OLD ENGLISH EPICAL AND HEROIC POETRY:
* It is the oldest epic in Teutonic literature.
* It consists of 3183 lines.
* Some hold that it was composed in Germany and later it was brought to England by the invading Germans. The theme setting and characters of the poem are all Scandinavian and they have nothing to do with England. The scene of the action is laid in the Danish island of the Sea land and in the land of the Geats in South Sweden.
* The story of the poem can be divided into three district parts.
a) The poem opens with Danish King Scyld Scefing whose dead body was placed on a ship piled up with arms and treasures and none knew what happened to it when the ship passed out to sea. Then we get the reference of Scyld’s son and grandson Beowulf and Healfdene. Healfdene’s son Hrothgan built a splendid hall named Heorot, for nightly enjoyment. But his happiness came to an end by the nightly raid of Grendel who continued to raid here for 12 yrs. Beowulf, the prince of the Geats came to help Hrothgar with his fourteen companions. There went a fight and finally Beowulf cut one of Grendel’s arms. hhhHHHHHHHH
b) When the feast was going on for celebrating this victory Grendel’s mother came to the palace for taking the revenge. Beowulf followed her under the sea and after a taught fight he killed her with the magic sword he found in the cave. Crowed with gifts Beowulf sailed back to his land.
c) Beowulf became the king of the Geats and reigned over them gloriously for fifty year. Then in his kingdom a fire spitting dragon came in order to get back the treasure which he had guarded for 300 yrs. and which was now stolen. Then went a terrible fight and finally Beowulf killed the dragon but he mortally wounded and died. His body was burnt on a great pyre and a huge barrow is constructed over the remains of the pyre.
* Beowulf is to be remembered for its graphic and colourful picture of ancient Teutonic life with all its feasts and merry making, generosity of the rulers, their thirst fir fame, and their love for song, their fatalism and their honour for the women.
* It is a non Christian work of the pre-christian time. It is also inspired with a sort of Christian nobility and purity.
* Its verses are unrhythmic and alliterative. Their movement is restricted but dignified and seems to smack of the flavour of classical literature.
v BEOWULF AS AN EPIC:
* The word ’epic’ has come from the Greek word ‘epos’ which means narrative poetry celebrating heroic incidents. There should be a grand Theme and a grand style in an epic. Beowulf can not be ranked with the great epics like Homer’s the ‘Iliad’ and the ‘Odyssey’ or the ‘Ramayana’ or the ‘Mahabharata’.
* Beowulf does not fully satisfy all the requirements of epic poetry as Aristotle mention –
a) The unity of action
b) The entirety of action
c) The greatness of action.
* Beowulf lacks the unity of action. It is made of two distinct narratives- in the first place Beowulf’s fight with Grendel and his mother in the second place after 50 years of golden reigning Beowulf’s fight with the dragon and his noble death.
* Beowulf lacks the entirety of action, that is the action of Beowulf has no a beginning, a middle and an end. The two narratives are separate. Therefore it appears like a collection of two heroic episodes.
* Beowulf can hardly claim the greatness of action. Here we get Beowulf’s fight with monsters and dragon but not with Destiny.
* But in spite of these the epic qualities of Beowulf can not be ignored.
* It celebrates the heroism and above all the heroic self-sacrifice for the worth cause.
* To W.P.Ker – ‘The beauty and the strength of the poem of ‘Beowulf’, as of all true epics depend mainly upon its comprehensive power’. ‘Beowulf’ is characterized by this quality.
* In the vigour of description (concrete phrases are used and abstract expressing are eschewed) and amplitude of imagination it attains the high level of art.
* To S. Brook -”Beowulf has and epic quality in this – that the development of his character to perfection”.
* Beowulf faithfully represents the life and manner of ancient Teutonic life and hence it touches the mark of a genuine epic – a social epic.
v The Fight at Finnsburh:
* It is a fragment of fifty (50) lines.
* In ‘Beowulf’ it is known as ‘Finn Episode’ and it was sung at the feast at the honour, of Beowulf by Hrothgar’s gleeman after the slaying of Grendel.
* Its manuscript was discovered by Dr. George Hicks on the inside of a piece of parchment drawn over the wooden cover of a book of homilies in the library of Lambelk Palace.
* It describes the defense of a hall by Hnaef (a young king of the Danes) with his sixty warriors against the mid-night attack of Finn and his army. Hnaef round his warriors and directed them to take their appointed places in anticipation of the attack. The fight lasted for five days and many of the soldiers of Finn were killed but the Danes held the door without any loss to them. Here ends the fragment before we learn the outcome.
* We come across some important figures besides Hnaef in this poem. They are Sigeferth, Eaha, Ordlaf and Guthlaf.
v Waldhere (Waldere):
* It is a fragment of two leaves (32 and 31 lines respectively).
* The manuscripts are preserved in the Royal library at Copenhagen.
* The two fragments deal with the story of Waldere (Walter of Aquitaine) and his betrothed bride Hildgund, Who were the hostages at the court of Attila. They escaped with a great treasure. They crossed a mountain while they were resting in a cave they were attacked by Gunter and his warriors among them there were Hager, Walter’s former comrade. Walter fought with them and finally escaped with Hildgund. The story ends with their happy marriage.
* To E.Albert- “The work has vigour and power, and it is to be greatly regretted that so little is preserved. It might well have been one of the finest of narrative pieces”.
The Battle of Brununburh:
* It appears in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.
* It glorifies ’Aethelstan, the steadfast’ who came to the throne Of Wessex and Marcia in 925 A.D.
* Constantinus, king of the Scots allied himself with the Danes of Ireland under Olaf. The battle was fought at Brunanburh in 937 A.D. and finally the victory came to Aethelstan and his brother Edmund.
* It indicates the strength of national unity of the English and the triumph of English nationalism.
* The poem is rich with a nationalistic spirit with the vivid representation of the toll of dead bodies, left on the battlefield as the food of the white-tailed eagles and the Grey-beard wolves.
* To Legouis- “There is nothing here of Christian gentleness; the lines have the old heathen ring of exultation over a fallen foe, of rejoicing over the broken invaders. There is more of fierce heathenism in this short poem than in the whole of ‘Beowulf’”.
v The Battle of Maldon:
* It appears in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.
* It records the battle that was fought in 991 A.D. at the estuary of the Blackwater in Essex near Maldon.
* The action of story can be divided into two parts- (1-184 lines) and (185-325 lines) respectively.
In the first part we find that Byrhtnoth, the chief of the East Saxons at first allowed the Danes to cross the river so that battle may be fought on the same ground. Like a genuine hero Byrhtnoth fought bravely but he was slain with poisoned spear on the bank of the stream.
In the second part after Byrhtnoth’s death his followers did not take their heels like the traitor Goodrich rather fought bravely until they were killed.
* It not only records the national defeat rather it indicates the beginning of the Danish conquest of England.
* It is inspired with the Christian moral of total dedication and total self-sacrifice to the noble cause of life.
* To Legouis- “Byrhtnoth like Ronald (hero of the French epic Chanson de Ronald) is a Christian slain by the pagans”.
N.B. - A number of war poems were written in England in the years between King Alfred’s death and the Norman Conquest, they are basically ballad type. The heroes of these poems were shown as the followers of Alfred’s national idealism. Among them ‘The Battle of Brunanburh’ and ‘The Battle of Maldon’ are supposed to be written between 940 A.D. and 997 A.D.
* Aelfthryth and Aethelwold:-
The poem is concerned with king Eadgar, the Winner of Peace. Edgar succeeded Eadwig in 995, and ruled the country till 975. It narrates the treachery of Aethelwold, the king’s friend. The king sent Aethelwold to the fair maiden Aelfthryth with a proposal of marriage. But the friend told her a lie and he himself married her. The king knew the truth and planned to avenge. He requested Aethelwold to accompany him on a hunting party. There he slew the deceitful friend with a spear. Later on he married Aelfthryth. It is said that the woman was much weighed down by the sins of her life and founded a nunnery.