Beowulf: Story, Characters, and Old English

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  • 0:05 The Written Words
  • 4:01 The Epic Tale
  • 9:35 The Epilogue
  • 10:31 The Importance
  • 12:58 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Maggie Anderson
In this lesson, we'll take a look at the Old English epic, Beowulf. We'll explore what happens, how it's written and why it has such a lasting legacy.

Beowulf, Beowulf, we're gonna talk about Beowulf!

The Text

We're going to talk about Beowulf, and he's super exciting. We're going to talk about the form of the poem, we're going to talk about what happens, and we're going to talk about why we care...because it's old. It's so old...this is like the oldest thing ever. Scholars like to fight about whether it was composed in the 8th century or the 11th century, but it doesn't really matter for us because either one of those things is still really, really old.

It's basically written by this anonymous Old English poet and we don't know who he is. It's about some Scandinavian guys who go on some adventures. It's actually called an epic poem. Epic doesn't just mean 'totally awesome,' like 'that was epic,' or, 'Oh my god, that was so epic!' It's a long poem about adventuresome deeds. So that night your friends got drunk and pushed each other around in shopping carts until the cops showed up, that's not epic. Beowulf is epic.

It's written in Old English, which is not the same thing as Middle English, which comes later. Old English is spoken from around maybe 450-1150 AD, it gets a little murky, but that's about right. Even though it has the word 'English' in it and you might think that it would be comprehensible to you, you really can't understand it. So I'm going to put up on the screen the opening lines of Beowulf, and just take a look at it, just try to figure that out:

Hwæt! We Gardena || in gear-dagum,

þeodcyninga, || þrym gefrunon,

hu ða æþelingas || ellen fremedon.

You can't do it. It doesn't make any sense. And you're not going to be expected to be able translate that. You're only going to have to read that in translation if you do have to encounter it. But the important thing to know is that it is in something called alliterative verse, which is a really typical thing for Old English poetry. I promise you we're going to get to the fun battles and all the exciting stuff soon, but I do have to tell you about alliterative verse first because it's really important and it is something that might come up at some point if you have to talk about Beowulf.

So you've probably heard the term 'alliteration,' which basically means things like 'an angry ant' or 'the beautiful butterfly;' it's a bunch of words that all start with the same letter, basically. Instead of rhyming, what Old English poets like to do, as a kind of way to structure their poetry, was to have a line that, maybe not every word because that would be kind of difficult, but a lot of the words start with the same letter. Translations of Beowulf do try to preserve this, so you can kind of take a look a line and see how this really plays out in a practical kind of way.

Here's a translated line:

The folk-kings' former fame we have heard of,

How princes displayed then their prowess-in-battle.

So in the first line we get lots of F's and in the second line we get lots of P's, you know, princes, displayed, prowess. The other important thing is that the lines are kind of divided in two by something that's called a caesura, which means break. And basically how it's organized is that you have two strong accents before the break and two strong accents after the break in each line. It sometimes can be harder to see in translation, but if you look at the second line again that we read before - 'How princes displayed their prowess-in-battle,' - there are two accents before and two accents after, and there's that break that you can do naturally in the middle. And the alliteration is supposed to help us, in a way, bridge that gap, so there are things on either side that all start with that same letter. That's the basic form and structure of how Beowulf is formed and structured.

The Epic Tale

King Hrothgar and his wife Wealhtheow are characters in Beowulf.
Hrothgar two

So what happens in Beowulf? It's a lot of awesome adventuring. First we're introduced to the Danes who are people who live in what's now Denmark. They're descendants of Scyld Scefing (that's kind of an awesome name). He's dead, so we're really looking at one of his descendants, whose name is King Hrothgar, and his wife Wealhtheow and all of his knights. (I think that Hrothgar would be the best cat name, but that's neither here nor there.)

So Hrothgar and his people, they have a monster problem. There's this horrible beast named Grendel who's terrorizing their mead hall, Heorot. Scholars kind of fight a little bit about what Grendel really looks like - it's not totally clear from what they've translated. A lot of them think he's kind of human-like, but really big, and maybe has scales. I like to think of him as an ancient-day Oscar the Grouch when I picture him. Sometimes I also think of him on the cover of John Gardner's book called Grendel about the monster's point of view, and on the cover of that he looks like a furry cat-monster. There's an animated movie (that I love the title of) called Grendel, Grendel, Grendel where he's just a sad-looking green monster. Then there was a 2007 movie with a whole bunch of CGI where he kind of looks gross, I don't know how to describe that gross person. But however you picture him, he's ferocious and weird. He's supposed to be disconcerting and strange, and he keeps killing the Danes (that's really the salient point), and they don't know what to do. He also lives in the swamp - that's important. I think that also might be why I think of him as Oscar the Grouch, because it's kind of like, trashcan, swamp...who can blame him for being upset about things.

So Beowulf comes in. He's sort of a professional good guy. He hears about this situation and he comes in to help. He's a Geat, which means that he's from what is now Sweden (it doesn't mean that he opens and closes to let you through). Hrothgar, a long time ago, had helped out Beowulf's dad, so he's sort of repaying the favor a little bit, coming and helping out with this. So Beowulf gets there and they have a big feast. Some of Hrothgar's warriors are a little skeptical of Beowulf's accomplishments. One of them named Unferth brings up this embarrassing swimming contest that Beowulf had back in the day that he lost. Beowulf says that he lost because he had to defeat a bunch of sea monsters on the way, which I think might be supposed to be true. It's the kind of thing, you know, excuses, excuses...

Beowulf hears about Grendel and comes in to help.
Beowulf three

They're having this big feast, and Hrothgar thinks he can do it, even if some of his warriors are a little skeptical. And late at night, Grendel turns up, right on cue, to be fought. But late, kind of like that obnoxious friend who turns up wasted right just when you're starting to clean and gets all upset that no one wants to play Mario Kart with him... Grendel's kind of like that, turning up late at night. Beowulf has decided that he's not going to use any weapons because Grendel isn't armed. That seems like dubious logic to me because people don't have monster things like teeth and claws and all that stuff.

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