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Anonymous Beowulf, Introduction and lines 1-1104, Longman Anthology:

Vocabulary: alliteration, alliterative verse, Anglo-Saxon (or Old English), hapax legomenon, beot, comitatus, cyning, scop, shame/fame culture, thegn, litotes, meiosis, wyrd, mead-hall, wergeld, flyting [NB: you should be able to distinguish between an example of litotes as understatment and an example of meiosis as understatement.]

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 fate? 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?

What is a hapax legomenon?
Who is the one historical figure appearing in Beowulf we know really existed--a king who died in a raid on the Franks in the year 520 as recorded in Gregory of Tours' History of the Franks? What is this character's relationship to Beowulf?
What is a thane or thegn?
What is wergeld as it appears in line 136??
What are the components of most Anglo-Saxon names?


The Beowulf tale comes down to us today in how many texts?
What dialect of Old English was Beowulf written in?
In what year was Beowulf first published (i.e., printed rather than written down?)
What does our editor mean when he says Beowulf offers us an "extraordinary double perspective"?
What are three stylstic features of the poem according to the top two paragraphs on page 29?

Identify the Following Primary Characters, Places, and Items from the first third of Beowulf
Beowulf, Hrothgar, Heorot, Hygelac, Breca, Unferth, Wealhtheow, Grendel, Hrothulf, Hrunting

Explain the Significance of the Following Terms and How They Relate to the Beowulf Poem: wergild, flyting, shame/fame culture

Reading Questions:

  • What is the narrator's attitude about the accomplishments of Scyld Scefing (Shield Sheafson) in the opening lines of the poem?
  • How do the mourners dispose of King Scyld's body? What culture normally does funeral rites this way?
  • What project does Hrothgar undertake to ensure his fame? What is the name of that constuction project? What three interpretations of this name does the editorial footnote suggest?
  • Just after describing how wonderful Heorot is, what does the poet reveal will later happen to this marvelous architectural wonder?
  • 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 king does Beowulf serve? (see line 170).
  • What does the watchman do when he first spots Beowulf approaching Hrothgar's kingdom with his fourteen armed companions?
  • In line 294, why do you suppose Beowulf and his men set aside their spears before seeking an audience with the king? What does this action suggest about either Anglo-Saxon culture generally or Hrothgar's court more specifically?
  • When the retainer Wulfgar tells Hrothgar about Beowulf's arrival, what does Hrothgar reveal about his relationship to Beowulf?
  • What is Beowulf's "super-power," according to lines 339-40?
  • In lines 341, we discover that Hrothgar is ruler over the Danes. Accordingly, where does this story take place? Why is that setting a bit odd for a poem held up by English nationalists as an "epic" of English character?
  • What qualification or achievements does Beowulf have that make him suitable for fighting Grendel, as recounted in lines 374 et passim?
  • Why did Beowulf leave his own king (Hygelac) to help out Hrothgar? Why does he owe a family debt to Hrothgar? (See lines 406-421 to see what favor Hrothgar did for Ectheow.)
  • 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 surprise revelation does Beowulf make about Unferth and his past actions?
  • When the poet describes Grendel's appearance, what does he state Grendel looks like? (Trick question!)
  • Explain the meiosis or understatement when the narrator tells us that Grendel "often had haunted Hrothgar's house but he never found, before or after, hardier hall-thanes or harder luck."
  • What does the iron-braced door do when Grendel's hands touched it in lines 647 et passim?
  • What does Beowulf do to Grendel that mortally wounds the monster?
  • Why is Beowulf's "handgrip" so impressive?
  • What decoration or trophy does Beowulf stick on a spike over the entry-way to Heorot?
  • Why do you suppose the scop who sings a song about Beowulf's deeds follows this with a song about Sigemund, a hero from the Volsung Saga? How might Sigemund's battles or Sigemund's fate be applicable to Beowulf?
  • What does Hrothgar formally do to honor Beowulf? (List one honor or one gift he gives him.)
  • The scop later sings a song known as the Finnsburg Fragment (see lines 934-1019). This episode describes Hildeburh, a queen whose sons have died and an insuing blood-feud. How might this poem connect to the rest of the Beowulf episode? Does it connect with Wealhtheow's children? With Grendel's mother? What are the possibilties?
  • Note that lines 895-96 make a passing allusion to how Uncle Hrothulf would later kill the two sons of his brother King Hrothgar (Hrethric and Hrothmund) in order to usurp the throne himself, as further described in lines 1024-28. How does this connect with the way Wealhtheow and Beowulf choose always to sit between Hrothulf and his nephews, as in lines 1049-50? What does it suggest that Wealhtheow and Beowulf know? How does it change the way we read Wealhtheow's words in lines 1073-87? How does this shape our interpretation of Wealhtheow's gift of the torque to Beowulf and her hope that Beowulf will "Swear that your strength and kindly counsel / will aide\ these youngsters" and her request that he "be mild to my sons/ a model admired [for them]" in lines 1083-84?
  • What custom or habit do the Danes have at Hrothgar's hall that the narrator approves of so much he declares, "That was a fine folk" in line 1103?

Quotations for Identification (Be able to identify what work these quotations come from, what the author is, what character (if any) is speaking, and briefly comment upon the quotation's significance or importance in the work:

A: In his mind he mulled commanding a meadhall / higher than humankind ever had heard of,/ and offering everyone, young and old, all he could give that God had granted. . . . Then, I am told, he tackled that task, raising the rafters with craftsmen summoned / from many kingdoms across Middle-Earth

B: Each day, one evil dweller in darkness / spitefully suffered teh din from that hall / where [his] men made merry with mead. Harp-strings would sound, and the song of the scop would recount the tales told of time past.

C: He had lived long in the land of the loathsome, / born to the band whom God had banished / as kindred of Caine, thereby requiting / the slayer of Abel. Many such sprang from the first murderer: monsters and misfits, / elves and ill-spirits, also those giants whose wars with the Lord earned them exile.

D: Raiding by night, he reigned in the hall / and Heorot's high adornments were his / but God would not grant throne-gifts to gladden / a scourge who spurned the Sovereign of Heaven.

E: "What warriors are you, wearers of armor,
bearers of byrnies, daring to bring
your lofty longboat over teh sea-lane?
Long have I looked out on the ocean
so foreign foes might never float hither
and harry our homeland with hostile fleets....
I have never beheld an earl on this earth
more mighty in arms than one among you."

F. "His honored father, old Ecgtheow, / was dowered the daughter of the Geat, Hrethel. / The son now seeks us solely from friendship. / Seamen have said, after sailing hence with gifts for the Geats, that his hand-grip would match / the might and main of thirty strong men.

G: "They have seen me return bloody from binding brutish giants, a family of five destroyed in our strife; by night in the sea I have slain monsters. Hardship I had, but our harms were avenged, our enemies mastered. Now I shall match my grip against Grendel's and get you an end to this feud with the fiend."

E: "Listen, Unferth, my fuddled friend / brimful of beer, you blabber too much / about Breca's venture. I tell you the truth: / my force in the flood is more than a match / for any man who wrestles the waves."

F: "Such close combat / or stark sword-strokes you have not seen, / you or Breca. No yarn has boasted / how eitehr of you ever attempted / so bold a deed done with bright sword, / though I would not bruit a brother's bane / if the killing of kin were all I'd accomplished. / For that you are certain to suffer in Hell, / doomed with the damned, despite your swift wit."

G: "The joyless giant drew near the door, which swiftly swung back at the touch of his hand / though bound and fastened with forge-bent bars. The building's mouth had been broken open, and Grendel entered with ill intent."

H. "The spell was spun so strongly about him / that the finest iron of any on earth, the sharpest sword-edge left him unscathed."



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