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Study Questions on Beowulf
Al Drake, UCI, E28A, 1990's
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 his "plot?" How do you suppose he would represent "time," "place," and "character" within the story? In what ways does the technique of Beowulf differ from such conventional handling of time, place, and character? Can you find some "anomalies" in the Beowulf author's portrayal of events?
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 from listening to a tale about Beowulf?
4. What kinds of 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 assume or create?
6. Examine the handout from Matthew 6. Which of Jesus' commands in this passage would seem to 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. Why does it matter that Grendel has a mother?
8. What seems to be the proper role of a king in this Germanic culture? What does he have to do to keep his people satisfied? It would be useful to examine Hrothgar's sermon to Beowulf (Norton 48-50). Also, what responsibilities does the "thane" have to his lord or king?
9. What role does wealth play in Beowulf's culture? What problems does it cause?
10. How is Grendel described?
11. What does the "scop" (pronounced "shop"), or bard, do for his society?
12. What seems to be the function of the boasts that Beowulf and others make?
13. What role does the Hall of Heorot play in this culture?
14. 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 fateful battle with a dragon)?
15. What do you make of the theme of "secrecy versus openness" in this poem?
16. On page 64, Wiglaf predicts that the Geats will soon perish. What reason does he give for their pending demise?
*Edition: The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Vol. 1. 6th. edition. Ed. Meyer Abrams et al. New York: Norton, 1993.