Anglo Saxons literature refers to the body of writings produced in England between the 5th and 11th centuries during the period of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. It encompasses a wide range of genres, including epic poetry, heroic tales, religious texts, historical chronicles, and riddles. The literature of the Anglo-Saxons reflects their pagan and later Christian beliefs, as well as their cultural and historical experiences.
Anglo Saxon Literature Characteristics
The Anglo-Saxon period began with the arrival of Germanic tribes, primarily the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes, in England in the 5th century. These tribes brought with them their own poetic traditions and oral storytelling practices. Initially, Anglo-Saxon literature had transmitted orally, with bards and scop (poet-singers) reciting and performing the poems to entertain and educate.
One of the most famous works of Anglo Saxon literature is the epic poem “Beowulf.” Composed around the 8th century, it tells the story of a hero named Beowulf who battles monsters and dragons. “Beowulf” exhibits the themes of heroism, loyalty, fate, and the struggle between good and evil. It provides valuable insights into Anglo-Saxon society, cultural values, and their worldview.
Apart from “Beowulf,” Anglo Saxon literature contains other heroic tales known as “heroic lays” or “heroic poems.” These poems often depict the adventures and feats of legendary heroes such as Hildeburh, Finn, and Offa. They celebrate bravery, loyalty, and honor, reflecting the warrior culture prevalent during the Anglo-Saxon period.
Religious and Philosophical Texts
With the arrival of Christianity in the late 6th century, Anglo-Saxon literature began to incorporate religious and philosophical themes. Prominent among these is “The Dream of the Rood,” a poem that presents a vision of the crucifixion from the perspective of the Cross itself. The religious texts also include hagiographies (saints’ lives), biblical translations, and sermons.
Anglo-Saxon literature includes several historical chronicles that provide valuable information about the period. The most famous of these is the “Anglo-Saxon Chronicle,” a collection of annals that records major events and the history of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms from the 5th to the 11th century. It serves as a vital historical and literary source for understanding the Anglo-Saxon era.
Riddles and Elegies
The Anglo-Saxons had a rich tradition of riddles, many of which are found in the “Exeter Book” and the “Vercelli Book.” These riddles often employ vivid imagery and clever wordplay. Additionally, elegies like “The Wanderer” and “The Seafarer” explore themes of exile, loss, and the transience of human life. They provide poignant reflections on the human condition and the passing of time.
Language and Style
Old English, the language of the Anglo-Saxons, forms the foundation of Anglo-Saxon literature. It is characterized by its complex grammar, extensive use of compound words, and alliterative verse. The poetry often follows strict metrical patterns and utilizes kennings (poetic metaphors) to create vivid and imaginative descriptions.
Influence and Legacy
Anglo-Saxon literature had a lasting impact on English literature as a whole. Its influence can be seen in later works such as “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” and “The Canterbury Tales.” The Christian elements in Anglo-Saxon literature laid the groundwork for the development of English religious writing. Moreover, the preservation of the Anglo-Saxon chronicles contributed to the historical consciousness of the English people.
Anglo Saxon Stories
Anglo-Saxon stories refer to the literary works and narratives produced by the people of Anglo-Saxon England between the 5th and 11th centuries. These stories were written in Old English, the language used by the Anglo-Saxons during that period. Some of the notable Anglo-Saxon stories include:
One of the most famous works of Anglo Saxon literature, Beowulf is an epic poem that tells the story of a heroic warrior, Beowulf, who battles against the monster Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and a dragon. It explores themes of heroism, loyalty, and the struggle between good and evil.
2. The Anglo Saxon Chronicles
This is a collection of historical records that chronicles the history of England from the time of the Anglo Saxon settlement to the 12th century. It provides valuable insights into the early history and culture of the Anglo Saxons.
3. The Dream of the Rood
This is a religious poem that personifies the cross on which Jesus was crucified and narrates the crucifixion from the cross’s perspective. It is a unique and poetic depiction of Christian themes.
4. The Wanderer
A melancholic poem that reflects on themes of exile, loss, and the impermanence of human life. It gives a poignant glimpse into the emotional world of the Anglo-Saxons.
5. The Wife’s Lament
This is a sorrowful and emotional poem that expresses the lament of a wife who has been separated from her husband. It is a reflection of the personal experiences and emotions of women in Anglo-Saxon society.
A heroic poem based on the Old Testament story of Judith, who saves her people from an invading army by beheading the enemy’s general, Holofernes. It showcases the valor and strength of a female protagonist.
Beowulf; An Epic Anglo Saxon Poem
Beowulf is an epic poem that remains one of the most significant works of Anglo-Saxon literature. Composed in Old English, it tells the story of a heroic warrior named Beowulf and his legendary exploits. The poem consists of three main sections: the battle against the monster Grendel, the battle against Grendel’s mother, and the battle against a dragon.
Plot of Beowulf
Beowulf begins with the introduction of King Hrothgar, ruler of the Danes, who is plagued by the attacks of the monstrous creature Grendel. Beowulf, a Geatish warrior from Sweden, hears of Hrothgar’s plight and sets out to help him. He arrives in Denmark with his warriors and offers to fight Grendel. He engages in a fierce battle with the monster, ultimately ripping off his arm, causing Grendel to flee to his lair.
In the second part, Beowulf faces Grendel’s vengeful mother, who seeks retribution for her son’s death. Beowulf dives into the underwater lair and engages in a fierce battle with her, eventually slaying her with a magical sword. He returns to Hrothgar’s kingdom victorious and receives great honor and treasures.
The third part of the poem takes place many years later when Beowulf is an aging king. A dragon, awakened by the theft of a treasure, wreaks havoc on his kingdom. Beowulf, determined to protect his people, faces the dragon in a final battle. Though his men abandon him, Beowulf fights valiantly and succeeds in slaying the dragon. However, he is mortally wounded in the process and dies shortly after. The poem concludes with mourning and the promise of Beowulf’s legacy.
Main Characters of Beowulf
- a. Beowulf: The protagonist and hero of the poem. He is a Geatish warrior famous for his exceptional strength and bravery.
b. Grendel: A monstrous creature descended from Cain. He terrorizes Hrothgar’s kingdom, feasting on the warriors in Heorot Hall.
c. Grendel’s Mother: Seeking revenge for her son’s death, she is another formidable foe that Beowulf must face.
d. Hrothgar: The wise and respected king of the Danes, plagued by Grendel’s attacks.
e. Wiglaf: A loyal warrior and kinsman of Beowulf who aids him in the battle against the dragon.
Famous lines of Beowulf
a. “Hwæt! We Gardena in geardagum” – This opening line, often translated as “Hear me! We of the Spear-Danes in the days of yore,” captures the attention of the audience and sets the tone for the epic.
b. “Fate often saves an undoomed man when his courage is good.” – These words reflect the theme of fate and the belief that one’s actions can influence their destiny.
c. “Heorot was purged; the heroes rejoiced; / The winsome maiden sang a loud song” . This line refers to the joyous celebration after Beowulf’s victory over Grendel and showcases the importance of communal celebrations in Anglo-Saxon culture.
d. “So every elder and experienced councilman / among the Danes, assembled in the beer-hall, / dared to hope for help from Beowulf” – This line highlights the respect and trust the Danes have in Beowulf as a savior and protector.
e. “Death is not easily escaped from by anyone / alive. It was decided firmly in the minds / of the Geats to seek their own people / not their own people but the mightiest men / they could find”. These lines reveal the Geats’ determination to avenge Beowulf’s death and their understanding of the inevitability of death.
In conclusion, Anglo-Saxon literature is a rich and diverse body of work that encompasses epic poetry, heroic tales, religious texts, historical chronicles, riddles, and elegies. It provides valuable insights into the culture, values, and historical experiences of the Anglo-Saxon people. The literary achievements of this period continue to be serving as an essential part of the English literary tradition.