, King Hrothgar,
Because all knew of my awesome strength.
They had seen me boltered in the blood of enemies
When I battled and bound five beasts,
Raided a troll-nest and in the night-sea
Slaughtered sea-brutes. I have suffered extremes
And avenged the Geats (their enemies brought it
Upon themselves, I devastated them).
Now I mean to be a match for Grendel,
Settle the outcome in a single combat.
And so, my request, O king of Bright-Danes,
Dear prince pf the Shieldings, friend of the people
And their ring of defense, my one request
Is that you won’t refuse me, who have come this far,
The privilege of purifying Heorot,
With my own men to help me, and nobody else.
I have heard moreover that the monster scorns
In his reckless way to use weapons;
Therefore, to heighten Hygelac’s fame
And gladden his heart, I hereby renounce
Sword and the shelter of the broad shield,
The heavy war-board: hand-to-hand
Is how it will be, a life-and-death
Fight with the fiend. Whichever one death fells
Must deem it a just judgment by God.
If Grendel wins, it will be a gruesome day;
He will glut himself on the Geats in the war-hall,
Swoop without fear on that flower of manhood
As on others before. Then my face won’t be there
To be covered in death; he will carry me away
As he goes to ground, gorged and bloodied;
He will run gloating with my raw corpse
And feed on it alone, in a cruel frenzy,
Fouling his moor-nest. No need then
To lament for long or lay out my body:
If the battle takes me, send back
This breast-webbing that Weland fashioned And Hrethel gave me, to Hygelac.
Fate goes ever as fate must.”
Excerpt 5: Beowulf Defeats Grendel
Then he who had harrowed the hearts of men
With pain and affliction in former times
And had given offense also to God
Found that his bodily powers had failed him.
Hygelac’s kinsman kept him helplessly
Locked in a handgrip. As long as either lived
He was hateful to the other. The monster’s whole
Body was in pain, a tremendous wound
Appeared on his shoulder. Sinews split
And the bone-lappings burst. Beowulf was granted
The glory of winning; Grendel was driven
Under the fen banks, fatally hurt,
To his desolate lair. His days were numbered,
The end of his life was coming over him,
He knew it for certain; and one bloody clash
Had fulfilled the dearest wishes of the Danes.
The man who had lately landed among them,
Proud and sure, had purged the hall,
Kept it from harm; he was happy with his night-work
And the courage he had shown. The Geat captain
Had boldly fulfilled his boast to the Danes:
He had healed and relieved a huge distress,
The hard fate they’d been forced to undergo,
No small affliction. Clear proof of this
Could be seen in the hand the hero displayed
High up near the roof: the whole of Grendel’s
Shoulder and arm, his awesome grasp.
Then morning came and many a warrior
Gathered, as I have heard, around the gift-hall,
Clan-chiefs flocking from far and near
Down wide-ranging roads, wondering greatly
At the monster’s footprint. His fatal departure
Was regretted by no one who witnessed his trail,
The ignominious marks of his flight
Where he’d sulked away, exhausted in spirit
And beaten in battle, bloodying the path,
Hauling his doom to the demons’ mere.
The bloodshot water wallowed and surged,
There were loathsome up throws and over turnings
Of waves and gore and would-slurry.
With his death upon him, he had dived deep
Into his marsh den, drowned out his life
And his heathen soul: hell claimed him there.
Excerpt 6: Hrothgar Bestows Gifts on Beowulf and his Thanes and Accepts the Counsel of
The chieftain [Hrothgar] went on to reward the others:
Each man on the bench who had sailed with Beowulf
And risked the voyage received a bounty,
Some treasured possession. And compensation,
A price in gold, was settled for the Geat
Grendel had killed cruelly earlier—
As he would have killed more, had not mindful God
And one man’s daring prevented that doom.
Past and present, God’s will prevails.
Hence, understanding is always best
And a prudent mind. Whoever remains
For long here in this earthly life
Will enjoy and endure more than enough.
The queen spoke:
“Enjoy this drink, my most generous lord;
Raise up your goblet, entertain the Geats
Duly and gently, discourse with them,
Be open-handed, happy and fond.
Relish their company, but recollect as well
All of the boons that have been bestowed upon you.
The bright court of Heorot has been cleansed
And now the word is that you want to adopt
This warrior as a son. So, while you may,
Bask in your fortune, then bequeath
Kingdom and nation to your kith and kin,
Before your decease. I am certain of Hrothulf.
He is noble and will use the young ones well.
He will not let you down. Should you die before him,
He will treat our children truly and fairly.
He will honor, I am sure, our two sons,
Repay them in kind when he recollects
All the good things we gave him once,
The favor and respect he found in childhood.”
She turned then to the bench where her boys sat,
Hrethric and Hrothmond, with other nobles’ sons,
All the youth together; and that good man,
Beowulf the Geat, sat between the brothers.
The cup was carried to him, kind words
Spoken in welcome and wealth of wrought gold
Graciously bestowed; two arm bangles,
A mail shirt and rings, and the most resplendent
Torque of gold I have ever heard tell of
Anywhere on earth or under heaven.
Excerpt 7: The Death of Beowulf
The Geat people built a pyre for Beowulf,
Stacked and decked it until it stood four-square,
Hung with helmets, heavy war-shields
And shining armor, just as he had ordered.
Then his warriors laid him in the middle of it,
Mourning a lord far-famed and beloved.
On a height they kindled the hugest of all
Funeral fires; fumes of wood smoke
Billowed darkly up, the blaze roared
And drowned out their weeping, wind died down
And flames wrought havoc in the hot bone-house,
Burning it to the core. They were disconsolate
And wailed aloud for their lord’s decease.
A Geat woman too sang out in grief:
With hair bound up, she unburdened herself
Of her worst fears, a wild litany
Of nightmare and lament: her nation invaded,
Enemies on the rampage, bodies in piles,
Slavery and abasement. Heaven swallowed the smoke.
Then the Geat people began to construct
A mound on a headland, high and imposing,
A marker that sailors could see from far away,
And in ten days they had done the work.
It was their hero’s memorial; what remained from fire
They housed inside it, behind a wall
As worthy of him as their workmanship could make it.
And they buried torques in the barrow, and jewels
And a trove of such things as trespassing men
Had once dared to drag from the hoard.
They let the ground keep that ancestral treasure,
Gold under gravel, gone to earth,
As useless to men now as it ever was.
Then twelve warriors rode around the tomb,
Chieftain’s sons, champions in battle,
All of them distraught, chanting in dirges,
Mourning his loss as a man and a king.
They extolled his heroic exploits
And gave thanks for his greatness; which was the proper thing,
For a man should praise a prince whom he holds dear
And cherish his memory when that moment comes
When he has to be convoyed from his bodily home.
So the Geat people, his hearth companions,
Sorrowed for the lord who had been laid low.
They said that of all the kings upon the earth
He was the man most gracious and fair-minded,
Kindest to his people and keenest to win fame.
For up to TEN points of extra credit answer all three general question in a robust paragraph and
then choose one of the three excerpt groupings and answer those two questions in a second
robust paragraph. This means in order to be eligible for all ten points you need to address and
answer FIVE questions total. If you would just like 5 points extra credit you an answer the
general questions only. Please refer to the poem specifically to support your answers.
1. Why is it significant that an Anglo-Saxon poem, written in Old English in England,
describes events across the ocean in Scandinavia?
2. What elements can you point to in the excerpts of this poem that tell us about the place of
Christianity in early Anglo-Saxon society (probably around 600-800 AD)?
3. What “pagan” elements do you see in this poem? Please give specific examples.
Excerpt 1 and 2
1. What does the description of the mead hall tell us about Anglo-Saxon culture and how
society was structured?
2. What does the description of Grendel tell us about Anglo-Saxons values and beliefs?
Excerpt 3, 4, 5
1. What do these two excerpts tell us about the ideal Anglo-Saxon hero and the values they
2. How was “fate” understood in Anglo-Saxon society?
Excerpt 6 and 7
1. What does the description of Hrothgar and Wealthow’s response to Beowulf’s victory
over Grendel tell us about the structure of Anglo-Saxon society and the role of material
2. What does the cremation ceremony tell us about Anglo-Saxon values and/or religious
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