In Our Time: Beowulf

The epic poem Beowulf is probably the best known piece of Anglo-Saxon literature – it’s certainly one I was aware of, and had an idea of the shape of the story before we listened to the In Our Time episode about it. However it was unknown until the 19th Century when a single manuscript copy dating from around 1100AD was discovered. The three experts who discussed it on the programme were Laura Ashe (University of Oxford), Clare Lees (King’s College London) and Andy Orchard (University of Oxford).

Even tho the surviving version of the poem comes from the 11th or 12 Century, it was probably composed around 750AD. It’s sometimes said to be a little earlier: “from the time of Bede” (who died in 735AD). But Orchard pointed out that Bede is known person from a known time so estimates tend to gravitate towards him. The subject of the poem is older still – it’s a poem about long ago & far away about history that the listeners were expected to already be aware of. Some of the characters in the poem are real historical personages who lived around the 5th Century AD (however this doesn’t include the hero Beowulf). This is a Christian English poem about the listeners’ pagan Danish ancestors, written in a time before the Danes were seen as a foreign threat.

There are three sections to the poem. The first tells of the hero Beowulf travelling to another kingdom and fighting the monster Grendel, who has been terrorising the country. Grendel is a misshapen man who fights without a sword and so Beowulf wrestles with him and wins the fight by pulling off the monster’s arm. Said arm is then hung up as a trophy when Beowulf returns to the king of the country. The second section tells us about Grendel’s mother who comes to avenge her son, as is her legal right. She lives beneath the sea and Beowulf goes to her lair (or hall) to fight her with a sword. The third section of the poem is set 50 years later, when Beowulf is an old man and has become a king in his own right. The story of how he came to be king is told in flashbacks, while the main plot of this section revolves around him fighting a dragon which is terrorising his country. Unlike the first two monsters this is a truely mythological beast instead of fantastical but plausible. Beowulf goes to fight it in its lair, and at first is losing the fight despite his heroic skill. With the help of his men, and using a sword from the dragon’s lair, he finally defeats the dragon but dies in his moment of triumph.

The poem has a very non-linear structure, and after its rediscovery 19th Century critics used the repetition as an example of how it was a poor poem. Modern scholarship strongly disagrees with that opinion! The narrative circles around the story with each repetition of an event giving you new details or nuances, or new references to other literature etc. For instance in the first part the poem first tells one about the fight, then Beowulf tells someone about the fight, then Beowulf tells the king of the country Grendel was terrorising and then Beowulf tells his own king. All have differences that tell you more about the event. This isn’t the only sort of non-linearity – there are also flashbacks (for instance in the third section as I mentioned above), and asides that tell you how some side-event turned out later. Or who owned a particular sword once the current owner died after the end of this story, and so on.

The poem was written to be heard rather than read. The experts read out sections in the original Anglo-Saxon, with Orchard in particular making it sound vibrant and alive (even if incomprehensible – I didn’t get very far the one time I started learning Anglo-Saxon). However it probably wasn’t an oral composition, instead it was written down with the intention that it should be read out. It is a very literate poem, with references to other literature of the period and before including classic Latin literature. Orchard pointed out parallels with things like the Aeneid, which the Anglo-Saxons of the 8th Century AD would’ve known.

It wasn’t just a story about heroes and monsters, and tales of derring do. The peom was also about the ending of one era and the beginning of the next. It tells the story of the pagan Beowulf from a Christian perspective, and contains Christian motifs and structural elements. Most obviously the three-part structure which is more of a Christian motif than a pagan one. And the narrative moralises about the actions of the protagonists – a running commentary of “that’s how it was then, but we know better now”. The pagan culture valued valour & honour, but the Christian one valued non-violence and godliness. The poem reflects that change and the tension between the old ways and the new.

I think the biggest thing this programme told me was how much more there is to Beowulf than I’d realised. I’m pretty sure we have a translation in the house (somewhere!), I should find it and read it sometime 🙂

In Our Time: Le Morte d’Arthur

The form of the Arthurian legend that was written by Thomas Malory in Le Morte d’Arthur was the first English language prose form of this legend, written around the 1460s & it had a lot of influence on later stories about Arthur. Discussing it on In Our Time were Helen Cooper (University of Cambridge), Helen Fulton (University of York) and Laura Ashe (University of Oxford).

They opened the programme by setting Malory in context – Cooper told us a little about the times he lived in, which was the end of the Hundred Years War and the start of the Wars of the Roses. This meant that he lived through unsettled times in a political sense. He himself wasn’t a very nice man – Cooper said that even by the standards of the time he was a thug, and he spent at least 15 years imprisoned for crimes ranging from cattle rustling to rape (the latter might’ve been consensual adultery – a husband could bring charges of rape under such circumstances). Being as he was a gentleman he was under house arrest rather than shackled in a dungeon, and he must’ve had access to a library during this time as his imprisonment is the period when he wrote Le Morte d’Arthur.

The Arthurian legend already existed in various forms by the 1460s. One of these forms was a pseudo-historical Arthur – crowbarred into the time between the end of the Roman Empire (in Britain) and the Anglo-Saxons, a mythical King who was British not Roman or Anglo-Saxon and who lead armies into battles & nearly defeated the Roman Empire. I think they were saying these English sources were in poetic form. There were also various French prose romances which were about Arthur & the Knights of the Round Table and their deeds, and chivalrous exploits. Malory’s tale took both these Arthurs and wrote one coherent book which both had elements of the pseudo-history and elements of the chivalrous romance. And was an English prose work, which was also new.

One of the experts (I forget who :/ ) made the point that Malory’s work was ground-breaking for romances of the time. His prose style was a lot more direct than the French sources he drew upon, which was a refreshing change (or so she was saying). And his focus on the characters and their stories was fairly new in English prose literature of the time – and is a part of what’s made this work last and influence more modern literature.

They also spent some time discussing the content of Le Morte d’Arthur – the theme they talked about that’s stuck with me is how the tragedy of the Arthurian Court is built into the premise. Arthur isn’t one of the Knights, he’s the King who sends out his Knights on their quests etc. Lancelot is the “best Knight” (although not the most spiritually pure Knight, he doesn’t get to find the Holy Grail after all) – and who should the “best Knight” be with but the “best Lady”, and that’s the Queen. And the downfall is brought about because other Knights are jealous of Lancelot, and so bring the whole thing out into the open where it can’t be ignored. So it’s that Lancelot is best that’s what brings about the tragic end. (The experts were also all saying that Lancelot seemed to be Malory’s favourite character.)

After Malory’s death the manuscript was printed (and edited) by Caxton and two forms of that have survived to the modern day. A while after the publication the book fell out of favour, but in Victorian times it was revived – chivalry as a concept was part of the cultural attempt to deal with having an Empire, and Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur as a chivalrous romance became popular again. And spawned more Arthurian stories & re-tellings from then through to the modern day.