Old English Literature

  • Old English Literature

Objective of the course:

*Introduce the students to the major characteristics of Old English Era




  • When speaking about Britain before the Anglo- Saxons we definitely remember that England was inhabited from about 3000 BC; the builders of Stonehenge were excellent astronomers, had extraordinary engineering skills and a complex social organization.
  •  Celtic tribes invaded England around 700 BC, their bronze weapons ensuring their victory over the previous settlers.
  •  the next invaders were the Romans. Caesar made a brief visit to Britain early in 55 B.C., but it was a century later when the Romans arrived in 43 AD and stayed for 400 years.
  • It is important to retain that the Romans brought many innovations in the life of Celts, because being skilled engineers they built military fortifications such as Hadrian's Wall in the North, as well as elaborate baths, villas, amphitheaters, and stone roads between key military posts. Even more important was that the Romans brought a system of laws and a unity of government to Britain. They also planted the seeds of a religion that was spreading throughout the entire western world - Christianity.
  • In A.D. 410 the sack “destruction” of Rome by German barbarians which  signaled the end of Roman rule in Britain. The Roman legions were recalled to defend a crumbling Empire at home, leaving the islands open to invasion by the Germanic tribes who had been raiding the coast of Roman Britain for decades.


  • One important event in the history of Britons were the Germanic Invasions. a Germanic tribe from the Danish peninsula, were the first to arrive, conquering the province of Kent in A.D. 449. They were followed by the Saxons and the Angles, tribes from the Northern Germanic plain.


  • Weakened by Roman dominance, the Britons in the Southeast did not put up a sustained fight. However, in the fifth or sixth century one Celtic chief won a minor victory over the Saxons before being driven west. This chief might have been the legendary King Arthur.
  • The steady invasion of tribes into Britain continued for over a hundred years. By the middle of the sixth century, the invaders, now known collectively as Anglo-Saxons, were established in various parts of Britain. Their culture became the basis for "Angle-land," or "English,“ culture; their vigorous language became the spoken language of the people, the language now known as Old English.

The main Characteristics of Literature in this Era

Anglo-Saxon Literature (450-1100) is primarily limited to works from the West Saxon region of England. Although few writings survived, those that have reveal a people who reveled in manipulating their language and whose feelings were not unlike modern man. They delighted in riddles, and their poetry portrayed feelings of loss as well as victory. Poems such as "The Dream of the Rood," "Deor's Lament," and "The Husband's Message" as well as the long epic poems are proof of their sophistication of thought and language.

ribes from Northern Europe: Anglos, Saxons and Jutes

Small kingdoms were united in the 7th century. People used old English.

In the 7th century, Anglo-Saxons were Christianized. Many monasteries were built all over the country.

A transitional period from tribal society to feudalism

*In this Era, literature took an oral form, and therefore it was mainly poetry; which was characterized mainly with:

heroic narrative poems

poems on biblical themes

short riddles, elegies

The language of this whole period (500-1100) is known as Old English. No exact date exists for its beginning. The first written records of the language date from around 690 AD (however, people had spoken it long before then). Most Old English words were Germanic, having come from the languages of the Angles, Jutes and Saxons. Latin, however, also had a strong influence on early English. Later, the Scandinavians (Vikings) contributed many words to Old English. By the end of the Old English period (marked by the Norman conquest), Old English had been established as a literary language with a remarkable polish and versatility.

Old English literature consists of poetry, prose, charms, riddles, maxims,

proverbs, and various other wisdom sayings. It is a mixture of pagan traditions, thoughts about life, the universe and nature, as well as Christian thought and moral values. There is often no clear-cut delineation between religious and non-religious poetry or sometimes even between poetry and prose.

Old English poetry included long epic heroic poems, which drew on the Bible as well as on pagan sources for their content. Some poetry was also based on historical events. With a history of invasions and occupations, many writings of this era are chronicles, annals, and historical records. Some are in the forms of poetry and describe various battles, for example, "The Battle of Maldon”. The major themes are war, conquest and bravery. Many eighth-century works depict Anglo-Saxon resistance against the Vikings.

Lament and melancholy are frequently present in describing man's struggles against his environment, life's difficulties, and the passage of time.

Old English poems that lament the loss of worldly goods, glory, or human companionship are called elegies.


Part Two:

Representative work in Anglo-Saxon Period: Beowulf


Crucial Elements in the Analysis of Beowulf:

1.The Plot / the Contents.

2.The Structure of the Poem.                                                                                      

3.The Time of the Action in the Poem.

4.The Place of the Action.

5.Critical hypothesis on the Authorship.

6.Talk about the Poetic Voice.

7.Christian and Pagan Elements in the Poem.

Beowulf is an epic poem of over 3,000 verses, whose manuscript dates from about the 10th-century. The poem is the only epic from the time that has been preserved as a whole. Its author is unknown, but he seems to have had a good grasp of the Bible and other great epics, such as Homer's Odyssey.

  • The Odyssey, an epic poem (?8th century b.c) by the Greek writer Homer. The oldest surviving source of Greek mythology along with the Iliad, it describes Odysseus's ten-year journey home to Ithaca after the Trojan War. It provides both an insight into a long-lost civilization and a gripping narrative rich in evocative details, complex characters, and universal themes.  
  • The work glorifies a hero and the values of bravery and generosity. The story is set in Scandinavia around 500-600 AD - a time of battles and conquests by Germanic Anglo-Saxon tribes in Denmark and southern Sweden. Its sources are old legends of these tribes who had moved north from Germany over Scandinavia and into Britain. It also reflects the acceptance of Christianity by these new British settlers at the end of sixth century.
  • The first part of the story takes place in Denmark. King Hrothgar is being pestered by a water monster, Grendel, who is killing his men. Beowulf comes to his aid and kills Grendel and later, at the bottom of the lake, also Grendel's mother, who comes to avenge her son. The second part happens in southern Sweden about fifty years later. Beowulf himself is a king and has to fight a fire-breathing dragon.
  • As with other Old English literature, this epic incorporates both pagan and Christian ideas. The monster-slaying hero has his origin in two ancient fairy tales. From the pagan traditions also come a love of war and the virtue of courage. The biblical Old Testament supplies the idea about giants and monsters having descended from Cain's line. The poem is sometimes seen as a conflict between good and evil. From the Christian tradition, it incorporates morality, obedience to God, and avoidance of pride.
  • There are many contrasts, for example, water and fire, youth and old age, life and death, rise and fall of nations and individuals, friendship and desertion, faithfulness and betrayal, heroism and cowardice, hope and resignation, good and evil, as well as the past, present and future.
  • Elegy is apparent throughout - life is passing and is full of struggles and suffering, (This theme has an application also for modern life and the struggles of mankind.) This is contrasted by the courage of the main hero, said to be the "kindest and noblest of earthly kings and the most desirous of praise and glory". The poem begins and ends with the funeral of a king.
  • The work, written in characteristic Old English verse style, has artistic maturity and unity. It uses alliteration (words beginning with the same sound), kennings (metaphorical descriptive phrases or compound words), and internal rhyme (a word within a line rhyming with a word at the end of the line). Each line has two beats or stressed syllables. The style of poetical descriptions and word pictures with much repetition makes the action move slowly.
  • The poem is an important source of historical information which was later confirmed by archaeology. The tone and descriptions capture the rough, cold and gloomy North Sea atmosphere, as well as life's struggles of the people of that time who had to deal with many trials and obstacles. The poem was originally recited by a court singer and poet called “bard ", who accompanied it with music and made occasional changes according to the inspiration of the moment.


  • ·The poem describes the adventures of a great Scandinavian hero; Beowulf in destroying the monster Grendel, Grendel’s mother and a fire-breathing dragon.
  • ·-Beowulf was not just a glorious hero, but also a savior of his people.
  • ·This epic shows the old Germanic virtue of mutual loyalty between leaders and followers and how Beowulf sacrifices his life to save his nation.
  • · What is really important in terms of Beowulf is:

*it is a poem that speaks in the voice of the past of England; it depicts the barbaric nature of its people yet their impressive courage and chivalry was way prevalent and therefore counted for.

  • ·Beowulf is also seen as a representation to a world caught up between the pagan and Christian.
  • ·It is a post-migration tale, for it is a work of the Anglo-Saxons, a group of Germanic tribes who came to England seeking new lands.
  • ·The poem is seen as one of the great treasures of England, for its profound effect on the English culture, society and most importantly language; it provided some of the key concepts for the English language.
  • ·The story is an illustration to the power and courage of a hero and his determination in his quest to* fight monsters

*save his own people

*and most importantly find himself.

  • ·The poem starts with a reference; that is a flash back to another mythic hero Shield Shiefson who is a magic boy cast up on the shores of Denmark

*this magic boy is one of king Hrothgar’s old ancestors.

*afterwards, the story moves in a chronological order, where the mead-hall of the king is being attacked each night by a vicious creature Grendel who represents not only an attack against the mead-hall but against the entire society.

  • ·Beowulf, therefore is called upon and hence leaves his native Sweden to aid the king.

*the first art of the poem ends with the defeat  of Grendel and its death.

   *Grendel’s mother

 Grendel’s mother represents more than a bloodthirsty monster; SHE represents a Mother seeking vengeance for her child.

  • ·*in a way, She represents a source of imaginative sympathy and a perverse image to the human race.

*the story of the poem with all its monsters, setting and values is a recreation to the old testament; the first killing ever committed, the conflict between Adam’s sons that ended up with Cain’s killing his brother Abel .  

*the power of the weapons that were somehow forged using magical powers.

Therefore, blacksmiths were considered as magicians.

  • The poem is about a story of a transformation, a development of the central character; Beowulf, who transforms from a young valor seeking fame and infinity to an old-wise king who becomes an epic hero.
  • The poem ends up with a funeral fire lighten up in mourning of a great hero and a brave king of the Geats.


Quiz Question:

Describe the epic poem, Beowulf, mentioning the setting of the story, pagan and Christian influences, contrasting themes, and the literary style,



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 Teacher: Miss. Mekhaznia Wafa