Medieval Literature
Dr. Debora B. Schwartz
English Department, California Polytechnic State University

Beowulf Study Guide
[page numbers refer to NA 9th ed., 2012; for page numbers in 8th ed., 2006, click HERE]

Background: Beowulf and Old English Literature

Read carefully the general background information NA 3-10, paying particular attention to the discussion of oral poetry, literacy, and the connection between Christianity and writing; note also the comments on heroic values (NA 8). Also read information on the Old English language (NA 19, 1st paragraph only); the presentation of Old and Middle English prosody and first page of the Texts/Contexts timeline (NA 24-26); the information on the Saxons and Danish rulers of England (NA Appendix A41); and the headnote to Beowulf (NA 36-413). Make sure you understand what is meant by alliterative verse and can identify parts of the Old English alliterative lines in Caedmon's hymn (NA 30-31) and in the Poet's Song in Heorot selection from Beowulf (NA 40-41). What is meant by the Old English (or Anglo-Saxon) period? Know dates (or approximations given by editor) for: the Anglo-Saxon conquest; Augustine's arrival in Britain to convert the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity; Beowulf; the Norman Conquest. Know what is meant by the following terms: epic (consult the .PDF file "Epic" on e-reserve in PolyLearn); thane (see NA 38 and n. 8 on p. 28 of the Donaldson prose translation of Dream of the Rood, as well as 30-31); scop (NA 37); wergild (NA 38); kenning (NA 9).

Don't try to memorize all the names or the complex genealogies in Beowulf -- read instead for a sense of the issues important in epic poetry of the Anglo-Saxon period. You should however know names of -- and be able to identify -- the following characters: Beowulf, Hrothgar, Wealhtheow, Freawaru, Hygelac, Grendel, Grendel's mother, Wiglaf. As you read the text, keep in mind what you have learned about the Old English world view, esp. the "heroic code"; see also NA 38-39 on the values of a warrior society.

DATE: Note that the date of composition of Beowulf is unclear.  It is generally thought to have been composed between the 8th and 10th centuries (see NA 36).  The single manuscript in which the poem was preserved has been dated to the late 10th century, and the historic period in which the events recounted supposedly took place can be identified as the early sixth century, when Hygelac is known to have been King of the Geats (see NA 37). What can you conclude from the discrepancy between these dates?

PROSODY: Seamus Heaney has incorporated some of the music of alliterative verse into his translation; be sensitive to this aspect of the poem.  Reread NA 24 on Old English prosody and be sure that you understand the meaning of the following terms: alliteration, alliterative line, medial caesura. How many stressed syllables are found in an Old English alliterative line? How many unstressed syllables? Which words alliterate with each other? Make sure you can identify caesura, stressed syllables and alliteration in the lines of Caedmon's Hymn, NA 30-31, and of the Poet's Song in Heorot, NA 40-41.

Study Questions:  Beowulf

Beowulf is representative of the sort of epic poetry enjoyed by the inhabitants of Britain before, during and after their gradual Christianization -- the very type of poem which Bede claims Caedmon was unable to sing when the harp was passed around in the Mead Hall after dinner (what he disparagingly refers to as "vain and idle songs," NA 30). What are the qualities of the epic hero? How is the heroic ideal represented in Beowulf, and how does it reinforce or conflict with other aspects of the society? Compare/contrast with the warrior Christ of The Dream of the Rood.

Beowulf has been called a Pagan story composed (or at least written down) by a Christian poet. What Christian and pre-Christian (Germanic, Anglo-Saxon, or epic-heroic) elements can you identify? To what extent are God and Fate the same thing in the poem? To what extent are they in conflict? What about the representation of evil? What is the significance of Grendel belonging to the "race of Cain"? Is there a difference between the evil of Grendel and that of his Mother? How about the dragon at the end? Is Beowulf a savior figure? What motivates his heroism? To what extent is he altruistic, and in what might he appear egotistical?

What is the depiction of the relationship between thane and king? What does each owe the other? What is the significance of treasure in the poem? Note the emphasis on feasting, comradeship and song. Find examples of each. At the beginning of the poem, Beowulf is the thane of his Uncle, Hygelac; after killing Grendel, he is regarded as the foster "son" of Hrothgar. What is the importance of kinship in Germanic society? What is a wergild (see NA 38)? What is the significance of Wiglaf, the loyal but young and untested warrior in the last section of the poem?

What roles do women play in the poem? What seems to be their primary function? Note in particular the references to Wealtheow and to her daughter Freawaru. (Also, look carefully at the family tree NA 39-40.) Is Grendel's mother a representative Germanic woman? Why or why not?

What is the effect of the last section, which takes place fifty years after the action of the first? What elements contribute to the unity of the poem? Consider, e.g., the two funerals (Shield's and Beowulf's) with which the poem begins and ends. Consider also that we see Beowulf himself at three stages of his life: as triumphant hero, aged king and (in the comments on his past exploits, NA 50-53) as a youth. Does this add to our understanding of his role as hero?

Note the depictions of poets (bards, scops -- see NA 37) within the poem. What is their role? Compare/contrast with Caedmon (and with the poet Dreamer in The Dream of the Rood). Note the poetic devices used in the poem: formulaic epithets, the "kenning" (see NA 9). Find examples of each. Does Beowulf seem to be more characteristic of oral or of written poetry?


What generalizations can you make about the values of a warrior society (i.e. the heroic ideal) based upon your readings from the Old English period? What qualities are most admired? Are there noticeable absences relative to our modern views of "heroism"? How do these ideals differ from our own? What is the role and function of women in these works? What is the attitude toward learning? Towards the Church? To what extent is the Old English world Christianized? Would people of this period consider the Old English works you have read to be "literature"?

Contents of this and linked pages Copyright Debora B. Schwartz, 1999-2016

Click here for Bede and Caedmon's Hymn Study Questions

Click here for Dream of the Rood Study Questions

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