Week 9–The Early Middle Ages, Anglo Saxons and Beowulf

And sometimes a proud old soldier
Who had heard songs of the ancient heroes
And could sing them all through, story after story,
Would weave a net of words for Beowulf’s
Victory, tying the knot of his verses
Smoothly, swiftly, into place with a poet’s
Quick skill, singing his new song aloud
While he shaped it, and the old songs as well.—from Beowulf, translated by Burton Raffel
The Anglo-Saxon Mead Hall
Historian Michael Wood returns to his first great love, the Anglo-Saxon world, to reveal the origins of our literary heritage. Focusing on Beowulf and drawing on other Anglo-Saxon classics, he traces the birth of English poetry back to the Dark Ages.
Assignments for this week–
  • Read “The Dark Ages” (article)
  • UPDATED–I am just adding this today (11/16). I want you to watch this video about the Dark Ages. I like how it expands on what is happening in the Middle East and even in the Far East. He does say the Biblical word for donkey, and explains it is not cursing if you are talking about a donkey. Anyways, I feel like the knowledge he presents is valuable and outweighs his shocking humor. LOL. 🙂

  • Watch The Fuel Project videos Roman Catholicism, Catholic SymbolsAllah. I know we are focusing on the Anglo Saxons this week, but I wanted to let you know what was also going on in Asia and the Roman Empire at this time. The spread of Catholicism and the rise of Islam will play an important part when we discuss The Crusades.
  • Watch the video below about Beowulf.
  • Read the Introduction to Beowulf
  • Then read the excerpts that will be linked on the bottom of the page
  • Work on Autobiographical Essay, rough draft due Friday
  • No Grammar work

Introduction To Beowulf

Beowulf is to England what Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey are to ancient Greece: It is the first great work of the English national literature—the mythical and literary record of a formative stage of English civilization. It is also an epic of the heroic sources of English culture. As such, Beowulf uses a host of traditional motifs, or recurring elements, associated with heroic literature all over the world.

The epic tells the story of Beowulf (his name may mean “bear”), a Geat from Sweden who crosses the sea to Denmark in a quest to rescue King Hrothgar from the demonic monster Grendel. Like most early heroic literature, Beowulf is oral art. It was handed down, with changes and embellishments, from one minstrel to another. The stories of Beowulf, like those of all oral epics, are traditional ones, familiar to the audiences who crowded around the harpist-bards in the communal halls at night. The tales in the Beowulf epic are the stories of dream and legend, of monsters and of godfashioned weapons, of descents to the underworld and of fights with dragons, of the hero’s quest and of a community threatened by the powers of evil.

By the standards of Homer, whose epics run to nearly 15,000 lines, Beowulf is relatively short—approximately 3,200 lines. It was composed in Old English, probably in Northumbria in northeast England, sometime between the years 700 and 750. The world it depicts, however, is much older, that of the early sixth century. Much of the poem’s material is based on early folk legends—some Celtic, some Scandinavian. Since the scenery described is the coast of Northumbria, not Scandinavia, it has been assumed that the poet who wrote the version that has come down to us was Northumbrian. Given the Christian elements in the epic, this poet may also have been a monk.

The only manuscript we have of Beowulf dates from the year 1000 and is now in the British Museum in London. Burned and stained, it was discovered in the eighteenth century: Somehow it had survived Henry VIII’s destruction of the monasteries two hundred years earlier.

Beowulf: People, Monsters, and Places

Beowulf: a Geat, son of Edgetho and nephew of Higlac, king of the Geats. Higlac is both Beowulf’s feudal lord and his uncle.

Brecca: chief of the Brondings, a tribe, and Beowulf’s friend.

Grendel: man-eating monster who lives at the bottom of a foul mere, or mountain lake. His name might be related to the Old Norse grindill, meaning “storm,” or grenja, “to bellow.”

Herot: golden guest-hall built by King Hrothgar, the Danish ruler. It was decorated with the antlers of stags; the name means “hart [stag] hall.” Scholars think Herot might have been built near Lejre on the coast of Zealand, in Denmark.

Hrothgar: king of the Danes, builder of Herot. He had once befriended Beowulf’s father. His father was called Healfdane (which probably means “half Dane”). Hrothgar’s name might mean “glory spear” or “spear of triumph.”

Unferth: one of Hrothgar’s courtiers, reputed to be a skilled warrior. His sword, called Hrunting, is used by Beowulf in a later battle.

Welthow: Hrothgar’s wife, queen of the Danes.

Wiglaf: a Geat warrior, one of Beowulf’s select band, and the only one to help him in his final fight with the dragon. Wiglaf might be related to Beowulf.

Make the Connection 

The Dragon Slayer 

This is a story about a hero from the misty reaches of the English past, a hero who faces violence, horror, and even death to save a people in mortal danger. The epic’s events take place many centuries ago, but this story still speaks to people today—perhaps because there are so many people in need of a rescuer, a hero. Beowulf is ancient England’s hero. In other times, in other cultures, the hero takes the shape of King Arthur, or Gilgamesh, or Sundiata, or Joan of Arc. In twentieth-century America, the hero may be a real person, like Martin Luther King, Jr., or a fictional character like Shane in the Western novel. This hero-type is the dragon slayer, representing a besieged community facing evil forces that lurk in the cold darkness. And Grendel, the monster lurking in the depths of the lagoon, may represent all those threatening forces.

Quickwrite (don’t write about this, just think about it)

Take notes on several contemporary fictional heroes from novels, films, or even comics or television. Pick one of them, and briefly analyze him or her using these questions:

• What sort of evil or oppression does he confront?

• Why does she do it? What’s her motivation?

• For whom does he do it?

• What virtues does she represent?

Now discuss some of the heroes you and your classmates chose. Do they all seem to qualify as hero-types, or do some of them fall short in one way or another?

Elements of Literature 

The Epic Hero 

Beowulf, like all epic heroes, has superior physical strength and is supremely ethical. In his quest, he must defeat monsters that embody dark, destructive powers. At the end of the quest, he is glorified by the people he has saved. If you watch current events, particularly about people emerging from years of oppression, you will see this impulse toward glorification still at work. You might also see such glorification in the impressive monuments that are great tourist attractions in Washington, D.C.

(Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, Elements of Literature, Nexuslearning.net)

The epic hero is the central figure in a long narrative that reflects the values and heroic ideals of a particular society. An epic is a quest story on a grand scale.


Excerpts from Beowulf

    Epic 1 – The Monster Grendel

    Epic 2 – The Arrival of the Hero   

    Epic 3 – Unferth’s Challenge

    Epic 4 – The Battle with Grendel

    Epic 5 – The Monster’s Mother

    Epic 6 – The Final Battle

You can read all six of these sections here at this link! 🙂 Yaya!!!

I want you to read the Battle with Grendel in another translation too. After you read it from the link above. Grendel the Murderer

Oh, and make sure you list some kennings in the comments below.




a conventional poetic phrase used for or in addition to the usual name of a person or thing, especially in Icelandic and Anglo-Saxon verse, as “a wave traveler” for “a boat.”.


12 thoughts on “Week 9–The Early Middle Ages, Anglo Saxons and Beowulf

  1. Some kennings that are in Beowulf are: Light-of-Battle (Sword), Fighting Gear/ Battle Gear (Body Armor), Battle-Sweat (Blood), and Mere (Lake or Swamp). I thought the Battle Sweat one was different and kinda made me laugh.

  2. Light-of-Battle and Battle Sweat.░░░░░░░░░░░░░░░░░░░░░░░░░

  3. The kennings I found were mead-halls, swampland, gold-shining, gold-covered, sin-stained, strong-minded, hard-hooved, high-spirited, hammer-forged, boor-headed, piled-up, dripping claws, heaped-up, bloody battle, hard-pressured.

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