Epic in Anglo-Saxon literature


“Anglo-Saxon” refers to literature in the Anglo-Saxon (or Old English) language that arose among Germanic tribes who migrated to Britain. The resettlement of these tribes (Angles, Saxons, Utes) from the continent (from the coastal regions of southern Jutland, Friesland and northern Germany) to Britain, accompanied by a fierce struggle with the Celtic population of the island, began in the middle of the fifth century. and ended in about two centuries; however, by the middle of the VI century. Anglo-Saxons were occupied throughout the south, center and northeast of present-day England. From the moment of conquest, the independent development of the political and social life, culture and language of the Anglo-Saxons began, which was closely dependent on the new conditions of their historical existence, and above all on the general process of feudalization and Christianization of Anglo-Saxon society.

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At the end of the VI century, the Anglo-Saxons did not yet have written literature. Oral literature was all the more important in the early centuries of Anglo-Saxon history. We have a lot of evidence that the Anglo-Saxons have a rich song tradition. Songs related to the pagan religious cult, magical conspiracy formulas and spells that originally had a metric character, as well as wedding, feast, workers, military, funeral lamentations, etc., with all such works firmly embedded in various tribes, were common among various tribes. the life of the Anglo-Saxons, the Christian church waged a long and unsuccessful struggle.

Oral epic poetry was especially popular, traces of which are preserved in geographical names and in later literary monuments.

The art of composing songs and performing them accompanied by musical instruments was highly respected by the Anglo-Saxons. The skillful singer, apparently, got a professional look from the Anglo-Saxons early. Along with folk-type singers and musicians (“gleomanians”), at the early stage of Anglo-Saxon culture there is also a professional retinue singer (“ospre”) who stood out from the vigilantes. He was the guardian of the historical tradition of the clan, tribe, princely squad, stood close to the royal or noble family in general and received generous gifts. Such a singer is portrayed in a number of works of Anglo-Saxon poetry.

One of the earliest monuments of this kind – “Vidsid” (ie, “Wandering around”) – talks about such a wandering singer, “traveled many squads and peoples”, and mentions his song repertoire, revolving in the circle of legends continental Germanic epic cycles.

The most significant work of Anglo-Saxon poetry is The Poem of Beowulf. This work, probably based on ancient epic songs, has come down to us in a more or less complete form in a single manuscript written at the beginning of the 10th century. The poem (volume of about 3,000 verses) falls into two parts, interconnected only by the personality of the main character Beowulf. The development of the main theme is interrupted by a series of plug-in episodes in both parts; these episodes are, however, important for elucidating the origin of the poem, the time of its occurrence, etc.

Instead of introduction, the story is told of the legendary ancestor of the Danish kings Skild Skefing, who miraculously sailed to the coast of Denmark in a boat full of treasures, then he grew up, became a king and happily ruled the country; happily ruled by his descendants. Skild’s great-grandson, King Hrothgar, was lucky in wars and accumulated great wealth. He erected an extensive, richly decorated chamber for feasts with his retinue – “Heorot”, that is, the chamber of the deer (since it was probably decorated with deer horns). The fun in this chamber did not last long. Soon, every night, Grendel began to appear in Heorot, a terrible monster who lived in the neighboring coastal “swamp”. He carried away and devoured dozens of the best Hrothgar warriors. No one could ward off trouble.

The chamber was empty, feasts ceased, great tribulation seized the Danes. The news of the monster reached the land of the Geates (the Scandinavian Gaut tribe inhabiting the southern regions of Sweden). Beowulf, the bravest of the knights of the King of the Geates Higelak, heard about this, ordered the ship to be equipped, and went to the aid of the Danes, together with the fourteen best warriors. On the very first night of their visit to Hrothgar there was a terrible battle between Beowulf and Grendel. Grendel arrived at Heorot at midnight, crept up to the gaats, grabbed one of them, tore in half, crushed his bones, began to suck his blood from his veins and swallow meat in huge chunks.

Before he could reach for another, he was captured by the mighty in its most essential features was created even before the Anglo-Saxons adopted Christianity or even before they moved to Britain and that it was based on subsequently processed shorter heroic songs. Currently, the composition of the poem is usually attributed no earlier than to the beginning of the VIII century. and she is seen as a book epic written by a Christian cleric; this, however, does not exclude assumptions about the various primary sources of the poem, among which, most likely, were also oral heroic songs.

The central episodes of the first part of the poem – about the battles of Beowulf with Grendel and his mother – have a number of parallels in folk tales, as well as in Icelandic sagas; the story of the second part about the battle of Beowulf with a fire-breathing dragon presents analogies with other German legends. It is also significant that Beowulf is not an Anglo-Saxon hero; the action of the poem is not confined to England and takes place in the first part in Denmark or Zealand, in the second – in southern Sweden. Beowulf is not a historical person, but in the poem one can find echoes of actual historical events – feuds and wars of the North German peoples among themselves or with their West German neighbors, however, in the form of short episodes or even just random hints.

So, in the king of the geates Higelake, they see a resemblance to the Danish king Hohilajk, whose campaign against the Franks (515) is mentioned in the chronicle of Gregory of Tours. The historical and geographical nomenclature in Beowulf most likely indicates that the legends processed in the poem could have developed in the first half of the 6th century. in the area lying north of the continental homeland of the Angle tribe.

However, in the form that reached us, the poem about Beowulf has already deviated significantly from this supposed basis and, according to all the data, indicates not one, but several stages of its literary processing. In the edition that reached us, the poem bears traces of rather significant changes in the Christian scribe, who threw out the names of the pagan gods and Beowulf’s hand and the struggle between them began. In vain did Grendel try to break free: the veins in his shoulder were torn, his skin and meat burst, his bones popped out of his joints, and Grendel’s entire arm remained with Beowulf. Mortally wounded, the monster was dragged into his swamp swamps. The next day, Hrothgar hosts a rich feast in honor of the winner and generously bestows Beowulf.

The avenger for the murdered Grendel the next night is the mother of the monster, who again harms Hrothgar’s squad while Beowulf and his comrades rest in other chambers. The next morning, Beowulf accomplishes his second feat: he descends into a terrible water abyss and kills Grendel’s mother with that miraculous sword (the “work of the giants”) that hung in her water chambers, with the same sword he cuts off Grendel’s head and wants to carry weapons in memory of the battle: but the sword, like ice, melts in his hands to the hilt. Hrothgar arranges a new great feast and rewards Beowulf with even more generous gifts, seeing him home. Beowulf returns to King Higelak.

In the second part of the poem Beowulf is already represented by an old man. After the death in a battle of Higelak and his son, he reigns peacefully over the geates for fifty winters, but when a terrible fire-breathing dragon appears in his lands, Beowulf decides to kill him in martial arts. Beowulf defeats the dragon, but he himself dies from poisonous injuries; Before his death, he says goodbye to the squad and sets the schedule for his funeral. His body was solemnly burned at the stake, a high grave hill was erected above the ashes, around which twelve mighty knights sing glory to the fallen leader.

The Beowulf Poem has an extremely complex composition. In the form in which it came to us in a single manuscript, it is undoubtedly a monument of late origin. However, the preserved written edition is probably based on the older versions of one or several legends, apparently dating back to folk song tradition. Hence all the difficulties of analysis and dating of the poem, and serious disagreements among its researchers. Old-school scholars viewed Beowulf as a one-of-a-kind Anglo-Saxon monument testifying to the rich epic tradition of pagan poems destroyed by the Christian Church’s intolerant attitude. Early scholars believed that the poem and allusions to German mythology were too obvious, and also made a number of insertions that were easily distinguishable in a work that was generally pre-Christian.

This editor of the poem calls Grendel a descendant of Cain, sea monsters – a fiend of hell, regrets the paganism of the Danish king; in various places of the poem, the names of Abel, Noah, the biblical tradition of the flood, etc. are mentioned. Even Beowulf himself was transformed into a kind of Christian saint, a snake-fighter who sacrifices his life in order to rid the country of a fire-breathing dragon, and pronounces purely Christian instructions . The intervention of the same scribe should explain some features of Beowulf’s proximity to ancient literature (for example, Virgil’s Aeneid). The poem is distinguished by a very sophisticated literary technique. Like all works of Anglo-Saxon poetry, it was written in Old Germanic alliterative verse, distinguished, however, by its special sophistication and an abundance of book-poetic techniques (stringing of synonyms, metaphors, indirect speech instead of direct, etc.).

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