Beowulf Study Guide

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THE GLENCOE LITERATURE LIBRARY

Study Guide
for

Beowulf
A translation by Burton Raffel

Meet the Geats, Danes, and Swedes of Beowulf
B
y the time that Beowulf was written down, Germanic tribes from Scandinavia and elsewhere in northern Europe had been invading England’s shores for centuries. The principal human characters in Beowulf hail from three Scandinavian tribes: the Geats, the Danes, and the Swedes. The genealogy of these tribes is shown below. THE GEATS Swerting Hrethel Herbald Hathcyn Higlac (m. Higd) daughter (m. Efor) THE DANES Shild Beo Copyright © The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.

daughter (m. Edgetho)

Herdred

BEOWULF

Healfdane Hergar Hrothgar (m. Welthow) Halga Yrs (m. Onela)

Hrethric

Hrothmund

Freaw (m. Ingeld) Hrothulf

Herward

THE SWEDES Ongentho Ohther Onela (m. Yrs) Eadgils
13

Eanmund
Beowulf Study Guide

Introducing the Poem
One of the most important remains of AngloSaxon literature is the epic poem Beowulf. Its age is unknown; but it comes from a very distant and hoar antiquity . . . It is like a piece of ancient armor; rusty and battered, and yet strong. —Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

CHARACTER LIST
Much of the early action takes place in Herot, a great mead hall, or banquet hall, where the wellloved and generous Danish king Hrothgar holds court. The following list includes the principal characters in Beowulf, some of whom appear in the genealogies on page 13. Beowulf, an ideal warrior of the Geats and the hero of the poem Dragon, a fire-breathing, snakelike monster that terrorizes the Geats Grendel, a monster with human qualities that terrorizes Herot for twelve years Grendel’s mother, a monster that also terrorizes Herot Hrothgar, Danish king and builder of Herot Higlac, king of the Geats and uncle of Beowulf Shild, legendary king of the Danes and greatgrandfather of Hrothgar Unferth, a warrior in Hrothgar’s court who challenges Beowulf’s bravery Welthow, Hrothgar’s wife Wiglaf, a young warrior and relative of Beowulf

BACKGROUND
It is a curious fact that some of the world’s greatest literature has come to us from an unknown hand. Beowulf, the first epic poem in the English language, ranks high among such literature. Scholars believe that this epic about a brave warrior who vanquishes evil monsters was composed between the mid-seventh century and the end of the tenth century. Some of the story materials the poet uses may have been passed down by word of mouth from one generation to the next. Beowulf was probably composed in writing by one man. Although no one knows the identity of the author, he lived in what is now England, probably somewhere north of the river Thames. Little more can be said about the author with certainty, except that he was highly skilled in poetic technique and was thoroughly familiar with the traditional themes and legends of early Germanic culture. What is it about Beowulf that moved the American poet Longfellow to compare it to “a piece of ancient armor; rusty and battered, and yet strong”? Perhaps it is that the poet fused early Germanic history, legends, mythology, and ideals with Christian faith and values to create an enduring work of art that inspires as it entertains. Or perhaps it is that we still cherish many of the qualities that Beowulf embodies—among them courage, loyalty, and generosity.

Early Denmark and Sweden During the Time of Beowulf
Swedes

Copyright © The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.

Geats Jutes North Sea Danes
Ba

l ti c

Se

a

THE TIME AND PLACE
The poem is set mainly in Denmark and Geatland (now southern Sweden) during the sixth century. The map at right shows the locations of peoples mentioned in Beowulf. The proximity of those peoples to one another, together with the warrior code they followed, made for frequent clashes. 14

Frisians Franks

Beowulf Study Guide

Did You Know?
In 1939, excavations at Sutton Hoo (in Suffolk, England) uncovered a royal treasure-filled ship buried...
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