E211: British Literature to 1760

Beowulf Study Questions

Alfred Drake | Uni Hall 329 | W 3-4 | ajdrake@ajdrake.com

Assigned: Beowulf. (29ff)

1. What sort of interpretive problems arise when one reads a poem like Beowulf, or indeed any ancient poem, in modern prose translation?

2. When you read a modern prose narrative--say an ordinary novel--how do you generally expect the author to deal with the series of events that make up the plot? In what ways does the technique of Beowulf differ from conventional handling of time, place, and character?

3. What sense of the poem's heroic values can you draw from reading the Prologue? Who is the implied audience, and what expectations does the Prologue create about the rest of the poem's significance for this audience? What is the audience expected to learn?

4. What kinds of stylistic and/or theme-based patterns do you see in Beowulf?

5. What function do the poem's kennings serve? (Kennings are complex noun clusters like "word-hoard," "treasure-giver," "swan's way," etc.) What kind of world outside the poem's action do these kennings suggest?

6. Read The Gospel According to Saint Matthew Chapter 6. Which of Jesus' commands would condemn the hero Beowulf's actions and values? Might any part of Jesus' speech make a Christian audience sympathetic to Beowulf and his culture?

7. How is Grendel described? Why does it matter that Grendel has a mother--what does it suggest about his nature?

8. What is the proper role of a king in Beowulf's Germanic culture? What does he have to do to keep his people satisfied? It would be useful to examine Hrothgar's sermon to Beowulf. Also, what responsibilities does a thane have to his lord or king?

9. What role does wealth play in Beowulf's society? What problems does it cause? Why is the Hall of Heorot so important?

10. What does the "scop" (pronounced "shop"), or bard, do for his society?

11. What is the function of the boasts that Beowulf and others make? Also, what do you make of the theme of "secrecy versus openness" in this poem?

12. What is the difference in emphasis between the first part of the poem (in which Beowulf fights with Grendel and with Grendel's mother) and the second part (in which Beowulf returns home, reigns for fifty years, and engages in a battle with a dragon)?

13. Wiglaf predicts that the Geats will soon perish. What reason does he give for their pending demise? How do you understand the workings of Fate in Beowulf?

Edition: Abrams, M.H. et al. The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Vol. 1A. 7th. edition. New York: Norton, 2000. ISBN 0393975657.

For question 6:

006:001 Take heed that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them: otherwise ye have no reward of your Father which is in heaven.

006:002 Therefore when thou doest thine alms, do not sound a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.

006:003 But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth:

006:004 That thine alms may be in secret: and thy Father which seeth in secret himself shall reward thee openly.

006:005 And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.

006:006 But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.

006:007 But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking.

006:008 Be not ye therefore like unto them: for your Father knoweth what things ye have need of, before ye ask him.

006:009 After this manner therefore pray ye: Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name.

006:010 Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.

006:011 Give us this day our daily bread.

006:012 And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.

006:013 And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen.

006:014 For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you:

006:015 But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

006:016 Moreover when ye fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.

006:017 But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thine head, and wash thy face;

006:018 That thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto thy Father which is in secret: and thy Father, which seeth in secret, shall reward thee openly.

006:019 Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal:

006:020 But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal:

006:021 For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.

006:022 The light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light.

006:023 But if thine eye be evil, thy whole body shall be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in thee be darkness, how great is that darkness!

006:024 No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.

006:025 Therefore I say unto you, Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than meat, and the body than raiment?

006:026 Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they?

006:027 Which of you by taking thought can add one cubit unto his stature?

006:028 And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin:

006:029 And yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.

006:030 Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which to day is, and to morrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith?

006:031 Therefore take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed?

006:032 (For after all these things do the Gentiles seek:) for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things.

006:033 But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.

006:034 Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.