6 HOURS TIME FRAME The Anglo-Saxons:  Poetry as Cultural Commentary For this journal, you need to respond, citing textual moments from all three Old Engli

6 HOURS TIME FRAME The Anglo-Saxons:  Poetry as Cultural Commentary

For this journal, you need to respond, citing textual moments from all three Old Engli

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6 HOURS TIME FRAME The Anglo-Saxons:  Poetry as Cultural Commentary

For this journal, you need to respond, citing textual moments from all three Old English poems, effectively and clearly to the prompt:

These poems, all different in terms of thematic focus, each reveal something about the culture of the original, targeted audience.  What does each poem teach about the things valued by the culture and society?  HOW does each teach it?  How does each “speak” with its audience to accomplish this?

As with all journals, I’m not interested in what I wrote in the lectures; I literally know that stuff.  I’m interested in how you engage with those texts you read / watched and how you think about them.


Beowulf is often considered the singular, originary, uniquely English epic. The manuscript itself dates from approximately 1000 C. E., but the story has all the earmarks of an older, oral composition that was recorded after a later performance. The historic figures recognizable are from the 7th century C. E. in the area of what is now Denmark. The Old English dialect is fairly regional to the area now known as Essex.

If you look at an image of the manuscript, you will discover that there is no title; the poem was called Beowulf after its central character, even though he doesn’t appear until the story is well under way. Until J.R.R. Tolkien’s 1938 essay, “The Monster and the Critics,” most of the critique of the poem was based on the heroics of Beowulf and the poetics of the poem. Tolkien, a philologist and professor of Anglo-Saxon studies at Oxford, made an argument that no had considered before. He posited that the key to understanding the poem was to understand the monsters in it and how they shape the thematic issues of the narrative.

To understand that idea, the first thing you need to look at is the basic structure of the poem. The opening movement, about Schyld Sheffing, is the establishment of the standard of a “good king” – and all other rulers are compared to him. One way the reader knows it significance is the shift in the narrative voice when the commentary “that was a good king” is presented. This is an example of Gnomic Lore. This isn’t about that Travelocity gnome; it’s about gnosis (wisdom). Periodically through the text, moments of gnosis occur, when that same shift in voice occur. These moments help an audience understand the significance of the events that have just occurred in the narrative. If you pay attention to them, you will get a sense of the cultural values promulgated by the poet.

One of those values is the idea of the posse commitatus. This recurs in epic literature. It is the small group of committed followers of the leader – literally, the committed posse (sometimes, Latin is really that straight-forward). Here, the audience witnesses the benefits to the followers when the leader is the right kind of leader. Schyld rewards his followers generously (there was no particular value in hoarding your wealth – the idea was to show it off and be generous with it to gain friends and allies). Later, when Beowulf is rewarded by Hrothgar, he keeps very little for himself; instead of being greedy, he gives his posse some of the gifts and the remainder go to his own dryhten (lord). The benefit the leader has is that the posse wants him to succeed and supports him in his endeavors. It’s when the leader fails in his generosity that the posse fails in its loyalty.

This, of course, is what happened with Hrothgar. He was a successful dryhten when he was younger, but he, instead of distributing his wealth, spent it in building an edifice to himself, Heorot. He also go old (remember, the cultural goal was to die in battle and go to Valhalla). If he had been the “right” kind of king, he would never have built Heorot, which in turn would not have been the source of the “dear din” that disturbed Grendel. And, once Grendel attacked, Hrothgar should have been the one fighting Grendel, not hiring a mercenary. That is NOT “a good king” based on the example given earlier.

So, here the concept of sin enters the story, even if it’s not Sin as you might think of it. Hrothgar, aside from being old and self-serving, is a bad neighbor. This may not seem like much, but its consequences are severe. Grendel attacks Heorot.

Tolkien argued that the three “monsters” each represented a particular cultural issue. Grendel is, here, unmitigated rage. Nothing stops him from killing until he his attacked in turn. His response to the noisy neighbor provocation is so completely extreme that he cannot be reasoned with, apparently. Of course, the noisy neighbors don’t shut up, either.

Beowulf, a young warlord, comes with his posse and establishes himself as a hero (in contrast to both Hrothgar and Unferth, who, effectively, is Beowulf’s literary foil, acting oppositely in the exact same circumstances, something illustrated in the dinner sequence where he accuses Beowulf of being a loser against Brecca. Beowulf’s response is to say that he never heard tales of Unferth’s exploits.). This exchange is typical of epic poetry and is called a “flyting” – a formulaic exchange of credentials establishing the superiority of the hero and the inferiority of the would-be hero.

After Beowulf has defeated Grendel, the second “monster,” Grendel’s mother, comes to take vengeance. This movement is critical for Tolkien as a thematic shift. Unlike her son, who just wants to silence everyone, Mama wants particular revenge on the person she holds responsible for her son’s fate, Hrothgar. She, and the audience, understand that, although Beowulf is the fighter, Hrothgar, as dryhten, is responsible for the actions of all under his command. So, she kills Aescher, Hrothgar’s advisor specifically to punish Hrothgar. This particular act calls for a particular response, and here the audience witnesses the thematic implications of Beowulf’s earlier boasting. He has followed through, to the point that even Unferth is now a believer in his capacity for action and leadership. This is what giving his sword, Hrunting, signifies. A named sword was a sign of its importance to and the relative importance of its wielder. To loan it to someone else was a sign of ultimate respect and honor.

After all this, the story summarizes 50 years, during which Beowulf himself becomes dryhten back home. He is all the things a good king should be – generous, a warlord, a fighter, a general, and a provider for his people. Remember Schyld? Well, he’s got nothing on Beowulf, apparently. The kingdom has expanded, the people are happy, the other kingdoms are subjugated, all is well.

And then the third “monster” is provoked. A thief steals a cup from a dragon’s hoard (yes Tolkien totally ripped this off for Frodo and Smaug in The Hobbit). The sin is, clearly, greed. The thief steals for no other reason than he wants what the dragon has. The dragon’s response is disproportionate to his loss, at least to the audience. He burns all sorts of stuff to punish those who might be the thief’s people.

Now, Beowulf must step up again. Remember, he’s been the Type of a Good King: strong, smart, brave, generous, leaderly, loyal, etc. So, his posse should be all-in fighting the dragon, right?

Well, there’s one problem. He’s OLD. So, even though he has been awesome and awe-inspiring, he’s no longer the exemplar they want to model themselves in relation to. He’s going to fight the dragon. His posse should be right there with him. Instead, all he has is Wiglaf, a very young thane.

They succeed, but Beowulf is mortally wounded in the process. Upon his death, there is a movement of “ubi sunt” when the women mourn the disaster to come with his death.

Remember all that awesome kingness? It comes at the cost of others, so it is, inherently, a redistribution of wealth to the benefit of the particular kingdom. It is, really, greed in action. Thus, the thief / dragon interaction is really a microcosm of the problem of the kingdom.

And, with the death of the dryhten, the kingdom is left unprotected from acts of rage, vengeance, and greed.

One final thing: you should have noticed the Biblical references – Grendel is Cain’s kin (“Cannes kynne”), etc. All of the references are Old Testament. None are critical to the story, but they add a layer of meaning to the text. Scholars argue that the Biblical references were added at a later time to the original, non-Christian story. As manuscripts were composed in monastic scriptora, this seems not unreasonable.

Thematically, however, the story becomes in part an allegory of the need for Jesus’ axiom of “love thy enemy” and “turn the other cheek” – the idea of true forgiveness. Without it, the cycle of vengeance is unending. It is only through the example of the New Testament that there is hope of change and salvation.

And, here in this poem, is what happens unendingly without that optional out of the cycle.

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