E211 Beowulf Questions

Beowulf Study Questions for English 211 British Literature to 1760, Spring 2008, Alfred J. Drake at California State University, Fullerton

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Assigned: Beowulf (29-100).


1. What sense of the poem's heroic values can you draw from reading the Prologue (34-36)? 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?

2. On 36-38 ("Heorot is Attacked"), how does the narrator describe Grendel? What laws does Grendel violate in attacking Heorot, and how do the thanes and their leader respond to the monster's attacks?

3. On 38-44 ("The Hero Comes to Heorot"), when Beowulf sails from his home in Geatland to Hrothgar's troubled Danish land, how is he received by Hrothgar? What does Beowulf promise, and what does he require of his hosts?

4. On 44-47 ("The Feast at Heorot"), Unferth is driven by envy to insult Beowulf. Characterize the style or manner in which Beowulf (here and in the previous section) makes his promises and his demands: what seems to be the etiquette of "Viking boasts"? And how does Beowulf put Unferth in his place?

5. On 47-51 ("The Fight with Grendel"), why is Beowulf so certain that he can defeat Grendel when so many others have failed? How do the narrator's Christian comments reinforce this certainty? By what precise means does Beowulf mortally injure Grendel?

6. On 51-61 ("Celebration at Heorot"), Beowulf is honored for saving Heorot from the monster, and the Bard or Scop sings two heroic songs -- what is the subject and moral of the two tales he relates? How do they color the achievement of Beowulf up to this point?

7. Regarding 61-64 ("Another Attack") and 64-69 ("Beowulf Fights Grendel's Mother"), Grendel's mother kills Aeschere and retreats to her underwater lair. What point about the nature of evil does the narrator reinforce by endowing Grendel with a mother and locating her dwelling in a deep "mere"? Finally, by what means does Beowulf manage to kill her -- what does the specific means add to our understanding of what he has accomplished?

8. On 69-72 ("Another Celebration at Heorot"), what warning based on personal experience does Hrothgar impart to Beowulf? How is the current celebration handled differently by the narrator than the first one?

9. On 72-80 ("Beowulf Returns Home"), what are Beowulf's thoughts on the virtues of Geatland's King Hygelac and his Queen, Hygd? How does he describe his exploits in Denmark? What do we learn about Beowulf towards the end of this section, and (throughout) about the duties of a subject towards his lord?

10. Regarding 80-86 ("The Dragon Wakes"), the years pass, and (when Hygelac is killed and his son Heardred is betrayed by Onela of Sweden) Beowulf rules wisely for half a century. But then comes the Dragon -- what is this dragon's role or significance? What moral pattern and themes in Beowulf does his "accidental" re-awakening drive home?

11. On 86-93 ("Beowulf Fights the Dragon"), in what spirit does Beowulf go forth to fight the Dragon? What kind of heroism does he exhibit, both during the fight and after it, when he tells Wiglaf he wants to see the treasure-hoard that has caused so much trouble?

12. On 93-100 ("Beowulf's Funeral"), what lessons does Wiglaf draw, what predictions does he make, in the wake of Beowulf's lonesome sacrifice for the Geats? Characterize the note of pessimism and sadness that runs though this last section (and, of course, through much of the text) -- what are its causes? Finally, how does the narrator sum up the virtue and achievements of Beowulf?

13. General question: how does the author of Beowulf handle the passage of time, the specifics of location, or the revelation of character? Choose one instance of one of these matters and discuss. In your response, consider the role played by repetition of events and amplification of details.

14. General question: What stylistic and/or thematic patterns can you find in Beowulf? Choose one such pattern and discuss it. "Secrecy versus openness" would be one excellent thematic choice.

15. General question: read The Gospel According to Saint Matthew Chapter 6 (Google the title -- it's easy to find). Which of Jesus' commands would condemn the pagan hero Beowulf's actions and values? Might any part of Jesus' speech make a Christian audience sympathetic to Beowulf and his culture? Find a few relevant passages in Matthew and Beowulf and discuss.

Edition: Abrams, M. H. et al, eds. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 8th ed. Vol. A. New York: Norton, 2006. ISBN Package 1 (Vols. ABC) 0-393-92833-0.