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Beowulf | Study Guide


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Learn about the historical and cultural context surrounding the epic poem Beowulf with Course Hero's video study guide.

Beowulf | Context


Beowulf is the oldest existing Old English poem. While the story and its historical elements arguably take place between the end of the 5th and the beginning of the 8th century, it was most likely put into its current written form centuries later. The historical and cultural elements within the poem—such as the description of the king's burial ceremony and the construction of the majestic hall, Heorot, by King Hrothgar—have helped scholars narrow the time frame and the location for the setting. The mix of pagan traditions interspersed with Christian values contributes to the poem's mystique but is often up for debate among scholars as to its exact time and date. In 2013, however, archaeologists claimed to have found the ruins of Heorot, located in Lejre, Denmark, about 20 miles west of Copenhagen, and dating to the 6th century.

The poem was most likely written down by two monks in England; handwriting analysis of the single medieval manuscript dated it to the early 11th century. The manuscript now resides in the British Museum and is one of the most—if not the most—translated texts in history, translated hundreds of times in both narrative and poetic form. The story transcends time and place and is as relevant today as it was in the Middle Ages. Its original audiences most likely heard of Beowulf's heroism, loyalty, and honor in a fire-lit room as the poet chanted to the accompaniment of a harp and drums. Today theaters are filled with larger-than-life characters much like Beowulf, whose heroic acts and noble deeds are projected onto a huge screen for all to see. Many of these characters and themes could easily be traced to the original Scandinavian tales presented in Beowulf. Outside the worlds of entertainment and academic study, the themes of Beowulf still apply in everyday life. People apply the heroic code in their lives when they seek to gain the respect and trust of others and to honor those whom they respect. The theme of good versus evil still plays out daily on a personal and international level, as reported in the various news media, and loyalty can be seen in the relationships among friends and family, as well as students' feelings about their school, fans' devotion to an athletic team, and citizens' love of their country.

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