Presentation on theme: "On Beowulf HUM 2051: Civilization I Fall 2014 Dr. Perdigao November 5-7, 2014."— Presentation transcript:
On Beowulf HUM 2051: Civilization I Fall 2014 Dr. Perdigao November 5-7, 2014
Contextualizing the Text Late Anglo-Saxon period, around 1000 CE, when scribes copied the poem onto the manuscript (that survived), believed to be composed around 850 CE, detailing events around 520 CE (with death of Hygelac, Beowulf’s lord) Question of “indeterminable date” for the study of its contexts, attitudes Time and place of the poem: late fifth and early sixth centuries in Northern Europe; Germanic tribes of South Danes (Denmark), Geats (southern Sweden) Germanic and Scandinavian peoples who “overran the Roman empire” (Lawall 1174) English poet constructing a heroic poem about ancestors (like Homer) Questions as to whether or not the Beowulf poet was influenced by Celtic literature, if he knew and used Virgil... Is this oral improvisation or written composition?
Narrative Frames “ Beowulf is a half-baked native epic the development of which was killed by Latin learning; it was inspired by emulation of Virgil, and is a product of the education that came in with Christianity; it is feeble and incompetent as narrative; the rules of narrative are cleverly observed in the manner of the learned epic;... it is a wild folk-tale (general chorus); it is a poem of an aristocratic and courtly tradition (same voices);... it is a sociological, anthropological, archaeological document” (Tolkien 106). “In Beowulf we have, then, an historical poem about the pagan past, or an attempt at one—literal historical fidelity founded on modern research was, of course, not attempted. It is a poem by a learned man writing of old times, who looking back on the heroism and sorrow feels in them something permanent and something symbolical...” (Tolkien 123).
Defining Characteristics Loyalty Kinship Fame and glory Vengeance Bond holding society together is loyalty between lord and his warriors, or thanes (Lawall 1174) Lord as “ring-giver,” with offerings, loyalty and good counsel in return by the thane (1174) Loyalty as giving meaning to the world
Cultural Values Art representing the historical and social contexts of the works; bards (scops) representing literature and history Art as “the product of a particular cultural milieu, sometimes embodying a society’s most deeply held convictions, sometimes questioning these values, sometimes disguising an artist’s own ambivalence with regard to these matters, but never disengaged from the claims of time or social order” (qtd. in Olsen 151). Cultural attitudes/ideologies within the poem, as countering our modern world: ritualistic revenge, public esteem of giving gifts, emphases on artifacts, idea of fate Threat to that culture—presence of outlaw, outsider, limit of worldly pursuits, treasures Poem concerned with feuding, inability to make peace with the past, inability to move into the future (Lawall 1178) “Indeed in its respect for the past the poem participates in its own central theme... How can one celebrate one’s own cultural past while admitting that it must be left behind?” (Lawall )
Self and the World Beowulf as heroic poem, “focusing on a male hero as he matures from youth to age and promoting masculine values” (Olsen 150). Tripartite structure of the poem: three “agons” “three struggles in which the preternatural force-for-evil of the hero’s enemies comes springing at him in demonic shapes; three encounters with what the critical literature call ‘the monsters’—in three archetypal sites of fear: the barricaded night-house, the infested underwater current and the reptile haunted rocks of a wilderness” (Heaney xxv). “Thus the monsters can be understood, at least in part, as embodiments of the feuding principle that is inevitably destroying Germanic society. Yet in killing them Beowulf is involved in a paradox: violence can be controlled only by violence, a circle from which no one in the poem is able to escape” (Lawall 1176).
End of an Era? Facing death, Beowulf “understand[ing] at some level the futility of the entire world of Germanic heroism that he himself so fully represents” (Lawall 1177). “Trolls and dragons can be killed, but how does one eradicate the violence that serves to constitute society itself? The monsters are, finally, instances of social sickness that infects the culture as a whole: they may be killed, but the violence they represent will continue unabated. Perhaps Beowulf’s greatest act of heroism is found not in the physical courage he displays in his battles against human and superhuman foes but in his spiritual capacity to persevere despite knowing that his efforts are futile” (1177).
Modernizing the Text “The role of woman in Beowulf primarily depends on ‘peace-making,’ either biologically through her marital ties with foreign kings as peace- pledge or mother of sons, or socially and psychologically as a cup-passing and peace-weaving queen within a hall” (Chance 156). “And even the mere itself, approached through winding passageways, slopes, and paths, and in whose stirred-up and bloody waters sea monsters lurk and the strange battle-hall remains hidden, almost projects the mystery and danger of female sexuality run rampant” (Chance 162).
Pagan and Christian “[scholars] devoted themselves to a consideration of the world-view behind the poem, asking to what extent (if at all) the newly established Christian religion, which was fundamental to the poet’s intellectual formation, displaced him from his imaginative at-homeness in the world of his poem—a pagan Germanic society governed by a heroic code of honor, one where the attainment of a name for warrior-prowess among the living overwhelms any concern over the soul’s destiny in the afterlife” (Heaney xxiv). Is Beowulf a “secular English poem written for an audience knowledgeable about Christianity but not concerned exclusively with religion” (Solo 114)? “The characters in the story are obviously pagan, but the poet narrating the story is manifestly Christian” (Solo 115). “It has often been observed that all the scriptural references to Beowulf are to the Old Testament. The poet is more in sympathy with the tragic, waiting, unredeemed phase of things than with any transcendental promise.” (Heaney xxxi)
Text and Contexts “It was put into its final form by a Christian, but one who is both careful to preserve the distinction between his Christian present and the pagan past and unusually tolerant of the culture of his forebears” (Lawall 1177). The characters commit the error of pagan sacrifices because they “do not yet know of the true, Christian God whom the poet himself worships, just as they cannot know that the monsters are of the race of Cain. They do indeed live in a world ruled over by the Christian God: as the poet says, ‘Past and preset, God’s will prevails’ (1057). But while the audience knows this truth, their pagan forebears cannot” (Lawall 1177).