Beowulf

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Beowulf Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Anonymous's Beowulf. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Anonymous

Beowulf was probably created by a scop, a professional Anglo-Saxon poet. Much like bards, scops created poems to preserve the myths and histories of their people. These poems would be performed from memory at feasts or other public gatherings as part of an oral story-telling tradition. Sometime in the eleventh century, two scribes preserved Beowulf in writing, creating the single manuscript of Beowulf we have today. The original poem and the poet were pagan, but the scribes were Christian and added Christian details to the poem: the poem now calls God the ultimate judge and ruler and even refers to events in the Old Testament.
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Historical Context of Beowulf

The story told in Beowulf occurs around 500 A.D., and many of the characters in the story can be directly related to real historical figures. It is known that the historic Hygelac, for instance, died around 521 A.D. More generally, Beowulf emerges from the Germanic/Scandinavian culture that flourished in Northern Europe during the last centuries of the Roman Empire and after.

Other Books Related to Beowulf

Beowulf shares characteristics with many Old English epic poems. All contain heroic boasting, verbal taunting, and a hero with a troubled youth. In modern literature, J. R. R. Tolkien was a Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford University, and an authority on Beowulf: His novels The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy are steeped in the mythology and culture in which Beowulf is set. In addition, Tolkien borrowed the episode of the thief stealing a cup from the dragon in Beowulf and used it in The Hobbit. The novelist John Gardner also is indebted to Beowulf. In the novel Grendel, he tells the story of Grendel and Grendel's mother from the monsters' points of view.
Key Facts about Beowulf
  • Full Title: Beowulf
  • When Published: Beowulf exists in a single damaged manuscript in the British Library. The manuscript was probably written in England in the early eleventh century, though the poem itself was probably first written down in the eighth century, and was passed on orally before that.
  • Literary Period: Medieval; Anglo-Saxon
  • Genre: Epic poem
  • Setting: Northern Europe, especially Denmark and Sweden, around the sixth century
  • Climax: Beowulf's final fight with a dragon
  • Point of View: The unnamed speaker of the poem

Extra Credit for Beowulf

Old English Style. Beowulf is the longest poem written in Old English. Old English poetry uses alliterative meter, meaning that the stressed words in a line begin with the same sound. A line of Old English poetry has two halves, with a brief pause, called a caesura, in the middle of the line. The two halves of a line are linked by the alliteration (repetition of an initial consonant); at least three words in a line alliterate. Old English poetry also uses kennings, compressed metaphors like "heaven's candle" for the sun, or "whale's road" for the sea, or calling a woman married in an effort to gain peace a "peace weaver."