What does the setting mean in Beowulf

Superheroes (2/3): Beowulf

It is an unknown Christian poet who wrote Beowulf's exploits somewhere in Anglo-Saxon England between the 7th and 9th centuries. The work is now considered to be one of the most important and influential works in English literature. The story combines all elements of a modern action material. The writer and literature professor J.R.R. Tolkien was intrigued by the heroic poem and used it as inspiration for his famous Middle-earth novels. The Beowulf epic has come down to us through a single manuscript - it is guarded like a treasure in the National Library in London.

Terra X - Beowulf's fight against Grendel

The Beowulf epic is considered one of the most significant and influential works in English literature and inspires many authors of modern fantasy stories - such as Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings".

Fight against the bloodthirsty troll Grendel

The story of Beowulf and his legendary deeds begins in Denmark in the 6th century, in the kingdom of the legendary King Hrothgar, a descendant of the Germanic god Odin. He had a splendid festival hall built, called "Heorot". It is the seat of government, courtroom and festival hall for the community. The happy celebrations of the Danes arouse the displeasure of a bloodthirsty troll who lives in the nearby marshland. The monster held the land firmly in its grip for twelve years. It kills all warriors who dare to enter the hall. Nobody dares to stand against him. Until Beowulf arrives, the young, self-confident warrior from the Geatas, the Gauts. He wants to help King Hrothgar and free his kingdom from the terrible monster.

The Beowulf epic was written at a time of upheaval. From the 5th century onwards, fishing, Saxons and Jutes immigrated to Britain as part of the migration of peoples. They come from Scandinavia and northern Germany. After the Romans left the country, there was a kind of power vacuum there for a long time. The newcomers - later called Anglo-Saxons - soon found their own kingdoms. Even if they open up to the Christian faith at some point, they remain connected to their pagan culture and myths for a long time. The Beowulf epic tells about it.

Life and belief in Anglo-Saxon England

In addition to its literary significance, the work provides insights into old Germanic and early English life. In Denmark and Great Britain, the documentation follows the traces of Anglo-Saxon history, shows spectacular archaeological finds and reports on current findings. In the Danish town of Leijre, archaeologists have found the remains of an old royal hall, which in many ways corresponds to the description of the legendary Heorot hall in Beowulf. In England, spectacular grave goods and buried treasures have been discovered that are reminiscent of descriptions of burial rituals in the epic.

Danish, English and German scholars help to classify the historical context and paint a vivid picture of life and beliefs in Anglo-Saxon England. They show: The Beowulf epic is a heroic story that has lost none of its power even after more than 1000 years.

  • Andy Orchard is Professor of Anglo-Saxon Literature at Oxford University and teaches at the chair as the successor to J.R.R. Tolkien. Orchard's specialties are Old English, Nordic and Celtic literature. He is the author of various specialist books on Beowulf, and a new work will appear in 2018.

    What is it about the poem "Beowulf" that fascinates you, what makes it so unique?
    "Beowulf" is the epitome of the Anglo-Saxon poem. If we look back at the cultural beginnings of Anglo-Saxon England in the 5th century, it begins in a pagan society based on oral tradition and a secular, heroic warrior culture. By the end of the Anglo-Saxon era, almost everything changed. They have become a Christian culture, almost a written culture that is very interested in Latin, continental Europe and what is happening there. This whole development is depicted in "Beowulf".

    I first read "Beowulf" in the original when I was 17 years old, which was a few years ago. I read and teach the poem every year and always discover something new in this very complex and demanding poem. I like the poetry from that time. You follow it on its winding paths, and sometimes it takes you to unexpected places and opens up unexpected perspectives.

    Why is "Beowulf" still up to date?
    In 1936 the young J.R.R. Tolkien - who then held the chair I now hold - gave a major lecture at the British Academy. He said "Beowulf" is not just history, but a literary work that tells of humanity and people, not just of events and actions. Since then, "Beowulf" has been examined again and again from this point of view: What does the poem tell us about the Anglo-Saxons? And what does it tell us about ourselves? "Beowulf" is interpreted and re-interpreted over and over again. There are modern, feminist and eco-critical readings. This is exactly what makes it a great work of art: it appeals to different generations in very different ways.

    What is the deeper meaning of the poem?
    The "Beowulf" epic is not just the story of an outside monster. It's also about fighting your own demons. At the end of the poem, when we know that Beowulf's people are doomed, the poet delivers a wonderful reassessment: some monsters - Grendel, Grendel's mother, and the dragon, for example - appear human and we feel sorry for them. Nietzsche once said: "If you stare into an abyss, the abyss also stares into you." When you fight monsters, be careful not to become a monster yourself. The poet plays with this idea repeatedly.

    Why is it so difficult to determine when "Beowulf" was made?
    There is only one event in the whole poem that allows for a definite historical dating. It's a foray that took place under Beowulf's King Hygelac. As far as we can date, the raid must have happened around the year 520 AD. So this is the earliest dating option. The only surviving manuscript can be dated to around AD 1000. So we have at least five centuries to consider. Scientists have tried to locate the poem in each of these five centuries, each with very different reasons. Because of this, there is great disagreement about the date of the poem.

    What is the meaning of the hall "Heorot" in the poem?
    Within the Anglo-Saxon culture, the hall is the place of warmth and security, of eating, drinking and sleeping, of happiness and of human discourse. The outside world, on the other hand, is eerie and very dark. When Grendel suddenly bursts into the hall from outside, this is a dramatic climax and a traumatic moment, because suddenly this outside world penetrates the protected space.

    How is Grendel described? What kind of monster is he?
    He comes out of the dark, is a shadow walker. He is described with many human attributes. He is also an exile. In Anglo-Saxon poetry there is a lot of compassion for the exiles, because once you are driven out by a group of warriors or from the court you immediately become a very suspicious figure. The questions arise: Why does he not have a master? Why does he not have a protector? Has he failed his master? That is why we also have compassion for Grendel.

    Why is Tolkien so important to "Beowulf"?
    Tolkien was one of the greatest "Beowulf" scholars that ever existed. He revolutionized the way we think about Beowulf. Through him we thought about the poem from a literary point of view. Tolkien was primarily an expert on Anglo-Saxon, but he was also very influenced by Old Norse and Icelandic sagas and poems, as well as by Celtic fabrics, especially Welsh and partly Irish, all of which he mixed up. In his own works there is the central idea of ​​a lost world, of a king who does not get the honor in his own kingdom that he deserves.

    Nina Koshofer asked the questions.

    Image source: ZDF